As the world’s second-largest country, sprawling across more than 3.85 million square miles, Canada offers visitors so many potential travel experiences that it’s hard to know where to begin. Sure, you know about Niagara Falls and Lake Louise, Vancouver’s Stanley Park and Montreal’s cobblestoned Old Town. But did you also know that you can swim with beluga whales, go digging for clams or walk under the stars through a canyon full of frozen waterfalls?
Dive into our slideshow to sample these unique experiences plus many more, spanning the country from the wide-open cattle ranches out west to the friendly fishing villages in the Maritimes.
See the Northern Lights
In Canada’s remote Northwest Territories, you can see the northern lights in several unique ways. Beck’s Kennels, based in Yellowknife, offers a five-hour excursion that starts with an exhilarating dog sled ride over the snow to a heated cabin where you can warm up and keep an eye on the colors streaking across the dark sky.
For an even more remote experience, head to the Blachford Lake Lodge and Wilderness Resort. Accessible only by bush plane (it’s a half-hour ride from Yellowknife), the lodge offers the chance to see the northern lights from an igloo you build yourself.
Walk on the Earth’s Mantle
Gros Morne National Park isn’t just a spectacularly scenic place to go hiking or camping; it’s also a geological landmark that helped scientists prove the theory of plate tectonics. The barren red rocks in the Tablelands section of the park were once part of the earth’s mantle (the thick layer beneath the crust), but they were pushed upward by a plate tectonic collision some 500 million years ago. Gros Morne is one of the few places in the world where you can actually walk on rock that was once this deep inside the earth.
While it’s easy enough to hike the Tablelands independently, a Parks Canada guide can offer insight into the complex geology of the area. Two- and three-hour guided hikes are available.
Savor Asian Eats at a Night Market
As you stroll among bustling stalls, sampling fragrant street food like dim sum, stir-fried octopus and tteokbokki (a spicy Korean rice and fish cake), you could be forgiven for imagining that you’re in Hong Kong or Taiwan. But you can also savor a traditional Asian night market much closer to home in the Vancouver metro area.
About 30 minutes outside of downtown Vancouver, near the international airport, the city of Richmond offers two different night markets during the warmer months. The Richmond Night Market, located near the Bridgeport SkyLink station, offers live entertainment and hundreds of food stalls on weekends between mid-May and early October. The Panda Market, located behind a Home Depot on Vulcan Way, runs on weekends from late April to early September.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
British Columbia by Ferry by Amelia aka ibfern
“I love Vancouver; I think it’s probably my favorite all-time city so far. There are miles and miles of sea walk (sea wall), and lots of beautiful neighborhoods and cafes. The Classical Chinese Gardens of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen in Chinatown were wonderful, and there is a free Chinese garden right next to it that is also quite nice.” Read more!
Learn Indigenous Traditions
For an intimate and authentic look into the cultural heritage of some of Canada’s indigenous peoples, head to Manitoulin Island, located on Lake Huron in northeastern Ontario. Here, the Great Circle Spirit Trail offers a selection of workshops and experiences celebrating the traditions of the Anishnawbek people (which includes the Ojibwe, Odawa and Pottawatomi tribes).
Visitors learn native drumming techniques, taste local teas, craft your own traditional torch or go on a hike in search of medicinal herbs and plants. For a longer experience, book the Teepee Glamping & Aboriginal Drum Experience, which includes a night in a teepee as well as a live song and drum performance.
Cycle Through the Laurentians
For an exhilarating fresh-air journey through Quebec’s forested Laurentian Mountains, rent a bike and hit the P’tit Train du Nord trail. Once a rail line, this 144-mile, mildly graded path offers a taste of the region’s pristine rivers, lakes and mountain views. Many of the former railroad stations along the way have been converted into cafes, shops and other facilities where bikers can take a break.
The trail runs between Saint-Jerome, about 30 minutes outside Montreal, and Mont-Laurier. Operators such as Cyclo-Gites offer packages that include overnight lodging, breakfast, luggage transfers and transportation from one end of the trail to the other (so you don’t have to bike all the way back to get back to your car).
The full ride can be completed in three to five days, depending on your fitness level and how much time you want to spend exploring. For the most spectacular scenery, go in the fall when the leaves are turning.
