Solo Travel to Canada: This Is Your Orientation Session

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.

Driving the backroads of Ontario, solo travel to canada

Driving the back roads of Ontario.

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.

The Population

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 People

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.

deer at side of road, solo travel to canada

Seeing wildlife is one of the joys of travel in Canada.

Natural Landscape

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 Rocky 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.
Kingston Ontario from the ferry. solo travel to canada

Kingston Ontario from the ferry.

The Cities

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.

Getting Around

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.

  • Dani

    Great overview of Canada! It’s true that sometimes we don’t appreciate the beauty in our own backyards…. It’s my dream to travel more of this big wonderful country!

  • Fida

    Nice overview Janice. I have crossed this huge country twice. It is almost impossible to capture the diversity I came across. One has to experience it.

    To the ‘sorry part’ (smile)and Lawrence’ mention about the rudeness at the border crossings: I experienced the same (and so did and do others). It has nothing to do with being from the USA. There is a huge discrepancy between Canadians and the guards at custom – it’s almost as if they are from a different country. Canadians are extremely helpful and awfully nice – as an immigrant I was flabbergasted by the help I received everywhere. At the same time I experienced the strangest rudeness at custom – I travelled the world over and never encountered similar problems. It changed dramatically as soon as I had my Canadian passport – now I get a smile and a “welcome home”.

  • Don Nadeau

    Children of a common mother, though!

    By the way re. “our two countries,” Nadeau twin brothers set sail for Quebec in 1634 and nearly all of my family still lives in Canada. Although I live in the States, I am proudly Canadian.

  • solotraveler

    That’s right. Confederation was based on “peace, order and good government”. The words most remembered from Declaration of Independence are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Truly, our two countries are based on different foundations which is well reflected in our respective histories – political and social.

  • Don Nadeau

    Thanks Janice.

    Although they probably largely left what is now the U.S. after the American Declaration of Independence and the peace treaty that ended the war, I guess we can respect that the United Empire Loyalists would hardly have wanted to be considered U.S. citizens even for a brief period. I’ll go with that.

    Nevertheless, the Loyalists were American in background. Although some Canadians may not wish to admit it, the Loyalists certainly largely set the stage for Canadian English being closely allied with the American version of English.

    Of course, I am well aware of the ways in which the Loyalists differed from many Americans, especially in terms of such things as an emphasis on an orderly society–There never was a “wild west” in Canada that compared to the U.S. one!

  • solotraveler

    Interesting technicality Don. These English speaking people came north after the American Revolution because they landed on the losing side of that battle. Were they American citizens when they came north? When was American citizenship defined? What an interesting gray zone in history. I’d have to look into that however I think that most would have self-identified as English. They have come to be known as the United Empire Loyalists (UEL). UEL descendants hold great pride in their heritage.

  • Don Nadeau

    Nice overview, but actually, the first large group to come to Canada after the French would probably best be described as Americans, not English, even though they spoke English.

    These were the people who fled the backlash against those who supported the Crown during the American War of Independence. People who came directly from the British Isles to Canada did not start to arrive in large numbers until the 19th and 20th centuries.

  • Wendy Greene

    Me again.. a couple of other points to mention – Canada has two official languages, English and French, and in fact, in many parts of Quebec and a few places in northern Ontario, you would be hard pressed to find someone who speaks English.
    Also, I read an article recently that said that Canadians are smug about being Canadian.. and it made me smile because I think I might be just a little bit.

  • Wendy Greene

    To cover such a vast country as ours, with its many unique spots is quite the daunting task.. but you did it well. I will add my short blog post on a recent trip to Montreal:

  • solotraveler

    Thanks Paula. I mentioned the desert but didn’t say that it is in BC. I’ll go in and add that now.

  • Paula

    There is more to BC than Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Islands. BC is so diverse we have rainforests AND deserts, and everything in between.

  • solotraveler

    Wow. That’s interesting. I’ll pass it along to the Canadian Tourism Commission. Thanks.

  • Lawrence

    I find the Canadian border crossing guards very rude. Like they do not want US residents to come into their country. Much easier to cross into Mexico. I rarely go to Canada because of the negative attitude I receive at the border. A smile and “Welcome to Canada” would be nice.

  • Joei Carlton Hossack

    I have found my own little Canadian Shangri La. Even though I live in Surrey, British Columbia and spend my winters in either California or Arizona I now spend my summers in a little town in northern British Columbia called Smithers. Each to his own they say. Joei