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O Canada: Top tourist spots to visit in 6 of the north’s 10 provinces

by Andrea Sachs, The Washington Post | October 31, 2021 at 2:43 a.m.
Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada (The Washington Post/Andrea Sachs)

At the Montreal airport, I was snapping photos inside a Tim Hortons when a woman at a nearby table interrupted my reunion with Canada's beloved coffee chain. "You must be a tourist," she stated, as I positioned my cup against the backdrop of croissants and bagels.

Normally, I would have protested that label. But after waiting more than a year and a half to enter the country, I wore the tourist badge proudly. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then our tickers are thumping hard for the Great White North.

When the borders reopened to Americans on Aug. 9, I wasn't in the right head space for a novel or daring adventure. With the pandemic still raging, I craved the comfortingly familiar, the places and things that are quintessential Canada. Imagine playing a game of free association with the word "Canada." The answers became my return trip north.

Canadian classics exist in all 10 provinces and three territories. However, due to time constraints and coronavirus restrictions, I settled on six provinces, inching westward from Prince Edward Island to British Columbia. To enter the country and avoid having to quarantine, I had to show a negative molecular test result (rapid antigen is not accepted) and proof of full vaccination, plus submit my health and itinerary details through the ArriveCan app. I was tested at PEI's Charlottetown Airport, which swabs all arriving passengers, regardless of the hour. I did not have to show my vax card to fly domestically, though as of now, all air and rail travelers must be fully vaccinated. The rule will apply to cruisers once sailings resume next year.

All in all, I traveled more than 2,700 miles over 10 days, filling my (symbolic) Herschel backpack with treasured souvenirs and refreshed memories.

Green Gables Heritage Place on Prince Edward Island brings “Anne of Green Gables” to life. The farmstead inspired L.M. Montgomery’s literary creation. (The Washington Post/Andrea Sachs)
Green Gables Heritage Place on Prince Edward Island brings “Anne of Green Gables” to life. The farmstead inspired L.M. Montgomery’s literary creation. (The Washington Post/Andrea Sachs)

PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND

At Green Gables Heritage Place the trees weren't talking in their sleep, as they did when Anne Shirley first laid eyes on her new home. But although the flora was silent, the fauna was chatty. "This was the parlor Anne and Diana weren't allowed in," a visitor exclaimed. "Do you remember the mouse in the custard?" she asked her companion, glancing at the table set for afternoon tea.

Fans of "Anne of Green Gables" will be flooded with reminiscences as they wander the 19th-century farmstead that inspired L.M. Montgomery to create one of the world's most famous literary characters and redheads. "There is fact and fiction in this house," a Parks Canada guide told me.

The period-furnished house once owned by cousins of Montgomery's grandfather seamlessly blends the real and the imaginary. A new visitors center tracks Montgomery's childhood in Prince Edward Island and her ascendant writing career, which ended in Ontario. The author ensured her return to the island by choosing a burial site in Cavendish (fictional Avonlea). The scenery has changed since her death in 1942. Standing beside her grave, I used my Anne-size imagination to look past the Tim Hortons drive-through to the natural beauty beyond.

Though Anne was partial to plum pudding, most islanders — and visitors — prefer to fill their bellies with Malpeque oysters, which appear on raw-bar menus around the world. Captain Perry Gotell spent 30 years as a lobster fisherman but now takes guests out on the water to pluck oysters from the Brudenell River. "I'm not selling oysters; I'm selling the experience," said the owner of Tranquility Cove Adventures. Gotell leads several aquatic tours, including his newest and coldest, Ice Fishing for Oysters. When the river freezes over, he will cut a hole in the ice with a chain saw, but on this warm fall day, the path down was unobstructed. I dropped the tongs to the sandy bottom, clamped them shut and pulled up a platter's worth of mollusks.

The excursion includes all-you-can-catch-and-consume, but the oysters lucked out with me, because I don't eat seafood. As an alternate activity, Gotell showed me how to extend their lives by removing predatory starfish, brushing off barnacles and breaking up the clusters. "Twist the wrist," he advised, as I stabbed at the shells. I liberated most of the oysters, but a few fell victim to my poor knife skills. Ever the gracious host, Gotell slurped away my mistakes.

