Seaside Villages And Canada’s Ellis Island

Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Travel Writer

If you think New Englanders are friendly, you’ll love New Scotlanders, inhabitants of the region more commonly known as Nova Scotia. The liveliest and most diverse of Canada’s three maritime provinces offers a warm welcome to travelers, a wealth of Jewish heritage and plenty of local culture — from fiddling in pubs to Titanic artifacts.

This time of year, as beaches still beckon on warm afternoons, fall foliage explodes with color to charm the most ardent leaf-peepers.

Like its Old World namesake, Nova Scotia offers miles and miles of dramatic coastline — craggy cliffs that plunge into rocky seas, windswept lighthouses and lonely expanses of dune where the seagulls are your only companions. Even in peak season, a traveler with a car can easily find solitude amid these wild landscapes, seemingly untouched by time and human intervention. The region’s expansive feel is deceptive: there is virtually no place in Nova Scotia more than a half-hour drive from the sea.

Connoisseurs of picturesque seaside villages can take their pick from among the dozens that dot this region’s bays and harbors. And Halifax, Nova Scotia’s major city, has a rising profile as Eastern Canada’s hippest, youngest burg, with a notable live music scene.

Nova Scotia isn’t close to New York, but it’s not that far either. Direct flights to Halifax run about $500 roundtrip through October, which is still high season. Numerous cruise lines call at the port of Halifax, and various ferries transport passenger cars from northern Maine and New Brunswick (for up-to-date ferry information, consult www.novascotia.com).

Any way you arrive is a breeze compared to the experience of Canada’s original Jewish settlers, who mostly came from Eastern Europe in the late-19th century. So many Jews entered Canada through the Port of Halifax that it was commonly referred to as “Canada’s Ellis Island.”

It wasn’t long before an Orthodox Congregation was founded, the progenitor of today’s thriving Beth Israel Synagogue, which still boasts the only daily minyan east of Montreal. Today’s Halifax Jewish community of roughly 1,500 is based around Oxford Street, where Beth Israel was joined in the 1950s by the Conservative Congregation Shaar Shalom. Their membership numbers are buoyed by a steady influx of university students and refugees from big-city life in Toronto.

The experience of Canada’s earlier Jewish inhabitants is on display at one of Halifax’s must-see attractions, the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. This pier was entry point for the many new Canadians who arrived between 1928 and 1971.

Beginning this weekend through Oct. 1, Pier 21 is hosting a series of free public programs as part of an event celebrating the country’s ethnic diversity, “Culture Days from Coast to Coast to Coast.” And through Oct. 31, viewers can catch the last weeks of a special exhibit entitled “Revolutionizing Cultural Identity: Photography and the Changing Face of Immigration.”

While you’re in the city, make time for the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. It’s the best place to learn about Nova Scotia’s distinctive relationship with the sea, from whaling commerce to shipwreck lore. But the undeniable highlight is the Titanic exhibit: artifacts and memorabilia from history’s most famous wreck, whose detritus was not far away.

The coastline around Halifax offers some worthwhile daytrips — a favorite spot is Peggy’s Cove, with its historic lighthouse. But for a true taste of rural Nova Scotia, head northeast to Cape Breton Island. Increasingly popular as a resort, this is still a place where you can watch fishermen haul in their catch at the dock, peer at dozens of marshland bird species and then head to a pub for an evening of traditional local fiddle music.

A hundred years ago, Cape Breton Island was a destination for Jewish settlers, drawn by work in the coalmines and the thriving steel industry based in the town of Sydney, where they established Temple Sons of Israel. Services there are sporadic these days, as Sydney’s aging community has watched its young people leave for the big cities.

But vestiges of Breton Jewish culture remain, and Cape Bretonians are proud of their multicultural roots. Where steel mills once flourished along Sydney’s Whitney Pier, a wooden former synagogue has been transformed into the Whitney Pier Historical Museum. The museum is open to the public only during the brief Nova Scotia summer, but those interested can call to arrange a visit ([902] 562-8454).

On Oct. 14, the Historical Society will host a public celebration to inaugurate the Whitney Pier Community Heritage Trail, with a barbecue and children’s events. More than just an opportunity to explore the restored urban waterfront, the trail — which wends along a picturesque creek, by the old Sydney steel plant and the Whitney Pier Jewish neighborhood — is a literal stroll through Arcadian history. 

Peggy’s Cove with its historic lighthouse, is a favorite spot on the Halifax coastline.

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