A LAND FOR ALL SEASONS
It has been said that “to every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” Well, in Canada— an undeniably heavenly place—that means a time to ski and a time to swim, a time to hike and a time for harvest feasts. This, after all, is a land of dramatic seasonal shifts, and visitors can embrace all of nature’s cycles.
Come in the coldest months and you’ll understand why Canada is nicknamed the “Great White North.” Vast quantities of snow fall on much of the country, but there’s no need to hibernate. Old Man Winter provides ample outdoor opportunities.
SKIING AND SNOWBOARDING
Impressive mountains and deep powder translate into high-calibre skiing—particularly in the Rockies, which straddle the British Columbia/Alberta border. Whistler Blackcomb is the continent’s largest ski resort. It has slopes appropriate for every skill level, plus cross-country trails, tricky terrain parks, amenity-filled accommodations and après-ski action, all within two hours of Vancouver (www.whistlerblackcomb.com).
Kicking Horse (www.kickinghorseresort.com), Fernie (www.skifernie.com), Sunshine Village (www.skibanff.com) and Lake Louise (www.skilouise.com) are other regional standouts. Away from their well-groomed runs, adrenaline junkies can take advantage of many off-piste possibilities as well. It’s estimated that 90 percent of the world’s heli-skiing occurs in British Columbia, and local operators let skiers and snowboarders access pristine powder by air (www.heliski.com).
Veering east, Ontario’s premiere ski
resort is Blue Mountain, about two hours north of Toronto (www.bluemountain.ca); Québec’s leading ones are Mont Tremblant north of Montréal (www.tremblant.ca) and Mont-Sainte-Anne near Québec City (www.mont-sainte-anne.com). Newfoundland’s Marble Mountain (www.skimarble.com) is also noteworthy. Aside from having Atlantic Canada’s highest vertical drop, the area features Whistler-esque perks such as cat-skiing and winter zip-lining.
From climbing frozen waterfalls in the Rockies to snowkiting over frozen lakes on “The Rock” (Newfoundland), cool options abound. If you want to stick with the classics, you can skate alfresco almost anywhere—even in the middle of major cities—given the wealth of natural and artificial rinks. Variations on tobogganing, similarly, are available on countless hills and slick pro tracks, like those at WINSPORT’s Canada Olympic Park in Calgary (www. winsport.ca) or the Whistler Sliding Centre (www.whistlerslidingcentre.com). And don’t forget snowshoeing, an ancient mode of transportation made easier by today’s lighter equipment.
Folks who dream of yelling “mush” can try dogsledding, another timehonoured tradition, in most provinces and territories. Snowmobiling is a speedier update, and there’s no shortage of trails; you’ll find more than 22,000 km (13,670 mi.) worth just in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Of course, simply sitting back to savour the aurora borealis is appealing, too. While Mother Nature’s dazzling light display is visible in many northern locales, clear skies and an enviable position below the aurora oval make Yellowknife an optimal observation point (www.astronomynorth.com).
Not to be outdone, city dwellers host their own dazzling seasonal celebrations. Foremost among them is the Québec Winter Carnival —the world’s largest winter festival —which brings snow sculptures, sleigh rides and cold-weather competitions, all enhanced by the joie de vivre of historic Vieux-Québec, from the end of January through mid-February (www.carnaval.qc.ca/en).
Top draws elsewhere include Winterlude in the National Capital Region (canada.pch.gc.ca/eng/1416239267950) and Winnipeg’s Festival du Voyageur (www.festivalvoyageur.mb.ca).
The first day of spring can look very different depending on where you are. Some Canadians will be digging out from the latest snowstorm; others will already be in gardening mode. No matter when the thaw sets in, though, it’s greeted warmly.
