My son spreads a blanket on the fresh grass in the “Family Picnic” area of the Public Gardens in downtown Halifax. His girlfriend, my wife and my daughter join me to spread out a feast of meats, cheeses, vegetables and dips, much of it from the Halifax Seaport Farmers Market on the waterfront. Magnolias are flowering here and there like feathers bursting from pillow fights. It’s spring on Spring Garden Road. The trees towering overhead are just leafing out, the flower beds are bright with colour, the classic fountains are cleaned and ready to turn on for the season. New parents are pushing strollers, kids are balancing cones of ice cream and couples of all ages are walking hand in hand along the meandering pathways of this oasis in the middle of the city.
When travellers think of Canada’s Maritime Provinces, they might picture rugged coastlines, sprawling forests, fishing villages and verdant farms. Fair enough. The Maritimes is all that. But to limit an adventurer’s imagination to rural landscapes is to risk missing out on the rewards of exploring the region’s best-known cities – Halifax, Moncton, Fredericton, Saint John, Summerside, Charlottetown and Sydney. As cities go, these are all relatively small, but they’re also rich in histories that have shaped their modern identities and provide travellers with unique urban experiences.
Right photo courtesy of Tourism Nova Scotia by Destination Canada
After our picnic in these historic Victorian gardens – created in 1867, the year Canada was born – our son suggests we walk Spring Garden Road to The World Tea House on Argyle Street, located on a newly renovated pedestrian-friendly downtown block. Spring Garden Road is the Maritimes’ busiest street – we pass bump-out sidewalk extensions that provide restaurant seating and waiting areas for bus stops. We also pass some of our favourite new Halifax landmarks – Pete’s Fine Foods that stocks quality, often rare produce and other goods like cape gooseberry, ugli fruit and cherimoyas from around the world, the Lemon Tree Restaurant for inexpensive and authentic Turkish cuisine and the Halifax Central Library that looks like stacked glass boxes.
At the World Tea House, owner Phil Holmans greets my son like an old friend. This isn’t far off the mark because my son is possibly the Teahouse’s most regular and knowledgeable customer. He orders three pots of tea from different parts of the world and we settle at a table beside a window with a view of Neptune Theatre across the street. Holmans serves our tea in glass pots accompanied by timers, small silver strainers, clear glass cups and interpretations of the varieties selected by my son. We sample and sip. Conversation flows as easily and sociably as, well, tea.
Just a block away from the Teahouse are two centrally-located hotels, the Prince George and Cambridge Suites Halifax. Both have views of historic Citadel Hill in one direction and the harbour in the other. At Cambridge Suites, guests and the friendly staff mingle for a free happy hour every Wednesday. At the Prince George, there’s an exterior patio, a pool with a giant half-circle window as long as the pool itself and a restaurant – Gio – that’s well known as one of the city’s finest.
Photos courtesy of Tourism New Brunswick
Taking in a show at the 800-seat Capitol Theatre is like feeling the beating heart of Moncton, the city known as the hub of the Maritimes. The restored and opulent theatre with private balconies, orchestra pit and decorated ceiling reminds me of its roots as a top 1920’s Vaudeville-era venue when a ticket cost just five cents. The splendour of the room is half the fun at the Capitol.
Outside the Capitol on Main Street, the stretch from Foundry Square to Assomption Boulevard is Moncton’s city centre where cafés, shops, hotels and pubs are concentrated. As I walk along the main drag, I catch an enticing whiff of barbecue in the air, which leads me to the Tide and Boar Bistro. Their smoker runs year round out back. I sit down for a craft beer and order one of their burgers made with local beef brisket and topped with house-made bacon and ketchup, caramelized onion and aged cheddar. After tucking into such hearty fare, it’s time for a stretch in Riverfront Park with trails along the quiet Petitcodiac River.
The beauty of small cities is that almost everything is within walking distance. The new boutique St. James Gate Hotel, for example, is two blocks away. Its nine rooms are super comfortable with soaker tubs and great views. I head back to the Delta Beausejour where there’s a view of Riverfront Park from my room, but also from the eighth-floor lounge where I sip a nightcap.
