Cruising to Nova Scotia’s “City of Sorrow”

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Halifax prospers despite its connection with three horrific 20th-century transportation disasters

USA Today — June 14, 2022

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia – The natural beauty of this Canadian province in the north Atlantic belies the horrific tragedies inextricably linked to the island’s past.

halifax harbor

The harbor in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Canadian province has a connection with three horrific 20th-century transportation accidents

Nova Scotia has a connection with three of the world’s worst transportation accidents of the 20th century – the sinking of the Titanic, a Swissair plane crash and a harbor accident that killed more than 1,600 people in the deadliest human-caused explosion prior to the atomic age.

It’s easy to understand why some still call Halifax “the city of sorrow.”

During an early May trip to Nova Scotia, I visited several sites related to the three disasters and learned how the province has not only endured but prospered.

Nova Scotia isn’t defined by tragedy. With a rich maritime history, cosmopolitan seaport, tourist-friendly locals and one of the most picturesque lighthouses in North America, it was my favorite stop on a 10-day cruise through New England and eastern Canada.

I sailed on the American Queen Voyages’ Ocean Voyager, a 202-passenger ship that was less than a quarter full – just 49 passengers with a crew of 86.

“If you drop a napkin, there will be a crew member to catch it before it hits the ground,” our cruise director Johnny Melnick joked as I boarded the ship in Portland, Maine.

ocean voyager

The 202-passenger American Queen Voyages Ocean Voyager docked in Montreal, Canada, one of the stops on a recent 10-day cruise through New England and eastern Canada

Cruising through eastern Canada

We traveled more than 1,400 miles from Portland to Toronto, sailing on the Atlantic Ocean into the St. Lawrence Seaway before ending on Lake Ontario.

In addition to Nova Scotia, we stopped in Quebec City, Montreal, and the sparsely populated Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. With the help of two onboard naturalists, we spent a day whale-watching in the Saguenay Fjord in Quebec, where we spotted several Beluga whales.

We followed the Voyager’s sister ship – the Ocean Navigator – which was three days ahead of us on the same itinerary. Once the two ships reached Toronto, they embarked on their summer-sailing season through the Great Lakes.

Located about 300 miles east of Maine, Nova Scotia is one of Canada’s three Maritime provinces – along with New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

The province has 1 million residents, about half of whom live in the capital and largest city of Halifax. Nova Scotia means “New Scotland” in Latin, reflecting its strong historic and cultural connection to Scotland.

Titanic grave

The grave at Halifax’s Fairview Lawn Cemetery of a 19-month-old boy who drowned in the Titanic disaster

Nova Scotia and the Titanic

While on its maiden voyage from England to New York in April 1912, the HMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sunk in the north Atlantic. Of the estimated 2,224 passengers and crew aboard, more than 1,500 died. It remains the deadliest peacetime sinking of a superliner or cruise ship.

Nova Scotia became the epicenter of recovery efforts. The White Star Line, which owned the Titanic, chartered several ships from Halifax to aid in the search and rescue operations. So many bodies were recovered and brought back to Halifax that the city converted an ice rink into a morgue. Today, 150 victims are buried in three Halifax cemeteries.

I visited the Fairlawn View Cemetery on the city’s north side, where 121 Titanic victims are interred, more than any other cemetery in the world. The people buried in one-third of the graves have never been identified and are marked only with a number and date of death – April 15, 1912.

It was especially moving to visit the gravesite of a 19-month-old boy, originally known as “the unknown child.” In 2001 the boy’s body was exhumed in an attempt to learn his identity. He was initially misidentified as a Finnish child. In 2007, more advanced testing determined he was Sidney Leslie Goodwin, the youngest in an English family of eight on the ship. None of Sidney’s family members survived.

At the base of his grave, I observed a small blanket, children’s clothing and toys. Our guide told us that visitors place so many items at Sidney’s grave to honor his memory that cemetery caretakers have to clear them off at least twice a week.

The leather shoes the boy was wearing when his body was recovered are on display at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic on Halifax’s waterfront, which has one of the largest collections of Titanic artifacts in the world.

Maritime Museum of the Atlantic

An exhibit about the 1917 harbor explosion at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax

The 1917 Harbor Explosion

Just over five years after the Titanic sunk, Halifax was the site of another tragedy. On the morning of Dec. 6, 1917, the Mont-Blanc, a French ship carrying a large cache of explosives, collided with a Norwegian vessel in the city’s harbor.

