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WHERE TO GO
The time and expense involved in covering Canada�s immense distances means that most visitors confine their explorations to the area around one of the main cities � usually Toronto, Montr�al, Vancouver or Calgary for arrivals by air. The attractions of these centres vary widely, but they have one thing in common with each other and all other Canadian towns � they are within easy reach of the great outdoors.
Canada�s most southerly region, south Ontario, contains not only the manufacturing heart of the country and its largest city, Toronto, but also Niagara Falls, Canada�s premier tourist sight. North of Toronto there�s the far less packaged scenic attraction of Georgian Bay, a beautiful waterscape of pine-studded islets set against crystal-blue waters. Like the forested Algonquin park, the bay is also accessible from the capital city of Ottawa, not as dynamic a place as Toronto, but still well worth a stay for its art galleries and museums. Qu�bec, set apart from the rest of the continent by the profundity of its French tradition, focuses on its biggest city, Montr�al, 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, Qu�bec City, and more easy-going still in the villages dotted along the St Lawrence lowlands, where glittering spires attest to the enduring influence of the Catholic Church. For something more bracing, you could continue north to Tadoussac, where whales can be seen near the mouth of the splendid Saguenay fjord � and if you�re really prepared for the wilds, forge on through to Labrador, as inhospitable a zone as you�ll find in the east.
Across the mouth of the St Lawrence, the pastoral Gasp� peninsula � the easternmost part of Qu�bec � borders New Brunswick, a mild-mannered 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 amazing tides � rising and falling by nine metres, sometimes more � whilst the tiny fishing villages characteristic of the region are at their most beguiling near Halifax, the bustling capital of Nova Scotia. Perhaps even prettier, and certainly more austere, 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 the capital, St John�s, where the local folk-music scene is the country�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, separating Ontario from Alberta and the Rockies, the so-called prairie provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan have a reputation for dullness that�s somewhat 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. To the north, the myriad lakes and gigantic forests of the provinces� wilderness regions offer magnificent canoeing and hiking, especially within Prince Albert National Park. Up in the far north, beside Hudson Bay, the settlement of Churchill � remote but accessible by train � is famous for its polar bears, who gather near town from the end of June waiting to move out over the ice as soon as the bay freezes.
Moving west, Alberta�s wheatfields ripple into ranching country on the approach to the Canadian Rockies, whose international reputation is more than borne out by the reality. The provincial capital, Edmonton, is overshadowed by Calgary, a brash place grown fat on the region�s oil and gas fields, and the most useful springboard for a venture into the mountains. British Columbia embodies the popular picture of Canada to perfection: a land of snowcapped summits, rivers and forests, pioneer villages, gold-rush ghost towns, and some of the greatest hiking, skiing, fishing and canoeing opportunities in the world. Its urban focus, Vancouver, is the country�s third city, known for its spectacular natural setting and a laid-back 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.
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 virtually the only towns here, each accessed by dramatic frontier highways. The Northwest Territories and Nunavut, arching over the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, are an immensity of stunted forest, lakes, tundra and ice, the realm of Dene and Inuit native bands whose traditional way of life is being threatened as oil and gas exploration reaches up into the Arctic. Roads are virtually non-existent in the deep north, and only Yellowknife, a bizarre frontier city, plus a handful of ramshackle villages, offer the air links and resources necessary to explore this wilderness.
WHEN TO GO
Obviously Canada�s climate is varied and changeable, but it�s a safe generalization to say that the areas near the coast or the Great Lakes have milder winters and cooler summers than the interior. July and August are reliably warm throughout the country, even in the far north, making these the hottest but also the busiest months to visit. November to March, by contrast, is an ordeal of sub-zero temperatures almost everywhere except on the west coast, though winter days in many areas are clear and dry, and all large Canadian towns are geared to the challenge of cold conditions, with covered walkways and indoor malls protecting their inhabitants from the worst of the weather.
More specifically, the Maritimes and eastern Canada have four distinct seasons: chill, snowy winters; short, mild springs; warm summers (which are shorter and colder in northern and inland regions); and long crisp autumns. Summer is the key season in the resorts, though late September and October, particularly in New Brunswick, are also popular for the autumn colours. Coasts year-round can be blanketed in mist or fog.
In Ontario and Qu�bec the seasons are also marked and the extremes intense, with cold, damp and grey winters in southern Ontario (drier and colder in Qu�bec) and a long temperate spring from about April to June. Summers can be hot, but often uncomfortably humid, with the cities often empty of locals but full of visitors. The long autumn can be the best time to visit, with equable temperatures and few crowds.
The central provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta experience the country�s wildest climatic extremes, suffering the longest, harshest winters, but also some of the finest, clearest summers, punctuated by fierce thunderstorms. Winter skiing brings a lot of people to the Rockies, but summer is still the busiest time, especially in the mountains, where July and August offer the best walking weather and the least chance of rain, though this often falls in heavy downpours, the mirror of winter�s raging blizzards.
The southwestern parts of British Columbia enjoy some of Canada�s best weather: the extremes are less marked and the overall temperatures generally milder than elsewhere. Much of the province, though, bears the brunt of Pacific depressions, so this is one of the country�s damper regions � visiting between late spring and early autumn offers the best chance of missing the rain. Across the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut winters are bitterly cold, with temperatures rarely above freezing for months on end, though precipitation year-round is among the country�s lowest. Summers, by contrast, are short but surprisingly warm, and spring � though late � can produce outstanding displays of wild flowers across the tundra.