The Complete Guide To: Canadian journeys

This huge northern country features high on most travellers' 'trip of a lifetime' lists. From bird-watching to Arctic exploring, Harriet O'Brien shows how to make that dream a reality


AN ENORMOUS LITTLE COUNTRY?

Indeed - oxymoron notwithstanding. Physically, Canada is the second biggest country in the world, after Russia. But in another respect this nation is a minnow: its population of 30.5 million is barely half that of the UK. Consequently, there's a vast amount of space to move around in - huge swathes of forest, enormous prairies, mountains, endless lakes and stupendous rivers, as well as quantities of outlying islands that are often overlooked in view of the sheer scale of all the other options. And three seaboards: the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic.

COAST TO COAST TO COAST?

We'll get to the Arctic later, but the "Sea to shining sea" celebrated in the Canadian national anthem refers to the journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific - quite possibly along the Trans Canada Highway, the world's longest road through a single country. (The Pan-American Highway, which crosses the Trans Canada at Winnipeg, is substantially longer but crosses a dozen countries). The Trans Canada runs 7,821km across almost the entire width of Canada - from Victoria on Vancouver Island in British Columbia in the west to St John's in Newfoundland in the east. 'Highway' is perhaps an overblown description for parts of it: although busy areas have at least four lanes, in isolated stretches the road slims down to just two carriageways, with ferry links near either end of the journey.

In theory, you could hire a motorhome and drive from one end to the other taking your own accommodation with you. In practice, the one-way drop-off charges by rental companies make the cost prohibitive. It is not implausibly expensive to cover a substantial chunk, however: All America Holidays (08703 800 004; www.allamerica-canada.com), for example, offers a three-week package for a motorhome holiday, picking up the vehicle in Toronto in the east and dropping it off in Vancouver in the west.

The basic price of £1,600 per person (based on two sharing) includes charter flights from Gatwick to Toronto and back from Vancouver; one night in a Toronto hotel and 20 days' motorhome rental in a vehicle sleeping two adults and two children and equipped with bedding and cooking utensils; mileage of 100km per day - although more can be prepaid; vehicle insurance; and a one-way drop off charge (which, incidentally, is £905).

Other companies offering motorhome holidays include 1st Class Holidays (0845 644 3545; www.1stclassholidays.com) and Canadian Affair (020-7616 9184; www1.canadianaffair.com).

For a cleaner, greener alternative take the train - and enjoy fabulous views of lakes, prairies and mountains. Great Rail Journeys (01904 521940; www.greatrail.com) organises escorted rail travel across Canada. Its 17-day epic package takes in a four-day journey aboard the Canadian from Toronto to Jasper in the Rockies; and a 1,000km trip (in daylight) through the Rockies to Vancouver on the sublime Rocky Mountaineer.

In addition to the rail travel the holiday also includes tours of Toronto and the Niagara Falls at the start, three nights in the Banff National Park in the middle, and trips around Vancouver and Vancouver Island at the end. The cost of £3,350 per person covers flights from London to Toronto and back from Vancouver, accommodation in hotels and trains, all travel and the services of a tour manager.

IF I CHOSE A SINGLE PROVINCE?

It would probably be British Columbia. You could spend weeks, if not months, travelling round the western province. Its scenery is wild and spectacular, its wildlife big and abundant - from whales and sea lions to bears, both black and grizzly. Getting around can be fun and exhilarating on a combination of trains, seaplanes, boats and more. For example, you could fly by seaplane on West Coast Air (001 604 606 6888; www.westcoastair.com) from Vancouver to the provincial capital, Victoria on Vancouver Island, then travel the length of the island by bus on Island Coach Lines (001 250 388 5248) or rental car to Port Hardy at the northern tip.

This is the departure point for the Queen of the North ferry (BC Ferries: 001 250 386 3431; www.bcferries.com). This makes a 15-hour voyage threading through islands and along glorious coastline to the port town of Prince Rupert. Along the way you may see at least some seals and possibly bald eagles, whales and porpoises. From the somewhat bleak town of Prince Rupert you catch the VIA Rail Skeena service which takes two days (with an overnight stop at Prince George) to chug to Jasper in the heart of the Rockies just across the border with Alberta; for enquiries from the UK contact 1st Rail on 0845 644 3553; www.1strail.com.

You can fix up the elements yourself, or contact a Canada specialist such as Experience Holidays (0845 230 2131; www.experienceholidays.co.uk), which offers individually tailored programmes. The cost of the three to four day trip would be in the region of £500 per person, depending on standard of accommodation (and, of course, excluding international flights).

