Between the forested Pacific shores of Vancouver Island and the rocky fingers of land that reach into the Atlantic at Newfoundland’s Terra Nova National Park, the second largest country on earth spans some 4,700 miles as the bird flies. Within its vast expanse, countless natural treasures and cultural riches unfold. Snow-capped peaks and turquoise lakes are encircled by mountains and European-flavored Old Towns. Sophisticated cities, sleepy fishing villages littered with lobster traps and tranquil lands, sacred to the First Nations people who have lived here for millennia. This is all woven together by a rich tapestry of French, British, Scottish, and Asian traditions.
This is Canada. And if you’ve only been looking at it from afar, you’ve been missing out. Lucky for you, we have a myriad opportunities for you to experience it up close. Herewith, our survey of Gate 1 Travel’s inspiring destinations from west to east …
The Scintillating Cultural Centers of British Columbia
The capital of British Columbia (BC) is a seaside gem. Situated on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, Victoria is every bit as regal as the queen for whom it was named. The British settled here in 1843 and many historic buildings central to its founding remain. Get a sweeping and insightful view of the city’s past at the Royal BC Museum, a fascinating chronicle of the region’s natural history, First Nations heritage, and modern history. View some colorful, towering totem poles next door in Thunderbird Park and experience the second oldest Chinatown in North America. Vancouver Island’s natural splendor is on full display at Beacon Hill Park, where you can marvel at stunning views of Juan de Fuca Strait and the Olympic Mountains of Washington State. And you surely won’t want to miss the floral brilliance of Butchart Gardens, a fantastic showcase of flowers, topiary, statuary, and fountains.
Vancouver, the largest city in BC, has literally been shaped by water. The Fraser River courses to the south and the Burrard Inlet meanders in from the sea to the north. Other scenic bays, inlets and rivulets make this one of the most picturesque cities in the world. The diverse heritage of the people – Chinese and other Asian populations are equally at home here as Vancouverites of European descent bringing a unique multiculturalism found in few other cities. You can see where the city was born, take in its frontier spirit, and imagine its logging and fishing past as you browse the historic street of Gastown and the large public market at Granville Island. As for Vancouver’s natural beauty, there’s ample to admire not only in the spectacular vistas of the nearby Coast Mountain range, but also at Stanley Park, a 1,000-acre haven of dense rainforest often cited as the most stunning public park in the world.
Alberta’s Soul-Stirring Beauty
Where BC and Alberta meet, a magnificent wall of alpine peaks emerges, continuing its reach from the United States. The Canadian Rocky Mountains host innumerable turquoise lakes, gleaming glaciers, hot springs, yawning canyons, and torrential waterfalls. Sprawling vistas here can only be described as majestic; forests climb up steep slopes, stopping short of bald rocky summits, and sinewy rivers wind their way through deep-cut valleys. You can explore it all from two bases, each exuding a relaxed mountain setting where nature takes center stage.
Laid-back Jasper in the Athabasca Valley was established in 1813 as a fur trading outpost. The surrounding namesake park was founded in 1907 as Jasper Forest Park and later given national park designation. You are truly in the midst of astonishing wilderness here. The massive wall of Pyramid Mountain rises to the north of town, named for its pyramidal shape. After gazing upward at its peak, you can peer downward into the nearby Maligne Canyon. Thrilling walking trails lead to breathtaking overlooks into the depths of its narrow crevice, which was carved by river waters over eons. East of here, a dramatic valley road leads to the incredible Maligne Lake. Set in a long, narrow trough between soaring hills, it is the largest glacier-fed lake in the Rockies. Tiny Spirit Island, a cluster of evergreens floating on aqua-green waters, enjoys a jaw-dropping backdrop of jagged peaks.
The epically scenic Icefields Parkway links Jasper and Banff, tracing the Continental Divide past jagged mountains and glistening glaciers. Along the way, the powerful Athabasca Falls roar through a pine forest and the Athabasca Glacier—just one finger of the massive Columbia Icefield—spills down into the valley from Mt. Columbia. Measuring up to 900 feet thick in some places, its ice is nonetheless receding at about 16 feet per year and may not be around for future generations to witness. You will see the vast Athabasca river valley when you dare to step on to the thrilling Glacier Skywalk, a glass walkway that clings to the edge! After such a dramatic experience, breathe in the serenity of emerald-hued Lake Louise, one of Canada’s most visited natural sites for its magnificent setting at the foot of Fairview Mountain.
