For lovers of nature, perhaps there is no better destination on this Earth than Canada. Possessing the second largest land mass on Earth, and holding plenty of world class natural highlights within that territory, lovers of mountains, boundless prairies, and epic coastal views alike will come away from a trip to this country with tons of stories and a big smile on their face.
This isn’t to say that Canada has no cultural assets: despite its young history, there are a plethora of significant points of interest relating to the birth of this vast nation, especially in Eastern and Central Canada. Adding to the ease of travel is Canada’s status as one of the safest nations on Earth, with crime stats that pale in comparison to their neighbours to the south. Common sense still applies here, but the extraordinary precautions against nuisances like pickpockets that exist in other developed nations in the world will generally not be necessary here.
Issues that prospective travellers do need to be aware of here are two fold. The first is any Canadian’s favourite conversation piece: the weather. Unless you hail from Northern Europe or Russia, chances are you will be taken by surprise by the severe cold, snow and other icy aspects of a true Canadian winter, a season which can span more than half the year in some portions of the country. Pack your warmest clothes, then make a beeline to the nearest thrift store upon arrival to kit yourself out with all the cold weather you’ll need. If you have the money, any sports equipment store is bound to have the latest and greatest in cold weather protection, but it doesn’t come cheap!
This ties nicely into the second subject of concern: the cost of living. Compared to the United States to the south, pretty well everything in Canada costs markedly more than our neighbours, from accommodations and food, to gasoline and even booze. As such, plan on spending at least $60 to $70 a day if you’re staying in hostels, and considerably more if you’re staying in motels/hotels, which start at a minimum of $60 a night for the most basic room.
In many traveller hotspots, jobs are available to help you defray the cost of your trip, especially in the west, where hospitality and service industry jobs have been left vacant by locals seeking a job in construction, manufacturing and in the oil and gas sector. It is possible to get a job in the latter industry for foreigners with a valid work visa as well, which can go a long way to funding a trip across this great nation in style.
With all there is to see, giving yourself as long a runway as possible will allow you to appreciate Canada to the maximum extent possible.
Currency: Canadian Dollar
Languages: English, French
What To Do
After sleeping off the effects of the jetlag that comes from enduring a long haul flight, start your Canadian adventure in Vancouver, taking time to admire the North Shore Mountains from the seawall of verdant Stanley Park. Vancouver’s uber-competitive food scene has also produced crazy bargains, so try some of the best value sushi, donairs, or pizza by the slice that you’ve ever had in your life.
After enjoying Van City’s unique combination of nature and urbanity, take the Tsawwassen ferry to Victoria, British Columbia‘s provincial capital, which has a small town feel despite its status, and a marked influence from its days as a significant frontier settlement for the British on the Pacific seaboard. Enjoy some of the best fish and chips that you have ever tried at Red Fish Blue Fish at the Inner Harbour, and be sure to stick around after sunset to get an excellent photo of the BC legislature at night.
One of BC’s foremost cultural attractions lies within a 30 minute local bus ride north of the city on the Saanich Peninsula, as the Buchart Gardens took what used to be an ugly rock quarry and has turned it around into a blizzard of floral colour. Nurtured by the most favourable climate in the entire country (snow doesn’t fall in many winters, and the area sits in a rainshadow, limiting the heavy downpours seen elsewhere in Southern BC), an unimaginable variety of flowers and plants thrive here, culminating in the world famous view at the Sunken Garden.
While British Columbia could serve as the focus for an entire trip to Canada, if you wish to see the essence of this entire country, then it’s time to move on to Alberta and the Canadian Rockies, where this nation’s legacy of protecting its natural environment began. After railworkers discovered a delightfully piping hot spring at the base of Sulphur Mountain in the 1880’s, the decision to make the area a protected reserve was made by the federal government, and in doing so, Canada’s first national park, Banff National Park, was created.
While the hot springs are definitely worth a taking a dip in (do so in 1920’s era bathing suits for a good laugh!), the primary draw here are the numerous exquisitely carved peaks, products of glacial erosion in the last Ice Age, with the sides ground out in starkly beautiful formations, and the valley bottom sunk even lower to create the enormous vertical prominence that elicits gasps from all that see them on first sight. Go on lots of hikes, as there are plenty available, from quick day hikes, to multi-night backpacking treks. Even if you don’t have the gear, rent some and spend a couple of nights out camping in the wilds of Banff – you won’t regret it!
Finish out your time in Alberta by driving the Icefields Parkway, taking in the waterfalls, insane peaks, and the massive glaciers that give this award-winning highway its name. Jasper National Park to the north offers similar wilderness experiences to Banff, but with fewer fellow tourists. If you only do one thing here, spend a day at Maligne Lake, and either rent a canoe/kayak or go on the boat cruise … your mind will be blown no matter what you decide to do!
At this point either fly to Winnipeg if you’re pressed for time, or drive across Saskatchewan and Manitoba to this Prairie burg, marvelling at the surprising simplistic beauty of the flat farmland along the way, and allow the warm hospitality of the people here to warm your heart.
Once you’ve settled in the Peg and have taken a quick trip to The Forks Public Market, hop on a train to the lonely arctic port of Churchill. This shipping terminal is only open to boat traffic for a couple of months per year (the rest are icebound), but it is this momentary lack of ice that drives polar bears onto land from their icy fishing perches, which has given rise to polar bear safari operations.
Trained experts will keep you safe, and if this bucket list experience is not enough for you, there are tours that also allow you to witness the migration of the white beluga whale in season.
