Canada's 15 Biggest Bargains

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Head north and prices head south--if you use these (formerly) well-kept budget secrets, the cream of the crop from our gorgeous next-door neighbor

Cross the Canadian border and pay for a 99> item with US$10, and the cashier will hand back almost CAD$15 in change-does it get any better? Okay, so you'll be spending those funny-colored Canuck bucks (of which you presently get CAD$1.55 for every US$1), but once you've made the odd currency calculation, you find-voila!-that your budget has stretched an amazingly long way. Here are some best bets.

1. Links for less

For stunningly inexpensive golf packages, look to Prince Edward Island. Better known for its beaches and Anne of Green Gables, the tiny island province has been recognized as "Canada's Best Golf Destination" by r eaders of SCOREGolf magazine. Starting at US$160 (May/October) or US$210 (June-September) per person, you get three nights' accommodations at any of eight Rodd Hotels & Resorts properties (800/565-7633, rodd-hotels.ca), breakfasts, and three days of golf at your choice of 12 championship courses (this includes P.E.I.'s three top golf courses: Brudenell River, Dundarave, and the Links at Crowbush Cove). It's all a day's drive (680 miles) from Boston via the eight-mile Confederation Bridge from New Brunswick. Contact Tourism PEI (888/734-7529, gov.pe.ca/visitors guide/packages) for details.

2. Cheap college digs

Canada's universities offer rooms at bargain rates during school holiday periods. Check the Canadian University and College Conference Officers Association (cuccoa.org) for a list of 24 schools. Brock University (905/688-5550, ext. 3369, brocku.ca/communityservices/conference/rates.htm), for example, in Ontario's Niagara wine-growing region, offers singl e rooms for US$25 (each shares adjoining washroom, linens included), and there's an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet for US$5, plus free parking. A well-marked 25-mile drive/cycle route (wineroute.com) winds past 45 wineries, many with free tastings. Even better, you're 20 minutes from Niagara Falls (Niagara Parks, 877/NIA-PARK, niagaraparks.com; Niagara Tourism, 800/56-FALLS, niagaratourism.com).

3. Gallic gatherings

No one throws a party like Quebecois. The Just For Laughs Comedy Festival (July 10-20, 2003, 888/244-3155, hahaha.com) and the Montreal International Jazz Festival (June 26-July 6, 2003, 888/515-0515, montrealjazzfest.com), two of Montreal's biggest confabs, offer hundreds of events and most of the entertainment is free (streets close down and stages are set up). Contact the Downtown Bed & Breakfast Network (800/267-5180, bbmontreal.qc.ca; 46 rooms averaging US$38-$75), Bed and Breakfast ^ Montr(r)eal (800/738-4338, bb montreal.com; 35 rooms US$48-$54), or look for last-minute bargains online at tourism-montreal.org. Contact Tourism Quebec at 877/266-5687 or bonjourquebec.com.

4. Half-price hostels

Consider Canada's youth hostels for lodging at less than US$20 per night. Despite the name, there are no age limits. From a lighthouse in Campbellton, New Brunswick, and a former jail in the nation's capital, there's a huge choice. Expect to share a room (some offer family rooms), and most have guest kitchens. One of the best is Whalers on the Point Guesthouse in Tofino (81 West St., 250/725-3443, tofinohostel.com) on Vancouver Island. Enjoy the region's rain forest, sea kayaking, and the best surfing in Canada. And stay for US$14 per night. Rooms have four to six beds, and the fireplace lounge has a huge picture-window view of Clayoquot Sound. Hostelling International-Canada has 69 locations (800/663-5777, hostellingintl.ca).

