Canada is the second largest country in the world (by land area) and is visited by millions of people every year. They flock, en masse to the southeastern rim of the country, guidebooks in hand, and “see the sights.” They stand in long lines to climb the CN tower in Toronto, clog the crepe cafes in Quebec City and leave a trail of lobster shells through the Maritime Provinces as they eat their way from fishing town to fishing town.
But how many of them REALLY see the sights? Sure, it’s great to hit the major high points of any place you visit, but in southeastern Canada there is so much to see and experience that doesn’t make Frommer’s or Lonely Planet.
Ontario: Wine tasting, historic towns, and Thousand Islands
There are lots of ways to get to Ontario. Most people either fly into Toronto (home to the biggest international airport in the province) or drive in from the USA. There are also ferries that can be taken on foot, bicycle or by car. No matter how you arrive, you’ll need a passport. Regulations have changed in the past year and now Americans, who previously could travel between countries on a driver’s license or birth certificate, need a passport.
Once in Ontario, there is no shortage of sights to be seen. Start in Toronto and, of course, do the obvious guidebook things: the CN Tower is impressive, the Sky Dome is a landmark, the museums are fabulous. Of course you’ll visit Niagara Falls, but why not spend the rest of the day touring the world famous (and highly underrated) vineyards of the Niagara Valley? St. Jacob’s Market in nearby Kitchener-Waterloo is worth more than an afternoon. Rent a car and trade the 401 for the lesser-traveled highway 2 that runs along the shore of Lake Ontario as it joins the mighty St. Lawrence River.
Spend an overnight in Kingston, the first capital of Canada, and explore the old world charm of this university town. Be sure to stop into Cookes Fine Foods, on Queen Street, two blocks up from the water and inhale the ambiance as well as the aroma of their world renowned, fresh roasted coffee. We recommend a pound of their half French half Italian blend as the perfect souvenir.
In Kingston and Gananoque (a little further down the river) you’ll find a selection of Thousand Island boat tours to choose from. The best is the Gananoque Boat Line, with a stop at Boldt Castle. However, if money is an obstacle you can still see the biggest of the Thousand Islands for free by taking the ferry from the Ontario Street dock in Kingston (across from the police station, right next to the Shell/Tim Hortons) across to Wolfe Island.
Wolfe Island is home to a thriving artists community and has several galleries within walking distance of the boat dock. There are lovely cycle paths among the 86 windmills that have been erected as part of the area’s effort to become the most “green” region of Canada. Do the locals a favor and DON’T take your car… the lines are long in the summer.
Quebec: Europe close to home and excellent cycling
If you’re pining for Europe but don’t have the budget, may I suggest a visit to Quebec? Fly into Montreal and rent a car. Spend at least a night and take a horse drawn carriage ride through the Vieux Port. Drive east along the river to Quebec City, a historical and cultural center and the province’s real European style gem.
Stay at one of the many auberges, walk the narrow streets around the Chateau Frontenac and order crepes made fresh at one of the street side cafes. The rue Artisanat (artist’s street) is a treasure worth hunting for. Located in an alley near the Chateau in the old part of town it is populated with local artisans and a whole slew of galleries and shops dedicated to the high brow, the down right funky and everything in between.
Cycling in Quebec may be the least advertised and most scenic way to enjoy the province. The Route Verte (Green Way) of cycle paths in Quebec is the most extensive in North America. Whether you’d like to cycle along the river or head inland through the verdant hills, the well-signed cycle paths will make your dreams an easy going reality. Check out Velo Quebec for all the information you’ll need to plan your route, find accommodation and even hire a guide, if you need one!
New Brunswick: Intimate whale watching and cabins on the bay
Visit the most bilingual province in Canada and relax at one of the many provincial parks in the area. Murray Beach Provincial Park is like camping in a dream. Watch the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean and awake to the native bird sounds. Visit local farmer’s markets, or explore the rugged coast line dotted with fishing villages.
Go whale watching by zodiac (instead of the usual giant tourist ships) at St. Andrews NB for an up close and personal encounter with the giants of the deep. Take a walk through the history and culture or New Brunswick at the New Brunswick Museum on Market Street in downtown St. Johns; their exhibit on ship building in the province is particularly interesting!
In New Brunswick you’ll find art, culture, nightlife, all of the usual suspects, but if you really want to get a feel for the people and the province, rent a cabin along the Bay of Fundy (famous for the highest tidal differences in the world!), hike the shoreline and wander the docks buying fresh fish right off the boat by day, drink Canadian beer and practice your delivery of the distinctly Canadian “eh” at the end of every sentence by night. You’ll make memories to last a lifetime!
>> Read more about visiting New Brunswick
Prince Edward Island: Literary tourism and comfort food
No visit to the Maritime Provinces is complete without a visit to Prince Edward Island.
There are lots of ways to get there: for the time challenged, you can fly into Charlottetown and rent a car. However, for joy in the journey and to increase the diversity of your travels, why not drive your car across Confederation Bridge, the longest bridge in the world ever built over ice covered waters, and then circle the island before taking the ferry from Wood Islands, PEI, to Nova Scotia.
Interestingly enough, you only pay for the bridge or ferry to get OFF of the island. Of course you’ll visit the Anne of Green Gables house, everyone does, but why not ride your motorcycle over the rolling hills, stopping at little fishing villages (don’t miss Souris or Cymbria) to buy fresh lobster right off of the boat?
Stop into Hunter River, which may have been the town L.M. Montgomery based Bright River on in her Anne books and have lunch at Dayboat Restaurant, members of Slow Food Canada, their cuisine has a distinctively local feel and focus and provides the perfect pause in your island day.
Stay in one of the many B&Bs dotting the island and savor the unique fusion of green sea, blue sky and red earth that is PEI. Explore the back roads and savor all of the many ways you can combine potatoes and fish… the two major industries of the island.
Don’t leave the island without investing in the local landscape in some meaningful way. Tourism is fast replacing the other traditional industries on the island. Take home a bag of potatoes, a cooler full of lobster, or art created by a local artist and support the livelihoods of the good people who have made this island home for generations.
Nova Scotia: Tidal bore rafting and unsinkable ships
If you don’t arrive by boat from PEI, or drive in from another province then the airport you want to fly into is Halifax. It is the biggest in the province and a relatively central location.
You can rent a car and make a figure eight loop through Cape Breton and Antigonish before looping back around the misty, rocky coast of the Bay of Fundy, through Digby and Yarmouth before arriving back in Halifax for your flight out.
You absolutely may NOT leave Nova Scotia without eating Digby scallops (they’re huge and totally worth the drive to eat them IN the actual town of Digby at low tide, overlooking the bay.
If you really want a once in a lifetime and experience that can be had no where else in the world, go tidal bore rafting… like white water rafting, only the rapids are standing waves created by the massive rush of the tide entering the narrow mouth of the Minas Basin. There are lots of companies to choose from, but hands down, the BEST is Shubenacadie Adventure Tours, run by the every hospitable Johnson Family.
When you make your way back to Halifax visit the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic and relive the tragedy of the Titanic. To go beyond the usual “tourist” experience, make a pilgrimage to Mount Olivet Cemetery, and pay your respects at the final resting place of the victims. Spend your last moments in the province eating fish and chips on the wharf before walking the harbor and soaking in the unique sound Maritime Canadian English.