North Atlantic Adventure: Halifax, Canada
by Dr Anthony D. Cliffe
I Travel from Iceland to the Maritime city of Halifax, Nova Scotia to explore this rich historic naval city and the wonders of the Nova Scotia coast to Peggy’s Cove.
The peace and quiet of the Icelandic countryside felt a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of Keflavik airport, in fact I’d go as far as saying organised chaos. Keflavik was never designed for this many passengers, as far as major international airports go…this is very much on the smaller size. Tourism has boomed in Iceland in recent years (it’s hard to see why it took so long!) and due to the connecting flights with Icelandair, Keflavik has swollen with passenger numbers. Throughout the day there is a constant pulse of passengers. From about 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. all of Icelandair and WoWair flights arrive across the Atlantic from North America flooding the terminal with thousands of passengers in those short hours. Those planes then carry on to Europe and then return before 3pm swelling the terminal again before leaving back across the Atlantic to North America between 4 and 6pm. It’s almost like a lung expanding and contracting as the day goes on. The issue is plain to see, while security was quick to go through well relatively. Travelling with all your camera equipment is a bloody hassle having to unpack it and then repack it after the x-ray machines, it never goes back in the way you packed it beforehand. What the issue is, is a distinct lack of seats. My flight was one of the very last to leave Iceland that day to head across the Atlantic to Halifax, Canada. That meant that by time I got to the departure lounge everyone else was waiting for their flights to North America which were about to board. Despite the cacophony of sound it was still exciting. Even if I did have to walk around for ages to find a seat.
You can’t go to your gate in Keflavik until it is called and if your flight is to the UK or North America which are both outside the Schengen free movement agreement you have to go through to the D-Gates. To get there you have to leave the Schengen area and go through passport control. I found myself a seat in what is a pretty nice terminal building despite how busy it is. I bought two sandwiches, some water and some Haribo gummy bears remember you get no food on this flight and its 4 and a bit hours long. After a wait my gate appeared and I headed quickly through passport control and I’m grateful to still be a part of the EU which allows me to use my chipped passport to go through the self-service control points. The queue for the non EU passport control was so big that I’m thankful that I’m getting my Irish Passport to travel on as to keep that privilege of quick access to EU countries. I watched a flight board from my gate and before long it was my turn, a quick bus ride to the plane, one last look at Iceland before I boarded my 757 to Halifax.
I couldn’t wait to arrive in Canada again. The Cliffe family have a lot of history with Canada and my bike is adorned with the Canadian flag next to my name. I fell in love with this country a long time ago and I’ve visited many places in Canada, all except the Maritimes which I was to tick off on this trip. Last year’s trip to Toronto and then Edmonton was such a great trip to go back to Canada after far too many years away. Canada and the family ties are really what my love for Canada is all about. Halifax, my first stop was fitting as during WW2 as Great Uncle Wal an engineer in the Merchant Navy would crisscross the Atlantic and in Montreal is where he met his wife. It’s really down to them two that the Cliffe family have both a UK and a Canadian split. Barb and Betsy, their daughters always kept in contact with my Dad and kept that bond across the pond close. As Barb has had kids and obviously my mum and dad had me and my sister I feel it’s great that the new generation keep as close a bond as possible. It felt like meeting them all again for the first time and in some cases it really was the first time I’d met Becky and Sarah and Bob and Robin when I went to Toronto last year. They could not have made their English cousin feel any more welcome! I was super excited to see them all at the end of the trip in Toronto again! They’re all awesome! I also love Canada, I love the way of life, the people and the scenery. It’s no secret. Part of this trip was to really look at could I move here and live here once the PhD is done. Halifax is a city that has a close tie to Liverpool and the UK and it seemed like a great first port of call for my adventure of the Maritimes!
My take-off from Iceland to Halifax
On long haul you never quite know who you’re going to be sat next to, of course I always book the window seat! It always pays to talk to your fellow neighbours on flights, last time flying back from Canada doing just that got me an upgrade to first class! I was fortunate enough to have two older ladies sitting next to me who I had a nice chat with across the Atlantic about their home city of Halifax which broke up the journey for a bit.
Taking off and waving goodbye to Iceland I headed out across the Atlantic, next stop Canada! I watched Death at a Funeral (the British original not the awful American remake) that brought back some memories of when I first watched that film! That life as a 17 year old seemed so long ago! I glanced away from the movie to see that we were flying over Greenland. Simply stunning place and I’m jealous my supervisor does research on the glaciers there, I keep dropping hints for me to take my UAV on research with him there but he’s yet to take my hints! Using the Wi-fi I live streamed our crossing over Greenland where icepacks gave way to Glaciers that fed into the sea. I thought it was pretty neat that I could live stream such an epic view! Again hurray for inflight Wi-Fi.
