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As travellers, we spend just as many nights outside the country as inside, the temptation to travel south or overseas often overriding the consideration of holidaying in our own backyards. But what we’ve got at home is just as worthy of our attention
Illustrations by Alanna Cavanagh

Hidden Canada - 2018 Edition

Hidden Canada - 2018 Edition

Maybe it’s a hangover from Canada 150, but we’re more excited than ever to explore this country. This collection of stories, the debut of an annual feature, highlights 10 places that will intrigue even the most intrepid traveller – from glamping in the Halifax harbour to a safari experience in the Arctic.

Take notes, build lists and start making your travel plans.

Inuvik, Northwest Territories

Reindeer traverse the tundra near Inuvik, NT. Courtesy of Tundra North Tours

Canada has a few safari experiences, but none are more wild than the annual reindeer migration in the Arctic Circle

Thousands of reindeer are gathered on a frozen lake in the middle of the wild Northwest Territory tundra, their antlers a dark brown tangle against the blue Arctic sky and their breaths white clouds of steam. Our snowmobile cruises slowly around their perimeter as my driver and guide, Kylik Kisoun Taylor, scouts the snow for fresh wolf and grizzly tracks. When we come across a cluster of 100 or so reindeer grazing among low bushes, Kisoun Taylor swings around behind them, gently sending them trotting toward the main herd. “They’re more vulnerable when they’re split up,” he shouts over the engine, “and the lake is safer because predators are easier to spot.”

I hop off the snowmobile and walk slowly toward the herd. Gently clicking hooves, soft grunting and a muffled crunching of snow is all I can hear. Butterflies in my stomach, I stop 25 metres away and watch them. They watch me back.

“My first time I was overwhelmed,” Kisoun Taylor had told me. “I just sat down.” One curious calf approached. Kisoun Taylor petted him while another curled up alongside him. “It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced and I’m a Northerner,” he says. “I knew I had to share my culture and land with the world because it would blow people’s minds and only we can tell our own story authentically.”

Sharing transformational experiences, such as wrangling reindeer, building your own igloo then sleeping in it, and smashing stereotypes by personally getting to know the North’s locals, is Kisoun Taylor’s passion and the reason behind his indigenous company, Tundra North Tours.

In March, I headed to Inuvik for the company’s Canadian Arctic Reindeer Signature Package, a whirlwind four-day Northern immersion. Five of us are met at the airport by 33-year-old Kisoun Taylor. One-quarter Inuvialuit (Western Canadian Inuit), one-quarter Gwich’in (a northwestern First Nation) and one-half Ontarian of European descent, he is a tall, dynamic presence, handsomely clad in a traditional ring-seal parka and wolf-fur gloves made by his mother.

Within an hour we’re whizzing in a van along the northern arm of the Mackenzie River past the surreal sight of barges, tugs and a Coast Guard vessel frozen in place until spring. After travelling 117 kilometres of ice road – groomed and graded with a posted speed limit of 70 km per hour – we arrive in Aklavik (population 800). We visit Kisoun Taylor’s friend, traditional artist Annie C. Gordon, for a much-needed cup of tea and warm homemade biscuits with jam. We chat about her life in a remote community with only winter road access, and check out her homemade mitts, parkas and exquisitely beaded mukluks. She tells us about her husband, Danny C. Gordon, who’s working his trapline that day, and shows off the snow goggles and caribou-handled knives he’s made and the women’s curved ulus, which are used for food preparation and cleaning animal pelts.

Travellers with Tundra North Tours learn the traditional art of igloo building. The herd on the move during its annual migration. Courtesy of Tundra North Tours
Travellers with Tundra North Tours learn the traditional art of igloo building. The herd on the move during its annual migration. Courtesy of Tundra North Tours

At sunset we trek from the road to our base camp on a frozen lake 16 km outside Inuvik, a cluster of tepees and igloos Kisoun Taylor calls Aurora Igloo Village. We hear our cook, retired teacher Judy Francey, before we even meet her, belting out an Inuvialuit gospel song while skinning a rabbit for dinner in the wood-stove-heated trapper’s tent that is our communal kitchen and living room.

Afterward, I scramble into my shared igloo, candlelit and cozy, and slide into a warm sleeping bag atop a snow bed with reindeer pelts and a heated mattress pad that makes this iconic Arctic experience luxurious. When Kisoun Taylor wakes me after midnight I scurry outside to watch the sky swirl with shimmering sheets of green and yellow Northern Lights until my fingers go numb.

In the morning he’s cutting blocks of packed snow to build another igloo and we all join in, lining up blocks on an angle like a snail’s shell to make it strong. Kisoun Taylor had to teach himself igloo building since locals had lost the skill half a century ago. Now he’s passing his traditional knowledge back, even to elders, with the hope of creating a way for fellow Northerners to learn, practise and make a living from their culture through tourism.

By afternoon we’ve mastered the essential Northern skill of operating a snowmobile and follow Kisoun Taylor across snowy lakes and winding through low alpine forests to check out a traditional trapline. In the evening we settle onto reindeer pelts inside an illuminated ice igloo for an Arctic smorgasbord of reindeer, moose and beluga jerky, muktaq – whale blubber – smoked whitefish, dried char as well as char sashimi, raw and frozen, called quak.

Jonathon Michel wrangles the country’s only free-range herd of reindeer. Courtesy of Tundra North Tours

On our last day we travel by van and snowmobile to track down the highlight of our trip – Canada’s only free-range herd of reindeer. Originally imported by the Canadian government from northern Russia via Alaska in the 1930s as a potential food source for Inuit, it is now privately owned. We meet Tony Lalong, a pro reindeer wrangler who spends his days keeping the herd together and protected from predators. In spring he shepherds them 60 km to their calving grounds. Though virtually identical to indigenous, wild protected caribou, reindeer are docile and can be trained to pull sleds, as they are by the northern Scandinavian Sami people.

