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Off the beaten track

2017 is an exciting time for Canada. To mark the 150th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation, nationwide celebrations are being held throughout this year. Admission to all national parks is free for everyone, and major cities will sparkle with events big and small.

It’s a great time to plan a trip to Canada, but you won’t be alone in booking a ticket. Notoriously popular places such as the Rockies, Vancouver and Toronto are expected to be at their busiest as the festival atmosphere attracts both international and domestic visitors.

Our Canada specialists have picked some of the country’s best quieter alternatives for those who wish to combine the main highlights with somewhere more peaceful or somewhere entirely off the beaten track. This could include discovering First Nations culture on Haida Gwaii or spotting icebergs and whales off the coast of Newfoundland.

The Yukon: exploring Canada’s gold mining past, by Anna

The Yukon River

The Yukon River

Kluane National Park

Kluane National Park

The Northern Lights over Takhini River Lodge, Whitehorse

The Northern Lights over Takhini River Lodge, Whitehorse

Yukon territory

Canada’s Yukon territory is completely wild, with its largest city, Whitehorse, supporting a population of just 20,000 people. Driving through the landscape, vast plains stretch out in front of you, with sheer mountain peaks shooting up in the distance.

A visit to Dawson City takes you back to the Klondike era. Gold prospectors used to stay here during their quest for fortune, and it’s now a National Historic Site. It feels more like a 19th-century village than a city, with wooden boardwalks and old saloons lining dirt roads. I enjoyed panning for gold at nearby Bonanza Creek while my local guide told me stories from the area’s past.

The gold rush was also responsible for the construction of the White Pass & Yukon Route railway, which runs between Whitehorse and Skagway, Alaska. You can take one-way or round-trip journeys on the train, skirting the edges of mountains and winding past glaciers, evergreen forest, waterfalls and gorges.

Walking in Kluane National Park is a particular highlight. You’re completely at one with nature here and may encounter moose, elk or even grizzly bears. The park is home to the largest non-polar ice fields in the world; a helicopter ride over the ice gives you a sense of their scale. You’ll also see Canada's highest peak, the 5,959 m (19,550 ft) Mount Logan, and glacier-fed lakes that shine like mirrors.

Getting there

I recommend flying into Whitehorse from Vancouver (a journey of just over two hours) and then self-driving through the wilderness to appreciate the scenery fully.  

Haida Gwaii: Discovering First Nations culture, by Sam

Haida carvings, Haida Gwaii

Haida carvings, Haida Gwaii

Carving in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia

Carving in Haida Gwaii

Humpback whale, Haida Gwaii

Humpback whale, Haida Gwaii

Haida Gwaii, British Columbia

Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) is a remote archipelago off British Columbia’s northwest coast, just south of Alaska. Far from the footprints of tourists, these islands are the ancestral home of the Haida people, who still populate the towns and villages.

Visiting Haida Gwaii is a deeply cultural experience as you meet the Haida people and learn about their lives and traditions. I was shown Haida weaving techniques in a local home, and enjoyed a traditional Haida feast consisting of dried kelp and many varieties of fresh salmon. The leftovers were strewn over the beach – a few minutes later I watched as bald eagles swooped down to claim them.

In the more remote south, you can visit Haida villages abandoned in the early 20th century after a smallpox epidemic. Situated within Gwaii Haanas National Park on Moresby Island, they’re only accessible by boat or float plane. However, seeing totem poles gradually being reclaimed by nature and relics of old long houses that once supported thriving communities makes the journey worthwhile.

The west side of the islands is windswept and rugged as the coastline is battered by the ocean. In the calmer east, beaches speckled with driftwood and flanked by ancient spruce and cedar rainforest are good for walking, kayaking and fishing. Humpback whales are also commonly spotted from the shore.

Getting there

Air Canada and Pacific Coastal Airlines operate two to two and a half hour direct flights from Vancouver to Haida Gwaii, landing in Sandspit and Masset respectively. Time permitting, I recommend taking the seven hour ferry ride over from Prince Rupert (on British Columbia's north coast) to Skidegate, on the southeast coast of Haida Gwaii's Graham Island. This way, you can watch as the islands gradually appear on the horizon.

