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With the great outdoors all around you, vibrant coastal cities, big creatures and French-influenced culture, you’ll need a few trips to discover this North American giant
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Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park, British Columbia, Canada
Canada. The mind boggles. The world’s second largest country is almost the same size as Europe, but harbours just one-twentieth of its population. Stretched across tundra, prairies, mountains, and forests, you’ll find national parks the size of Switzerland and enough big fauna to populate the Serengeti. But this cradle of adventure and wilderness also comes equipped with plenty of 21st century comforts.
For every mining ghost town there’s a tech-savvy city; for every backcountry trek, a sophisticated neighbourhood stacked with trendy bars and boutiques. Enjoy the iconic maple syrup and the combative war-on-ice known as “hockey”; but find time for the lesser-known lures: nascent vineyards, surfing beaches, vestiges of the Vikings and the indigenous relics of Haida Gwaii.
As of 1 October, international travellers no longer have to show proof of vaccination to enter Canada, nor fill in the ArriveCAN pre-registration app. Random testing on arrival has also been scrapped. The Canadian government still recommends wearing a good quality mask on your plane to the country, though this is not enforced.
The best time to explore west-coast adventure haven British Columbia is between July and September, when the weather is warm and dry, and most trails and seasonal attractions are open. After Labour Day (first Monday in September), crowds quickly dissipate.
Ontario has long, bitter winters. The ideal time to visit is between June and October. In September and October, you can see fall colours transition through green, gold, maple and brown in Algonquin National Park.
The Yukon is particularly alluring around the time of the summer solstice in June, with long days and the opportunity to see the midnight sun in the far north.
While summer brings crowds and inflated prices, it’s also the best time to hit the lofty mountain ranges of the Rockies or British Columbia for snow-free hiking. In lower lying areas, consider indulging in outdoor activities during the shoulder months of May-June and September-October, when temperatures are lower and demand less excessive. Skiing is best in January and February, although still possible as late as mid-April in the larger snowier resorts such as Whistler.
Classic Canada-only holidays worth catching include Victoria Day (late May), Canada Day (July 1) and Thanksgiving (early October). Montreal hosts the world’s largest jazz festival in June-July.
Wedged between escarpment and sea, Vancouver is one the world’s most spectacular and aesthetically alluring cities. Drippy trees and well-raked beaches line the urban oasis of Stanley Park, while steep suburban streets curl up against the crinkled landscapes of the North Shore Mountains and their rugged hiking trails. But Vancouver is more than just a handsome muse; sustainability and diversity are evident too. Herein lies the best Asian dining scene outside Asia, an anthropological museum charting the history and art of indigenous culture, and a dense cluster of glassy skyscrapers guarding a grid of shopper-friendly streets. Welcome to a dynamic, forward-thinking Pacific Rim city with one foot in the great outdoors.
Like a slice of Francophone Europe that got disconnected and drifted west, Quebec City is Canada’s finest historical heirloom. Chateaus and forts are ringed by sturdy stone walls more than 400 years old, while jazzy bars and hip corner cafes bristle with romance, nostalgia, and communal high spirits. The best way to absorb the city’s French-Canadian essence is to wander the old quarter’s labyrinthine lanes, losing yourself amid the buskers and bistros and stopping at least once for a re-fortifying plate of poutine (chips doused with cheese curds and gravy). Stoics should visit in frigid February for Carnaval, a wintry festival of white-knuckle tobogganing, ice sculpting and throat-warming fortified wine.
The world’s third oldest national park is, arguably, Canada’s finest natural monument and a blueprint for successful environmental management elsewhere. Juxtaposing a salubrious townsite with tracts of climbable, bikeable, and hikeable backcountry, it traces a fine balance between ecological stewardship and satisfying visitor experience. Indeed, one of the great accomplishments of Banff is the way in which it mixes the wild with the cultivated. One minute you’re having afternoon tea in the elegant Banff Springs Hotel, the next you’re giving wide berth to a bear on an otherwise deserted above-the-treeline trail. Whichever route you follow, diversity abounds. Winter ski areas morph into summer flower meadows, historic hot springs sit next to modern spas. There’s even an international autumn film festival.
The last province to join the Canadian confederation, Newfoundland (and its mainland sibling, Labrador) united with the nation as recently as 1949. The historic apartness has lent the island a quirky, hospitable, and idiosyncratic personality. Historical echoes can be discerned in the 1000-year-old abandoned Viking settlement of L’Anse aux Meadows, while booze and bonhomie characterize the Celtic-themed pubs and live music scene of George Street in St John’s, North America’s oldest city. The equally Celtic looking landscapes are best experienced in the dramatic fjords, cliffs, and bogs of Gros Morne National Park or on the elemental shores of the Atlantic coast around Twillingate looking out for moose, whales, and icebergs.
Canada’s bilingual capital is home to the nation’s finest cluster of museums and art galleries along with a parliament building that rivals good ol’ London for gothic majesty. And what other government hub can claim the world’s largest skating rink on its doorstep? The Rideau Canal protects 7.8km of groomed winter ice with temporary huts set up on its frozen surface to ply warm snacks and skate hire. In summer, the historic waterway turns into a nexus for boating and gentle strolls between interconnecting parks.
