Although I’ve penned too many of them, I don’t find Top 10 / Best of Lists particularly helpful. Best Of…according to who? What if our tastes and interests are different? Since experiences are so dependant on our personalities and the people that surround us, what if my visit is entirely different to yours? This from the guy who penned the Canadian Bucket List!
Still, if you pin me down, put a revolver to a kitten’s head, and insist I give you one iconic experience from every province and territory, I would say: is the kitten really necessary? Once Kitty is safe and purring, I’d reveal my selection for one iconic Canadian experience in every province and territory.
A floatplane buzzes in the harbour. The glass buildings of downtown Vancouver sparkle as two eagles gracefully soar overheard. A light dusting of icing-sugar snow melts atop the towering mountains of the North Shore. As you walk the 9km-paved pathway that traces the coastline around the world’s best urban park, it’s impossible not to get seduced by the scenic abundance. If you can tear yourself away from your camera, you’ll hear snippets of conversation like “imagine living here” and “got to be the most beautiful city on the planet” and “does everyone have to wear yoga pants?”
Shark-fin snow-capped mountains, turquoise lakes, shimmering glaciers, carved canyons, crystal waterfalls, impenetrable boreal forest – the mighty Rockies are the crown jewels of Canada’s natural assets. Eye candy in Banff and Jasper National Parks lie everywhere. Ogle from a gondola, walk atop a glacier, swim in an ice-cold gem-coloured lake. Every Canadian should see the Rockies, if only to understand and appreciate that yes, this is indeed the most stunning country on Earth.
In a country crazy about sport, fans of the Roughriders are craziest of all. It doesn’t matter whether you support the team, or can even follow the rules of CFL. Whatever the weather, Rider Nation embraces visitors to Regina in the bosom of their open-air Mosaic Stadium, sweeping you up in frenzy of face paint, cheers, and watermelons fashioned into helmets. Even when the temperature drops well below freezing, the friendliest folks in Canada radiate with warm-hearted prairie passion.
Nothing quite prepares you for the hot breath of a wild polar bear. Each fall, scientists, media and tourists invade the remote northern town of Churchill. The world’s most southerly population of polar bears migrate to the Hudson Bay nearby, under the watch of visitors safely arranged on the viewing platforms of custom-built tundra buggies. Earth’s largest carnivore is a ruthless killer, with unnerving displays of marketable cuteness. More polar bears live in Canada than anywhere else. Shouldn’t you meet one up close (and live to talk about it?)
ON: Niagara Falls
Hotels, theme parks and tacky souvenir shops surround Canada’s most popular tourist attraction. Think conferences, weddings, tour buses, crowds, and sticky kids with stickier fingers. All of which does little to diminish the power and awe of the most powerful waterfall on the continent, and the most striking falls on the planet. If there’s a Canadian baptism ritual, it is aboard the Hornblower Cruise that takes plastic poncho-clad visitors into the thunderous white mist below the mighty Horseshoe Falls.
QC: Winter Carnival
When the temperature might flash freeze a cheese fondue, you know what they do in Quebec City? They hold the world’s largest winter festival, complete with an outdoor theme park, ice palace, canoe races across the frozen St Lawrence River, snow sculptures, and sub-zero evening street parades. That it all takes place in the most romantic city in North America is a bonus. Layer up, load up on the local liquor called caribou, and toast the overstuffed marshmallow mascot Bon Homme. You can’t do Canada if you can’t do cold.
NB: The Bay of Fundy
You don’t need a scuba diving certificate or a submarine to explore the ocean seabed. The world’s highest tides flush in and out of the bay each day, a unique natural phenomenon that allows one to wander among the striking Hopewell Rocks, where tides have shaped imposing flowerpots, arches and sentinels. If you walk out too far, you might find yourself dashing back to the rocks to beat the tides. There’s actually an annual race that does just did that, appropriately named the Not-Since-Moses Run.
NS: The Cabot Trail
An iconic 300km drive that loops the northern shoreline of Cape Breton Island, the Cabot Trail offers more than just gob-smacking views. Gaelic language and culture abounds, the legacy of 50,000 Scottish Highlanders who immigrated to the island in the early 19th century. Scottish, Irish and Acadian communities jig, reel and step dance, while the sound of fiddles blow in the wind. Top 10 Drives. Top 10 Islands. Top 10 Cultural Festivals. The Cabot Trail could put together its own Top 10 list of how many Top 10 lists it has been placed on.
PEI: Cross the Bridge
Despite the fact that Vancouver Island is more than five times bigger than PEI, the so-called Gentle Island is the birthplace of modern Canada. Celebrate confederation by crossing the Confederation Bridge/Epekwitk Crossing, the world’s longest over ice-covered water and an engineering marvel. Spend a few days cycling along the Confederation Trail, a decommissioned rail-track that crosses the scenic island tip-to-tip. Or pop into Province House to learn about the story and characters behind the Charlottetown Conference. All of which explains why PEI is a province, and Vancouver Island is not.
When you meet a local in Newfoundland for the first time, they don’t ask if you’re going to visit Iceberg Alley or Gros Morne National Park. They ask you if you’ve been screeched in. A tradition born in the bars of St John’s, it is a spirited ceremony. A blustery barkeep might regale a ribald tale before asking if you’re ready to become a honorary Newfoundlander. Then you must shoot back a glass of screech (aka throat-scorching cheap rum) and, depending where you are, kiss the lips of a stuffed cod or the backside of a toy puffin. It’s all in good fun, a welcome ritual in a particularly welcoming province.
YK: Go Dogsledding
Surrounded by pristine winter wonderland, dogsledding is more than just a mode of northern transportation. Even as temperatures might plummet below –40C, it’s an opportunity to learn about teamwork and respect, the warm bond between human and canine, and traditional culture in the far north. At Mutkuk Kennels outside of Whitehorse, visitors can join a Yukon Quest legend and his boisterously friendly mutts for a run. Finding the rhythm, you quickly realize that unless the dogs are happy, nobody is going anywhere. Regardless of your talent, dogsledding is the quickest way to make six new best friends.
Routinely topping the winner’s podium of bucket lists everywhere is nature’s celestial fireworks. One of the world’s best places to see the aurora borealis is in Yellowknife, which lies beneath a halo-like ring known as the aurora oval. Lights here flare with an increased intensity, and can be viewed from commercial aurora-watching cabins and lodges. With few geographical obstructions, and a high percentage of clear winter nights, northern lights in Yellowknife are particularly active from mid-November to mid-April.
Soft underfoot, flecked with white puffs of Arctic cotton or yellow buttercups, Planet Earth is different above the treeline. Somehow surviving intense winters, a single finger-thick branch of Arctic willow might be a century old. For those lucky enough to visit Canada’s magnificent northern national parks, a simple walk into the tundra can be overwhelming. The alien-like landscape is impossibly stark, and yet undeniably alluring. Bring a good camera and hiking boots, and be on the lookout for Arctic fox, hare, ptarmigans, polar bears and muskox.