Travel review: Canada - a big old country

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Canada, a land of startling contrasts, became a country 150 years ago. Sheena Hastings and family explored British Colombia and Montreal and found so much to celebrate.

Canada is the world’s second largest country and arguably its most blessed – with dramatic beauty in its unspoilt scenery and varied, dynamic cities. Our two weeks spent in British Columbia on the west coast and quirky, energetic and francophone Montreal pointed up the massive contrasts you can encounter in one land. But then the plane ride from Vancouver to the world’s third largest French speaking city takes almost five hours.

In between are the vast spikes of the Rockies, the seemingly endless bread basket of Saskatchewan, the glassy lakes of Ontario and so much more. North are the Yukon and Newfoundland; then there are the picturesque Maritimes. So much to go at.

We feel pulled back to Canada each time we leave and there’s something so alluring about this huge country whose relatively small population (under 37m) are warmly welcoming but so sparse that you can get out and be alone with Nature. Alone, that is, except for bears, cougars, elk and eagles.

If Montreal is about civic buildings in chateau style, an abundance of superb restaurants and lively French flavour, Vancouver is eco-city writ large, with a glittering business centre and buzzing outdoor vibe, all clustered around its stunning harbour, framed by a gothic necklace of Coastal Range mountains.

Cycling, jogging, hiking, kayaking, mountain climbing and skiing in those nearby mountains are the name of the game here – or a 90-minute drive away in fashionable Whistler.

An exhilarating day out is to kayak a few miles to the foot of a trail that is inaccessible by road, climb a mountain, then paddle back into the city before heading to one of its many vegetarian, foraged food or Asian fusion restaurants.

The capital of BC is picturesque Victoria on Vancouver Island, with its gentle English overtones. North of the tiny city are Butchart Gardens a sumptuous National Treasure seated in what was a disused limestone quarry and adjacent farmland that industrialist’s wife Jennie Butchart modelled into themed gardens that draw admirers from around the globe.

Canada has 37 national parks, and one of the most spectacular is the Pacific Rim National Park with is magnificent coastal trail and the chilled-out surf town of Tofino to use as your base.

The spine of the 300ft-long island are mountains and dense forests of Douglas fir, sitka and hemlock trees that rise cathedral-like above through the passes and shady valleys. Travel is a hushed affair as you take in the natural, scarcely disturbed wonders… until you unexpectedly meet a behemoth timber lorry that seems to stretch for miles and owns the road.

We’d decided to sample very different styles of accommodation while in BC – the most enjoyable of them being three days spent in a spacious, two-bedroom eco-house in the forest not far from the small city of Duncan, whose claim to fame is its stunning collection of totem poles – 82 of them spread around the centre of town.

While many First Nations people choose to live on separate land and run their own affairs in many respects, the visible evidence of their presence is there as soon as you touch down at Vancouver Airport, with the most extraordinary art welcoming you.

Amid the bustle of being on the move, trying to see so much in a couple of weeks, I can totally recommend stopping for a couple of days, unplugging from the outside world but connecting with the natural world.

A surprise on Vancouver Island was its abundance of vineyards. Nowadays the large and fertile Cowichan Valley and other areas of the island house 75 wineries. We had a sublime and locally sourced dinner at Zanatta’s farmhouse restaurant.

Other musts are a sundowner (and possible future stay) at Sooke Harbour Inn, the seafood platter at Bridgeman’s Bistro in Mill Bay, the murals that put the little town of Chemainus on the map and coffee and no-holds-barred pastries at The Old Town Bakery in Ladysmith.

Back on the mainland, we explored Kitsilano, and the superb Forage restaurant on Main Street in Vancouver.

After a cycle ride around beautiful Stanley Park with its bay views, and a visit to the huge city aquarium, we nipped up to Whistler, whose lower reaches have a brilliant network of walking trails around lakes and forest.

We stayed at a great apartment and while the last of the skiers still skimmed down the uppermost pistes, did a couple of 15km treks. With perfect signposting and regular reminders of how to behave should a bear come into view, we stayed unusually on course.

Our two weeks were rounded off in Montreal. French-speaking and French-looking. This beautiful, walkable city has plenty of live music events and is a foodie’s paradise.

Chagall at the Musée des Beaux-Arts was enthralling, and seeing breathtaking modern circus phenomenon Cirque du Soleil’s new show Volta in their home town was undoubtedly special.

But so was the wonderful, buzzing Petit Alepp Syrian/Armenian restaurant in the über-vibrant Little Italy.

Our hotel, L’Hôtel in Old Montreal, is filled with selected highlights of its owner’s private modern art collection and has a low-key, blues music atmosphere that makes you feel for a moment that you’re riding some kind of nouvelle vague.

GETTING THERE

Sheena Hastings and family travelled LBA-Heathrow then non-stop to Vancouver with British Airways and Vancouver-Montreal with Air Canada, both booked through Flight Centre. Excellent car hire deals at www.alamo.ca . Recommended: Suite Dreams luxury B&B in Vancouver: www.suitedreamsbb.com and the eco-house near Duncan, Vancouver Island was booked via airbnb.co.uk, as was the condo apartment in Whistler, BC. They also stayed at the Chateau Victoria Hotel in Victoria and L’Hotel, 262 St Jacques St, Montreal. Zanatta Winery, Vancouver Island: www.zanatta.ca

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8th December 2017.
Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe

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