Getting to know Canada: Two ideal itineraries
IF YOU ARE A FIRST time visitor to Canada, you may be wondering how to explore such a vast country. And asking, where should you go to get a glimpse of all that Canada has to offer?
It’s a vast country, but I am suggesting two itineraries that visitors to Canada who land in either Toronto or Vancouver could take. Instead of the “Golden Triangle,” think of these routes as the “Maple Key” (starting in Toronto) and the “Rockies Road” (starting in Vancouver). The Maple Key route includes the Taj Mahal of Canada — Niagara Falls of course. And the Rockies Road route includes another special attraction: Lake Louise, pictured above. Here’s what you need to know to start planning a trip to Canada to see one, or both, of these natural wonders.
Visiting Canada: The basics
Canada has four very different seasons
Where I live, in Toronto, it can be as hot and humid as Bombay in the summer; and the winter can be the other extreme, with virtually Himalayan-temperature winds sweeping across the province. There are not that many cities that range from -30 C. to +40 C., as Toronto does. But over on the other side of the country, in Vancouver, winter is damp and cool, and it rarely snows.
Summer is a great time to visit Canada, as it is warm and you can get out into the wilderness and enjoy hiking, boating, camping and other outdoor pursuits. In Autumn, the colours of the changing leaves are glorious. In winter you can experience snow — as long as you are okay with the cold and are warmly dressed.
Canada is a vast country to explore
The vastness of Canada cannot be overstated; it is the world’s second largest nation. Vancouver is further away from Toronto (4,300 kilometres) than London, England (3,500 kilometres).
So, two things you need to keep in mind when you plan a trip to Canada are the distances and the seasons.
Canada also has two distinct cultures and two official languages (English and French) and the cities — especially Toronto — are extremely multicultural. Both Toronto and Vancouver are home to very sizeable Indo-Canadian populations: in Toronto, Punjabi is the fourth most common language spoken. English is spoken across the country, and predominates in every province except Quebec, which is largely French speaking. But you don’t need to speak French to get by in Quebec. Montreal, especially, has a large English-speaking population.
Visitors from India require a Visa to visit Canada
You can get information here: Canada’s International Gateway. Indians can apply for tourist, business or family Visas; check out this site: Find out if you need a Visa, India. I have helped people I know in India apply for the family Visa, to visit children or grandchildren and here’s my advice: make sure you follow every step and supply every piece of information needed, exactly as outlined, and you will greatly increase your chances of obtaining a Visa.
You will find that Canada is a clean, safe, friendly country to visit with an abundance of outdoor activities, a unique culture and vibrant, diverse urban landscapes.
Maple Key Canadian Itinerary
If you land in Toronto, the Maple Key route takes in Canada’s biggest city — Toronto — and the country’s number 1 tourist attraction, Niagara Falls. But that’s not all. The route can take you into Canada’s famous wilderness, for hiking and/or camping adventures in Algonquin Park; along Lake Ontario to the quaint historic town of Kingston; north to the nation’s capital city, Ottawa; and east to “La Belle Province,” Quebec, for cities that have a distinct European flavour. Quebec’s largest city, Montreal, and the most historic, Quebec City, are on this route, so you can make it an entirely urban adventure if you’re not ready for the rugged outdoors. A significant percentage of Canada’s total population lives along this corridor, so you will never feel far from civilization! And the Via Rail train can take you along most of this route (except for up to Algonquin Park).
You can completely customize an itinerary based on this route, depending on the season and your interests. My suggestion is to spend at least three days in Toronto, and take a one-day side trip to Niagara Falls. You can drive there and back, or take a bus tour, in one day, easily. Toronto is my hometown and Canada’s largest city, the economic engine of the country, and an exciting, vibrant city. There is no end of things to see and do, but my top suggestions for Toronto are:
- Taking the ferry to Toronto Island
- Spending an afternoon at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum
- Visiting the various neighbourhoods of Toronto and sampling the cuisines, from the Greek Danforth to Chinatown to Little India
If it’s summer, you may want to head north up to Algonquin Park from Toronto and stay in a cabin, lodge or even go camping. Outfitters have everything you need to rent when you get up there. Or, you can drive along the north shore of Lake Ontario towards Ottawa and Montreal, and stop in Kingston. Historic Kingston is the gateway to the 1,000 Islands, a picturesque tourist destination with lots of boating and lodging options.
After Kingston, you can head to the nation’s capital Ottawa, or choose to go directly into the province of Quebec. Ottawa is a small city with tons of options for cultural visits to museums, the House of Parliament and art galleries. You can also get out into the beautiful countryside surrounding Ottawa, such as the Gatineau Hills, very easily.
In Quebec, make sure you spend some time in Montreal. It is a fun, culturally rich city with great shopping, dining and festivals. Quebec City is very old, with an historic quarter that will make you feel you are in Europe.
Resources for planning your Maple Key itinerary:
- Canada’s tourism site, Keep Exploring
- Ontario tourism site, Ontario Yours to Discover
- Toronto Tourism site, See Toronto Now
- Ottawa Tourism site, Ottawa: Canada’s Capital
- Quebec tourism site (in English), Bonjour Quebec
- Montreal tourism site (in English), Tourisme Montreal
Rockies Road Canadian Itinerary
If you land in Vancouver, the Rockies Road itinerary takes you through the country’s most spectacular scenery, from the Pacific ocean to the jagged, spectacular Rocky Mountains. This itinerary can include taking the ferry over to Victoria on Vancouver Island or taking a drive up into the mountains outside of Vancouver to see Whistler, one of Canada’s most famous, and charming, ski resorts. From Vancouver, you can drive or take the Via Rail train right across the mountains and into the Rockies to Calgary. Stops at Banff and Lake Louise are a must! Lake Louise is probably the most photographed lake in Canada — and it really is as spectacular in real life as it is in the photos. You actually feel you are in a picture postcard.
Vancouver is set between mountains and sea, so it offers vistas and recreation options like no other city in Canada. My favourite Vancouver activity is walking the seawall in Stanley Park. Though an urban park, you can really feel at one with the wild elements of ocean and forest. From Vancouver, you can drive just about an hour or two south to get to Tsawwassen where the ferry terminal is. I love taking the ferry through the Gulf Islands and over to Vancouver Island. You can stop at any of them, or keep going and drive to Victoria, a quiet city on the ocean known for a temperate climate and lush gardens.
Going the other direction from Vancouver, I personally thinking taking the train through the Rockies is probably one of the most romantic and exciting things you can do in Canada! The train runs from Vancouver to Jasper, Alberta; from there you can drive to Lake Louise and Banff. Treat yourself and stay at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, one of the grand old hotels built by the railway about 100 years ago (see top photo). Lake Louise is arguably THE most picturesque spot in Canada — and you will have a never-ending view of it from the hotel.
Banff is a small town in the mountains surrounded by a national park. It is gorgeous all year round and offers a very wide range of recreation opportunities from hiking, horseback riding and skiing to soaking in hot springs, dining and shopping. A sojourn in Banff is an immersion in the Canadian experience. Finally, you can end your itinerary in Calgary, home of the famous Calgary Stampede, and annual summer festival that celebrates cowboy culture. Calgary has an international airport that can connect you to your onward flight.
Resources for planning your Rockies Road itinerary:
- Canada’s tourism site, Keep Exploring
- British Columbia tourism site, Hello BC
- Alberta tourism site, Travel Alberta
- Via Rail Canada
- Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
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