For more of a wildlife fix, Naturetrek (01962 733051; www.naturetrek.co.uk) offers a whale- and bear-watching journey around British Columbia. The 16-day tour takes in orca and grey whale-watching from Vancouver Island and the Pacific Rim National Park. You then travel to Campbell River from where a seaplane takes you to remote Knight Inlet, backed by snow-capped peaks, hills and waterfalls. Here you stay in a floating lodge and make excursions to see grizzly bears catching salmon in the wild and to spot seals, bald eagles and possibly a whale. The next departure isn't until 2006 but will cost in the region of £4,695 including flights from London to Vancouver and back, road and seaplane transfers, accommodation in hotels, motels and the floating lodge, wildlife guiding and most meals.

SOME EASTERN EXPLOITS?

*The east holds huge variety, from vibrant cities (clean and prosperous Toronto; funky, edgy Montreal) to expansive lakes and rivers and the rugged world of the Atlantic provinces. One of the most spectacular journeys in this vast region is a trip around Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula. Between May and October whales can be seen midway along, at Tadoussac Bay, while both Parc de la Gaspesie (this is French-speaking Canada) and Forillon National Park at the north east tip are home to deer, caribou and moose.

Tailor Made Travel (0845 456 8006; www.tailor-made.co.uk) offers self-drive holidays in the area. For example, during August a 14-night tour starting and ending in Montreal and taking in romantic Quebec City, whale watching, picturesque fishing villages and a stunning bird sanctuary costs from £799 per person including auberge accommodation and compact car hire (international flights are extra).

To take to the water The Independent Traveller (01628 522772; www.independenttraveller.com) provides the opportunity to enjoy an atmospheric cruise along the St Lawrence, travelling in a replica steamship and exploring the sites of early French settlers. The company (which has no connection with this publication) suggests a two-week itinerary that includes a week aboard the Canadian Empress between Kingston and Quebec City and a railway journey on the Ocean train to Halifax in Nova Scotia. The holiday costs from £1,829 per person including flights from London to Toronto and back from Halifax; accommodation and travel in Canada.

For more adventure on the trail of French traders and explorers, Trek America (0870 444 8735; www.trekamerica.co.uk) offers a 14-night "Canadian Pioneer" camping trip - although technically some of the holiday takes place across the border in the US. You fly to New York and proceed by "adventure vehicle" via the Finger Lakes and Niagara Falls to Toronto. From there you progress to the Ontario wilderness of Algonquin Park, which you canoe through. The itinerary then takes in Ottawa and Montreal, followed by a river trip along the St Lawrence to Quebec City, from where you return, via New England, to New York. Departures between now and September cost from £644, which includes local transport, camping fees and equipment and the services of a tour leader; transatlantic flights are extra.

The weather-beaten coasts of Newfoundland and mainland Labrador present extraordinary visual drama, with the added probability of seeing icebergs and whales reasonably close to the shores during the spring and summer. Frontier Travel (020-8776 8709; www.frontier-travel.co.uk) arranges tailored trips in the area using the myriad ferry services that link the isolated villages here. Accommodation options are limited in Newfoundland and can be fairly eccentric, which is all part of the charm of travel in this region.

Meantime, Windows on the Wild ((020-8742 8299; www.gofishingworldwide.co.uk) offers a slightly more formal package exploring Labrador's southern coast and the northern peninsula of Newfoundland. The 19-day trip costs £3,600 per person including international flights, road and water transport, accommodation and meals.

A MOUNTAIN JOURNEY?

From the hot springs of Banff to the spectacular vistas of Icefields Parkway and the towering rock walls of the Fraser Canyon, a self-drive tour is an excellent way to see the Rockies. Lakes and Mountains Holidays (01329 844405; www.lakes-mountains.co.uk), for instance, arranges eight-day trips, complete with car and hotel bookings, between Calgary and Vancouver. During August the cost is £490 per person (based on two sharing) for seven nights' accommodation variously in Banff, Jasper, Sun Peaks and Vancouver, and hire of a mid-size car - international flights are extra.

There are, of course, many other ways to travel through the Rockies. Frontier Travel (see above) offers a host of possibilities from two-day train journeys on the Rocky Mountaineer to horseback "wilderness tenting" tours. Of these perhaps the most intriguing is a female-only "Frontier Women" trip retracing the footsteps of pioneer women through remote parts of the Banff National Park. The riding and camping tour is for six days followed by a day's pampering at the Fairmont Banff Spring Willow Stream spa. The cost is £585 including tent accommodation, meals and a spa treatment but excluding international flights, for departure on 7 September.

