From bear-spotting in spring to winter carnivals on ice, Canada has something for you to love, whatever the season...
Canada is a land of larger-than life scenery. Its cloud-swept peaks, glinting glaciers and rolling boreal forest are seemingly fashioned by the biggest brush nature could find. These vistas are the main draw for travellers, even if few venture beyond the sunny walking trails that web the Rocky Mountains. However, Canada is the second-largest country on the planet, and with great size also comes a wealth of year-round experiences.
The breadth of adventures Canada has to offer will be laid bare at a special free evening on 28 February co-hosted by Wanderlust and Destination Canada, serving up the ultimate coast-to-coast guide. You can read more about that event over the page, but in the meantime, here’s a taster of how you can see the best of this wild land but avoid the summer crush. So, read on for a handy guide to crowd-free Canada, season by season...
The majority of summer visitors flock to British Columbia, though spring is when Vancouver really blooms – literally. Each year its cherry blossom-lined avenues flower magnificently with candy floss-like displays.
Around 450km north of the city lies the lush Great Bear Rainforest, where early spring affords the best bear-spotting window. Boat tours ford the estuary wetlands, offering rich opportunities to spy grizzlies as they emerge from hibernation and head to the riverbanks to graze. It’s breeding season, too, so you might spot more than you bargained for.
Springtime in Québec serves up another spectacular wildlife encounter. Each year, hundreds and thousands of pregnant female caribou head north from their verdant boreal forests via the subarctic prairie lands on the fringes of Hudson Bay to the tundra of Nunavik in the far north of the province. Tented camps offer secluded sightings of the group as they wade through lakes and cross the tundra; and if you time it right, you may see the first glimpses of the new-born calves.
Elsewhere, harvest season is in full swing in Québec, and for many locals the festivals that celebrate its signature maple syrup are a welcome change from the harsh winter they’ve had to endure. The various carnivals province-wide honour the sugary sap by offering insights into its traditional and modern farming methods and, most important of all, plenty of tastings.
If there’s one place you should visit during the Canadian summer, it’s the Newfoundland town of St John’s. Here, icebergs (Apr–early Jun) are carried south by currents along Iceberg Alley while puffins and whales (both May–Sep) migrate north; and in early June you may be able to catch all three of them at once. The island’s mountainous coast offers many fine viewpoints, including Twillingate, Bonavista and Cape Spear, and several kayak and boat tours can offer a different perspective.
Manitoba’s Churchill may be known as the ‘Polar Bear Capital of the World’ but many travellers who come to spy its sugar-white bears arrive too late to see another local star. Hudson Bay is the summer feeding ground for beluga whales (Jul–Aug is the best time to see them), and more than 50,000 roam its warmer waters following the break-up of the sea ice. They’re naturally curious creatures, meaning there’s no shortage of methods to interact with them – Zodiac, kayak or snorkel tours are all good ways to come nose-to-snout with these fine cetaceans.
Summer in Canada is also ripe for active adventures. A canoe trip along the pine-flanked Churchill River in Saskatchewan (which winds through Manitoba and Alberta too) sees you paddle smooth waters and gushing rapids on multi-day trips, passing gannets and etchings of ancient rock art.
For a window on the changing seasons, Algonquin Park in Ontario is a dramatic start. The lush forest here transforms from an emerald green to a fiery blanket, its mix of maple, poplar and red oak trees combining to cast a golden glow over the trails that vein the park. Alternatively, soak up the autumn colours from the comfort of a train as you chug through the Agawa Canyon, skirting lakes shimmering with golden reflections.
New Brunswick also brims with impressive Fall displays, its farmers’ markets overflowing with harvest produce. The best example is the town of Fredericton, where a festival honouring the annual event is sound-tracked by a packed line-up of jazz and blues artists.
Hop south-east to Nova Scotia to explore its wonders. Wander coastal forts built by the French and English in the 18th and 19th centuries to protect their fishing industries – Halifax Citadel is one of North America’s largest – and explore the brightly coloured houses of UNESCO-listed Old Town Lunenburg. Then, for a prehistoric take on the area, the Joggins Fossil Cliffs are pocked with 300 million-year-old fossils.
Skipping the summer rush, autumn is an ideal time to visit British Columbia. Many take to the Sea-to-Sky Corridor road route as a way of spying its otherworldly mountain vistas, steeped in the history and legends of the First Nations people. Stop near Squamish to spy the granite dome of Stawamus Chief and the Tantalus Mountains. The jewel of the route is the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, an all-under-one-roof showcase of aboriginal art, history and culture.
Arctic tundra and frosted alpine expanses form the classic ‘Deep Canada’ scene, and the reality doesn’t disappoint. In winter, the Northwest Territories look like they’ve been ripped from another planet. The nights are long (Polar darkness blankets much of it from Dec–Jan) and the only way to navigate this vast icy land is by snowmobile or snowshoe. It makes traversing it all the more exciting, whether it’s an hour’s dog-sledding or a weeklong husky-pulling expedition. By night, wild aurora displays ignite the sky with a heavy dose of natural theatre worth the trek to see.
The Yukon territory boasts northern lights shows and a host of winter activities, from igloo building to ice fishing. Its’s also the time of year when ice sculptures litter towns and cities, while Whitehorse plays host to the zany Sourdough Rendezvous, recognising the first gold diggers to trek its hills. For some 50 years, locals have chucked chainsaws and thrown axes in the name of competition. Chow down on pike, caribou and pancakes drenched in maple syrup while honky-tonk musicians and can-can dancers set the scene.
When it comes to festivals, though, few can trump Québec City’s Winter Carnival. Reputed to be the planet’s biggest winter festival, wander an ice palace filled with intricate frozen sculptures paying tribute to its history while winter-themed floats and effigies parade the city’s streets by night.
Destination Canada is holding an event, exclusive to Wanderlust readers, on 28 February 2018 (6–8pm) at Canada House in Trafalgar Square.
So if Canada features on your travel list, come along to this free event to learn more. Tickets MUST be pre-booked