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Canada's sheer size and comparatively chilly climate may appear daunting to many visitors from smaller, warmer nations, but its rugged natural beauty and welcoming locals are worth the long journey.
Although it is virtually impossible to see all of Canada in a single trip, it is relatively easy to travel between its major cities by air or rail. Many visitors to Canada choose to focus on one of its six distinct regions, the easternmost of which are the four Atlantic provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick.
The Atlantic provinces are famous for their beautiful coastlines and traditional fishing culture, and Gaelic and French traditions which remain strong in this region east of the much bigger province of Québec. Québec is the only part of North America where French is the dominant language and culture.
Both Canada's most populated city, Toronto, and its national capital, Ottawa, are situated in the central province of Ontario along with another famous Canadian attraction, Niagara Falls. The majestic Rocky Mountains separate Canada's westernmost province, British Columbia, from the three Prairie provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Nunavut, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories are Canada's northernmost territories and usually only visited by tourists on organised wilderness trips.
Not surprisingly, summer is Canada's busiest tourist season. Despite Canada's cold reputation, most of the country enjoys warm and pleasant summers comparable to those in the northern United States. No vaccinations are required to enter Canada, which ranks among the world's safest countries, and citizens from over 60 countries do not require visas for visits under six months. The Canadian and American dollars are usually on par with each other, and many Canadian retailers accept American currency. Most Canadians, except in parts of rural Québec and isolated Inuit settlements, speak English as a first or second language.
No North American city dates further back than Canada's easternmost city, St John's, on Newfoundland's east coast. The first telegraph across the Atlantic Ocean was sent from Signal Hill, while North America's easternmost point is the Cape Spear National Historic Site lighthouse. St John's lies geographically closer to Great Britain than most other major Canadian cities except for Halifax, another historic harbour city on the Atlantic Ocean coastline.
Québec City, the capital of Canada's only predominantly French province, was first established in 1608 and remains the only North American city north of Mexico whose original city walls remain intact. However, Québec's other major city, Montréal, contains the world's biggest French speaking population outside of Paris. Montréal is also perhaps Canada's liveliest city with a legendary nightlife.
Just a few hours west of Montréal lies Canada's capital city, Ottawa, which has overcome its staid reputation to become one of the continent's fastest growing cities whose Rideau Canal transforms into the world's longest ice skating rink each winter.
The 500m CN Tower is the most famous landmark in Toronto, the fifth biggest city in all of North America and one of the most multicultural cities on Earth. Nearly a quarter of Canada's population live in Toronto and its surrounding Golden Horseshoe area. It’s perhaps Canada’s most cosmopolitan, most ‘American’, most vibrant and most accessible. It’s also closest to Niagara Falls.
However, the western city of Calgary has also grown dramatically in recent years. Oil rich Calgary sits at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and the city celebrates its cowboy heritage during the annual 10 day Calgary Stampede. Calgary is also not far from both Jasper and Banff, Canada's best known mountain getaways.
Canada's westernmost major city, Vancouver, may have recently hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics, but Vancouver actually boasts the mildest climate of any Canadian city. Vancouver visitors can swim in the ocean and ski down mountains during the same day, while most of the rest of Canada remains buried in snow. Just a ferry ride away from Vancouver, but 5,000kms west of St. John's, lies the serene city of Victoria, where the world's northernmost Mediterranean climate meets a stately British influence.
When to go
Canada's summer tourist season traditionally begins on Victoria Day at the end of May and ends during the weekend of Labour Day in early September. These are Canada's warmest months when the weather is generally very pleasant, especially in the southern parts of the country close to the border with the United States.
Mountains, skiing, and Arctic expeditions are Canada's biggest winter attractions. Although Canada's winter climate may be too cold to handle for many visitors, those who decide to brave the weather will be rewarded by superlative skiing and breathtaking snow capped mountains. Banff, Jasper, Whistler, and Lake Louise are Canada's most famous ski resorts, while no Canadian winter carnival attracts more visitors than the one held in Québec City each February.
Why to go
1. Canada's only desert is a 24kms stretch of eastern British Columbia's Okanagan Valley containing 100 rare plants, 300 rare animals, and a walkable boardwalk.
2. Niagara Falls may be Canada's most famous waterfall, but the nation's highest waterfall is actually the 440m Della Falls in British Columbia.
3. Watch the world's highest tides ebb and flow along the Bay of Fundy between the eastern Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
4. The most breathtaking views of not only the Rocky Mountains, but also many Canadian wildlife species, can be seen aboard a Rocky Mountaineer rail journey between British Columbia and Alberta. The more expensive Gold Leaf Service seats on top of the train's dome car are well worth the extra price.
5. The huge fort and living history museum of Louisbourg in Cape Breton was once New France's most important municipality after Québec and North America's busiest port after Boston and Philadelphia. The 300kms Cabot Trail encircling Cape Breton Island's rugged coastline is one of the world's most beautiful drives.
6. The 40kms Long Beach along Vancouver Island’s west coast, also known as Pacific Rim National Park, is among one of the few places in Canada where surfing is possible all year long.
7. Centuries before Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World, the Vikings were the first European settlers in North America, and remnants of their northern Newfoundland colonies remain in L'Anse aux Meadows and Gros Morne National Park.
8. Over 300 dinosaur skeletons have already been unearthed near southern Alberta's Dinosaur Provincial Park, and many of them are displayed just two hours away at Drumheller's Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology.
9. No visit to Prince Edward Island would be complete without seeing Green Gables, but visitors should also venture towards the more rural parts of Canada's tiniest province to see the natural beauty L. M. Montgomery described in her classic novels.
10. Over a century ago, the rugged 75kms West Coast Trail was carved from one of Canada's few rainforests as an escape route for those shipwrecked along a stretch of Vancouver Island coastline once called 'the graveyard of the Pacific.'