If you want to explore Georges Island National Historic Site, here's how you can do it on your own, with a tour, and even with a picnic! Plus: What to expect on the ferry.
Once upon a time, Halifax, Nova Scotia, wasn't just known as a lively city for music, travel, and seaside fun. It was first and foremost a military port. Halifax was on the frontlines of defending Canada from foreign attack. It's a role that thankfully never had to be enforced but for centuries the city has been soaked in military preparations. Now one of Halifax's oldest fortifications, Georges Island National Historic Site is open to the public and I was fortunate to explore it myself.
Georges Island sits in the middle of Halifax Harbour. You can see it from almost any point in the city - I had superb views from my room at the Westin Nova Scotian- but visitors were prohibited until 2020. My friends and family jumped at the chance to visit when the Parks Canada site opened during the pandemic and their reviews were GLOWING. Locals absolutely love this destination and they're extremely proud of their city's history. As they should be!
The main attraction on Georges Island is Fort Charlotte. Fortifications here date to 1750 and include an underground tunnel system. While Georges Island has never been attacked, Fort Charlotte and the surrounding area has been used for important military operations over the centuries. Two thousand French soldiers were imprisoned here during the Seven Years War and an estimated 1,660 Acadian civilians were detained during the Expulsion. During the American Revolution, privateers were held prisoner in Fort Charlotte and, during World War II, an anti-aircraft was stationed there.
Visiting today is decidedly peaceful experience and a wonderful way to get to know Halifax better. Here's what to expect and how you can explore Georges Island National Historic Site.
Georges Island is one of five defence sites in the city
To put Georges Island into context, it is just one of several significant military sites in Halifax. As the team at Parks Canada puts it:
"Of the many different forts and batteries constructed by the British and Canadian militaries in the Halifax area, there are five that are today national historic sites owned and administered by Parks Canada. These five sites are known collectively as the Halifax Defence Complex and are part of a nation-wide family of national historic sites."
If you're interested in history or want to get a strong sense of Halifax's character, it's well worth pairing a visit to Georges Island with other Defence Complex sites, including Fort McNab, York Redoubt, Prince of Wales Tower, and the Halifax Citadel (and perhaps picking up a Parks Canada pass to save money!)
You'll notice that Georges Island is also home to a lighthouse and lighthouse keeper's home, as you can see in the photo above. While today lighthouses are automated and ships have their own sophisticated guidance systems, this little lighthouse would have given invaluable assistance to thousands of ships over the years. Unfortunately, these buildings aren't open to visitors but you can learn more about them here.
Planning a DIY trip to Georges Island via kayak or canoe
It's entirely possible to visit this once-prohibited destination on your own. While most people visit Georges Island via the ferry (more on that in a moment), you can easily visit should you have a private boat, a canoe, or a kayak. You can dock your vessel for free at the wharf or shoreline. Note that there are rules about not docking overnight and you can only be in designated areas (read more here).
To learn more about renting a kayak or canoe in Halifax - along with stand up paddle boards and water-based tours - this awesome page has tons of resources.
Catching the ferry to Georges Island
If you haven't arrived in Halifax with your own private yacht or the inclination to rent a kayak, there's an easy alternative. You can get to and from Georges Island National Historic Site via a designated ferry.
The ferry, run by Ambassatours, goes between downtown Halifax and Georges Island 11 times a day and the last ferry of the night returns downtown at 5:00 PM - though you might like to double check that here in case the schedule changes. You can book online or just take your chances and book same-day tickets in person. Note that your round trip ferry ride costs $26.75 and that includes your Parks Canada admission fee. Costs are reduced if you have a Discovery Pass. Oh, if you skip the ferry and arrange your own boat journey, you'll have to pay your Parks Canada admission fee when you hit the island.
What to expect onboard (plus how to order a picnic)
The ferry ride is a short one but it offers great views of the Halifax harbour. On board, there are washrooms and some small food concessions, like snacks and drinks. However, in all honesty, you'll probably much happier to pre-order your lunch for the Parks Canada picnic experience (more about that in a second!) or to pack your own treats. There are no food services of any kind, including water, on Georges Island itself.
When you book your ticket on the ferry, you can reserve a Parks Canada Perfect Picnic (you can also pre-order your picnic and pick it up from the restaurant if you're not taking the ferry). You can choose from four different lunch options (include a lobster roll, a ploughman's lunch, a Caprese sandwich, and an Italian cold-cut sandwich) and all come with kettle chips, an apple, and bottled water. You can also order the ploughman's lunch as a family-sized option. I really regret not getting a picture of mine - it was delicious and carefully packed.
Now for some fine print: These picnic lunches are generally only available on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays and you have to pre-order 24 hours in advance. You can find all the details and ordering info here. As someone who has often shunned pre-ordered lunches in favour of doing my own thing (thinking it would be cheaper or easier somehow...) I have to say that I was very impressed by the quality of my picnic lunch, as were the other people in my group. I also think the prices were very reasonable (for instance, the vegetarian Caprese combo was $14 and the lobster roll was $25). As such, if you're like me and wavering back and forth about whether you should pre-order or do a DIY picnic: do the pre-order. I think it's well worth it.
Exploring on your own
While I highly recommend taking part in one of the guided tours, all visitors are free to explore Georges Island their own. You can see some suggested highlights to check out through this online map (which has helpful information if you want some background information on some of the structures). From the dock, there's a path leading up a hill to the main part you'll want to see and check out, so it's pretty easy to make your own way. Keep an eye out for the bright red Parks Canada chairs. They're perfectly positioned to enjoy a little rest with a view.
Speaking of views.... There's a good chance that you'll see a small garter snake during your visit. There is a large population of harmless black garter snakes on Georges Island. Rest assured they are extremely docile and have no interest in human visitors.
Taking a guided tour
If your schedule allows, I highly recommend joining one of the 15 minute tours of the tunnels that make up the huge underground complex at Fort Charlotte. They run every twenty minutes or so (and French tours are available upon request). Our interpretive guide wore a uniform that distinguished her as a "member" of a World War II-era women's unit that would have been based on Georges Island and she did a fantastic job of showcasing Fort Charlotte's underground secrets.
One of the most remarkable things about Georges Island is that it was never under fire throughout its long history but hearing our guide talk about how much work took place here during World War II was a vivid reminder of how very real the threat of attack was during that time period. (In fact, I'm told that some people believe that a German submarine or two actually made it into Halifax Harbour but the factual details are a big fuzzy....)
Considering that you are in a very old, rather cramped underground stone labyrinth, I found the tunnels of Fort Charlotte to be well lit and not particularly claustrophobic. However, it's worth noting that it's pretty dark and the stone floors are often slippery so it's wise to proceed with caution.
Appreciating a different side of Halifax
It's easy to think of Halifax as just another travel destination filled with food, fun, and nightlife. But a visit to Georges Island serves as a reminder that the city has always been on the frontlines of Canadian defence. A visit to Georges Island isn't just an interesting thing to do - it will make you feel like a true Haligonian and you'll always feel a connection to the role this city played in history.
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