A REALLY WILD TRIP?

The Yukon and the Northwest Territories straddle the Arctic Circle. They offer the opportunity to travel through almost untouched wilderness, while the far-flung towns and settlements of these provinces retain an air of frontier outpost. Experience Holidays (see above) offers one-week self-drive tours of the Yukon starting and ending in the capital Whitehorse and taking in parts of the Klondike Highway in the former Gold Rush area and the spectacular Top of the World Highway into Alaska. The price from £670 per person includes six nights' hotel accommodation and hire of a mid-size car but excludes flights to and from Whitehorse.

For a closer encounter with the wilderness, Windows on the Wild (see above) arranges 10-day rafting expeditions during August. These take place along the Nahanni River, which flows through the Mackenzie Mountains in the borderlands between the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. The trip starts at the Virginia Falls - almost twice the height of Niagara. You carry your equipment past these amazing rapids, then raft through deep canyons and past the hills and bush land of the Nahanni National Park, designated a Unesco World Heritage Site. The price from £2,720 per person includes international flights to and from Edmonton, transfers, accommodation (in hotels at the beginning and end and otherwise in tents), rafts, safety gear, meals on the river and guide.

ANYTHING MORE EXTREME?

For an even more adventurous trip, head to the extreme north and Canada's Arctic Islands. It is feasible to kayak here only for a couple of months of the year, July and August, during which you can expect almost endless summer days. With its icebergs and fjords, the scenery of the archipelago is breathtaking, while the wildlife is stunning: the area is home to walrus, seal, arctic fox, musk ox, polar bear and a great host of birds.

Wildlife Worldwide (020-8667 9158; www.wildlifeworldwide.com) offers 10-day guided kayaking trips around Ellesmere Island - the precise route depends on tides, wind and ice - with a few days at either end for travel to this very remote region. The high cost of travel to and from this wilderness whacks up the price of what is effectively a camping holiday, albeit in a jaw-dropping destination. The cost of £5,395 per person includes scheduled flights to Ottawa, onward charter flights to Resolute Bay and another (three-hour) flight to the drop-off point, hotel accommodation at the start and end of the trip, guiding and all expedition meals. The last departure this year is 4 August.

THE ULTIMATE CANADIAN JOURNEY?

A voyage along the Northwest Passage takes some beating: this is true adventure in the wake of heroic explorers. The search for the Northwest Passage is the stuff of legend. In the 16th century the quest began for a sea route from Europe to the Orient via the north-west, the aim being to avoid areas exposed to Spanish or Portuguese attack. For more than 300 years it was the ultimate challenge for explorers, many of whom died in the maze of islands and ice north of what is now mainland Canada.

One of the most poignant disasters was that of British naval officer Sir John Franklin, who disappeared with 132 men in 1845. Later, search parties concluded that their ships had been crushed by ice. It was the charts made by these search parties that ultimately led to the discovery of a viable route, with the first successful navigation being made in 1906 by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen (who later beat Scott to the South Pole).

Today, almost exactly 160 years after Franklin's demise, you can experience part of the route on a 10-day trip with Peregrine Adventures (01635 872300; www.peregrineadventures.co.uk). The expedition proper starts above the Arctic Circle at Resolute on Cornwallis Island, where you board a 6,450-tonne expedition vessel. Your subsequent journey allows huge scope for bird-, whale- and polar bear-watching as you progress via Baffin Island to Greenland from where a charter plane takes you back to Ottawa. Departures are on 2 and 22 August; the holiday costs from £2,990 per person including accommodation and voyage activities. Air Canada (0871 220 1111; www.aircanada.ca) and Zoom Airlines (0870 240 0055; www.flyzoom.com) both fly from the UK to Ottawa.

CAN YOU BEAR IT?

In October and November, the town of Churchill in Manitoba becomes polar bear capital of the world as these huge creatures wander through and near this far-flung town on their migration route to winter hunting grounds on the ice floes of Hudson Bay.

Among its new programmes this year, Explore (0870 333 4001; www.explore.co.uk) has a six-night trip to the ursine territory, with three nights spent aboard a tundra buggy lodge - mobile accommodation complete with beds, lounge and dining car - to maximize bear-spotting opportunities.

The trip also includes the opportunity to go dog sledding and to explore the old fur trading post of Winnipeg.

Prices are from £2,599 per person including flights from London to Winnipeg, coach travel to Churchill, all accommodation and most meals.

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

Visit the website of the Canadian Tourism Commission, www.travelcanada.ca, or call the premium-rate number 0906 871 5000.

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