QUEBEC

Louis de Buade de Frontenac led his merry band of followers into the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, both man and his namesake hotel looking fit for their advanced ages. The Quebec City property, which claims to be the world's most-photographed hotel, opened in 1893; the governor of New France was nearly 200 years older, though the tour guide playing the politician was significantly younger. In the lobby, he pointed out his family's crest and the handmade wallpaper, among other plummy flourishes. "The marble comes from Burgundy, like Versailles, the castle of my boss, Louis XIV," he said.

The hotel was about to close off rooms for a conference, so the guv hustled us through the Champlain Restaurant, which overlooks the St. Lawrence River, and the Salon Rose, where the leaders of Britain, Canada and the United States convened in 1943 to discuss a World War II strategy in secret. "They planned D-Day in this hotel," faux-Frontenac said. We passed through a hall of photographs documenting the momentous event and paused at the top of a staircase. In 1933, a honeymooning couple each made a wish while descending it. They never shared their wish until it came true 60 years later, when they returned to their shack d'amour.

My wish was more gastronomic than romantic: I wanted poutine, the lumpy mound of fries, cheese curds and gravy that originated in the French Canadian province. I decided to try Poutineville, a Montreal-based chain that is the Chipotle of poutine. I could have ordered one of their concoctions, such as the Hangover, or built my own with such toppings as brie, guacamole or corn dog. I chose a plant-based version of the classic and swore I would take only a few bites for research purposes. All that remained of my study: a swirl of gravy and a few strands of cheese.

Unlike poutine, a pan-Canadian comfort food, maple syrup sees more of the world: Quebec produces about three-quarters of its global supply. "It's really part of our culture and is a living folklore," said Rose Boissonneault, director of the Erabliere le Chemin du Roy, a sugar shack outside Quebec City.

Maple syrup season usually starts in March and runs until "the snow pile is gone," she said. However, many facilities remain open year-round, offering tours and serving the traditional feast of maple-glazed ham and sausages, pea soup, baked beans, meat pies and omelets, with pancakes for dessert. At Chemin du Roy, I sat in a sugar maple grove and learned about the sweat and speed required to make the syrup. Boissonneault employs the old-fashioned method of collecting sap: spigots, buckets and snowshoes. To prevent the liquid from fermenting into alcohol, the workers must quickly filter and boil the sap — a round-the-clock affair fueled by a hearty meal, booze, singing and dancing.

The boiling temperature determines the final product. Boissonneault handed me a heaping spoonful of cool and creamy maple butter (226 degrees). I next sampled maple toffee (234 degrees) that I spun onto a wooden stick atop a bed of "snow" — the taste of winter and spring rolled in one bite.

ONTARIO

"Did you get wet?" a father of two dry children asked me as I disembarked the Niagara Falls boat. I nodded my head yes, releasing droplets of waterfall into the air.

For the 20-minute ride with Niagara City Cruises, the Canadian version of the New York-based Maid of the Mist sightseeing vessel, I donned the hot-pink poncho, removed my sunglasses and prepared for the dousing. The captain steered the boat to the American Falls without hitting the rocks, then drove by Bridal Veil Falls. At Canada's Horseshoe Falls, the largest of the trio, the vessel idled in thick clouds of mist that enveloped the vessel and obscured the waterfall. Spitballs of water hit my face. On the return to shore, I watched the waterfall regain its majestic splendor through a curtain of wet lashes.

A few miles away, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the vines were heavy with grapes. The harvest typically starts in the fall, but the bunches destined to become ice wine must hang on for a little longer. "The grapes are left on the vine into winter, so they can build up sugar," said our guide at Peller Estates Winery & Restaurant. "They must be picked at minus-8 degrees Celsius (about 18 degrees Fahrenheit). It usually happens at night, from 1 or 2 a.m. to sunrise."