After traversing the Canadian Shield in Northern Ontario (this takes 2-3 days at a relaxing pace, and 1 1/2 days if you’re racing through) and making quick stops to climb the Sleeping Giant promontory in Thunder Bay, and to stare out contemplatively across Lake Superior and Georgian Bay at various provincial parks, get down to the south to Toronto, Canada‘s biggest metropolis. Resist the temptation to go hunting for Rob Ford and proceed to the CN Tower, one of the world’s tallest freestanding structures. The views over Toronto’s cityscape will prove to be the proper introduction to one of the nation’s most multicultural environments.
After enjoying several days of exploring Toronto’s various engrossing neighbourhoods, head down to Niagara Falls, one of the world’s most photographed waterfalls. While the horseshoe shaped cataracts will leave your jaw agape, that will just be the start of your fun (unless you hate cheesy tourist trap attractions), as amusement parks, various restaurants and two major casinos stand ready to entertain you until your ennui subsides.
Round out your whirlwind tour of Ontario by setting your GPS for Ottawa, the national capital of Canada. Here, Parliament Hill is home to the centrepiece structure where this nation’s issues are debated and laws are made. Even if politics does not interest you, the architecture will amaze you, as the Gothic Revival stylings of all the buildings will keep you interested even as your tour guide drones on about history and the process of making laws.
Next on the agenda is the most controversial and one of the most unique parts of Canada, which is the province of Quebec. This province is the only place where French speakers are in the majority; most locals know at least a little English, but efforts to speak French will be warmly received!
Montreal will stretch your body to its limits by making you climb Mont Royal for the killer views, by plugging your arteries with food that tastes so amazing, you won’t care if it shaves a few days off your life, and by rocking you with some of the best nightlife in the entire country on Ste. Catherine’s Street.
After recovering from these epic times, the Old Town of Quebec City will round out your time in la belle province with a 400 year old cityscape that will make you feel like you just steeped through a portal to Europe. After walking its streets for an afternoon, end your time here at La Chateau Frontenac, an old hotel that still serves its prestigious purpose in the present day, and a structure that is a defining feature of the skyline of Quebec City.
Moving on to the Atlantic Provinces (an often forgotten part of Canada), New Brunswick will charm you with its covered bridges, including one that is the longest in the world in Hartland. The Hopewell Flower Pots are also worth checking out on the Fundy Coast, as these sea stacks have been shaped by the world’s highest tides, the flipside of which enables them to be seen from below at low tide.
On Prince Edward Island, Canada‘s smallest province in area and population, the biggest attraction by far, apart from the soothing rural pace of life, is the house that inspired the stories behind Anne of Green Gables. Situated in PEI National Park, the natural setting and day to day life on this farm served as fodder for Lucy Maud Montgomery’s books, causing floods of tourists from all over the world to visit here every year.
Back on the mainland in Nova Scotia, many of the major sights can be found on Cape Breton Island, as the low mountains and seascapes of the Cabot Trail, and the former defensive bulwark of the French, the Fortress of Louisburg, can be found here. Take at least a few days to drive the former (fall is best for mind-bending colours), and the latter employs skilled interpreters to take you back to a time where France was on the eve of facing off against Britain for the last time (Seven Year’s War) to see who would rule vice in the lands where Eastern Canada exists today.
Finally, roll onto the ferry to Newfoundland and Labrador, and enter another of the unique societies that exist within Canada, the only place in Canada where an actual dialect of English is spoken (there’s actually a dictionary of Newfoundland English!). The people and countless kaleidoscopic fishing villages will prove to be the main attraction here, but the early history of the Earth is exposed to everyone to see in Gros Morne National Park.
Head to a place referred to as the Tablelands, where the Nevada-like landscape owes its origin to the exposure of the Earth’s mantle over 1 billion years ago. Finally, make for St. John’s, one of North America’s oldest cities, and George Street, which contains more drinking establishments per capita than anywhere else in Canada.
After your hangover from getting screeched in wears off the next day, head to Cape Spear, the most easterly point in Canada … here, you are closer to Dublin, Ireland than to the rough geographic centre of the country in Thunder Bay. Crazy!
What To Eat
For better or worse, Poutine is the dish that Canada is best known for. Far from being a healthy meal, Poutine originated in a restaurant in Quebec in the late 1950’s, and translates into English as “mess”, which is an apt description for this dish of french fries topped with cheese curds, which is then overlaid by hot gravy. Look for it across the country at places pedalling in fast/drunk food, but the best varieties come out of Quebec, so be sure to have it here, if you only have it once.
When in Newfoundland, make an effort to track down a local diner or a family through couchsurfing, and get them to make you Jiggs dinner, which is a Sunday favourite province wide. This plate of savoury food consists of salted beef, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, and turnips that have been boiled together, and it is served with gravy, butter, cranberry sauce and other condiments.
In the century and change that Canada has existed, unique Canadian food has been slow in coming, but the dessert department has yielded a couple of delicious candidates. The Beavertail, which is a fried dough treat named by the company that owns its trademark, is coated with a wide variety of toppings, from whipped cream to cinammon sugar to crumbled Oreos, and so on.
The Nanaimo Bar also finds its rightful place in the dessert case of bakeries across the nation, by being easy to make and very addictive to eat: always a winning combination. Starting with a bottom sweet wafer layer, the middle layer contain vanilla custard, and that is topped by melted chocolate that is hardened through several hours in the refrigerator. Once you try one, you’ll never be the same again!