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Canada 150: Arts, Festivals, Fishing, and Wine in Ontario

This year our national neighbors to the north celebrate their 150th anniversary and we’ll be celebrating with them as they do. Each month we’ll focus on one part of their magnificent country and share it with you. From the sky-high trees and brown bears in British Columbia to the kitchen parties and codfish-kissing in the Maritimes, our toast to Canada will give you well over 150 reasons to make this the year you take the trip. This month we’re searching for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and celebrating multiculturalism in Ontario.

Canada 150:  Ontario   

Canada’s most populous province can be misleading. Drop into one of its big cities, and you’ll be left wondering where the wilds you’d heard so much about have disappeared to. But wander farther in any direction—by car, train, plane, or boat—and you’ll find them. From the monarch butterflies on Point Pelee to the hike-friendly hills of Manitoulin Island to the First Nations communities on the shores of historic Hudson Bay, you’ll find this province has more to offer than you’ll have time to explore in a single trip. Choose wisely on your first visit, and then quickly book your return.

The Cities: Toronto and Ottawa  

Multicultural Toronto: This is a city that has always celebrated difference. The result: Pockets throughout the city where everything from cultural background to sexual orientation is proudly shared.  Choosing a meal in Toronto might be your hardest decision yet. Will it be oxtail and rice and peas in Little Jamaica, samosas and dal in Little India, or Peking duck in Chinatown? Or will you time your trip to catch “Taste of the Danforth”—a celebration of Greek food and culture—or the annual Caribbean festival that rivals Carnival in Rio de Janeiro? In Toronto you’ll find music, arts, events, and festivals that celebrate the city’s diversity, and, best of all, everyone is always welcome.

Capital Cool in Ottawa: Sure, it’s where the federal government is, but if you’re expecting a city of stiff, boring workers who turn in early, think again. Locals play hard and often, and visitors are encouraged to join the fun. This is where Canada is celebrated all year long, every year. Start with Parliament Hill, where you can tour the prominent building and grounds and keep an eye out for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Stay at the Chateau Laurier, the iconic castle next door, and you’ll be well positioned to explore everything from the artisanal ByWard Market to activities on the Rideau Canal. A 10-minute walk across the bridge takes you to neighboring Gatineau, Quebec, and the brand-new, 40,000-square-foot gallery at the Canadian Museum of History. This year, when the normally humble country is loudly sharing its love for home, Ottawa is a must-visit. Summer 150 excitement continues with music festivals, busker festivals, marching military bands, hot-air balloons, and more. Check out OttawaTourism.ca.

Why Now Is the Perfect Time to Go

Ontarians love their seasons. You’ll find plenty of locals who are passionate about winter, but summer love is unanimous. When things warm up in June, you can expect to find locals in a celebratory mood. Sidewalks are turned into makeshift patios, T-shirts and shorts are out before it’s probably advisable, the slow and steady progression to campsites across the province is in full swing, and the celebrations are nonstop.

Festivals:  In Toronto, the LGBTQI community kicks things off with its annual Pride Month in June, and things don’t slow down until the Toronto International Film Festival in September.  Don’t miss the Toronto Caribbean Carnival, marking its 50th anniversary this year with festivities planned across the city. Other festivals of note include the Toronto Jazz Festival and Luminato. Beyond Toronto, small towns hold their own celebrations throughout the summer. Among them: The Elora Festival showcases choral music, Almonte celebrates all things Celtic, and Bancroft hosts a “Gemboree.”

Theater: From the Stratford Festival that celebrates Shakespeare (and more) in Justin Bieber’s hometown of Stratford, Ontario, to the Shaw Festival in beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake, theater lovers can take in quality plays across the province. Choices at smaller theaters include the “dinner and a show” options at the Lakeview Arts Barn in Bobcaygeon or shows featuring local history with a twist at the 4th Line Theatre in Millbrook.

Art: Visit big museums like the Art Gallery of Ontario or the Royal Ontario Museum (both in Toronto), or follow the Group of Seven discovery routes to match the art you love with the vistas that inspired it.

Wine Regions:  Summer means outdoor tastings and concerts among the vineyards of Niagara.  Come back in the winter for a chance to help collect the frozen grapes that will become a part of the region’s award-winning icewines.

Fish the Lakes and Rivers:  There’s no shortage of spots to choose from, but one to consider is Wiley Point Wilderness Lodge in Lake of the Woods, where opportunities to catch a big one abound. Two-day guided trips take you out aboard a 19-foot cruiser to what is referred to as “angler’s paradise.” Try your luck at catching pike, walleye, and bass. Keep an eye on the skies, too; the region is home to Ontario’s largest population of bald eagles.

Why It’s Great Other Times of Year

Animal Magnetism: Follow the cry of the wolf to the Haliburton Forest Wolf Centre (one of the world’s largest), or, in the late summer/early fall, you can accompany a naturalist guide on a wolf howl evening in Algonquin Provincial Park. You’ll try to track a pack in the hopes of hearing the fabulous calls.

Leaf Peeping in the Fall:  You’ll find great routes across the province, but head to Agawa Canyon for something unique. The one-day Agawa Canyon Tour Train will get you to places that are only accessible by rail for stunning photographs of the gold, auburn, and red leaves that take over the Canadian shield each fall.

Skate Through the Trees:  Head to Ontario’s cottage country for a chance to skate the Arrowhead Ice Skating Trail. The forest setting takes on a fairy-tale feel with tiki torches marking a path for skaters of all ages to enjoy. Then stick around Muskoka for popular winter activities that range from dogsledding and ice fishing to pond hockey and snowshoeing.

If You Go Don’t Miss…

A Game: Every season has a game, and everyone has a team. You’re bound to find at least one hockey jersey supporting the long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs in any town you visit this year. The team celebrates its 100th birthday this year with fans who bleed blue every season.  The Toronto Raptors (basketball) and Toronto Blue Jays (baseball) have equally passionate fanbases. When fans aren’t watching, they’re playing. Find a local rink, field, or gymnasium to join them.

The National Park: It’s not easy to get to, but the time you spend in Pukaskwa National Park will be memorable. One of the province’s last untouched boreal forests, the area can trace its history to the melting of the last glaciers about 10,000 years ago. Here you’ll still find black spruce and jack pine as well as fresh air and open skies. Camp out under the stars along the Coastal Hiking Trail, and spend your days hiking, swimming, and paddling through. Don’t miss the sights on the way to the park either. Nearby places like Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie tell as much of the park’s story as the park itself.  Bonus: Lake Superior, the Great Lake on the Ontario border, is also a National Marine Conservation Area and well worth exploring.

Remember: National Parks and National Marine Conservation Areas are offering free admission all year as part of the celebration of Canada150. Request your free park pass here!

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Heather Greenwood Davis is a lifestyle journalist and a National Geographic Travel columnist. Follow her on Twitter @greenwooddavis or keep up with her family’s adventures on GlobeTrottingMama.com

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