Travel Guide to Canada
13 REASONS WHY CANADA ROCKS
The rugged Rockies might not seem to share much with the sandy shores of Prince Edward Island, and comparing the fertile fruitlands of Ontario with the awe-inspiring Arctic is like comparing, well, apples and snow. One thing, however, remains constant: wherever you go in this vast land, you’re sure to find something remarkable. Here are
13 of the reasons why Canada rocks.
20,000 SHADES OF GREY: BRITISH COLUMBIA
In some places, red-breasted robins announce the arrival of spring. On the western shore of Vancouver Island, it’s the return of the grey whales—some 20,000 of which swim by as they make the 8,000-km (4,970-mi.) trip from the balmy breeding lagoons of Mexico to feeding grounds up north. Whale-watching boats depart from towns like Ucluelet and Tofino. But since the massive mammals follow the coast closely, you can also observe them without leaving land. The peak viewing time in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve is from March through May (www.parkscanada.gc. ca/pacificrim).
2 BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS: ALBERTA
Hungry attendees will be happy to hear that pancake flipping is as much a part of the Calgary Stampede as bull riding and barrel racing. In fact, an estimated 200,000 pancakes—topped with 454 kg (1,000 lb.) of butter and 1,728 l (380 gal.) of syrup—are served at free breakfasts hosted city-wide each July during the 10-day event. Many also come with a side order of entertainment. The tradition started in 1923, when chuckwagon driver Jack Morton began inviting random folks to share his morning meal; now it serves as edible evidence of that legendary Western hospitality (www. stampedebreakfast.ca).
3 FISH TALES: SASKATCHEWAN
Saskatchewan may call to mind waving fields of prairie grain, yet this landlocked spot has real waves as well. In fact, 100,000 or so lakes and rivers cover about a tenth of the province, providing some of the best freshwater fishing anywhere. World record-breaking burbot, northern pike and brook trout have been caught here; trophy-sized walleyes—Saskatchewan’s official provincial fish and its most popular game species—also lure in anglers. Whether you’re passionate about fly fishing or eager to try ice fishing, experienced local outfitters can set you up (www.tourismsaskatchewan.com/things-to-do/fishing).
4 BEAR NECESSITIES: MANITOBA
You can see a polar bear just by picking up a “toonie”—the two-dollar coin. But if you want an up-close look at the planet’s largest land predators, make tracks for Churchill. This tiny community on the western shore of Hudson Bay is one of the only human settlements where they can be seen in the wild. Because it sits on a polar bear migration route, hundreds pass through as they travel to the ice floes in October and November. Cool Tundra Buggies—complete with oversized wheels and an outside viewing platform— take guests to observe them on unforgettable day tours (www.everythingchurchill.com).
DRAMATIC EVENTS: ONTARIO
Shakespeare said “All the world’s a stage,” and Stratford—a small city in southwestern Ontario named for the Bard’s birthplace— actually feels like one during its signature event. Each year, from April through October, the Stratford Festival draws about half a million theatregoers to multiple venues. Founded in 1953, it had humble beginnings: plays were originally performed in a tent. From the start, however, the festival attracted luminaries from the theatre world. Sir Tyrone Guthrie was its first artistic director and Sir Alec Guinness starred in its inaugural production of Richard III (www.stratfordfestival.ca).
6 COLD COMFORT: QUÉBEC
What beats walking in a winter wonderland? How about sleeping in one? At the Hôtel de Glace, everything—including the glittering guest room furniture—is made entirely of ice and snow: 30,500 tonnes of it to be exact. Its thick walls act like a thermos, so you can chill without getting too chilly; and the ice-block beds, topped with a solid wood base and a comfortable mattress, an isolating bed sheet and Arcticrated sleeping bags, are très cosy. Built anew each year, the Hôtel de Glace is in Valcartier Vacation Village and open from January to late March (www.hoteldeglacecanada.com).
