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Why Canada tops our 2017 travel list

By Liza Weisstuch
January 14, 2017
NYE_NiagraFalls_Frozen Falls - Illumination
Courtesy Niagara Parks
Go north, eh? Canada is celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2017 in a big way. Which is utterly appropriate for a nation that boasts some of the biggest or oldest or most unusual travel sites on the planet.

For an untold number of years, Americans have held a rather narrow view, to say the least, of Canada. All too often, say "Canada" to an American and people think Montreal, a Francophile’s accessible fantasy; Niagara Falls, ice hockey, poutine, and the Toronto Blue Jays (because, well--baseball.) Chalk it up to Justin Bieber’s endless stream of chart-toppers, Ryan Reynolds’ show-stopping performance in “La La Land” and, of course, just about everything that Justin Trudeau, dreamboat-in-chief and humanitarian extraordinaire, says and does, but these days Canada is on everyone’s minds. And travel bucket lists. 

It’s Canada’s moment, and not least because 2017 marks the nation’s 150th birthday. As a tribute to our 3,855,103-square-mile northern neighbor and its greatness, we did some exploring, in case you’re thinking of paying a visit this year. Not only did we find some astonishing and unique sights and destinations, we found that many of them are the best—the biggest, the tallest, the oldest, the most uncommon—in their class. In other words, Canada is not just great in a lot of ways. It’s unrivaled. Here are just a few of the reasons why.

1. NATURAL WONDERS

As we did our research, we ended up asking ourselves over and over again: will wonders never cease? Of course, Niagara Falls is the belle of Canada’s natural ball, but over the vast landscape, plenty of other spectacles are worth seeing. Geographically speaking, Newfoundland and Labrador is home to Cape Spear, the most easterly point in North America and home to an iconic lighthouse, where the dawn breaks first.

The Charlevoix region, an hour east of Quebec City, draws adrenaline junkies because of Le Massif de Charlevoix, a mountain looming above the St. Lawrence River with the highest vertical drop east of the Rockies. Within its boundaries you’ll also find the 11th biggest crater on earth, the still-breathtaking effect of a 15-billion-ton meteorite that crashed down between land and a river 400 million years ago, resulting in the province’s hilliest region and one of North America’s most panoramic road. In the Quebec Maritime region, the Manicouagan impact crater, which fell to earth 215.5 million years ago, is 62 miles in diameter, making it the fifth largest in the world. It's visible from space.

The largest tree, a Sitka spruce casually referred to “Heaven Tree” grows in British Columbia's Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park. It's 11.5 feet in diameter and is estimated to be 800 years old. The “Hanging Garden Tree,” a vision to behold on Meares Island, near Tofino, is one of the oldest known western red cedars, estimated to be anywhere between 1,500 and 2,000 years old.

Provincial Park is home to one pretty mighty tree, but Kitlope Heritage Conservancy Protected Area on BC’s central coast is the location of many, many trees that make up the world’s largest intact coastal temperate rainforest. Home to bald eagles, grizzlies and plenty more wild animals, it's over 793,208 acres and located within the traditional territory of the Haisla First Nation. If you want to check it out, it’s best reached by boat and July and August are prime time to visit.

And as for water, when we talk about rivers, lakes, and oceans, we talk about depth, distance, and what lives beneath. We don’t, however, talk about speed. Unless we’re in Skookumchuck Narrows on BC’s Sunshine Coast. The water rushes along at more than 16 knots, one of the fastest flowing tidal currents on the planet. But what’s a mere breakneck tidal current in the face of a whirlpool? New Brunswick lays claim to the brutally powerful Fundy’s Old Sow Whirlpool, which, with a width of 75 meters, is the largest in the Western Hemisphere and second largest in the world. (The largest is the the Maelstrom Whirlpool of Norway.) Its sheer force is evident at the Bay of Fundy, known for having the highest tides on Earth. 