Newfoundland: Spending time on secluded coastline, by Jon

St John's, Newfoundland

St John's, Newfoundland

Puffin, Bonavista Peninsula, Newfoundland

Puffin, Bonavista Peninsula, Newfoundland

Iceberg, St Anthony, Newfoundland

Iceberg, St Anthony, Newfoundland

Newfoundland and Labrador

Newfoundland, with its craggy cliffs, deep-cut fjords and wildlife viewing opportunities, is my top choice for anyone looking to explore a lesser-visited area of Canada.

Between April and June, hundreds of icebergs float off the northeast coast in a stretch of water named ‘Iceberg Alley’. Drifting here from the Arctic, some are estimated to be up to 10,000 years old. Spot them during coastal walks, take a boat trip from the village of Twillingate, or paddle out on a sea kayak for a closer view. I lost count of how many icebergs I saw, but it was well over 100. You may also see humpback whales breaching and huge colonies of gannets and puffins.

Gros Morne National Park, on the northwest coast, has sheer-sided fjords, glacial valleys, hidden sea caves, wild beaches and mountains covered in alpine forest. It was here that, after several visits to Canada, I was finally granted my first moose sighting. Hiking trails also give you a chance of spotting black bears, beavers, mink and caribou.

I’d urge anyone with an interest in history to visit L’Anse aux Meadows. Set on the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula, it’s home to the remains of the earliest known European settlement in North America. Norse Vikings founded the settlement in the 10th or 11th century, building simple huts and workshops whose remnants you can still see today. Costumed interpreters offer guided tours of the site, giving you a glimpse of what life was like here 1,000 years ago.

Getting there

After flying into Newfoundland’s capital, St John’s, I suggest picking up a car and self-driving from east to west across the island, taking in its coastal scenery and mountainous interior.

Okanagan Valley: Relaxation and good wine, by Anna

Okanagan Valley vineyards

Okanagan Valley vineyards

Okanagan Valley, British Columbia

The Okanagan Valley, between Vancouver and the Rockies, is technically desert –  surprising for a country often associated with snow and icefields. 

Drive from Vancouver to Osoyoos, close to the border with the US state of Washington, and you’ll experience a more arid climate. Cacti grow here, but as you head north, following the sweep of the 135 km (83 mile) Okanagan Lake, it becomes greener.

The Blue Mountains tower either side of the valley floor, which rises and falls in gentle hills terraced with vines and orchards. Stands of cherries, apples and peaches often sit unmanned by the roadside at the end of tracks leading up to farms. You can pull over at whim, pop some cash in the honesty box and continue exploring at your own pace.

The vineyards are a key reason to come – the Okanagan is gaining international recognition for its wines, especially its luscious white and ice wines. Higher up in the mountains, you’ll find short walking trails around the ski resorts, while Okanagan Lake, with its manmade beaches, is a hub for water sports.

Having said that, the Okanagan isn’t really a place for frantic activity. For me, it’s about taking tours of the wineries, enjoying languorous lunches in their excellent on-site restaurants (farm-to-plate food is a proud tradition here), daydreaming on the porch of a characterful lakeside B&B or lounging in your lodge pool, wineglass in hand. I had a wonderful al fresco meal with wine pairings at a restaurant on the Naramata Bench, a ridge overlooking Okanagan Lake dotted with boutique winemakers.

Getting there

Take a short one hour flight from Vancouver to Kelowna, where you can pick up a car. Alternatively, drive from Vancouver to Osoyoos, a five hour drive, and then head north to Lake Okanagan.

The Charlevoix region: artisanal food and a taste of French-Canadian culture, by Lydia

Boat on the beach, Baie Saint-Paul

Boat on the beach, Baie Saint-Paul

Parc des Hautes Gorges de la Riviere Malbaie

Parc national des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie

Autumn colours in the Charlevoix

Autumn colours in the Charlevoix

Charlevoix, Québec Province

The Charlevoix region, north of Québec City and hugging the west banks of the vast tidal St Lawrence River, was formed by a 53 km (33 mile) wide meteorite crater, giving it some of the steepest drop-offs and peaks in Canada. Today it’s predominantly a farming region.

