Arctic wildlife in Nunavut // © 2015 Arctic Haven
Feature image (above): The stunning Gaspe Peninsula // © 2015 Tourism New Brunswick
As the second-largest country in the world, Canada offers a wide variety of travel opportunities. There are the obvious ones: Banff, Niagara Falls and the urban landscapes of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.
But because Canada encapsulates six time zones, three oceans and such varied physical geography, there is an almost infinite amount of off-the-beaten paths to choose from when visiting. Here are a few of these locales, listed from west to east.
Sometimes called the Galapagos of the North, Haida Gwaii is an archipelago nestled off the northern coast of British Columbia. It is a stunning landscape of old-growth rainforest, sandy beaches and abundant wildlife on land and in the ocean. It also offers an indigenous history that goes back thousands of years. Haida Gwaii is a place of serenity, adventure and cultural experience.
Getting There: There are daily flights from Vancouver in the summer. There are also two ferries: one from the mainland, plus the overnight Inland Passage ferry from Vancouver Island. To get around, you’ll need a car.
Where to Stay: Haida House in Tilal is a Haida tribal-owned lodge that not only offers accommodations and local fare, but also authentic cultural experiences, as well as guided kayaking and Zodiac tours. Jags Beanstalk, a modest lodge in Skidegate, is another choice, well-known for its authentic island breakfast.
What to Do: While a Haida Gwaii trip should include outdoor pursuits such as hiking (try Tow Hill, Blow Hole and Rose Spit trails), fishing and whale watching, experiencing Haida culture will be a highlight of the trip. Haida Heritage Centre in Kay Llnagaay hosts daily weaving, canoe and totem pole carving tours. There are traditional Haida canoe excursions and cultural performances on occasion. A tour of historical totem poles and longhouses in and around the town of Old Massett is also a must.
Insider Tip: According to local legend, visitors who hike St. Mary’s Spring Trail and drink from the fountain will return to Haida Gwaii.
Tucked in the northwest corner of Canada, the Yukon Territory is home to Canada’s five tallest mountains and the world’s largest non-Arctic icefields, as well as the historical center of the Klondike Gold Rush. Yukon is a nature lover’s paradise, but it also offers great cultural opportunities and a chance to experience life in the Far North.
Getting There: Many daily flights arrive in the capital city of Whitehorse, which is a great base for day trips into the wilderness and an artistically active city worth exploring.
Where to Stay: Sundog Retreat in Whitehorse offers seasonal fishing and horseback riding and dogsledding in winter. Bombay Peggy’s in Dawson City harkens back to the Klondike — it’s a former brothel with the decor to match.
What to Do: The Yukon has numerous national parks, including Kluane National Park, for climbing, hiking, fishing and wildlife and bird watching. The Yukon River is also considered a classic canoe trip, whether visitors paddle for one hour or take a multiday trip. History buffs will love the indigenous culture and the world of the Klondike Gold Rush in Dawson City.
Insider Tip: The Sourtoe Cocktail — a shot with an actual dehydrated toe — at Dawson City’s Sourdough Saloon is a Yukon must-do. Your lips must touch the toe to be official.
Waterton National Park in Alberta offers all the natural wonders of the Rockies that travelers would get at Banff and Jasper national parks, but without the crowds. A relatively short drive south from Calgary, Waterton is a majestic landscape that’s well worth the trip.
Getting There: Fly into Calgary, then drive south about 2½ hours.
Where to Stay: The oft-photographed Prince of Wales Hotel, overlooking Waterton Lake, is one of Canada’s iconic grand national park hotels. For visitors who prefer camping, the Waterton townsite campground is a perfect base for day trips into the park.
What to Do: Like its busier cousins Banff and Jasper, Waterton is chock-full of outdoor opportunities. The Waterton Triple Crown challenge— hiking Crypt Lake, Carthew-Alderson and Akamina Ridge trails — is a badge of honor for hiking enthusiasts. These are some of the most difficult day hikes in the Canadian Rockies, but you get a T-shirt and bragging rights if you finish all three in one summer.
The park’s clear, glacier-fed lakes, especially Emerald Bay and Cameron Lake, offer great freshwater scuba opportunities. Look out for Gertrude, an old paddle-wheeler from the 1900s that lies at the bottom of Emerald Bay.
Insider Tip: On the drive between Waterton and Calgary, consider two short detours. Check out Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump, an interpretative center that shows how indigenous people used to drive bison over cliffs, and the town of Vulcan, which celebrates all things Star Trek.
Though Churchill, Manitoba, has the smallest population of the locations on this list, it easily makes up for its lack of people with its nonhuman residents. Located on the northwest coast of Hudson Bay, Churchill is smack-dab in the middle of a migration route for hundreds of polar bears — hence its title as the Polar Bear Capital of the World.
Getting There: There is no road into Churchill, but there are daily flights from Winnipeg. There is also a two-day Via Rail train trip from Winnipeg complete with sleeper cabins and dining cars.
