If it’s not there already, be prepared to make some room up the top of your bucket list. Canada is coming through.
A huge country, it can often seem somewhat insurmountable from a tourism perspective. A little like Australia, we often think we would need months, and a lot of logistics, to see the highlights. However, Canada, whilst enormous and packed with natural wonders, makes it really easy.
Let’s concentrate on the West Coast. We all saw and were captivated by the breathtaking images of provinces British Columbia and Alberta during the 2010 Winter Olympics, held in and around Whistler. The region was vast, packed with unfathomable beauty, and I am sure we all wondered how we could possibly see it for ourselves.
The answer is really simple – let someone else plan it for you. We jumped on board one of APT’s incredible tours of Western Canada and let the experts do their job. Here is what we discovered….
Canada is all about some of the most stunning scenery on the planet. The west is famous for its Rocky Mountain peaks – ranges that seem to go on forever and ever. Once you leave Vancouver, the capital of British Columbia, and head north-east, the landscape gradually rises until you are surrounded by some of the most picturesque alpine landscapes on earth. If you are lucky, the sky will be clear and you can spot the tallest of them all, Mount Robson at 3,954m, as you travel along the Yellowhead Highway.
The national parks, some of the oldest in the world, will amaze you. Verdant forest, which provides refuge and habitat for some of Canada’s most famous residents (bears, moose, elk… you name it), lines the roads and occasionally, if you keep your eyes peeled, you may spot one or two of them as they momentarily pop out of the trees.
The Icefields Parkway, stretching 232km through the heart of the Rockies between Jasper and Lake Louise, is one of the countries national treasures. In the comfort of the coach, all you need to do is sit back and enjoy the view out of the window which takes in the mountains, lakes, glaciers, waterfalls, peaks and valleys – all providing yet another photo opportunity around every bend.
And did I mention the lakes? From the famous turquoise-hued Lake Louise, to the most photographed of them all, Moraine Lake, there is no shortage of breathtaking bodies of water surrounded by emerald forest. The rivers in this part of the world are not short on beauty either, and a brilliant place to see famous Bow River and the surrounding landscape is from the viewpoint on the top of Sulphur Mountain near Banff, accessed by an exciting gondola ride, which on some days, can literally take you above the clouds….
Canada to me, is almost defined by its people. Proud, passionate, and some of the friendliest folk you are ever likely to meet, your experience in Canada is what it is because of the locals. These amazing people will show you their backyard, never tire of your questions, and will all too generously share with you their stories. Every place you go, you will be welcomed as a friend. You will sometimes leave shaking your head at the hospitality, wondering just how it can be so amazing, but knowing it is nothing short of completely genuine. These people love their country, and rightly so. With such pristine beauty, who could not want to show it off?
From the tour directors, who are all Canadian born and bred, to the tour operators, hospitality workers, park rangers, shop keepers and more, every encounter builds on your amazing experience.
The locals are immensely proud of their history, including their First Nations people, and will gladly share with you everything they know. You should also watch to see their face light up when they bring you to a place of unspeakable beauty such as the cityscape vista of Vancouver from Stanley Park, or when everyone tumbles out of the coach to lay eyes on Lake Louise…
Finally, many of the evenings on this tour you are free to explore at your own leisure and discover the restaurants and bars of the local town with tonnes of expert recommendations. Drop into a sports bar and join in with the locals who are as passionate as they come about ice-hockey. You will no doubt leave with many new friends.
I don’t think there are many places in the world where I would include ‘hotels’ as a highlight. Mostly they are places to lay your head, some more luxurious than others. But for me personally, they are not why I travel.
Canada is an exception.
Because in Canada, many of their hotels are destinations and experiences in themselves. With the likes of The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel (the ‘Castle in the Rockies’), The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge and also the floating Great Bear Lodge, the accommodation is much more than just a place to stay.
The chateau on the edge of Lake Louise is as famous as they come. Built as a base for mountain enthusiasts over 100 years ago, it stands surrounded by majestic peaks, the Victoria Glacier, and of course, overlooking the blue waters of the lake. Recognised today for its outstanding contribution and to environmental stewardship and responsible tourism, a stay in this luxurious hotel overlooking the lake is a bucket list experience in itself, from the rooms, to the restaurants, to the view. A guided heritage-walk around the lake with a local ranger tops off the experience as you learn all about the history and environment, and you will almost want to pinch yourself when you witness the sunset and sunrise over the entire landscape.
