After dozens of visits to Canada, nothing has stayed with me as vividly as my time in Churchill, looking for polar bears around Hudson Bay. But while the wildlife is the main attraction here, this town of about 1,000 people is an extraordinary place, with visiting scientists, lifelong Churchillians and non-Canadians so drawn to its wild beauty that they have made it their home. It recalled the same spirit that I found in accounts by the British explorer Samuel Hearne, whose journeys through the Arctic over two centuries ago made rich reading during the long, dark nights.
The first polar bear I saw was dozing in the lee of a snow-covered rock and blended so well with its surroundings that I was about to leave the safety of the vehicle. I could see why Parks Canada mounted a bear patrol on Halloween night. During a week of forays in bizarre tundra buggies, I saw half-a-dozen bears and one cub in the flat, wind-blasted land. I talked to the rangers who looked after bears that had become too interested in the town and had to be put in ‘jail’. I even saw a sedated bear being airlifted out of harm’s way and up the coast of Hudson Bay. It was a moving sight, not least for the dedication of the staff who made sure the bear was fine before returning home.
Travelling in a country roughly the size of Europe, it’s impossible to see more than a small part in one visit. From the iridescent turquoise of Peyto Lake, to spotting tens of thousands of migrating geese and ducks against a setting sun as I drove the prairies, there are so many magical moments. But perhaps the most rewarding were those that came out of the blue, such as kayaking among the coves on the coast of British Columbia and spying sea otters playing obliviously among the kelp, or the day-trip from Port Alberni aboard the MV Frances Barkley via the roadless communities of Vancouver Island’s west coast. This is a country of incredible variety, so read on to discover more…
New Brunswick and Nova Scotia
Duration: 11 days
Best for: Wildlife, hiking, birdwatching and culture
Route: Halifax - Alma - Saint John, Campobello Island - Saint Andrews - Fredericton - Miramichi - Moncton - Shediac
Why do it? This varied tour takes in two of Canada’s tidal bores – on the Petitcodiac River and the more famous Bay of Fundy – and New Brunswick’s 25km sweep of sand dunes.
This route gets you back to nature, from seal-spotting and kayaking in the bay to guided bear-watching further north in Acadieville, to hiking and biking the maple forests. Cultural highlights also range from the astonishing collection at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton and the city’s cathedral and garrison district to the 34-room ‘cottage’ on Campobello Island where Franklin Roosevelt used to summer.
For an insight into early New Brunswick life, Kings Landing tells the story of Atlantic Canada via rescued buildings dating from 1820 to 1920. But the area isn’t short on history, natural or otherwise: St Andrews-by-the-Sea claims that over half its buildings predate 1880, and nearby Kingsbrae Garden has old-growth Arcadian forest as well as fine gardens; these include the White Garden inspired by its splendid English namesake at Sissinghurst Castle Garden in Kent.
And then there’s the dining. The seafood is exceptional here, with Shediac known far and wide as the ‘Lobster Capital of the World’. Be sure to also try the lobster rolls at the Saturday farmers’ market in Fredericton.
Did you know? The volume of seawater racing in and out of the Bay of Fundy exceeds the combined flow of the world’s fresh water rivers, at 160 billion tonnes.
Northwest Territories and Nunavut
Duration: 10-14 days
Best for: Inuit culture, wildlife, river rafting, kayaking, fishing and the northern lights
Route: There is no ‘route’ here. Itineraries in the two least-visited northern provinces often rely heavily on local operators for safety, and travel is limited to those places with tourist facilities, such as Iqaluit (Nunavut) or Inuvik and Yellowknife (Northwest Territories).
Why do it? Natural experiences dominate visits to the Arctic reaches of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, particularly the former where 35,000 people live in an area roughly the size of western Europe. Cultural activities can also be found that offer an insight into its indigenous Inuit people.
This is a region where local know-how is indispensable. Eco-tourism operators offer hiking, dogsledding, kayaking, canoeing and snowmobiling, with some expeditions including the option of spending a night in an igloo. In Nunavut, boat or floe-edge trips from Qikiqtarjuaq operate in May/June, letting you take in the sight of drifting ’bergs as well as sighting polar bears, beluga whales, seals, walruses and narwhals.
The Northwest Territories’ main lures are dogsledding and rafting through the canyons of the Nahanni River and its wild, eponymous national park. The capital at Yellowknife, on Great Slave Lake, has an ‘old’ town – Wildcat Café dates from 1937 – and museums/centres offer insights into the First Nations culture of the Dene people. The greatest wildlife sight here is when thousands of reindeer migrate in spring, with tours (March/April) letting you join the herders en route to the calving grounds.
