Big is Beautiful: Canada, Alaska and the Arctic
Canada, Alaska and the Arctic are vast and wonderfully varied – which means almost endless options for adventures. To help narrow it down, our specialists reveal their personal favourites.
Lake Louise, the 'Jewel of the Rockies'
The sheer size of Canada, Alaska and the Arctic means that selecting a favourite location – let alone a favourite experience – is difficult. There are mountains and lakes, forests and icebergs, whales and bears, big cities and remote communities, and a laid-back attitude wherever you go.
Although I have travelled from the east coast of Canada to the west coast, and back again, it is the mountainous borderland between British Columbia and Alberta (1) provinces that continues to capture my heart. I have previously lived and worked in the Rockies, based between the small, vibrant town of Banff and picture-postcard Lake Louise but a recent return trip with Audley reignited in me all that I love about this incredible landscape.
After several days re-exploring Vancouver Island, I picked up a car in Vancouver and headed east into British Columbia's beautiful wine-producing region – the Okanagan. Nestled between the Cascade Mountains to the west and the Monashee Mountains to the east, the climate here provides perfect growing conditions for the now abundant vineyards and orchards that the region is becoming increasingly famous for. This route into the Rockies is wonderfully picturesque – taking you past countless lakes, over numerous sparkling rivers and through a number of national and provincial parks, yet curiously is one of the least-beaten paths.
I spent three days exploring this region, hiking some of the many spectacular trails and getting to know a few of the locals, before my journey took me into the heart of the Rockies themselves. I spent the next two nights at Moraine Lake Lodge on the shores of one of the Rocky Mountains’ classically azure lakes. A lakeside mountain lodge is the ideal way to fully immerse yourself in the sheer and humbling beauty of these mountains, which for me are some of the most captivating in the world.
The northeast and Canadian Arctic (2) are some of the most remote areas, not only of Canada, but of the world. Despite this it is clearly a region that has captured the imagination of intrepid explorers over the centuries, with the quest for the Northwest Passage in particular, a famed pursuit. Many brave explorers departed British shores looking to discover a new trading route from the eastern coast of Canada to northeast Asia and/or Alaska. However, the short summers, sea ice and extremely variable conditions led to the demise of many, and the stories of hardship are hardly exaggerated.
Arriving in the Hudson Strait by boat, I tried to imagine what it was like for those explorers. Picking through the sea ice, it was a fabulously calm day with enormous blue skies, and I felt very safe on our ice-strengthened expedition vessel. However, what would it have been like for those men on small wooden sloops, looking at the seemingly endless ice and imposing black hills of the Nunavut coastline, and not knowing what was beyond that?
Today the whole region echoes with this sea pioneer history; indeed, many of the seafarers left their legacy in the place names – Baffin Island, Davis Strait, Hudson Bay. There is also a vibrant and creative Inuit culture, with Inuit art, crafts and music being some of the highlights of a visit to this area. Some of the remoter communities still live a relatively traditional life, albeit with mobile phones and Facebook to hand, but the overall sense of being at one with this remote and often harsh environment is quite awe-inspiring.
Montréal (3) is famous for many things - beautiful Park Mont Royal, the St Lawrence River, colourful summer festivals and a generally vibrant air. It is also renowned for its diverse cuisine and, on my second visit, I had time to focus on one of my favourite pastimes – eating!
There are some obvious places to start - for example, the cultural quarters of Chinatown and Little Italy. Step down into the cobbled lanes of old Montréal and you will find a selection of traditional English and French cuisine in elegant little street cafés. However, it is in the markets that I discovered the real melting pot of tastes, sights and smells. There are several well-established food markets alongside numerous weekend sidelines; among these stalls I found everything from wholesome farmers' produce to gourmet meat and cheese to creative chocolatiers, all available alongside a freshly squeezed juice or some local ice wine.
I found it easy to while away a morning at the famous Atwater Market. On my way round I was offered many samples before buying, giving me the opportunity to try some new things and forcing me to reassess how much I could fit into my suitcase! I also found many of the stallholders were keen to chat about their craft, making it not just a tasting experience but more of an immersion in an important aspect of local life.
A land of vast, stunning mountain ranges, a coastline dotted with tidewater glaciers, untouched beaches awash with driftwood - Alaska (4) feels incredibly remote. As increasing swathes of the world become popularised with visitors, Alaska maintains the feel of a true frontier with a unique blend of American, Native American and Russian culture.
Our flight took us from Homer, on the southwest side of the Kenai Peninsula, to Katmai National Park - our location for doing some grizzly bear watching on the beaches. We flew over mountains, glaciers and active volcanoes, and over pools of steamy emerald water surrounded by deep snow. Soon the coastline came into view, a vista of sand beyond a narrow valley of steep mountains. We stepped out of the aircraft and onto the beach as two bears looked over, then walked directly past us. My heart started to pound with excitement as I saw the bears pass us and make their way into the grasses. We were a group of ten with two guides, a size that meant we were perfectly safe to view them in this way.
We made our way across to a solitary female digging for clams in the sand. Walking towards a bear certainly goes against human instinct but we got close and watched her feasting for a good 15 minutes - she didn’t even look at us. My eyes occasionally turned away from the bear to take in our surroundings - steep mountains, rocky coastline, the ocean. For someone who loves scenery and wildlife, this was the highlight of a truly memorable trip.
I had been told that the eastern coast of Newfoundland (5) was one of the best possible places to see an iceberg. So it was with a sense of intrigue that I drove north from the regional capital St John's.
The town I was headed for was Twillingate, the self-proclaimed 'Iceberg Capital of the World'. Twillingate turned out to be an attractive fishing community with a bustling little harbour and a picturesque collection of colourful buildings. It was friendly and the local people were particularly welcoming, informing me of good places to eat out and providing some background on the icebergs that have made their town famous. Each spring thousands of icebergs arrive from the Arctic and travel silently down the coast, passing close to the town in a stretch of water known as Iceberg Alley. Sculptured into incredible angular shapes and ranging in colour from snow-white to deepest aquamarine, they made for quite a sight. That was it. My interest had been piqued.
The next day I went out in a small group on a sea kayak tour and was immediately taken by the scale and majesty of the icebergs. Paddling close to them, I was able to appreciate their variety of shapes and sizes - but was keen to keep a certain distance. It was, after all, one of the huge icebergs from this area that sank the Titanic in 1912. Nowadays they pose less of a risk to shipping but are still so plentiful that locals put them to good use creating their own line of drinks including Iceberg lemonade, vodka and rum. As I sampled the popular Iceberg beer that evening, I reflected on an fantastic day.