My Halifax City Tour, expertly narrated by Allen Mackenzie, a passionate Haligonian in a kilt, had provided me with a great overview of this city, and my visit to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic had added to my knowledge of Halifax, particularly of its connection to the Titanic and the 1917 Explosion. Still mulling over the historic significance of this city, the largest population centre on Canada’s East Coast, I sat down close to the waterfront to finally have lunch and strengthen myself after an intense introduction to the city.
On this sunny, fairly warm day I had a seat on the outdoor patio of Stayner’s Wharf, one of the restaurants on the Waterfront, located right next to the Halifax – Dartmouth Ferry Terminal. I was finally able to catch a rest, relax in the autumn sun and get ready for my lunch. I ordered the “Captain’s Brunch”, a pan-seared brunch-size portion of Atlantic salmon with one lightly fried egg, creamy whipped potatoes topped with a bit of Hollandaise sauce, served with a slice of tomato and cucumber. It was a very satisfying lunch, looking out onto Halifax’ waterfront, with a view of the Theodore Too, Halifax’ famous TV-show inspired tugboat.
I took about half an hour before I got up and made my way southwards on the Harbourwalk, Halifax’s 3.8 km boardwalk that stretches all the way from Casino Nova Scotia in the north to the Pier 21 National Historic Site in the south. More than 2.5 million visitors walk the Harbourwalk annually. $31 million were invested in order to purchase and rejuvenate properties and to renew infrastructure. The Harbourwalk is composed of a series of public parks, wharves and plazas all connected by a boardwalk system that is primarily wooden to reflect the historic marine character of Halifax’s waterfront which is now easily accessible to the public. People were out in full force, enjoying the pleasant weather. Several street comedians were performing right next to the waterfront, drawing huge crowds of onlookers.
The Halifax Harbour actually is one of the world’s best natural harbours as it extends almost 20 km inland into the Bedford Basin. Several islands are located in the harbour. The closest to the harbour entrance is George’s Island which has been designated a National Historic Site although it is not currently accessible to the public. This island has long played an important role in the harbour’s defense system.
McNabs Island is located farther out in the harbour and is accessible via a ferry from the Eastern Passage or via a charter boat from Cable Wharf. This island was settled in the past although the homesteads are now abandoned. A lighthouse, ruined fortress and batteries as well as sand beaches can be found on McNabs Island. One more island, Lawlor’s Island, is located close to the mainland. It never had any military installations and today is a protected nature area.
The Halifax harbour also features a deportation cross, reminiscent of the famous deportation cross at the Grand Pré, the original deportation site of the Acadian Expulsion. And being Canada’s major seaport on the east coast, it has always had a strategic military role and even today features key military installations.
As I was walking along Harbourwalk, I saw various ships passing in and out of the narrow passage, but the most interesting one was a military submarine, with all the sailors standing on deck, often waving to the fascinated audience on land. I was wondering when the sailors would disappear below deck, but I lost sight of them as I walked southwards towards the pier buildings.
Halifax is a true centre of ocean transport due to being blessed with one of the world’s deepest and largest natural harbours. The harbour’s waters remain ice-free and experience minimal tides and the port generally is the first inbound and the last outbound port to North America from Europe, the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal. It is also a major cruise ship centre: in 2005 108 cruise vessels with over 188,000 visitors docked in Halifax, causing a major economic infusion for the city.
In line with the ocean transportation theme, a monument to a famous Halifax resident is located just south of the entrance gate to the Halifax Port area: Samuel Cunard (1787 to 1865) , a native son of Halifax, is forever commemorated in a bronze statue that prominently presides over the Port of Halifax. Cunard became a Nova Scotia shipping magnate, whose Cunard Steamship Line would run many of the famous transatlantic ocean liners in the 1800s. His primary competitor was the White Star Line, whose ill-fated ocean liner Titanic sank 750 km off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1912. After this disaster, Cunard dominated the transatlantic passenger shipping and his company became one of the most important companies in the world. The Cunard line’s fortune began to decline in the 1950s when air travel became popular, but over the last few years has experienced a major revival with the world renowned Queen Mary 2, the first ocean liner to be built in 30 years, and the largest passenger liner ever built. In 1998 Cunard was taken over by Carnival Corporation, but the Cunard name can still be seen on the side of the Queen Mary 2.
I was in luck, because as I strolled closer to the pier buildings in the Halifax Port area, I saw that the Queen Mary 2 was indeed in town. An impressive ship, it appears to be about 8 to 10 stories tall and towers over the port buildings. Right here, with the Queen Mary 2 as a backdrop, I had reached my next destination: Pier 21, Canada’s immigration museum.
Upon arrival I connected with Stefani Angelopoulos, Communications Manager for the museum who was so kind to give me a personalized tour through this unique facility. Pier 21 is the Canadian equivalent to Ellis Island: more than a million immigrants came through its doors between 1928 and 1971. Until its opening in the late 1990s, the building sat empty as a warehouse and was finally turned into a museum in 1999 and designated as a National Historic Site. It was also the embarkation point for about 500,000 soldiers who were transported from here to fight in the Second World War. Halifax’ strategic importance in linking Canada with Europe became evident once again.