Events like the World Ski and Snowboard Festival, staged in Whistler each April, prove how persistent the white stuff is (www.wssf.com). As the mercury rises, however, even winter wonderlands morph into playgrounds for sunnier pursuits. In fact, once the snow melts, it isn’t uncommon to see mountain bikers tackling the vertigo-inducing slopes that Alpine skiers formerly swooshed down, or nature buffs taking to the paths their Nordic counterparts traversed earlier.
Each province and territory has trails that put lovely landscapes within easy reach of hikers and bikers. The marquee one is The Great Trail which, when complete, will be the longest of its kind in the world (www.tctrail.ca). P.E.I.’s pastoral section— the gently graded Confederation Trail— follows a converted rail bed across the Island from tip to tip (www.islandtrails.ca). If that sounds daunting, city systems such as Saskatoon’s Meewasin Valley Trail (www.meewasin.com) or the Grand Concourse in St. John’s, give urbanites a taste of the country (www.grandconcourse.ca).
The maple leaf is our national symbol, yet this time of year the tree’s sap matters just as much because making syrup from it is a rite of spring. About 80 percent of all maple syrup comes from Canada and, as the sap rises, producers from Ontario to the Atlantic kick into high gear for “sugaring off.”
Québec alone has 400-odd cabanes à sucre (sugar shacks), so there are lots of places where you can see the sweet treat made, then sample it poured on pancakes or poured over snow to create taffy-like la tire.
Blooming flowers are another sure sign of spring. Residents of Victoria do a blossom count in late February, gleefully broadcasting the results; and before long the city’s acclaimed Butchart Gardens are awash with colour (www.butchartgardens.com). But it takes the rest of the country time to catch up. The Devonian Botanic Garden outside Edmonton doesn’t open until May (www.devonian.ualberta.ca); ditto for notable Maritime cousins including Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens (www.historicgardens.com) and New Brunswick’s Kingsbrae Garden (www.kingsbraegarden.com).
Summer—when the weather is warmest, the days are longest and the tour options are broadest—is the peak period for vacationers. Landlubbers have plenty to do and warmed-up water beckons, making this the time for a true surf-and-turf experience.
The number of hiking and cycling enthusiasts enjoying recreational trails continues to multiply in summer. Towering mountains, moreover, tempt an increasing number of climbers. With the Coast Mountains and Rocky Mountains to the west, the Appalachians to the east, the Canadian Shield in between, and the heart-stopping St. Elias Range to the north, the choices are endless for intrepid types who have set their sights high (www.alpineclubofcanada.ca).
When something more down to earth is in order, Canada’s National Parks deliver (www.pc.gc.ca). During July and August they put together a full roster of programs, enabling visitors to participate in scheduled events that run the gamut from horseback riding and birdwatching to interpretive walks and nighttime stargazing sessions. The fact that many of these are affordable or free, and geared toward families, is a welcome bonus.
If beach bums had to pick a single province, it would probably be P.E.I. Boasting over 800 km (500 mi.) of sand and saltwater temperatures that can reach 21º C (70º F), the smallest province is a summer paradise. From the sandy expanses of Cavendish and Greenwich—both part of Prince Edward Island National Park (www.parkscanada.gc.ca/princeedwardisland) — to the “singing sands” of Basin Head (www.tourismpei.com/provincial-park/basin-head), there is a beach to suit every taste. Tourists continuing cross-country, though, don’t have to wait until they hit the Pacific to take the plunge again.
Witness Wasaga Beach on Georgian
Bay (www.wasagabeach.com), the world’s longest freshwater strand; or Lake Winnipeg’s aptly-named Grand Beach (www.grandbeachtourism.com), complete with 12-m-high (39-ft.) sand dunes. Then there are the beaches of Saskatchewan’s Little Manitou Lake where it’s never a case of sink or swim—the water has a high saline content that allows you to float effortlessly (www.manitoubeach.ca). Based on the destination, activities can range from swimming and sandcastle-building to organized entertainment and educational programs.
