With the Duke of Sussex planning to make Canada his new home, our expert explains why it’s the most beautiful country in the world – and offers tips on what to see and do
Turquoise waters, towering crags, the deep green of forest and the icy glint of snowcapped peaks: wind the only sound, the scent of pine in the air, and, deeper in the wilderness, the quiet footfall of elk, bears and moose.
This is Moraine Lake, my favourite spot in the Canadian Rockies, a landscape 120 million years in the making. A few hours’ drive away, Vancouver, a little over 130 years old; a shimmering city of glass and steel, framed by mountain and ocean blue; a place of dazzling museums, sublime food, a wealth of culture, and the prospect of hiking, skiing and more on your doorstep.
The juxtaposition of peerless landscapes and compelling cities, of modern distractions and timeless comforts, is found across Canada. And, of course, they’re part of the reason you might want to take a holiday here.
Canada is not the world’s biggest country – it is second to Russia – but it’s hard to think of one that is more varied or beautiful. Most first-time visitors will, rightly, be tempted by the best-known scenic distractions, of which the Rockies are the most compelling.
Many will not look far beyond the obvious cities; again, not without reason, for the food, culture and joie de vivre of Montreal are hard to beat, while Vancouver’s wonderful setting and outdoor, hedonistic approach to life put it on a par with Sydney or San Francisco.
But a country of this size has more to offer. The mountains of the Yukon or British Columbia, are the equal if not superior, of the Rockies; the coastal landscapes of the Maritime Provinces are as stirring as the better-known Vancouver Island; and Toronto and Quebec are cosmopolitan, historic cities of which any country would be proud.
So, how do you plan a trip? To help, here is my overview highlighting the breadth of the country’s appeal.
Newfoundland and the Maritimes
Newfoundland (newfoundlandlabrador.com) sets the scene for much of Canada: isolated, pristine, wild, privy to a distinctive Anglo-Irish heritage (folk music in particular), and filled with sublime landscapes such as those of Fogo Island and the peaks and lakes of the Gros Morne National Park, where Western Brook Pond (take a boat trip) is the key destination. St John’s, the lively capital, is worth a visit (note the annual folk festival; nlfolk.com), as is the 11th-century Viking World Heritage Site at L’Anse aux Meadows.
The Maritime Provinces – Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Island Edward (PEI) – are gentler and offer pastoral or forested countryside and superb seascapes, along with fine seafood and strings of pretty coastal villages. Most people head for Nova Scotia (novascotia.com), where the best targets are Halifax – a good base – the historic town of Lunenburg, and Cape Breton Island (drive the Cabot Trail for the best scenery). New Brunswick (tourismnewbrunswick.ca) is often overlooked, but any driving itinerary should take in the majestic scenery on the Bay of Fundy between Moncton and Saint John. On PEI (tourismpei.com) head for the glorious beaches of Prince Edward Island National Park and spend a couple of days in Charlottetown, the province’s leafy capital.
Ontario and Quebec
First-time visitors to Canada might be tempted to ignore the country’s eastern heartlands (ontariotravel.net; quebecoriginal.com), under the illusion that it’s the west, and the landscapes of the Rockies, that merit their attention. But dynamic Toronto – close to Niagara Falls, one of the region’s main sights – is well worth several days, as are Montreal (hip, French, unusual) and Quebec (small, quaint, historic). Ottawa (ottawatourism.ca) is less cosmopolitan, but in the National Gallery, Art Gallery and Canadian War Museum it has three world-class cultural attractions.
And as ever in Canada, even when you’re in a city you are never far from extraordinary landscapes and opportunities for outdoor activities. From Ottawa head for Gatineau Park or to the Georgian Bay Islands, Ontario’s prettiest spot (and also one of the best places in the country to kayak, along with the Point Pelee and Algonquin parks). In Quebec, go island hopping around the Mingan Archipelago, explore the varied landscapes of the Laurentians, or drive and hike the Gaspé Peninsula, and the Parc National Forillon in particular.
The Prairie provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan are a hard sell. Rippling grasslands, old barns and iconic red grain elevators have a charm at first sight but after several hours – or days – that charm has long faded. Of course there are things to see and do (visit travelmanitoba.com and tourismsaskatchewan.com for ideas), but on the whole most visitors here are en route for Churchill (everythingchurchill.com) and its famous polar bears. So if you are coming from the east, travel by train (viarail.ca) to Edmonton or fly to Calgary – better, as it’s a better base and more interesting city.
