Holiday weekend in Halifax
A Maclean’s LEISURE IN CANADA feature
The broiled live lobsters are a work of art. The silver fish strike and fight. Flamboyant ghosts stalk the grey gay city and a Maclean's editor is reminded that Halifax is one of those places that never disappoint you
The Janice and Marsha, a sturdy broad-beamed Cape Sable Island motor vessel with the flag of Nova Scotia flying at her stern, cut a white furrow in the green water as Captain Aubrey Purcell pointed her at Little Thrum Cap, out in the entrance to Halifax harbor. Gulls dived at herring, a whale surfaced and spouted, porpoises chased one another like playful children.
Around us we could see islands like Little Thrum Cap, lighthouses, bobbing navigation markers and net floats, patches of seaweed, scudding sailboats. On the rocky shores, fishing villages snuggled in sheltered coves and forts stood guard on jutting headlands. Halifax, for two centuries the great military stronghold of British North America, lay a few miles behind us, wrapped in history and a pastel-shaded haze.
Purcell, a lean sandy-haired man with a ruggedly handsome face, slowed the Janice and Marsha.
“Should he pollock here,” he said. He twisted the short flagstaff from its socket so it wouldn’t obstruct the an-
gling and carefully furled the white Nova Scotia tlag with its blue St. Andrew's cross, gold shield and red lion. He and his one-man crew, an amiable youngster named Eddie Preston, handed my wife Chris and me rods baited with minnow-shaped metal lures. "Pay out lots of line,” Purcell drawled.
Our reels hummed as we released the ratchets and the line melted off. The Janice and Marsha, a thirty-eight footer, rolled gently in the Atlantic swell. Aubrey Purcell told us proudly that she was the four hundredth craft of her kind built by Andrew Larkin of Shag Harbor. He twisted the wheel.
"Ought to be over fish right now,” he said.
As he spoke, a pollock struck my lure. My rod bent as though I'd caught a submarine. Chris whooped with glee and did a dance step on the pine deck for luck and hooked a pollock herself.
We had traveled more than a thousand miles from Toronto to spend a weekend in Halifax. If we'd had any doubt that the trip was worth while it would have vanished at this instant.
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Who could ask for more than warm sunshine, a cool breeze, salt spray, the mystery and movement of the ocean, and a rod bent double by a fish?
But we'd had no doubt from the start. We lived in Halifax once and had visited it since. There are places you can’t go back to without being disappointed, and there are places like Halifax that never disappoint you.
We felt the old magic spell of Nova Scotia’s grey gay sea-girt capital, the excitement of returning, as we climbed off the train.
Trailing a redcap and our luggage to a taxi, we edged by sailors and soldiers and airmen in trim uniforms, and civilians wearing sport shirts, halters, sweaters, blazers, jeans, slacks, shorts and cameras. Halifax, a defense base, is always crowded with servicemen. In summer, when it is also crowded with tourists, half the people in the railroad station seem to be dressed for a parade and the other half for a picnic.
Outside the station, which is only a gull’s cry from the docks, Chris sniffed the air as a gardener might a rose, or a wine connoisseur a glass of Madeira. “The perfume,” she said happily, “is the same.” It was.
The Halifax waterfront, like the waterfront of all major ports, has a smell that bespeaks its trade and activities—a blended aroma of such things as fish, lumber, petroleum, grain, sugar, spice, newsprint, coal, wet paint brushes and hot welding torches. It has its own mixture of sound, too— the tenor tooting of tugs, the deep braying of liners arriving and departing, the rattling and banging of boxcars being shunted, the rasp of wheat pouring from a metal spout into the hold of a freighter, the hissing and chugging of cargo winches on clanging iron decks.
If the smell and the sound w'erc familiar, so, in a vague way, was the taxi driver, for he had one of those long-jawed freckled blue-eyed Halifax faces. You didn’t have to ask whether he’d been in the navy. It was written all over him. Ffe opened the door of his highly polished but slightly battered cab with all the dignity and solemnity of a bosun piping an admiral aboard ship.
‘‘Where to, sir?”