Photos courtesy of Tourism New Brunswick
It’s the spirit of Fredericton that makes it feel urban. New Brunswick’s capital city just knows how to throw a party. No matter what the time of year, Fredericton’s small downtown beside the Saint John River is hopping. A lot of that fun takes place in the two-block Historic Garrison District at the river’s edge where most regular activities are free for adults as well as kids. At the heart of this district is Officer’s Square where military ceremonies still take place daily in summer at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Two blocks upriver is the Soldiers’ Barracks, today home to a great little arts and crafts store, as well as a small exhibit about the daily lives of enlisted men over 200 years ago. In this district, the solid stone buildings, wrought iron fences and open spaces harken back to the city’s history as a garrison town along the river. Today they provide a window into the past and a central place for many of Fredericton’s festivals.
For a choice of eats, there’s no better place than the historic Boyce Farmers Market. Just three blocks inland from the historic district, the market spills from the building at the corner of George and Regent Streets into the parking lot where food trucks, meat smokers, hot food stalls, florists and dessert makers form a gauntlet where I always give in to temptation. Inside, the choices are even more varied. I grab a couple of spicy Indian samosas and munch on them as I browse the aisles. All told, some 250 vendors hawk their produce, crafts and take away foods at this buzzing marketplace.
Accommodation options in Fredericton are nearly as varied as the vendors at Boyce. At the elegant Queen Anne-style four-star Carriage House B&B, immaculate gardens and ornate exterior hint at the vintage charm and modern comforts inside. Also downtown is the Crowne Plaza Hotel beside the historic and newly renovated Beaverbrook Art Gallery. It overlooks the river and has a top-notch craft local beer bar, the James Joyce Pub. Fredericton’s craft beer scene is the most dynamic in the Maritimes. One of my favourite Fredericton moments is entering the Crowne Plaza lobby to find their wide double staircase over which hang magnificent matching chandeliers. This hotel is the very definition of Fredericton, a historic city with a touch of class that’s not afraid to let its hair down.
Photos courtesy of Tourism New Brunswick
As New Brunswick’s largest city and the only city on the Bay of Fundy, Saint John is above all a working seaport. It’s where the ferry from Nova Scotia docks, where cruise ships visit and where goods are shipped. Overlooking all this marine activity is what locals call “uptown” Saint John, a five-block by five block harbourside urban core that’s chock-full of excellent restaurants, fun family attractions and hip night spots in a setting steeped in history. The brick and stone buildings and facades make for rewarding exploring by foot.
Inside Port City Royal, one of my favourite Saint John restaurants, the walls and ceilings are stripped to bare brick and wood, then furnished in a chic urban style. The menu changes daily according to what’s fresh and in season. On this particular visit, I tuck into the best lobster roll I’ve ever tasted, and that’s saying something in the Maritimes. There’s a hint of mint to punctuate the sweet lobster flavour.
After lunch, I walk over to the surprisingly large and engaging New Brunswick Museum in Market Square. Curious visitors of every age point excitedly at the Fundy Tidal Tower, a 13-metre high cylinder filled with water that drops and rises with the tides outside. Whale skeletons and replicas of the living giants hang from the ceiling. For the technically minded, there’s a massive collection of skeletons of another kind – models of ship frames used in the once-booming shipbuilding industry.
It’s now late afternoon. Outside, the Bay of Fundy fog has crept into the streets and shrouded these historic buildings in mystery, making for a truly Maritime atmosphere. The air is sea-fresh and my hair is damp. I duck into Big Tide Brewing Company for a pint and find myself so enamoured with the cozy brewpub, I order dinner and another pint. After dinner, it’s a short walk to my room at the Hilton Saint John. There’s no hotel closer to the harbour and uptown than the Hilton. Indoor walkways lead to the museum and beyond. Near the other end of “uptown” is the elegant Mahogany Manor B&B, which mixes Queen Anne style with craftsman style elegance. Breakfast in this lovingly restored house is as decadent as the decor.
©Tourism PEI / Left: Stephen Harris/ Right: John Sylvester
Although the smallest of the Maritimes’ top seven cities, Summerside nonetheless has its sophisticated side beginning with the Harbourfront Theatre located exactly where the name suggests. Here’s where locals and visitors catch the hottest Canadian and international musicians, comedians and theatre troupes like Shaun Majumder, Natalie MacMaster and Buffy Sainte-Marie.
