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Ontario Cobourg's public beach
Leah McLaren

Whenever I find myself back in my hometown of Cobourg, Ont., I go for a walk on the public beach.

While it will never be listed in Condé Nast Traveler's Top 10 seaside getaways, for me an hour spent on those Lake Ontario shores is better than a week in Mustique – which is really just a fancy way of saying it's the place I go to escape my family at Christmas.

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Like most tourist destinations, the Cobourg beach is best in the off-season, when I can have it all to myself.

To get there from town, you have to walk through Victoria Park, a great green expanse smack in the town centre, past the floral clock, where in the summer you can tell time in marigolds, past the empty baseball diamond and the canteen, where, as children, my sister and I would buy blue Freezies with our pocket money.

In a province not known for its beaches, it's impossible not to appreciate what great treasure the town of Cobourg has. A mile or so of clean white sand stretching from the marina's red lighthouse pier to the pebbles of the town's east end, it puts Toronto's waterfront to shame. On summer weekends, the place fills up with families of tourists – many of them from east Toronto's Bangladeshi community – making it one of the most popular and multicultural recreation spots on the lake.

Amazingly, the water is cleaner than it was when I was growing up and, on hot summer days, hundreds of children play in its waves. In the winter, the beach is very windy and deserted, except for ever-present seagulls or the odd lazy duck who forgot to migrate.

As a child, I was forbidden to go near the lake without my parents, so it always gives me a small thrill to walk here alone. I feel a sense of great freedom mixed with familiarity. I guess you could say it's my home.

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Ontario Killarney Provincial Park Peter Power

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Life's most cherished memories are born from experiences that combine beautiful environments and great company. The rugged interior of Labrador was my playground as a boy, so it was only natural that after moving to Ontario to pursue a career, I found myself drawn to a wilderness that reminds me so much of home – Killarney Provincial Park.

My appreciation of this pristine wilderness area, which covers nearly 50,000 hectares, is shared by hikers and paddlers who wind their way through boggy lowlands and rise through pine and hardwood forests to the bald summits of the quartzite ridges, with their views of abundant, clear blue lakes.

I first travelled to Killarney with five fellow photographers in the early 1990s intending to complete the 100-kilometre La Cloche Silhouette Trail. Park publications suggest that this trail may take up to 10 days to complete but can be navigated by experienced hikers in six or seven nights. Our group managed to squeeze in hundreds of photographs of beautiful scenery – even photographs of photographers taking photographs of photographers taking photographs! We all learned to juggle on that trip as well; perhaps a strange endeavour for a wilderness adventure, but not nearly as strange as the image of six of us on the summit of Silver Peak trying to demonstrate our new skill.

Silver Peak, the highest point in the area at 539 metres, provides the perfect vantage point to look at the terrain through which the trail is cut, and beyond to the shores of Georgian Bay. Here, in the company of my friends, I revealed that the trails we had enjoyed together had not only brought us to this most peaceful place, but had led me to a great epiphany: Between the many hours of sweating beneath the burden of a heavy pack and our daily dip into the refreshing, cool waters of lakes with names like Topaz and Crystal, I made the decision to ask the woman in my life to be my bride.

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Saskatchewan The Qu'Appelle Valley Roy MacGregor

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It is as is if someone had forgotten the centreboard for the table: You are heading north on Highway 6 out of Regina and suddenly, dramatically, surprisingly, the plains just vanish and you drop into perhaps the greatest secret in this huge and endlessly astonishing country, the Qu'Appelle Valley.

It is not very wide but fairly deep and very long, holding four lovely lakes in its 260-kilometre course. It is filled with history – the Cree and Saulteaux journey here, General Middleton crossed it on his way to Batoche – and peppered with birds and wildlife and beaches and vistas so lovely you are forever pulling over to take a photograph to prove such a place exists in what most people wrongly believe to be a prairie of such sameness. Stop when you are racing across this country and you will find things you never imagined possible –this is but one.

Come in winter, when there is hoarfrost, and you will think you have entered a magical kingdom. Come in summer, when the flax is in bloom, and you will find a blue that makes the Mediterranean pale by comparison. Come in fall, after or during harvest, and you will see browns in the fields and along the slopes that are as soft and restful to the eye as a good night's sleep.

Come any time, and stop, and if you stare long enough, you will know what this province's Sharon Butala meant when she asked, "What other landscape around the world produces the mystic psyche so powerfully?"

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New Brunswick St. Andrews by-the-Sea Christie Blatchford

Within three days of my first visit to St. Andrews by-the-Sea, N.B., last summer, I was putting in an offer on a beautiful blue house.

The deal fell through – I am rather grateful, given that I already own one century-old house in downtown Toronto and the last thing I needed was another one halfway across the country – but such is the nature of St. Andrews that the people who ended up buying the blue house promptly invited me to come and stay with them on my next trip.

That gives you the essence of the place. It's small enough that people know who owned what house when (and even who made offers). More important, tucked in on Passamaquoddy Bay, St. Andrews holds out the promise of a sweeter, quieter life. People talk about how lovely the town is, and it is, but what I most like about it is that it inspires even the casual visitor to behave better, to be more mannerly and to be more easily satisfied with smaller pleasures.