‘‘The Lord Nelson Hotel.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” He drove us up a tree-shaded street with
Cruising for pleasure, casti g for pollock, dining on lobster or ogling a schooner’s masthead, the Sclanders and the sea were constant company
a charming name, Spring Garden Road, to a red-brick hotel with a peerless fish chef. We took a comfortable bed-sitting room at sixteen dollars a day. Wc could have had a similar room at the Nova Scotian, a comparable hotel, for a bit less. For still less, we could have gone to the Carleton Hotel, or to the Sword and Anchor Inn, which offers antique furniture and steak-and-kidney pudding, or to any of a number of minor hostelries and excellent motels. We chose the Nelson because we’d often enjoyed its Saturday night dances and Sunday dinners years ago. because it has a broad veranda that looks out on the Halifax Public Gardens, because it serves finnan haddie in a soup bowl smothered in hot rich cream, and because its broiled live lobsters are a work of art.
When we checked into the Nelson it was late in the afternoon of the last Friday in July—time, after our journey. to freshen up with a hot tub and a cold drink. Nova Scotia hotels can sell beer and wine but not liquor. We rang for ice and soda and uncorked a bottle we'd brought with us.
Wc sipped and relaxed and glanced through the windows at Spring Garden Road toward an old house we'd boarded at early in 1941 when 1 was the CBC’s first news editor at Halifax. It was a good boardinghouse and it was run by an elderly woman who made wonderful rabbit pie and we had a room with a cheerful fireplace and we were lucky to get it. In 1941, in Halifax, travelers unable to find shelter pleaded with the police to let them sleep in jail. We knew a naval officer and his wife who rented a converted coalbin and two girls who rented an attic with a ceiling so low that they couldn't stand up. You had to line up and wait at restaurants, picture shows, barber shops. Each train brought more navy, army and airforce personnel, more shipyard laborers, more wives and kids, more gritters with an eye to a quick buck. The population, which had been around seventy thousand before the war, was rising to a hundred thousand—rising with incredible speed.
Halifax was the anonymous “East Coast Canadian Port" of newspaper datelines, and grey ships sailed from the harbor in interminable convoys, hundreds to be sunk by the Germans.
No other Canadian city saw so much of the war.
Chris drained her glass and chuckled quietly. “Remember that major who bought the two new uniforms?”
1 couldn't remember his name but 1 could remember him and 1 could remember what happened. His twin sons, who were six. decided they could wear the new jackets if they chopped off the sleeves at the elbows.
“Remember the white overshoes?" 1 asked. Chris did. Halifax was swarming with prostitutes from Montreal and they adopted white overshoes as the badge of their profession. The other women in Halifax who had white overshoes, which were in style that year, had to stop wearing them or risk being chased by seamen from half the countries of the world.
"Halifax,” reflected Chris, “was grim but not dull.”
And we went down to the dining room and had fish chowder, halibut fresh from the sea and grilled to perfection. a tossed salad and white wine. Afterwards Horst Ehricht, a bearded Toronto photographer who took the pictures for this article, arrived from Newfoundland, where he had been doing another job for Maclean's. The three of us strolled through the streets in the soft summer evening, passing parks, parade grounds, stately stone buildings, ancient churches and graveyards, and lonely sailors in search of girls.
At the Halifax Tourist Bureau we saw a huge relief map of the city, which is on a peninsula almost encircled by the harbor, the Northwest Arm and Bedford Basin, lime and again this rocky little peninsula has changed history.
It was from Halifax that Wolte set out to capture Quebec from the French after a dinner party at which forty-seven guests drank a hundred and twenty bottles of wine and twentyfive of brandy. And it was Halifax that prevented George Washington’s forces in the American Revolution from taking for the United States all the territory that is now Canada. It was from Halifax in the War of 1812 that the British launched the expedition that stormed and burned the capital of the United States, and from Halifax that Canadians sailed to fight in the Crimea. South Africa and in two World Wars,
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“Halifax has seen so much action that you are always aware of its now shocking, now heroic story”
In World War 11 it was Halifax that maintained the Atlantic supply lines to the beleaguered British.
Halifax has been the stage of so much drama, so much action, that although it is surprisingly modern in some ways, you are constantly aware of its flamboyant and fascinating ghosts and its occasionally shocking, occasionally sordid and frequently heroic story.
You don't have to try very hard, especially on a soft summer evening, to conjure up a picture of dashing young Edward Cornwallis, the new governor and captain-general of Nova Scotia, leading ashore in 1749 the three thousand soldiers and settlers who were to create a city and fortress in the wilderness; or of patient Michael Francklin learning to speak to the Micmacs in their own tongue and winning their friendship and putting an end to the scalping; or of hard-bitten Governor Lawrence signing the order for the tragic expulsion of the Acadians; or fifteen thousand Loyalist refugees and the remnants of the defeated British army llecing to Halifax from New York in 1783 and sleeping in churches and sheds and stores and tents and dying by the hundreds of starvation and disease; or wild Prince Billy, a besotted son of George III, carousing with the young bloods of Halifax and having a scandalous affair with pretty Mrs. Wentworth, wife of the surveyor-general of the King's woods, while John Wentworth had an equally scandalous affair with a beautiful Negro girl who was a freed Jamaican slave.