Where to Stay: Churchill Wild offers four lodges around the area featuring top-notch accommodations, cuisine and adventure tours. Great White Bear Tundra Lodge is actually a series of connected mobile units high above the ground featuring sleepers, dining and lounge cars. This allows extremely close yet safe access to polar bears.
What to Do: Churchill’s Big Three includes seeing a polar bear, a beluga whale and the aurora borealis. But because polar bear season is primarily in the fall, beluga watching is primarily in the spring and the auroras can vary, it’s rare to catch all three in one trip, though it has occurred. Plenty of operators can get you up close and personal to these animals. Additionally, ice floe tours — excursions that go on the ice as it breaks up in spring — are great for viewing other wildlife and birds. Churchill is especially popular for birders.
Insider Tip: Polar bears are predators, so don’t go searching for one without an escort, and never leave tour vehicles or approach a polar bear.
Occupying one-fifth of the landmass of Canada, Nunavut is a vast, unspoiled wonderland with activities such as hiking, fishing, climbing, kayaking, wildlife watching and cultural events. The territory is Canada’s true north, with the midnight sun in the summer and the opportunity for great views of the aurora borealis. It takes some effort to get there, but it’s worth it.
Getting There: The capital city of Iqaluit is the basic flight hub for Nunavut. There are daily flights to Iqaluit from Ottawa, plus three weekly flights from Montreal. There are also High Arctic cruises in the summer months.
Where to Stay: Arctic Haven and Arctic Watch are extreme north fly-in lodges offering Arctic safaris, guided tours and first-class accommodations and cuisine. The Discovery is a new boutique hotel in Iqaluit that is a great location for some day trips, as well as in the cultural and arts center of the territory.
What to Do: An Arctic safari or an Arctic cruise is a great way to get the most out of Nunavut in a relatively short time. You can explore the tundra, kayak the Arctic Ocean and visit Inuit archaeological sites while trying to spot animals such as polar bears, whales, musk ox, caribou, Arctic foxes and seemingly infinite species of birds.
Auyuittuq National Park on Baffin Island has some incredible scenery, including Mount Thor, which has the highest vertical drop in the world (more than 4,000 feet). You can hike the park yourself or follow a guide. Better yet, try a dogsledding tour.
Insider Tip: Visitors heading out on wilderness excursions without a guide must report to the local Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment prior to departure.
Jutting into the Gulf of St. Lawrence like a clenched fist, the Gaspe Peninsula is a rugged, gorgeous piece of Canadian landscape. The inland is covered with the craggy Chic-Choc Mountains, while the coastline is full of rough-hewn cliffs. The area is known for its historical villages and many outdoor activities, such as hiking, kayaking, skiing and snowmobiling, plus whale, wildlife and bird watching.
Getting There: Fly into Quebec City and drive east on Highway 20 until it becomes Highway 132.
Where to Stay: The Riotel chain has a series of charming boutique hotels along a seaside route of the peninsula. Auberge Le Gite du Mont-Albert is a European-style mountain hotel in Gaspe National Park at the base of Mont-Albert, a great hiking location.
What to Do: The Gaspesie Tour along Highway 132 is a legendary road trip, circling 800 miles along most of the coastline with a jog across the inland to complete the route. It’s highly popular with motorcyclists. Frequent stops are required in order to gaze at natural wonders such as Perce Rock, view historical sites such as Canada’s tallest lighthouse in Cap Madeleine or shop and eat in many villages along the route.
Gaspe is also a great spot for canyoneering, which is a combination of hiking, rappelling, swimming and scrambling.
Insider Tip: Miguasha National Park near Carleton-sur-Mer is where scientists found conclusive fossil evidence showing fish evolving into land animals.
BAY OF FUNDY
The Bay of Fundy, located between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, is home to one of the world’s natural wonders: the highest tides on Earth. Tides can rise and fall up to 50 feet. Add sculpted coastlines and a range of water activities such as sea kayaking and whale watching, and you have the makings of a great trip.
Getting There: Fly into Moncton, New Brunswick, or Halifax, Nova Scotia, and drive to the bay. Many cruise ships also stop here.
Where to Stay: If you wish to camp, try Hole-in-the-Wall on Grand Manan Island. For less rugged accommodations, look to Algonquin Resort in St. Andrews, which recently underwent a $40 million renovation.
What to Do: One of the greatest things to do in the Bay of Fundy is to walk on the ocean floor and then kayak the same spot on the same day. Hopewell Rocks is a popular spot for this, as is Cape Enrage, which also offers rappelling, rock climbing and ziplines.
On the Nova Scotia side, try tidal-bore rafting, an activity unique to the Bay of Fundy. The tide creates waves as high as 15 feet flowing in and out of the Shubenacadie River south of Truro. Jump onboard a Zodiac for a ride on the waves.
Insider Tip: If you happen upon a community lobster boil, go.