HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA – The Ocean, our overnight VIA Rail train from Montreal, pulls into Halifax, a charming, hilly city that recalls British rule at the Citadel, where visitors can watch costumed soldiers fire off canons over the harbor.
I find modern Halifax very walkable, with a hip waterfront of shops and cafes and elsewhere a mix of architecture, like the lovely Georgian- style Government House on Barrington Street and Victorians painted in riotous colors.
Speaking of history, our comfortable bed and breakfast, The Halliburton, was completed in 1823 as the home of Sir Brenton Halliburton, an early chief justice of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court. Inside, of course, there is every modern convenience.
Halifax has many eateries, including a rather rousing place we discover called Durty Nelly’s – an Irish pub built in Ireland and assembled in Halifax.
It’s also fun to visit the busy Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market, where local produce, baked goods and cheeses are for sale.
The nearby Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 has a special meaning for me because Halifax is where my late father stepped off the SS Asia, the boat that took him from Eastern Europe to Canada in 1924.
At Pier 21, I find his entry declaration, with race or people listed as “Hebrew” and religion as “Mosaic.”
The declaration also notes that he arrived in Canada with $5 and that his voyage was paid for by the Jewish Colonization Association.
There is also a history of the SS Asia itself, including its unfortunate demise: in 1930, while carrying pilgrims to Mecca, it was destroyed by fire in the Red Sea.
Outside Pier 21, an old Canadian rail car that immigrants took to other parts of Canada is still standing, and I wonder if it is the same one that my father took to Montreal, his final destination.
About 2,000 Jews make Halifax their home today, according to Jon Goldberg, executive director of the Atlantic Jewish Council, which covers Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island.
Halifax has three synagogues – the Orthodox Beth Israel in a leafy neighborhood near Dalhousie University, the Conservative Sha’arei Shalom, and Chabad.
Nova Scotia continues to host Camp Kadima, one of Canada’s largest Jewish summer camps, now in its 72nd year.
“It has been a place where many of the Maritime Jewish youth have spent the summers,” says Goldberg.
“That’s where many of us were inculcated with our love and knowledge of Israel.”
Even before the advent of Taglit-Birthright, notes Goldberg, by the time “our children got to college, at least 90 percent had already been to Israel at least once.”
Later, at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, things take a somber turn with the story of the Titanic, which went down off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1912. Many victims were buried in Halifax, including a number of Jews laid to rest in the Baron de Hirsch cemetery.
While it may come as a surprise to some, Nova Scotia has a wine country about an hour away from Halifax to the north in the pretty Annapolis Valley.
At Gaspereau Vineyards, where it could be any sunny day in the Napa Valley, I meet wine consultant Jonathan Rodwell.
“There’s a great deal of experimentation going on here,” Rodwell notes. “It’s very interesting because it expands the whole world of wine, as it should.”
Domaine de Grand Pre is where Hanspeter Stutz, originally of Switzerland, operates Atlantic Canada’s oldest winery and its popular Le Caveau Restaurant with his family.
The winery’s Tidal Bay, Nova Scotia’s white appellation wine, was tasted by Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, during their royal visit to Halifax this year.
Our final stop is Luckett Vineyards, owned by Pete Luckett, a jovial Brit from Nottingham, whose Crush Pad Bistro serves a lovely vegetarian panini.
While on the patio, something catches my eye: a red phone box from Nottingham, planted right in the middle of the vineyards! Luckett has “an arrangement with our Canadian telephone company, where we have toll-free calls anywhere in North America.”
“It’s all a part of making people smile when they come here,” Luckett says. “So we’re not just selling wine – we’re in the ‘feeling good’ business.”
The origin of Nova Scotia winemaking has a California connection in the person of Roger Dial, who moved to Nova Scotia from Northern California in 1969 to teach at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Dial, who had made wine in Northern California, began to realize that the Annapolis Valley “was potentially a great place to grow wine grapes.” In 1979 he purchased a 2-hectare (5-acre) vineyard, which he named Grand Pre Vineyards; Stutz purchased the winery in the early 1990’s, renaming it Domaine de Grand Pre.
“The quality of Nova Scotia wine is just out of this world,” says Dial, “on a par with some of the very best… anywhere.”
During our visit, we stay at the comfortable Old Orchard Inn in the charming little town of Wolfville, home to Acadia University.
If you come all the way to Nova Scotia, it’s nice to include a visit to Prince Edward Island (PEI), only about an hour and 20 minutes away by Northumberland ferry from Pictou.
And this year, PEI marks the 150th anniversary of meetings that led to Canadian Confederation.
About 80 Jews live on PEI, according to Leo Mednick, president of the PEI Jewish community. Life here is “a lot lower-key,” he says, though for those seeking more activity there is plenty to do, like golf, the arts and good theater.
While the community is without a synagogue or rabbi, it does organize High Holy Day services. There are occasional Shabbat gatherings and social events during the year.
The secretary of the Jewish community, Leslee Sack, worked as a New York City travel agent before moving to PEI. “I am the PEI ‘poster child,’” she explains. “As PEI is the only Canadian province without a synagogue or rabbi, we boast an eclectic group of Jews who come together to celebrate what we have in common as Jews: food, children and laughter.”
And why did Sack settle there? “Having worked across from the World Trade Center [in New York City],” she recalls, “I wanted to go somewhere a bit more…laid-back.”
When she got to PEI, her feelings about the island were very positive.
“It was almost like the first time I went to Israel – I felt at home,” she says. From the historic Rodd Charlottetown Hotel, we join a young woman in 19th-century costume and walk to historic Province House, where delegates from Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and PEI held Confederation meetings.
We also walk along Queen Street and visit Victoria Row, a small street mall filled with shops and cafes. The nearby Sims Corner Steakhouse and Oyster Bar, housed in an old heritage building, is the perfect place for dinner, like our herb-crusted PEI halibut in chipotle cream.
One morning we drive to PEI National Park on the northern coast, but unfortunately I make a wrong turn, so I drive up to a farmhouse for directions, where a barking dog alerts the owner.
“I’m lost,” I say, but the friendly fellow reassures me: “You’re never lost,” and gets us going the right way.
At Cavendish Beach, we are greeted by beautiful white sand and red sandstone cliffs that make it one of the most popular beaches in Canada.
Above the beach, a wooden pathway snakes through lovely lupines growing in the tall grass.
Another highlight of Cavendish is Green Gables Heritage Place, the site of the charming white farmhouse with green trim that inspired Lucy Maud Montgomery’s famous novel, Anne of Green Gables. Readers throughout the world have been captivated by Montgomery’s story, and the farmhouse remains one of PEI’s most popular destinations.
A tasty stop is on the way back to Charlottetown, at the PEI Preserve Company next to a sleepy meadow in New Glasgow. If you like preserves, this place is heaven – with sample after sample to taste, like blackcurrant rhubarb, raspberry with champagne, and wild blueberry and lemon.
From Charlottetown, we return to Halifax via the narrow, 12.8-km. Confederation Bridge.