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. 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.

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