5. Trimming Toronto

Accommodations on the Lake Ontario waterfront can set you back hundreds of dollars, but not if you sashay through the hotel high-rises and catch the Ward's Island ferry (US$3.25 round trip) for a ten-minute ride to Toronto's charming, 262-home island community. A two-minute walk brings you to Ronni and Julie Bates's Fourth Street Bed and Breakfast, where US$65-$70 gets a double room with breakfast, free bikes, and easy access to downtown, all in a casual cottage community that even locals claim has the best view of the city. Guests at the three-year-old home can dine at the Island Yacht Club or nearby bistro the Rectory Cafe. Water taxis do late-night runs. Open year-round (10 Fourth St., Ward's Island, 416/203-7551, fourthstbb@hotmail.com). For Toronto Islands info (including ferry schedule), log on to torontoisland.org. Toronto Convention & Visitors Association: 416/203-2600, torontotourism.com.

6. Affordable Atlantic

Experience New England charm at half price in New Scotland (today's Nova Scotia). The Province's g em is Lunenburg (902/634-8100, town.lunenburg.ns.ca), with its 400-building "Old Town"-both a National Historic District and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many wonderful gingerbread-trimmed Victorian homes offer bed-and-breakfast, with rates averaging US$45 to US$60 for a couple, per night. Wander down to the waterfront and you might find Bluenose II in port (the original schooner is portrayed on the Canadian dime), or see other Tall Ships (the replicas of HMS Bounty and HMS Rose were also crafted here). This year you can catch some of Lunenburg's 250th-birthday celebrations.

7. Reasonable rails

In May 2002, VIA Rail Canada introduced brand-spanking-new "Renaissance" sleeper cars on the Toronto/Montreal service. With this deal, US$185 buys round-trip transportation, two meals, a night's accommodations, and none of the usual costs of going to and from airports. You travel one way in the sleeper and return in the VIA 1 (first-class service). Book seven days in advance. The spiffy new cabins have their own private washrooms and coffeemakers (deluxe cabins have showers). For other VIA discounts (unlimited-travel Canrailpasses, student discounts, seniors "take a companion for free," and "kids travel free" programs), call 800/561-3949, or visit viarail.ca.

8. Discount dudes

A dude ranch experience doesn't have to cost big bucks. Drive north from Vancouver (six hours) and you'll reach the Cariboo, home to some of the biggest ranches in North America. Big Bar Ranch offers accommodations, RV hookups, and a budget-stretching alternative for adventurous families: four-person tepees. Each has a platform, central fire pit, and sleeping bags. For the adult daily rate of US$48, or US$32 for kids 4 to 12, you also get three hearty buffet meals and the use of Harrison Lodge with fireplace, game room, and outdoor hot tub. Two-hour guided rides, endorsed by Canadian Cowboy magazine, are US$28. For details contact Big Bar (250/459-2333, bigbarranch.com); for the province's tourism office call 800/HELLO-BC, or log on to hellobc.com.

9. Budget ballet

Thanks to populist ticket prices and a great exchange rate, live entertainment is a good buy in Canada. Single tickets for the highly regarded Royal Winnipeg Ballet (800/667-4792, rwb.org) are usually priced at a surprising US$7-$35. An unbeatable opportunity The RWB season ends in May, but in the summer see the ballet students and key performers for free, in the Lyric Theatre in Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park (20 minutes from downtown), on July 23, 24, and 25. Other free productions in the park include jazz concerts and the Winnipeg Symphony. For schedules phone 204/888-5466, ext. 8, or 204/885-9742 after June 1. Contact Destination Winnipeg at 800/665-0204 or tourismwinnipeg.com. For Manitoba's "2003 Travel Values Guide" (available in May) call 800/665-0040 or visit travelmanitoba.com.

10. Discounted dinos

Take a two-and-a-half-hour hike or a two-hour guided bus tour through one of the world's richest dinosaur territories for just US$4.20 per adult, US$2.75 for kids ages 7 to 17. That's the deal at southeastern Alberta's Dinosaur Provincial Park-yet another World Heritage Site. In its 17-mile section along the Red Deer River more than 300 dinosaur skeletons have been uncovered since the 1880s. Canada has 39 national parks (888/773-8888, parkscanada.pch.gc.ca) and hundreds of provincial parks, which not only provide wonderful, scenic, inexpensive camping facilities, but often great interpretive programs for reasonable rates. (They are so good at Dinosaur Provincial Park that guests are limited to one guided-program ticket per day.) Book early, especially during peak holiday periods. At Dinosaur Provincial Park, a non-power campsite is US$9.70, power US$11.60, plus a US$3.90 reservation fee. There are two reservation lines, both open May 1: 403/378-3700 (camping) and 403/378-4344 (bus tours and hikes). Or visit the park's Web site at cd.gov.ab.ca/parks/dinosaur.

