Canada

Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Canada.

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Heli-Skiing and Heli-Hiking – British Columbia, Canada

High-Altitude Heaven Just a Hover Away

British Columbia’s remote southeast corner is the largest contiguous wilderness area in the Americas and a year-round wonderland just begging to be explored – but how, as the area is almost completely devoid of roads? Canadian Mountain Holidays solved that problem beginning in 1965, ferrying in outdoor enthusiasts aboard its fleet of helicopters.

Today, it remains one of the most reputable heli-adventure outfitters in the world, and in southeastern BC also operates twelve lodges perched at about 4,000 feet in the Cariboo, Bugaboo, Monashee, and Purcells mountain ranges. In the winter months, each lodge promises its forty-some heli-skiing guests exclusive access to 14,000 square miles of virgin snow – about 300 times more than even the largest of North America’s ski resorts can offer, and without a chairlift (or chairlift line) in sight.

Only strong, intermediate to advanced skiers need apply: In the course of one mind-boggling week, helicopters set them down for eight to fifteen different runs per day, all on snow uncrossed by any other human’s tracks.

The preferences and skills of the individual – and the expert guides and pilots’ consideration of weather and snow conditions – will determine the day’s adventure, all bookended by mountain-man breakfasts and epicurean dinners, with a massage to round things out.

As soon as the snows melt, expectations turn to hiking and trekking through a primordial world full of wildflowers, massive glaciers, rivulets, and monumental views of dozens of snow-capped, mile-high peaks. Some heli-hiking ambles are gentle enough to accommodate four-generation-family groups; others require a degree of technical skill and even some mountaineering experience – the possibilities are endless.

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The Gulf Islands and the Hastings House – British Columbia, Canada

A Quiet Spot on the Road to Nowhere

The Gulf Islands archipelago – a string of some 100 partially submerged mountain peaks lying in the Strait of Georgia, between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia – is Canada’s answer to Washington’s popular San Juans, though nowhere near as busy.

Vancouver and Victoria weekenders cherish the quiet, low-key atmosphere and the old ways of the local towns and villages, which dot twenty-five of the archipelago’s islands. Take a kayak out for a spin here and you’re more likely to bump into a seal or Dali’s porpoise than another tourist.

Of the five most visited southern Gulf Islands, Salt Spring is the most popular and also the largest, with 82 miles of ragged coastline and a population of 9,000. The main town of Ganges sits on a protected cove filled with bobbing sailboats, and is becoming known for its small but growing colony of artists and craftspeople, some internationally known.

Incongruously perched above the town amid 30 acres of flowering English gardens, towering Douglas firs, and water views is one of western Canada’s most exclusive hideaways, the Tudor-style Hastings House.

Despite its swank English-estate-cum-elegant-country-inn decor, the Hastings House embraces the Gulf Islands’ casual lifestyle except at dinner, when men are requested to wear jackets. It offers some of the best dining west of Vancouver, prepared with ingredients plucked from the inn’s gardens and orchards and pulled from the islands’ fish-rich waters and fertile farmland.

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The Canadian Rockies by Train – Alberta, Canada

Riding Canada’s Steel Spine

Unlike its neighbor to the south, Canada has maintained a viable tradition of rail travel ever since the 1885 completion of the coast-to-coast Canadian Pacific Railway; an engineering marvel and “act of insane recklessness,” it united the nation and saved isolated British Columbia from becoming an American territory. “If we can’t export the scenery,” declared William Van Horne, the first president of the CPR, “we’ll import the tourists.”

The rail’s route through the Canadian Rockies has been touted as one of the world’s most spectacular train rides, and rail fans shouldn’t exhale until they’ve checked it off their list. Along a 2,250-mile stretch west of Alberta, a Texas-size province with the population of Philadelphia, the route passes hundreds of relatively young (in geological terms) 60-million-year-old peaks and spires, their granite and glacier-capped profiles edgy and dog-toothed. The views keep crescendoing until you reach the monarch of the Canadian Rockies, Mount Robson, jutting 12,972 feet into the British Columbian sky.

Train enthusiasts have several options for exploring this inspiring and generally roadless country. The Rocky Mountaineer, the largest privately owned passenger rail service in North America, is deservedly popular for its two-day, all-daylight train ride (night accommodations are off-train) east- or west bound between Vancouver (BC) and Jasper, Banff, or Calgary (Alberta). Glass-domed observation cars promise horizon-to-horizon views of the passing show, and a good deal of attention is given to dining.

For a more bona fide nostalgic experience, the American Orient Express re-creates the style and romance of the great transcontinental rail trips of the past, with handsomely-restored 1940s and 1950s railcars and top-notch service and food. With the Rockies the uncontestable highlight, the Express makes a ten-day, 2,100-mile trip between Montreal and Vancouver, offering guided off-train visits to historic towns and national parks.

For those with less time, the same continent-straddling five-province rail tour can be made by the national public train. VIA Rail’s Art Deco-style cars make the 2,774-mile trip between Toronto and Vancouver in three days but also offer the option of an open ticket, allowing you to disembark and explore any of Canada’s urban and rural treasures independently, then resume your trip at a later date.

