When I was 6 years old, our family went on an epic camping trip to eastern Canada. We ventured on a deep-sea fishing excursion, ate a lobster dinner on Prince Edward Island and partook in plenty of souvenir buying. A geographical trip highlight was the monolithic Percé Rock on the Gaspé Peninsula, among the world’s largest natural arches. I’ve been hooked on the maple leaf country ever since.
Part of my infatuation was borne out of budget necessities. My parents — a minister and social worker with four children — couldn’t afford to travel to places like Europe or Hawaii. Rather, we took camping trips closer to our Rochester, New York home, like Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park. These Canadian getaways passed into myth as I grew up, like when my older siblings got to accompany my dad on a “wolf hike” in Algonquin while my 8-year-old self had to stroll the beaver trail with my mom. Though they didn’t see any wolves, the idea that an alpha predator lived in Canada further reinforced the lure of this country and its wildness to me, an animal-obsessed child.
The exotic nature of the North played out in other ways, too, as I was growing up. Like most boys in upstate New York, I took up ice hockey at a young age and frequently played north of the border in Ontario. I also skated and played hockey on Ottawa’s Rideau Canal’s giant natural sheet of ice. And I learned to play soccer with the foreign merchant marines from the ships moving through the Welland Canal, the engineering marvel that bypasses Niagara Falls to connect lakes Erie and Ontario. The Welland’s parking lot had somehow become my parents’ favorite “camping” destination. The sailors, hailing from Asia and Eastern Europe, spoke no English, a reality I’d never considered before.
Fast-forward 50 years and I now live in Seattle, where my affection for north of the 49th parallel remains every bit as strong. So much so that many friends and colleagues inquired during the pandemic lockdown about how I was coping with Canada’s closed border. Their concern makes sense: In 20 years as a travel journalist, I’ve showcased the country in more than 1,000 articles for various publications and on numerous radio and television appearances.
Prior to the pandemic, I traveled to Vancouver and Whistler in nearby British Columbia the way most people head out for milk and bread. Seattle and Vancouver are more similar than different. Yet dining, nightlife and shopping feel more sophisticated in the latter. I’m not sure why — the sea of downtown glass condominium towers, perhaps — but in Vancouver, I feel younger and a bit more cosmopolitan.
And Montreal is my favorite city in the world. Crafting ideal days is part of my travel-writer job description, yet I can only lay claim to one perfect urban day of my own, and that was in Montreal. The day began with a pain au chocolat at Boulangerie le Marquis in Vieux-Montréal (the stone-facade district of corset-tight cobblestone streets), then continued with a 25-mile bike ride along and beyond the Lachine Canal and a matinee NHL hockey win by my beloved Montreal Canadiens against the Pittsburgh Penguins. That evening, I attended the opera Tosca, performed by Opéra de Montréal at Places des Arts, ate oysters, steak tartare and duck confit at Liverpool House and eventually danced the night away at Le Rouge Bar in the Plateau, former home of my favorite musician, Leonard Cohen.
In the great outdoors
My devotion to Canada extends far beyond any city’s boundary, even Montreal’s. I could pack a calendar year with ideal outings in the Canadian wilderness. On a multiday canoeing excursion on Lake Kipawa in Quebec, I disappeared through granite-walled passageways that revealed secret bodies of water where loons called and butterflies flitted overhead. In Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies, a mountain-biking adventure in Maligne Canyon began beside water dressed in a stunning shade of blue, and cliff diving added to the thrills. A white-water rafting trip on the Tatshenshini River first began with kayaking the Yukon River, at one point involved a ferry from Haines to Skagway, Alaska, and concluded at a solstice party in Whitehorse after traversing British Columbia’s legendary White Pass.
And that’s just summer fun. I discovered my journalistic calling card — winter adventure — in the Great White North, where people carve ice sculptures on a frozen Lake Louise in the Rockies and navigate more than 8,000 acres of skiable terrain in Whistler. I admit ice fishing on a frozen lake in Alberta was not my thing, but fat-tire biking on a track outside Quebec City was an absolute blast. Since then, each pedal through the Canadian pines leaves me plotting another bi-wheeled excursion.
Winter camaraderie and morning booze
Two more reasons I’m under Canada’s spell: après and the Caesar cocktail. As any snow bunny will tell you, après is shorthand for “after skiing.” In Canada, that revelatory period means gorging on massive platters of poutine and quaffing pitchers of IPA with fellow snow-sport junkies. And then there’s the holy grail of northern cocktails, the Caesar, a spicy Bloody Mary made with Clamato juice.
As an adult, by the way, I eventually did see wolves outside Churchill, Manitoba, as well as polar bears. I don’t know if any wildlife lover is prepared to see their first wolf. You can’t really believe your eyes when you do, and you can’t look away. Grizzly sightings in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest were just as riveting. Even watching a marmot leap an alpine creek set among wildflowers in British Columbia’s Bugaboo Mountains ignited a chill. It was like I’d somehow sneaked behind a curtain to where the wild things are, a red-and-white cotton curtain with a maple leaf embroidered squarely in the middle, not unlike the blanket onto which my mom sewed all my team patches from playing hockey in mythical Canada all those years ago.
Crai S. Bower is a Seattle-based freelancer whose work has appeared in AARP The Magazine, Saturday Evening Post, enRoute, AAA Journey and more. He is a recipient of a 2022 Lowell Thomas Award for Excellence in Travel Journalism for the essay “Love After Divorce: Sharing a Mutual Passion for the Slopes,” which appeared on AARP Members Only Access. Follow his adventures on Instagram @travelcrais.
Renew your membership today and save 25% on your next year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.