The bags just fit into the trunk of the gold Alero we’re renting for the Nova Scotia leg of this vacation. Halifax is about twenty minutes from the airport, and I point us toward town. The highway cuts between small lakes on wither side – the water’s a dark blue, almost black, topped with whitecaps from the stiff breeze. It’s all reminiscent of the Laurentians north of Montreal where I spent a few summers as a kid, but I’m not enjoying the scenery right now – I got worry. I’ve booked the wrong two nights at the hotel in Annapolis Royal and I’m not quite sure how this will play out – will we have to switch rooms at some point? Switch hotels? Cough up the late-cancellation fee? Labor Day week is a big travel time – a number of hotels were booked up when I made reservations weeks ago. Gloom. I switch on the radio for some road tunes and immediately catch a Kim Mitchell guitar solo. Perfect. Thanks to Canadian content regulations (30-35% of the music on radio has to be Canadian) I got a heavy dose of Kim Mitchell in my high school days in the Montreal suburbs, and I’ve had to carry the torch alone since moving back to the States. Canada is a country where you can still hear all 20 minutes of Rush’s 2112 on commercial radio. It doesn’t make much sense south of the border, and I don’t even try to explain it to Melanie anymore. I just know now that things will be alright somehow.
Yeah right. This could be bad. We move on to a Bryan Adams tune and the highway peters out into the neighborhood streets of Dartmouth, just across the harbor from Halifax proper. With the minimal assistance of a few small signs pointing to the Macdonald bridge (and the huge assistance of the map marked up by the guy at the rental counter) we scurry over the channel and into the north end of Halifax. The Delta hotel is right at the north edge of town, and we park the car in the adjoining mall garage. The room is comfortable, with the harbor view I requested when I made the reservation. Down to business. A deep breath and… the Bread and Roses can move our reservation, no problem. I put the guidebook away.
Downtown Halifax is built on a steep slope that borders the second-largest natural harbor in the world (largest is Sydney). The Halifax Citadel is perched a few blocks uphill from the hotel, and we hike into the hard late-afternoon sun to take a look. The site is closing in a few minutes, and the gate attendant waives the six dollar entrance fee to allow us a quick look around. We’re impressed with the broad sunken assembly yard and the stonework. Two tartan-clad cadets march past to retrieve the flag, and a lone policeman ushers the sparse crowd back toward the exit. We make plans to return when the site reopens in the morning.
We bypass the business district and head south along the back streets until we hit Barrington, double back toward the hotel… and then turn south again. We’re looking for Granite Brewery, mentioned in one of the local guidebooks at the hotel. Halifax is something of a college town, and Barrington starts to get a rental-house feel to it (moving vans and a pile of mattresses in one parking lot); finally in an old stone house we find the brewery. They pour some of the best brew-on-premises beer we’ve ever had (porter, special ale, peculier), very smooth and well-balanced. And the food is top-notch. This trip is starting out well.
To walk off some of the beer we head south a few more blocks to the VIA rail station – the tracks serve as a border to our walking adventure. The established sections of town are bustling with activity, even as the sun disappears – there’s a good bit of outdoor dining, which is always nice to see. The area around the waterfront is being renovated and is a little more spotty as far as activity. It looks like things have been rehabbed quickly, and there are plenty of empty storefronts awaiting signed leases. Some cool folks live down here, judging by the Afghan Whigs tunes seeping from one old Victorian house in particular.
Halifax is fairly compact and before long we’re back to the business district, only this time along the water’s edge. There’s a wide walkway that threads along the water, and it offers some fine spots to sit and contemplate the harbor.
The service at this restaurant by the tugs is pretty inattentive, and we quickly move on.
Back at the hotel we recharge on in-room coffee and plan our next move. It’s Friday night, so we check the free weeklies for music listings – Maxwell’s Plum on Grafton has live jazz scheduled. We meander back uphill, puzzled by the ambulances wandering about town as if looking for someone to rescue. There’s no music tonight at the Plum after all, and we amble downhill to Argyle Street where we find The Alley, which at least has band equipment set up on the stage.
An ambulance crew has found somebody to rescue outside a restaurant next to the club.
Bands don’t start any earlier here, so we while away a few Labatts listening to a pretty good DJ spinning Bowie and the Clash. Groups of college students on orientation missions flow through the club in coordinated purple, orange and green t-shirts. about 11PM the band gets rolling – they’re called Heavy Meadow, and they’ve got a stripped-down G.Love kind of upright funk going. The guitar player runs his acoustic through a Fender amp, getting a spooky hollow distorted tone. Fine stuff.
The Attic is part of a large complex of restaurants and bars that consume a large chunk of the city block – we explore a little and end up two floors down and one street over. We exit past the lamest velvet rope scene ever – a drunk woman in cutoff jeans complaining to four constables that the doormen wouldn’t let her in when they plainly let that other woman in and they let her in just like this last week.
The 18th Street Lounge it ain’t. Or maybe down deep velvet-rope clubs are all the same.