Nor is it difficult to imagine George Ill's relatively respectable son, Edward, commander-in-chief of the British forces in North America, dallying in Halifax w'ith his mistress, Julie St. Laurent, and having his army engineers make her a heart-shaped artificial pond and a bridle path that w'as so laid out that it spelled her name in giant letters.
We thought of these lively and romantic ghosts as we walked back to the Lord Nelson from the tourist bureau, bearing a formidable assortment of pamphlets and booklets given us by the
tourist and convention director of Halifax, tall, thin and friendly Leo Charlton. The pamphlets said where to go and what to do in Halifax. We spread them on the floor of our room and studied them. And so to bed.
Up bright and early Saturday, we breakfasted heartily on finnan haddie in cream and wandered through the magnificent seventeen acres of the Halifax Public Gardens. Ducks, geese and swans swam in crystal pools, flowering bushes arched over the paths, and tourists took snapshots of the fountains, the roses, the gladioli, the children sailing toy boats, and of one another.
Our next stop was St. Paul's, the oldest Protestant church in Canada, built at the expense of George II with lumber brought from Boston, and opened in 1750. Christopher Thomas, a whitehaired guide in a crimson robe, showed us around. He pointed out the old Union Jack w'ith only the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew, sewn before the cross of St. Patrick w'as added to the design. He showed us the old collection box w'ith a handle like a broomstick, and the window in which the terrible Halifax explosion of 1917. which caused two thousand deaths, left a crack like a man’s profile — a profile said by some to be that of the first rector.
Thomas told us that in the early records of St. Paul's, illegitimate children were delicately identified as “spurs”—an abbreviation of spurious. He told us that when Samuel Cunard, the Haligonian who founded the Cunard Steamship Line, w'as christened at St. Paul’s his name was misspelled Canard. He told us the royal pew at the front of the church once had curtains so Prince Edward could sleep unseen through the service after a rough night, and that dignitaries like Governor Lawrence and Baron dc Seitz, a Hessian general, were buried in crypts under St. Paul’s and robbers broke into the crypts and stripped the corpses of their jewels and finery.
More visitors arrived to see St. Paul's. Christopher Thomas halted his flow' of anecdotes and said good-by to us and
went to greet them and show them the old Jack and the long-handled collection box and the window the explosion cracked.
And Chris decided we should go looking for presents for our daughters, one a teen-ager, the other eight. We entered the curious emporium of a genial character named Irving Medjuck, who describes his establishment as "an antique
store or something—you name it, we have it.” He had a hundred and thirtyfive ship lanterns, two hundred and fifty life-saving rings, and an amazing assortment of china ornaments, clocks, paperweights, marble-topped tables, stoves and compasses. But gifts for girls? “You name it, we don’t have it,” he grinned.
We did better at the Tartan Shop of Mrs. Bessie Murray, who designed Nova
Scotia’s tartan, and Mrs. Isabel MacAulay. Here, amid Nova Scotia tartan purses, gloves, sport jackets, shirts, ties, hats and dog collars—there was even a rag-stuffed Nova Scotia tartan kangaroo with a Nova Scotia tartan baby kangaroo in its pouch—Chris bought Janet, our youngest, a Nova Scotia tartan kilt and tried to talk me into buying a Nova Scotia tartan cap. Then, at Mills Brothers, she bought a knitted sweater for Kate, our teen-ager, and some other gifts.
Carrying our parcels we sauntered to the Grand Parade, a square in downtown
Halifax, hoping Deanie Munro would be there. Deanie is a pretty girl in a kilt who generally plays her bagpipes in the Grand Parade on summer mornings. But she was off playing at a Highland festival. so we had a look at the scarlet lobsters on the white crushed ice at Boutilier’s fish store and, inspired by the sight, hastened to the hotel. There we met two friends from Toronto, Frank Russell, who is a writer, and his wife Jean, who is a model. We had a round of beer, then lunch—broiled live lobsters with melted butter.
