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Trip Report Halifax in June: A Trip Report

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With a ton of vacation time left, and the time to use it running out, I looked around for places to go. London? Chicago? Las Vegas? It occurred to me that while I had been to all of these places more than once, I had never been to Halifax, Nova Scotia, which is in my own country, even though I had heard good reviews. My next thought was that I should correct this oversight, and get myself to the Maritimes. Mum hadn’t been either, and was game to join me, so off we went.

The flight on WestJet was great, and fast. Since we had packed only carry-on luggage, we were soon on our way into Halifax via The Airporter (www.airporter.biz) shuttle. It was $21 per person, one way, and the only way to pay is in cash. The shuttle took us right to our hotel, the Delta Halifax. This place is in a great location downtown, has a pool, fitness centre, on-site massage therapy, and a business centre with three workstations that can be accessed by anyone with a room card.

Our room was ready, so we unpacked our stuff, and went off to explore. We were really hungry, and that led us stop at the first place we came to. It was the Lower Deck Pub, in the Historic Properties. It is right on the waterfront, so it’s pretty hopping. You order your drinks from one server, pay immediately, and then some other server comes to take a food order. What we ate did the job, but I wouldn’t go back.

The waterfront in Halifax is one of its main draws, and it’s easy to see why. There are shops, tours, boats (including the naval shipyard), historical monuments, and museums all along it. Plus, the boardwalk is wide, which encourages relaxed strolling. The weather was excellent, so we did lots of strolling. There is a casino, and we popped in for a quick look. Las Vegas it ain’t. It will give you a gambling fix if you need it, though.

Dinner our first night was at The Press Gang (http://www.thepressgang.ca). This restaurant is in one of the oldest original buildings in the city, and it is gorgeous. Big wooden beams, thick stone walls, and a grand piano in the bar area. Speaking of the bar, there is a big list of cocktails, and I really enjoyed the one called Aviation. It had gin, mixed with cherry juice and lemon juice. Just the kind of zingy thing to wake up your tastebuds.

Service at The Press Gang was excellent, and so was the food. One of the most popular options here is something called The Drill, available to two people at a cost of $150. This is a good deal, as individual main dishes push towards $40. It consists of four courses, selected by the chef, and is a survey of the whole menu with small bites of a bunch of stuff. It went like this for us:

1) Seared scallop with foie gras mousse on shredded, teriyaki-braised Brussels sprouts; seafood chowder; and lobster claw wrapped in prosciutto on red cabbage
2) Arugula salad with papaya and Manchego cheese; sweet potato perogy and sweet potato crisp with fig reduction; and braised pork belly on date and fig compote

Intermezzo of cucumber, mint, and melon sorbet. (This was the one misstep; it tasted a bit like grass clippings)

3) Beef tenderloin with mustard crust on parsnip purée; Brome Lake duck breast on cherry sauce, with vegetable terrine; and lamb shank with hazelnut and Dragon’s Breath cheese on rosemary potatoes
4) Shortbread cookies (light as air); lavender crème brûlée; and blueberry panna cotta

For wine we had Mission Hill Five Vineyards Pinot Grigio 2007, which had notes of peach, baked apple, Bosc pear, and nutmeg. It matched very well. I opted for a glass (from the small list) of Errazuriz Cabernet with the meat course, and it did well enough. This was a meal that I will remember for a long time.

In order to work off all the rich food the next day, Mum and I did a tour called Down By The Bay with Great E.A.R.T.H Expeditions (http://www.greatearthexpeditions.com). Our fabulous guide Ryan picked us up at our hotel in the morning, and spent the rest of the day teaching us about his home, and entertaining us with stories about things like his yard sale addiction, and his granny (watch out for her right hook).
At one point I remarked that everywhere I looked was a postcard. No postcard could do some of the sites, and sights, justice; we needed to see them for ourselves, and Ryan was there to help us. We visited Baxter’s Harbour, the Wolfville farmer’s market (great snacks), Hall’s Harbour for lunch on the beach (where Mum and I got the optional lobster package), the Valley Look-Off where you can see the South Mountain Range, Blomidon Provincial Park on the Bay of Fundy, and finally, Muir Murray winery. The whole thing was a blast, and I would recommend this tour company to anyone looking to learn more about the region.