Before long the sun had caught up to us and after filling in the Customs Declaration landing card for Canada I took photographs of yet another truly stunning sunset that I would take on this trip. Everyone knows Sunrise and particularly Sunset are my favourite times of day. Specifically the civil twilight phase when it’s not quite dark but not quite light and the colours are so intense. Being so high up that moment lasts far longer than down on Earth and I savoured the view as my sleeping playlist played on my headphones. Perfect.
Evolution of a sunset from FL380
After an hour in darkness I had arrived in Halifax, it felt so good to be back in Canada again! Icelandair were flawless yet again. The dreaded Jetlag did start to kick in but that was more about tiredness. After only a few hours’ sleep the night before chasing the Northern Lights and now being awake for 19 hours with still 2 hours to go before I would get to my hotel, I was starting to feel pretty tired. Going through boarder control was easy. The guy asked a few questions, saw that I was in Canada last year visiting family, he welcomed me back and with that stamp I was officially back in Canada again! Wahoo! I waited 45 minutes for my bag which was annoying as it meant I missed my pre-booked bus to the hotel. Halifax airport is a 45 minute drive away from the city itself so with this being 10pm at night in Canada the only way is via a taxi or a cheaper pre-booked bus. As I always plan for delays I had booked the last bus out at 11pm just in case there was a delay.
While waiting for said bus along with a few passengers the man at the ticket office comes out and asks “Does anybody speak French?” Odd question and I didn’t raise my hand. Whatever his issue was I doubt my C in GCSE French was going to be much good. I can count to 10, order a Cheese and Ham baguette and tell them about my weekends going to the bibliothèque but I don’t think that would help much. A woman however bravely said “I do…a little but I mean a little”. The guy produces an old French woman almost out of nowhere, not sure if he could summon her from thin air but she appeared and starts rattling off French and this poor Canadian good Samaritan was trying her best to understand. The older woman was getting irate with this poor girl only understanding parts of it “I think her flight is tomorrow and…something about her daughter…I think!”
That’s it. I couldn’t sit by and let three people struggle nor could my tired brain bare the sound of constant French. This old woman obviously had an issue and not a word of English in her understanding so I thought I would help out, although I kept my poor French to myself. “Sorry to interrupt, I couldn’t help but overhear…I have a translation app, it’s not word for word but it’ll help” I offer to the three of them. They agree and with Google Translation app working pretty well…well the odd word threw me “My daughter is with a chicken”. Maybe she was with a chicken I don’t know but google translated it as such. The bottom of the story was her flight was delayed so she missed her connection to the French Island of Saint-Pierre to visit her daughter and the next flight was tomorrow morning so she needed a hotel to stay in but all the airport hotels were full. The Canadian lady and myself searched online to find suitable and relatively cheap hotels. We left some numbers with the ticket guy as before long we had to board the bus. The Canadian lady stayed behind a little longer to use her broken French to make sure she knew what she had to do. While driving through the dead of night the Canadian lady phones her partner about the events “You’ll never believe what’s just happened. I haven’t used French for ages and I had to use it to help some old woman. Me and some nice British guy helped her”. I’m not sure if she knew I was on the bus or not but being described as a nice British guy is a nice way to start your trip in Canada. The bus dropped her off at the main train station after a 45 minute motorway trip, she catches my eye and thanks me again for helping out. “Not a problem my dear” I reply. “Thanks again, I love your accent”. I wouldn’t get tired of women saying that to me over here on this trip!
I was the last one on the minibus and I finally arrived at my hotel at 12 a.m. and I had been awake for 23 hours. I was shattered. The check-in was quick, the hotel and room was huge, I got a shower and then it was straight to bed. What a way to start a new location. The hotel in question was the 4 star Hampton Inn by Hilton in Halifax Downtown and cost me £232 for two nights.
By time morning came I was already up at 6.30 a.m. with my body still 4 hours ahead on Icelandic time. After a shower I went down for breakfast, packed my gear and off I went to explore the city of Halifax on foot. I only had a day here so I had planned to walk around the city in the morning and then I had booked to go on a tour to Peggy’s cove, the most photographed lighthouse in the world in the afternoon. The air was cool and crisp but at least it was sunny. I took a walk down to the waterfront which fun fact for you is the second largest ice-free harbour in the world, only Sydney is larger.
I was tired and needed coffee so headed to Tim Hortons Canada’s favourite coffee house. In my last blog I wrote about the whole drip/filter vs Espresso. Don’t get me wrong it’s nice but it’s not a patch on European coffee. I bought myself a cup of Dark roast which is a new blend by Tim Hortons which is their strongest blend and tries to somewhat emulate an espresso. Nowhere near but it was good enough and I loved the cups!
