There are turning points in our travelling lives – first flight, perhaps; first desert, first dive. For me – an innocent who had never ventured beyond Britain – it was my first view of the Canadian Rockies, ranged across the horizon as we flew in to Calgary. It was a moment when I realised some places in the world are simply built on a more majestic scale than others.
Since that day more than 30 years ago, I’ve been back to Canada many times, criss-crossing the country by road, rail and mountain trail, threading the islands and inlets of its majestic coast by canoe and cruise ship. If anything my early infatuation has only intensified, especially in the Rockies, where Moraine Lake, a peerless ensemble of sapphire waters and encircling peaks, has become one of my favourite places on Earth.
There’s more to Canada than landscape, but the great outdoors is the most obvious and magnificently abundant attraction: the mountains of the Rockies and British Columbia, the tundra of the Yukon, the lakes and rivers of Ontario and Quebec, the pastoral hills of the Maritimes... a natural playground without equal.
Not forgetting the coast: 198,844km of it, the longest of any country in the world, where there’s enough sailing, windsurfing, kayaking and cruising for any number of lifetimes, and a variety that matches that of the interior; from the fjords of the Inside Passage and the beaches of Nova Scotia to the wild headlands of Cape Breton and the icy margins of Hudson Bay.
On that first visit, I also explored many of the cities, and found another lifelong favourite, Vancouver – a place framed by mountain and ocean blue and rightly famed for its easy living, outstanding culture, world-class cuisine and the prospect of hiking, skiing and more on your doorstep.
I’d add other favourites: Montreal, with its compelling French twist; Victoria, small and impossibly quaint; Quebec, grand and teeming with history; Toronto, cosmopolitan and dynamic; and Ottawa and Winnipeg, less showy but abounding in culture, good food and history.
A country with such cities and natural variety can be visited in many ways. In a two-part special, we explore a few. Here are 10 ideas to start with.
1. By train
Banff or Jasper to Vancouver through the Rockies is the classic trip, but it’s short – two days – as are other outstanding itineraries such as Jasper-Prince George-Prince Rupert in the west and Montreal-Halifax in the east. Use VIA Rail (viarail.ca) to book independent trips or travel with a specialist operator such as Great Rail Journeys and go for the big one: coast to coast across the country.
Great Rail Journeys (01904 521936; greatrail.com) offers a 17-day trip aboard The Canadian train from Vancouver to Toronto and onwards via Quebec aboard The Ocean to Nova Scotia.
2. With hiking boots
It’s hard to visit Canada and not hike. Trails are excellent and information is easy to come by from visitor centres and the parks service (pc.gc.ca/en), so it’s easy to turn up and walk almost anywhere. The obvious destination is the Rockies, where the combination of scenery, accommodation and trails – with the option of easy add-on trips in Calgary and Vancouver – is the best in North America.
KE Adventures (01768 615821; keadventures.com) offers a selection of the Rockies’ best day hikes and a taste of the longer Iceline Trail on its 13-night Canadian Summit Scramble tour; from about Dh12,720, excluding flights, with departures in August and September 2019.
3. Speaking French
It’s easy to assume before you visit that the French thing in Quebec is something of an affectation. Not so: the French-speaking parts of the province are very French indeed – not France exactly, but not North America either. This adds a distinct flavour to trips, especially to Montreal (mtl.org/en), where French is the dominant feature in a medley of historic, cultural and culinary diversity.
Travel to coincide with the Just for Laughs comedy festival (hahaha.com; July 10-28 2019), and check out what’s showing at Cirque du Soleil (cirquedusoleil.com), which was founded in the city.
Trailfinders (020 7368 1200; trailfinders.com) can tailor-make four-day breaks to Montreal from about Dh2,400, including B&B, transfers and walking tour but excluding flights.
4. Behind the wheel
Think road trip and you think – usually – the US. But why? Canada is just as big – bigger, in fact – and has the scenery and stopovers to inspire similarly thrilling road trips. In the best of them, the Alaska Highway (themilepost.com), it has a wilderness odyssey to match any in the world, not just North America. The 2,394km route through northern Alberta and the Yukon to Fairbanks, Alaska, was built in 1942 to head off a feared Japanese attack via Alaska. Today, the once-gruelling drive is easier than it was, but it’s an awe-inspiring trip through the most starkly beautiful landscapes imaginable.
