Jenna Skinner and Adam Carmichael reminded me of something I’ve known for a few years now: Travelling the world is great in part because it puts into context Canada and what makes it an amazing country. I met Skinner and Carmichael at Quidi Vidi Brewery, one of those Canadian finds few people outside of its region ever hears about.
Newlyweds in their early 20s, Skinner and Carmichael were spending their last days of summer travelling the nation’s east coast, doing what Canadians have done for decades — hitting the open road with gas in the tank and camping gear in the back. They left from Sauble Beach, a picturesque spot in Ontario that’s three hours northwest of Toronto. Heading east, they drove all the way to the edge of the continent. Gros Morne National Park struck them for its beauty, while Newfoundland as a whole earned praise for its welcoming spirit.
“It’s so different from Ontario,” Skinner said. “Canada is so big that you forget how unique different parts of it are.”
Both Skinner and Carmichael have travelled abroad extensively, which is a prerequisite, I think, for truly understanding what a remarkable nation we have here.
“We’ve been to other places and you learn to appreciate Canada. My priority now is to see Canada first,” Carmichael said.
Like the newlyweds, I spent the summer on the road, touching down in nine of the 10 provinces (see you in 2013, Manitoba). My impression is Canada is changing, fast. The wealth in Alberta and Saskatchewan is giving cities like Calgary and Saskatoon the chance to re-invent themselves, and thanks to artists, chefs, visionary politicians and proud communities, they’re doing it. The buzz in the west is palpable. In many ways, those provinces are the engine that’s driving the nation’s future. Meanwhile, Newfoundland has struck oil and St. John’s is thriving because of it. Unemployment is still high in other parts of the province, but the capital is enjoying some of its best times in its history, and that makes it a reason to go because even in lean times St. John’s is as fun a city as there is in the country.
Tourism opportunities abound in big centres and small, with people eager to search out local experiences, whether it be culinary finds or historic tours that are short on gimmicks and strong on depth and personality.
In all, 2012 was a fantastic year for seeing Canada. The 100th Calgary Stampede was a highlight, along with many other one-of-a-kind encounters.
My Best of 2012 in Canadian Travel
I’m glad I discovered …: Saskatchewan. And you will be too, when you drive up to Lake Waskesiu or grab a pint at the Bushwakker Brewpub in Regina or stroll along the river in Saskatoon. Canada’s most underrated province is truly a gem waiting to be discovered.
Three meals of a lifetime (naming just one is too hard): Langdon Hall, where chef Jonathan Gushue and his outstanding kitchen went all-out with an 11-course menu that included a cut of venison that might make a vegetarian think twice;Rouge in Calgary is immaculate, warm and downright perfect in so many ways; and Atelier in Ottawa, where chef Marc Lepine is letting his imagination run wild and winding up with some of the most unique dishes you’ll find in the country. (Naming only three is hard too — so, go to Les 400 Coups in Montreal for a sublime dining experience.)
Best gourmet meal I didn’t expect: The Willow on Wascana in Regina, Saskatchewan. Chef Tim Davies is doing many things right in his kitchen.
Best cheap meal that’s not a food truck: The Calgary Sandwich ($14) at the Galaxie Diner.
Best cheap meal from a food truck: The Bangkok Slaw from chef Adrian Niman and the Food Dudes in Toronto. (Runner-up: Sloppy Jose sandwich from Matt Basile of Fidel Gastro in Toronto.)
Best pizza: It’s still Nicli Antica Pizzeria in Vancouver. Even better than the first time.
Dish I can’t wait to try again: Former Black Hoof chef Grant van Gameren’s Blood Pudding and White Chocolate, which I had a taste of at the Roots, Rants & Roars food festival in Elliston, Newfoundland & Labrador. Weird and classy, silky and rich, sweet and potent, it is a dichotomy of a dish and also an absolute treat. Van Gameren is opening a restaurant soon in Toronto’s Little Italy and this item should be on the menu for all to try.
Best hotel suite: The Osprey Room at the Beach House in Portugal Cove, just north of St. John’s. The Osprey Room is 850 square feet of opulence with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out into the jaw-dropping cove. Simply stunning.
Best hotel for the price: Point of View Suites in Louisbourg, Cape Breton. A stunning view of the Atlantic Ocean in this property handmade by owners Linda and Tom Kennedy. Rates are $145 per night for ocean-view units. (Runner-up: Suites at Waskesiu, Saskatchewan, where rates are $149 per night.)
Hotel I will never spend a night in again: Hotel de Glace (Ice Hotel) in Quebec City. It’s beautiful, it’s definitely worth a visit, but it’s way too cold for me.
Tourist attraction that lives up to the hype: Avonlea, the fictional home of Anne of Green Gables on Prince Edward Island.
Tourist attraction that doesn’t get nearly as much hype as it should: Cape Spear. So beautiful it belongs on currency.
Tourist attraction you should skip: Calgary Tower.
Best tour: Without a doubt, the Friday night Sir John A. Macdonald Walking Tour in Kingston, Ontario, where members of the Salon Acting Company play out scenes from Canadian history with wicked humour and, in the case of the Louis Riel trial, touching gravitas. Celebrities and political dignitaries also take part on occasion.
Best live music venue: The Dakota Tavern in Toronto.
Best live music venue 553 metres up: The CN Tower, where Canadian Music Week kicked off brilliantly, with performances from Joel Plaskett and Ben Caplan.
Most fun-loving wait staff: The guys at Ruby Watchco in Toronto.
Most fun in the snow: Any of the rides at the Quebec Carnival that involve going down a hill.