Corridor service links Toronto with the line’s easternmost point in Halifax, Nova Scotia, completing the entire awesome, one-of-a-kind, 4,000-mile cross-country adventure.

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Banff, Jasper, and Yoho National Parks – Alberta, Canada

Rocky Mountains High, Canada-Style

West of Edmonton and running north-south for more than 300 combined miles, Banff, Jasper, and Yoho national parks combine with several smaller parks to form the Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site, one of the largest protected areas in the world. Alberta’s three national parks alone draw almost 7 million visitors a year collectively.

Beauty is the reason: rugged mountains and alpine meadows, spectacular waterfalls, glaciers and ice fields, deep canyons, and cold-water lakes that look like mirrored holes into another universe. At home in this landscape, elk, caribou, bighorn sheep, and black and grizzly bears frequently appear – a boon for camera-toting wildlife enthusiasts – while a number of grand hotels built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 19th century number among the most beautiful, classic accommodations in North America.

Banff was Canada’s very first national park, incorporated as a tiny 10-square-mile parcel in 1885 and now grown into a 2,656-square-mile giant that’s Canada’s number-one destination. Its most famous sites are Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, both surrounded by towering, snow-capped mountains that reflect in their otherworldly jade-green waters (the product of mineral-rich silt washing down from the surrounding glaciers).

Louise has the greater name recognition due to its large ski area, its resort village, and its famous Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, a sumptuous, turreted Edwardian dream that’s probably the greatest of the Rocky Mountain hotels. Moraine Lake, 8 miles east of Louise, is the beauty spot of choice for those seeking a less commercialized experience, with a hiking trail that skirts the lake’s north shore beneath soaring 10,000-foot peaks.

To the southeast, Johnston Canyon offers another excellent hiking opportunity, with a trail that passes between 100-foot cliffs, tunnels through living rock, crosses wooden footbridges, and comes within spraying distance of seven waterfalls on its way to a series of emerald pools known as the Inkpots.

South of here is the town of Banff, a surprisingly stylish place considering its wilderness location. The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel stands in princely splendor south of the town’s Bow River – another testament to the Canadian Pacific, with remarkable views, a great spa, a world-class golf course, and indulgent service.

Heading north, the Icefields Parkway links Lake Louise with Jasper National Park, along the way passing through a northern fantasy of hanging glaciers, deep river valleys and waterfalls, subalpine forests, and the Columbia Icefield, one of the largest accumulations of ice south of the Arctic Circle, covering nearly 116 square miles.

Jasper, Canada’s largest national park in the Rocky Mountains, has rugged scenery and a less touristed vibe. Hiking opportunities abound, with popular trails snaking through narrow Maligne Canyon and beyond, and rafting trips available on the Athabasca and Sunwapta rivers. Fishermen enjoy angling on Maligne Lake (the largest of the Rockies’ glacier-fed lakes), while the Miette Hot Springs offer soaks in outdoor pools, surrounded by forest and mountains.

West of Banff and Jasper, Yoho National Park – whose name derives from a Cree expression of wonder and reverence – is much smaller, covering about 507 square miles, with more than 250 miles of well-kept hiking trails. Its history is bound up with the Canadian Pacific, which in 1909 blasted a pair of tunnels right through the mountains.

Today, you can watch trains enter and leave at the Lower Spiral Tunnels Viewpoint, 10 miles east of the town of Field, which sits approximately at the park’s centerpoint. Here, at the park’s visitor center, you can learn about the nearby Burgess Shale fossil digs, in which creatures from the Cambrian-era sea that covered this region have been discovered on the mountaintops. Organized hikes to the site depart from town.

Seven miles northwest of Field, glacier-fed Emerald Lake is one of Yoho’s most popular destinations, a perfect mountain-rimmed spot for hiking, canoeing, and horseback riding. The area’s Emerald Lake Lodge offers the park’s best accommodations in twenty-four two-story chalets. Another 3 miles will take you to Takakkaw Falls, Canada’s second highest, with a drop of 1,250 feet.

Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Polar Bear Safari

Africa has the Serengeti Plain, South America has the Amazon Basin, North America has Cape Churchill on the Hudson Bay – the polar capital of the world. One of the largest of all terrestrial predators, with some weighing fifteen hundred pounds, polar bears are generally elusive creatures, yet they gather at Cape Churchill yearly before Hudson Buy freezes, allowing them to venture off to hunt seals on its dramatic ice floes.

Spectators watch from tundra buggies as the bears frolic and play in family groups, the newborn cubs just black noses and eyes against the white of the snow. The flora and wildlife of the arctic tundra create a beautiful backdrop for nature lovers, while the spectacular display of the aurora borealis lights up the brittle-cold night skies.

What: experience.
Where: approximately 630 miles/1,014 km north of Winnipeg.
How: Natural Habitat Adventures.
Tel: 800-543-8917 or 303-449-3711; www.nathab.com.
Cost: 6 and 7-day trips from $2,895 per person, includes charter flights from Winnipeg to Cape Churchill. When: mid-Oct to mid-Nov.