24 hours in Halifax

Andrew Bain views artefacts from the Titanic and is rocked by a cannon blast in a harbour city rich with maritime history.

A Hobart-sized city wrapped around a Sydney-sized harbour, Halifax was founded in 1749 to defend Nova Scotia from the French on nearby Cape Breton Island. Despite its uninviting beginning, today it's a city as welcoming as any in Canada.

Built on one of the world's deepest natural harbours, it's a place still ruled by defence - from the original citadel that dominates the cityscape to the presence of one of Canada's largest naval stations - but into the mix there are now six universities, a thriving nightlife, a burgeoning culinary reputation and kilometres of pretty coastline stretching out from its edges.

7am Lit by the rising sun, Halifax's waterfront is at its best in the early morning, so begin with a stroll along the boardwalk to the Historic Properties, a collection of warehouses dating from about 1800. Inside is the tiny, eclectic Loaf, Leaf n' Ladle, serving breakfasts such as french toast and smoked-salmon benedict. That it has no seating is no matter - take your breakfast to the water's edge and watch the Halifax day begin.

Loaf, Leaf n' Ladle, Historic Properties, 1869 Upper Water Street, breakfast 7-11am, see www.historicproperties.ca.

9.30am The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic has about 26,000 items in its collection but it's the handful of artefacts from the Titanic that lures most visitors into the waterfront museum. Halifax was the nearest city to the world's most famous shipwreck and three Halifax ships were involved in the rescue efforts. Maritime tradition was for rescuers to take souvenirs from notable shipwrecks and in the museum are items such as a Titanic deckchair, parts of the balustrade from the grand staircase, the liner's only intact cabinet, a child's shoes and an officer's buttons. On a wall are the names of all Titanic passengers, with the survivors in white type and the dead in black. Of equal interest in the museum is a display on the Halifax Explosion, when a Norwegian ship collided with a munitions ship in Halifax harbour in 1917, producing the largest man-made explosion before the atomic-bomb era. It shattered windows 100 kilometres away and killed 1900 people.

Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, 1675 Lower Water Street, open 9.30am-5.30pm, entry $C8.75 ($9.40), see www.museum.gov.ns.ca/mma.

11am From the waterfront, downtown Halifax rises up the hill to the star-shaped Halifax Citadel, said to be Canada's most-visited National Historic Site. Built to protect the city from land attack, it was immortalised in poetry by Rudyard Kipling as the Warden of the Honour of the North and contains extensive displays on the history of the citadel and Halifax's strategic position in military history. Stick around for the midday cannon, fired to great ceremony every day (except Christmas Day) since 1856. This is followed by a performance from the pipers and drummers of the 78th Highlanders in the open citadel grounds.

Halifax Citadel, open 9am-5pm, entry $C11.70, see www.pc.gc.ca/eng/lhn-nhs/ns/halifax/index.aspx.

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12.30pm Just outside the citadel entrance, Fid Resto is Halifax's original local-food restaurant. Once one of the city's fine-dining stars, it recently made the step down to casual dining but the quality remains, with chef Dennis Johnston sourcing most produce from the city's Saturday morning farmers' market. Fresh colours complement the fresh food and the influences are Asian. Think green curry and pad thai. If you want to walk-off the meal, Halifax's best shopping strip, Spring Garden Road, is around the corner.

Fid Resto, 1569 Dresden Row, open for lunch and dinner, +1 902 422 9162, see www.fidresto.ca.

2pm A 45-minute drive from Halifax, Peggy's Cove might have been just another struggling fishing village except for its lighthouse. Instead, the century-old, 15-metre-high lighthouse, sitting atop boulders deposited by long-gone glaciers, has become the quintessential image of the Canadian Maritimes. In the small village, coloured shacks dot the wind-stunted vegetation and the harbour is overhung with fishing sheds. The fish traps are matched by the tourist traps - gift shops, cottages converted to galleries and souvenir stores - but nothing overshadows the raw and rugged beauty of the place.

5pm Returning to Halifax, it's worth heading up into the city's north and ending the sightseeing day as it began: with memories of the Titanic. Halifax was the major burial site for Titanic victims, with 150 bodies laid to rest in three cemeteries. More than 120 of them are in Fairview Cemetery, where three lines of graves contain the same date of death - April 15, 1912 - and lists of body numbers. Some graves remain unnamed and unidentified, including a poignant one for an unknown child, with toys invariably spread around its base. In the middle row - body No.227 - is the grave of J. Dawson, the man played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie Titanic. The cemetery is also the burial site for unidentified victims of the Halifax Explosion.

Fairview Cemetery, Windsor Street, North End.

6pm Time for a pre-dinner drink, Halifax-style. Established in 1820, Alexander Keith's Nova Scotia Brewery is one of North America's oldest working breweries. Hour-long tours of the operation are run by drama students from one of the city's universities and are more about cheer than the history of beer. Visitors are whisked back to the brewery's heyday of 1863 - the actresses squeezed into corsets, the actors with Abraham Lincoln beards - and hurry past the mashers and kettles to the Stag's Head, a re-created 19th-century inn, where you can sample Keith's five brews while the guides spin yarns and sing ditties. Performances are as bubbly as the ales.

Alexander Keith's Nova Scotia Brewery, 1496 Lower Water Street, tours noon-8pm, $C16, +1 877 612 1820, see www.keiths.ca.

8pm Halifax comes into its own in the evening, with the city's new-found reputation as a dining destination evident in its selection as host city for the inaugural World Culinary Tourism Thought Leadership World Summit this year. Voted the city's best fish restaurant five years running, the Five Fishermen has remarkable value for a fine-dining venue - in summer, three-course menus, including a flute of bubbly, are only $40, while all main courses include free pickings from the restaurant's famed mussel bar. The restaurant also has the city's most extensive wine list, ranging from Mildura to Lebanon, Austria to Argentina, as well as Nova Scotia's 11 wineries.

Five Fishermen, 1740 Argyle Street, open from 5pm, +1 902 422 4421, see www.fivefishermen.com.

10pm Pubs abound in Halifax and, unsurprisingly for a place named Nova Scotia (New Scotland), Celtic music figures heavily. Free-spirited, social pubs with live music include Lower Deck in the Historic Properties and Split Crow in the city centre. For down-home blues, head to Bearly's.

Lower Deck, Historic Properties, 1869 Upper Water Street, see www.lowerdeck.ca; Split Crow, 1855 Granville Street, see www.splitcrow.com; Bearly's, 1269 Barrington Street, see www.bearlys.ca.

Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Air Canada has flights to Halifax for about $2460, flying from Sydney to Vancouver (14hr), then Toronto (4hr 20min), then Halifax (2hr). Melbourne passengers connect in Sydney and pay about $2480. Fares are low-season return and include taxes. It may be cheaper to buy a fare to New York or Boston and then another to Halifax but you'll have to clear US immigration.

Titanic exhibition Melbourne Museum's Titanic artefact exhibition opened yesterday and runs until October 17.

See www.titanicmelbourne.com.

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