It's the size of everything that takes you by surprise - city suburbs sprawl over large distances and even the spaces between the houses seem unnaturally wide. But it's only when you catch the train (or bus) across the country that Canada's vastness really begins to reveal itself, with huge tracts of forest preceding rolling plains and mountain ranges that combine to stretch for over 7,000 kms (4,350 miles) from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans.
Canadians have often been troubled by the lack of a clear self-image. Pierre Berton, one of Canada's most influential writers, famously ducked the issue by defining Canadians as "people who know how to make love in a canoe." The film-maker David Cronenberg was even more cryptic: "I don't have a moral plan. I'm a Canadian." And there's always John Buchan's: "You have to know a man awfully well in Canada to know his surname."
New Brunswick. Perched on the Atlantic seaboard, this sparsely populated, densely forested province has never been a particularly fashionable destination, but it's here you'll find the delightful little town of Fredericton, home to the one of the country's most eclectic collections of British and Canadian paintings in the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. The collection was a gift to the town by Lord Beaverbrook, a local lad made newspaper tycoon. Also in New Brunswick is Fundy National Park, a stunningly beautiful stretch of shoreline and one of the world's premier whale-watching areas.
Over in Ontario, the Lake Huron shoreline possesses two of the prettiest towns imaginable. First there's Coderich, where the prime attraction is the old jail, virtually untouched since its construction in the 1840s, and then there's Bayfield, a leafy, well-heeled resort of old mansions strung along the bluffs above the lake. The Lake Huron sunsets are simply spectacular too.
In Toronto, the Bata Shoe Museum occupies a beautifully designed building paid for by Sonja Bata of the Bata shoe manufacturing family. Inside is a spell-binding collection of footwear representing Sonja's lifelong enthusiasm for collecting everything from ancient French chestnut-crushing boots through to 16th-century Venetian platforms. Celebrity gear includes Elvis's blue and white patent-leather loafers and Robert Redford's cowboy boots.
Going to Churchill, the self-proclaimed "Polar Bear Capital of the World" without any insect repellant. Churchill is in the far north of Manitoba, well beyond the Arctic Circle. Polar bears start to come ashore here when the ice melts on the bay in late June and hang around until it freezes over again at the end of autumn. Catching sight of them is pretty amazing - or at least it would have been but for the mosquitoes: we're not talking one or two, but huge clouds so thick that it's impossible not to swallow them when you open your mouth or breathe through your nose. The town's favourite T-shirt is inscribed "I gave blood in Churchill" above a picture of a mosquito.
In Nova Scotia, dozens of old sea captains' houses have been turned into first-rate inns and B&Bs. Several of the most delightful are in Lunenburg, a quaint fishing village that boasts the shingle-clad 1826 Maplebird House B&B and the grand Victorian Bluenose Lodge, which comes complete with a "widow's walkway", the name given to the balconies where the women paced, watching the return of the fleet. In Ontario, the Bayfield Village Inn, Bayfield, is an absolute delight from the antique furnishings down to the wood-panelled bar and superb restaurant.
There are numerous daily flights from the UK to Canada; Air Canada is on 0990 247226. The main gateway cities are Montreal and Toronto, but there are also scheduled non-stop flights from the UK to Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Ottawa, St John's, Winnipeg and Vancouver (as well as charter flights). Cheapest fares through agencies start from about pounds 200 return.
Each of Canada's provinces produces a comprehensive list of its hotels, inns, and bed and breakfasts. Provincial brochures are available from the Canadian Tourism Commission, Macdonald House, 1 Grosvenor Square, London W1X OAB (telephone premium line 0891 715000; website: http://info.ic.- gc.ca/tourism). In Canada, most provincial tourist offices will book hotel rooms on your behalf.
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