Best of Canada: 7 Amazing Places to Visit

No shrinking violet when it comes to beautiful cities and luscious landscapes, Canada offers plenty of delights for travellers. Here are seven of Fiona Harper's favourite places!

1) Churchill

The self-proclaimed polar bear capital of the world (admittedly there’s not a lot of competition), Churchill is not quite at the end of the world. But with deserted streets dotted with ‘Beware of polar bears’ signs, you get the feeling it’s not too far away. Migrating polar bears congregate on the western shore of Hudson Bay in late autumn waiting for the sea to solidify the route to favourable seal hunting grounds.

By the time the bay freezes over bears are a bit of a pest, loitering around town foraging for food. Rangers round up pesky bears, incarcerating them in a holding facility, essentially polar bear jail, until they can be relocated by helicopter once Hudson Bay freezes.

Oversized off-road busses, known as tundra buggies, allow visitors to view polar bears on the outskirts of town. But the best way to enjoy these magnificent creatures on their own terms is to stay at one of Churchill Wild’s wilderness lodges. Far removed from human influence, you’ll hike the tundra alongside polar bears just as native Inuit have been doing for centuries. Put it on your bucket list this year.

2) Cape Breton Island

Naturists, this is your fantasy island. You won’t find much infrastructure beyond the bare essentials, oceanfront Cabot Links Golf Course being the exception. Linked to mainland Canada by a causeway, Cape Breton Highlands National Park and the Cabot Trail wilderness are the main attractions. Deep walled canyons, forest-clad plateaus, cascading waterfalls and sheer coastal cliffs plunge spectacularly into the Atlantic Ocean. Pack your hiking boots, pitch a tent or bed down at Cabot Links Lodge and breathe in the freshest air on the planet.

The drive to Cape Breton Island is dotted with diversions. The World Heritage listed town of Luneburg, home of the famous Bluenose Schooner, formerly housed sea captains in dreamy clapboard buildings, now painted every colour of the rainbow. Peggy’s Cove is possibly Canada’s most photographed coastal village with its elegant lighthouse atop weather-worn granite at the entrance to a teeny fishing boat harbour.

Satisfy seafood hankerings at Baddeck Lobster Suppers. Don’t be put off by plastic covered gingham tablecloths: fire-planked Atlantic Salmon and succulent lobster needs little accompaniment besides oversized serviettes.

3) Quebec City

Some places just rock. You know the ones, whether bathed in sunshine or buried beneath snow, oozing soul and charisma and drop dead gorgeous, they entice you to plot your return long before the holiday is over. Four hundred year old Quebec City is this kind of place.

Her drop dead gorgeous side is evident in abundance. Striking Chateau Frontenac (a hotel operated by the Fairmont group) dominates the skyline, elevated above the Saint Lawrence River and sitting within ancient French-built fortification walls.

But the city’s real charm is found down at river level in Old Quebec. Pokey narrow streets and laneways, some cobbled and little changed as they were in the 1800’s, are lined with stone European-style buildings housing cafes, restaurants, bookshops and boutiques. A dress made from chocolate? Sure why not. Erico Chocolatrie Musee is your kind of place. Seeking the heart and soul of the city you’re on the right track in this part of town. Take the time to wander aimlessly and allow Quebec City to seduce you. I promise it won’t take too long.

The annual Winter Carnival shows off Quebec City at her finest with ice artisans creating castles, hotels and sculptures from the frozen stuff. Leave town if you must, but only briefly, taking a 140 km luxury rail cruise, imbibing in fine dining enroute to Massif le Charlevoix ski resort for more outdoors fun. 

4) Prince Edward Island

An island about the size of Bali, Prince Edward Island (known fondly as PEI) is Canada’s smallest province yet it punches well above its weight. Particularly when it comes to producing Canada’s finest food: it’s a bit of a foodie’s nirvana. Half of the island is cultivated, producing almost one quarter of Canada’s potatoes. Rolling green fields, rich red soil, ochre hued sand dunes tumble onto beaches that stretch for 800 km.  It’s a pity then that the sea freezes over during winter. But no real surprise either given the islands’ latitude at 46 degrees north. No matter, locals just put their sandals away and don ice skates instead.  Before the sea solidifies however, fisherman harvest as many tasty morsels as their holds will hold, landing lobsters, mussels, oysters, clams, flounder, cod, mackerel and herring.