From Calgary (visitcalgary.com) you can make one or two-day excursions to at least two standout sights. The first takes in the badlands scenery around Drumheller (traveldrumheller.com), home to some of the most important fossil deposits in North America, and to the outstanding Royal Tyrrell Museum (tyrrellmuseum.com), which has 40 dinosaur skeletons and 110,000 other fossil specimens. The other excursion should be to Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump (history.alberta.ca), a World Heritage Site where over the course of 10,000 years Native Canadians stampeded buffalo over a cliff to kill them for their meat and hides.
The Rockies and the West
Calgary is also the best place to start a tour of the Rockies – a perfect trip would see you fly here from Britain and home from Vancouver (see our Ultimate Itinerary for Canada). If you have time, approach the main Banff, Yoho, Kootenay and Jasper national parks via the less busy but equally beautiful Waterton Lakes National Park to the south. Thereafter, the Rockies’ essentials include the Icefields Parkway drive; the day’s drive from Lake Louise and back through Kootenay National Park; Moraine Lake; a day’s exploration (with hike) in Yoho; a boat ride on Maligne Lake; and the drive past Mount Robson to Clearwater followed by a day in Wells Gray Provincial Park.
Beyond the Rockies in BC (hellobc.com) you will need to combine routes to see the best of the region. Aim for the Kootenays (kootenayrockies.com), a lovely pocket of mountains and pretty frontier towns (Nelson, Kaslo, New Denver), but avoid Hwy 3 along the US border in favour of the ride to Revelstoke (Hwy 1) or Vernon (Hwy 6). Also steer clear of the Okanagan, an enclave of lakes and vineyards that is pretty but horribly busy in summer. Aim to follow the Fraser Canyon between Lytton and Hope (Hwy 1) on the final run to Vancouver.
Vancouver (tourismvancouver.com) deserves all its plaudits, a medley of mountain, ocean and glittering skyline that requires at least three days. A walk around Canada Place, Granville Island, Grouse Mountain, Stanley Park and the Museum of Anthropology should top your sightseeing list. From Vancouver, visit charming little Victoria on Vancouver Island (vancouverisland.travel) as a day trip (by floatplane), or longer if you use the scenic BC Ferries coach-boat service (bcferries.com).
Vancouver Island pales slightly alongside mainland BC, with the notable exception of its centrepiece, the Pacific Rim National Park, where Tofino is the best base. And consider travelling the Inside Passage from the island (Port Hardy) to Prince Rupert by ferry to enjoy one of the world’s most majestic sea routes.
The Yukon and the North
The Yukon (travelyukon.com) is one of Canada’s least-known but most highly recommended destinations. The scenery here – mountains, rivers, forests – is on a scale that dwarfs even the Rockies. Fly to Whitehorse, the capital, or drive the Alaska Highway, and then drive to Dawson City, the fascinating former focus of the Klondike Gold Rush. Then you might continue on the 460-mile (740km) Dempster Highway for an insight into the wildlife (caribou especially) and ethereal tundra and other landscape of the far north.
To explore Canada’s final frontier – the great Arctic hinterland (nunavuttourism.com) that overarches the entire country – takes time and money. If you have both to spare, the immense landscapes, the wildlife – whales, polar bears and more – and the chance to encounter isolated outposts of Inuit culture, make this a sublime destination. The retreat of summer sea ice means that more and more of the region is accessible by ship, making expedition-style cruises the best way to explore: Cornwallis, Devon, Baffin, King William and Prince of Wales are the most compelling of the estimated 36,500 or more islands in the region.
When to go
With the obvious exception of ski and other winter holidays, the best – but also the busiest and most expensive time – to visit is July and August, when weather across the southern half of the country is generally warm and reliable. September and early October can still be pleasant, and this is a quieter period for most trips, though the weather will be turning in many regions, and sights, visitor centres and accommodation in more remote areas often close after Labour Day (the first Monday in September).
National, provincial, park and local visitor centres are excellent across Canada.Destination Canada (canada.travel) is the official visitor body. Parks Canada (pc.gc.ca) has information on national and other parks and many key historic monuments. The Canadian government site (canada.pch.gc.ca) offers wide-ranging practical information.