7 CLAWS CÉLÈBRE: NEW BRUNSWICK
Shediac, a cute Acadian fishing community, bills itself as the “Lobster Capital of the World.” Whether or not that’s technically true, this town obviously loves the King of Crustaceans. One is proudly displayed on its coat of arms; another—a 55-tonne whopper, albeit made from metal—is its main attraction. Moreover, since 1949, it has honoured the catch du jour each July during the five-day Shediac Lobster Festival. The highlight of the event is a nightly contest during which recruits attempt to crack and consume three lobsters as quickly as possible (www.shediaclobsterfestival.ca).
8 CLIFF NOTES: NOVA SCOTIA
The Joggins Fossil Cliffs on Chignecto Bay are more than just another pretty rock face. After all, they provide an unparalleled look at what life was like 300 million years ago during the Carboniferous Period. Some 200 species of fossilized plants and animals have been discovered here, among them Hylonomus lyelli, the earliest known reptile and the first known vertebrate able to live entirely on land. Cited by Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species, this 15-km-long (9.3-mi.), tide-washed UNESCO World Heritage site has been dubbed the “Coal Age Galápagos” (www.jogginsfossilcliffs.net).
9 A RECORD-BREAKING BRIDGE: PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND
Although P.E.I. joined Confederation in 1873, the province wasn’t physically connected to the rest of Canada until the billion-dollar Confederation Bridge opened between Borden-Carleton and Cape Jourimain, New Brunswick, 124 years later. Comprised of almost 13 km (8 mi.) of curvaceous concrete, the so-called “fixed link” qualifies as the longest bridge in the world spanning ice-covered water. It took a team of more than 5,000 workers four years to build this 11-m-wide (36-ft.) engineering marvel; motorists can cross it in a mere 12 minutes (www.confederationbridge.com).
10 MIXED SIGNALS: NEWFOUNDLAND & LABRADOR
The provincial capital’s leading landmark, Signal Hill, is crowned by an imposing stone tower, which was erected to commemorate the arrival of Giovanni Caboto in 1497. The Genoese explorer is better known to anglophones as John Cabot. Coincidently,
all of the modern-day visitors who tweet about the tower or post cellphone pics of it to Facebook and Instagram owe a debt to another trail-blazing Italian, Guglielmo Marconi. The radio pioneer ushered in the era of global communications when he received the first transatlantic wireless signal here on December 12, 1901 (www. parkscanada.gc.ca/signalhill).
11 A DECIDELY DIFFERENT DRINK: YUKON
More than a century after the Klondike Gold Rush ended, Dawson City is still a place where “strange things are done in the midnight sun.” If you want proof—about 40 proof to be precise—head to the Sourdough Saloon in the Downtown Hotel and order a Sourtoe Cocktail. The off-beat beverage has one key ingredient that hip mixologists tend to overlook—namely a dehydrated human toe. To become a certificate-carrying member of the Cocktail Club, you can drink your shot fast or you can drink it slow, “but your lips have gotta touch the toe” (www. downtownhotel.ca/sourtoe-cocktail).
12 CELESTIAL SIGHTS: NORTHWEST TERRITORIES
Neither words nor pictures can truly convey the beauty of the aurora borealis, a natural phenomenon sparked by surges of solar and magnetic energy. You simply have to see the iridescent colours dance across the night sky yourself. An ideal place to do it is the Northwest Territories, where “the greatest light show on Earth” is visible about 240 days a year. The absence of light pollution in Wood Buffalo National Park—Canada’s largest national park and the world’s largest Dark Sky Preserve— creates top viewing opportunities from mid-December to mid-March (www.parks canada.gc.ca/woodbuffalo).
13 SINKING SENSATIONS: NUNAVUT
Nunavut doesn’t make headlines often, but in 2014 the news went viral: after 168 years, the HMS Erebus—one of the ships from the ill-fated Franklin Expedition— had been discovered in its icy waters by Parks Canada archaeologists. The feat was repeated in 2016 when her sister ship, the HMS Terror was located. Sir John Franklin, his crew and both vessels disappeared in 1846 while trying to traverse the Northwest Passage—and gain a lucrative trade route between the Atlantic and Pacific. Finding them helps solve one of the world’s great marine mysteries (www.parkscanada.gc. ca/franklin).