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Nova Scotia Bay St. Lawrence Stephanie Nolen

The single loveliest, most magical place in Canada, the place I head for as fast as I can on every trip home, is Bay St. Lawrence, on the northernmost tip of Cape Breton.

It's breathtaking at any time of year: in January, when we snowshoe through huge powdery drifts into the woods at night and lie in the clearings and the stars are close enough to grab; in March, when the seafront fills with groaning, heaving "drift ice" wending its way down from the north, and the brave kids leap between the berg-bits; in July, when the sea is sapphire, and if you sit quietly on the cliffs, you can hear the whales breathe below you; in October, when the maple leaves paint the hills a thousand colours, and in November, when the suete blows in, blows so hard you throw your arms and head back and feel blown clean.

I love the wide, white sweep of beach at South Harbour – love to plunge into the swift-moving creeks that are icy with mountain runoff even in August and tumble us down into the sea. I love the old, abandoned pioneer cemeteries, where mossy tombstones record tragedies of diphtheria and scarlet fever and so many deaths in childbirth.

I love the fiddle concerts and gooey homemade squares at the Bay St. Lawrence Community Centre. I love the awkward, startled moose we bump into on walks in the woods. I love the warmth of the wood stove in February blizzards. I love the festivities on the first day of fishing in May when everyone parades their boat through the harbour and the priests of each denomination hurl holy water from the dock for the "blessing of the boats."

I've been lucky enough to visit many marvelous corners of Canada, from Tuktoyaktuk to Vancouver Island to Newfoundland. We're rich in wonderful places. But nothing beats the Bay.

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British Columbia Lake O'Hara Lodge
Ian Brown

Lake O'Hara Lodge is the reward you get for hiking 11 kilometres up a logging road from a parking lot halfway between Lake Louise and Field, B.C.

I skied in the first time I went, in winter. I can still remember those four days in precise detail: the way the snow draped the jack pines and the flash of my friends' bright anoraks as they climbed through the thick forest to the blankets of snow above, and the astonishing gift of the run back down through it; our skis stuck upright in the snow at the foot of the stairs to the lodge at the tired end of a starched, sunny winter day, like soldiers guarding our utter happiness; glistening naked bodies in the hot sauna in the cold woods afterward. We're all still friends, and I suspect that place is one of the reasons why.

Years later, I went back in September; without its clothes of snow on, the lodge and the lake seemed younger, more daring. It was easy hiking – Lawrence Grassi, the man who first cut the trails in the 1950s, was considerate enough to jam slabs of granite into anything steep – but is still the finest I have ever enjoyed.

We walked out past Lake O'Hara where John Singer Sargent painted, hiked Odaray Prospect where the Group of Seven sat, and then aimed high, climbed the highline trail up beyond Opabin Pass: The light changed 50 times an hour.

I couldn't decide which I liked more – looking up, to see where I had yet to go, or back down, over the vast plan of where we'd come from. I remember following the trail around a corner to a steep shoulder of boulders and meadow, just below the summit of the mountain we were scaling. There were yellow larches on the other side of it, and a lake, and a puff of fog hanging on the side of the hill, like a scarf someone had dropped and left behind.

I would say it was the most beautiful place I have ever been except that, up there, I thought that everywhere I went. Up there, amid the larches spinning their strange wool bark and the green carpets of moss and the bright yellow leaves and the hard high rocks, it felt as it we were climbing through the mind of the world. Maybe we were. The same friends too.

I still think of that part of the country just about every day. I still long to go back. That's the only downside to a place as sublime, as memorable, as glorious, as important in one's life as Lake O'Hara is in mine. I don't want to imagine the day when I can't go there any more, when I will no longer be able to see its silvery, slivery light and lakes. That day will come, of course. But the place will still be there.

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Nova Scotia Mahone Bay John Doyle

It was a day of dappled sunshine in May. Tiny puffball clouds drifted over Halifax harbour. I'd arrived from Toronto the night before with the mission of meeting Mike Clattenburg, creator of Trailer Park Boys , and his writing partner, Robb Wells, who plays Ricky on the show. They were holed up at a cottage in the woods, hours away from Halifax, writing the final draft of Trailer Park Boys: The Movie . I'd interview them, get back to Halifax and then back to Toronto.

All I knew was that the location was in Green Bay, Lunenburg County, but the driver taking me there knew the way, she said. We went on a three-hour jaunt along the highway and then deep, deep into the woods. We got lost twice. And laughed often. When we found them, Robb was standing outside, in a perfect moment of rural reverie, watching an osprey float in the sky and dive into the water to return with a fish for the osprey family. I'd brought champagne and we sat around for an hour, talking about the movie. Mike said Trailer Park Boys was about finding peace, friendship, love and affection, no matter how low the circumstance.

The driver and I left the writers to their work – they had a deadline in two days – and headed back to Halifax as evening fell. I was awed by the sky, the trees, the peacefulness. "We have to feed you," my driver and host said. "And I know where."

We turned off the highway and soon we were sitting in The Innlet Café in Mahone Bay, eating a light seafood dinner. We were the only customers and Mahone Bay was laid out in front of me, new to my eyes, gorgeous and tranquil. I was beguiled as I'd never been before, by the journey, the company and chat that day, and the Nova Scotia county where such peace and pleasure could be found with ease.

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