O (it’s just) Canada

I have a new friend–a wickedly smart Canadian with a sharp sense of humor. The other night, over drinks, I told her how much I’ve loved every visit I’ve ever made to Canada, how much more I still need to see, and how I’d love to become a Canadian travel specialist. As loyal as she is to her home country, she was surprised. Really? There’s that much you want to see?

Oh my, yes.

Growing up in Cleveland, it wasn’t hard to get to Canada. We had class trips to Niagara Falls and Toronto, where gangs of middle-schoolers would obediently troop through Casa Loma, eat pizza at the Organ Grinder, and buy tchotchkes at Eaton Centre. Countless unloved Cleveland teenagers would brag about their “Canadian girlfriends” with whom they’d spent torrid and mythical summers. In Cleveland, Canada didn’t even count as a foreign country. Have you traveled out of the US? No, only Canada.

Canada didn’t get the best press.

My relationship with Canada really took off when the Cap’n and I started traveling together. Our engagement in Quebec, our honeymoon in Niagara Falls, and our trip to Nova Scotia whet our appetite for Canada, making us realize how much we’ve enjoyed what we’ve seen and how much there is left to see.

Things we’ve loved about Canada:

  • Cape Breton: All of it, every inch of it, from the placid beauty of Bras d’Or to the cliffs of the Cabot Trail.

    Cape Breton

    The Cap'n in Cape Breton

  • Oatcakes: Each recipe different–some sweet, some savory, and the waitress who pronounced them “ootcakies”.
  • The Ice Hotel: Still one of the five coolest things I’ve ever done, no pun intended, and yes, I intend to talk about this again and again and again until you decide that you’ll be warm enough and go. (You’ll be warm enough. I promise.)
  • Niagara Falls: What surrounds the falls might be cheesy, but the falls are magnificent. It was our honeymoon, and it was just perfect. Plus, we came home with some truly stylish flip-flops from the American side.
  • Niagara-on-the-Lake: We still talk about the paté at The Buttery and want to go back for the Shaw Festival.
  • Toronto islands: My friend reassured me that Centre Island hasn’t changed in 25 years, that it’s not some silly Canadian amusement park, but a lovely afternoon, just a short ferry ride from downtown.
  • The Consulate Inn, Pictou, NS: The proprietor, an ex-punk rocker, ranted at us for a bit, then guided us to the best lobster place in town, curing me of my fear of those big red bugs.
  • The Red Shoe Pub, Mabou, NS: There is no better combination of food and live traditional music in all of Cape Breton.
  • Halifax: The Cap’n said it reminded him of Seattle before it was cool, which is not to say Halifax isn’t cool–it’s just not as expensive. But Halifax has grit, in lifted-chin stance of a boxer ready to go another round. The city exploded, people, exploded, burned to cinders, and rebuilt itself. That’s pluck.
  • Meat Cove: This is the ends of the Earth, named after rotting carcasses, and stunningly beautiful.
  • Joe’s Scarecrow Village: A macabre and strange collection of scarecrows near Cap le Moine, NS.
  • Maple syrup: In Ohio, we know maple syrup, or so I thought. In Quebec, I asked the waitress, What’s a Sugar Shack Plate?. Oh, everything you put maple syrup on, said the waitress, like pancakes, waffles, sausage, eggs, meat pie, potatoes, batter-dipped toast, and baked beans. Oh, and deep-fried bacon. Who, besides lumberjacks, could justify deep-frying bacon?
  • The language: I tell my friends pining to go to Scotland or France that they should visit Cape Breton instead to get both. Combine those accents with the closed vowels of northern Minnesota and some remnants of British, and you have voices that are musical and strange to my ear.
  • The music: This country gave us Stan Rogers, Great Big Sea, the tradition of Cape Breton fiddling with its honky-tonk piano and imitation-bagpipe sounds, and even planted the seeds for Cajun when it sent the Arcadian French down to Louisiana.
  • The mythology: I love ghost stories, cryptozoological legends, and the like, so how can I not love a country that boasts Sasquatch, eel balls, UFO sightings, lake monsters, and Mi’kmaq variations of elves and ogres?

I realize my Canadian “done” column is tiny compared to the size of the country, but I also know just how much of the country is hiding up there above the 66th parallel north. That doesn’t knock it out of the “to do” column (unless Granuaile has something to say about it).

I recently sat down with the Cap’n to make our Canadian travel bucket list and was surprised at how long it is (and it doesn’t even include all the things I want to do over, such as Cape Breton, Quebec City, and finding the Toronto of my childhood).

Our Canadian Bucket List:

  • Baffin Island: We spent a night in a Meat Cove B&B with a man who traveled frequently to Baffin Island and talked about spending a week snowbound there, with nothing to do but eat whitefish and play solitaire. Sounds like fun!
  • Calgary, Alberta
  • Banff: It’s fun to say (Banff! Banff!) and the Cap’n wants to go skiing.
  • Lake Winnipeg
  • Newfoundland: You can see where Earth’s mantle has poked through the crust. How amazing is that?
  • the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, ON
  • Prince Edward Island: I’ll pretend I’m going for twee lighthouses and coastal scenery, but we all know I’m searching for Gilbert Blythe.
  • Montreal
  • Vancouver Island, BC: From end to end, says the Cap’n.
  • Mont Tremblant, Quebec: Yet more skiing. Only one of us skis.
  • the coastline of British Columbia: One of the least inhabited places on Earth.
  • St. Lawrence Seaway and the Thousand Islands
  • Bay of Fundy
  • Moncton, New Brunswick
  • Nunavut: The Cap’n can’t tell me what he wants to do there. He’s sure there’s something.