By late afternoon we’re heading north on the new $300-million, year-round, 138-km road from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean, which opened in late 2017. The Inuvialuit hamlet of 900 is surrounded by the world’s biggest concentration of pingos, conical tundra frost heaves with ice cores rising like mini-pyramids from the flat tundra.

Before crashing at a B&B we have a traditional Inuvialuit dinner in the home of Maureen Pokiak, a Saskatchewan teacher who came north for a year in the 1970s and never left after marrying a traditional hunter and trapper. Our multicourse meal is a leisurely and spirited discussion about the quirks of Northern life and it finishes – most appropriately on this day – with a big bowl of Maureen’s delicious reindeer soup.

How to get there

Three airlines service Inuvik: Canadian North, First Air and Air North.

Where to stay

Tundra North Tours' four-day Canadian Arctic Reindeer Signature adventure can be booked mid-February to early April. The package includes all meals, hotel, B&B and igloo accommodation and on-tour transportation. From $5,200 per person.

What to bring

In early spring, temperatures are still well below freezing. Bring warm layers, long underwear and windproof gear. Tundra North can also supply heavy winter boots, parkas and snowmobile/ski pants on arrival.

Port Colborne, Ontario

The water might be freezing, but the waves on Lake Erie attract a legion of devoted surfers. Johan Hallberg-Campbell for The Globe and Mail

Why head to California or Hawaii when Lake Erie’s north shore has epic waves of its own?

Two surfers stand on the shore watching 12-foot waves crash in to one another during a windstorm. “Look at that thing come in!” George Holmes says. His friend Mike Roy turns to me. “This is like our version of Mavericks,” he says, referring to the famous big-wave surf destination in northern California.

Except we’re not in California. We’re not in Hawaii, either. We are in Port Colborne, Ont., a charming town two hours southwest of Toronto that just over 18,000 people call home.

We’re looking out at Lake Erie. It’s 1 C but feels like minus-7. A light snow has been falling throughout this late March day.

We’re all in winter coats and tuques, and at least one of us is wearing long johns, although we are about to squeeze into wetsuits, grab our boards and head out into the water. Why would anyone want to surf here?

For surfers in Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe, it’s only a couple of hours’ drive until you’re hanging 10 on waves that are reliably three- to six-feet high throughout a surfing season that runs from August until the lakes freeze and then again from the thaw until the spring.

“We get the random one or two days in the middle of summer but nothing consistent,” says Matthew Roy, vice-president of the Wyldewood Surf Club, a local organization formed in the early 1960s. The 12 current active members of the club host regular get-togethers where they drink beer and swap surfing stories. They organize beach cleanups throughout the year. One member, who goes by the nickname “Grumpy,” has a surf museum in his garage filled with classic boards that have been surfed on the Great Lakes, as well as other paraphernalia, says the 36-year-old Roy.

The north shore of Lake Erie has waves that are reliably three- to six-feet high, and the surfing season runs from August until the lake freezes, and then again from the thaw into spring. Johan Hallberg-Campbell for The Globe and Mail
The north shore of Lake Erie has waves that are reliably three- to six-feet high, and the surfing season runs from August until the lake freezes, and then again from the thaw into spring. Johan Hallberg-Campbell for The Globe and Mail

On good days there can be 40 or more surfers in the water off Wyldewood Beach, he says. But there are dozens of other spots to catch waves along Lake Erie’s shore. Some are tucked away down the end of access roads, some at the edge of parks.

Holmes, a 34-year-old carpenter, has scouted most, if not all, of them since he took up surfing in his early 20s. The spot he has brought me to, near Rock Point Provincial Park, is across the street from sleepy summer cottages. “This is definitely a spot that the locals keep on the down low,” he says.

Surfers George Holmes, left, and Mike Roy suit up to catch some waves. Johan Hallberg-Campbell for The Globe and Mail

The water is freezing, but it doesn’t stop Holmes and his friend from carving waves for an hour or so. I last no more than 20 minutes – my first time surfing is as difficult as it is exhilarating. The waves come in fast and strong. I duck underneath a few as I paddle out, huge swells battering me. This may not be northern California, but it’s intense. Whatever doubts I had on the way here are gone. This is a legit surf spot. I try to stand up on my board but every time I do I fall into the water. I want so much to catch a wave because I can feel in my bones how rad it would be. A few hundred feet away, I see Holmes and Roy riding waves like pros. I see how easily a person could get hooked.

How to get there

Port Colborne is 150 kilometres from Toronto, about a half-hour drive from the Queen Elizabeth Way, southwest of Niagara Falls.

Where to stay

Forty-five minutes from Port Colborne, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the Georgian-style Queen’s Landing has old-school opulence with modern spas nearby to help you unwind after a long day surfing.

What to bring

A wetsuit and a surf board. If you don’t own a board, rent one from Ausmosis Style on Board in St. Catharines.

Eastern Townships, Quebec

Quebec’s Route Verte is a network of cycling trails that spans 5,000 kilometres through the province. Courtesy of Tourisme Cantons-de-l’Est

This growing cycling route, which now stretches 5,000 kilometres, will have you seeing the province in a new way

Talkena Wasungu and I have barely clipped into the pedals on our road bikes when a shadow appears above our heads. It’s as if a dark cloud spanning the width of the Estriade bicycle path were trying to block the spring sun. But when I look up, I see wings; just as quickly as the shadow swooped down, it lifts again, finding a perch in a trail-side tree. It’s a bald eagle – a sight I hadn’t expected to see so close to Montreal. Cycling through Quebec’s Eastern Townships, it turns out, offers highlights of every kind.