ENTERING THE COUNTRY
First impressions count, so the Canada Border Services Agency makes entering the country comparatively easy. Vacationing citizens of Britain and most EU or Commonwealth countries need only a valid passport and, if travelling by air, an Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA). Visas aren’t required; however, a return ticket and proof of sufficient funds may be requested. American citizens travelling between the U.S. and Canada must produce a passport or other WHTI-compliant document, such as a NEXUS card (www.cbp.gov/travel). If in doubt, consult Citizenship and Immigration Canada (www.cic.gc.ca).
There are no limitations on what personal effects can be brought into Canada. Gifts must be valued at $60 or less each. Duty-free limits for adults when returning to Canada after 48 hours or more are 1.5 l (53 imp. oz.) of wine, 1.14 l (40 imp. oz.) of spirits or 8.5 l (299 imp. oz.) of beer or ale. Adults may also bring up to 200 cigarettes, 50 cigars, 200 g (7 oz.) of tobacco or 200 tobacco sticks.
The use of firearms is strictly controlled, and the buying or selling of illicit drugs is severely dealt with. However, there are plans to legalize the use of marijuana across the country sometime this year. When travelling, prescription medications should be kept in original containers in case customs officials want to see them. In the interest of public health, restrictions are also placed on the importation of animals, plants and foods (www.inspection.gc.ca).
Flights operated by Air Canada (www.air canada.ca) and carriers like WestJet (www. westjet.com) or Porter (www.flyporter.com) link many Canadian cities. In some airports, a departure tax is levied on top of taxes included in your ticket price. The national train system, VIA Rail, offers cross-country service, with connections to certain U.S. cities (www.viarail.ca). Intercity bus service is also available in some areas through companies such as Greyhound (www. greyhound.ca). Civic buses provide public transit in many communities; Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto and Montréal, moreover, have excellent subway and local rail systems. Taxi service has been a foundation in cities and municipalities for many years, however, upstart Uber is available in some major cities. For many travellers, though, driving is the preferred way to go.
The cornerstone of the national road network is the Trans-Canada Highway, which stretches 8,030 km (4,990 mi.) from Victoria, B.C., to St. John’s, Newfoundland, with ferries covering coastal waters at each end. Canadians drive on the right and follow rules similar to those in Britain and the U.S. At intersections you may turn right on a red light if the way is clear and unless posted otherwise (except on the Island of Montréal). Speed limits, stated in kilometres, vary but are usually around 100 to 110 km/h (62 to 68 mph) on highways and 50 to 60 km/h (31 to 37 mph) in urban areas. Radar detectors are illegal in most locales. Seat belts are compulsory, and children weighing less than 18 kg (40 lb.) must be in child restraint seats. Every province and territory, save for Nunavut, forbids using hand-held electronic devices when driving: it will be banned there as well once the new Traffic Safety Act comes into effect at the
end of the year. Permissible blood alcohol limits vary, but drinking and driving laws are strictly enforced nationwide.
British and U.S. driver’s licences are valid in Canada for up to three months. Car rental companies are found at airports and in many municipalities. Internationally observed age limits apply, and drivers should present an acceptable credit card.
All motorists must have accident liability insurance. Americans driving across the border should obtain a Canadian Nonresident Inter-Province Motor Vehicle Liability Card, commonly known as a yellow card (available from their insurer in the U.S. only) before leaving. Drivers should also bring their vehicle registration card, a letter of permission from the registered owner or a rental company contract stipulating permission for use in Canada.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Even in Canada’s largest cities it is generally safe to walk the streets and use public transportation at night. Nevertheless, prudent visitors will let common sense be their guide and take the usual precautions. Belongings left in parked cars should be stowed out of sight. Purses and wallets are best kept beneath outer clothing; passports and other valuables stored in a hotel safe. To avoid unnecessary grief if theft occurs, keep a list of credit cards and other important numbers in a secure place.
