Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 10, 2017
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A weekend in Halifax

The town that has it all -- history, culture, fun, food, shopping, great people and the world's best second-hand bookstore

Sometimes my job is just too easy. Especially when it comes to picking my favourite Canadian long-weekend getaway city. Oh, there are close seconds. St. John’s, Newfoundland can be too much fun (leaving you to pay for that hazy, long weekend for much of the following week); Yellowknife rocks but is a bit far; and I already live in Montreal.

So, for me, Halifax is the near-perfect place for a quickie vacation. It has it all — history, culture, fun, food, shopping, warmth (the people, if not always the climate) and just about the best second-hand bookstore I have ever had the pleasure of bankrupting myself in.

Here is my personal guide to how to turn three days into a month’s worth of water-cooler bragging rights.


Where can I learn some Halifacts?

Halifax is one of Canada’s oldest cities and it has the museums to prove it.

Citadel National Historic Site Halifax (tel: 902-426-5080; www.pc.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/ns/halifax/index_e.asp) was officially founded in 1749 as a British naval base. One of the remnants of that is the Citadel, a fabulous, unusual, 19th-century star-shaped fortress. Costumed interpreters take you through life in a colonial outpost in a surprisingly unhokey way, with nary a “ye olde” uttered.

Fittingly for a city founded on seafaring, the Maritime Museum (tel: 902-424-7490; www.museum.gov.ns.ca/mma/) is one of the largest in the country. And it is not all naval gazing. There is everything from the only intact deck chair from the Titanic (rescue operations centred around Halifax) to relics of the 1917 Halifax Explosion (one of the biggest man-made blasts pre-Hiroshima) to the original sets from the kiddie show Theodore Tugboat (so that is where it ended up).

If you are arriving in Halifax for the first time, you are joining a long tradition. From 1928 until as late as 1971, more than one million immigrants first set foot in Canada on Pier 21 (tel: 902-425-7770; www.pier21.ca), the nation’s main “immigration shed.” They included 28,000 war brides, 3000 British “guest children” (sent away from home in case of Nazi invasion), and thousands of refugees. During the Second World War, nearly half a million soldiers left for battle from the same pier.

This home of first hopes and last goodbyes was restored by a devoted band of volunteers who raised more than $10 million to create a place that would evoke the powerful emotions of the immigrant experience and save “our national historic soul.” They succeeded. Pier 21 is one of those rare, authentic, lump-in-throat experiences that makes you feel a part of a greater whole.


Can I have some fun now?

Halifax has a relatively small population — about 350,000 in the greater metro area — but considering that a big chunk of those residents are university students, sailors and employees of Salter Street Films (producers of, among many others, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Made In Canada, Emily of New Moon), it’s no surprise this is a good town for a wee bit of, er, socializing.

Haligonians are laid back and chatty, the live music is great (and not all Celtic) and most of the best places are within walking — or staggering — distance of each other.

In the universe of Halifax nightlife, the Economy Shoe Shop Café & Bar (1663 Argyle Street; tel: 902-423-7463) acts like a black hole. If you are anywhere nearby, you will have to fight hard to avoid being sucked into the sprawling, trendy, yet oddly comfy complex of restaurants and bars. Give in, enjoy, do some star-spotting. Even big-time film folk, in town to film in Hollywood North-East cannot resist. Given the place’s buildup, it still manages to be accessible and friendly.

Apart from having great names, The Thirsty Duck (5472 Spring Garden Road; tel: 902-422-1548), Your Father’s Mustache (5686 Spring Garden Road; tel: 902-423-6766; www.yourfathersmoustache.ca) and The Split Crow (1855 Granville Street; tel: 902-422-4366; www.splitcrow.com) are all home to great live music, good beer and, occasionally, good food. The first two are bellowing distance from each other on Spring Garden Road, and The Spilt Crow, while no longer in the original building, is one of the oldest bars in Canada, having been granted a license in 1749, coincidentally the same year the city was established as a naval base. Go figure.


Any shows that don’t involve Rick Mercer?

In the 17th century, the Dutch version of “last call” involved drummers banging their way through villages to let soldiers know it was time to return to the barracks, and to tell innkeepers to “doe den tap tow” or “turn off the taps.” A combination of alcohol and time morphed doe den tap tow into “tap toe” and, eventually, into “tattoo.” And so, the Military Tattoo was born.

Today, a tattoo means revelry of a more sober, but just as fun sort. The legendary, world-class, Nova Scotia International Tattoo (tel: 902-451-1221; www.nstattoo.ca) hosted annually in Halifax (this year, from June 29 to July 7) is, according to organizers, “the world’s largest annual indoor theatre production.” Military and civilian performers from around the globe break out in a showcase of music, dance, gymnastics, comedy, military displays and just about anything else, including, one memorable year, The Motorcycle Display Team of the Berlin Police Force.


After all that, I need some quiet

What I like best about Halifax is not the fun, the food, or even the Berlin Police Motorcycle Display Team. It is the bookstores. Because Halifax has been at the centre of shipping, immigration and education for so long, there has been time for an astounding array of second-hand and independent bookstores to build up stock.

Canada’s oldest bookstore, The Book Room (Barrington Gate, 1546 Barrington Street; tel: 800-387-BOOK; www.bookroom.ca) was established in 1839 as the Wesleyan Book Room (note that it only took 90 years from the time of the first pub to the first bookstore). Proudly independent, the Book Room now hosts all sorts of bookish events such as author readings. It has mostly new books and a very good section on local authors.

John W. Doull, Bookseller (1684 Barrington Street; tel: 902-429-1652; www.doullbooks.com) is one of those magical places that is such an extension of the owner that, just by walking in, you enter right into his mind. The owner is more an indulgent zookeeper than a meticulous bookseller, letting his stock run wild to colonize every nook and cranny. This is the sort of place where furniture, walls and stacks of books meld into each other. Take an antihistamine for the dust and give yourself lots of time.

Yes, sometimes my job is just way too easy — once I have figured out how to lug all my new books home.

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