Stargaze in the middle of a desert, dig for clams, or dine well without breaking the bank in Canada.
Canada has the world’s longest land border and coastline and is composed of five distinct geographic regions. Yet like most traveling Canadians, I’m guilty of spending much of my vacation time abroad. However, a weak Canadian dollar has me looking within the country for new experiences, and is attracting other travelers, too. Here are five of Canada's less well-known treasures.
1. Osoyoos, British Columbia
Until recently, few people were familiar with this small town in southern Okanagan Valley, sometimes called the Napa of the North. But the area has a surprising number of attractions: In addition to 132 wineries, Osoyoos is home to Canada’s only desert—the northern tip of the Sonoran Desert, a dry shrub grassland that forms a beautiful and endangered ecosystem—and also boasts the country’s warmest freshwater lake.
Outdoor enthusiasts can learn about the land and the area’s history at the Nk'Mip Cultural Centre, which is also the starting point for a number of walks through the desert. Oenophiles can book tasting tours with Okanagan Wine Country Tours, bike between vineyards with Watermark Beach Resort’s guided cycling tour, or book a longer tour at Covert Farms, an organic farm, vineyard, and winery that takes visitors on a tour of the farm (on the back of a vintage 1952 Mercury truck) and then provides a winetasting with snacks. Foodies can take cooking classes at Backyard Farm, where chef-owner Chris Van Hooydonk’s dinners are often paired with wines from local vineyards like Fairview Cellars.
As if that weren’t enough, the area is great for stargazing, too, as nearly every star is in sight from May to September. Stay at the Observatory B&B, an astronomy-themed bed and breakfast run by renowned amateur astro-photographer Jack Newton. In his rooftop observatory, visitors can use a 16-inch computer-controlled telescope to see the night skies above.
2. Canmore, Alberta
This beautiful area of unspoiled wilderness and icy blue lakes in the Canadian Rockies is emerging from the shadow of Banff as a mountain sports paradise. In addition to fishing, kayaking, mountain biking, and rock climbing, there’s skiing, snowboarding, and ice climbing, with 60 kilometers of groomed tracks for cross-country skiers at the Canmore Nordic Centre.
Canmore town also has a bourgeoning culinary scene. Sample interesting tapas like elk chorizo and grilled zucchini with goat cheese at Tapas Restaurant, or try a Caesar salad tossed with bacon, preserved lemons, and fresh potato chips at Trough Dining Co. And don’t miss the globally influenced dishes at Crazyweed, which features the likes of feta-christened Icelandic fish tacos and Vietnamese pork meatball sandwiches.
3. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
Saskatoon is seeing a revitalization that can be attributed, in part, to a number of talented Saskatoon-born chefs who have recently opened restaurants in their hometown. At Ayden, Gordon Ramsey–trained and Top Chef Canada winner Dale Mackay and his all-star team serves simple yet refined food with global flavors. The Thai wings seasoned with lemongrass and kaffir lime are a particular crowd-pleaser. Chefs Christie Peters and Kyle Michael have opened The Hollows, an ambitious restaurant in Saskatoon's historic Golden Dragon building that offers a seasonal menu fusing wild-harvested leaves, mushrooms, flowers, sap, and roots with organic heirloom vegetables and locally sourced and sustainably raised meat, poultry, and fish.
4. Témiscouata-sur-le-Lac, Quebéc
This charming region in Québec maritime, on the banks of picturesque Lake Témiscouata, offers fantastic food as well as outdoor activities, like the Petit Témis’ cycle-pedestrian trail, which was built on a defunct railway line and will be part of the Trans Canada Trail slated to traverse the length of the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Stay at Auberge du Chemin Faisant, a mid-century inn where you can enjoy an outdoor spa, have a cocktail in the glow of the back terrace fireplace, and admire the works by Québec artists Guy Paquet and Daniel Renaud on display in the dining room.
The surrounding area is best seen by car. Stop for cheese at award-winning Fromagerie Le Détour, which offers everything from curds to wheels of surface-ripened Grey Owl, a goat-milk chèvre with a dark ash rind and a creamy, snow-white interior. Then head east to Domaine Acer and see how this economuseum produces fine spirits like the Val Ambré, an intense aperitif made from fermenting sap from the estate's maple trees. (The term economuseum is applied to small-batch artisans who are preserving and promoting traditional skills and heritage.)
For an outdoor adventure, visit the lakeside Domaine Valga in Saint-Gabriel-de-Rimouski, where you can zip-line through the Appalachian forest and explore Forêt de Maître Corbeau, an aerial park comprising more than 94 suspension bridges strung along the 180-acre property’s treetops.
5. Georgetown and Greenwich, Prince Edward Island
Canada’s smallest province is the perfect place to go fishing, even if you’re a first-timer. Perry Gotell of Tranquility Cove Adventures will teach you how to fish for mackeral and haul in lobster traps, rock crab pots, and mussel socks, and will even grill up the fish on board while you watch seals play. No sea legs? The outfit can take you on a guided hunt for starfish or on a giant bar clam dig, followed by a beach cookout.
When you’ve had your fill of seafood, head north to the Greenwich area of PEI National Park, where distinct ecoystems can be seen on just a one-mile trek. You start in grassy knolls, which lead to a shaded deciduous forest and then on to a floating boardwalk bobbing over wetlands. A few steps further and you’ll find yourself in mountainous sand dunes looking at a surreal coastline where the cool winds will remind you that you are still in Canada.