So, what am I missing? What are your favorite places, sights, oddities, memories, landscapes, imports, and traditions? What should I taste? What must we see to believe?

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10 Responses to O (it’s just) Canada

  1. You forgot POUTINE!

    In my precious few stress free minutes on my Canadian ‘vacation’ to the back country of Algonquin Provincial Park this summer, I reflected on standing upon some of the oldest rocks exposed on Earth, at least a billion years old I believe. The natural places that the Canadian people and government have been able to preserve are truly astounding.

  2. Betsy says:

    I’ve been to the locks several times. Ships slowly pull in and then after way too much time they drive through. Yawn. Patience is not one of my virtues.

  3. The Cap'n says:

    You forgot Hudson Bay! The Yukon! Labrador! Wayne Gretzky’s Burger Joint!!

  4. Susan Herriott says:

    The only way you will see the BC coast is by boat.You forgot Vancouver, Burchart Gardens and the best China Town outside of SF. Also the University of BC historical museum ,lots of First Nation artifacts. Great small city, also take a ferry to the Gulf Islands.

  5. Joanne says:

    My absolute favourite: head North of Muskoka to the most beautiful, peaceful cottage country in Ontario. There you need to sit in a Muskoka chair with your favourite drink in hand, watching the sun set across a lake, just beyond an outcropping of Canadian shield. As the pine trees turn to shadows and the loon cries, you will know the Canada I miss the most. Thank-you, my friend, for that wonderful post. xx

  6. Amanda C. says:

    The only time I’d ever visited Canada (and the only time I’ve been outside of the U.S.) was fall vacation of undergrad, one year (late ’90’s). Our drama department took a four day bus trip to Stratford, Ontario, to take in the yearly “Shakespeare Festival”. I was not an actress or in the drama department, but my then-boyfriend/now-husband was in a few of our school’s plays, and the trip was open to the rest of the student body, as well. It’s probably one of the things I remember most about college! The festival is huge, and many of the actors, stage crew members, costumers, etc. live in the town during the time of the festival. Most of them (including the actors) work in more than one play at a time, and it’s not all Shakespeare. The first play we saw was “Equus”–my first encounter with the play, and, because it was Canada, an uncensored version, at that! My other favorite was “The Taming of the Shrew”–redone to look like flapper/mobster era New York, with everyone spitting curses and pistols instead of swords and whatnot. Truly, a great trip. And, I was introduced to Tim Horton’s while there. 😉 And, it looks like the festival is still going strong: http://www.stratfordfestival.ca/. I think I might suggest that as a trip to my husband in the near future–maybe for our 10th anniversary…

  7. Lori says:

    You’ve brought back memories of vacationing in Canada as a teen, visiting the illustrious Little Rideau Lake in Ontario, bathing in the cold-cold lake in the morning; playing my first rounds of croquet on the lumpy, rocky, needle-strewn lawn of the cottage where we stayed. It was my Uncle’s – and we’d go up for a couple weeks each summer, parking the car and travelling exclusively by boat once there. We once travelled through the locks all the way to Ottawa by boat. One summer my Uncle had convinced a cousin that’d made the trip with us that there was a bear outside, rooting through the garbage (it was my step-dad) – she actually got under our bunkbeds. It’s the kind of memory that brings a smile to my face, everytime it’s pulled forward.

    I travelled to Vancouver twice while Skybus was alive, once travelling thru Vancouver, driving our rental up onto a ferry and making the trip to Victoria. The ferry ride is one of my favorite travel moments – it was December, and cold, but not bitter. The air was clear in a way that it seems only the Northwest can accomplish – slicingly blue skies falling into navy blue waters, dotted with mounded islands of evergreen and granite; distant mountains overlooked it all, snowcapped and unreal.

    There is so much to do and see around Vancouver that you could spend a week trooping around there. Both trips were short, and yet we managed to bike Stanley Park, hike around Lynn Canyon Park and across the suspension bridge there. We also trooped around downtown, miles and miles interspersed with the random stop into a bar for a cocktail.

    Canada has maintained it’s wild in a much more natural way that the U.S., it seems to me. Yet, there are places as cosmopolitan as any place on earth. I love that contrast.

    Also. Nanaimo bars.

  8. Joanne says:

    @ Amanda C. I was so excited to read your comment about Stratford, Ontario. It is the one place I really call home. I moved to Columbus from there two years ago and both of my boys were born there. My husband and I visited for a Canada Day long weekend one July long before we had kids. We fell in love with the place and moved there from Toronto. It is indeed special. I love the energy of the place, the sense of community, and the beauty. You *should* go back again and, if you do, tell me all about it! Meanwhile, read _Spadework_ by Timothy Findley. You’ll love it.

  9. paulallen says:

    My wife and I took our honeymoon along the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton! Such a beautiful place.

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