I walked along the waterfront where it was peaceful and quiet, I watched a warship head out, a cruise ship arrive, I sat on a hammock and finished my coffee while the hum of traffic and the city skyscrapers loomed behind me. Again and not for the first time on this trip the city had a lovely vibe about it. Even walking through the concrete canyon of downtown Halifax felt laid back and chilled, despite its very steep hills at times. As usual I found myself walking up the highest point of the city Citadel hill to which Fort George stood. With this being Canada’s 150th birthday pretty much all of these attractions were free. I walked inside and wow what a place for free! From old guards, to one of the best military museums I have ever had the pleasure to walk through including a live cannon salute. One thing I had noticed is British Union flags all over the place along with the Scottish flag and a lot of people walking around in kilts. Halifax has such a close tie to Scotland (it sits within the province of Nova Scotia which translates to New Scotland) and the UK and actually a very strong link to Liverpool. This part of the world was the first for UK and Irish settlers to colonise and that history it seems lives strong in this part of the world. It didn’t feel like Canada at all, it felt like an extended part of the UK. It was lovely!
After walking around there and enjoying the views, I headed back into the city for my tour to Peggy’s cove. It was a five hour tour for what worked out as about £25. Bargain. I got on a giant Greyhound style bus and our tour guide was a very funny and full of puns old guy who loved his job. While boarding the bus he asked everyone’s name and where they came from. “Hi, Tony and Liverpool, England”….”Ah you know John then?” … “As in the Beatle who’s been dead for years? Yeah really well…good mates”. He laughed and so did the others behind me “Oh you Brits and your wit” he remarks with a laugh. I wasn’t trying to be witty I was being sarcastic as I was fed up of people asking if I knew the Beatles personally or the Queen! The drive out of the city for 50 minutes to Peggy’s cove was truly stunning and it did make me wish I could hire a car to explore more of it. There are so many lakes and rivers and forests in this part of the world, I’m sure he said there are 2000 fresh water lakes here alone! Cities are great but to me it’s always about the countryside and the wilderness. I passed so many lakes and tiny fishing ports that would have been so good to explore.
We arrived at Peggy’s cove. Just stunning. A typical Nova Scotia village. I was in love. I walked along the sea rocks, snapped away at the Lighthouse (I think going early morning would be best if you want to visit it without the hordes of tourists though) and I just sat, listening to the waves crash on the rocks by my feet, the blue waters meeting the blue sky. Amazing place to visit and I can see why this location is so highly photographed. You really should go!
The 50 minute drive back went a different way and was full of again, jaw-dropping scenery and full of funny stories and information from our tour guide. By time I got back to Halifax it was close to 4 p.m. There are a lot of Irish bars and pubs and on TripAdvisor this was the best in town so I popped in for a Bushmills Whiskey (my second favourite Irish dram after Tulamore) and tried their Fish and Chips. Seafood is huge on this coast and I thought I’d try Fish and Chips in every location to see who wins the battle of the best one. Even their best was not a patch on good old British chip shop Fish and Chips but this one wasn’t bad. It came second on my top 3 list this trip!
I walked back up the hill to watch the sunset, walked another 4 miles around the city at night before calling it quits to come back to my hotel just before 8pm. I was short on sleep, I had walked 13 miles around the city and the delights of Peggy’s cove so before I knew it I was out like a light. Tomorrow I would catch a 2hr 30 minute flight up to the frozen north of St. John’s for three nights.
I would have liked in hindsight to stay an extra day in Halifax. Halifax is a wonderful city and while it’s small it has a rich history, especially a maritime one. There were so many museums I would have loved to have visited, especially the Pier 11 immigration one and the transport musuem but just didn’t have the time. Halifax waterfront is one of the best waterfronts I have ever seen in a city and that’s coming from someone who lives in Liverpool! They have really developed this amazing board walk around the waterfront and the trail is superb. I think Liverpool could certainly take a leaf out of their books! The city itself however is pretty generic high rise concrete canyon North American city. The city itself certainly lacked the quirky charms of my next two locations St. John’s and Charlottetown but it was nice to see a lot of brickwork highrise rather than the steal ones. What it lacked in character certainly made up for in its surroundings. A drive in this place outside of the city is breath taking and that drive and walk around Peggy’s cove is an absolute bucket list must! Stunning scenery and every picture is postcard or magazine worthy. I would definitely hire a car and explore around this place for an extra day or two if I had the time, however the tour for £25 was very good value for money! Peggy’s Cove is as beautiful in real life as it looks in pictures and I would love to get a sunset or a sunrise picture there.
I was glad I decided to make this my first stop back in Canada and my tour of the Atlantic coast. I had fully enjoyed my day in this city and I was super excited to head north to St. John’s, a place I’d wanted to visit for ages!