Part of Quebec’s Route Verte trail system, the Estriade, on an old rail bed, is set against a hilly fringe of the Appalachian Mountains. It draws scores of cyclists serious enough to drop a couple of grand on their skinny wheels, as well as recreational riders like me, looking for an active way to enjoy the bucolic scenery and burn some energy consumed in the form of croissants and hot chocolate. As I ride along with Wasungu, who owns Sports aux Puces Vélo-gare, a bike rental and repair shop right on the Estriade in Granby, he points at a post with an electronic counter; last year, 450,000 people used this section. “What I like about the biking here is that you see everything from competitive athletes to tourists on e-bikes and kids with training wheels,” he says. The best part for me, I think, as we park our bikes at 1792, a coffee shop in the old part of Bromont, is that you’re never far from a strong cortado. Here, you get the best of the city and the best of nature.

The Route Verte, or “Green Route,” officially opened in 2007 by Vélo Québec, a non-profit that promotes safe cycling, with provincial funds. Divided into circuits, the ever-expanding network now covers more than 5,000 kilometres, stretching into different parts of Quebec. From the Eastern Townships – I use the region, an hour’s drive from Montreal, as my basecamp – you can opt for the long road, pedalling Circuit 1 all the way to Gaspé, on the Gulf of St. Lawrence; or roll south along Circuit 4, which wends through heart-pumping topography to Vermont.

Cycling the Route Verte near Granby, Que. Catherine Canac-Marquis for The Globe and Mail
Cycling the Route Verte near Granby, Que. Catherine Canac-Marquis for The Globe and Mail

In the Townships alone, there are hundreds of kilometres of paths, most of them paved and many of them connecting to unofficial routes that are being added to the official trail map. “With mountain biking taking a foothold here in the past few years, there’s a growing system of off-road trails,” says Patrick Chartrand, the head coach at the Centre National de Cyclisme de Bromont. As we swish by lakes, forests and farm fields on Circuit 4, I realize that the bike paths are more than commuting lanes or scenic routes through the landscape: They are the arteries of a local cycling culture that encompasses on and off road riding. Its beating heart may well be the national cycling centre, complete with a velodrome – the only one in Quebec, and one of only four in Canada.

When I tour the facilities with the manager, Nicolas Legault, he tells me the wooden track is the same one that was used in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympic Games. There’s a training room where beginners and pros alike can set up their bikes and connect to a computer and a video screen that will have them, for instance, bike the Tour de France virtually. The basement gym is plastered with images of Olympians Clara Hughes and Lyne Bessette, who trained in the area. Inspired by these heroines, I do my best to keep pace with Chartrand later on as he leads the way up a quad-crushing hill on a gravel road.

This velodrome, the only one in the province, sits along the Route Verte at the Centre National de Cyclisme de Bromont. Courtesy of Tourisme Cantons-de-l’Est

After the gravel-biking adventure, which had my face splattered with mud, I figure I deserve to cheat a bit. So I take my rental car to Balnea Spa, a hydrotherapy haven set on a lake surrounded by forest. The heat in the saunas is a welcome break from the cool spring air, and I linger long enough to have a massage and refuel at the onsite Lumami café with black-rice and salmon poké washed down with a glass of Chablis. It’s as good an ending to a trip as any. And a great way of letting the good times roll.

How to get there

Drive – or bike – 89 kilometres southeast from Montreal to Bromont or 81 kilometres to Granby.

Where to stay

The St-Christophe Boutique Hotel and Spa (1) in Granby offers large rooms in a nouveau-chateau style a five-minute walk from Sports aux Puces Vélo-gare, where you can rent bikes. In Bromont, the Auberge Le Madrigal (2) is a three-minute drive from the Centre National de Cyclisme, which offers outings and courses on cycling technique in different disciplines, including on a velodrome track when the weather is dry.

What to bring

Bike shorts with padding for riding in comfort; a bathing suit for soaking tired muscles at Balnea Spa.

Churchill, Manitoba

Frontiers North Adventures’ Tundra Buggy crosses frozen terrain. Mike Gere Photography

Book a seat for this exclusive dinner in the north, within the walls of a historic fort

The remote community of Churchill, 1,000 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, is a true sub-Arctic frontier town. Sitting on the icy tundra of Manitoba’s Hudson Bay coastline, it is known as the polar bear capital of the world, but for just over one week during the winter, it is also home to one of Canada’s most exclusive dining experiences.

RAW:Churchill, a six-course meal headed by Winnipeg chef Mandel Hitzer and organized in partnership with tour operator Frontiers North Adventures, is held within the walls of Churchill’s 250-year-old Prince of Wales Fort. It was completed in 1771 on Eskimo Point, where the Churchill River flows into Hudson Bay, to protect threats to Hudson’s Bay Co.’s fur trade, but today, for a handful of nights each March, when the temperatures can hit minus-50, and the greens and mauves of the dazzling Northern Lights can sway in the night skies, 40 people (over two sittings) sit down each evening to share a meal unlike any other in the country.

It’s exciting merely reaching this ultra-unusual pop-up restaurant, four kilometres northwest of Churchill. Our Frontiers North Tundra Buggy leaves town and lurches over the hummocks of the frozen Churchill River. A thin black sliver appears in the distance that eventually morphs into the fort. Beyond the fort’s stone doorway is our dining room, a temporary wooden structure with Plexiglas sides. A long pine table glows under mellow spotlights; the stools are covered in furs.

The mood is celebratory; we are thrilled to be here. Hitzer toasts both his clients and the beauty of Manitoba.

