Today is Election Day here in the US, a tense moment in our history and so I thought I’d share some more positive news today about our neighbors to the north, Canada. It took me longer than most to warm up to just how dynamic a country Canada is, how much there is to do and see and why it’s simply a fantastic place to explore. In a few short years, Canada has turned into one of my favorite travel destinations for a variety of reasons, from the raw natural beauty to the amazing food and a history that I think would surprise most Americans. In fact, that’s part of the problem. We Americans don’t know nearly enough about our neighbors, our friends and so today I thought I’d share a few salient points, what I’ve learned and admired after many trips through the width and breadth of this endlessly fascinating country.
Stop and go look at a map; really look at it and I think you’ll be surprised at just how very large Canada is. It’s actually the second largest country in the world after Russia, yet if asked I bet few people would know that. The main reason is of course nearly all Canadians live huddled up against the warm border with the United States, leaving gigantic swathes of the country untended. As a tourist, this usually means we skip these areas as well. Toronto, Quebec, Vancouver, sure we’ve all heard of them but Nunavut? Whitehorse? No, not so much. So when thinking about traveling in Canada, step back and really take a look at it. Sure, a lot of those northern areas are harder to reach, but they’re certainly well worth visiting.
They are not USA North
I’m a proud American, but that doesn’t preclude me from realizing a few of our faults culturally. One of them is the natural inclination we have to thinking that we are the center of the universe. It’s served us mostly well over the years, but it’s also led to a certain ignorance of anything beyond our own borders, even when it comes to the country sharing our northern border. I think many Americans simply consider Canada to be an extension of our own country. Both countries (mostly) speak English, have a somewhat similar cultural background, we have similar interests and goals and when thought about as a whole, Canada seems as alien to us as Minnesota, which is to say not at all. But to consider Canada just to be America-light is a fallacy, one led by a complete ignorance of the country’s history and modern-day culture. Sure, we both have British backgrounds, but nearly everything else in our histories has been divergent, different forks on a similar road. Canada has a unique history and culture that we Americans would do well to learn more about not just to be better tourists, but because I think we could learn a lot from them. Canada is as multi-cultural a country as any in the world and yet, for the most part, they lack much of the conflict that this can sometimes create. Canadians respect not only each other, but are open minded when it comes to anything different or foreign and that global mindset is something of which I’m frankly envious. So no, Canada is not the 51st state and I would encourage my fellow Americans to do a little research and find themselves surprised about the friendly strangers that we call neighbors.
More complicated history than you think
Believe it or not, Canada does indeed have a history that is not necessarily tied to Great Britain. I actually think that Canada has done the best job of any country in relating the history and stories of the original inhabitants, what they typically call First Nations Peoples. Just like the US, Native Americans had a long and rich history before the arrival of the first European settlers and evidence of this can be found all around the country, from the Maritimes to the Pacific Northwest. There’s also a lot more recent history and if you’re a history buff, then the events surrounding the War of 1812 should be of interest to you. If you’re an American like me, you’ll learn why Canada should probably be part of the US had we not so badly bungled the war. No matter your interest, Canada has a lot to offer those looking to learn a little more about history and culture, aside from maple syrup production.
Not nearly enough is written about the culinary side of Canada, and I think that’s a shame. Not unlike any other country in the world, every region and province in Canada has its favorite foods, traditional comforts that add to the fabric of the overall culture. I love exploring the food side of any new place I visit and Canada is no exception. Some of my favorite traditional bites include: toutons in Newfoundland, poutine in Quebec, fantastic beef and game in Alberta and of course Saskatoon Berry pie. But Canada also features some of the world’s most exciting chefs and in all of the major cities you’ll discover new restaurants and innovative concepts unlike anywhere else in the world. One of my biggest surprises though happened when I visited Edmonton, Alberta. North 53 is just one of many newish restaurants around town changing the way people think about food. Led by a fiercely creative team of owners, chefs and mixologists, this restaurant has brought modern cuisine to a city that frankly didn’t have anything like it before. Using a mix of unusual flavor pairings and molecular gastronomy, North 53 is a place not to be missed if you consider yourself a foodie. There are thousands of other similar establishments throughout the country though, just waiting to be discovered.
More than moose and maple syrup
While iconic, Canada is not defined by its natural splendor or its more stereotypical qualities. Ask any American what comes to mind when they think of Canada and it’ll be a mix of maple syrup, hockey, moose and Mounties. But Canada is a lot more than just moose and pancake toppings; it’s a modern, dynamic country with fascinating urban centers that have a lot to offer. Traveling through most of Canada’s major cities, it is immediately apparent that they are amongst the most diverse in the world. People from all walks of life and nationalities descend on these cities to work and eventually call them home. With them they have brought fascinating and diverse cultures and amazing food too, of course. Toronto’s food scene is more like the UN cafeteria than it is a Canadian city. Sure, you’ll find poutine there, but the real finds are the amazing Thai and Vietnamese places scattered all around town. Many, many folks visit Canada to experience the great outdoors, which is fine, but the country’s urban centers shouldn’t be ignored either.
Americans don’t explore it enough
A lot of my friends have been to Canada for leisure travel but I honestly cannot think of one who has spent more than 5 days visiting. For whatever reason, we Americans just don’t see Canada as a long vacation destination and I’m not entirely sure why. We’ll spend a week on a Caribbean cruise, but when we visit Canada we spend 3 days in Montreal or 5 days in Banff, but anything longer is not at all common. Time to change that. Several of my visits to Canada have been a week in length and those were honestly not nearly long enough. There is a lot to see and do up there, deceptively so, and I think the variety of activities makes Canada well suited for a week or two of exploration. General education is the main problem. There isn’t enough written in the Lower 48 about the width and breadth of Canadian experiences. Sure, we know about the major sights, but more should be told about Saskatchewan’s lakes or Alberta’s Badlands; heck, a week in Nova Scotia or the Maritimes would be perfect. So when planning your next long trip somewhere, look north and give it some thought.
Traveling there is just fun
I love visiting new and foreign places, seeing if I can get by on my wits and poor language skills. Canada doesn’t offer that, but what it does offer is a really pleasant travel experience. After my last trip to Canada, I came to the realization that I just really like being there. I’d live in Canada in a heartbeat, given the opportunity. The people are legendarily nice, a stereotype that absolutely holds up, everyone is warm, kind, polite and welcoming. The cities make sense, are generally clean, interesting and fun to explore. The vast open spaces are beautiful almost beyond comprehension and offer a seemingly endless array of experiences and activities. Things aren’t too expensive, they drive on the correct side of the road and aside from adding ‘u’s to a few words, understanding Canadians is pretty easy. Traveling through Canada is just an all-around pleasant experience and I know I’ll never get tired of visiting.