Driving from Québec City to the Charlevoix town of La Malbaie, you pass through villages of pretty, often brightly painted, wooden houses, and red New-England-style barns. Village elders sit outside on their porches, greeting you first with ‘bonjour’, and with all signage written in Québecois you could be forgiven for thinking you’re in rural France, not North America.

French heritage runs deep here, and that extends to food. Charlevoix is immensely proud of its artisanal traditions and local produce. One great thing to do in this area is to drive the ‘Route des Saveurs’ (Flavour Trail), stopping off at tiny duck and ostrich farms, dairies and microbreweries. The owners will give you a tour of their property before you sample some of their delicacies, from cheese to pâté to chocolate. I’ve loved eating at microbreweries’ on-site restaurants, where the food is infused with the local stouts and light ales.

There are other sides to Charlevoix, too. Its two main (but nevertheless small) towns, Baie Saint-Paul and La Malbaie, are crammed with galleries and artists’ studios. On the beach of Baie Saint-Paul lies a decaying shipwreck, washed up in the 1970s and since painted, drawn and sketched by many local artists. Further upriver, in La Malbaie, you might see pods of migrating beluga and minke whales in springtime.

I like to head out towards the region’s two national parks, Grands-Jardins and Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie. The road starts to climb and as you get higher, you wind through immense boreal forests and black spruce woods. Admittedly, the scenery here isn’t on the same scale as the Rockies, and the parks aren’t set up for visitors in the same way. But you’re likely to have the wilderness to yourself: in Grands-Jardins, I’ve been on good short hikes around lakes and mountain streams and not seen another soul.

Getting there

Charlevoix is a straightforward hour and a half drive from Québec City. In the summer months, a train runs along the St Lawrence River from Québec City to La Malbaie.

Kootenay National Park: a quieter alternative to the Rockies, by Tim

The Kootenay Rockies

Kootenay National Park

Kootenay National Park, British Columbia

Kootenay National Park lies south of Alberta. It’s an untouched expanse of Continental Divide peaks and pine-forested lowland, limestone gorges and teal-hued lakes. The Kootenays are relatively undiscovered by international visitors, who flock to the nearby Rockies instead. But as impressive as the Rockies are, they can also be crowded. The Kootenays offer the same dramatic vistas and mountain scenery, but with a greater sense of backcountry wilderness.

It’s the type of place where you can stay in a log cabin in the woods, eating hearty communal meals with the owners. Then you head out on a two hour hike and the landscape engulfs you; you’ll see few, if any, fellow walkers. Driving through the park, you pull over at laybys entirely free from tour buses to walk to viewing points over the mountain ranges.

With its multitude of barely explored trails, the park certainly appeals to serious hikers. I don’t really consider myself one, though: what I enjoy about the Kootenays are the incredibly scenic drives through the park (the stretch from Cross River Canyons to Radium Hot Springs is one of the best) and the chance to pull over and explore short trails that take your interest.

One time, I took a boardwalk through the tangled, rainforest-like undergrowth of a giant cedar forest near Revelstoke. On another day, I stopped off to see the three waterfalls that make up Sutherland Falls. On both walks I was the only person there.

Wildlife thrives in the Kootenays. You may see it out on the trails, but I’ve had a couple of close encounters on the roads, too. Once, when driving through the park, I suddenly saw a black bear and cub on the side of the road, eating berries from a bush. I pulled over to get a closer look and sat watching from my car. The bears simply carried on eating. Another time, driving from Radium Hot Springs, I found my route blocked by some horned mountain sheep. I’ve also spied elk running by the roads.

Getting there

You can drive to Kootenay National Park in around four hours from Jasper, turning south at Lake Louise rather than continuing to Banff. You can also fly into Calgary and pick up your hire car there. The drive to the park takes around two hours.

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