TO begin at the end, it says everything that we left Canada after 16 days already planning our next visit. That rarely happens. But then the four of us – my husband, student daughters and I – were predisposed to love the land of maple syrup, Mounties, mountains, lakes, rivers, forests and bears.
Months of debate had gone into the itinerary, which took us to British Colombia and Southern Ontario. The country of choice was a no-brainer: Canada was the home of our daughters’ lately departed grandma, a war bride who’d travelled from a land of brightness and plenty to one of bleak austerity after marrying a British flyer.
As we descended over the western flank of the Rockies, crossed a wide, fertile plain and landed beyond the coastal mountain range in Vancouver, high school geography was brought to life.
In the same sweep of the eye we could take in glaciers, thousands of acres of forest and silver-tinted rivers meandering, their giant cargo of roped lumber snaking from forest to sawmill. This year’s mountain view; next year’s timber-framed house.
Vancouver is a clean, friendly, prosperous city, with a stunning oceanside location for yachts and seaplanes to the nearby islands, and mountains for skiing and summer hikes framing the bay. It seemed almost too good to be true.
We joined the runners, walkers and cyclists enjoying the waterside path around the bay to Stanley Park, a spit of land with a beach area, woodland, picnic spots and a famous and riotously colourful collection of First Nation totem poles, preserving family histories for posterity. From city centre galleries to street signs and the engrossing Museum of Anthropology, there is a pride in the history of the tribes who inhabited this breathtaking place long before the European explorers claimed it.
We were anxious to experience the wilderness of Vancouver Island, an hour away by ferry. In the dwindling evening light, we spotted curlews and golden eagles swooping above trees, trees and more trees, and barely met another vehicle as we wound through mountains and skirted lakes. The air was heavy with damp pine resin, and we were far removed from our everyday lives.
It took four hours to cross to Tofino on the Pacific Rim. We did indeed feel we were on the edge – next stop: Japan.
Canadians are warm, polite, hospitable and bend-over-backwards helpful. They’re also safety conscious to a fault, so hotel room information explained procedures to adopt in the event of encountering a bear, a cougar or a tsunami warning. Cougars don’t much like human chatter, we were told…so we kept up the flow of conversation on our coastal walks and stayed reasonably close together. Our forays were rewarded with our own private beaches to play on, plants and flowers we’d never seen, breathtaking views and a feeling of being cleansed and energised by the crashing surf.
After so much emptiness, the bright lights of Toronto (a five-hour flight from Vancouver) were a shock. Serially judged to be the world’s most liveable city and nestling on the sea-sized Lake Ontario, it’s civilised, friendly and rich in entertainment, and even has underground streets for the locals to walk from subway station to office without braving the icy pavements in winter.
Our ToPass took us from art galleries and museums to Ripleys’ Aquarium of Canada and the must-see CN Tower, a Star Wars fixture with an indifferent restaurant up top but offering stupendous views.
We found five days in Toronto a little too long in the sticky heat of July, but it has plenty of contrasting neighbourhoods to explore and we loved the crazy razzmatazz around the Blue Jays/Boston Red Sox baseball game.
We walked many miles, enjoying China Town and the Distillery District – a historic area of artisan shops, microbreweries, cafes and galleries – and caught the ferry to the nearby little islands in the lake, where playgrounds, boating clubs and a couple of beaches provide weekend leisure for the locals.
You can’t leave without taking the 80-mile trip to Niagara Falls, and fears that it was all going to be a bit too “Disney” were unnecessary. Sure, you can stay there for days with the kids and enjoy the nearby theme park, but the drama of the Falls is carefully protected from tackiness.
We screamed as we were meant to when our boat seemed to cruise far too close to the crashing water – 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water tumbles over that escarpment at a rate of 40m gallons a minute. The odd adventurer has been allowed to perform a daredevil feat here – including a woman who lived to tell the tale after descending in a barrel with her dog.
Taking a trip to Hamilton, the city where Grandma grew up, we imagined her girlish self working in the family business and enjoying endless summer barbecues.
A cousin escorted us through the lush, rolling Southern Ontario fruit and wine region in the Golden Horseshoe around one end of Lake Ontario. The wines we tasted – including delicious iced wines – were of seriously good quality.
Sadly, most of what’s grown is consumed domestically – apart from what we rolled in Blue Jays sweatshirts and smuggled out of the country. It made a golden holiday last just a little longer...
• Sheena Hastings flew to Vancouver and Toronto with Air Canada and stayed at the Coast Coal Harbour Hotel in Vancouver and Tinwis Resort Hotel in Tofino, Vancouver Island, as well as Eaton Chelsea Hotel, Toronto, and Best Western By Carmen Hotel in Hamilton
Whale and bear watching trips were booked ahead (recommended) via Jamie’s Whalewatching Station in Tofino. Niagara tour tickets also worth booking in advance and winery info is available at tourist information offices.
Star recommendations: Fran’s Diner, a classic of chrome and Formica and a great 24-hour menu on College Street, Toronto; Playa Cabana in midtown Dupont Street is a top-notch Mexican with superlative quesadillas.