Nova Scotia's charming city of firsts Halifax Hospitality

March 27, 1994|By Patrick Soran and Dan Klinglesmith | Patrick Soran and Dan Klinglesmith,Special to The Sun

Most mayors only polish the keys to the city for high rollers, movie stars and other celebrities.

Not Moira Ducharne. The Mayor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Mrs. Ducharne spends an hour on summer weekday afternoons greeting everyday visitors in her lavish Victorian city hall. She offers tea and cookies and a warm handshake. It's a bit of old-fashioned hospitality from this town of 115,000, whose front door greets the Atlantic and whose back door swings out on North America.

It's one of the first places sunlight falls on Canada. Spirit-thin haze often tints the morning sky. Tugboats cut widening wakes onto the harbor's surface.

Haligonians like to brag that they have the world's second-best harbor, conceding that Sydney, Australia, has the first, says Randy Brooks, Travel-Trade Coordinator for the Nova Scotia Department of Tourism and Culture. It's an unusual second-place standing for Halifax, a city of firsts. Haligonians claim the first representative government in a British colony, along with the first North American dockyard, ferry service and yacht squadron. They also claim to have had the first Christmas tree on the continent and, possibly most important, the first hockey game -- ever.

But no string of firsts explains half a million visitors a year; perhaps hospitality like the mayor's can -- or maybe it's the delightful seafood, sailing and historic sites.

The Halifax Citadel is the fourth fort to defend the area. Built on a high knoll in 1861 to repel possible U.S. invaders, the stone and earth fortress now welcomes Americans with its drawbridge open.

The star-shaped stronghold, enveloping a gravel parade ground, restored to its original construction. On the lower level, double rows of twin beds crowd narrow, stone barracks. Only a single window lights each chamber. On the second floor, the Army Museum displays swords, uniforms and period firearms.

Role-playing "residents" of the era -- washerwomen, schoolmasters and kilted guards -- bring the fort to life, answering questions and performing demonstrations. Uniformed militiamen fire a cannon, as their forefathers did, every day at noon. Haligonians set their watches by it.

Nearby, on the fort's eastern bastion, colorful flags top triple poles. In the late 1800s, coded banners signaled the comings and goings along one of the world's busiest harbors.

Nowadays, they salute the Bluenose II. The double-masted schooner carries sailors and wannabes to sea three times a day during most summer days.

"If the wind is calm, nothing much happens," says one crew member, "but if a breeze comes up we could have an exciting sail." On the two-hour cruises she and her mates hoist the sails, drape rope into O's and 8's atop the teak deck and steer the tilting craft as it tacks from port to starboard -- all the while answering landlubber questions.

If the Bluenose II doesn't provide enough seafaring, visitors can climb aboard the CSS Acadia at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. Though permanently docked now, this 900-ton steel vessel mapped the Canadian coast for 56 years.

The museum itself is as packed with treasure as a pirate's chest: delicate model ships from the ages of steam and sail, a barge -- complete with golden dolphins -- that Queen Victoria used on her 50th Jubilee, plus physical evidence of just how grand the Titanic really was.

Haligonians were the first to reach the sinking luxury liner in 1912. They brought survivors back and, along the way, picked up some debris. It's astonishingly ornate. A fragment of oak balustrade bursts with intricate shells, apples and flowers. Musical instruments carved onto a section of lounge paneling are so lifelike you can almost hear strains of "God Save the Queen" playing in the background.

Helping Titanic's survivors wasn't really hospitality though, it was simple decency. And it wasn't long before Halifax would need some help itself.

On Dec. 6, 1917, a fully loaded munitions ship in the harbor rammed another craft. Pilot error. The explosion, the largest ever before the atomic bomb, killed 2,000 people, injured 10,000 and left another 25,000 homeless. The people of Boston sent up all the help they could muster. As thanks, Halifax citizens now send them a prize Christmas tree every winter.

Although few buildings escaped without some damage, many in the town center withstood the shock largely intact; today, they give the area a 19th-century feel. The Provincial Capitol Building survived. So did St. Paul's, the first Anglican Church in Canada. One of its windows shattered into the silhouette of the bishop. It's considered a miracle.

Today, the bishop's profile is within eyeshot of the "Liquor Dome." Once a girl's school, this expansive structure now boasts five restaurant/bars. Randy Brooks, a native, calls it "a rough spot on a pub crawl."

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