As the plane starts its descent into Halifax, my seat mate and I put down our books and start chatting. By the time we land in her hometown, she insists that her sister will be delighted to drive me to my hotel. And, well, she is.
Looks like I’ve made a new friend on the way to see some old ones in Halifax. This is my first trip to the city in a couple of decades and I am looking forward to revisiting a little of my own history while soaking up the city’s.
Back in the summer of 1749, as Nova Scotia’s first governor surveyed the panoramic views from the top of what is now the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site, Edward Cornwallis saw military advantage. The hill would be a good place to keep tabs on rivals at France’s Fortress of Louisbourg up the coast.
Today, if Cornwallis were to join the throng of tourists at the top of the Citadel, along with being perplexed by the ubiquitous selfie, he’d no doubt be impressed by the tangle of construction cranes putting up big shiny buildings in between the little historic ones.
The town that Cornwallis started with 2,500 settlers and a tally-ho from the British government is now at about 400,000, and growing. Halifax is undergoing a development boom, one that is mixing in the new with the old, making and re-making history before our eyes.
My brand-new friend and her accommodating sister drop me off at the Courtyard Halifax Downtown. The hotel features the same blend of old and new you see everywhere here. While I wait for the elevator, I check out displays of 18th-century artifacts that were found on the site when the hotel was built in 2007.
A short walk up from the Marriott is a row of pubs and shops on Argyle Street I remember well from my last visit, when I was in my mid-twenties. I drop by one of them, The Carleton, and take in the old brick and new music while, just across the street, construction crews are building what will be a gleaming hotel and convention hub, the Nova Centre, slated to open in 2017.
There seems to be as many guys wearing hard hats in downtown Halifax as there are students walking to and from the city’s six universities. I asked one of the construction workers, a guy about my age (so, not quite as old as Cornwallis, but close), what had happened to the legendary Halifax bar and stage where I once saw Matt Minglewood play. “Ah, the Misty Moon,” he says. “It’s a sports bar now.” Our brief, middle-aged exchange takes about as long as the last 25 years seemed to.
An old friend and I go for dinner at Two Doors Down on Barrington Street, feasting on a fair share of “remember whens” along with seasonal and locally sourced cuisine. My walk down memory lane continues on Spring Garden Road where, as a kid, I spent a week visiting my beloved great uncle who lived across the street from the Victorian-era Halifax Public Gardens.
A learned man, my great uncle would no doubt approve of the brand-new Halifax Central Library that just opened down the street—a bold and boxy glass design that is, perhaps appropriately, right next door to the old stone columns and red brick of Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Architecture building, completed in 1909.
Back at the hotel, I head to the Harbourview Terrace to enjoy a glass of wine, a spectacular view of the water and the steady parade of people wandering up and down the harbour.
But the waterfront isn’t just for tourists. Okay, maybe the couple dressed in period costume and singing old maritime ballads is, but a few folks are fishing, art students are going to class at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and other locals are just out for a walk or run along the water.
They’re also going out for dinner at The Bicycle Thief in Bishop’s Landing, a waterfront development chockablock with trendy boutiques and restos. The night I tuck into lobster ravioli (outstanding) and amaretto tiramisu (no words), there is a middle-aged couple in front of me celebrating a wedding anniversary and a young couple next to me that won’t make a first anniversary unless he learns to put his phone away. I was about their age the last time I was in Halifax, when dates actually talked to one another instead of texting during dinner.
Back then, people called the city across the harbour “Darkness.” Now, Dartmouth, a former city that is now part of the Halifax Regional Municipality, is more commonly referred to as “savvy real estate investment.” A slick new condo development right on the water, King’s Wharf, is spurring growth and gentrification—that, and croissants.
Perhaps as important to Dartmouth’s emergence as cool, is the Two If By Sea Café. The spot is “proudly Dartmouth” and, well, pretty delicious. I pick up a “croissant of the week”—which is big enough to last you almost that long—that is stuffed with heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil and provolone.
It costs $2.50 to take the ferry across the harbour. If you stay in Dartmouth less than an hour, your transfer will get you back to Halifax for free, but don’t rush. You can walk off the croissant and coffee by heading up Ochteronley to watch people rowing on Banook Lake or wander toward the bridge to see pretty streets getting prettier. Or just throw back some Chocolate Tofu Pie at The Wooden Monkey next to the ferry.
As I enjoy the all-natural sugar rush (there’s no refined sugar mixed in with the tofu), I think about how fast the last quarter century has slipped by.
But I feel like a young ’un as I look across the harbour at the Halifax waterfront and consider that it’s been more than 260 years since Cornwallis picked this spot to build a settlement because of the view.
I give the old guy a little nod for a choice well made.