Chef Mandel Hitzer prepares a multi-course dinner at a pop-up restaurant dubbed RAW:Churchill. Courtesy of Frontier North Adventures
Chef Mandel Hitzer prepares a multi-course dinner at a pop-up restaurant dubbed RAW:Churchill. Courtesy of Frontier North Adventures

Then we feast. The Manitoban way. Dish after dish of delectable modern cuisine that comprises regional ingredients: Scallops. Sablefish. Prawns. Lobster. Caribou. All of it conjured up in the open kitchen over stoves run by a generator. The aurora borealis eludes us that night, but I don’t care because eye-popping pinks, greens and yellows jump from the plates. The flavours are intense, and the sense of isolation and the adventurer ghosts of Canadian history are thrilling – it’s illuminating in a different way.

How to get there

Calm Air runs at least one flight daily from Winnipeg. Frontiers North Adventures’s Getaway Package includes return flights, one night accommodation and the RAW:Churchill experience (around $999).

Where to stay

Frontiers North Adventures uses local, family-run hotels in Churchill. These have simple but clean, warm and comfortable rooms.

What to bring

Binoculars, a sense of adventure and top-quality cold-weather gear – pants, parkas and boots.

Prince Rupert, British Columbia

The view from Crest Hotel. Andrew Querner for The Globe and Mail

This northern B.C. town had great ambitions of being a coastal capital a century ago. Today, a new generation is leading its own path of urban growth

The 129-year-old Cassiar Cannery sits like a remnant of a ghost town on the Skeena River on the northern British Columbia coast. A hulking wooden building where fishing nets were once dried and repaired sits on the edge of a rotting dock, gently haunting the coastline. A few metres away on terra firma, an old fishing boat sits in perpetual dry-dock. Nearby, a newly renovated structure provides a welcome shelter for visitors. Restoring this idiosyncratic property is the passion project of a couple of former Vancouverites who had had enough of populated living and decided to buy the abandoned salmon-processing plant outside Prince Rupert and bring it back to life as a tourist retreat.

The place is tasteful, remote and rugged, with cabins sandwiched between the water and train tracks. During my night’s stay, I put my feet up and stared out at the shock of a nearly full moon against the dark sky, and thought about reinvention. The lodging feels like a good metaphor for Prince Rupert, B.C., a half-hour drive away: working to rise from the ashes – or the sawdust, or the depleted waters – once again.

When it was founded in 1910, Prince Rupert had great ambitions. Grand Trunk Pacific Railway president Charles Melville Hays envisioned it as a booming metropolis for northern B.C., the terminus for the rail system. Architect Francis Rattenbury, who designed Victoria’s legislative buildings and Empress Hotel and the former courthouse that is now the Vancouver Art Gallery, was commissioned to design a magnificent chateau-style hotel meant to accommodate 1,000 guests.

In 1912, Hays went to Britain with those hotel plans to raise funds for his vision. But he sailed back on the Titanic and Prince Rupert lost its most passionate booster. Then came World War One and the Great Depression.

Prince Rupert never became that grand northern city. The Rattenbury hotel was never built; there’s a mall there now, housing a Wal-Mart and a Dollarama.

Cassiar Cannery has been converted into a boutique hotel, while the North Pacific Cannery National Historic Site is now a museum. Andrew Querner for The Globe and Mail
Cassiar Cannery has been converted into a boutique hotel, while the North Pacific Cannery National Historic Site is now a museum. Andrew Querner for The Globe and Mail

But today in Rupert, there is a new vision for growth. Called Hays 2.0, the city plan is a “future-oriented vision” to rejuvenate Prince Rupert – still devastated by the closure of its main employer, the pulp mill, more than a decade ago – into a thriving trade hub.

For a visitor – perhaps escaping snowy Terrace or Smithers, or en route west to Haida Gwaii or north to Alaska – the area’s natural beauty and rich Indigenous culture are among its big draws. There are lovely hikes – by the Butze Rapids, on Mount Hays (yep, him again; you’ll also find his statue next to City Hall, between two totem poles) and the new Rushbrook Trail running along the waterfront to Seal Cove is to open this spring. The grizzly-bear watching at the Khutzeymateen Sanctuary (by boat) is a must-do, in season. There’s whale watching, too.

But there is an urban edge developing in town to satisfy even the most dedicated city slicker, at least for a weekend.

In Cow Bay, named for a 1908 unloading of a herd of cows from a barge, where the cruise terminals are located, Cowpuccino’s serves terrific coffee and displays dozens of cow-themed photos and postcards. Two very good sushi spots are nearby and the waterfront Cow Bay Café offers food that’s as good as the view, served under chandeliers constructed from wine glasses.

Prince Rupert’s busy waterfront. Andrew Querner for The Globe and Mail

A short walk uphill, the Wheelhouse brews and serves craft beer alongside live music and open-mic nights. On vinyl nights, patrons can buy, sell and play vinyl records. “It’s like having a bar in your parents’ basement,” says Aja Lihou, who is tending bar in her anchor earrings (she teaches high school by day).

On the other side of downtown, the Argosy is an eclectic antique and vintage shop. Smartly curated and clutter-free, this is a store you could spend hours in, without ever feeling claustrophobic or weirded out.

As contemporary a feel as the city has in parts, its history remains a crucial component of its character – and that history is fish.

There was a time when some 600 canneries populated North America’s West Coast from California to Alaska, 200 of them in B.C. and 50 in the area outside Prince Rupert. Hays’ railway was key to their success, getting fish to markets.

“Just imagine this is the 1900s, canneries up and down the shore, boats everywhere,” says Rob Bryce, at the wheel of his boat, approaching Port Essington, an abandoned cannery town nearby. “It’s amazing how hustling and bustling this place was.” Bryce, with the University of Northern British Columbia, runs Northern BC Jet Boat Adventures, which offers “Ghost Town” and other tours. We investigate the overgrown cemetery of Port Essington, where we also come across cow skulls and remnants of a once-thriving kilometre-long boardwalk.