We'd arranged through Leo Charlton, the tourist director, to cruise around the harbor and the Northwest Arm in the afternoon in a one-lunged inboard motorboat operated by Thomas Grove. Frank and Jean Russell came along for the riele.
Grove, a good-looking young man with unruly dark hair, is the sort of individualist you seem to keep meeting in the individualistic seaport of Halifax. He's from Pennsylvania and a serious musician who plays the bassoon in the Halifax Symphony Orchestra. When he and his wife had a child and needed more
money, he bought his elderly boat, and for ten dollars he’ll take a party of rubbernecks on a three-hour cruise past the navy dockyard with its rakish fighting ships bristling with guns, under the towering Angus Macdonald Bridge to Dartmouth. past the great concrete piers where liners like the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth often tie up. then into the Northwest Arm—a long narrow beautiful salt-water inlet, the shores of which are lined with yacht clubs, parks, monuments and the homes of the wellto-do.
The sun shone, and Tom Grove was an entertaining guide, and Chris, who is a bird-watcher, spotted a red-billed Arctic tern. She was looking for another, her binoculars fixed to her eyes, when she suddenly shouted "Hi, Leonard!" at a man in shorts who was standing on a private wharf. He was Leonard Kitz, a lawyer and former mayor of Halifax. We hadn’t seen him for years so we tied up at his wharf and met his wife. Alice, and his daughter, Hilary, and sat in the Kitzes' living room by a picture window that faces out over the Northwest Arm. We had a tall drink and exchanged a few yarns and we still aren't quite sure where Saturday afternoon went.
We'd planned to do all sorts of things Saturday night, but we hadn't reckoned on the effect of the sun or the water or the salt air or the walking that we’d done. We lay on our beds and 1 read Chris bits from a pamphlet called Day by Day in Halifax, which told us where
“We landed four pollock and hooked but lost two others. They seemed to us to fight as hard as salmon.”
we could get Kentucky fried chicken or Chinese food or Italian food, what shows we could see, where we could dance.
We didn't want to eat Kentucky or Chinese or Italian food or dance or see a show. We simply wanted to stuff ourselves, once more, with Nova Scotia lobster, and to talk for a while, and to sleep soundly. We rang room service and ordered lobster — with melted butter.
Sunday, up early and refreshed, we breakfasted on haddock, which, when it is really fresh and is fried gently in butter and dusted with paprika and served with lemon points, is as good a fish as there is. We considered a sightseeing tour by bus. a two-and-a-half-hour circuit of peints of interest for two and a half dollars a person. But, instead, we took a taxi to the Citadel, the green hill topped by the star-shaped fortress that dominates the Halifax scene.
This grim stone-walled stronghold, with its barracks and dungeons, has. incongruously. become a sort of cultural and social centre—a setting for concerts and pageants and a “must for tourists.
Here, where Hessian troops drilled like machines, where Prince Edward ordered many a man to be lashed to the point of death for small misdeeds, and where naked soldiers with weights tied to their feet were ridden on sharp rails for infractions of discipline, the Imperial Order, Daughters of the Empire, have turned a powder magazine into a tearoom. Here. too. are figureheads of fighting ships, quaint in this day and age but reminders that vicious press gangs of the Royal Navy once scourged Halifax, seizing young men and trundling them off to the wars. And here is a military and naval museum filled with uniforms and weapons of the past, and a provincial museum filled with such Nova Scotia treasures as the fourteen-and-a-half-inch boot of the Giant MacKaskill. who was seven feet nine and weighed four hundred and twenty-five pounds, and who died on Cape Breton in 186? at the age of thirty-eight.
Chris and I wandered along the ramparts guarded for so many decades against so many enemies and gazed at the city where so much had happened. We noticed an elderly man in a blue uniform ramming powder and wadding into an ancient iron cannon. The noonday gun.
"How do you know when to fire it?” I asked him. "I look at the town clock,” he said. And he looked at the town clock that was given Halifax in 1803 by Prince Edward. The hands of the clock reached noon, the gun belched smoke, and the boom echoed over Halifax, as it has for two centuries.
Wc had lunch at the Nelson—enormous bowls of seafood chowder and by prearrangement met Captain Aubrey Purcell of the Janice and Marsha and went pollock fishing. Pollock are silver and shaped a little like skinny salmon and they go up to twenty pounds or more. They seemed to us to fight as hard as salmon. Wc landed four and hooked but lost two others — the two biggest, naturally. It was Chris who pulled the heaviest aboard—a seven-pounder. Pollock are tasty fish but. a thousand miles from home, we didn't know what to do with them, so wc left our catch with the captain.
