HALIFAX, Canada — Take one of the world's finest natural harbors, surround it with hills and bluffs that seem made by nature for gun emplacements and you realize why the British chose this redoubtable Nova Scotia site for a fortress.
Halifax, which was used by the British to offset the French stronghold on Cape Breton during the 18th-Century battles for control of North America, has been a military city from the outset.
While the impregnable location has kept its cannons silent, the harbor explosion of a munitions ship during World War I was the biggest man-made blast until Hiroshima. It killed 2,000 people and leveled much of the town.
What arose from the disaster is a city that is one of Canada's most cosmopolitan, a smaller Boston or San Francisco with a handsomely developed and lively waterfront area, wonderful hotels and restaurants, neighborhood cafes and pubs where visitors are accepted as regulars.
One of the things that perhaps accounts for the easygoing and friendly nature of locals is the town's beauty: 16-acre Halifax Public Gardens at mid-city, a formidable array of lovely Victorian homes, 186-acre Point Pleasant Park with its forests of silver birch and maples and other gardens and wooded areas.
One of the area's most scenic attractions is the Lighthouse Route drive south from Halifax around bays and coves of the rugged Atlantic coast, through such enchanting towns and villages as Peggy's Cove, Chester, Mahone Bay and another dozen or so hamlets where the clambake, lobster traps and messing about in boats are a way of life.
Here to there: Fly Air Canada with a change in Toronto, Canadian Air with changes in Vancouver and Toronto.
How long/how much? One or two days for Halifax, another for the drive south. Lodging and dining costs are reasonable.
A few fast facts: Canada's dollar was recently worth 76 cents, making ours buy $1.30. Late spring to mid-October is the time to visit; winters are Klondike cold.
Getting settled in: Lord Nelson Hotel (Spring Garden Road and South Park; $37 to $55 double) faces Public Gardens, a stately and dignified place with lots of Old World charm. Contemporary rooms with most amenities, lobby with wood paneled columns, gorgeous hand-carved medallions in ceiling. Horatio's dining room has a distinct naval feeling, old maritime pictures on walls and the like.
Dresden Arms (5530 Artillery Place; $42 double) is, like the Nelson, convenient to mid-town restaurants, shopping and activities of the waterfront section. This one has definite motel overtones, very utilitarian, good spot for families, and is a member of Best Western chain.
Halifax Sheraton (1919 Upper Water St.; $99 to $106, $65 to $68 weekends) is snazzy within, its exterior fits in perfectly with other rustic architecture on the waterfront and it's in the center of good restaurants and next to the Historic Properties collection of shops. Pool, dining inside or on riverfront terrace, health club and handsome bedrooms. Parking, something of a midtown problem, right beneath hotel.
Regional food and drink: Locals have an expression, "some good," which is used for anything that lifts their spirits, usually a good meal. You'll find yourself using it often in this town that knows its food.
Halifax claims to be the lobster capital of the world and, from the times we saw it on menus, who's to doubt. Even the church dinners proffer the noble crustacean, so check the local papers.
Fantastic mussels and clams, plus seafood casseroles and chowders of every description are local fare of choice. Try the fresh sole, haddock, smoked Atlantic salmon or lake trout from Cape Breton, all served in delightfully different manners.
Wines are on the pricey side, but Canadian beer is excellent.
Moderate-cost dining: Clipper Cay (on the pier beside Sheraton) has floor-to-ceiling windows for a good view of harbor activity day and night. A pretty place where the seafood specialties are done with finesse, service is attentive and friendly. You might start with scallops baked in mushroom caps, then follow with a lobster-stuffed croissant, Cajun seafood platter or a salmon fillet to cry over. We give Clipper Cay the highest marks.
The Silver Spoon (1865 Hollis St. in Historic Properties area) has a tearoom atmosphere but turns out three-course meals for around $10, the likes of pate with cognac, fettuccine with smoked salmon and gin, fillet of pork tenderloin or halibut. Next door is Silver Spoon Desserts, a town fixture where many stop in for the last course--Bavarian tortes, chocolate truffles and sinful cheesecake. Enjoy.
Old Man Morias (1150 Barrington St.) is a family-run affair in an old home, Greek specialties filling the menu, funky photographs of what could be departed family members on walls. Mama Migas greets you, dad does the cooking, a daughter-in-law waited on us. This sounds too homey to believe, but it all adds up to fine Greek food, some of the tenderest squid we've had recently. Alas, the wine is very expensive.