2. ON THE MOVE

Kelowna, a small city in the south of British Columbia, is arguably the most attractive to active, sporty types. The highest skating rink in North America sits 5,570 feet above sea level at Big White Ski Resort. It’s Olympic-size, free to use, and offers awe-inspiring mountain views. Pretty though it may be, Kelowna’s rink is practically quaint compared to the Rideau Canal Skateway, the planet’s largest naturally frozen ice skating rink, as declared by the Guinness Book of World Records. Every winter, the Rideau Canal, Ontario’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, freezes into this playscape, which stretches for 4.8 miles through downtown Ottawa and has a surface area equal to 90 Olympic-size rinks. 

Attention adrenaline junkies: Peachland’s ZipZone is Canada’s highest freestyle zipline, a 381-foot thrill ride. Winsport, a sprawling athletic center in Calgary, has Canada’s fastest zipline, along which you can cruise at 87 mph.

This one comes from the department things you never realized were measured but are: publicly owned waterparks. Kelowna’s H2O Adventure and Fitness Centre is Canada’s largest, with waterslides and plenty of other water runs. Add in Canada’s most extensive cycle network, a 211-mile expanse, and it’s little surprise to learn, then, that Kelowna is Canada’s fittest city.

The annual HOPE Volleyball SummerFest, which takes place at Mooney’s Bay on the Rideau River near downtown Ottawa, is the largest one-day beach volleyball tournament in the world. (And it raises thousands of dollars for deserving local charities.)

3. CULTURE

There’s an old joke that goes: What’s the difference between Canada and yogurt? Yogurt has an active culture. (*rimshot*) Well, turns out Canada gets the last laugh in the culture department, what with an assortment of longstanding theaters and museums and brand new institutions. In Winnepeg, for instance, Winnipeg Art Gallery is the oldest civic museum in Canada and home to the world’s largest collections of contemporary Inuit art. The city, Manitoba’s capital, is also home to Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the country’s oldest ballet company and the longest continuously operating ballet company in North America. Speaking of enduring, Winnipeg's Le Cercle Moliere is Canada’s oldest continuously running theatre company while Rainbow Stage in Kildonan Park is Canada’s largest and longest-running outdoor theatre.

But there are plenty of new establishments of note, too, like the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which opened in September 2014 and is Canada’s first national museum to be built outside the capital region. It's also the only museum exclusively focused on the history and future of human rights. Saskatoon is on track to open the Remai Modern this year 2017. The museum, which comes with a $80.2 million price tag, houses the world’s largest collection of Picasso linocuts.

And for all the trivia nuts out there, here’s a fun fact: St. Boniface Museum in Manitoba, which houses artifacts related to Western Canada’s French-Canadian and Métis heritage, is located in a former Grey Nuns’ convent house, which was built around 1850 and happens to be the city’s oldest remaining structure and the largest oak log building in North America. The title for the nation’s oldest, continuously operating museum, however, goes to New Brunswick Museum, established 1842. This family-friendly institution spotlight’s the region’s art, cultural heritage, and scientific history.

Look at the municipal schedule of any Canadian city and you’ll easily be convinced that Canada holds more festivals than any other nation. We don’t have the international data to confirm that, but while we compile a comprehensive listing of festivals throughout the year, we can offer a few teasers: The Ottawa International Animation Festival is North America’s largest animation festival. The annual Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival (AKA: Chamberfest) is the world’s largest chamber music festival. Not to be outdone, Winnepeg: Folklorama is the world’s largest and longest-running multicultural festival, allowing visitors to travel the globe in one city at 40-plus pavilions featuring traditional food, drink, cultural displays and live entertainment from countries around the world. Meantime, Western Canada's largest winter festival is Festival du Voyageur, where Voyageur, Métis, and First Nations histories are brought back to life with music and performances, food, and lots more.  

4. CULINARY

Some of Canada’s restaurants have rather eccentric claims to fame. BC Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, near Golden in the Kootenay Rockies, is home to the country’s highest restaurant, the Eagle’s Eye. It’s 7,710 feet high on the summit of the Golden Eagle Express gondola.