Cowpuccino's Coffee House and the waterfront in Cow Bay, Prince Rupert. Andrew Querner for The Globe and Mail
Cowpuccino's Coffee House and the waterfront in Cow Bay, Prince Rupert. Andrew Querner for The Globe and Mail

On the Skeena, pilings for cannery buildings that no longer exist stride out of the river at low tide. You see them at the Cassiar too, established as a cannery in 1889 and purchased by Justine Crawford and Mark Bell in 2006.

“It was a disaster,” Crawford says. “It looked like something out of the Bates Motel.” She shows scary reality-show-worthy “before” photos to prove it.

“We didn’t really have a plan. We just started fixing it.”

The Cassiar has also had to adapt – not just from cannery to lodge, but from a destination that relied heavily on Albertans visiting to fish recreationally, to one with a broader appeal. When the oil patch collapsed, cancellations started piling up, and the Cassiar needed yet another reinvention. Now Crawford and Bell offer programs such as women’s retreats and ecology trips, and target their refuge at city folk like me who crave a break from it all. There is no cell service, which helps on the respite front.

Today, there are four restored guest houses (work is being done on a fifth), including Halibut House, where I spent the night.

I sank into a mission-style bed facing the river and when the sound (and feel) of the train woke me in the middle of the night, it was more a comfort than a disturbance. It was the rumble of the world going by, other people on the move, while I, for this one night, got to stay under the covers, looking out at the magnificent Skeena, lit up by a steady moon.

How to get there

Air Canada flies to Prince Rupert’s airport on Digby Island. A shuttle timed to flights ferries passengers to and from town. Or fly to Terrace (on Air Canada, Westjet and Central Mountain Air) and enjoy the drive west along Highway 16. BC Ferries sails to Prince Rupert from Skidegate and the town is the western terminus for Via Rail’s line from Jasper, Alta.

Where to stay

Cassiar Cannery sits at a stunning location at the mouth of the Skeena. It’s about a 30-minute drive outside of Prince Rupert – or, way more fun, the train will stop here, by request, for pick-ups and drop-offs. In town, the waterfront Crest Hotel offers extreme comfort and fabulous views – including a pair of binoculars (and an umbrella) in every room and suite.

What to bring

Rain gear. Prince Rupert is known as Canada’s wettest city. Don’t let the rain stop you from exploring it.

Manitou Beach, Saskatchewan

Overlooking Little Manitou Lake, dubbed Canada’s Dead Sea, where bathers can float effortlessly. Eamon Mac Mahon

Soak in Canada’s Dead Sea in a town where time seems to stand still

The first time I saw Manitou Beach it was a summer Saturday night, around the end of the last millennium. A friend and I had been on a spontaneous road trip through the Prairies, enjoying the adventure of an open road and the limitless possibility of travel without a destination. It was late when we pulled off a deserted Saskatchewan highway looking for a place to sleep.

But coming over a hill into Manitou Beach, we saw a road lined with cars and trucks in all directions, and in the centre, a luminous dance hall, spilling light and music and people into the night. The sign read “Danceland.” Despite the late hour, the grand hall was packed with couples, spinning to a lively polka. It was like stepping back in time.

Manitou Beach is just over an hour’s drive from Saskatoon and less than two from Regina. It sits along the shores of scenic Little Manitou Lake, a unique body of water in North America – filled with minerals and salt, there was once a thriving business filtering brine shrimp from it for fish food. The specific gravity of the water is 1.06, meaning bathers become buoyant and can float effortlessly on top. The water is also said to have curative properties, and is believed to have been named by First Nations medicine men after tribes were cured of smallpox after bathing in it.

One hundred years ago, the water made Manitou Beach a boomtown. In the 1920s, it was the most popular tourist destination in Western Canada after Banff, with multiple pools, health clinics and resort amenities. Danceland opened in 1930 with a dance floor laid without nails on a thick pile of horsehair, making it flexible and soft for dancers.

The area’s popularity waned during the Great Depression, but today many still travel to the unpretentious Prairie outpost to take the waters outside, or at the Manitou Springs Resort and Mineral Spa, where the lake water is filtered and heated year-round.

Burger Buoy serves up classic diner fare to summer tourists. Eamon Mac Mahon

The hours disappear in that bronze-hued water, and outside the years seem to float away just as easily. Arriving in Manitou Beach in April, I was struck that the town didn’t look much different than it did 20 years ago.

As has been the case for 88 years, there are dances booked at Danceland throughout the coming summer. On the waterfront, the Burger Buoy will be serving classic burgers and ice cream, and the history of the area lives on in tiny replica at Manitou Mini-Golf. Visitors can also search for treasures at one of Saskatchewan’s longest running flea markets, and spend their evenings just up the road, at the Jubilee Drive-in. Opened in 1951, the Jubilee is one of the last remaining drive-ins in Canada, an increasingly rare chance to partake in one of the most glorious ways to spend a summer night on the prairies.

Time doesn’t stop. But sometimes in Manitou Beach, it can feel like it.

Danceland has been hosting guests for 88 years. Eamon Mac Mahon

How to get there

Manitou Beach is just over an hour drive southeast from Saskatoon, and slightly longer from Regina (just less than two hours northwest), off Highway 2.

Where to stay

Manitou Springs Resort (1) houses heated mineral pools (swimming and a robe is included for hotel guests). Other options in the area include smaller motels, cabin rentals and a campground at Manitou and District Regional Park. (2).

What to bring

Pack a bathing suit and flip-flops to use the pools at Manitou Springs Resort.

