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You can’t miss the Titanic this year. There’s a new series, the film re-releases, and last Sunday it was exactly 100 years since the unsinkable ship went down.
You could, though, be marking the centenary memorials of the great ship’s sinking somewhere far more wild and rugged than lounging on your sofa – because the true guardians of the legacy of the Titanic are the people of Halifax, Nova Scotia.
When “the unsinkable ship” went down on April 15, 1912, during her maiden voyage, the closest major port to the disaster was Halifax, and two of its ships, the Mackay Bennett and the Minia, were among the first at the scene of the tragedy.
Sadly, they arrived too late to save lives. But Halifax’s Maritime Museum of the Atlantic is the beneficiary of their valiant rescue attempt. It displays one of the largest and finest permanent collections of Titanic exhibits anywhere in the world.
As I made my way past the intricately carved archway to the liner’s first-class dining room, I found a huddle of visitors gathered round a display cabinet containing a tiny pair of child’s shoes. Commonplace objects such as these, a rolling pin and a travel clock are the most stirring.
According to Arminias Wiseman, who was aboard the Mackay Bennett when it arrived at the scene. “As far as the eye could see, the ocean was strewn with wreckage and debris.”
The crew not only risked their lives recovering what they could, they even pooled their meagre wages to buy a tombstone for an unknown child.
Some of the dead – 121 in total – are buried in Fairview Lawn Cemetery in rows curved into the shape of a ship.
Like those caring seamen on the Mackay Bennett and the Minia, Nova Scotians are a passionate, proud nation made up of Mi’kmaq native people, Acadian French settlers from the Loire and early British colonists.
Typical is Vaughn, the co-owner of Trout Point Lodge, hidden away on the edge of Tobeatic Wilderness, where I am staying.
For those like me who love swimming in the wild, the river – with early morning mist rising from it – makes the perfect start to the day. There’s a bath and sauna set among the birch, maple and spruce forest.
It’s easy to do nothing but enjoy the isolation, inhale the scenery and watch the stars.
After a sumptuous evening meal of local salmon and vegetables from the garden, Michael Holland, an astrophysics undergraduate at St Mary’s University in Halifax, led us on a memorable astronomy hike beneath a sky pulsing with pin-prick stars.
“Only around 2 000 are visible to the naked eye,” he told us as we followed a torch-lit path through the dark forest before shuffling out on to a floating pontoon. For the next hour, Michael pointed out an indistinct red and green shower of aurora borealis before tracking his laser light across the heavens to identify the constellations and tell us about their links to Mi’kmaq folklore.
The next day, after a two-hour drive, we pulled up at Jake’s Landing in another watery wilderness: the Kejimkujik National Park. The Mi’kmaq people used to migrate through here, from summer coastal fishing to winter inland hunting. We hired canoes and tracked their route, slipping on to the Mersey River which runs all the way to a town called Liverpool, but bears no resemblance to its namesake. Paddling through a hushed cathedral of speckled alder, red maple, ferns and grasses, we came across bald eagles and a black-painted turtle. Visitors who camp here are often rewarded with sightings of white-tailed deer, beavers and muskrat.
Our next waterborne adventure was considerably wetter. Arriving at the Tidal Bore Rafting Park in Urbania, we were handed waterproofs, old trainers and lifejackets before being led down to an inflatable that took us along a channel in an otherwise dry estuary bed. Our skipper and guide, Amber, saw the signs that the incoming tide had met the outgoing river – a wall of water was barrelling towards us. She gunned the inflatable straight into it and soon we were leapfrogging 2m waves and crashing into the estuary.
For an hour or more we rode the crests, tunnelled through overhangs and yelled like schoolchildren. Even more so when we stopped off at a creek known for its huge banked mudslides. Stripping down to shorts and T-shirts, we slid head first down muddy chutes, exploding into the water before scrambling up the bank again for more.
Believe it or not, Nova Scotia is on the same latitude as Bordeaux – and it has pretty decent wine, too. Most wineries are located in the Annapolis Valley. Here I embarked on a marathon wine-tasting with the owner of Domaine de Grand Pré, Hanspeter Stutz – every inch the alchemist. “L’Acadie Blanc, perfect for scallops and haddock. One of my favourites!” he enthused.
The countryside surrounding his domaine is made up of rich farmland dotted with wooden church spires, red barns and rows of large pumpkins. Each year, in October, locals race their pumpkin husks across a lake.
Hanspeter’s Domaine de Grand Pré was the pioneer of a number of vineyards that have sprung up over the past two decades. “Just one more glass before you go,” he said. “Our Vintner’s Reserve Muscat’s pink grapefruit and lychees flavour is perfect for curry.” Wine and curry might sound bizarre, but in Nova Scotia they go their own way. It might be Canada’s second smallest province, but it has a distinctive personality. – Daily Mail