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.
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 (one of their strange foods, jellied moose nose, probably best sums this up). But 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.
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.
The British and French were latecomers to Canada, a country that for thousands of years was home to a vast aboriginal population (or “First Nations”). Today, almost a million Canadians claim descent from these first peoples, from the so-called “Indians” of the central and western heartlands, to the Inuit, inhabitants of the great sweep of Canada’s north. A third group, the Métis – descendants of mixed unions of white and aboriginal people – also have a distinct identity, part of a rich cultural, social and artistic mosaic that provides a beguiling complement to the mainstream. You’ll find evidence of Canada’s former aboriginal life in many museums and galleries, and plenty of areas nurturing living aboriginal cultures, though there’s no escaping the fact that many aboriginal people are among the most marginalized of Canadians.
• Canada has the 11th largest economy in the world; the country’s richest person is David Thomson (chairman
of Thomson Reuters), worth around $30 billion.
• It’s true: the Canadian province of Québec is by far the largest producer of maple syrup in the world (accounting for three-quarters of global output).
• Established in 1964, Tim Hortons is a Canadian icon, with over 3000 doughnut and “double-double” (coffee with two sugars and two creams) stores nationwide.
• Unbeknown to most Americans, Hollywood is crammed with Canadians: Michael Cera, Ryan Gosling, Evangeline Lily, Rachel McAdams, Mike Myers, Ellen Page, Keanu Reeves, Ryan Reynolds, Seth Rogen, Kiefer Sutherland and William Shatner (Captain Kirk!) among them.
• Since 1952, Saturday nights have been home to “Hockey Night in Canada” on CBC, when thousands are glued to the TV to pay homage to the national sport.
Canada’s mountains, lakes, rivers and forests offer the opportunity to indulge in a vast range of outdoor pursuits. We’ve concentrated on fishing, hiking, skiing and canoeing – four of Canada’s most popular activities – and on the national parks, which have been established to preserve and make accessible the best of the Canadian landscape.
Other popular activities such as whale-watching, riding and rafting are covered in some detail in the main text. Once in Canada you can rely on finding outfitters, equipment rental, charters, tours and guides to help you in most areas; tourist offices invariably carry full details or contact numbers.
Canada’s 37 national parks and eight national park reserves are administered by Parks Canada (w pc.gc.ca), and local staff based at park information centres. Visit these to pick up special permits if you intend to fish or camp in the backcountry, and for information and -audiovisual displays on flora, fauna and outdoor activities. Many offer talks and nature walks presented by park naturalists, as well as reports on snow, weather and recent bear sightings. The national parks system also administers 168 National Historic Sites – important historical sites dotted around the country.
Supplementing the national parks is a network of provincial parks in every province in the country. Entry to these parks is sometimes free, though often you’ll have to pay a small fee of around $5. You’ll also have to pay for fishing and hunting permits as well as campgrounds on top of this; specifics vary from province to province.
All those entering Canada’s national sites and parks require a park permit, regardless of their mode of transport, though permits are usually sold to cover all those entering in a particular vehicle from a roadside booth on the park boundary. This costs around $7.80 to $9.80 per person per day with concessions for the young and old. If you intend to visit a number of national parks and sites, it might be worth investing in an annual Discovery Pass, which provides one adult unlimited admission to all parks and national historic sites for $67.70; family or group passes, covering a whole car-load of people, cost around double.
Additional permits are also required to fish (see Bears, cougars and snakes) and backcountry camp in national parks: both are generally available from park information centres.
Canada boasts some of North America’s finest hiking, and whatever your ability or ambition you’ll find a walk to suit almost anywhere in the country. All the national and many provincial parks have well-marked and well-maintained trails, and a visit to any park centre or local tourist office will furnish you with adequate maps of the usually very easily followed local paths. If you’re venturing into the backcountry try to obtain the appropriate 1:50,000 sheet from the Canadian Topographical Series. For key hiking areas we’ve given a brief summary of the best trails in the appropriate parts of the Guide, though with over 1500km of paths in Banff National Park alone, these recommendations only scratch the surface. Park staff can advise on other good walks, and detailed trail guides are widely available for most popular regions.
