On July 1, Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary of confederation — Canada Day — and there's a run up of other celebrations including last week's National Aboriginal Day (a celebration of indigenous culture and heritage); St-Jean-Baptiste Day (celebrating French culture in Canada) yesterday, June 24; and Canadian Multiculturalism Day on June 27 to celebrate more recent waves of immigration.
Canada is all dressed up and ready to party, but even when it's not a sesquicentennial year there are endless reasons to visit this beautiful country. Here are just some I discovered on a recent Trafalgar Costsaver Canada Tour.
Where to begin with the Western side of Canada? Banff and Jasper National Parks provide the kind of dramatic scenery that makes your jaw drop wide open and stay that way for some time. Towering mountains, iridescent blue and green lakes, glaciers, thundering waterfalls. All of these stunning wonders of nature certainly make you contemplate your size and importance in the world. It's no wonder people flock to see impressive natural wonders such as Lake Louise, the Icefields Parkway, Mt Robson and so much more. And as for the wildlife — there's a reason Canadian gift shops are full of bear and moose soft toys.
The French experience of Quebec
With the Chateau Frontenac Hotel casting its huge castle-like shadow over Quebec's cobblestoned streets, it's really hard to connect with the fact you are not, in fact, in Europe when you're wandering round Quebec City. French is spoken everywhere and the architecture screams France, Germany, Belgium — anywhere but North America. There's so much to explore down every street — quirky shops, cute boutiques, tiny squares with cafes. We loved our visit to Epicerie JA Moisan, which was like stepping back in time to a grocery shop that hasn't changed significantly since 1871.
Montreal is so hip it hurts. Art, modern creative food, fantastic design are intertwined with centuries-old churches, Victorian-looking architecture and old-world French charm. You can't deny the Jewish influence with bagels and Reuben sandwiches ahoy but you'll hear French spoken widely and freely, along with English. Hipster bars, marvellous markets and a diverse fun, young population make you feel truly alive in this city. And we loved the fact that when it rained, you can shop underground. We visited just one of the huge underground malls but there's a whole network going on down there — so people can get from office to office to hotel to mall without freezing to death in the long Canadian winter.
Art and Architecture in Ottawa
Ottawa is a small, but very picturesque city and a lovely place to spend a couple of days. The towering Gothic-style government buildings on Parliament Hill are stunning, as is the Notre-Dame Basilica with its unusual silver spires (even more breathtaking inside with its magnificent arches, opulent altar and resplendent blue ceiling). We spent half a day in the gorgeous National Gallery of Canada fawning over local art — including modern Inuit works — plus plenty of sculptures and paintings by masters such as Monet, Dali, Renoir, Rodin and many others. The building itself is part of the attraction; an incredible modern high ceiling feat of architecture looking out over the St Lawrence River.
This well-known natural icon of Canada, which sits right on the US border, is everything you imagine from the pictures, and so much more. Make sure you brave the boat that takes you up close — we went on the Hornblower Cruise on our tour. Yes, you'll get a bit wet but it's entirely worth the brief dampness to be so close to such an incredibly powerful force of nature; and quite a different experience from viewing the falls from the top (also stunning). With 168,000 cubic metres of water falling over the top every minute, the Horseshoe Falls are a once-in-a-lifetime experience and the American and the adjacent Bridal Veil falls are, in themselves, also a sight to behold.
Diversity in Toronto
Jamaican pattie shops squeeze up next to Chilean empanada cantinas, Ethiopian spice shops and everything else you could imagine in Kensington; the most fantastic rotation of street music provides a wonderful soundtrack too.
And while Toronto is known for the diversity of its immigration, we particularly enjoyed seeing Canada's original culture in action at the Treadright Storyboot Project in the Bata Shoe Museum when we watched First Nations women teach indigenous youth to make traditional moccasins.
Check out these Canadian dishes
If you're going to Canada and you want some local food experiences, check out these dishes:
Poutine: You'll see this mix of french fries, gravy and cheese curds everywhere. It's great comfort food, and not as odd as it sounds.
A long flat piece of deep fried dough with toppings like Nutella and Banana or Lemon and Sugar. What's not to like?
Sugar Shack Breakfast: Our tour took us to a fully operating Sugar Shack where we could see where Maple syrup comes out of the trees, and how it's processed. This was followed by a full Canadian breakfast, including their legendary bacon — and all you can eat pancakes and syrup.
Bagels: Try these in Montreal if you can, but they are available all over the country. They are slightly different to New York styles — a bit less chew involved and always wood fired. With Canadian salmon and cream cheese, they are fantastic.
If you pour maple syrup on snow it turns into a kind of soft maple toffee you can wind round a stick and eat. If you're there in summer, you can sometimes get it in shops selling maple products (using shaved ice in lieu of real snow).
Tourtiere: This meat pie is very popular on the French side of Canada. It's usually made with minced pork, veal or beef (and sometimes wild game).
Sugar Pie: The locals love their Butter Tarts but our favourite sweet treat by far in Canada was Sugar Pie. Don't leave the country without trying this simple dessert made from flour, butter, salt, vanilla, cream and brown sugar.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to Vancouver, with one-way Economy Class fares on sale for $859. Sale ends July 3.
Seeing it all: Go beyond Canada's largest city Toronto to beautiful French speaking Quebec with its fortified city and cobblestone streets plus visit Niagara Falls on an 8-day Essence of Eastern Canada CostSaver tour operated by Trafalgar.
Priced from $1695 per person twin share with departure dates from April to September, it includes seven nights' accommodation, sightseeing, some meals, transport, and the services of a travel director. The itinerary can also be extended with a Maritimes Cruise from Montreal to Boston. Phone: 0800 484 333 for further details.