Food Feature: Titanic proportions
The sprawling Canadian port city of Halifax is constructed around a large natural seaport, largely unaffected by winter ice. Cruise ships and cargo vessels drift beneath its massive steel bridges in what resembles an exaggerated version of Savannah's harbor. You quickly realize you're in another country, however, when you stop for gas and notice the Lay's potato chips on the rack inside the station are in flavors such as "Nature" and "Ketchup."
Literally towering over the city is the Citadel, a sprawling masonry construction dating from 1856. Its ramparts bristle with huge black iron cannons. Originally conceived for defense against attacks from the U.S., the Citadel was finally demilitarized in 1906. That may have been a bit premature, though, as today it's completely surrounded by invaders including Blockbuster Video, Staples, Domino's, Budget Rent-a-Car, T.G.I. Friday's and H&R Block.
I arrived a bit too late to experience the "Noon Gun," a local tradition in which a cannon is fired from the Citadel's battlements at midday, but there was plenty of gunpowder fun as the 78th Highlanders took a break from their bagpipes to demonstrate their 18th Century muskets. This firepower presentation occurred down inside the walls, where sound reverberated loud enough to cause cardiac arrest in a bull moose.
Any fantasy I had about burning premium Cuban cigars up here, where they're legal, quickly dissolved like smoke in an ocean wind when I discovered how much they cost. A single Cohiba sold — in the legitimate storefront humidors — for $55. Sure, that's in Canadian money, but after the favorable rate of exchange, add 15 percent Canadian tax, and that one cigar is gonna cost over 43 "Yankee" dollars.
Fortunately beer was cheaper. I wound up at the Split Crow Pub, a picturesque watering hole where a cheerful barkeep named Scott proudly served up some especially nice local microbrews, including the ruby colored Rafter Red Ale and the dark, hearty Garrison Brown.
On Scott's advice, I sauntered down the hill to Historic Properties at the waterfront, where 19th century privateers' warehouses have been transformed into boutiques and restaurants. Amid the beautiful varnished wood food court, aromas of pizza dough and spices were overwhelming. It was the seafood on ice at Capt. John's, however, which proved irresistible. Though I'm an eager devotee of all types of fish, I concede that fish markets are less than pleasant places to inhale. Against all logic, Capt. John's trays of Atlantic salmon fillets, Little Neck clams, smoked mackerel, fresh sole, local tuna and other treats all smelled wonderful.
Better still, John Shippey's Brewing Co. stood just a few yards away. The pride of their foamy fleet was White Star Stout, with a bubbly brown head and a rich hearty body. It was without question the best beer I found in all of Canada.
Equipped with a frothy pint of stout and a steaming plate of clams, I wandered to the tables outside to bask in the bright sunshine at the pier. Sailboats drifted by on the water while seagulls circled overhead, hungrily awaiting any potential leftovers. Step away from the table to refill your glass and you return to a scene from a Hitchcock movie.
Operators of the ferry to the opposite shore frighten away unwanted birds with plastic owls positioned above the loading ramps. However, it was well worth spending a little more money to ride in the Harbour Hopper, an amphibious military vehicle decorated with frog graphics. It even had a "ribbet" horn. Loaded with tourists, the Hopper circled the city and then plunged into the water, while the host — a born comedienne named Lisa — delivered amusing tour-guide banter and saucy one-liners.
The Hopper let me out alongside the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, where the featured attraction was an extensive Titanic collection, including an original deck chair, cabinet and pieces of ornately carved wood from the doomed ship's dining hall and smoking lounge. Titanic's survivors were taken to New York (their original destination), but the bodies of the less fortunate were transported to Halifax, where many of them still remain. Late in the afternoon I visited one of the "Titanic cemeteries," selecting Fairview Lawn because it appeared easy to find (it wasn't).
The centerpiece of Fairview's Titanic plot is a simple stone belonging to Victim #227, "J. Dawson" of the ship's crew. Because his first initial and surname match those of the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the recent movie, Dawson's grave was once a shrine for sobbing teenage girls. Now, however, the accumulated pile of rotting and faded plastic flowers proves waning interest in the waterlogged epic.
Nearby stood the grave of Emily Andrews, "killed by the Explosion, Dec. 6, 1917." To the locals, no further explanation is necessary. The Explosion shook the city to its foundation on that awful December morning when a burning ship, loaded to capacity with ammunition for WWI, drifted to the dock. What followed was the largest known detonation in the Northern Hemisphere. In seconds, city blocks were leveled. Literally thousands lay dead or dying.
The Maritime Museum features an entire room devoted to the Halifax Explosion. Among the impressive artifacts and interactive displays is a little metal clock, distorted like a Dali painting, its hands forever frozen at the instant of the blast.
Such a sobering image compels a man to drink, and I concluded my tour with a stop at the Warehouse restaurant near the museum. There, under the influence of Garrison Brown Ale, I boldly ordered something called Planked Salmon, an authentic dish of the regional Micmac Indians. It came cooked on a small cedar plank, the scaly skin adhering to the wood while the moist, succulent meat flaked off on my fork. It was absolutely divine, and I vowed to try the technique on my own grill.
I can hardly wait to see the looks on their faces at Home Depot, when I tell them what the cedar's for.