The collision resulted in a massive explosion that killed more than 1,600 people, injured 9,000 others and flattened more than one square mile of the city. It remains the biggest disaster in Canadian history.

There is a comprehensive exhibit devoted to the harbor explosion at the Maritime Museum, and several monuments and works of art around the city pay tribute to the victims. The clock at Halifax City Hall near the waterfront is permanently set at 4 minutes and 35 seconds after 9, the exact time of the explosion.

Crash of Swissair Flight 111 Near Peggy’s Cove

The tiny fishing village of Peggy’s Cove, 26 miles southwest of Halifax, is the site of one of the most recognizable lighthouses in the world – the iconic Peggy’s Point Lighthouse. Built in 1915, the 50-feet-high, red-and-white beacon is perched on an outcrop of granite rocks. It’s still a working lighthouse and is operated by the Canadian Coast Guard.

In 1998, Swissair Flight 111 – en route from New York to Geneva – crashed 5 miles off the coast of Peggy’s Cove. All 229 passengers and crew members were killed. An investigation determined the crash was caused by an in-flight fire.

Peggy's Cove Lighthouse

The Peggy’s Point Lighthouse, 26 miles southwest of Halifax, Nova Scotia

Once again, Nova Scotia became the hub of search and recovery operations for a transportation disaster.

From the lighthouse, I hiked a mile along the coast to pay my respects to the victims at a memorial overlooking the sea. Part of the inscription etched into a large gray stone – written in both English and French – read: “They have been joined to the sea and the sky.”

While I thought about the victims who perished nearby, I could see the lighthouse in the distance. The contrast of two sites in such close proximity – one serene and alluring, the other a reminder of a calamitous accident – was difficult to grasp.

As I walked from the Swissair memorial to join my fellow passengers back on the tour bus, a cold front blew in from the Atlantic, bringing biting wind and freezing rain.

Reflecting on the tragedies I had learned about during my time in Nova Scotia, the gloomy weather seemed only fitting.

Websites for more info:
Tourism Nova Scotia
American Queen Voyages
                                                                                © 2022 Dan Fellner

Denali whitewater rafting

Alaska-Yukon Adventure

By | Alaska, Canada, Cruising | 2 Comments

Pre and post-cruise land tours deliver breathtaking sights and fun

The Arizona Republic — August 24, 2014

DENALI NATIONAL PARK, Alaska – The Nenana River was in a nasty mood at 8 a.m. on a cold and rainy July morning and it looked like it was about to get even more ornery up ahead.

Our group of six was on a 12-mile whitewater rafting trip on this glacier-fed river that runs through Denali National Park less than 300 miles south of the Arctic Circle.  The water temperature was just 35 degrees; the air temperature wasn’t much warmer.

Nenana Rafting

 Whitewater rafting on the frigid Nenana River

As we approached an ominous-sounding section of the river called Ice Worm Rapids, our oarsman, a bearded young man named Wayne, warned us to hold on tight.

The raft plunged several feet.  No one fell off, but the only part of my body not covered by several layers of clothing – my face – was drenched by the ice-cold water.

Wayne, who looks like the quintessential Alaskan outdoorsman but actually is from Utah, laughed. “We call that a ‘glacial facial,’” he said.

If I wasn’t already awake from my morning coffee, the Nenana had certainly finished the job. I had wanted a true Alaskan adventure.  And while it was nerve-racking, uncomfortable and downright frigid at the time, I had found it.

This was my third visit to Alaska.  The first two trips had been relatively sedate cruises through the Inside Passage.  Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway are charming – albeit a bit touristy – ports of call.  This time, though, I wanted to see the Alaskan wilderness.

Holland America Volendam in Alaska

     The cruise portion of the trip began on the Holland America Volendam, here docked in Juneau, Alaska

So I did what an increasing number of Alaskan cruisers are doing every year. I booked a seven-day post-cruise land tour.  In addition to exploring the interior of Alaska, the journey also took me off the beaten path into Canada’s ruggedly scenic Yukon Territory.

My journey began in Vancouver, B.C., on the Holland America Volendam.  About one-third of the ship’s 1,450 passengers were thinking like me and combined the cruise with a land tour taken either before or after the sailing.

More than 200 passengers and I disembarked in Skagway, three days after we left Vancouver, while the same number of passengers did their land tours first, then joined the ship for the remaining four days of cruising back to Vancouver.

I spent the next week traversing the Yukon and Alaska on trains, buses and an airplane with 42 other adventure-seekers.  We were shepherded every step of the way by Patrick Sanady, our Holland America “journey host.”