Another great dinner was had at Chives Canadian Bistro (www.chives.ca). In what is apparently a local tradition, the evening at Chives started with buttermilk biscuits being brought to the table in a paper bag, along with butter and molasses. I never did hear about the origins of this, but it was a tasty little starter.
The wine we chose was really interesting. It was Benjamin Bridge Nova 7, and it’s a pale pink colour, with a bit of spritz. It was off-dry, and smelled and tasted like sweet pink grapefruit. It was delicious.
After the biscuits we had organic spinach salad that featured pickled onions, goat cheese, candied pecans, and buttermilk dressing. For a main I had Bourbon BBQ Pork Tenderloin, and Mum had Mediterranean Lamb Shank. Even after all that, I couldn’t resist dessert, so I had the Warm Chocolate Peanut Buster, which is a flourless dark chocolate cake with peanut butter ice cream, toffee and ganache sauces, and candied Virginia peanuts. If you like the taste of a DQ Peanut Buster Parfait, you would like this.

It must be pointed out that Halifax is hilly, so it can take some effort to get up and down, but it’s all worth it. During my post-dinner stroll I hiked up one street, past the Citadel, and came across the Public Garden. I regretted that it was about to be locked for the night. It’s a beautiful spot just to walk around, or to sit and read a book. Beyond the Public Garden is Dalhousie University. There are lots of pretty little streets up here, and it was a great place for a ramble. Given that it’s a university town, there are also lots of bookstores, which made me very happy, as I was able to find a book I had been chasing for some time.

Another thing that should be pointed out about Halifax is that they take the concept of Sunday as the day of rest fairly seriously. For anyone used to finding weekend breakfast or brunch early, outside of a hotel, you can pretty much forget it. We did find Cabin Coffee on Hollis St., though, and it was a good option. It’s a Bell Aliant hot-spot, with lots of cushy chairs, and a reasonable range of food.

One of the main reasons we chose to visit Halifax on the weekend that we did was so that we could attend CATCH: The Nova Scotia Seafood Festival (http://www.novascotiaseafoodfestival.com/), held at the Cunard Centre. $10 got us in, with 2 tasting tickets. You could buy more tickets for a dollar apiece. There was a chef competition, lots of yummy food, and a Nova Scotia Wine Garden.
All the food I ate was really good, and it was fun to try a bit from every exhibitor. If I had to pick some favourites, they would be the roasted garlic smoked salmon from Fisherman’s Market (www.fishermansmarket.com), and the crab cakes with lemon and coconut aioli offered by The Five Fishermen. Among the wines we really enjoyed Annapolis Pinot Gris and Geisenheim Riesling, as well as the Jost Eagle Tree Muscat, and a sparkler called Crescendo from Gaspereau Vineyards (owned by Jost).

During the afternoon I visited the Halifax Citadel, a military fort strategically situated on the hill overlooking the harbour. The tour I took explained some fascinating bits of Canadian history. Halifax was never attacked, and I learned why. The defences were very well planned, and the hilltop position is a difficult one to approach unseen. Getting into the fort cost $11.70, but since I showed up just 2 hours before closing, the attendant signed my receipt, which would allow me to go back the following day. I didn’t, but it’s a sensible, thoughtful gesture.

Inspired by the crab cakes, plus local reputation, we went to The Five Fishermen (www.fivefishermen.com) for dinner that night. With every entree ordered, you get to visit the salad and mussel bar. This reminded me of The Keg way back in the day, but that is not to say we didn’t enjoy it. Everything was fresh and tasty. We ordered the June prix fixe for $40, which was a really good price for all the food we got. I had ginger-glazed local mahi-mahi on jasmine rice cake with preserved lemon and pineapple compote, while Mum opted for the Atlantic salmon with ratatouille and basil risotto. We each had strawberry and lemon curd trifle for dessert.
There is a huge wine list at The Five Fishermen, with lots of Nova Scotia wines to choose from. We drank Gaspereau Vineyards Riesling 2008, that was fresh, clean, and full of citrus notes. We loved it. Service here was spot on, just like everywhere we went. People in Halifax in general were just, well, nice, and eager to help out in whatever way they could.

For our last half day in the city we went to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (www.artgalleryofnovascotia.ca), which cost $12 per person, and offered in-and-out privileges (again, sensible and thoughtful). It was a great place to spend a couple of hours. We had a last lunch at The Wooden Monkey (www.thewoodenmonkey.ca), and it was the perfect finale. Who knew healthy food could taste so good?! :-) I could have married the roasted chickpea salad that I had, along with the glass of Gaspereau Rosé I had with it. I had some Tangy Fish Cakes after the salad, and they were quite tasty. To finish up in style, I went for Chocolate Tofu Pie. Gorgeous.

Once more onto The Airporter shuttle, and our first trip to Halifax was over. It will not be the last.

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