Author Nicholas DeRenzo Photography Chris Sorensen
DAY ONE | Morning in Halifax means passengers streaming off cruise ships at the bustling seaport, eager to stretch their legs. I’m feeling no such cabin fever, having just awoken in my large, luxurious bed in the nearby Prince George Hotel. Cup of coffee in hand, I stand at my window, looking out over the city’s historic downtown.
Breakfast is nearby at Norbert’s Good Food, a sunny eatery inside the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market. Established in 1750, this is North America’s oldest farmers market, and its current cavernous home accommodates more than 250 vendors on weekends. Norbert’s is well named. Everything on my plate—eggs, bacon, potato rosti—is sourced from the owner’s farm or one of his neighbors’. Outside, ships and sailboats drift by, continuing the maritime tradition that has been the backbone of this town for centuries.
Between 1928 and 1971, more than a million immigrants landed next door, at Pier 21, the Ellis Island of the Maritime Provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island). Today, the old redbrick terminal houses the Canadian Museum of Immigration, which was given a $30 million overhaul this summer. I’m here to meet Carrie-Ann Smith, the museum’s chief of audience engagement and the brains behind its transformation.
“Listen, Ellis Island was built as a palace; Pier 21 is a shed,” Smith says, standing in the expansive entry hall. “But it had this beat-up wooden sign that said ‘Welcome Home to Canada,’ which I think is just lovely.” She’s designed a museum that’s heavy on interactivity: Visitors are invited to pack virtual suitcases, try on period clothes or set tables for dinner. “They wouldn’t let me add a seasickness-inducing machine,” she says. “I wish the whole building rocked.”
Smith wants to show me her city, so we head outside. As we approach the curb, cars practically screech to a halt to let us cross. Overbearing courtesy, Smith says with a laugh, is one of the province’s defining traits. “If you even think about crossing the street here, they stop. Sometimes I pace on the sidewalk, so they don’t feel obligated.” Fighting politeness with politeness: the Canadian way.
We stroll past Pizza Corner, an intersection named for its concentration of pizzerias. At night, with its mix of tourists and Haligonians spilling out of bars, the place has the feeling of Times Square writ incredibly small. Many of these revelers are on the hunt for Nova Scotia’s most iconic after-hours snack: not pizza, but donair, a local riff on the gyro supposedly concocted in the 1970s by a Lebanese pizzeria owner (regular gyros were deemed too exotic for local tastes). The lamb was swapped out for beef and pork, and the garlicky yogurt sauce became a sweet white glaze made from evaporated milk and sugar, with a splash of white vinegar and garlic powder.
“That sauce is just candy,” Smith says. “Maybe I’ve never been drunk enough to enjoy it.” Despite her warning, I assure her I’ll try one tonight.
Next, I head to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, which features exhibits on two catastrophes: the 1912 sinking of the Titanic (survivors went to New York; the dead came to Halifax) and the 1917 Halifax Explosion. Though less famous abroad, the latter is a city-defining tragedy; two ships, one filled with ammunition, collided and caused the largest man-made blast of the pre-nuclear age, flattening much of the city and killing almost 2,000. These century-old nautical incidents still loom large and in unexpected ways. The Five Fishermen restaurant, for example, was once a funeral home where Titanic victims were kept before burial. Across the street, the city’s oldest building, the 1750 St. Paul’s Church, has bits of wood and iron from the explosion embedded in it.
As I leave the museum, a huge blast rings out—bad timing, to say the least. A passing woman notices my expression and smiles in a don’t-worry way. “We’re not under attack,” she says. “That’s just the noon gun.” Every day, it turns out, the city’s hilltop fort fires off a cannon at midday (the ritual has its own Twitter account, @HalifaxNoonGun, with the same Tweet repeated every day at the same time: “#boom”).
Feeling a bit #hangry, I head for lunch at 2 Doors Down, chef Craig Flinn’s ode to elevated classics. Hearty menu items like smoked potato chowder, crispy haddock burgers and chicken dinner poutine—pulled chicken, cheese curds, peas, stuffing and gravy atop a pile of fries—are the kind of rib-sticking dishes you’d need to get through a Canadian winter.