In the event of illness or accident, it is reassuring to know that Canada’s health services rank among the world’s finest. Most hospitals are publicly managed, their fees set by provincial authorities. Non-residents hospitalized in Canada are charged a daily rate. These differ by province and can be cost prohibitive, so it is important to purchase travel health insurance before leaving home.
Canadians travelling domestically can typically rely on their provincial health coverage. All provinces and territories except Québec have a cooperative agreement allowing physicians to submit claims for services involving out-of-province residents to the local medical plan; these are then charged to that resident’s home plan. Residents who are required to pay for health services can submit receipts to their local ministry office for possible reimbursement. Services not covered while travelling out of province include ambulances and prescription drugs from pharmacies. Buying supplementary medical insurance can alleviate these costs.
Canada’s paper currency comes in 5, 10,
20, 50, 100 and 1,000 dollar bills, which differ in colour but not size. Coins are in
5¢, 10¢ and 25¢ denominations; there are also $1 and $2 coins, dubbed the loonie and toonie. U.S. currency is widely accepted at the prevailing exchange rate, though you should expect to receive change in Canadian funds.
Sales taxes are added to the price of virtually everything, including meals and lodgings. For starters, there is a federal 5 percent Goods and Services Tax (GST). Except in Alberta and the territories, there is also a provincial sales tax (PST), which is sometimes combined with the GST to create one Harmonized Sales Tax (HST). This means you’ll pay an extra 10-15 percent on top of most advertised purchase prices.
Automated teller machines (ATMs) that accept international debit cards are plentiful, and many are accessible around the clock. Just bear in mind that four-digit PIN codes are considered standard—if yours has more, change it before leaving home. To minimize transaction fees, choose an ATM affiliated with your home bank; users of Cirrus or PLUS networks can research locations on-line. Americans who’d rather pay by credit card should note that chip & PIN cards are commonplace here; however, transactions can often be processed using the old swipe and sign method, too.
Most communities have branches of major banks which are open, at minimum, from 10 to 3 on weekdays. Banks are closed on legal holidays, but exchange bureaus in cities, airports and at border crossings usually remain open. Museums and similar sites are typically open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; some close on Monday but have evening hours (and often reduced prices) once a week.
Store hours are generally 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday, though these may be extended on Thursday and Friday nights; times vary on Sunday. Shopping centres are typically open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Supermarkets often have longer hours. Drugstores may remain open until midnight with some 24-hour locations, and convenience stores sometimes operate 24/7.
Canada’s liquor laws vary between provinces and territories, and liquor store hours vary accordingly. The sale of spirits, wines and beer in provinces differ, with most being sold in provincially-owned or supervised stores, as well as some available in private shops.
The Canadian telephone system is identical to the U.S. one and shares the same international country code (01). Telephone numbers have a 3-digit area code followed by the 7-digit phone number (note that in some areas, 10-digit dialing is required for local calls). Toll-free numbers are prefixed by 1-800, 1-888, 1-877, 1-866, 1-855, 1-844 or 1-833. For emergencies, dial 911; for directory assistance, dial 411; for the operator, dial 0.
Public phone booths, while increasingly rare, can be used for local or long-distance calls. The cost of the former is 50¢; you can pay for the latter with coins, a phone card and sometimes a credit card, or by reversing the charges. International visitors can typically use their own multiband cell phone but should be mindful of high roaming and data charges. One way to avoid these is to ask your provider to temporarily add Canadian access to your service plan before arriving. Renting a travel phone or bringing an “unlocked” cell phone and then buying a local SIM card are other alternatives.
On-line options such as Skype, FaceTime or WhatsApp offer cheaper ways to keep in touch. Most hotels provide broadband connections or WiFi, at least in common areas. Many airports, bus and train stations, ferry terminals and libraries also offer WiFi; ditto for countless coffee shops and fast food franchises, including those ubiquitous Tim Hortons outlets. If you are bringing a phone charger, laptop, or any other electrical device, be advised that Canada (like the U.S.) has a 110-V, 60-Hz current. To use 220-V British equipment, you’ll need a power converter plus a plug adaptor.