Learn the Fisherman’s Life
During your stay in Nova Scotia, you’ll likely dig into a seafood dinner at least once or twice, whether your dish of choice is fresh lobster, grilled fish or buttery scallops. But did you know you can meet the fishermen responsible for bringing all that delicious, locally caught seafood to your plate?
The Living Wharves program in the Yarmouth and Acadian Shores area has brought together active and retired workers from the fishing industry to meet with visitors and share their experiences. You can listen to stories of storms at sea, find out what a typical day is like and even learn to tie a knot or band a lobster. Daily talks and demonstrations are given at various wharves in and around Yarmouth.
Hike a Snowy Canyon Under the Stars
Imagine strapping on a pair of cleats and walking along the bottom of a deep, quiet canyon at night, with moonlight glittering off the frozen waterfalls and otherworldly ice formations around you. While most visitors explore Banff and Jasper National Parks during the warmer summer months, a nighttime “ice walk” is an unforgettable experience you can only have during the winter off season. (Just remember to bundle up!)
Discover Banff Tours offers a 2.5-hour ice walk in Johnston Canyon, where you’ll hike along catwalks built onto the canyon walls. At Maligne Canyon in Jasper, you’ll be right on the canyon floor during a three-hour tour led by Jasper Adventure Centre or Maligne Adventures.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
3 Days in the Canadian Rockies for the Independent Backpacker by Shannon Colman
“We stopped at Maligne Canyon to see the gushing falls and deep gorges, then went on to Maligne Lake, where a boat took us out to Spirit Island. This acts as a base for some of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen — bright blue lakes surrounded by snow-capped mountains. It was like something from a fairy tale.” Read more!
Live the Cowboy Life on a Ranch
At Saskatchewan’s Historic Reesor Ranch, which dates back to 1904, guests can join a cattle drive during the day and then sit around the campfire at night, exchanging “cowboy poetry” with the hosts. In British Columbia, Echo Valley Ranch & Spa offers a more indulgent experience, with Thai massages or yoga classes available in between horseback riding and panning for gold. Guests at La Reata Ranch in Saskatchewan can learn cowboy skills such as lariat handling and roping a dummy steer, then wind down their day in the hot tub under the stars.
You can find more ranches at sites such as GuestRanches.com and BestDudeRanches.com.
Meet the Other French-Speaking Canada
Get a taste of Acadian culture in New Brunswick at the Village Historique Acadien, which offers a collection of historical buildings — including farmhouses, a lobster hatchery and a grist mill — dating back as far as 1770. At the Theriault General Store, you can buy period items such as porcelain dolls and cast-iron frying pans.
Le Pays de la Sagouine, in the town of Bouctouche, is a recreated Prohibition-era fishing village where visitors can tour the buildings, dine on traditional dishes, and enjoy musical and theatrical performances from a cast of Acadian characters. You may even learn to play the wooden spoons! (Note that performances run throughout the warmer months, and most are in French.)
Swim with Beluga Whales
Tour operators such as Sea North Tours and Lazy Bear Lodge will take you out on a boat to search for a pod of these gentle giants, which measure about 18 feet and weigh up to 3,500 pounds. Then, wearing a thick Arctic wetsuit and snorkeling gear, you’ll lower yourself into the water where you can swim beside the whales and even hear the sounds they make as they call to each other.
Have a Foodie Adventure
Best Time to Go to Canada
Canada’s prime tourism season is summer, when temperatures are warm enough for outdoor adventures in the rugged countryside (this means the more popular destinations will be bustling with tourists). Canadian winters can be long and arduous, but skiers, of course, will want to head to the mountains when local temperatures drop and snow blankets the slopes. Fall in Canada is leaf-peeping time. Cruises along the Canadian coast, mountain hikes and train trips through the countryside are excellent ways to catch autumn colors. Spring rains often bring tons of mud to Canadian national parks, but this season is a great time to find local travel deals.
Canada on a Budget
Overall, Canada is a budget-friendly destination for the U.S. traveler, due to proximity and a generally favorable exchange rate. Snag the best prices on hotel stays, tours and transportation — while avoiding frigid winter temperatures — by traveling during the spring or fall shoulder seasons (spring prices are likely to drop a bit lower than fall ones). To save money on restaurant meals, rent a house or apartment where you can cook for yourself.
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