Sailing Eastern Canada from New England
HALIFAX, Nova Scotia – The natural beauty of this Canadian North Atlantic province belies the horrific tragedies inextricably linked to the island’s past.
Nova Scotia has a connection to three of the world’s worst transportation accidents of the 20th century – the sinking of the Titanic, a Swissair plane crash and a port accident that killed more than 1,600 people in the explosion of deadliest human origin before the atomic age.
It’s easy to see why some still call Halifax “the city of grief.”
During an early May trip to Nova Scotia, I visited several sites related to the three disasters and learned how the province not only endured but also thrived.
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Nova Scotia is not defined by tragedy. With a rich maritime history, a cosmopolitan seaport, tourist-friendly locals, and one of the most scenic lighthouses in North America, this was my favorite stop on a 10-day cruise through New -England and Eastern Canada.
I sailed on 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 towel, there will be a crew member to catch it before it hits the ground,” joked our cruise director Johnny Melnick as I boarded the ship in Portland, Washington. Maine.
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Itinerary Highlights: Quebec, Whale Watching
We covered over 1,400 miles from Portland to Toronto, sailing the Atlantic Ocean to the St. Lawrence Seaway before ending on Lake Ontario.
In addition to Nova Scotia, we stopped in Quebec, Montreal and the sparsely populated Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. With the help of two naturalists on board, we spent a day whale watching in Quebec’s Saguenay Fjord, where we spotted several belugas.
We followed Voyager’s sister ship – the Ocean Navigator – which was three days ahead of us on the same route. Once the two ships reached Toronto, they began their summer sailing season across 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 a population of 1 million, about half of whom live in the capital and largest city of Halifax. Nova Scotia means “Nova Scotia” in Latin, reflecting its strong historical and cultural connection to Scotland.
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Nova Scotia and the Titanic
On her maiden voyage from England to New York in April 1912, HMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic. Of the estimated 2,224 passengers and crew on board, more than 1,500 died. It remains the deadliest peacetime sinking of a superliner or cruise ship.
Nova Scotia has become the epicenter of recovery efforts. The White Star Line, owner of the Titanic, chartered several vessels to Halifax to assist with search and rescue operations. So many bodies were recovered and brought back to Halifax that the city turned an ice rink into a morgue. Today, 150 victims are buried in three Halifax cemeteries.
I visited Fairlawn View Cemetery on the north side of town, where 121 Titanic victims are buried, more than any other cemetery in the world. The people buried in a third of the graves have never been identified and are only marked with a number and date of death – April 15, 1912.
It was particularly moving to visit the grave of a 19-month-old boy, originally known as “the unknown child”. In 2001, the boy’s body was exhumed in an attempt to find out his identity. He was first misidentified as a Finnish child. In 2007, further tests determined it was Sidney Leslie Goodwin, the youngest of an English family of eight on the ship. None of Sidney’s family members survived.
At the foot of his grave, I observed a small blanket, children’s clothes and toys. Our guide told us that visitors place so many items on Sidney’s grave to honor her memory that cemetery caretakers have to clean them at least twice a week.
The leather shoes the boy was wearing when his body was found are on display at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic on the Halifax waterfront, which has one of the largest collections of Titanic artifacts in the world.
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The port explosion of 1917
Just over five years after the sinking of the Titanic, Halifax was the scene of another tragedy. On the morning of December 6, 1917, the Mont-Blanc, a French ship carrying a large cache of explosives, collided with a Norwegian ship in the city’s port.
The collision resulted in a massive explosion that killed more than 1,600 people, injured 9,000 others and leveled more than a square mile of the city. It is the greatest disaster in Canadian history.
There is a comprehensive exhibit dedicated to the port 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 to 4 minutes and 35 seconds after 9 a.m., the exact time of the explosion.
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Swissair Flight 111 crash near Peggy’s Cove
The small fishing village of Peggy’s Cove, 26 miles southwest of Halifax, is the site of one of the world’s most recognizable lighthouses – the iconic Peggy’s Point Lighthouse. Built in 1915, the 50-foot-tall red and white lighthouse is perched on an outcrop of granite boulders. It is 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 Peggy’s Cove. All 229 passengers and crew were killed. An investigation determined that the accident was caused by an in-flight fire.
Once again, Nova Scotia has become the hub of transportation disaster search and recovery operations.
From the lighthouse, I walked a mile along the coast to pay my respects to the victims at a memorial overlooking the sea. Part of the inscription carved into a large gray stone – written in English and French – read: ” They were joined to the sea and to the sky”.
As I thought of the victims who had perished nearby, I could see the lighthouse in the distance. The contrast of two sites so close – one serene and seductive, the other reminiscent of a calamitous accident – was difficult to grasp.
As I left the Swissair Memorial to join my fellow travelers on the tour bus, a cold front blew in from the Atlantic, bringing biting wind and freezing rain.
Reflecting on the tragedies I had heard about during my time in Nova Scotia, the gloomy weather seemed quite appropriate.
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Scottsdale’s Dan Fellner is a freelance travel writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at https://global-travel-info.com.
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