Duration: 7 days
Best for: Culture, art, history, architecture and waterfalls
Route: Ottawa - Toronto - Kleinberg - Niagara
Why go? Trains obviate the need for a car when travelling between Ontario’s principal cities of Ottawa and Toronto. The richest cultural collections in Canada are found here, as well as the country’s most famous waterfall. Time your visit to coincide with the million bulbs that flower during Ottawa’s Tulip Festival in mid-May; it’s the perfect time to visit the capital, before the summer humidity builds up.
Everything from food, tech and nature to space, war and money form the basis for national museums in Ottawa and Toronto. The Thomson Collection in the latter’s Art Gallery of Ontario, in particular, has breathtaking art, some of it from Europe – and don’t miss its Frank Gehry-designed café.
Also in Toronto: admirers of landscapes by the Group of Seven (a school of early 20th-century Canadian painters) will find one of the best collections of their work at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in the village of Kleinburg, accessible by bus from downtown (about two hours). Then it’s around 2.45 hours by train from Toronto’s Beaux-Arts-style Union station to Niagara Falls, where tours encompass all the elements of the Falls’ history, formation and viewpoints, as well as the region’s wineries, such as the award-winning Jackson-Triggs.
Top tip: Multi-day boat trips through Ontario along the UNESCO-listed Rideau Canal let you wind its waterways in peace, with small cruisers chugging the banks on tours lasting between three and 14 days.
Best for: Coastal scenery, kayaking, wildlife and hiking
Route: Vancouver - Gibsons - Powell River - Little River - Ucluelet/Tofino - Swartz Bay
Why go? It’s 200km (by road/ferry) between Vancouver and Lund but it deserves a few days, to enjoy its towns, hikes and natural attractions.
Driving north-west from Vancouver (via car ferry hops), the Sunshine Coast Highway ends in Lund, and has innumerable reasons to stop and dawdle in places such as Gibsons and Powell River. Its small towns have a laid-back air, with relaxed service at the pubs and restaurants overlooking the Strait of Georgia. Some hotels have canoes, for easy pootling among the sheltered coves, and can even organise moonlit paddles to see porpoises, seals and sea otters at play. Near Egmont is also a 45-minute walk to see one of the region’s great natural spectacles: the reversing tidal rapids of Skookumchuck (‘strong water’) Narrows – local guides detail times for the peak flow.
A car ferry from Westview to Little River on Vancouver Island allows road-trippers to continue along a spectacular route through old-growth forest via Port Alberni to the island’s west coast and either Ucluelet or Tofino (both surfing Meccas). Finish at Swartz Bay for the ferry back to Vancouver.
Duration: 10-14 days
Best for: Wildlife, national parks, true wilderness, gold-rush history and heritage
Route: Whitehorse - Haines Junction for Kluane National Park - Dawson City
Why go? The Yukon region’s identity and, in truth, its main appeal are inseparable from its most famous era, back in 1896 when the discovery of gold drew some 100,000 men and women to the region to seek their fortunes. But there are also spectacular stretches of highway linking the region’s highlights.
From the majestic sternwheeler SS Klondike in Whitehorse, to Dawson City’s well-restored 1899 Palace Grand Theatre, where the Gaslight Follies perform a gold-rush-themed vaudeville act, Yukon’s towns often echo to the sound of its heyday.
Linking them are also some of the world’s most dramatic highways and backcountry roads, skirting Kluane National Park and its icefields. Along the way are glaciers where guided hikes can be made, and endless forest and mountain landscapes to drive through. Expect to spot bald eagles, peregrine falcons, moose, musk-oxen, dall and stone sheep, and even grizzly, brown and black bears.
If you’re tired of driving, a good day trip from Whitehorse is to take a coach up to a section of the White Pass and Yukon Railroad, a scenic narrow-gauge railroad built in 1898. The 45km train route to the sea at Skagway in Alaska (US) is a great way of continuing your trip, or simply extend your drive over the border. The road to Anchorage via Tok/Fairbanks is strewn with national parks (Denali, Wrangell St Elias), soaring peaks and wild expanses.
