Mother Nature showed real prejudice when she created Canada with enough natural beauty, diversity and genuine marvels for 10 countries... with some left over.
From the Pacific to the Atlantic, the Arctic to the world’s longest undefended border, Canada boasts some of the planet’s most stunning scenery and exquisite flora and fauna. But that’s only part of the picture. Its major cities - with their superlative architecture and chronologies - rival major metropolises anywhere. Indeed, the hardest thing about assembling a short-list of killer Canadian attractions is keeping it short. Still, these coast-to-coast picks are can’t-miss propositions.
Wood Buffalo National Park
Even setting aside its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, bestowed in 1983 for the biological diversity of the enormous Peace-Athabasca freshwater Delta and its abundant free-roaming wood bison, Wood Buffalo is notable for two other key reasons: at 44,807 km² it is the largest national park in Canada and it is the only known nesting site of whooping cranes. The bison and the birds have plenty of company: according to Parks Canada, there are 47 mammal species known to exist in the park, as well as 226 species of birds, five species of amphibians and one reptile, which add up to one very educational and entertaining place to visit.
Canada’s largest aquarium and science centre is a marvel of numbers: nearly 1,000 volunteers assist, logging 58,000 hours of service in 2008 alone. Among their tasks: herding 80,000 school children on annual learning expeditions and through sleepovers. Indeed, since 1956, a staggering 35,000,000 people have ogled the Aquarium’s assorted otters, turtles, dolphins and sea lions, while marine researchers and conservationists have used the non-profit association as a springboard for programs aimed at understanding and preserving animal species in the wild. And it’s open 365 days a year. Top that.
Vancouver’s spectacular urban oasis is famous for many things - at 400 hectares, it’s larger than New York City’s Central Park, while its various gardens, landmarks and numerous trees (some 150,000 of them) enchant and soothe eight million visitors annually. But the 8.8 kilometre seawall - which circles the perimeter and hosts countless bladers, bikers and pedestrians, each gamely battling for turf rights - is the park’s most notable feature.
Banff National Park
Even in a country loaded with spectacular parks showcasing pristine nature, Banff National Park - Canada’s oldest - is a sight to behold and the kind of place where belief in a higher power doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. Situated in the Rocky Mountains on Alberta’s western border with British Columbia, the park is home to both the town of Banff and the hamlet of Lake Louise - and their corresponding grand old lady hotels, the Banff Springs and Chateau Lake Louise, both Fairmont properties. It’s also home to soaring mountains, ancient trees, crystal-blue waters, hot springs and enough elk to ensure a sighting or two. Not for nothing is Banff National Park a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Forks, Winnipeg
Sometimes the official press blurb simply cannot be bettered: one of the loveliest public spaces in Winnipeg and a must-see for any visitor, the Forks is an exquisite riverside attraction in the heart of downtown featuring a wonderfully eclectic market and a wide variety of restaurants and entertainment opportunities. This is Winnipeg’s most exciting and culturally diverse venue. (Think of it as the coolest outdoor mall you’ve ever visited, with a Fro-Gurts frozen yogurt stand and IMAX Theatre to boot!)
Equal parts Toronto landmark, engineering marvel, critical telecommunications hub and superb entertainment spot complete with gently revolving restaurant, the CN Tower - which celebrated its 35th birthday this past June - is weirdly easy for locals to overlook given its seeming omnipresence. But stand beneath the thing and stare straight up and you simply cannot be unimpressed by its soaring 553.33- metre altitude. Better yet: head for the top, stand on its famed glass floor and stare straight down. New in 2011 is - gulp - EdgeWalk, the world’s highest full-circle, hands-free walk on a 5 ft-wide ledge encircling the top of the Tower’s main pod sitting 116 stories above the ground.
The world’s prettiest producer of hydroelectric power is renowned for the sheer majesty of the towering, thundering Horseshoe Falls. Like many large-scale attractions, the Falls must be seen to be truly comprehended. The sheer power of the water, and the rainbows that periodically pop up in its wake, make it a destination no one should skip.
Rarely can an entire city be designated a worthwhile tourist destination; even then, it’s something you’d expect to find in Europe, not North America. But quaint, cultured, unequalled Quebec City - and in particular, Vieux-Québec (Old Quebec) and Place Royale - evokes the Old World while serving the New as the provincial capital. Its stone buildings and winding streets - to say nothing of the lulling effect of conversational French drifting in the ether - makes the city (founded by Samuel de Champlain in 1608) an historic gem. Indeed, the ramparts surrounding Vieux-Québec - the only remaining fortified city walls that still exist in the Americas north of Mexico - were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985.
People can tell you that driving the celebrated roads of Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail in autumn - when the turning leaves are a Technicolor blaze of scarlet, gold and orange - is a singular, almost life-affirming occurrence. But until you actually see it for yourself, it’s impossible to comprehend just how thoroughly engrossing a bunch of trees can be given the right season. Visits to charming towns like Chéticamp (an Acadian fishing village) and Baddeck (the gateway to the Cabot Trail) greatly enhance the experience but it’s the dazzling foliage that’ll stir your soul.
By Kim Hughes