Comprising a diminutive grid of carefully restored heritage buildings, Annapolis Royal in Nova Scotia dates from the early 17th century and is a direct descendant of the oldest European founded settlement in North America outside Florida. Replete with grand mansions reborn as atmospheric accommodations, a sprawling riverside redoubt (Fort Anne), and the ghosts of a tumultuous past that oscillated between British and French-Acadian control, it’s a tranquil place these days bereft of the strip malls and food franchises that infringe on many small Canadian towns. Decamp to a local inn and soak up the quiet authenticity.
The staging ground for the 19th century’s most notorious gold rush, tiny Dawson City in the Yukon Territory is a priceless nugget of gritty history that catalogues àthe highs and lows of what romantics like to depict as America’s ‘last great adventure’. Too far north and remote to be overrun with tourists, its raised wooden sidewalks and frontier-town architecture are eerily reminiscent of the days when Jack London stalked its sleazy streets (his former log cabin is part of a museum). These days you can take a guided tour around the former stores and saloons walking in the footsteps of the feverish prospectors of yore.
Thousands of years of Haida history imbue this Jamaica-sized archipelago off British Columbia’s coast. For a candid glimpse of the local indigenous culture, go hiking among the giant spruces and cedars that cloak its rain-soaked shores and allow yourself to be immersed in the mysticism. Bald eagles patrol the skies, bears stalk the forests, and whales breach in the surrounding waters. But the region’s true heart lies with the Haida people, renowned for their seamanship and skilled totem-pole carvings. Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve is the regional highlight, a fascinating melange of abandoned villages, weather-beaten totems, and some of the world’s best sea-kayaking.
One of the world’s premier ski resorts, Whistler combines two mountains and over 8,000 acres of skiable terrain courtesy of a vertigo-inducing peak-to-peak gondola. From the lofty dual summits of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, ample ski runs spiral down to a tastefully designed alpine-style village stuffed with plush hotels and a car-free main drag. In the unlikely event you get bored of the slippery stuff, the town has its own prestigious art gallery and one of Canada’s most heavenly bakeries. Those who prefer to veer away from the herd can enjoy an abundance of cross-country skiing terrain, including the 2010 Olympic biathlon course.
Seeing big fauna is a Canadian rite of passage and what better animal to ponder than the majestic polar bear? To view these fearsome ursids safely, take the train north from Winnipeg to Churchill, a lonesome outpost on the shores of Hudson Bay. Here, on the frozen Canadian tundra the bears follow an annual migration path between July and November, and you can track them on special tundra buggies.
Wrapped around the damp forests and deep inlets of western BC, the aptly named Sunshine Coast is home to Canada’s longest hut-to-hut hike, a 180km-long path that meanders past misty lakes, ancient trees, and serendipitous viewpoints. Started as a community-run conservation project in the early 1990s, the trail grew organically over two decades with the aim of protecting old growth forest around the town of Powell River. Long but only moderately challenging, the path and its overnight huts are free to use and scrupulously maintained by local volunteers. It can be tackled in short day hikes or as a 7-to-10-day backpacking adventure.
Canada is a car-dependent country. Compared to Europe, there is limited public transport outside the main cities. The country’s cross-country rail network run by VIA Rail, while spectacular and relatively cheap, is painfully slow compared to cars and planes (passenger trains generally yield to freight). Bus-wise, Greyhound closed all its operations in Canada in 2021. Various private bus companies have taken up the slack. Of note are Flixbus with services in Ontario and BC, and Mountain Man Mike whose eco-friendly buses between Vancouver and Calgary run on recycled restaurant frying oil. Roads are good but car rental will set you back at least C$100 (£66) per day.
Unless you’re coming from the US, chances are you’ll fly into one of Canada’s four main international airports: Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, or Calgary. Air Canada is the national carrier and is supplemented by budget airlines, Westjet and Air Transat, all of which serve a selection of European cities. The most popular US land border crossings are Niagara Falls and Windsor/Detroit, followed by Peace Arch on the west coast.
Aside from flights, accommodation will be your trip’s main budget gouger. To save cash, come off-season (early spring, late autumn), book well in advance, stay in smaller towns, and choose apartments with kitchenettes so you can buy and prepare your own food.
In the winter, it can be brutally cold throughout much of Canada with temperatures dropping to -40°C in the prairie provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Canada is officially bilingual. English is understood in most places. French is favoured in the province of Quebec and parts of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
There are three indigenous groups in Canada: First Nations, Innuit (indigenous people of the Arctic) and Métis (people of mixed European-indigenous ancestry). The First Nations are further split into 634 communities.
Canada stretches across five time zones from Vancouver in the west (GMT-8) to Newfoundland in the east (GMT-3.30).
Tipping is ingrained in the culture in Canada, although people don’t tip as extravagantly as they do in the US. Around 15-20 per cent is the standard. Credit card machines nearly always offer a tipping option.
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Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park, British Columbia, Canada
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