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Halifax, NS

Happy in HALIFAX: That’s an order

Halifax has long known how to have a good time. In 1606, explorer Samuel de Champlain kicked off centuries of Nova Scotia merrymaking when he established L’Ordre de Bon Temps, the Order of the Good Time, to raise the spirits of his men wintering 200 km north of Halifax. The Order is still in existence today, celebrating food, drink and entertainment—all of which Halifax offers in abundance.

Halifax waterfront and boardwalk. Photo courtesy of Destination Halifax.

Focus your quest for good cheer in the compact downtown. On the waterfront, a series of wooden boardwalks and piers wind along Halifax harbour, the second largest natural harbour in the world. Buskers provide toe-tapping, hand-clapping entertainment while food kiosks dish out local fare: fresh-caught fish and chips, Black Bear ice cream and oh-so-Canadian poutine and Beavertails.

Enjoy tales of Halifax’s rich marine heritage at the dockside Maritime Museum of the Atlantic  (maritimemuseum.novascotia.ca). View artifacts both small (a pair of children’s shoes from the Titanic) and large (the steamship CSS Acadia, moored at the museum wharf) as well as an exceptional small craft gallery. If you’re inspired to get out on the water, choose from a variety of harbour cruises including the child-magnet Theodore Tugboat tour (ambassatours.com).

Seaport Farmers' Market (Photo courtesy of Destination Halifax); Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 (Photo courtesy of Canadian Museum of Immigration).

Back on land, stroll south to the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market (halifaxfarmersmarket.com) with its mix of fresh produce, food outlets and local crafts. Just beyond is the highly recommended Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 (pier21.ca) where engaging displays and first-person accounts tell the story of Pier 21, the entry point for one in five immigrants to Canada between 1928 and 1971, as well as the broader immigrant experience. The museum’s research centre is a gold mine for visitors interested in finding records of relatives who stepped off the ships and in to their new lives in Canada via Pier 21.

Raise a glass to those ancestors at Alexander Keith’s Nova Scotia Brewery (alexanderkeithsbrewery.com/tour) where beer has been flowing for almost 200 years. The brewery’s popular tours offer some light history and brewing lore, followed by live music and glasses of beer served in the brewery’s former aging cavern, now the Stag’s Head pub.

Live music at the Seahorse Tavern. Photo courtesy of Scottophoto/Scott Blackburn.

If beer is the social lubricant for Maritime cheer, live music is the soundtrack. Check out who’s playing at the always entertaining (if somewhat claustrophobic) Lower Deck  (lowerdeck.ca) as well as at Split Crow Pub (splitcrow.com), a divey spot that claims to be Nova Scotia’s original tavern. Find the Celtic heart of Halifax at The Old Triangle Irish Alehouse (oldtriangle.com) that features live music seven nights a week and traditional Irish dancing on Sunday afternoons.

Oysters at Gahan House Harbourfront (Photo courtesy of Destination Halifax); Lobster roll at The Bicycle Thief (Photo courtesy of The Bicycle Thief).

When it’s time to eat, go beyond pub grub and opt for more creative fare at Edna (ednarestaurant.com), known for its daily oyster and seafood-forward dining specials as well as a killer weekend brunch, and Chives Canadian Bistro (chives.ca), where the chef’s obsession with regionally sourced Nova Scotia ingredients is celebrated by Haligonians. Sample more local oysters (try Merigomish and Malagash) at Gahan House (halifax.gahan.ca). For Italian cuisine prepared with modern twists, dine at the hip, old-Euro-bistro-feeling La Frasca Cibi & Vini (lafrasca.ca) or The Bicycle Thief (bicyclethief.ca), a busy, boisterous restaurant that captures the energy of this good-times town. — Ann Britton Campbell

MORE: Check out - discoverhalifaxns.com

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Charlevoix, QC

Charlevoix: There’s a spotlight on this region east of Montréal and Québec City

"Intoxicating like champagne without the next day’s hangover.” This was how US President William Howard Taft described the air of Murray Bay in La Malbaie, a town on the edge of the St. Lawrence River.

Flying over the UNESCO recognized Charlevoix Biosphere Reserve. Photo By Barb Sligl.

Today, La Malbaie looks much like it did a century ago, when Taft and other American luminaries made this village in the Charlevoix region of Québec their summer playground. Stately old mansions still overlook the grand waterway and clapboard cottages dot the shoreline. And this pretty-as-a-postcard place is where Canada is hosting the 2018 G7 Summit, June 8–9 (g7.gc.ca/en/).

The region will be under a bright spotlight as foreign dignitaries and world leaders convene at Le Manoir Richelieu (fairmont.com/Richelieu). The chateau-like hotel (part of the Fairmont chain) is the hotel in the area, and while it won’t be accessible to the public during the G7, this year-round retreat (about 80 km east of Québec City and 380 km from Montréal) is a posh base from which to explore Charlevoix’s “champagne” character.

First, there’s cheese. Ciel de Charlevoix (ah, a blue like the sky), Le Migneron (buttery and hazelnut-like), L’Hercule (strong like its namesake), 1608 (named for the only-here Canadienne cow that dates back to that same year). Agritourism is a big deal here (not only cheese, but beer, cider, wine…all part of the so-called “Flavour Trail of Charlevoix”; routedessaveurs.com). Bon appétit! 

Vignette off the main street in Baie-Saint-Paul. Photo By Barb Sligl.

