The home of ice hockey, the Niagara Falls, Mounties and maple syrup – not to mention Ryan Gosling, Céline Dion, Drake and of course, Justin Bieber – almost everyone on the planet knows something about Canada. Yet first-time visitors should expect some surprises, beginning with the immense size of the country, hard to appreciate until you get here. Canada’s cities – enchanting Québec, trendy Vancouver, cosmopolitan Toronto and stylish Montréal among them – are rich with historical and cultural treasures, but above all Canada is a land of stunningly beautiful landscapes, from the spectacular fjord-slashed coastlines of Newfoundland and the Maritimes, to the Rockies’ glittering lakes and majestic peaks, and the rippling prairie expanse with all the sky for a ceiling in between.
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The second largest country in the world (after Russia), Canada covers an area the United Kingdom could fit into 41 times over. Much of this expanse is sparsely inhabited and the majority of the 35 million Canadians live in its southern half, relatively close to the US border. Like its neighbour to the south, Canada is a spectrum of cultures, a hotchpotch of immigrant groups who supplanted the continent’s many Aboriginal peoples.
For the visitor, the mix that results from this mostly exemplary tolerance is an exhilarating experience, offering such widely differing cultural, artistic and culinary experiences as Vancouver’s huge Chinatown, the Inuit heartlands of the far north, the austere religious enclaves of Manitoba or the Celtic-tinged warmth of the Maritimes.
Yet – in stark contrast to their southern neighbours – some Canadians are often troubled by the lack of a clear self-image, tending to emphasize the ways in which their country is different from the US as a means of self-description. The question “What is a Canadian?” continues to linger, with the on-again, off-again and always acrimonious debate over Québec’s secession, but ultimately there can be no simple characterization of a people whose country is not so much a single nation as it is a committee on a continental scale. Pierre Berton, one of Canada’s finest writers, wisely ducked the issue: “A Canadian”, he quipped, is “someone who knows how to make love in a canoe”.
Despite this balancing act, one thing is clear: Canadians have an overwhelming sense of pride in their history, their culture and the mesmerizing beauty of their land. Indeed, Canada embraces all this – as well as its own clichés – with an energy that’s irresistible.
Ontario contains not only the country’s manufacturing heart and its largest city, Toronto, but also Niagara Falls, the premier tourist sight. North of Toronto there’s Georgian Bay, a beautiful waterscape of pine-studded islets set against crystal-blue waters. The bay is also accessible from the Canadian capital, Ottawa – not as dynamic as Toronto, but still well worth a stay for its galleries, museums and handful of superb restaurants.
Québec, set apart by the depth of its French culture, is anchored by its biggest city, Montréal, which is for many people the most vibrant place in the country, a fascinating mix of old-world style and commercial dynamism. The pace of life is more relaxed in the historic provincial capital Québec City, and more easygoing still in the villages dotted along the St Lawrence lowlands, where glittering spires attest to the enduring influence of the Catholic Church.
Across the mouth of the St Lawrence River, the pastoral Gaspé Peninsula – the easternmost part of Québec – borders New Brunswick, a densely forested introduction to the three Maritime Provinces, whose people have long been dependent on timber and the sea for their livelihood. Here, the tapering Bay of Fundy boasts mind-blowing tides – rising and falling by 9m or more – and superb maritime landscapes, while the region’s tiny fishing villages are at their most beguiling near Halifax, the busy capital of Nova Scotia. Even prettier are the land and seascapes of Cape Breton Island, whose rugged topography anticipates that of the island of Newfoundland to the north. Newfoundland’s isolation has spawned a distinctive culture that’s at its most lively in St John’s, where the local folk music scene is Canada’s best. The island also boasts some of the Atlantic seaboard’s finest landscapes, particularly the flat-topped peaks and glacier-gouged lakes of Gros Morne National Park.
Back on the mainland, the Prairie Provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan have a reputation for dullness that’s unfair: even in the flat southern parts there’s the diversion of Winnipeg, whose traces of its early days make it a good place to break a trans-Canadian journey. Numerous lakes and gigantic forests offer magnificent canoeing and hiking, and in the far north, beside Hudson Bay, Churchill – remote, but accessible by train – is famous for its polar bears, beluga whales and easy viewing of the Northern Lights. Moving west, the wheatfields of Alberta ripple into ranching country on the approach to the province’s two main cities, Edmonton and Calgary, grown fat on the region’s oil and gas fields. Calgary is especially known for its cowboys, rodeos and sumptuous steaks. Both cities provide useful springboards for trips into the Canadian Rockies – most popularly to the resorts of Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper – and the most spectacular scenery in the country, from mighty glaciers to the serene beauty of Moraine Lake and the rugged wilderness of Icefields Parkway.
Further west, British Columbia is a land of snow-capped summits, rivers and forests, pioneer villages, gold-rush ghost towns, and some of the greatest hiking, skiing, fishing and canoeing in the world. Its urban focus, Vancouver, is the country’s third largest city, known for its spectacular natural setting, fabulous food and a laidback West Coast hedonism. Off the coast lies Vancouver Island, a microcosm of the province’s immense natural riches and home to Victoria, a devotedly anglophile little city. It’s also well worth journeying over to the island’s west coast to take in the rugged beauty of Pacific Rim National Park’s Long Beach, Clayoquot Sound and surf town of Tofino.
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North of British Columbia, wedged alongside Alaska, is the Yukon Territory, half grandiose mountains, half subarctic tundra, and full of evocative echoes of the Klondike gold rush. Whitehorse, its capital, and Dawson City, a gold-rush relic, are the major towns here, each accessed by dramatic frontier highways. The Northwest Territories and Nunavut, covering the Canadian Arctic, are an immensity of forest, lakes, tundra and ice, the realm of Dene and Inuit Aboriginal peoples. Roads are virtually nonexistent in the deep north, and only the frontier city of Yellowknife, plus a handful of ramshackle villages, offer the air links and resources necessary to explore this wilderness.