Strange how we forget that what is ordinary to us may be extraordinary to others. That our everyday life may seem exotic to people of another culture. I guess this is what happened to me. I’ve written extensively about places I’ve visited but very little about my home country. It’s time to correct this oversight. It’s time to write about solo travel to Canada.
But I’m afraid you will have to be patient. Canada is a very large country. I’ve been to every province and hope to make it to at least one of the territories next year. There is so much to say that this will be a series of posts over an extended period of time. This one is an orientation. It simply covers the basics – a bit of history, a bit of geography and demography.
With the exception of the native population, we are a country of immigrants. In sweeping terms, first came the French, then the English. Similar to the United States, we had a wave of immigration in the mid 19th century from Ireland and another in the late 19th century from Eastern Europe. Immigration ended with World War I and the Great Depression then picked up again after World War II – this time from Western Europe. In the early 70s immigrants came from Africa, Asia, South and Central America as well as Europe. Canada made multiculturalism an official national policy in 1971.
In cities like Toronto, slightly over half the population was not born in Canada. Most of the diversity in the population is in the larger cities making for great restaurants and cultural events.
80% of the population lives within 100 miles of the American border.
The joke about Canadians is that we are really polite. “Sorry,” you’ll hear us say, all day long. Well, as with most stereotypes, it’s not far from the truth. We are a polite people on the whole. We’re also quite friendly and helpful. Generally, Canadians are good hosts for solo travelers.
If you really want to run the stereotype to the hilt, we like beer, hockey, our health care system and considering ourselves tolerant.
Canada is the second largest country in the world.It’s divided into 10 provinces and three territories. The provinces run vertically, east to west. The territories are in the north. Click here to view a map.
In a country this size, the landscape ranges dramatically. There are national and provincial parks as well as conservation areas across Canada preserving the land for those who love the wilderness. Traveling east to west, here are some highlights:
- Newfoundland, known as The Rock, offers the drama of its west coast (comparable to the Rockies in my opinion), the sea with the village of Trinity being one of the oldest communities in North America and a rugged interior with dwarfed trees.
- From Newfoundland you can take a ferry to France’s islands of St. Pierre and Michelon.
- Throughout the east coast (known as the Maritime provinces: Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick) are lots of forests for fishing, hiking and hunting.
- The coast lines of the Maritime provinces are stunning especially The Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia and the Bay of Fundy that borders on both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
- Prince Edward Island has rolling hills, beautiful red earth and farmland. Of course, it’s also home to Anne of Green Gables.
- Quebec offers more forests for fishing, hunting, etc., The drive around the Gaspe is beautiful. Near Montreal there’s the best skiing in Canada east of the Rockies.
- Ontario has Niagara Falls, wine country in Niagara and Prince Edward County, cottage country and hundreds of lakes and rivers including the Great Lakes. The north short of Lake Superior is a particularly stunning drive through wilderness. Algonquin Park is a wonderful provincial park covering almost 3,000 square miles of wilderness for camping, hiking, canoeing…
- The prairie provinces, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta are flat. Some people would leave it at that but I see great beauty in this big sky country. The colors can be subtle in the grass lands or dramatic as when a canola field and flax field are side by side. The yellow on purple is stunning.
- On the far side of Alberta is the Rockie Mountains that also stretch into British Columbia. The Rockies offer great skiing, mountain climbing, hiking, rafting, kayaking…
- Further west into British Columbia, just past the Rockies is a desert and then a fruit belt as well as the massive Thompson and Fraser Rivers.
- And, finally we’re on the west shore of Canada where there is Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Islands with their fabulous rain forests.
If you’re a city person, the large cities of Canada are few and far between. Click here for a map. In order of size, the top cities are Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. But is size important? Some other wonderful cities are St. John’s, Halifax, Quebec City, Kingston, Ottawa. Winnipeg and Victoria. And there are many others plus small towns.
If you want to go to cities in Canada I suggest that you pick your zone.
- St. John’s and Halifax are doable together by car and ferry.
- Toronto, Kingston, Montreal and Quebec City work together by train or car.
- Calgary and Edmonton require a car or bus and are a great pair with fabulous access to the mountains.
- Likewise, Vancouver and Victoria offer another pairing with access via ferry between them.
Ottawa is Canada’s capital and really worth a visit though it’s a detour away between Toronto and Montreal Unfortunately, Winnipeg is really a flight or long train ride from any of the other cities.
There are three main airlines in Canada: Air Canada, WestJet and Porter Air. You can sometimes purchase a package of flights that would let you hop between cities but that doesn’t come up often. There are also regional airlines that will get you into more remote places.
There is only one main railway in Canada, VIA Rail, that follows one line right across the country. (Remember, most people live within 100 miles of the border so this isn’t a big issue.) There are a few regional trains to take you north. Toronto to Vancouver is 2 days and 3 nights by train non-stop. It’s a beautiful trip as is Toronto to the Maritime provinces which takes one overnight. Of course, you don’t have to start in Toronto – I use it as a starting point as many people can’t imagine more than 3 days on a train.
A car trip across the country is amazing. Absolutely amazing but not everyone has the time for that. You need at least three weeks and still you would do little of it justice.
There are buses that go everywhere.
Apologies for omissions.
I’m sure I’ve upset many people by missing their city or bypassing what they consider to be important information. Feel free to add your thoughts to the comments below.
Questions on the basics?
Ask your basic questions about Canada in the comments below and I’ll answer in the comments.
Questions on specific areas of the country? Ask them below and I’ll try to cover them in future posts.