Over in Winnepeg, RAW: almond is the world’s only pop-up restaurant located on a frozen river, and Mon Amis Louis is North America’s only restaurant on a bridge. The eatery, which specializes in French-inspired cuisine, is closed for the winter, but the inspiring views of the Red River are the stuff spring dreams are made of.

A bit less esoteric and a whole lot more wholesome, Florenceville-Bristol in New Brunswick is the planet's French Fry Capital, supplying one third of all fries around the world. Native sons built the first McCain Foods Limited French fry plant in town in 1957. The town is now home to the Potato World Museum.  

Canada’s whiskies have been making waves and winning awards in the past few years, but one tipple that’s uniquely Canadian is Omerto, an aperitif tomato wine made by a boutique operation called Domaine de la Vallée du Bras in Charlevoix. The nation also does its part to keep up with the global craft beer scene. There’s been such a proliferation of interesting breweries operating in BC that the BC Craft Brewers Guild recently established the BC Ale Trail, an online guide that organized notable breweries into seven suggested road trips. Self-guided tours cover areas as diverse as the rugged Kootenay Rockies, the pastoral Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, and suburban Port Moody. The Trail guide links to accommodations and local attractions, as well as tips on signature pours at each brewery. You'll find options for walking, biking, or driving. 

5. AND EVERYTHING ELSE

Alberta deserves a section of its own, not least because the tourism bureau has plotted out a road trip of some of the most distinctive and whimsical attractions that are the largest—if not only—in their respective class. To wit: it’s home to the largest mallard duck, which has a wingspan of 23 feet, and the world’s most massive working oil lamp, which is 42 feet high and looks like something out of a Mother Goose tale. It’s on display at what is arguably the region’s oddest museum: the Donalda & District Museum, which houses more than 900 kerosene lamps dating from the 1600s and the 1960s.

But Alberta doesn’t have a monopoly on Canada’s quirky attractions. The Calgary Stampede is known as the richest rodeo event in North America. Also in Calgary is Heritage Park, an interactive and nostalgic museum with displays that stretch back to Canadian life in the 1860s. It's Canada’s largest living historical village. The Town of Shediac in New Brunswick, the lobster capital of the world, lays claim to the world’s largest lobster, a sculpture that’s 35 feet long and 16 feet high. Question is, though, where’s the world’s biggest bowl of melted butter?