Though ice wine originated in Germany hundreds of years ago, the Niagara region has dominated the ice wine industry since the 1970s. Southern Ontario's wineries make 95% of the global supply, which is no small feat: It takes 40 bunches of grapes to create a demi-bottle of ice wine, about 10 times more than a full-size bottle of red or white. On the tour, we tasted four wines, saving the sweetest for last. After a glass of the vidal, I stumbled around the gift shop, tipsy on sugar.

Wayne Gretzky dabbles in viticulture — he has an eponymous Niagara winery that makes ice wine — but his glory really belongs in the ice hockey rink. The Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto dedicates an entire wall to the Great One, including a mold of his bare feet. The temple to the national winter sport also highlights major moments in hockey history, such as the "Golden Goal" from the 2010 Winter Olympics, and honors its superstars, several of whom also appear in the nearby Canada's Walk of Fame. The Entertainment District attraction heralds Canadians who have excelled in such categories as music (Neil Young, Joni Mitchell), film and television (Catherine O'Hara, Alex Trebek), literature (Margaret Atwood) and innovation (Alexander Graham Bell). I was on the hunt for Celine Dion, whom I found beside Bobby Orr, an odd couple — except in Canada.

MANITOBA

At Qaumajuq, a new museum in Winnipeg, I got a jump on the world's largest public collection of contemporary Inuit art from the sidewalk: Two outdoor sculptures, including one of tumbling polar bear cubs, grace the entrance. In the lobby, I increased my count exponentially at the Visible Vault, a three-story glass tower that contains nearly 5,000 stone carvings by 31 communities. A video component allows guests to virtually pull the objects off the shelves for a closer look.

Qaumajuq, which means, "It is bright, it is lit," in Inuktitut, is connected to the Winnipeg Art Gallery, which also displays works by Inuit and other Indigenous cultures. "Inua," the cultural center's debut exhibit, features pieces by more than 90 Inuit artists who defy stereotypes. "Carving is how we think of Inuit art, but a lot of these artists use traditional and nontraditional mediums," said Riva Symko, the gallery's head of collections and exhibitions and curator of Canadian art. "We are allowing the communities to speak for themselves and let them be represented as they wish." The personal expressions vary wildly, including a sealskin spacesuit, a stop-motion animation of a whale hunt and a reproduction of the artist's grandmother's living room, titled "Ajjigiingiluktaaqtugut," or "We Are All Different."

The museum has taken over the window displays of the Hudson's Bay flagship store, which closed in November after nearly 95 years. "The Bay," as the retailer is affectionately called, set up shop in the mid-1600s as a trading post for fur trappers. Today, it caters to customers who prefer fleece and puffer jackets over beaver fur and bear pelts. The city still supports two other Bays, both of which contain altars to the striped design popularized during Queen Anne's reign. The multicolored bars appear on every imaginable household item, including Le Creuset casserole dishes, mugs, socks, pens, soaps, dog leashes, face masks, ear warmers and HBC Stripes Barbie, who resembles a label-obsessed fashionista with her Hudson's Bay coat, fanny pack and oar.

The Rocky Mountaineer, a luxury passenger train, travels through the Rocky Mountains between Banff and Vancouver. (The Washington Post/Andrea Sachs)
The Rocky Mountaineer, a luxury passenger train, travels through the Rocky Mountains between Banff and Vancouver. (The Washington Post/Andrea Sachs)

ALBERTA AND BRITISH COLUMBIA

The easiest and most lawful way to meet a Mountie in full regalia is to attend the Musical Ride, a touring performance held May through October. However, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police canceled all appearances this year due to safety concerns. As an alternative, I considered dropping by the Mounted Police station in Banff, Alberta, but the officers there drive patrol cars, rather than riding horses, and don't dress like British toy soldiers. "They don't wear the red uniforms," said Patrick Twomey, the Banff-based guide and owner of 2me Tours. "They found that they were a giveaway in sting operations." I finally tracked down Mounties at the North-West Mounted Police Barracks in Canmore. Granted, the officers were long gone — the last constable to occupy the log structure was in 1929 — but their spirit and wardrobe live on.

