THE WACKIER THE BETTER
We don’t know if it’s those long summer days or dark winter nights but Canadians sure do some crazy things. At Dawson City, a gold-rush town in the Yukon, the most infamous activity is tackling the Sourtoe Cocktail – a drink that includes a real human toe. The rule is that you have to let the toe touch your lips in order to join the Sourtoe Cocktail Club. A few people have gone one step further and actually swallowed the toe (there’s now a substantial fine for anyone that knocks back the cocktail toe and all).
In the southern Alberta town of Vulcan, it’s all about ears – pointy ears. Vulcan is home to a Star Trek-themed visitor centre and a replica of the starship Enterprise. St Paul, north-east of Edmonton, is also obsessed with outer space, having built a UFO landing pad in 1967. The landing pad doubles as the visitor centre that also holds details of UFO sightings. During Quebec City’s annual Winter Carnival, when temperatures plunge well below zero, the hardiest carnival-goers strip to their swimming costumes to take a snow bath on a stage in front of spectators. Most are sensible enough to keep their winter boots on so they don’t lose a toe to frostbite.
EXTREME DROPS AND SHOPS
Try rodeling (it rhymes with yodelling). Le Massif ski resort, north of Quebec City, offers this wild sled ride down an epic 7.5km run. A rodel is a European-style wooden sled with runners. Those crazy enough to tackle the ride can sit up on the rodel, steering with the upper body and feet, or go for a hammerhead-style sled ride head-first, using the feet for brakes. There’s a log cabin where you can have a break halfway down the run, just ahead of the steepest part of the track. In Quebec City, a fun winter toboggan slide with three lanes is set up right near the famous Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac.
Want to make like a winter Olympian? Head to Calgary to ride the bobsleigh in summer for a bone-rattling 60 seconds. The track was used for the 1988 Winter Olympics – the Jamaican bobsleigh team at this event inspired the movie Cool Runnings.
If you’d rather shop than drop, Edmonton 300km north of Calgary is home to North America’s largest shopping mall. Apart from the 800-plus stores and services, the West Edmonton Mall houses the world’s largest indoor amusement park (complete with a triple-loop rollercoaster), the world’s largest indoor lake, the world’s largest indoor wave-pool and the world’s largest parking lot (remember where you leave the wheels). Alberta’s number-one attraction clocks up 30.8 million visitors a year.
With more than $2 million of prize money up for grabs, the annual Calgary Stampede is the world’s richest tournament-style rodeo. It’s also a heap of fun for spectators. Head to a ringside seat to watch the thrilling rodeo events – they include bull-riding, tie-down roping, barrel racing, saddle bronc and steer wrestling. Blow the dust from your nostrils with a stroll around the grounds to see what wacky food is on offer. The Stampede is famous for over-the-top treats such as foot-long pizza dog, deep-fried cheese pie and peppercorn steak poutine. In between twirling on the fairground rides, see the agricultural pavilions or take in fun shows such as the SuperDogs showing off their amazing skills, the vintage tractor pull, mini-donkey showcase and cow-milking and rope-making demonstrations.
Once the sun goes down, the fun ramps up. After the chuckwagon races finish, the razzle-dazzle of the grandstand show kicks in. Sit back and take in the sheer spectacle of elaborate song-and-dance routines, acrobatics and the fireworks finale. The on-site music venue, Nashville North, also pumps with live country-music shows all day long from rising stars and established artists. Check out the schedule to see if your favourite band is coming to town during the 10-day Stampede.
ICE, ICE BABY
Newfoundland and Labrador is known as the Iceberg Capital of the World. See these 10,000-year-old floating glacial giants from points along the province’s northern and eastern coasts as they travel down from the Arctic along a stretch of water known as Iceberg Alley. The bergs are plentiful during April and May but they can get trapped in sea ice, making late May to early June the best viewing period.
People are astonished at the spectrum of colours in the icebergs, which can range from dazzling white through to a deep aquamarine. Want to get a more up-close view of these natural wonders? Go on a boat tour or hop into a sea kayak to paddle alongside these breathtaking beauties. Some entrepreneurial locals even harvest the ice, transforming the pure water into iceberg vodka.
Another way to enjoy an extreme ice fix is to skate along Ottawa’s 19th-century, World Heritage-listed Rideau Canal, which freezes over to become the world’s longest ice-skating rink. The skating rink measures 7.8 kilometres – and there’s nothing more Canadian than skating along the canal while devouring a delicious BeaverTails pastry (the iconic treat was created in Ottawa in 1978).
THERE’S A BEAR IN THERE
Australians just can’t get enough of Canada’s bears (although we wouldn’t want to meet one face to face). Many people’s bucket lists include a trip to Churchill, Manitoba. This far-flung outpost is one of the few settlements in the world where you can see wild polar bears up close. The best time to see these magnificent creatures is in October and November when the bears amble from the tundra, where they summer, back to Hudson Bay’s pack ice where they hunt seals. A popular way to see the polar bears is to hop into a specially designed tundra vehicle that keep humans from becoming bear food. There are also wilderness lodges built along the bears’ migration route.
British Columbia is also prime bear-viewing country. It takes a little bit of effort to reach Great Bear Lodge, a floating lodge tucked into a remote inlet in the Great Bear Rainforest along the central coastline, but those who do are rewarded with brilliant bear viewing. Depending on the time of year, you may see mother bears standing in the rivers and creeks catching salmon to feed their cubs or bears plucking berries from the bushes with their nimble lips.