Fog rolls in overnight, and in the morning we watch it lift slowly from the foot of the MacDonald bridge. Front-page headlines detail the sordid drug-smuggling past of that Air Transat pilot who’d made such a dramatic fuel-free clutch landing in the Azores a few weeks previous. We pore over the Saturday paper as we wait for the sky to clear. It never really does, so we head out a little later than planned to get the full tour of the Citadel.
Note to Canadian architects: more glass, less concrete. We’re all in this together.
The citadel is hopping when we arrive at about 11:30. Hundreds of people mill about the courtyard and dot the ramparts above. A television camera crew dogs one young cadet practicing his snare drum rolls. As noon approaches a delegation proceeds to the north-facing cannon and the swarms of tourists follow – we wedge ourselves onto a narrow wooden deck out of earshot as the gunner (probably) describes the workings of the cannon. At noon the gun goes off with a giant whump and the echo crackles off the downtown highrises as if it travelled down a giant cardboard tube. Star Trek cool.
The historical exhibits are actually pretty good – in one of the rampart walls there’s a history of Halifax and the Citadel (built to protect the colonists in Boston from the French forces in Louisbourg) and the second floor of the barracks has been converted to a sizable wartime artifacts museum displaying uniforms, equipment, and an array of field artillery pieces. The exhibit is weighted heavily toward the first world war and it’s chilling to see those weapons up close and in good condition, ready to fire at a moment’s notice. Menacing even at rest.
There’s a lot to see at the Citadel, and even though we pass on the 45-minute movie we end up staying a good bit longer than we expected.
Our walk through town brings us to the heavy iron gate of the Public Gardens, where we’re immediately greeted by thousands of hungry (or maybe just bored) ducks, pigeons, and geese. The gardens were built in 1887 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and are a fine attempt at an urban oasis, but at least two busy streets border the grounds and it’s hard to escape the noise of the city.
One of the busy roads by the gardens is Spring Street, a bustling shopping and restaurant zone. We stop for lunch at Your Father’s Moustache, set a few floors above street level. Here we realize a) Canadians smoke a lot and b) the smoking sections are the prime real estate in the restaurants. We opt for the better view, and the smoke isn’t too heavy anyway. We order a couple of Keith’s, the local brew. Canadians are very fond of their beer, claiming superiority in strength (granted) and taste (hmph) to American mass-produced brews. I’ve had the occasion to try many malt beverages from both sides of the border, and while I’m no big fan of US macro-brews I stand by my assessment that Canadian beer tastes like American beer served in a dirty ashtray. With unwashed socks at the bottom. Whuddelsyagottontap?
Food’s good though, and they have that online video trivia game on the big screen.
Early September brings the Atlantic Fringe Festival to Halifax, and ever since we missed the Adelaide Fringe Festival by a few weeks I’ve been wanting to see one of these independent theatre hoe-downs. We stop off at the Khyber Center for the Arts on Barrington looking for tickets, but find only theatre workshops and misspelled fire escapes. A number of downtown buildings have been commandeered for the festival, and we find our tickets to the one-man play Kitchen about a block uphill from the Khyber. It starts to drizzle as we head back downhill.
At the bottom of the hill we find the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, a site I’d marked off in the Fodor’s guidebook. Another high-class museum, it sports exhibits chronicling the Atlantic convoys assembled here in World War II, the awful Halifax Explosion in World War I, and the peacetime exploits of Theodore Tugboat. Turns out the children’s show was modelled on Halifax harbor, and the show’s sets and ship characters are on display near the museum entrance.
We head back to the hotel to regroup and plan for the evening. Fodor’s has nice things to say about the Velvet Olive, and surprisingly I get a 7:15 reservation on short notice. The restaurant has carved out a funky niche in the half-submerged ground floor of a faceless office building, and we opt for the empty smoking section over the busy non-smoking zone. The chairs are funny (velvet, yes, but sitting in them is like perching on a velvet top hat), they’ve got a good wine selection and the appetizers are fantastic. We probably should have stopped at the apps, as we run out of steam by the time we dig into the entrees.
The sky has opened up outside, and we scurry a few blocks over to the church hosting Kitchen. We wait patiently for the elevator, which can only carry eight people at a time… they won’t let us take the stairs. Three rows of plastic bucket chairs await us upstairs, along with a steamy sweltering heat. I get the impression that most of the audience members are performers in other Fringe acts. Five minutes before the performance is set to begin the fire alarm goes off; instinctively I start to flex. An audience member throws a shirt over the giant alarm bell, and the rest of the crowd pulls its fingers out of its ears. Fifteen minutes after showtime a fireman appears at the door. Twenty-five minutes after showtime the bell stops and the play begins. And the play’s not all that good. I want to be supportive of independent artists, but if the jokes consistently fall flat I can only fake the laughs for so long. Sorry.
The next morning dawns bright and clear – it’s getaway day. We bumble around the shops and Pierre Trudeau sculptures of the Historic Properties, buying a quirky red vase at a shop devoted to Canadian craftsmen. I ask for a half-caf latte at Perk’s Coffee Habit – the half-caf concept doesn’t register. I ask if they have salmon spread for my bagel. No. “Is salmon good on a bagel?” I get the feeling that there’s not a lot of off-the-menu ordering in the maritimes.