Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Canada dull? It's magnificent, and soon to be a short hop away
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The Independent Travel

In the film The Last King of Scotland, the newly qualified doctor decides his future location by jabbing a finger at a spinning globe and picking a country at random. Yet Uganda, where Dr Nicholas Garrigan turns up amid the murderous regime of Idi Amin, is his second bid. His first attempt lands on Canada.

The odds on picking out the second-largest country in the world (after Russia) are fairly high. But when the young doctor sees where his finger is pointing, he shudders and tries again.

One of the great mysteries of travel is how the magnificent country of Canada has acquired a reputation for, shall we say, a lack of excitement. I have been lucky enough to camp on an island in Algonquin National Park; raft through the Rockies; and hitch-hike the length of Vancouver Island. These explorations have led me to conclude that not only is Canada stunningly attractive, it is also the world's friendliest country (other nominations are, of course, welcome).

The thrills that are missing are all to be found south of the border: official distrust of strangers, desolate city centres and high levels of crime (phenomena that are intricately related). So, for the trip to North America that I'm now embarking on, I intend to spend just two hours in the US and the rest of the week in north-east Canada. Given the present climate of suspicion in the US, that may strike you as about the right balance.

Some travellers are keen to avoid the US altogether. Unlike almost all other countries, the Americans insist that passengers merely changing planes must go through immigration and customs. Latin American travel specialists report that clients will go to extraordinary lengths and expense to avoid transiting US airports en route to Mexico, Peru or Argentina.

At this time of year, though, the cheapest way to reach north-east Canada is to change planes in the US. So, all going well (which, from past experience, is unlikely), my flight will have left Heathrow just after 3pm on Friday, and touched down in Boston at 5.30pm local time.

My stay in the Massachusetts capital is unlikely to involve much joy. I shall devote my first hour to being fingerprinted, photographed and interrogated by those cheery souls at US Customs and Border Protection. The second hour will be spent queuing for security before flying out - back the way I came, at least for a couple of hours. That sort of carbon-reckless conduct (which could earn me another kicking of the sort I received last week from readers angered by my recent global circumnavigation) is necessary because of the absence of direct flights.

Had I only waited until 6 April, I would have been able to reach the Maritime Provinces much more easily - and pioneered a new way to travel to North America. Thanks to a new link on Air Canada, the east of the country is about to involve just a short hop across the Atlantic in a small Airbus.

Air Canada is reinstating the route from Heathrow to St John's in Newfoundland in April, but with a difference. Instead of deploying a long-haul Boeing 767, the carrier is using a short-haul jet, the Airbus A319 - the main type used by easyJet. And, as with no-frills airlines, the round-trip will be operated by the same crew. The entire round-trip, between departure from St John's and arrival back in Canada, lasts under 12 hours, including 75 minutes on the ground at Heathrow. The eastbound flight takes five hours, about the same as a Cyprus-UK hop. Travellers - and airline accountants - can treat the North Atlantic as a short-haul flight.

Fares are high - around £350 return, reflecting Air Canada's monopoly on the route. But if a low-cost carrier were to decide to operate a short-haul aircraft on a route such as Prestwick to Gander (the Nato base on Newfoundland, just 2,100 miles away), fares will plummet and thousands more travellers will be able to refute the assertion of one cruel visitor: Canada is alright, really, but not for the whole weekend.

DIVERSIONARY TACTICS

The North Atlantic may just be a short hop these days - but passengers heading to one airport in the South Pacific need to be prepared for a very long flight to nowhere.

The airport in question is Easter Island's lovely little landing strip (right). Every plane landing here touches down heavily. The reason: each is carrying enough fuel to fly for at least five more hours, in case the airport is fogbound, or otherwise incapacitated. Aircraft captains always have a Plan B, in the shape of a diversionary airport. But in this lonely spot it is a tricky business. The nearest habitation is a couple of thousands miles away, and - inconveniently - it is Pitcairn Island, which has no airport. The closest alternative airstrips are about 2,500 miles away, in French Polynesia and western Chile.

The result: a speed of turnaround that even Ryanair would be proud of. Because, by definition, every plane is carrying enough fuel to fly several thousand miles, there is no need to top it up - and, therefore, no need to transport thousands of gallons of jet kerosene to this seductively bleak speck of land. Instead, pilots bring their own.

Simon Calder's Gap Month continues on 'Holiday' on BBC1 on Wednesday at 7pm

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