Indeed, the land tour seemed like a seamless extension of the cruise.  Each hotel we stayed in was owned by Holland America; even the ubiquitous Purell dispensers so often seen on cruise ships were in every hotel lobby and restaurant.  And though there were no midnight buffets or ice sculptures, the food was more than passable.

Holland America says more than half of its Alaskan cruise passengers add a land tour, a number that’s grown dramatically in recent years.  On some itineraries, the number of people buying the “land + sea journey” has been as high as 70 percent.

White Pass Yukon Railroad

The historical White Pass and Yukon Railroad

The first leg of the land tour was the most spectacular.  Our group took the historical White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad from Skagway to Fraser, B.C.  The railroad was built in 1898 to transport prospectors during the Klondike Gold Rush.  Today, it takes mostly tourists through narrow mountain passes, past cascading waterfalls and across glacial terrain.  Billed as the “scenic railway of the world,” the three-hour, 28-mile trip did not disappoint.

A bus was waiting for us in Fraser, and then it was off to Whitehorse, capital of the sparsely populated Yukon Territory.  Larger than the state of California, the Yukon has a population of about 35,000.  As our driver Jess joked, the Yukon has the distinction of being the first Canadian region to be named after an American SUV.

Our three days spent in the Yukon were focused on learning about the colorful history of the gold rush, which brought more than 100,000 “stampeders” to the region after gold was found on a small tributary of the Yukon River near Dawson City in 1896.  Few of the prospectors struck it rich.  Only about 30,000 completed the arduous 449-mile, six-month journey from Skagway to Dawson City; the rest perished or gave up along the way.

Yukon gold panning

 Panning for gold at a working mine in the Yukon

It took our group just three days to make the trip.  In Dawson City, I especially enjoyed a sightseeing tour to a working gold mine.  James, our guide who lives and works at the mine, demonstrated how modern technology involving heavy equipment has made obsolete the gold-panning techniques used by the prospectors more than 100 years ago.

Nevertheless, James fitted us with boots and took us into the shallow waters of Gold Bottom Creek to try our luck at panning.  We were promised that we could keep whatever we found.  Two summers ago, a tourist pulled a 2-ounce gold nugget, worth an estimated $2,500, out of the river.  My luck wasn’t nearly so good.  After 15 minutes of shaking, dipping, bending and praying, the only material remaining at the bottom of my pan was worthless dirt. “It’s a bust,” James said after examining the results of my work.

However, not all of us went home empty-handed.  The tourist panning next to me – a man from Spain – had discovered a gold flake.  I vicariously celebrated his newfound riches until James burst my bubble once again.  “About a half-penny,” he said, when I asked him to estimate the value of the Spaniard’s discovery.

Alaskan Husky puppies

Alaskan Husky puppies at the kennel of Iditarod champion Jeff King

From Dawson City, Holland America put us on a one-hour charter flight to Fairbanks, gateway to Denali National Park.  Our first evening in Denali, I booked an excursion called the “Husky Homestead Tour,” which took us to the home and kennel of Jeff King, a four-time Iditarod sled-dog race champion.

We got to see about 50 Alaskan Huskies living on the property and were even allowed to pose for pictures with some adorable 6-week-old puppies.  Some of the older dogs put on a racing demonstration.  But because there was no snow on the ground, instead of tugging a sled, they pulled an ATV.

Afterward, King – who, if he wasn’t one of the best mushers in the world, could easily make a living as a stand-up comedian — regaled our group with stories of his 24 races in the Iditarod, a grueling 1,000-mile race from Anchorage to Nome held each March.

The next morning I was up early for my whitewater-rafting trip on the Nenana River.  In the afternoon, our group took a 126-mile bus tour through the heart of Denali, which at 6 million acres is about the same size as the state of Vermont.

Alaskan scenery

  Alaskan scenery visible from the McKinley Explorer train

We saw caribou, moose and red foxes.  Unfortunately, clouds and rain rolled in and we didn’t get to see Denali’s most famous site – the notoriously camera-shy Mount McKinley, North America’s tallest peak.  Sanady, our guide, told us that only about 10 percent of visitors to Denali are lucky enough to see an unobscured view of the 20,320-foot mountain.

On our final day, we took an eight-hour train trip from Denali to Anchorage on the luxurious McKinley Explorer.  The weather hadn’t cleared up, but we still enjoyed some stunning views of the Alaska Mountain Range and deep river gorges.

Other than the temporary discomfort of a few mosquito bites and one sobering glacial facial, I had survived my true Alaskan adventure.

© 2014 Dan Fellner