Purcell takes angling parties out for seven dollars and a half an hour and drops the rate to six dollars an hour after the first four hours, and four rods can easily fish at the same time from the
Janice and Marsha’s broad stern. If there's a better bargain in angling in Canada 1 haven't found it yet. Purcell, a well-known yachtsman, races sailboats when the Janice and Marsha isn't chartered. “Anybody,” he said, "can run a boat with an engine, but when you handle a sailboat—well, that's different. You depend on your own skill, not on the engine.”
It was almost evening when we came ashore from the Janice and Marsha and Chris said that she'd loved every morsel of fish she had eaten in Halifax, and every ounce she had caught, but that she wasn't an Eskimo and couldn’t keep on eating fish three times a day. So we dined on rare roast beef and tongue and turkey and salad and aspic at the Sword and Anchor Inn. surrounded by
massive mahogany and antique silver.
Then we went to a spot Leo Charlton, the tourist director, had told us about— 777 Barrington Street — and descended twenty-three steps to a large dim cellar decorated with fish nets. Jazz Unlimited, they call the place, and for drinks you have the choice of coke or ginger ale. The musicians, who are among the best musicians in the Maritimes, play
Where the money went Maclean’s asked Chris and me to keep our expenses at Halifax down to $125, so other couples could have a rough guide to what a similar weekend might cost them. We didn’t quite manage, and here’s why: Friday evening Taxi to hotel .................................. .80 Dinner ...................................... 10.80 Tips ......................................... 2.00 $13.60 Saturday Breakfast and tip .............................. 3.00 Lunch with guests.............................. 9.00 Boat trip ..................................... 10.00 Dinner and tip................................. 10.35 Taxis ........................................ 5.35 Shopping: Skirt ............................... 8.50 Sweater ............................. 11.95 $58.15 Sunday Breakfast and tip............................... 3.00 Lunch and tip ................................. 6.50 Deep-sea fishing ............................... 15.00 Dinner and tip ................................ 7.50 Jazz room .................................... 1.00 Taxis ........................................ 3.00 $36.00 Monday morning Breakfast and tip............................... 3.00 Hotel bill—3 nights ............................ 48.00 Tips ......................................... 1.00 Taxis ........................................ 2.90 $54.90 Total expenditure $162.65
for free because they enjoy these jam sessions just as much as the customers.
Buddy Burke, a nice clean-cut kid who manages Jazz Unlimited, drove a truck for the Canadian National Express but his heart was in his trap drums, so he quit. He sat with us for a while at a table with a red-and-white cloth, drinking coke. I noticed that at 10.15 p.m. his wrist watch showed 4.15.
“That’s Bohemian time,” he explained. “I’m up half the night so I go on Bohemian time, not Atlantic Daylight. Then I don’t get tired. For me, it’s only quarter after four in the afternoon now."
“Characters,” Chris laughed. “Halifax is full of them—and they're ail wonderful.”
It was fairly late, even by Bohemian time, when we got to bed, and we were taking the train Monday noon. We rose early and packed. Then to breakfast.
“It’s your last chance for good Halifax fish,” I said, ordering haddock fillets.
“Bacon and eggs,” Chris told the waitress.
Afterwards we walked to the stables of the Halifax Junior Bengal Lancers, who are famous across Canada for their skillful riding. There arc sixty-eight children in the Lancers, mostly girls. They have thirty horses and groom and look after the animals pretty much by themselves. Marc Faccy. a bronzed straight-backed lean man who was a cavalry instructor in England, trains the youngsters the way he used to train the troops. He barks at them, he’s strict with them, he keeps them under military discipline, and they're crazy about him.
For fifteen dollars a month a Junior
Bengal Lancer can ride all day six days a week. If she's a competent rider and willing to help instruct beginners, the fee is reduced to ten dollars a month. Wc watched them ride for a while, then settled our hotel bill, took our bags to the station, and then walked along the docks for a last look.
Wc saw a big white Greek passenger liner, the Queen Frederica. Seamen were leaning over her rails with handlincs, catching flounders for their lunch. Wc wished wc could try it too hut the train was leaving. Our weekend in Halifax was over. It was a good weekend, a memorable weekend, a marvellous weekend. There are places, as I've said already, that you can't go back to without being disappointed, and there are places like Halifax, that never disappoint you. ★