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Travel Tips

Trending 2017 trips to book now

There’s always a renewed sense of excitement, anticipation, and inspiration at the beginning of the year. Resolutions are fresh and positive change feels within reach. Most importantly (for us, at least) there are travel dreams and fantasies that beg to become realities. And my, those dreams are bountiful. Planning travel is an exercise in discipline and decision-making. And the hardest decision is the first: Where to go in 2017. CANADA CALLING Not surprisingly, Dubai, London, Tokyo, Sydney, Washington DC, Machu Picchu, and Bangkok remain on experts’ lists for destinations that continuously attract increasing numbers of visitors. But for the most part, hot spots on everyone’s must-see list change. Sometimes a city is an attraction because it is planning anniversary events, either for itself and its own founding or of an iconic historic celebrity, the way Salzburg and Vienna did in 2006 on to celebrate 250 years since Mozart’s birth. Montreal (pictured above) is a hot ticket this year because it’s commemorating the 375th anniversary of its establishment. All of Canada, in fact, will be a source of attention because the country is celebrating its 150th anniversary. That makes Canada a great budget destination for Americans at the moment, what with a strong dollar against the Canadian dollar. Only problem is that hidden gems may no longer be hidden. Canada made a very select list of top destinations that Orbitz put together. Montreal and Toronto in particular are sure to be on everyone’s radars, with the anniversary festivals and celebrations building on the 10 percent increase in visitors the cities saw last year. Meantime, according to the Conference Board of Canada, Toronto is one of the country’s fastest growing metropolitan economies. A slate of cultural happenings, like an expanded location of the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Bentway Project, a mile-long recreational space beneath the Gardiner Expressway, chances are slim that the boom will slow in 2017. WINE COUNTRY YOU CAN ACTUALLY AFFORD Another North American destination that’s sure to grow is Paso Robles, a relatively "undiscovered" Central California region that’s home to more than 200 wineries. In addition to the many tasting rooms to visit, there’s a booming restaurant scene that’s getting hipper by the minute.   NORDIC TRACKS As far as the tried and true go, though, Iceland is not losing any interest, what with its natural wonders on full display and the quintessentially Scandinavian vibe in Reykjavik, where hip artists, musicians and chefs dictate the tone of the city. Plus an increase in budget airlines offering minimal flight prices from the US is added incentive for wallet-watchers. You may want to hang tight on planning, though. According to its data, Skyskanner says the most strategic time to book is week of October 23 through 29.  And for the been-there-done-that folks, Helsinki is having its moment, according to the travel experts at Bloomberg. It’s the nation’s 100th anniversary and parties abound, like choral concerts in national parks starting end of August. Plus an Arctic Treehouse Hotel and Northern Lights Village, a glass-domed architectural feat, are just a few of the new attractions in Finnish Lapland that might make adventure-seeker get up and go. THE CARIBBEAN IS STILL HOT And for those who prefer lounging around on the beach, Caribbean destinations that are getting a lot of buzz include Saint Barthélemy, which is showing off the fruits of its years-long hotel-building boom, largely in the luxury realm. Just take note that almost everything is shuttered in September for hurricane season. Turks and Caicos is another luxurious splurge. Among the spate of new luxury accommodations, there are cabin accommodations that make for a feasible stay for families and groups. Nature lovers will love the three nature reserves and the third-largest coral reefs. On the budget side, Isabela, a surf town in northwest Puerto Rico (always one of our favorite budget destinations), is welcoming a spate of hip new resturants, cocktail bars, and surf shops, thanks to entrepreneuring Americans. 

Travel Tips

Air travel booking secrets for 2017

As we shift into the new year, there’s a lot of looking back on the travel industry to see what worked and what didn’t, what succeeded and what failed, and, of course, where, how, when and why people traveled. We look back so that we can have a clearer vision and understanding of what’s ahead. While technology allows us to do nearly everything aside from decisively predict the future, piles upon piles of data lets us to come pretty close. The more data we can pull from, of course, the clearer the vision. In a recently released study by Expedia, the company partnered with Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC), a trade organization, to crunch the numbers between January 1, 2016 and October 24, 2016 and figure out worldwide air travel trends. The report, “New Heights for Air Travel,” looked at data from Expedia—which encompasses the 335 million itineraries it created in its 20 years of operation. Those itineraries cover 1,820 cities within 203 countries. ARC, meantime, offers information on more than 12.5 billion passenger flights. (That's a whole lotta packs of tomato juice and packs of pretzels!) The main takeaways of the study forecasts a huge win for travelers. First, according to the International Air Transport Association and ARC, air capacity is up about 5% globally, which means airlines are flying more planes to more destinations. Global growth typically clocks in around 3%, even in boom times. So in other words, 2016 saw a tremendous amount of growth. More seats in airplanes means more competition for passengers, so this past year also saw a tumble in average ticket prices. Those two factors—more space and lower cost—are a formula for creating more travel opportunities at lower prices in 2017.  How much of a tumble in those ticket prices, you ask? In the nearly 10 months examined, average ticket prices in North America fell about 6% for economy one-ways and about 5% for economy round-trips. That means, for instance, a round-trip ticket that cost $472 in 2015 cost $450 in 2016. With billions of data points at their fingertips, Expedia and its partners were able to examine buying patterns and assess ticket pricing trends and quirks. By and large, the results pretty much validate a lot of urban myths. First and foremost, some times are better than others for purchasing airline tickets. Weekends are the best time to book flights. Fridays are the worst, primarily because that’s when business travelers make their bookings. The study also notes that for domestic travel in the US, you can save as much as 11% by purchasing tickets on a Sunday vs. Friday. You can save even more on tickets to Europe—as much as 16%, in fact—by making your ticket purchase on a Sunday. And now for the good news for the early birds among us. We all know that it pays to plan, but this study tells us just how much. According to ARC, 21 days in advance is the tipping point. When it comes to traveling within the United States, within Europe and even between the US and Europe, booking three weeks ahead of takeoff can score you as much as 30% over waiting until the last minute.   When you’re planning a trip, don’t underestimate the impact of a weekend stay. Expedia’s study determined that you can get the best deals when you include a Saturday night overnight stay on your itinerary. That can mean savings of up to 57%, as the researches found to be the case in Southern Europe. That does it for the “how.” Now, about the “where.” Based on its data, the study looked at 500 top destinations. Not surprisingly, the airport with the most significant leap was Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba, which surged in capacity by 53% from 2015 to 2016. Coming in a very close second was the airport in Da Nang, Vietnam. Among other destinations that spiked in popularity were Zhuhai, China (41 percent); Cusco, Peru (39 percent); and Santiago, Chile (38 percent). Cities in Uruguay, Iceland, Panama, and Russia were other mentions. There are plenty more general findings. Perhaps you can chalk it up to the coast-to-coast growth of tequila and the taco truck boom, but overall growth of Mexico City as a destination was a significant 11%. Industry watchdogs are already deeming it a 2017 hotspot. Largely because its economy is pulsing, airlines are ramping up flights to India as we speak. Same goes for Dubai as well as China, which saw nearly 10% growth in airline capacity over the past year. Notably, in addition to more airlines instituting new routes to China, new airports have opened or expanded throughout the country. Experts predict that most of the destinations that have seen growth in 2016 will continue to thrive. It’s up to you to prove them right. Or chart your own path and prove them wrong. 