Winter is also a theme at the nearby Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, where I find Inuit carvings and folk paintings depicting the kind of weather you wouldn’t send a dog into. A highlight of the collection is the relocated one-room cottage of the province’s most famous folk artist, Maud Lewis, who died in 1970 at the age of 67. Life was hard for Lewis, who stood under five feet tall due to juvenile arthritis, but you’d never know it from her home, in which every surface is painted with an ecstatic array of flowers and butterflies and birds.
Halifax is a hilly city, which works in my favor after my gravyful lunch. I make my way up a steepish slope, pausing in the city’s old Grand Parade, bracketed by monumental City Hall, a late-19th-century sandstone pile dominated by a seven-story tower (its clock fixed at 9:04 to mark the Explosion), and the white Georgian facade of St. Paul’s. From here, it’s a few minutes up to the city’s most recognizable landmark: the Halifax Citadel, aka Fort George, which was established here by the British in 1749 to keep the French at bay.
The strategic value of the star-shaped fortification’s hilltop position—225 feet above sea level—has given way to its sightseeing potential. From the ramparts, I look out over the city’s bristling steeples, the forested harbor islands and the smattering of small-fry skyscrapers (the tallest tower here, Fenwick Place, is 322 feet). Closer by are the kilted reenactors of the 78th Highlanders troop, who march in formation in the dusty courtyard below. Oh, right: Nova Scotia. New Scotland.
In the fort gift shop, I’m grilled about my travel plans by the woman behind the counter. Tomorrow, I tell her, I’m heading to LaHave, a coastal town about 70 miles southwest of here, to meet an indie singer named Jennah Barry. “Oh,” she says, “I went to high school with her!” Small world. Smaller province.
Heading back into town, I stroll past broad Halifax Common and the Crayola-colored clapboard houses of the North End, a trendy neighborhood that was once the city’s industrial heart. I’m having dinner at Field Guide, a hip new eatery (chalkboard menus, yellow metal bistro chairs) run by chef Dan Vorstermans and his wife, Ceilidh Sutherland.
Despite the modern flair, the food tastes deeply of the land. A salad of turnips, sorrel puree, cured egg yolk, pickled beets and watermelon radish comes topped with seasonal fiddlehead ferns. “We all went up to Ceilidh’s parents’ house in Tatamagouche to pick them,” the waiter says.
Pan-fried gaspereau, a local river herring, is served with crunchy fried roe sacks and black garlic mayo. There’s even a high-minded nod to the donair I’ve heard so much about, in the form of a steamed bun in which Vorstermans restores the original lamb and adds a bit of lamb liver for “an earthy, gamey, mineraly flavor,” plus a sweet but nuanced sauce of house-made condensed milk, fresh garlic and apple cider vinegar.
After dinner, I head across town to Argyle Street, a strip of Anglo-Irish-Scottish pubs, many with live music (heavy on the fiddle) streaming out the windows. I’m here to have a drink with Andrew Al-Khouri, a former “Master Chef Canada” finalist who hails from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia’s version of the Scottish Highlands. Fittingly, I meet Al-Khouri at the Loose Cannon, a wood-paneled pub with more than 70 Scotch varieties. After a shot of Glenora Glen Breton—North America’s first single-malt whiskey, also from Cape Breton—I find myself once again discussing donair.
“They asked us to submit an audition dish, and I did donair gnocchi as a joke,” the chef says of his reality TV stint. “Most people made Wagyu beef—mine cost $1.50 to make.” Al-Khouri has spent years drawing inspiration from the late-night snack. In college, he invented the donair omelette after passing out drunk on top of one and trying to figure out what to do with its mangled remains. Since then, he’s come up with duck donair poutine and a frisée and beet salad served in an edible donair-meat cup.
Al-Khouri suggests we go get a couple of donairs for the road. A minute later, we’re at Mezza Lebanese Kitchen. “He’s from New York,” Al-Khouri tells the guy behind the counter, “so make him the best donair ever!” It’s messy, meaty and weirdly sweet. In other words, perfect.