Before setting off on anything more than a short stroll be properly informed of local conditions and be properly equipped. Hiking at lower elevations should present few problems, though swarms of blackflies in the spring and mosquitoes near water can drive you crazy; anything containing DEET should be a fairly reliable repellent. For more on specific health problems.
The most extensive and rewarding hiking-trail networks are in the Rockies national parks of Alberta and BC. Thousands of kilometres of well-kept and well-tramped paths crisscross the four main parks – Banff, Jasper, Yoho and Kootenay – as well as the smaller enclaves of Glacier, Revelstoke and Waterton Lakes. Scope for hiking of all descriptions is almost limitless. More modest areas dotted all over BC boast walking possibilities out of all proportion to their size: we pay less attention to these, but by most relative standards hiking here is still among the best in North America.
In Manitoba, the Riding Mountain National Park offers about thirty hiking trails, but though there’s plenty of upland walking to be had in the prairie provinces, you have to move east to Québec’s Mauricie, Forillon and Gatineau parks for a taste of mountains comparable to the western provinces. In Ontario, Lake Superior Provincial Park and Algonquin Park are the most challenging terrains. New Brunswick’s Fundy National Park offers coastal walks, while Newfoundland’s hiking centres on its two national parks: Terra Nova on the East Coast, and the high plateau and fjords of the West Coast’s Gros Morne. For the truly bold, however, nothing can match the Arctic extremes of Baffin Island, whose principal trail lies over an icecap that never melts.
In areas with highly developed trail networks, seasoned backpackers can blaze their own long-distance walking routes by stringing together several longer trails. Recognized long-haul paths are relatively rare, though more are being designated yearly. One of the best is the Chilkoot Trail from Dyea in Alaska to Bennett in BC, a 53km hike that closely follows the path of prospectors en route to the Yukon during the 1898 gold rush. The most popular is probably Vancouver Island’s demanding West Coast Trail, which runs for 75km along the edge of the Pacific Rim National Park.
More far-reaching walks include the Rideau Trail, which follows paths and minor roads for 386km from Kingston to Ottawa (w rideautrail.org); the 690km Bruce Trail from Queenston, on the Niagara River, to Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsula (w brucetrail.org); and the Voyageur Trail along the north shores of lakes Superior and Huron, which is the longest and most rugged route in the province (w voyageurtrail.ca). In the Maritimes, the Confederation Trail cuts a bucolic path across PEI, while the Fundy Trail in New Brunswick and, in particular, the East Coast Trail in Newfoundland offer a more rugged experience.
Wherever there’s good hiking in Canada, there’s also usually skiing. The increasingly popular resorts of the Rockies and BC are the main areas and the country’s leading resorts are at Whistler, Banff and Lake Louise. But there’s also great skiing in Québec, and a few good runs at the minor day resorts that dot the other provinces. Most cities are also close to excellent cross-country trail networks.
Canadian ski packages are available from travel agents worldwide, but it’s perfectly feasible to organize your own trips, as long as you book well ahead if you’re hoping to stay in some of the better-known resorts. Costs for food, accommodation and ski passes are still fairly modest by US and European standards: expect to pay $50–75 per day (depending on the quality and popularity of the resort) for lift passes, plus another $30 or more per day to rent equipment.
Canada is fishing nirvana. While each region has its specialities, from the Arctic char of the Northwest Territories to the Pacific salmon of BC, excellent fishing can be found in most of the country’s abundant lakes, rivers and coastal waters. Many towns have a fishing shop for equipment, and any spot with fishing possibilities is likely to have companies running boats and charters. Most provinces publish detailed booklets on everything that swims within the area of their jurisdiction.