TOOT, TOOT! WHAT A TRAIN
VIA Rail’s The Canadian, which snakes across the country between Vancouver and Toronto, is one of the world’s great train journeys. And as much as we hate to admit it, at 4466km the journey pips Australia’s own Indian Pacific train route between Perth and Sydney (that clocks in at 4352km). It takes four nights for The Canadian, which appears on the country’s $10 bill, to glide past the majestic Rocky Mountains, over the central prairies, through lush boreal forest and past Ontario’s lakes. Those who keep their eyes peeled may be rewarded with a glimpse of a moose standing in a swamp or perhaps even a bear rambling through the trees.
VIA Rail introduced prestige sleeper class on the service during 2015. These luxury cabins feature an L-shaped modular couch that transforms into a double bed at night, a private shower, large picture windows and a flat-screen TV. A wheelchair-accessible cabin has also been added to the train. Sleeper plus class offers berths and cabins with single beds for up to four passengers, and a communal shower. Those on a budget can travel economy class. The westbound service includes a daytime stop in Winnipeg that’s long enough to explore a little of the city.
BIGGER THAN SWITZERLAND
Can you name Canada’s biggest national park? Congratulations if you said Wood Buffalo National Park, located in north-eastern Alberta and southern Northwest Territories. Established in 1922 to help protect northern Canada’s last remaining bison herds, today the 44,807-square-kilometre park – bigger than Switzerland – is regarded as an outstanding example of the country’s northern boreal plains. The park is the world’s largest Dark Sky Preserve – which means this just might be the most star-filled sky you ever see in your life. It is also a great place to view the cosmic fireworks known as the aurora borealis – the northern lights. Pull over anywhere to enjoy the dancing light show in isolation or head to one of the park’s viewing areas such as the Peace River crossing or the Salt River day area and wait for the magic to happen. During winter, bears are in hibernation but there’s a good chance of spotting wood bison, moose, fox and lynx as the wildlife sometimes uses the winter road. The world’s biggest beaver dam is also here – something park staff were unaware of until a BBC film crew alerted them to a researcher’s findings from satellite images.
CLIMB EVERY MOUNTAIN
There’s something awe-inspiring about gazing upon Canada’s magnificent mountains. For many first-time visitors to Canada, their first experience of these peaks will be the Canadian Rockies around Jasper, Banff and Lake Louise. Pick a hiking trail that suits your abilities and strike out to explore these landscapes. One of the most accessible hikes is to the Lake Agnes teahouse (open June to October), easily reached via a 7km return trail from the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. The teahouse offers 100 varieties of loose-leaf tea from all over the world.
Those wanting a more extreme wilderness experience can go heli-hiking in British Columbia’s Bugaboo mountain range – CMH shuttles guests to its own luxury lodges in the Bugaboos from Banff.
Heli-hiking and scenic helicopter flights are also available at the Yukon’s Kluane National Park – home to Mt Logan, Canada’s highest peak. Those who want to keep their feet firmly planted on the ground can hike the park’s trails – just remember to have a bear plan in case you meet one along the trail. See a different kind of geological formation in Northwest Territories. Near the Arctic Ocean is a series of pingos – volcano-like formations that are only found in areas with permafrost where thawing and freezing change the landscape.
WHERE DINOSAURS ROAMED
Canada has its own badlands – an arid landscape of striped hills and otherworldly formations – in south-eastern Alberta. Some of the most important dinosaur discoveries ever made have happened in this region. The World Heritage-listed Dinosaur Provincial Park contains several of the world’s richest fossil bone-beds. From May until October, the park runs interpretive programs such as the family-friendly Fossil Safari for budding palaeontologists. The Centrosaurus Quarry Hike takes visitors to a former dig site where hundreds of these horned dinosaurs died 76 million years ago.
About 170km north-west of the park is Drumheller – a town known as the Dinosaur Capital of the World. Here, you can climb up inside a Tyrannosaurus rex (it’s the world’s biggest dinosaur statue) and look out from between its open jaws. The town’s Royal Tyrrell Museum displays 40 dinosaur skeletons and features galleries that show what life looked like millions of years ago. Walk through the Cretaceous Alberta gallery, for instance, and come face to face with a pack of Albertosaurus dinosaurs. The museum also runs outdoor guided hikes through the badlands. Hop in the car and follow the Hoodoo Drive Trail south-east of Drumheller to marvel at the eerie capped geological formations that look just like giant mushrooms.
SUPER-SIZE MY RV
There’s nothing more liberating than picking up a recreational vehicle – or an RV in shorthand – and hitting the wide open road. The only hard part is deciding which of Canada’s vast landscapes to explore. In the far northern reaches of British Columbia, at Kilometre 765 of the Alaska Highway, travellers can stop at Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park to soak in a warm pool set within a spruce forest. Moose also like to feed in the warm-water swamps. Continue to the Yukon and head to Kluane National Park – home to Mt Logan, Canada’s highest peak – or venture further north to see the jagged spires of Tombstone Provincial Park. In summertime, bears like to feed on wildflowers growing on the road verges. If several RVs have pulled over to the side of the road, chances are everyone is busy bear-watching. Things are just as interesting on Nova Scotia’s Cabot Trail. The 300km scenic loop drive travels through the photogenic Cape Breton highlands and traces the rugged coastline of Cape Breton Island. When staying at campgrounds, get to know your fellow road-trippers – some RV owners have kitted out their mobile holiday homes with everything from chandeliers to satellite dishes.