Report from Halifax: Nova Scotia’s Quiet Charm

A view oif Peggy's Cove lighthouse, Nova Scotia

A view of Peggy’s Cove lighthouse, Nova Scotia

By Robert Israel

Nova Scotia’s “shaped by the sea” motto tells only part of the story. This Canadian province is indeed surrounded by the sea that has formed its rugged coastline, inlets, islands and estuaries. But Nova Scotia is also shaped by the sky, the land, and its spirited people that conspire to make it an accessible, friendly and exhilarating summer destination with much to discover and savor.

It all begins in Halifax. This capital harbor city is busily in the throes of sprucing up its historic waterfront and downtown without losing its funky flavor. Halifax’s streets begin at the docks and lead upwards to a grassy knoll known as the Citadel. On clear days or nights, you can walk from the piers up steep streets to the Citadel and see the entire city unfold before you. There are tankers, sailboats, smokestacks and warehouses, glimpsed amidst high-rise office towers and numerous church steeples, the old blending with the new.

No trip to Nova Scotia would be complete without touring the province’s rugged coastline as well as the lush verdant farmland, accessible via short drives from Halifax.

A twenty-minute drive from the city center brings you to St. Margaret’s Bay, home of Peggy’s Cove (http://www.peggyscoveregion.com/). The area was once home of the native Canadian Mi’kmaq First Nation, and contains numerous islands and inlets rumored to have later been used by rum runners and pirates.

I learned about the area’s colorful history when I rented a kayak for a half-day tour, run by the friendly staff at Sea Sun Kayak (www.paddlenovascotia.com). My guide, Erin, patiently instructed me how to navigate the waters as we headed toward an island purportedly the site of buried treasure, and the rumored sightings of a ghost! The fog was as thick as clam chowder that morning, but the waters were calm, allowing for an easy passage over to the notorious island. I disembarked and viewed an osprey nest just past the shore – but no ghost.

Later, returning to the docks, Holly O’Leary, the general manager, had prepared a scrumptious lunch of fresh Nova Scotia mussels steamed in white wine, onions, and garlic. The sun finally burned through the fog. Before me, the island appeared in its entire rugged splendor. Sea Sun Kayak has various packages available for visitors who want to experience the seacoast as I did, including an affordable overnight “island escape adventure” that includes dinner. Perhaps, while seated before a campfire and under the cloak of darkness, the ghost might make an appearance.

Canadian laws prohibit the numerous Nova Scotia vineyards from exporting the wines they produce in the Gasperau Valley (about an hour’s drive from Halifax) to the States; this is a law that one day must be changed. In the meantime, you’ll have to taste these wines for yourself.

I stopped at Gasperau Vineyard (www.gaspereauwine.com), located a few minutes’ drive from the tiny hamlet of Wolfville. I sampled vintages while seated outside on their veranda which afforded a view of the rolling landscape where the apple trees were just giving way to pink and white blossoms. Festivals – where you can savor the wine and local fare — are ongoing throughout the year, and include the Fall Wine Festival (www.nsfallwinefestival.ca) and the Winter Ice Wine Festival (www.nsicewinefestival.ca).

I stayed at the Cambridge Suites Hotel in Halifax (http://www.cambridgesuiteshalifax.com/), on Brunswick Street, across from the Citadel and within easy walking distance of several outstanding restaurants. The rooms are spacious and include kitchenettes and a view of the busy harbor. By simply walking out the front door, I could access the Citadel, or head downtown, where the pubs, museums, restaurants and shops are located.

I dined at Chives (http://www.chives.ca/), located a five-minute stroll from the hotel, where the fare included locally harvested meats, fish and produce. Originally a bank, Chives stores its wines in the former vault, which also includes a private dining area for romantic special occasions.

Another short jaunt from my hotel is the Five Fisherman Restaurant and Grill (http://www.fivefishermen.com/), which features local seafood (a fabulous mussel and salad bar), and has on staff a sommelier, Avery, who will cheerfully pair whatever you order with Nova Scotia wines. Avery chose a Chardonnay from the Gasperau vineyard and, for dessert, a tasty ice wine from L’Acadie Vineyards, also located in the Wolfville area.

For a restaurant that also has a distinctly French accent, I dined at Fid Resto (http://fidresto.ca/), again located a two-minute walk from my hotel. I met Monica Bachue, originally from France who spent many years in Montreal, who, with her husband, serves tasty local fare. I ordered the locally caught halibut and a mushroom tart that was buttery, warm and scrumptious. The wines served the night I visited were again chosen from the Wolfville area.

The official anthem of Nova Scotia tells of heartache at leaving. It is titled, “Farewell to Nova Scotia.” I heard it sung many years ago by the Canadian folk duo Ian and Sylvia. The chorus goes like this: “I grieve to leave my native land, I grieve to leave my comrades all, and my parents whom I love so dear, and the bonnie, bonnie lass/lad that I do adore.”

Halifax and Nova Scotia tug on the emotions. The people one meets there are open-hearted, cheerful and welcoming. As foretold in the song, it is a destination to which one reluctantly bids farewell.

**
Robert Israel can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com. A previous version of this piece appeared in Edge magazine (Boston).

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