Fishing is governed by a range of regulations that vary between provinces and are usually baffling at first glance, but usually boil down to the need for a nonresident permit for freshwater fishing, and another for saltwater fishing. These are increasingly available online (search the provincial government websites) or from most local fishing or sports shops for $60 and up, and are valid for a year. Short-term (one- or six-day) licences are also available in some provinces ($15–30). For nonresidents, fishing in Ontario requires an Outdoors Card for $11.94 (valid for three years; if you plan to fish for one day only, you can skip this), plus a fishing licence: one year is $85.53, while one day is $25.27 (call t 1 800 387 7011). Alberta fishing licences are $70.90 (one year) and $28 (one day); Northwest Territories charges $40 per season and $30 for three days; while BC charges a whopping $80 annually ($20 for one day). Newfoundland licences are required for salmon ($53 per season) and trout ($8 per season), with seasons strictly regulated. Additional permits are required to fish in national parks (where fishing is allowed); available from park administration centres, these cost around $34.30 annually or $9.80 daily. There may well be quotas on the types and numbers of fish you can catch, which you can find out when you buy a permit.
Opportunities for canoeing are limited only by problems of access and expertise: some of the rapids and portages on the country’s more challenging routes are for real pros only. The most straightforward regions to canoe are in Ontario, with its estimated 250,000 lakes and 35,000km of waterways, some 25,000km of which have been documented as practical canoe routes. The key areas are the Algonquin, Killarney and Quetico provincial parks, though the single most popular run is the 190km Rideau Canal, a tame stretch from Kingston to Ottawa.
The rivers of BC offer generally more demanding whitewater routes, though the lake canoeing – in Wells Gray Provincial Park, for example – is among the country’s most beautiful. One of the province’s other recognized classics is the 120km trip near Barkerville on the Cariboo River and the lakes of the Bowron Lakes Provincial Park. More challenging still are the immense backcountry lakes and rivers of the Mackenzie River system and the Barrenlands of the Northwest Territories, where you can find one of the continent’s ultimate river challenges – the 300km stretch of the South Nahanni River near Fort Simpson. Growing in popularity, partly because of improved road access, are trips on and around the Yukon River system, particularly the South Macmillan River east of Pelly Crossing. Other areas that will test the resources of any canoeist are to be found in Manitoba and Labrador – all detailed in this guide.
Once you’ve decided on an area, provincial tourist offices can provide full lists of outfitters. These will rent out equipment, organize boat and plane drop-offs, and arrange provisions for longer trips. Costs range from $150 to $250 for weekly canoe rental.
Realistically, your biggest irritations while hiking are likely to be mosquitoes, flies and blackflies and hiking in the Canadian wilderness is far safer than wandering around most cities, but make no mistake, bears are potentially very dangerous, and most people blow a whistle while walking in bear country to warn them off. If confronted don’t run, make loud noises or sudden movements, all of which are likely to provoke an attack.
Cougars pose a somewhat lesser threat, with most attacks occurring in BC – unlike bears, the best strategy with cougars is to try and fight them off (they usually avoid groups altogether).
Snake bites are more common in some parts of Canada (there are rattlesnakes in Georgian Bay Islands National Park for example), but even then only a handful are reported each year and fatalities are rare – wear proper boots and if you do disturb a snake back away so that it has room to move freely. Even the most venomous bites can be treated successfully if you receive immediate medical attention (call t 911 or notify park staff).
It’s pure paddling pleasure in Ontario, with Point Pelee National Park’s winding freshwater marshes and Algonquin Provincial Park’s network of lakes.
The islets of Québec’s Mingan Archipelago or BC’s lush Gulf Islands are both national park reserves.
Jasper’s Icefields Parkway is a superlative mountain drive, but the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Highlands is a fine maritime alternative.
Banff’s credentials can’t be denied, but to escape the crowds, head to Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland.
Radium or Banff Upper hot springs in the Rockies: both offer steaming waters to soothe the tired traveller.
Nahanni National Park in the Northwest Territories just edges Jasper for wild whitewater thrills.
From travel safety to visa requirements, discover the best tips for traveling to Travel Guide Canada