5. On the trail of the whale
Canada offers whales in abundance – blue, minke, right, beluga, humpback – on its Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Head to the Arctic and you can add narwhal to the mix. The main whale-watching centres in the west are Victoria, Tofino and Telegraph Cove on Vancouver Island and the Cape Breton Highlands (Nova Scotia), Bay Bulls (Newfoundland), Battle Harbour (Labrador) and Tadoussac (Quebec) in the east. Tours often combine whale, bear and other wildlife into themed trips.
Wildlife Worldwide (01962 302086; wildlifeworld.com) offers 18 escorted and self-drive Canadian itineraries that have wildlife and whale-watching at their heart: a 10-day, tailor-made self-drive trip focused on Tadoussac costs from about Dh7,800 per person excluding flights.
6. Bear watching
Beware the bear. You’re not long in the Canadian outdoors before signs, visitor centre videos, or local word of mouth alert you to the ubiquity of black and grizzly bears. That said, they can be shy creatures, and the best sightings – and the biggest numbers – are often found far from the mainstream. Most visitors include bear watching as an add-on, usually in a wilderness lodge in British Columbia. If you want a longer trip with bears (and other wildlife) as the focus, join zoologist, conservationist and broadcaster Mark Carwardine aboard a private boat charter (12 passengers plus crew) as it travels the remote waters and islands off British Columbia.
Mark Carwardine (0117 904 8934; markcarwardine.com) offers departures on Sept 2 and Sept 10 for the 11-night Great Bear Rainforest tour from about Dh24,300 per person, excluding flights and some meals.
7. Following caribou
Bears and whales are Canada’s wildlife stars, but the country offers less well-known but often more spectacular chances to view animals. Chief of these is one of the greatest migrations on the planet, when the 350,000-strong Qamanirjuaq caribou herd in Canada’s far north, near Yellowknife, moves south for the winter. Natural World Safaris explores the region by boat, foot and small plane, and while focusing mainly on the migration, offers the possibility of seeing wolves, bears and the Northern Lights.
Natural World Safaris (01273 691642; naturalworldsafaris.com) offers four 2019 departures of the seven-day Caribou Migration & Autumn Arctic Tundra tour in August and September from about Dh24,100 per person, excluding international flights.
8. On the river
Canada has North America’s three longest rivers after the Mississippi – the Mackenzie-Slave, Yukon and St Lawrence – so the paucity of river cruises is surprising. One of the few operators, St Lawrence Cruise Lines, runs the Canadian Empress, a 35-cabin steamboat-style ship, on a variety of cruises from, to and between Montreal, Quebec City and the Great Lakes. Its classic trip, the Canadian Connection, follows the river between the last two, via Montreal, either east or westbound. There’s delightful scenery en route, and a different stop every night.
St Lawrence Cruise Lines (001 613 549 8091; stlawrence rivercruise.com) offers six departures each way, between May 28 and Oct 4 in 2019 on the six-night Canadian Connection cruise from about Dh4,700 full board, excluding flights.
9. In a canoe
Ten per cent of the world’s available freshwater is found in Canada’s lakes and rivers. With all that water come innumerable possibilities for one of Canada’s national pastimes: canoeing. Some of the best paddling is in Ontario (ontariotravel.net) in the east and on the Yukon river in the north-west. Yukon Wide Adventures in the latter has a range of trips, from one-hour paddles to 22-day expeditions. A six-day, fly-in trip, offering 217km along one of the best stretches of the Yukon, is a happy medium, with no experience required.
Yukon Wide Adventures (001 867 393 2111; yukonwide.com) has multiple departures of the six-night Yukon River Fly-In from about Dh5,000, full-board (camping), excluding flights and overnights, if required, in Whitehorse.
10. An RV adventure
Campervans, motorhomes, RVs (recreational vehicles)... they all amount to the same thing, and offer an excellent way to explore Canada independently. The country is filled with campsites ("campgrounds" over there) that provide electrical "hookups" and other facilities for RVers. Just bear in mind the potentially high fuel costs and use a specialist to book an RV in good time – demand is high.
Canadian Affair (020 3424 6331; canadianaffair.com) tailor-makes RV trips and also offers six off-the-peg itineraries, notably a Best of Canada’s West trip.
Don’t miss your issue next week, as we bring you 10 more ideas for a brilliant Canadian break.
Fly Emirates from Dubai to Vancouver, about Dh8,000 per person.
The Sunday Telegraph