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The baguette is French, the rosé is of Provençal origin and the server just bid me “bon appétit.” With rolling vineyards and sparkling waters stretching out before me, it’s as if I’m dining on the outskirts of Aix-en-Provence.
But the Côte d’Azur is about 8,400 kilometres east of this sunny table. This isn’t Provence. This is Penticton, B.C.
More precisely, it’s Poplar Grove, one of 40-plus Naramata Bench wineries dotting the bucolic southeastern shores of Okanagan Lake. As well as highlighting the scandalous lack of B.C. bottles in my local LCBO outlet, Poplar Grove’s patio reminds me that many Canadian travel destinations stack up surprisingly well against better-known international equivalents.
This kind of competitiveness could come in handy amid the COVID-19 pandemic. With travel restrictions, insurance quandaries and quarantine issues all but eliminating international vacation options for Canadians – and preventing international visitors from coming here – the destinations that follow join the Naramata Bench as world-class domestic alternatives that don’t require out-of-province visitors to go into quarantine, and are likely to be less busy than usual this summer.
Bruce Peninsula National Park instead of Bermuda
The national park on the northern tip of its namesake peninsula offers much more than jet ski-free views of rugged Ontario lakeshore. Accessed through the three-kilometre Georgian Bay Trail, part of an extensive hiking and bouldering network, the flat limestone slabs and pebble beach of Indian Head Cove plunge into tropically turquoise waters. Head west for a few minutes along the 885-km Bruce Trail, and a natural stone arch provides a handy landmark en route to the Grotto, a water-filled cave that glows when illuminated by sunlight shining through an underwater tunnel. Another cleft in the rock, dubbed “The Chimney,” lets visitors reach the Grotto opening. For more of a landward perspective, outfitters in the nearby town of Tobermory offer kayak and canoe rentals.
COVID considerations: Backcountry camping, which opened in late June, must be reserved and prepaid. The Cyprus Lake drive-in campground is slated to open on July 15 at 50-per-cent capacity. Yurts and group camping are closed for the 2020 season.
Alberta’s Dinosaur Trail instead of London’s Natural History Museum
Even if it wasn’t shuttered owing to COVID-19, unearthing a dinosaur fossil yourself in the iconic London venue isn’t going to happen. But it’s entirely possible along this 400-km driving route across the otherworldly prairie badlands east of Calgary. Budding paleontologists can whet their appetites at the Calgary Zoo’s Prehistoric Park exhibit before proceeding past the aptly named Horseshoe Canyon viewpoint to the town of Drumheller, home of the World’s Largest Dinosaur statue. After climbing into the statue’s jaws for sweeping views of the dramatically eroded terrain, road-trippers head north to the Royal Tyrrell Museum, one of the world’s foremost paleontological museums, to admire dozens of skeletons from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Next stop: Dinosaur Provincial Park, where the badlands yield some of the richest dino deposits in the world. More than 40 species have been discovered in this World Heritage Site, some by visitors simply scouring the ground.
COVID considerations: The zoo, T-Rex statue and museum are all limiting visitor numbers and offering timed-ticket admission, with the latter closing its hands-on and interactive elements. While Alberta Parks campsites remained open only to provincial residents at press time, many lodging options are available in Drumheller and in Brooks, a 30-minute drive southwest of Dinosaur Provincial Park.
Quebec City instead of Paris
Few North American vistas compare with those of the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac hotel towering over the ancient stone fortifications, cobblestone squares, parks and gardens of one of the continent’s oldest European cities. Combine this with the ornate National Assembly, historic Citadel and extravagantly gilded Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec, and it’s no wonder this World Heritage Site looks more Old World than many similar bergs across the pond. There’s no shortage of European style and cuisine here, either: The Quartier Petit-Champlain is filled with boutiques that would feel at home in Paris, Rue du Trésor plays host to an open-air art gallery, and L'Échaudé serves up classic French fare in its recently reopened dining room and airy terrace.
COVID considerations: Quebec’s capital is close to fully operational this summer, with the most notable exceptions being any indoor or outdoor events or gatherings of more than 50 people. That means most concerts and festivals usually staged in Battlefields Park, the Grand Théâtre de Québec and the Palais Montcalm concert hall will have to wait.
Great Bear Rainforest instead of the Amazon
Part of the world’s largest coastal temperate rainforest, this 6.4-million-hectare swath of British Columbia‘s Pacific fringe is home not to rubber trees or jaguars, but to 1,000-year-old western red cedars and spirit bears, a subspecies of black bear that sometimes sports white fur. Like the Amazon, however, the Great Bear Rainforest boasts wilderness lodges designed to bring visitors closer to nature. The luxurious Nimmo Bay Resort, for instance, is accessible only by boat and helicopter, but that doesn’t mean there’s any shortage of creature comforts. The all-inclusive culinary program focuses on the region’s sublime seafood, while the picturesque cabins are ideal for rest and recovery after days spent hiking, wildlife-spotting and fly fishing. Little is wasted in this environmentally sensitive setting, with the entire place being powered hydro-electrically by a waterfall that doubles as a plunge pool for guests soaking in the adjacent hot tubs.
COVID considerations: Beginning in July, the lodge plans to offer fully staffed “paradisolation” bookings for groups of up to 14 guests.
Icefields Parkway instead of Yosemite
Yosemite Falls’s 739 vertical metres of cascading water is breathtaking, to be sure, but it can’t compare with the extremely slow-moving frozen H2O of Jasper National Park’s six-kilometre-long Athabasca Glacier. Flowing out of the city-sized Columbia Icefield, the 300-metre-thick slab is the highlight of Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper national parks. From the impossible blues of Peyto Lake to the cascading meltwater of the Weeping Wall, the 230-km route is relentlessly scenic. Pit stops along the way are similarly jaw-dropping, with the Icefields Interpretive Centre being the departure point for tractor-tired bus tours of the Athabasca Glacier and shuttle buses to the dramatically cantilevered Glacier Skywalk viewpoint.
COVID considerations: Face masks are mandatory throughout all tours out of the Icefields Interpretive Centre, with capacity on buses limited to 50 per cent.
Niagara instead of Disney
Who needs the Happiest Place on Earth when you’ve got Horseshoe Falls? The staggering volume of water rushing over North America’s most powerful cascade fuels a unique range of theme park-style diversions. Journey Behind the Falls, for instance, involves taking an elevator deep into the bedrock under Horseshoe Falls, and stepping into spray-filled tunnels that lead to Upper and Lower observation decks set at the foot of the thundering, soaking cascade. Then there’s Hornblower Niagara Cruises, which pilots a pair of sleek vessels past the American and Bridal Veil falls before plunging into the spray less than 100 metres from Horseshoe Falls. Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours, meanwhile, takes a higher-speed approach by blasting down the Niagara Gorge into the Class 5 Devil’s Hole rapids and the Niagara Whirlpool.
COVID considerations: Many Niagara attractions require guests to wear masks and undergo temperature screening, and have implemented timed-ticketing entry.