11. Shoestring skis

Want the best skiing in North America at the best price? Check out the shoulder-season deals at Whistler, British Columbia. Look for "Hot Deals" or ask about the "Value Season Package," available March 31 to April 27. For US$256 per person, you get round-trip airport transfers, three nights' accommodations, and a two-day lift pass. Skiing magazine just named Whistler North America's top ski area for the fifth consecutive year. Whistler (800/944-7853, mywhistler.com) is 75 miles north of Vancouver; averages 30 feet of snow annually; and has the most terrain (over 7,000 acres) and the greatest vertical drop (one mile) of ski mountains in North America.

12. Cut-rate cruise

Thousands of travelers pay cruise-ship rates to enjoy the spectacularly lush, green, coastal mountain scenery of west coast British Columbia. With BC Ferries (250/386-3431, bcferries.bc.ca), cruise the popular Inside Passage for an incredible US$64 adults, US$32 for kids ages 5 to 11 (rates are even lower from mid-May to mid-June and in the second half of September). The company's 36 ships carry some 21 million passengers annually. This 15-hour day cruise takes 850 passengers and 157 vehicles from Port Hardy on the northern tip of Vancouver Island to Prince Rupert, gateway to southeast Alaska. Spot bald eagles or maybe even migrating gray whales. From Prince Rupert you can join the Alaska Marine Highway (800/526-6731, akferry.com) and continue to Skagway, Alaska (US$140 one way for the one-and-a-half- to two-day journey).

13. Upstart airlines

The Canadian budget carrier WestJet (800/538-5696, westjet.com) boasts a singing pilot and a flight attendant who has been known to play the flute during trips. It services 22 cities between Victoria, British Columbia, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, and often offers special fares like "Wacky Wednesdays," which include one-way deals from Calgary to Toronto for US$64 and Victoria to Calgary for US$32. Compare routes and rates with Canada's other budget flyers: Jetsgo (866/440-0441, jetsgo.net), ZIP (866/432-1947, 4321zip.com), CanJet Airlines (800/809-7777, canjet.com), and Tango by Air Canada (800/315-1390, flytango.com). Or even fly free. It's a stretch, but it could happen when WestJet is running one of its quirky, everchanging promos, such as granting gratis ducats to people whose last name is "Love" or "Red" on Valentine's Day, "Orange" or "Black" on Halloween, or the name of any former prime minister on its unofficial Prime Minister's Day. Watch for special offers online.

14. Hop-aboard buses

More time than money to cover the country? Join up with Moose Travel Network, a "hop on, hop off" backpacker bus with routes in eastern and western Canada. The 12-to-24-passenger coaches take you to the most popular sites and activities (whale watching, river rafting, hiking, snowboarding, kayaking) and do night drops at hostels, guesthouse s, and campgrounds. They'll even book beds. Move at your own pace and catch the next bus when you're ready. The full British Columbia/Alberta loop (minimum ten days) is just US$264; the Niagara, Ontario, to Tadoussac, Quebec, loop (minimum nine days) is US$270. With no age restrictions, the service is simply suited to the young at heart-but most passengers are ages 18 to 35. Contact Moose Travel Network (East Coast office: 888/816-6673; West Coast office: 888/244-6673, moosenetwork.com).

15. Wheel deals

How about a rental car, with unlimited kilometers, for a long four-day weekend, for just US$16 a day? Call an Avis office in any Canadian city and ask for the CAD$99 (US$64) special: an economy-class car from Thursday till Monday evening. This weekend rate tends to increase as you approach the summer, especially for holiday weekends-but if you book during winter you can reserve any weekend at the US$64 rate. And do it four times for a free weekend Find phone numbers online at avis.com.

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