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Five Canadian provinces in fifteen days

27 Sep 2015

Despite living in Canada for three years now, I didn’t travel much outside the Great Toronto Area. My job at VarageSale and Vanessa’s at Shopify granted us a fair share of trips to their respective Montreal and Ottawa offices, but that still limits one’s mental map to Central Canada.

As part of my current sabbatical, I decided to learn more about my new country, so I joined Vanessa on a 6-day plane trip to the east, then got plane tickets to Saskatoon and from Vancouver with nine days between them, forcing myself to figure out a bus/train path connecting the dots.

Here are the cities I visited (all links are photo albums), followed by a wrap-up on each one:

Halifax, NS

We first visited the Citadel, a 19th-century fortification preserved as a historic site. The walking tour is recommended for the historical info and the rifle firing demonstration. Every noon they fire a cannon from there, which can be heard across the city (if that is too much for you, just follow the shots on Twitter).

The bus trip to Peggy’s Cove takes an hour, but is worth it for the scenery around the “most photographed light house in Canada”. I also had lots of fun with the Harbour Hopper: an amphibious vehicle designed by US military to transport cargo during Vietnam War is repurposed to transport tourists around the city and through the harbour.

Right on the same harbour, we visited the Canadian Museum of Immigration, failing the simulated citizenship test but learning how immigrants came to the country by literally reproducing their steps on their actual entry point. It is easy to get to Black Rock Beach by walking around Point Plesant Park, but one can also take the bus.

Had great food at Chives and Gio, but a trusted Canadian introduced me to the donair, noticing Halifax is its birthplace, so I should try it. Its debut restaurant (King Of Donair) still exists, but was closed, so we hit a generic donair place. My verdict: it tastes great, but be prepared for a massive amount of meat and some mess (even if you use cutlery, which people usually don’t).

St. John’s, NL

First thing I learned: don’t forget the “‘s”, or you may end up in Saint John, NB.

The city is defined by its colorful houses - to the point that one must get approval from City Hall before painting your house, to avoid repetitions between neighbours. We learned that (and much more) from the cheerful locals. Even the cab driver was nice - she gave us numerous tips and a printout of Newfoundland Firsts.

A half day guided tour took us to the easternmost point of North America. The tour guide (a fisherman’s son himself) gave us a great presentation of the fishermen’s village and of the city (including its numerous restaurants). Buses were fine, but it was also easy to walk everywhere from the hotel. I would not skip the delicious chocolate wrapped in colorful house themes, nor Mallard Cottage (an awesome brunch experience on a cabin). Despite the sub-par hotel Wi-Fi, I loved St. John’s.

Saskatoon, SK

Saskatoon is a great place to spend a night and know a bit more about Praries colonization, all without leaving a urban setting. The most relevant things in the city are around the South Saskatchewan River, so I picked a hotel close to it, despite not being the best value for the money.

I explored it in several ways: walking, on a rented bike and by boat. It was great to cross the bridges and explore the south side by bike, whereas the boat got boring (and cold) pretty quick. Regardless of transportation, Victoria Park and the Meewasin Trail have lots of pleasant surprises, from an outdoor gym to the walk-through geological map of the nearby regions, in which I previewed the upcoming trips:

Another must-visit: the (free) Meewasin Interpretive Centre. I entered it barely knowing how to spell the city’s name, but left with a full historical and geographic background. If you can handle a second museum, the Western Development Museum is a great complement for a small bus trip and $10 admission. Car and model train enthusiasts will have a blast there. Otherwise, try the Farmer’s Market, but be sure to pick a day when farmers are actually there.

Food: I had a more high-profile breakfast (pecan + maple syrup bacon rolls) at Poached, and a more Canadian-style one with three types of bacon at Park Cafe. Could not find really “typical” food, but had a great gourmet experience at Leyda’s and a pub-style bison burger on Hudsons.

Public transit worked fine (transfers are unlimited for 90 mins), but getting to the train station required a cab ride. The app helped a bit, but the driver required payment by cash, did his own route, complained about a woman rights manifestation… A good reminder on why I avoid cabs at all costs (nice lady from St John’s doesn’t count).

Edmonton, AB

Once again, I explored the riverside (this time the North Saskatchewan River). There are Segway tours, but I just walked a bit, then headed to the Royal Alberta Museum. Its geological and natural exhibits are interesting, but my main focus was the Aboriginal Culture gallery (curiously sponsored by an oil sands company). Again I learned a lot of Canadian history - this time from an Aboriginal peoples perspective.

Places to eat weren’t a strong point. I enjoyed Brits Fish and Chips (it’s fast-food-y, but good) and ate my second donair (which was as good as the one from Halifax), but that was it. I’m not a mall person, but checked the largest shopping mall in North America, which at least allowed me to play DDR (ok, In The Groove 2, but close enough) in yet another city (hint: the arcade near the food court is cheaper and has a wider music selection).

The hotel had decent Wi-Fi and breakfast included, plus amenities like a coin-op wash machine (sounds silly, but halved my luggage needs). Buses were as fine as in Saskatoon (including the transfer possible), but again Via Rail was unreachable. Uber is available (for now) and saved me.

Must say it was the first time I was almost hit by a car in Canada, and that I often missed the usually ubiquitous Canadian politeness. The city fulfilled my goal of learning about Alberta, but after this visit, I’d consider Calgary instead.

Banff, AB

I already had Edmonton to show me a bit of Alberta, but I was too close to pass the Banff National Park. The town itself is dedicated to tourism, and I don’t really think there is a bad place to stay there, but I stayed at Inns Of Banff and it was great.

You can rent a bike at most hotels (just be careful not to lose the lock key, like I did), use the transit system (my hotel gave me free passes, maybe to make up for being the furthest one from Downtown) and/or get tour packages. I did two great tours: one to take pictures of wild life, and another to see Lake Louise and Moraine Lake.

This place really doesn’t need much preparation - just go there and spend at least one night. I didn’t find a train route, so I reached it via the GreyHound bus, which was ok for the short distance and daytime trip, but…

Vancouver, BC

…sleeping on the bus between Banff and Vancouver was a terrible idea. Unlike the train, there was no effort in keeping travel parties together or ensuring proper seating of standalone travellers, and the bus would stop and turn on the lights hourly - even forcing us to step down for half an hour for servicing at 3h30AM.

Arriving tired, with only one night to stay (at the nice and affordable YWCA Hotel), I opted for a hop-on, hop-off bus, which allowed me to find and visit beautiful places like Prospect Point, Granville Island, and Sunset Beach. The Chinese Gardens were close when I arrived, but I had a yummy Peruvian dinner at the Gastown. Not bad for a half-conscious person in a single, unplanned day.

Brunch with my pal Thea at the sophisticated Medina Cafe and a pleasant Vancouver-Toronto flight wrapped up this enlightening and fun trip, after which I suppose I can reasonably claim to know Canada - or at least a good share of it!