Visit during the fabulous Fall Flavours Festival each September as chefs from across the globe outcook each other competing in the PEI Potato Seafood Chowder Championships. Closely guarding their secret chowder recipes while sharing the spoils with festival goers, chowder rarely gets better than this.

5) Halifax

A pretty city on the shores of one of the world’s largest harbours (depending on whether you classify by volume or surface area, either way it’s monumental), Halifax wears its maritime credentials on its sleeve. On a bad day the Atlantic can be miserable. Resilient Nova Scotian’s know it well, embracing the sea when the weather’s good, bunkering down indoors when snow and sleet dominate. A jagged coastline, unpredictable weather and proximity to busy shipping lanes means the surrounding seabed is littered with shipwrecks.

Given the city’s significant seafaring heritage, it little surprise that Samuel Cunard, raised around the docks of Halifax who later became a shrewd businessman and shipping entrepreneur, founded the Cunard Steamships company, the forerunner to today’s luxury cruise industry.

Seventy two years later Captain Edward Smith had one of the worst days at sea imaginable when the ship he commanded on her maiden voyage struck an iceberg mid-Atlantic, sinking with the loss of 1500 lives including his own. Snow’s Funeral Home in Halifax occupied the building that now houses the city’s finest restaurant Five Fishermen.  Snow’s became a makeshift morgue as bodies from the RMS Titanic were brought ashore amidst an overwhelming cloud of grief. Locals swear that, (unlike Elvis) some of those souls never left the building.

Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 pays homage to her founder with a couple of special tenth anniversary sailings into Halifax this year.

6) Montreal

Once the industrial and financial hub of the country, Canada’s second largest city manages to do quaint residential neighbourhoods in the shadow of high-rise buildings. Old Montreal craftily merges French and British Colonial design from the city’s glory days when Saint James Street was known as the Wall Street of Canada. These days it’s not quite so uptight. The striking Gothic Revival architecture of Notre-Dame de Montreal Basilica conceals a colourful sanctuary inside, all elaborate carved timber beneath a cobalt blue ceiling. Flanking the Basilica, less flamboyant but no less grand buildings were formerly 19th century headquarters of major Canadian banks. The luxurious L’Hotel was one such building as the head office for Montreal City Savings Bank in a previous life. Inside, an impressive modern art collection featuring Andy Warhol works now hang in former vaults converted into guest rooms.

Hire a bike or lace up your walking shoes to absorb the best of Old Montreal and the city’s famous neighbourhoods which are delineated by street lamps which change every few blocks. Don’t forget your wallet: there’s plenty of opportunities to poke around in bespoke gift shops, designer boutiques and curiosity stores specialising in vintage treasures. Don’t miss Jean Talon Market for fresh produce and a patisserie baking bread worth crossing continents for. 

7) The Canadian train

Definitely a journey to unleash your inner gunzel (as trainspotters are called), the cross country VIA Rail journey from Vancouver to Toronto known as The Canadian is so legendary that the Bank of Canada honours the 4,466 km journey with its appearance on the ten dollar note. (By comparison the Indian Pacific train between Sydney and Perth is 4,352 km).  The Canadian winds its way eastwards from coastal Vancouver upwards into the dramatic Rocky Mountains, deep into boreal forests and lakes of northern Ontario, bursting onto prairie flatlands, skirting the Great Lakes before pulling into Union Station in downtown Toronto five days later.

Book a Sleeper Plus cabin or suite to enjoy fine dining, glass rooftop panorama cars and just enough private space to provide a cocoon-like sanctuary perfect for idle reading or indulgent relaxation while enjoying the ever-changing view as it rolls by. Not for the claustrophobic.

Got a question for Fiona? Ask her here.

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