Travel Tips

Great travel bargains for 2017

As 2016 winds down, it’s time for travelers to think about... next year’s vacation, of course. This morning, I spoke with Jim Cantore live via Skype on the Weather Channel's AMHQ to share incredible international destinations that won’t break the bank, courtesy of our colleagues at the amazing Lonely Planet magazine and LonelyPlanet.com and their Best in Travel 2017 package. (Click here to watch my appearance on this morning's AMHQ.) OTTAWA, CANADA: Canada is Lonely Planet's no. 1 Best in Travel 2017 pick, and for good reason: Canada boasts vibrant cities, Rocky Mountain national parks, and the friendliest citizens in the world. It’s also celebrating its 150th anniversary next year. The capital, Ottawa, will be the epicenter of the biggest anniversary party on July 1, but if you want to get a headstart, the city in winter is incredible, with ice skating on Rideau Canal, and delicious fried-dough concoctions called “beaver tails.” BELIZE: Whether you just want to relax on the beach, snorkel or dive colorful reefs, or indulge in some of Central America’s best street food, Belize is surprisingly affordable considering its perfect location near the Caribbean and Mexico. While it enjoys some pricey resorts, it is also home to up-and-coming beach towns with a laid-back vibe and reasonable price tag. MOROCCO: Sure, the name sounds exotic, but this is one dream trip that you can actually afford. From the incredible shopping in Marrakesh’s souks to indulgent lodgings with spa treatments, to exploring the Sahara and the striking Atlas Mountains, Morocco is an easy, affordable, and drama-free escape to North Africa. For more travel inspiration from our colleagues at Lonely Planet, and to see the complete Best in Travel 2017 package, please visit LonelyPlanet.com.

Travel Tips

You've Been Taking Travel Photos All Wrong!

