Vancouver-based travel writer Robin Esrock has a message for Canada: "We're weirder than we think."
Esrock, coming off the success of his best-selling The Great Canadian Bucket List guide book, just recently published three follow-up titles focusing on Western, Central and Atlantic Canada. Next year will come special editions narrowing in on the Prairies and Canada's north. He's also working on a new global bucket-list book that will see an unsuspecting world hit with one of Canada's top travel writers and definitely one of our biggest personalities.
He took a few minutes to chat about his passion for odd experiences, and how this country has plenty.
How did all the original book come about? It seems there were a lot of these a few years ago, so what made yours work?
In 2011, I was doing a weekly column for The Globe and Mail. I did one on things you should do in Canada before you die. It really was about things I wanted to do, as I hadn't written about Canada as much as I had other places. I wanted to do things here that you can't do anywhere else in the world; things that you'd remember your whole life, for good or bad.
"A publisher approached me about doing a Canada guide book but I had no real interest. I said what I wanted to do was something about these experiences and do them in the first person for each province and territory. I was attending Go Media [a Canadian Tourism Commission event] and started asking everyone what the most amazing thing was that I could do in their province. I ended up pretty much going twice to each province, in summer and winter. A lot of things were really iconic; the CN Tower, Hopewell Rocks in New Brunswick, Stanley Park. But I also did some weird and wacky stuff. There's plenty out there."
What kind of weird experiences are you talking about?
"Like the sour toe cocktail in the Yukon. We think it's quirky, but it's completely crazy. Tell any foreign person about this drink – how it's got a severed human toe that your lips are supposed to touch when you have your drink – and they'll think you're crazy.
"There's a -110 Celsius sauna at Sparkling Hill in Vernon. B.C. It's the only cold sauna in North America. You walk through these rooms in three minutes at minus 110 Celsius in a bathing suit. It's supposed to do things for psoriasis and arthritis if you do something like 10 sessions over the course of a certain period. It's bizarre.
"There's a haunted prison in Ottawa that's now a hostel. The last public hanging in Canada took place there and it's haunted as hell. You're locked in there and there are all these doors slamming and creaks. I had to pee in the middle of the night and I was afraid to leave my cell. I had to take my video camera because ghosts don't like them."
How else are your bucket-list books different from others?
"There are plenty of books out there that are weighed down with facts. What we did is a series of stories with a companion website. It's kind of guidebook 2.0, where you read the stories and identify with me as a person and a writer – I try to use a lot of humour and a lot of character – but then you go to the website for the detailed stuff.
"Each chapter is maybe 600 to 1,500 words, and you can read it in your own time or go back to what interests you – maybe heli-yoga in the Rockies. I said when I started this that each story has to inspire, entertain and inform people or I won't write it. I'm passionate about one-of-a-kind travel. Driving the Labrador Highway with gas stations 400 kilometres apart – that's something you can't do anywhere else and the scenery is amazing, cutting through this awesome area the size of Japan. I went to PEI but rode the length of the island on a bike."
So, what's next for you?
"I'm on a 10-city speaking tour next month that includes Ottawa, Montreal, Moncton, Fredericton and Halifax. I'm driving with Mom. She's 63 or 64. She'll be my road crew and set up the tour; calling ahead and that sort of thing. It's like Seth Rogen in The Guilt Trip; just me and my Jewish mother criticizing each night's tour."
For more information on Robin Esrock's books and speaking tour visit robinesrock.com.
Jim Byers is a travel journalist who knows the industry inside and out. Follow him on Twitter: @jimbyerstravel