Set in a valley near the eastern reaches of the Rockies, the resort town of Banff is the gateway to more natural wonders. The town enjoys a unique setting as it wraps around the dome-like Tunnel Mountain, which is also partly encircled by the meandering Bow River. Banff was settled after workers of the Canadian Pacific Railroad discovered hot springs at Sulphur Mountain. As interest in the area grew, so did the desire to preserve the natural beauty here, and so Canada’s National Parks system began.
The Cave and Basin National Historic Site on the slopes of Sulphur Mountain, site of those first hot springs, is where it all began. You can step inside the cave system to visit the steaming reservoirs and imagine they were your own discovery. If you wish, ascend the summit of Sulphur Mountain by gondola. Nearby, follow footpaths into the wide Johnston Canyon, formed over thousands of years by the flow of Johnston Creek. Another astonishing lake awaits in the Valley of the Ten Peaks, named for the ten pointy pinnacles lined up all in a row. You may not be able to decide which moves your spirit more: the peaks themselves or their mirror-like reflection in the pristine waters of Moraine Lake.
In the unlikely event that your spirit is not moved by Lake Moraine, then the dappling of lakes in Waterton Lakes National Park should do the trick, located near the US border. You’ll even step over into Glacier National Park in the US state of Montana, which, with Waterton, forms the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. This is a soul-stirring wonderland of mountains, prairies, forests, falls, and lakes that bring the wild west to mind. And for a true glimpse of life on the frontier, visit the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in Fort MacLeod, Alberta. For 5,500 years, indigenous Blackfoot people killed buffalo by driving them from their grazing spot to this 36-foot-high cliff.
Sophisticated Cities from Calgary to Quebec City
Speaking of stampedes, Calgary recalls the days of old Alberta with its famed annual rodeo. Canada’s largest city was founded as a headquarters for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1886 and has evolved into a modern cultural center, rich in history and architecture. Alberta’s capital, Edmonton, contains Canada’s largest living history museum, Heritage Park. It boasts replicas of historic houses, churches, covered wagons and more. For a more modern glimpse of Edmonton’s agricultural traditions, you can browse the famed Farmer’s Market in Old Strathcona.
Jump farther east into Ontario and you’ll experience the world-renowned multicultural mélange of Toronto. More than 140 languages can be heard on its streets and the city boasts a varied culinary scene that reflects its many colorful ethnicities. Of course, the centerpiece of Toronto is the famed CN Tower, once the largest freestanding structure in the world at more than 1,800 feet. Around it, a patchwork of distinct neighborhoods, museums, and remarkable architecture unfold.
One of Canada’s most spectacular natural wonders is a short drive from Toronto: the spellbinding Niagara Falls, fed by a torrent of water from four of the five Great Lakes. Daredevils have risked their lives by encasing themselves in barrels and balancing on tightropes here. Your experience will be considerably tamer as you feel the soothing mist of the falls from a boat, followed by a wine tasting on the Niagara Peninsula. Niagara is not the only spectacular gathering of water in this intimate corner of Ontario. The mighty St. Lawrence River courses its way northeast, following the New York border. Along the way, it plays host to an astounding 50-mile archipelago of 1,864 islands known as the Thousand Islands. A boat cruise lets you witness some of them up close.
The sheer grandeur of Canada is on display in its scintillating capital, Ottawa. Locals love their city so much that not even the winter’s cold keeps them inside; many skate to work or school on the frozen Rideau Canal. But you’ll be visiting in warmer months when the city is at its most glorious, marveling at the Gothic-style Parliament buildings and paying homage at the National War Memorial. Free time might lead you to any of the city’s many splendid museums or to a pleasant cruise along the canal.