Cathy Bennett Kopf is the editor of The Open Suitcase. I fully intend to take dancing lessons before the first of my kids gets married. It’s one of my self-improvement goals. I have others, including “learn how to host an excellent dinner party” and “master intermediate plumbing” – I consider myself an advanced beginner, having repaired many running toilets. Also on my list was the goal to improve my photography skills but it soared to number one with a bullet when I booked a bucket list trip to South Africa. Taking photos with my iPhone and compact camera would be fine, but I want better than fine for this trip. So I went looking for a professional photographer who would be willing to share some tips and techniques. I didn’t have to hunt too long or too hard. One of my college chums happens to be dating a very talented photographer who was kind enough to agree to mentor me, like Mr. Miyagi and the Karate Kid. Avery Meyers started taking photo lessons in high school; she was initially drawn to the subject because of the teacher (“He was hot!”), but soon realized her lust was really a passion. She studied in a landscape workshop under Ansel Adams and Jerry Uelsmann in Carmel, California, before heading to The Rhode Island School of Design, where she received a BFA in photography. Bicoastal by choice, Avery splits her time between Los Angeles and New York, where she is currently working on a black and white study of the city. In the Bag For our photo play date, Avery and I met at the Central Park Zoo for some simulated safari shots. I spewed the first of many questions immediately after passing through the entrance turnstile, “Do I need a camera bag?” Avery shook her head and pulled her camera out of a plain canvas tote. She explained that a DSLR body is fairly rugged and doesn’t require a special bag. Besides, when traveling, a camera bag screams “Steal me!” to thieves. Lenses do require a bit of TLC and Avery suggested neoprene bags for transport. Must-Have Accessories I may have this tattooed on my chest: don’t leave home without a spare, charged battery. I can visualize the moment when I press the shutter button to capture a photo of a sleeping lion and can’t because my little battery icon will have turned from green to red to off. Avery also recommends keeping extra memory cards in a clip-on case. She downloads her photos as soon as practical and then reformats the cards. Reformatting is a menu item on most cameras. Why? Because the cards become degraded over time and it’s possible for images to get trapped. I asked if I needed a lens hood. Nice, but not necessary, according to Avery. If you notice glare in your shot, she suggests using your hand to shield the front of the lens. Patience is a Virtue I shoot quickly and carelessly and hope I can crop a decent image once I get home. Avery suggested I’d get better results by doing the exact opposite. She explained how she gives some thought to her subject and then moves herself and the camera to eliminate distracting elements from her shots. And then she waits. This is particularly important when taking pictures of moving things like kids or animals. So I gave it a try. In my first shot of the world’s cutest red panda, using my ants-in-the-pants shooting technique, the animal’s adorability was diminished by a stick in the center of the frame. I moved around the exhibit, focused my camera, and channeled Mr. Miyagi – “Wax on. Wax off.” After a few minutes of waiting, my red panda started eating a stick, increasing his cuteness exponentially. Rise and Shine Not a morning person by nature (think vampire), Avery forces herself to get up and out before dawn to photograph special locations when traveling. For example, on a trip to Ireland, she really wanted to shoot the Giant’s Causeway, thousands of solidified lava columns along the coast. It’s a wildly popular tourist destination and by arriving at dawn, she was able to take pictures that weren’t filled with buses and tourists. Speaking of tourists, patience comes in handy with them too. You’ll often be confronted with a fence or glass to shoot through when you’re traveling. Getting as close as possible and focusing (switching to manual lets you really hone in on your subject) helps to make the obstruction nearly invisible. So wait your turn, let the crowd dissipate, and then get as close up as possible. The Artist’s Eye With some practice, it becomes fairly easy to take a technically good snapshot. What I hope to cultivate is the art of capturing a place in a photograph, like Avery. As we were leaving, we were excited to get home and look at our shots. She was particularly eager to view her many penguin pics (Avery REALLY loved the penguins) but also to see how the city skyline looked in her sea lion shots. The skyline? Duh. I’d completely forgotten that we were in a zoo in the middle of Manhattan. In my sea lion closeup, the animal could have been in any zoo or aquarium in the world. In Avery’s photo of the same sea lion with a bit of skyline behind it, she gives you, to quote John McPhee, a sense of where you are. And that is the difference between an amateur and a pro.

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