The Castle in the Rockies is equally as amazing. Whether you choose to invest in the folktales surrounding the hotel (many of which include several ghost stories) or not, you will nevertheless be captivated by the history and legends the hotel has to boast.
Modelled on a Scottish Castle and situated at the convergence of the Bow and Spray Rivers, the hotel was first envisioned by the head of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, William Cornelius Van Horne, more than 125 years ago when he recognised the tourism potential of Banff and its natural wellness springs. With guests such as Marilyn Monroe, Winston Churchill, Ginger Rogers, and many more in its history books, the hotel is worthy of a full day of exploration in itself, especially if it includes a tour with the hotel historian Dave Moberg, who has been with the hotel for more than 50 years.
The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge sits perfectly in its own environment, nestled within the surrounding Jasper National Park. The experience reflects the environment, with rustic (yet luxurious) cabins spread over the land on the shore of Beauvert Lake. Elk roam the property freely, the main lodge itself exudes the aesthetics of a typical mountain ranch, and the food options are sublime.
There are many more ‘hotels’ that fit into this category in Canada, but honourable mention goes to the Great Bear Lodge. If you tack the Great Bear Experience onto your tour, you will not regret it. It will take you from Vancouver to the northern coastline of British Columbia, by both small plane and sea plane.
Landing on the water of Smith Inlet, tucked in the remote Great Bear Rainforest, you will not be able to close your mouth with wonder at your pristine surroundings. The boutique, rustic lodge was towed in by barge from Vancouver Island, and provides floating accommodation to a small group of people who accompany owners and operators Tom and Marg into the surrounding wilderness to view grizzly bears in their natural environment. Sitting in a bear hide, constructed by hand by Tom himself, is a pinch-me moment when a real-life documentary evolves before your eyes, and returning to the lodge every evening to a home-cooked meal and incredible hospitality, is the icing on the cake.
Canada is actually not really known for its food. I like this, because it comes as a bonus when you actually travel there. The country is riding the wave of an incredible food movement and you will find world-class culinary ingenuity throughout your visit (and let’s not forget the fantastic craft beer scene).
Firstly, let’s talk about the salmon. Canadian’s are justly proud of this fish – if you visit any fishmonger in the Granville Island Public Market, you will immediately see this. To them, it is quite simply the best salmon in the world, and you will find yourself in agreement once you taste it. Smoked, dried, cured or simply cooked, it is on the menu everywhere and you will eat more than your fill.
Your view on maple syrup is also about to be ripped wide open. Pure maple syrup harvested in Canada is another world from the cheap brands on sale in many global supermarkets. Learn all about (and taste) the difference at many places along your tour (my favourite is again, at the Granville Island Market in Vancouver) and your pancake breakfasts will never be the same again. Oh, and you will also discover maple cookies and a host of other maple treats.
Finally, if you are a meat eater, be prepared to expand your horizons and sample some of the local delicacies such as elk, deer and bison. Like the famous prime rib beef found throughout these parts, they are well worth sampling along the route.
Finally, no matter how old you are, there are innumerable adventures to be found in Canada. Enhance your journey with a helicopter trip over Banff and the surrounding Rocky Mountains and National Parks.
Take a float trip down Bow River, or a Harley Davidson tour of Jasper National Park. The whale watching excursion from Victoria, on Vancouver Island, will provide you with more than enough thrills as you spot Humpbacks and Orcas, and an adventure onto the ancient Athabasca Glacier along the Icefields Parkway is a definite highlight, as the unique Ice-Explorer vehicle takes you down the steepest road in the Northern Hemisphere and onto the ice itself where you are free to get out and walk around.
But one of the best adventures to be found in this part of the world is without doubt the journey on the Rocky Mountaineer. In the Goldleaf Service carriage, you are treated to two-days of sublime train travel through the most stunning parts of the country, where you have panoramic views of all of the scenery out of your glass-domed roof. Be treated to five-star meals, enjoy drink service throughout, and try and spot a bear or two as you wind through canyons, valleys, around mountains and through spectacular forest on this epic adventure of the lifetime.