Alberta and British Columbia
Duration: 10 days
Best for: Landscapes, prairie country, palaeontology, urban culture, national parks, wildlife and glaciers
Route: Edmonton - Calgary - Lethbridge - Waterton Lakes NP - Banff NP - Jasper NP
Why go? This trip takes in endless golden wheatfields, the badlands of southern Alberta and some of the finest parts of the eastern Rockies. Both Alberta’s principal cities are worth several days’ stay and have good cycle networks, as well as fine open-air museums about early prairie settlements, such as Fort Edmonton Park and Fort Calgary.
This is a land of wild superlatives. The Badlands area to the east of Calgary has yielded some incredible dinosaur fossils, celebrated in the vast Royal Tyrrell Museum at Drumheller. And to the south, Lethbridge also has a claim to fame: the 1.6km railway trestle over Oldman River is one of the longest, and most striking, bridges on the planet and well worth seeing.
Spring wildflowers in June are a feature of tranquil Waterton Lakes NP, where the Rockies rise out of the prairies. And to its north, none of the old Canadian Pacific Railway hotels can rival Château Lake Louise for its majestic waterside location.
Back on the road, the Icefields Parkway is among Canada’s most scenic routes, with stops to admire the turquoise water of Peyto Lake and spy Athabasca Glacier. Fine views also accompany the Jasper SkyTram, whose upper station gives access to the 1.7km path summitting Whistlers Mountain (2,463m).
Duration: 8-10 days
Best for: Colonial and maritime history, coastline, local culture, birdwatching and food
Route: Québec City - Rivière-du-Loup - Rimouski - Bonaventure - Percé - Gaspé - Forestville - Saint Simeon - Baie-Saint-Paul
Why go? This figure-eight drive along the picturesque Route 132 returns via the Rimouski– Forestville ferry (May–September). Most of the journey is within sight of the Saint Lawrence River and its gulf, with the Pointe-au-Père Maritime Historic Site, near Rimouski, providing context and a graphic portrayal of ‘Canada’s Titanic’ – the Empress of Ireland – lost in 1914.
Gardeners should not miss Reford Gardens, near Grand-Métis. It was begun in 1926 and now has over 3,000 species among its saintly grounds.
Along the coast, Scottish and French place names were given to the string of charming fishing villages beside Chaleur Bay. Then, at the peninsula’s largest fishing port, Gaspé, on the easternmost tip, most visitors take to the water to see the holed Percé Rock and the bird sanctuary on Bonaventure Island.
Crossing to the north shore of the Saint Lawrence, Tadoussac offers plenty of whalewatching trips. And west of Saint-Siméon, foodies should leave the coastal road and take the Flavor Trail of Charlevoix, visiting its artisanal food producers and eateries. Before heading back to Québec City, make a final stop at the artistic centre of L’Isle-aux- Coudres, near Baie-Saint-Paul, home to Canada’s only fully functioning water- and windmill.
Top tip: The wilder Route 299 between New Richmond and Sainte-Annes-des-Monts cuts across the peninsula, threading the Gaspésie National Park and the Chic-Choc mountains, home to moose, caribou and deer.
Best for: Landscapes, wildlife and sub-arctic experiences
Route: Travelling to Churchill is impossible by road, and while the rail line from Manitoba gives a rich insight into the vastness of northern Manitoba, the route was inoperable due to flood damage (see viarail.ca for updates) at the time of press. The other way is to fly, with Calm Air running a year-round service between Winnipeg and Churchill (two hours).
Why go? Churchill is synonymous with wildlife. Polar bears step ashore in mid-June as the ice melts, though are best seen October to November, and beluga whales return to the river in summer (mid-June–mid-September).
June sees the first few polar bears stagger on land as the ice in the bay breaks up. Buggy tours (frontiersnorth.com; July– August; October–November) across the tundra and tidal flats in late summer and early winter reveal bears, caribou and Arctic fox in the wild.
Summer also sees 50,000 Beluga whales arrive at Churchill River. They come to breed and feed; tours to see them run from July to August. Hop on a Zodiac to get up close – you can even don a drysuit and swim with them.
There are plenty of year-round sights, too. Churchill may be home to fewer than 1,000 people, but talks and films about the area are given almost every evening at Parks Canada or the historic St Paul’s Anglican Church, with its memorials to Arctic explorers.
The town’s Eskimo Museum offers further insight, but for a vivid evocation of the days of the Hudson’s Bay Co. and the Anglo-French rivalry over the fur trade, be sure to visit the town’s 18th-century Prince of Wales Fort.
Did you know? Churchill’s history stretches far beyond that of Canada’s – archaeological digs in the area have uncovered evidence of human existence here dating from around 4,000 years ago.