More than any other region in Canada, the province of Quebec has long clung to its French heritage. This tenacity lends its two major cities—Montreal and Quebec City—a delightful joie de vivre. History appears on every corner in these fraternal towns, but it’s not to be outdone by succulent pastries from French bakeries and fine cuisine served in cafes and brasseries. In Montreal, situated on an island in the St. Lawrence River, sophisticated culture meets Old World charm. It is pure pleasure to take in the details of its many art galleries, admire sweeping city views from atop Mount Royal, marvel at the Basilica of Notre Dame, and stroll the cobbled streets of Vieux-Montreal. Quebec City has been called the “most French” city outside France. Adding to its European flavor, it is also the only walled North American city north of Mexico. Its Place Royale transports you back in time to the city’s original settlement while the iconic Chateau Frontenac and an adjacent terrace provide stunning views of the St. Lawrence River.
The Maritimes & More: Serenity by the Sea
Few places on earth match Canada’s easternmost provinces for their sheer tranquility, classic coastal ambiance, and authentic culture. Historically, the British and Acadians (descendants of the French) settled here during the 1600s. Today, Atlantic Canada is renowned for its cultural charms, breathtaking vistas, and a contagious love of seaside living.
Prince Edward Island (PEI), Canada’s smallest province, seems torn from a storybook. Rolling green hills and rock-strewn coasts embrace small farming towns and fishing villages. This unique gem evolved with little outside influence; it wasn’t until 1997 that it was connected to the mainland by the nine-mile Confederation Bridge. PEI’s northern shores actually are from a storybook: the town of Cavendish was the idyllic inspiration and setting for Anne of Green Gables. You can step into the beloved Green Gables House, visit other sites from the life of Lucy Maud Montgomery, and marvel at the red beaches and stunning dunes of Cavendish.
Known to some as “New Scotland,” Nova Scotia is deeply admired by all who visit. One of the province’s largest seaside cities is also one of its most cosmopolitan. Halifax, the maritime capital, enjoys a prime spot on a wide harbor. Its many heritage buildings—including St. Paul’s Church, City Hall, and Government House—its green parks and bustling arts and culinary scenes are all kissed by sea breezes and steeped in a vibrant history. Nearby, the highest tides anywhere roar in to the Bay of Fundy, they rise 48 feet in just six hours. The force of the waves has sculpted astonishing rock formations such as the Hopewell Rocks, gigantic towers topped with tiny forest clusters. You’ll find a more peaceful scene at Peggy’s Cove on St. Margaret’s Bay. Its quaint harbor bobs with fishing boats and its perfectly situated lighthouse creates a quintessential seaside tableau.
One notable part-time Nova Scotia resident, Alexander Graham Bell, wrote that “for simple beauty, Cape Breton outrivals” all the places in the world he had ever been. You may agree as you drive Cape Breton’s famed Cabot Trail through a rugged seaside highland landscape reminiscent of Scotland. As you traverse this spectacular region, witness the area’s varied heritage in old fishing villages descended from Acadian, Irish, and Scottish settlements. Take in more of the cape’s charms during your stay in Baddeck, a quaint shire town on the northern shores of Bras d’Or Lake, stopping by to visit the Alexander Graham Bell Museum and Historic Site.
Explore More of Canada with Our Sister Company, Discovery Tours!
Our Discovery Tours small groups are renowned for exploring off the beaten path. In Canada, we head farther north into Newfoundland and Labrador. These two geographic regions were merged into one province in 2001: Newfoundland is the wedge-shaped island jutting into the North Atlantic and Labrador spreads across the mainland. Together, they present travelers with unrivalled opportunities to head deeper into the continent and experience more of its unspoiled splendor and rich cultures.
On Newfoundland, the easternmost region of North America, cruise into the breathtaking fjords of Bonne Bay and view unique geological features at Gros Morne National Park. Uncover millennia of history amidst the stunning scenery of Port aux Choix National Historic Site. Explore the Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows—where Leif Erikson landed in the Americas 500 years before Columbus—and see the site of John Cabot’s landing in 1497. Tour the provincial capital of St. John’s, one of the oldest cities in North America. In Labrador, traverse primeval landscapes to stop by an old Basque-era whaling station of Red Bay. Along the way, visit tiny villages, sample local cuisine, and head out to sea to view the largest puffin colony on the North American east coast.
Experience Canada Up Close with Gate 1!
More than ever, travelers have been discovering Canada’s magnificent beauty, vibrant and traditional cultures, and welcoming locals. We invite you to join them, while enjoying the local insight, ultimate comfort, and terrific value you’ve come to expect from Gate 1 Travel.