Tyne Valley, Prince Edward Island

Jeff Noye scoops up oysters in Malpeque Bay. Joanne Ratajczak for The Globe and Mail

Half of the oysters eaten in Canada come from the country’s smallest province, where harvesting the shelled gems is a competitive art

On the two-minute boat ride from the red sandy shore, a vista of sky, spruce and sea, Jeff Noye, the skipper of this dory, breathes in the sunshine and salty Prince Edward Island air. “It’s quite the office,” he tells me, a sudden breeze parting his untrimmed mustache, revealing a missing front tooth. Noye’s “office” is marked by a handful of buoys floating around 10-acres of Malpeque Bay that he leases from the province. This, the beautiful Tyne Valley, is the breeding ground for his company, Valley Pearl Oysters.

The sand hills in the distance, called Hog Island, protect the bay from the Gulf of St. Lawrence. “If those hills aren’t there, we’ve got no oysters,” he says, as we continue motoring along the shallows. Malpeque oysters, which supply more than 50 per cent of Canada’s demand, live in this cold bay and other cool-water inlets and coves around the island. Just close enough to, but far enough away from, the open ocean.

Even though Noye’s operation, which he co-owns with long-time pal Damien Enman, who’s out on another nearby dory, is one of the smallest around, he’ll still ship out half a million oysters this year. Alas, it wasn’t always thus. Noye tells the story of how PEI oysters travelled to the 1900 Paris World’s Fair and with much fanfare were declared the tastiest in the land. (Queen Victoria was apparently a huge fan.) There was much celebrating in Charlottetown that year, but just five years later the majority of the island’s oysters were killed off by disease. Those that survived were from Malpeque Bay, and were used to seed the rest of the island. That’s why, though they may boast names like Lucky Limes and Raspberry Points, all PEI oysters are considered Malpeques.

We drop the anchor of Noye’s 15-foot dory. With the sunshine and salt air – T-shirt weather at last! – it smells of the promise of summer. He grabs a set of 12-foot tongs – two wooden poles with stainless-steel rakes fixed to their bottoms – and slides them into the water off the side of our boat. He scrapes the bed of the sandy bay, and when he sees and feels the oyster shells, he pushes the tops of the poles together, and then hoists up the joined rakes like two scoops of Raisin Bran. “That’s 50 or 60 oysters in that dip,” he says, beaming, as they tumble into their waiting crates. It’s one of his first pulls of the season, and things look promising. He says they’re good now, but as the summer wears on they’ll get rougher and greener, deep, briny and full.

Trent MacDougall, left, and Jeff Noye, right, offer farming tours in the bay through Valley Pearl Oysters. Joanne Ratajczak for The Globe and Mail
Trent MacDougall, left, and Jeff Noye, right, offer farming tours in the bay through Valley Pearl Oysters. Joanne Ratajczak for The Globe and Mail

Noye was a schoolteacher who dabbled in oyster fishing until late last year, when he and his wife were having a chat. She asked him, “What would you do if you won the lottery?” His answer was quick: “I’d shuck oysters, talk oysters, live oysters.” He didn’t win the lottery, but quit teaching nonetheless. Now tourists get to learn all about oysters out on his boat on the bay.

It takes four to seven years for an oyster to reach maturity – that’s about three inches long. The small ones we pull are tossed back in; the large ones are cleaned of dirt and seaweed, and we add them to our oyster crate. Fished this way for centuries, it’s backbreaking work, but Noye’s all smiles: After just a few pulls, our crate is half-full of small and large choice Malpeques.

On land, the work of Noye, and others like him, is being celebrated in a few ways. Twenty-three years ago Liam Dolan, who opened one of the first oyster bars in the province’s capital, decided to launch the Charlottetown Oyster Festival to spread the good word. It has since morphed into September’s Prince Edward Island International Shellfish Festival, where tents are erected along the waterfront, hotels are booked up, and culinary and shucking competitions are held with more than $26,000 in prize money given away. The festival has helped turn Prince Edward Island into a food island. Attendance was up almost 15 per cent last September over 2016, as thousands packed the Charlottetown Event Grounds.

I bumped into Dolan at the Charlottetown harbour on a Saturday morning while I was taking a break from slurping oysters at Gallant’s Shellfish and Seafood Stand in the farmers’ market. “The number of oyster growers that have come online in the past five years is unbelievable,” says Dolan. He figures the amount of oysters produced in the province in this same time frame has at least quadrupled. “You’ve got 34 different kinds from PEI: You can come here and by the time you leave, you’re an expert.” Last year, the industry produced over 3,500 tonnes; its best year yet. This genteel island simply cannot keep up with demand.

Gallant’s Shellfish and Seafood Stand offer local seafood dishes to visitors of Charlottetown’s Farmers’ Market. Joanne Ratajczak for The Globe and Mail

I may be partially to blame. Over the past couple of days I’d been depleting the island’s oyster stocks. At Claddagh Oyster House (which Dolan happens to own), our waiter Ben swiftly becomes our oyster shucker Ben, explaining the oysters du jour as if describing fine wines: “Briny, with a sweet finish,” he says of the Little Willy’s, while he shucks. Onwards, to a terrific dinner at Sims Corner Steakhouse & Oyster Bar, where chef Kyle Panton is a two-time PEI potato chowder competition champion and three-time international seafood chowder champion (read: unheard of). A plate of a dozen oysters is followed by a bowl of his winning chowder, PEI tenderloin, crispy fried oysters, asparagus, potatoes, béarnaise and demi-glace.

But the best oysters I’ve ever had, and likely ever will have, were at Noye’s Valley Pearl Oysters in the Tyne Valley, at the oyster bar he recently built by hand over his small processing plant.