And then there’s the surprising art scene. Something in the scenery and light has attracted artists since the days of Taft et al. West of La Malbaie is Baie-Saint-Paul, which is said to have the most art galleries per capita in Canada. A stroll down the main street, rue Saint-Jean-Baptiste, takes you past artists’ busts (the Group of Seven were among past painters here), galleries (there’s even a modern-art museum, Musée d’art contemporain de Baie-Saint-Paul), gift shops, cafés and charming vignettes like fluttering garments on a clothesline. Just about every corner could be framed. And each fall, the town brings in artists from around the world as part of Rêves d’Automne, a festival of painting (revesdautomne.com).

Le Migneron de Charlevoix; Local wine, Le Charlevoyou. Photo By Barb Sligl.

This is also where the world-famous Cirque du Soleil was hatched, one of the founders of which went on to convert a local monastery into a chic resort hotel that’s now Le Germain Hotel & Spa Charlevoix. At lunch in the hotel’s Restaurant le Bercail it’s all about terroir products: local microbrew (La Vache Folle), wine (Le Charlevoyou) and, of course, cheese (Le Migneron, s’il te plait et merci).

Bike stand, Cidrerie et Vergers Pedneault on Isle-aux-Coudres; Tiny roadside chapel on Isle-aux-Coudres. Photo By Barb Sligl.

Then, right outside, take the Train de Charlevoix that skirts the St. Lawrence (some 125 km between Québec City and La Malbaie) to Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive, where a ferry crosses the river to Isle-aux-Coudres. The island, with its scenic 23-km circuit, is a popular bike destination. Rent and ride (velocoudres.com), coasting past sweet little chapels and orchards, stopping to refuel for cider at Cidrerie et Vergers Pedneault (vergerspedneault.com) and then sugar pie at Boulangerie Bouchard (boulangeriebouchard.com).

Sugarpie; T-shirt at Parc national des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie. Photo By Barb Sligl.

It’s all bucolic to the Nth degree. This region does, after all, contain a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. La Réserve de la biosphère de Charlevoix, rising from the shores of the St. Lawrence to dramatic gorges and plateaus at 1,150 metres, is best seen by venturing deep within the reserve in Des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie park. It’s as a T-shirt in the park’s gift shop says: La vie en plein air: ma seconde nature. “Outdoor life: my second nature.” Must be that champagne air… — Barb Sligl

More: Check out tourisme-charlevoix.com

Chengdu, China

Unmasking Chengdu: Sichuan’s capital city embraces its ancient roots and modern renaissance

Photo by Janet Gyenes

I watch the transformation of a man’s face reflected in a long, horizontal mirror. He dips a thin brush into a blue-and-white dish, then methodically paints the makeup on his eyes. He murmurs to another man in this green room at Shufeng Yayun Teahouse while stippling colour on his lips with a fingertip, drawing the character he’ll embody in tonight’s Sichuan opera performance.   

Nearby, a younger man’s metamorphosis is complete. He’s wearing a blue-and-gold costume embroidered with dragon motifs and accessorized by a headpiece that has pink pompoms springing forth from its crown. The actor’s face is a stone mask of Chinese graffiti tagged with swaths of pink as he menaces a sword. His black Nike shoes break character. Seconds later, so does he, letting loose a broad grin.

Photo by Janet Gyenes

Here in Chengdu, casually dressed people of all ages start to settle into red rattan wing chairs as a woman places pots of jasmine tea and glassine bags stuffed with spicy-sweet popcorn on the tables. Red lanterns dance overhead. The breezy teahouse is a traditional venue for the Sichuan opera, which was born in Chengdu, and whose folkloric performances have endured since the 16th century.

In this megacity of 16 million people (capital of the Sichuan province in southwest China), markers of Chengdu’s evolution are everywhere. Architects have re-drawn the landscape with structures writ large. Extra large. Like the New Century Global Center, the world’s largest building by volume. It’s a futuristic Xanadu for the masses who cavort in this 140,000 square-metre pleasure dome brimming with 3,000-plus shops, hundreds of hotel rooms and even a beach. Although the idea of spending a day at the “seaside” in a landlocked megalopolis is paradoxically compelling, I continue to explore the cultural side of Chengdu, which has a rep for its chill factor.

Photo by Janet Gyenes

“You’re my hero!” a dinner companion gushes  when I fish another pork ball out of a volcanic pot of soup spiked with lip-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. We’re at a restaurant called Huangcheng Laoma, indulging in a leisurely meal of hotpot—one of the some 6,000 dishes that earned Chengdu its status as UNESCO’s premiere City of Gastronomy. Earlier that day, I got delightfully lost in the city’s ancient (and recently refurbished) alleys. Like the silk threads that form the Shu brocade for which Chengdu is famed, Kuan Xiangzi (Wide Alley) and Zhai Xiangzi (Narrow Alley) are intricate strands where knots of artisans hammer silver into jewellery, carve names into stone “chops” and hawk snacks such as glistening fried duck and rabbit, dried yak meat and skewers of sticky doughnut-like sweets.

Photo by Janet Gyenes

Naturally, there are scads of panda-themed souvenirs, too. I also visited the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding and watched a handful of the 150 black-and-white bears, along with raccoon-like red pandas, in their natural habitat. Situated in a lush bamboo forest just 10 km outside the city core, the research base is emblematic of Chengdu’s strong ties to its history (the giant panda has lived in the region for 4,000-plus years), connecting its natural wonders to those shaping its future.  — Janet Gyenes

More: Check out gochengdu.cn

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