Before a show at the Harbourfront, I like to stroll the Baywalk – the city’s attractive harbourside boardwalk – for its great views over Bedeque Bay. A trail continues well beyond the boardwalk, a total of 6.5 kilometres. The Baywalk is a gathering place, especially on weekends, as is the local farmer’s market within sight of it. Here, the vendors are super friendly and always ready with a warm greeting and a funny line.
It’s a short drive from Harbourfront, but for anyone crazy about airplanes, a visit to Airforce Heritage Park in Slemon Park is worth getting in the car. Kids and grownups alike will enjoy being up close to the three historical aircraft and browsing the interpretive displays. Bonus – admission is free.
The elegant Warn House B&B is a great choice of Summerside accommodations next to a refreshing green space on Central Street. Co-owner Gerry Gill is a professional chef, so breakfasts are as fine as the four-star rooms and the surrounding gardens. Another excellent B&B is a short drive from Summerside’s waterfront. Friendly sheep and goats greet visitors at 100-acre Willowgreen Farm.
© Tourism PEI / Left: John Sylvester/ Right: Heather Ogg
I’m poking through racks of funky clothing for gifts at My Little Stash, a fun shop in one of the colourful new buildings reminiscent of traditional fishing shacks at Peake’s Quay on Charlottetown’s waterfront. Sailboats and tour boats, including a real Hong Kong junk painted red, are tied up at the quay. I head to the Cow’s for island-made ice cream once named the best in Canada. Outside, I linger at the bronze life-size sculpture of William Henry Pope, one of the fathers of Canadian Confederation, seated on the frame of a small boat and holding out his hand in welcome as he did in 1864 as delegates arrived for the Charlottetown Conference that led to the founding of the country.
For such a small city, Charlottetown is blessed with a surprisingly large and bustling downtown that spreads from Peake’s Quay along the harbour and many blocks inland. That’s partly because it’s the seat of provincial government and the centre of the island’s thriving arts scene. With so much activity across such a wide swath of the city, dining choices abound. Lobster is prepared in more ways than most diners at Lobster on the Wharf ever thought possible. Many popular local pubs serve up seafood of all sorts. Claddagh Oyster House even has an oyster happy hour. Gahan House is Charlottetown’s original brewpub where seafood is best paired with house brews.
Choosing accommodations in Charlottetown is as difficult as settling on a place to eat. As an example of how broad the range is, compare the Holman Grand and the Great George. The Holman sits smack in the middle of downtown across from the Confederation Centre for the Arts, the hub of island culture. Walking into the lobby of the Holman and looking up into the soaring seven-storey atrium, then checking out the waterfall pool, you might think you’re in a much larger city. About three blocks towards the harbour is the boutique Great George, a string of attractive Victorian buildings with luxuriously renovated rooms – each one unique – and a most welcoming atmosphere. There are complimentary cookies for kids and a drink for adults in the cozy lobby – decisions, decisions.
I’m not a believer in ghosts, but the candlelight tour of Sydney’s Cossit House Museum with curtains drawn and doors closed, even in the middle of the day, raises the hairs on my neck. An interpreter weaves the tale of Reverend Ranna Cossit (the region’s first Anglican minister), his wife Thankful and their family. Thankful died giving birth to her thirteenth child in 1802. Floors creak, sounds that might be footsteps fall overhead from the attic and dark corners flicker into the candlelight as we tour the rooms. I make sure to keep up with the small group ahead of me.
Built in 1787, Cossit is Sydney’s oldest house. A few doors down on Charlotte Street, the Jost Heritage House built in the same year comes a close second. There’s an old apothecary here to explore. Not far away is Cape Breton’s first Roman Catholic Church, St. Patrick’s, a handsome stone building that dates from 1828. A small museum tells the island’s religious history. These and other sites make up the heart of the North-End Heritage Conservation District in Sydney.
After all this history and spookiness, it’s a relief to turn toward the harbour and find Sydney’s modern, bright Visitor Information Centre and beside it a sculpture of a fiddle, the world’s largest. Just a couple minutes walk along Waterfront Boardwalk is the Holiday Inn Sydney and just beyond that is my ghost-free room in the Cambridge Suites. Both hotels overlook the harbour. It’s a beautiful evening, so I head to the rooftop patio for a grand view of the sunset, capping off another rewarding day in one of the Maritimes’ historic cities.
Feature photo © Tourism PEI / Emily O’Brien