Freshly shucked oysters at Valley Pearl. Joanne Ratajczak for The Globe and Mail
Freshly shucked oysters at Valley Pearl. Joanne Ratajczak for The Globe and Mail

A champion shucker himself, Noye assembles a tray of the oysters that I helped pull from the deeps just 20 minutes earlier. I slurp them back just as fast as he can shuck them – which is very fast. I’ve never tasted oysters quite like this: They’re so full of meat and liquor (the briny goodness surrounding the oyster) that they’re practically breaching their shells. “Chew it a few times,” he says. The oyster itself is sweet, and the liquor inside is pure ocean. “When you mix the sweet with the salty it’s a perfect bite.”

How to get there

Air Canada and Westjet fly into Charlottetown from various cities in Canada.

Where to stay

Brimming with comfort and class in the centre of Charlottetown, the Great George Inn is a historic boutique hotel with a grand piano and buffet breakfast.

What to bring

Windbreaker, umbrella, sunglasses, camera – and an appetite. Valley Pearl Oysters offers boat tours and tastings and music and beer for a joyous oyster experience.

Writing-on-Stone, Alberta

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park is home to grasslands, rock art, hoodoos, and prairie rattlesnakes. Courtesy of Travel Alberta

A provincial park hugging the U.S. border bursts with First Nations history, petroglyphs and pictographs

There’s hardly any traffic on the highway as we push further southeast than we’ve ever ventured in Alberta – beyond Lethbridge and Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump, to a part of the province that is not one of the more well-known road trip destinations. As we drive through grassy, rolling fields, past farmhouses, looking to the horizon to catch the occasional pronghorn (fast antelope-like animals with hooves and curved horns, indigenous to the Prairies), it seems impossible that we’ll come across hoodoos and a semi-arid climate. Then, a few minutes onto a side road, the ground suddenly and dramatically opens up before us, and the tan and purple-grey rock formations of Milk River Valley come into view.

The tiny 17.8-square-kilometre Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park and Áísínai’pi National Historic Site sits almost on the border to Montana. Running through it, the stunning Milk River Valley, made up of unusual formations of sedimentary rock that date back some 85 million years, contains the largest concentration of First Nation petroglyphs (rock carvings) and pictographs (rock paintings) on the great plains of North America.

At the park entrance, a sign warns us to be on the lookout for prairie rattlesnakes. Although it is hot and dry during the summer months, when we venture a few minutes down into the park we come across plenty of green; in a lush stand of tall cottonwood trees at a bend in the river, a year-round campground protected with shade has sites for tents and RVs as well as three landscaped comfort campsites. Sturdy canvas tents fitted with cozy beds, kitchens and electricity sit on wood bases with private decks. And a natural sand beach straddles the slow, shallow, winding river, providing a perfect place to lounge and play, and easy access to the water to go tubing or kayaking.

The unique and varied stone structures that make up Milk River Valley were created during the Cretaceous period, when the valley was on the coastal shelf of an inland sea; after the last ice age, meltwater from the Laurentide ice sheet above carved away the soft stone beneath, creating deep channels and coulees. It’s an area rich in cultural history for the Blackfoot and other Indigenous groups; physical artifacts and stories passed on in the oral tradition provide evidence of people living along the banks of Kináksisahtai, the Blackfoot name for Milk River, and the surrounding prairies for the past 10,000 years. In Writing-on-Stone, more than 50 petroglyph motifs and panels and more than 80 other archeological sites have been identified.

Over 50 petroglyph sites and over 80 archaeological sites have been identified in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park. Courtesy of Travel Alberta
Over 50 petroglyph sites and over 80 archaeological sites have been identified in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park. Courtesy of Travel Alberta

There is plenty of history to explore here: Trails wind through grasslands, past rock art and hoodoos, up to breathtaking viewpoints and around large and small mushroom-shaped rock formations young explorers instinctively leap between. Some of the soft sandstone cliffs flanking the valley were once used as buffalo jumps, where hunters would drive herds of bison over the precipice to be skinned and dried at camp below. You’re welcome to wander yourself – rock art carvings such as The Battle Scene, one of the most elaborate petroglyphs on the great plains, are protected behind fencing – or join a public tour with guides who can elaborate on the significance of the unique landscape and its historical sites. They also offer evening interpretive programs during the summer months.

The stone structures that make up Milk River Valley, where the park lies, were formed during the Cretaceous period. Courtesy of Travel Alberta

It’s a road trip that ends in the discovery of a spectacular landscape with plenty of room to lounge and explore, and a rich history that makes us feel like we got to know this part of Canada a little bit better.

How to get there

Driving is your best bet: Head southeast from Lethbridge on Highway 4. But no matter which direction you come from, there are interesting towns to explore along the way.

Where to stay

Reserve one of the three Writing-on-Stone comfort camping spots or bring your own tent and stay in one of the 61 regular camping spots, or book a room at the cozy Country Barn B&B in nearby Stirling.

What to bring

Pack sunscreen, hats and water bottles, which you can refill at the park. It can get hot, and some of the trails have minimal shade. Good walking shoes will also make for a more comfortable trek.

Thunder Bay’s Little Finland

The Hoito is a community hub in Thunder Bay’s Little Finland, and is famed for its Finnish pancakes. Lindsay Anderson

For a true Nordic experience, you need only travel to northwestern Ontario

Saunas are an integral part of Finnish culture – they were invented by the Finns as a means of cleansing the body, relieving physical and mental stress, and ensuring a good night’s sleep. They’re even used to treat hangovers. So it may come as a surprise to find they’re a staple architectural feature of many Thunder Bay homes and “camps,” the local name for country retreats such as cabins or cottages. A city in northwestern Ontario isn’t the first – or fifth – place you’d think of for a visit to northern Europe, and yet for those seeking an authentically Nordic experience on Canadian soil, there may be no better place to go.