The North-West Mounted Police, the regional antecedent of the federal Mounties, were in charge of maintaining law and order in the developing west. They cracked down on the illegal liquor trade and wrangled drunk coal miners, for instance, and also ensured that residents were wearing masks during the 1918 flu pandemic. "They were the frontier police," said Sarah Knowles, the Canmore Museum's visitor and membership services officer.

Inside the historical site, I could trace the evolution of their work attire, from the impractical white pith helmet to the rugged-chic brown felt hat. One exhibit case displayed the shaggy bison-hide jacket that recruits received in their welcome kits. The coat bore a striking resemblance to Sasquatch, another Canadian legend I wished to — but didn't — encounter.

At Banff National Park, I asked around about where I could find moose. The answer was Newfoundland. My prospects for spotting a beaver, the national animal and Parks Canada mascot, were much higher. The mammals are mostly nocturnal, so I set out at dusk, making one pit stop to rent bear spray at an outdoor gear shop. The Fenland Trail hugged a tranquil creek before spitting me out on a road below the Trans-Canada Highway. I stopped at the first of the three Vermilion Lakes and scanned the surface for ripples. Duck, duck ... furry brown head. I headed back to town smug in my discovery until doubt set in. Was that beaver really a muskrat? Without seeing the tail or teeth, I couldn't be sure. For my second attempt, I rented a kayak at the Banff Canoe Club and paddled by beaver lodges on the Bow River, hoping one of the residents was an early riser. Unfortunately, they all slept in.

A staff member suggested I sit at a clearing by the water and wait for the beaver to pop out. I was headed in that direction when I bumped into a pack of stoned kids talking excitedly about an elk bull fight. I asked them where this battle scene had unfolded, and they pointed at the nearby riverbank, where one of the elk was peacefully grazing. "They're hungry and tired now," one guy reassured me. "You don't have to worry." Because I wasn't sure how long the detente would last, I aborted my beaver quest. But I can say with certainty that I saw an elk.

The Rocky Mountaineer goes where few passenger trains dare: through the mighty Canadian Rockies. The two-day journey travels between Banff and Vancouver, B.C., (or the reverse), with a hotel stay in Kamloops in British Columbia. (The recent discovery of more than 200 Indigenous children in unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops has led to a nationwide moment of reflection, reckoning and reconciliation.) The luxury train has more glass than metal, all the better to lean into the scenery. From my seat, I could see leaping salmon and swooping bald eagles, gold panners and double rainbows, and Doris, who greets every Mountaineer from her porch in the town of Canoe. "Our favorite waver," one of the three hosts in our car remarked as we passed her yellow house.

The train took nearly 12 hours to reach Kamloops. We chugged up and over the Continental Divide — "You are officially one hour younger," a staffer announced — and jogged alongside rivers that cut electric-blue streaks through the chiseled landscape. The following day, we set off in a semiarid desert and solemnly gazed at trees charred by wildfires. "It's been a tough year for everyone," an attendant said.

We had to remain in our assigned car for the entire time, though we could stand in the gangway connection to photograph the scenery and feel the sun's rays or raindrops on our cheeks. The staff pointed out notable sights and kept our calorie count up with two daily meals (Fraser Valley scramble for breakfast; Alberta beef short ribs or Pacific salmon filet for lunch), snacks (cheese plate) and drinks (British Columbian beer, cider and wines). When we were near the Vancouver terminus, they cranked up the music, and we all rose from our seats to dance to "(I've Had) The Time of My Life."

I didn't need to go to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island to sink my teeth into a Nanaimo bar. Vancouver's Granville Island Public Market sells the tri-layered sweet, as well as wild smoked salmon sealed for long-distance travel. From the market, I ferried over to Morton Park, where I claimed a bench overlooking the English Bay and watched a pair of Canada geese pecking at the grass. Soon we would all have to fly south, but none of us seemed to be in any rush to recross the border.

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