Spring arrived early in Halifax and fine weather had been around for weeks, so they said. But pelting rain greeted me at the airport, and gloomy clouds hung low over the harbor -- a dismal introduction to a city known for its pleasant disposition. Bob, the taxi driver, dropped me at the Hotel Halifax, which at first glance, struck me as a typical, impersonal business hotel. Then he drove off leaving me in the rain with an old cliche for comfort: "If you don't like the weather," he chuckled, "wait 5 minutes; it'll change."
Unamused and with spirits sagging, I rushed inside to escape the downpour. Immediately my ears tuned to cheerful sounds coming from a tinkling piano. A baby grand had a featured spot in the lobby, and a little girl sat there tapping out a childish melody. Not just a typical business hotel after all, I thought, noting the "Just for Kids" check-in counter. Halifax might just live up to its friendly reputation. There's something warm and reassuring about a business-class hotel in the heart of a city that makes a point of welcoming kids.
Those first impressions sum up my lasting impression of a short but sweet visit to Halifax this spring. The place is comfortable in a take-us-on-a-first-name basis sort of a way. As for the rain, in Halifax the old cliché holds true: If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes. At 11:45 you'd swear you'll have to abandon the idea of a picnic on the wharf; at 12:10 you're spreading the table under sunny skies. Also, the first thing you discover is the Pedway. When the salty air gets a little too moist in Halifax, you keep to the Pedway, a maze of covered walkways that link many downtown hotels, stores, restaurants and businesses.
I had three days in Halifax tacked to the end of a travel writers' conference, just enough time to take a quick look around and decide that this Atlantic city is safe, friendly, fun and easy to do on your own.
Really, the only companion I needed was The Greater Halifax Visitor Guide, which included simple maps, accommodation and attraction listings, as well as details of a variety of self-guided tours to do on foot or by public transport in and around Halifax and its sister city Dartmouth, just a 15-minute ferry ride across the harbor.
Naturally, the guide also listed numerous tour and day-trip operators if I wanted to go touring without renting a car.
Halifax has been busy and vibrant since the British recognized the strategic potential of its exceptionally long harbor and established a settlement in 1749. The past and present are combined in the city's clean, walkable (but hilly) downtown. Tree lined streets reflect 18th and 19th century architecture alongside modern skyscrapers.
Once the site of privateers' warehouses, the Historic Properties now house specialty boutiques, bistros and lively pubs like the Lower Deck Goodtime Pub.
Even when the weather is frightful, warmth and cheer are always on tap along with the ale at many local pubs and cafés. Live music filters outward to sidewalk decks and through the streets with a beckoning charm. Most folks won't be able to resist stopping in for a pint ($3-5), but even if you are reluctant to go into a pub solo (in Halifax there is no reason to be, except your own comfort zone), you may still enjoy the infectious gaiety in passing.
Whether or not pubs fit your vacation scheme, here's a flexible sample plan that you can mix and match to your idea of a thoroughly enjoyable day of solo sightseeing in Halifax.
Begin the day with breakfast or at least a large, hand-warming bowl of café au lait (City Deli) at Brewery Market, Salter and Lower Water streets. Once the manufacturing site for the local Keith's Beer, this interesting stone building now houses shops and restaurants. On Saturdays it hosts the best authentic farmers' market I have seen in a long time. You might hear a little toe-tapping live music while browsing booths filled with Nova Scotia produce and crafts.
From here you have a choice to go for the high road or keep to the low road. If you feel like exercise, take Salter Street, head up hill and jog left at Barrington to Spring Garden Road for window shopping and a tour around Citadel Hill, the city's dominant landmark. This historic fort has displays and audio-visual presentations (open May 15-Oct 15). Adjacent Halifax Public Gardens would be pleasant for a picnic stop on a fine day.
Alternatively, keep to the waterfront. A short walk north along Lower Water Street brings you to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. There's plenty here to keep your interest for hours learning all about two significant events in Halifax history, which are featured in permanent displays: The horrific 1917 Halifax Explosion and Halifax's role when the Titanic sank.
Visitors may board the CSS Acadia, Canada's first Hydrographic Vessel, or the HMCS Sackville, the last of the World War II convoy escort Corvetts. Sometimes the Bluenose II docks at the Maritime Museum and offers sailing tours.
Stroll further north to Cable Wharf and browse among artisans' studios, including Nova Scotian Crystal, Canada's only producer of mouth-blown, hand-cut crystal. Or check out the variety of boating excursions, harbor tours, nature tours, deep-sea fishing, or a water taxi that lets you design your own harbor adventure.
Taking another tack entirely, you could cross the harbor on the Dartmouth Ferry. In operation since 1752, this is the oldest saltwater ferry system in North America. In Dartmouth you could take a two-hour Heritage Walk, or go canoeing on the historic Shubenacadie canal (Fairbanks Visitor Center, Tel. 1-902- 462-1826).
By the time you finish exploring, the pub scene will be in full swing in the vicinities of Spring Garden Road, the Historic Properties/waterfront area, or nearby Granville Mall. Several pubs keep wee hours and offer up an eclectic mix of musicians and homegrown musical styles, blues, jazz, country with a Celtic lilt. Check out the Split Crow, Economy Shoe Shop, Cheers, O'Carroll's, or Your Father's Moustache.
If you have any spunk or cash left spend it at the Sheraton Halifax Casino. Good luck and sweet dreams.
Mail your postcard from inside the world famous, highly photographed, Peggy's Cove lighthouse, view the spectacular reflection of the three churches in Mahone Bay and amble the decks of a decommissioned offshore fishing boat at the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic in historic Lunenburg-recently granted status as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Sample Will Krauch's smoked salmon, kayak with Coastal Adventures, walk the white sand of Martinique Beach, experience life as an inshore fisherman at the Fisherman's Life Museum or take in a show at the Bicentennial Theatre.
Explore Acadian history at Grand Pre National Historic Site. Smell the essence of apple blossoms during the Apple blossom Festival each spring. Pick delectable fresh fruit and vegetables throughout the summer and fall. Watch the bald eagles soar during the winter.
Ride the highest tides in the world as they flow up the Shubenacadie River by joining one of the tidal bore rafting trips in Maitland. When the tide is low, search for fossils on the ocean floor around Parrsboro.
Sample fresh seafood at Boondocks Reataurant, shop for local handicrafts in the fishing shanties, stroll the boardwalk communing with nature, kayak to McNabs Island, or watch the fisherman repair nets.
Follow the road out the mouth of Halifax Harbour. Feel the spray from the crashing surf along the rugged coast. Walk the powdery white sand of Crystal Crescent Beach.