About a century ago, large numbers of Finnish immigrants settled on Lake Superior in the communities that now make up Thunder Bay. Currently a city of just over 100,000, its Finnish legacy is still shown proudly in the language, food and residents’ favourite pastimes, with this heritage concentrated in the city’s Bay Street area, sometimes referred to as “Little Finland.” The neighbourhood is quaint and historic, a cultural hub known for its festivals, tidy brick shops, and restaurants. Pop into places like the Finnish Book Store, Scandinavian Deli and Finnport to buy gifts or taste specialties, such as locally made Finnish pulla (cardamom-spiced coffee bread).

The Hoito – meaning “care” in Finnish – is a community hub. Located on the ground floor of the historic Finnish Labour Temple and celebrating its 100th year in 2018, it serves up Finnish and diner-style dishes in a wood-panelled basement trimmed with blue. Some of the staff have worked there for decades, and the regulars have been coming in for just as long. Both English and Finnish can be heard in the chatter. Customers dine on everything from “silli” (pickled herring served on rye) to Denver omelettes, but the restaurant’s signature – plates of golden, lacy-edged Finnish pancakes – is an absolute must. Slightly thicker than a crepe, with a sweet custardy flavour, the batter is rich in eggs and spooned onto the grill in large portions. Because maple and birch trees aren’t common in the area, jam is favoured over syrup as a topping.

Saunas are a staple architectural feature of many Thunder Bay Homes. At Hoito, pancakes and other Finnish delicacies are an art. Left: Courtesy of Tourism Thunder Bay; Top: Lindsay Anderson
Saunas are a staple architectural feature of many Thunder Bay Homes. At Hoito, pancakes and other Finnish delicacies are an art. Top: Courtesy of Tourism Thunder Bay; Bottom: Lindsay Anderson

And as any local in Little Finland will tell you, a session in a sauna is another must. The 51-year-old Kangas Sauna offers an authentic, rejuvenating wellness experience. Its cedar-lined saunas, which range in size for solo or group sweats, can be rented for 90 minutes at a time. And yes, should the sweat cause you to work up an appetite, Kangas’s café serves Finnish pancakes.

How to get there

From Toronto, it’s just over a two-hour flight with Air Canada, Westjet or Porter. Each airline offers between four and six flights to Thunder Bay daily.

Where to stay

The 107-year-old Prince Arthur Waterfront Hotel is a piece of history with a great view of the lake.

What to bring

Layers and a good pair of hiking shoes or boots. Winter temperatures typically dip to between -15 and -20 C. but days are often sunny, so pack a heavy jacket, tuque, gloves and sunglasses. Layers are ideal for the summer with its hot days and cool evenings. And for those who prefer not to attend the sauna traditionally (i.e., in the nude), a bathing suit is recommended.

Halifax, Nova Scotia

Escaping Halifax without leaving the city. Courtesy of Tourism Nova Scotia

Glamping on Georges Island, in the Halifax Harbour, is an escape within view of the city’s lights

There is much intrigue surrounding Georges Island among Haligonians and visitors to the friendly port city. Uninhabited for years, the Parks Canada-owned property that sits at the mouth of the Halifax Harbour is one of the East Coast city’s most breathtaking sights and yet, because of its historic condition, it has been forbidden to visitors who admire its famous lighthouse – often longingly – from shore.

Occupied by military for 200 or so years, the island has held pirates, jailed convicts and served as holding grounds for Acadians being relocated. Its central feature, aside from stunning views of Halifax’s historic skyline, is Fort Charlotte, a 19th-century fortress complete with cannons, a dry moat, a drawbridge and a labyrinth of secret tunnels that run beneath the grounds.

For two weeks in August, the island will be inhabited again, its mystique and magnetism experienced up close via luxury camping. Organized by Kayak Halifax, the tour won’t just bring travellers to the island, but will enable them to sleep there.

“All people have to pack is their toothbrush, a sense of humour and a sense of adventure,” says Ed Dowell of Kayak Halifax.

Upon arrival to Georges, adventurers will sample Nova Scotian craft beer and wines inside the Fort before a tour of the structure – led by Parks Canada employees wearing period costumes. Then it’s time to check out the white safari-style tents kitted out with duvet-covered queen-sized beds, lush carpets and chaise lounges adorning the grass-covered drumlin.

Dinner, served by black-tie waiters, no less, will be held in view of the sun slinking below the city’s skyline. And under the night sky, glampers will be entertained by live music and Maritime tales by the campfire, made sweeter with snacks of s’mores featuring ice wine-infused marshmallows.

The glamping experience on Georges Island in Halifax harbour includes a dinner served al fresco and an overnight stay in a luxe tent. Courtesy of Tourism Nova Scotia
The glamping experience on Georges Island in Halifax harbour includes a dinner served al fresco and an overnight stay in a luxe tent. Courtesy of Tourism Nova Scotia

And then it’s back to those glamorous tents. Early risers will be rewarded with a walk circumventing Georges Island; those who prefer to stay tucked beneath the duvet until the last minute will have until mid-morning to catch the ferry back to the real world.

How to get there

Travel to Georges Island is included in Kayak Halifax’s experience. Don’t worry – they promise you won’t have to paddle there.

Where to stay

Book through Kayak Halifax. Dates run Aug. 3-12, 2018 and spots are limited. Costs are $498-798 per person, plus HST, double occupancy is required.

What to bring

Pack a few layers so you can tackle the tour’s optional early morning hike (plan to do it amidst sea smoke, locals’ fancy term for fog) and then be ready to catch a few rays when the mist burns off midday. Also, wet wipes. There are no bathrooms on the island – tour-goers will have to use port-a-potties and save showers for their return to shore.