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Novia Scotian outpost keeps foothold on the past. Annapolis Royal, once a tiny colony on the edge of the Canadian wilderness, illumines French and British history with its farmhouses and remains of forts

Mention ``Annapolis'' to most residents of the United States, and they're likely to think only of the capital city of Maryland, home of the US Naval Academy. But there is another Annapolis on this continent, and it is a good deal older than the Maryland capital. In fact, it was a capital itself once. Before the founding of Halifax in 1749, Annapolis Royal was the military and government headquarters of British Nova Scotia, as it had been for French Acadia throughout the 17th century.

Halifax, of course, has now become the capital of Nova Scotia and the leading city of Canada's Maritime Provinces, as well as one of the busiest seaports in North America.

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But what has become of Annapolis Royal in the 133 years since the last British garrison was removed?

The answer depends upon your view of progress. If growth is all that matters, Annapolis Royal has become a backwater. But if centuries of mellowing and refinement count for anything, this little town on an inlet of the Bay of Fundy has done very well for itself.

It is one of those rare places where the natural setting and the man-made environment have managed to remain harmonious, and where a rich overlay of history gives the visitor an opportunity to learn as well as look.

The French first sailed into the tidal basin of the Annapolis River in 1605. The settlement they established under the leadership of the Sieur de Monts and Samuel de Champlain was the first permanent European enclave north of Florida, and the place where the 150-year history of New France began.

Its destruction in 1613 by an expeditionary force of English settlers from Virginia and Massachusetts marked the beginning of a century of struggle during which Port Royal, as it was called by the French, was besieged 14 times and changed hands between France and Britain on no fewer than seven occasions.

The British flag went up for good in 1710, and the name of the town was changed to Annapolis (Anne's city) after Queen Anne.

Through a happy combination of survival and reconstruction, the most important physical reminders of both the French and British presences in Annapolis Royal are here for the exploring.

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At Port Royal, on the opposite shore of the Annapolis Basin a scant seven miles from town, the Canadian government has established Port Royal National Historic Park.

Here, on a promontory overlooking the wide basin and the surrounding hills, stands a meticulously crafted replica of the French ``Habitation'' of 1605-13.

Faithful to the written descriptions of Champlain and his fellow colonist Marc Lescarbot, as well as to what is known of Norman carpentry of the period, the Habitation serves to illustrate the life of a tiny, self-contained colony at the edge of the vast Canadian wilderness. This was where Champlain founded the Order of Good Cheer, an eating and drinking club meant to brighten the long first winter at the settlement, and where Lescarbot wrote (and settlers and Indians performed) ``The Theater of Neptune,'' the first play written in North America.

Today, knowledgeable and authentically costumed park personnel introduce visitors to the day-to-day life of the Habitation. On several occasions during the summer, the ``settlers'' go about their business by candlelight, as guests pass from room to room within the ring of steep-roofed wooden structures.

In Annapolis Royal itself, Fort Anne National Historic Park encompasses the remains of the French fortifications erected when the area was reclaimed and which the British took over in 1710. The 1797 officers' quarters contains military memorabilia of both occupations, as well as a re-creation of an Acadian farmhouse room.

Outside, a close-cropped field undulates with the contours of ruined earthworks, while a restored sally port and a 1708 stone-powder magazine recall the site's strategic importance.

Among Annapolis Royal's contemporary attractions, the most impressive is the Historic Gardens, a 10-acre tract developed over the past seven years as a horticultural tribute to the town's many-layered past.

Here are plantings representative of Acadian farm life (with a full-scale replica of a French colonial farmhouse); a formal Georgian garden such as one an English governor might have had; and an intricately styled Victorian garden with winding paths and beds of bright annuals. Some 200 species, old and modern, are seen in the Rose Garden, and there is even a pine ``forest'' suggestive of the Acadia that the Indians knew.

For all its compactness and small size (pop. 738, at last count), Annapolis Royal isn't merely a three-stops-and-we're-back-on the-road sort of place.

With a rich amalgam of Georgian through late Victorian architecture (including four of the oldest frame buildings in Canada) and shops representing skilled artisans whose work is far beyond tourist-grade crafts, this town is perfect for leisurely walks.

Stay for several days and you'll discover a scattering of small, free-admission house museums, a brand-new tidal power generating station that is open to visitors, and a busy summer cultural schedule that revolves around King's Theater, a vest-pocket downtown venue for plays and live music.

There are cozy inns and bed-and-breakfasts aplenty, and at least two of the restaurants are first-rate.

Best of all, the setting is magnificent.

Stop anywhere along St. George, downtown's busiest street, and you can look out across the Annapolis Basin to the hills and villages of modern-day Acadia, a place that has changed very carefully when it has changed at all.

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