Image: Nova Scotia Tall Ships Festivali
Paul Darrow  /  Reuters
Masts from more than 40 tall ships and schooners fill the skyline along the waterfront during the second day of the Nova Scotia Tall Ships Festivali in Halifax, Nova Scotia on July 13.
By
Special to msnbc.com
updated 7/16/2007 12:58:41 PM ET 2007-07-16T16:58:41

Halifax has the second largest natural harbor in the world (after Sydney, Australia). So what? Though that may seem like an irrelevant fact for visitors, it's shaped the history and culture of the city in extremely dramatic ways. Much like New York City to the south, its ship-friendly waters made Halifax the gateway to the “New World” for immigrants coming to Canada between 1928 and 1971. Because of the same attributes, Halifax was the last North American hopping-off point for battleships heading to World Wars I and II (and because of this, the city suffered the worst explosion in human history until Hiroshima; see below for more on that tragedy). And Halifax became the hub of grisly salvage operations for both shipwrecks and plane crashes.

Halifax may seem like a sleepy port city on first glance, but dig a little deeper and you'll find it has fascinating and important stories to share.

9:30 a.m. - 10:50 a.m.: Get the lay of the land, er, sea at the Maritime Museum
of the Atlantic
. Here you'll learn about the horrific explosion of 1917 in which two warships collided in the harbor, drifted to shore (abandoned by their crews), and set off a TNT explosion that destroyed much of the city, killing over 1700 residents. A moving half hour film and display tell the tale. Also on site are exhibits detailing the work locals have done for the last two and a half centuries in rescuing shipwreck victims (and combing the shipwrecks themselves for booty); the city's involvement in the Titanic tragedy; hometown hero Samuel Cunard and his cruiseline; and more.

11 a.m. - 1 p.m.: Because of its harbor, Halifax was considered one of the most important assets of the British Empire, and a mighty Citadel was constructed in 1749 at the highest point in the city to defend it. It's actually the most visited historic National Park in Canada and boasts an impressive noontime Changing of the Guard ceremony, complete with canonfire, soldiers in big bearskin hats, and bagpipers.

Morning Alternative: One in five Canadians has a relative who arrived in Canada at Pier 21 , and though you may not be one of them, you’ll likely find the stories of how these immigrants came to choose The Great White North, and what they did while here, an intriguing one. After touring this former processing-center-turned-museum, take a stroll along the pretty if honky tonk Pier (who knew there were that many varieties of whale t-shirts in the world?).

1 p.m. - 2:30 p.m.: Kick back at the Sweet Basil Bistro , an utterly charming hole in the wall, all sprigged drapery and sunny yellow walls, where local foodies come for a noodle or Thai food fix. The menu cunningly melds many of the spices and fruits of Asia (the chef loves mangos) with Italian faves like bruschetta and tortellini to delicious effect.

2:30 p.m. - 6 p.m.: Pay your respects to those who perished aboard the Titanic at the Fairview Lawn Cemetery . When that awful tragedy occurred, it was left to the fishermen of Halifax to rescue the bodies from the sea. The first pulled out was of a two-year-old boy and the fisherman who did the job was so affected by the experience that, when nobody claimed the body, he paid for the headstone himself. The most visited grave  is that of Jack Dawson (his story, however, was very different from that of the character of the same name in the movie Titanic). Drive next to Peggy’s Cove , a picturesque fishing village named for a five-year-old shipwreck victim who was rescued nearby. The lighthouse here may well be the most photographed in Canada. Be sure to also stop by the memorial for those killed on SwissAir Flight 111. As always, it was the people of Halifax who took care of the remains of those victims and aided in the investigation.

Afternoon Alternative: Smell the roses ... and peonies and crown imperials at the Halifax Public Gardens . First planted in 1753 (when the area was a private garden), it’s maintained in the fussy if pretty style of the Victorian era and is one of the city’s top warm weather delights. After your stroll, head down to the waterfront and hop a cruise of the harbor .

6 p.m. - 9 p.m.: It’s all about the harbor, right? So dine overlooking it at Salty’s on the Waterfront , which sports spectacular views from its second floor and its patio. Simple, very fresh steamed lobster is the specialty here (and by far the best item on the menu).

9 p.m. - on … Pub hop on and near the pier, where such bars as the Lower Deck , The Marquee and The Attic offer live music—celtic, cover bands, ska and rock—well into the night.

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommerguides in bookstores now. Her book, Pauline Frommer's New York, was named Best Guidebook of the Year by the North American Travel Journalists Association.

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Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, 1675 Lower Water Street, phone 902/424 7490; www.maritime.museum.gov.ns.ca/. Admission is about $6.50 adults, $5.50 seniors,  and $3 for children 6-17, though those prices are cut in half between November and April.  Open Wednesdays through Mondays from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Tuesdays from 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.

HalifaxCitadel National Historic Site, Citadel hill, phone 902/426-5080; www.pc.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/ns/halifax/index_e.asp. Admission from June through September is about $8 adults, $7 seniors, $4 youth 6-16. In spring and fall prices drop by $1.50 in each category. Free in winter when the grounds are closed. In July and August, the Park is open from 9 a.m. - 6 p.m. daily, from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. in June and September.

Pier 21, 1055 Marginal Road on the waterfront, phone 902/425-7770; www.pier21.ca/. May through November daily 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., December through April Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Saturday noon-5 p.m. Admission is $6.50 adults, $5.50 seniors, $3 children 6-16.

Sweet Basil Bistro, 1866 Upper Water Street, 902/425-2133.

The Fairview Lawn Cemeteryis located at Chisholm Avenue off Conaught Avenue. It keeps daylight hours year round.

Peggy’s Cove is located 26 miles Southwest of Halifax. Take Highway 103 to Exit 5.

The Memorial to Flight 111is a short drive from Peggy’s Cove in nearby Whalesbeck. It’s open during daylight hours.

Halifax Public Gardens, at Spring Garden and South Park Street. Admission is free and the gardens are open from 8 a.m. to dusk from spring to late fall.

A number of boat companies cruise of the harbor or go further, offering 5 hour fishing expeditions. To see all your options head to Cable Wharf, near George Street where a number of the boat companies are located.

Salty’s on the Waterfront, 1869 Upper Water Street right on the water, phone 902/423-6818; www.saltys.ca

Lower Deck, on the Pier, part of the Historic Properties complex, phone 902/425-1501.

The Marquee, 2041 Gottingen Street, phone 902/423-2072.

The Attic, 1741 Grafton Street, phone 902/423-0909

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommerguides in bookstores now. Her book, Pauline Frommer's New York, was named Best Guidebook of the Year by the North American Travel Journalists Association.

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