Visitors who would rather be on the water than in it are spoiled for choice as well. Canoeing, a quintessentially Canadian pastime, is popular, especially in Ontario where the longest network of interconnecting canoe routes on earth awaits. Ready to amp things up? Whether you brave waves generated by Fundy’s record-smashing tides in the far east or churning whitewater rapids in the wild west, rafting is a rush. For the ultimate adventure, soak in the scenery— and get plain soaked—on an extended rafting expedition down a challenging river in the Yukon or Northwest Territories.
If fishing is your idea of fun, boat operators—both on oceans and interior waterways—will happily hook you up. Multi-taskers will be pleased to hear that it’s also easy to combine boating with worldclass wildlife watching. From the seat of a tour vessel or your own kayak, you can admire beluga whales in northern Manitoba, ogle bowhead whales and tusked narwhals in Nunavut, or commune with the orcas in Johnstone Strait off Vancouver Island. Newfoundland’s Notre Dame Bay promises a double delight; whales there, humpbacks among them, often come with a side order of icebergs.
Thanks to bountiful harvests and brilliant foliage, fall is an ideal travel time. Just arrive early if you’re venturing beyond major locales. Outlying tour operators, and even lodgings, might close after Canadian Thanksgiving—Columbus Day in the U.S.— and not reopen until May.
Nationwide, vintners toast the grape harvest by popping corks and hosting festivals that feature winery tours, tastings, seminars, food pairings and the like. The largest of the lot—the Niagara Wine Festival, held in the heart of Ontario wine country—bridges three September weekends (www.niagarawinefestival.com). B.C. counters in early October with the Fall Okanagan Wine Festival, a 10-day fete in the famously fertile Okanagan Valley (www.thewinefestivals.com).
Nova Scotia’s burgeoning wine industry also shows off with open houses and the occasional grape stomp. For a different spin on the harvest theme, visit a U-pick apple orchard, negotiate a corn maze, or attend an agricultural event in the province’s Annapolis Valley. Top contenders are the Hants County Exhibition, a September fixture since 1765 (www.hantscountyex.com), and the Pumpkin Festival, a quirky October affair that begins with a pumpkin weigh-in and ends with a race involving boats crafted from giant pumpkins (www.worldsbiggestpumpkins.com).
It’s not only foodies and farm fans who appreciate autumn here. Canada ranks high on any leaf peeper’s bucket list because the blend of deciduous trees creates a remarkable range of colours. Once contrasting stands of evergreen and a backdrop of blue water are added to the equation, the results are extraordinary. Although beautiful across Canada, the fiery display tends to be best in the central and eastern portions of the country from the third week of September until mid-October.
Québec’s Laurentian Mountains and the Gaspé Peninsula offer spectacular fall road trips, as do New Brunswick’s Fundy Coast and the St. John River Valley where weathered bridges and barns enhance the postcard-worthy palette. Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail is a feast for ears and eyes since peak colours coincide with the musicoriented Celtic Colours International Festival in mid-October (www.celticcolours.com). For a painterly perspective, drive into Ontario’s Algonquin Park or ride the Algoma Central Railroad (www. agawacanyontourtrain.com) to see scenery that inspired the Group of Seven.
DEGREES OF DIFFERENCE
Big-name attractions can be equally fabulous in different seasons. Consider Ontario’s Rideau Canal. In warm weather, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is beloved by boaters; in the coldest months, a 7.8-km (4.85-mi.) stretch in central Ottawa becomes the world’s largest naturally frozen skating rink. Niagara Falls is another case in point. Summer’s iconic cascades resemble supersized ice sculptures in winter; rushing melt-water lends extra oomph in spring while the proximity of so much fine Niagara wine adds an intoxicating element in autumn.
SNOWSHOEING • TOURISM LAURENTIANS
VICTORIA, BC • SHUTTERSTOCK/STEVE SMITH
PEI NATIONAL PARK • PARKS CANADA/DALE WILSON
KILDONAN PARK, MB • TOURISM WINNIPEG/JOHN SLIPEC