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Travel Tuesday Roundtable: Canada

Oh, Canada: In a few days, epic NBC Winter Olympics montages will remind the world that its rugged environs have provided us photogenic landscapes, hockey, poutine and moose for decades. And while Bob Costas and co. might boost interest, Canada remains a remarkably overlooked tourist destination. Why?

Spanning a surface area counted as the second-largest on our planet, perhaps it's easy to get lost in choices -- so let us do the hard work for you. In this week's #TravelTuesday Roundtable, we've gathered top experts to answer the burning questions, from the most spectacular views of the countryside to their experiences eating beluga whale meat. Uncover what it's really like at the Canadian border patrol, and if you ever wondered about the most underrated region of Canada, wonder know more: the consensus answer might surprise you.

Without further ado, our wise and gracious knights of the roundtable:

Shawn Stafford is an experienced solo backpacker whose upcoming world excursion is being documented at his blog, Rerunaround. Follow him on Twitter @shawnosaurus.
Vancouver-based travel writer Julie Ovenell-Carter is the keeper of a popular all-Canada travel blog: www.theseboots.travel. Born in England, she became a Canadian citizen in 1971 and has been writing love-letters to her adopted country ever since.

While working for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), Amit Kiran has traveled extensively across Canada and loves to share his love for the country with others.

Keri Hegre comes from a family of explorers. Her mother has been to all 50 U.S. states, and her father's stories of his many trips to China finally compelled her to see it for herself. She has visited countries on five continents, with Africa and Antarctica still to come. Her trips to Canada include driving the ALCAN Highway from Alaska to Washington, plus visits to Montreal, Toronto and Niagara Falls. Find her on Twitter as @khegre, especially on #traveltuesday! She works for The Arizona Republic newspaper in Phoenix.

Craig Zabransky is the man behind Stay Adventurous. Be sure to follow him on Twitter @stayadventurous.

1. The landscapes in Canada are famously gorgeous, but with so much area to cover it's hard to know which are the most essential. What was the most memorable natural landscape or trail you experienced in Canada?

For me it's the gulf islands around Vancouver Island (pictured above). There are countless little islands in the northern end of the Georgia strait between Vancouver Island and the BC mainland. A day out on a boat through those little passages between rain forest covered islands is amazing. Plus all the whales, eagles, bears, seals, you name it, that you'll see. It's easily the most awesome area I've ever been to.

- Shawn Stafford
There are so many in this vast country that it’s unfair to ask me to name just one. Let’s do it by compass points instead: on the west (Pacific) coast is Long Beach, halfway between Tofino and Ucluelet, British Columbia—wild, pulsing, savagely beautiful; on the east (Atlantic) coast is Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland—raw, rugged and remote; to the north is the dramatic drive through Peace country between Fort St. John and Hudson’s Hope in northern British Columbia—the only time in my life when the expression “it took my breath away” actually applied; and to the south, Spirit Sands trail in Spruce Woods Provincial Park near Brandon, Manitoba—a haunting dune-scape in the middle of a prairie.

- Julie Ovenell-Carter

When you leave Calgary and head west towards Banff (pictured right), the setting seemed as if a ten year old drew it in art class. A big blue sky, a seemingly flat endless terrain, with the distant, majestic mountains of the Canadian Rockies painted a perfect picture. Very beautiful. Very real. Very memorable.

- Craig Zabransky

Nature can be found in unexpected places! In Montreal, we took advantage of the city's highly rated network of bike trails, renting bikes and riding from the Old Town across the river to a park that had a wonderful view of the skyline. We had wildflowers, greenery, bird life -- and we never left the city! At journey's end, for a little added free entertainment, we rested our legs and watched the jet boats taking tourists for wild rides up and down the river.
- Keri Hegre

2. The hype is going to be with Vancouver this year thanks to the Olympics. But what Canadian city do you feel deserves more fanfare than it's typically given from the travel sphere? Why?

St. John's, Newfoundland. People are slowly starting to figure out that Canada secretly has a stunningly gorgeous east coast. Search up Newfoundland Tourism Videos online and you'll see clips of breathtaking Atlantic shorelines and landscapes to rival anything you've imagined. Newfoundland has its own unique culture, cool people, and heaps to do.

-Shawn Stafford

St. John's, Newfoundland. I did not hesitate one second to answer this question. I would even go as far as saying that the Maritimes on a whole are highly looked over. St. John's is best described by its people, who are the friendliest bunch of folks I've met as I've traveled across Canada. I was consistently surrounded by smiles and greetings from complete strangers and after a few days, I truly felt like one of the locals. I got the strong feeling that Newfies actually take pride in making visitors feel like one of them - whether its by showing them around town, inviting them into their homes for dinner and drinks, or screeching them at one of the local bars. If the people don't make you want to extend your trip to Newfoundland, then the scenery will. St. John's and the surrounding area are rich with beautiful landscapes, picturesque communities, and one of the best national parks in Canada - Gros Morne Park. And if THAT still isn't enough for you, St. John's is the home to one of the world's most renowned nightlifes. It all starts and ends on the infamous George St. It is believed that George Street has the most bars and pubs per square foot of any street in North America, and is known to have bars that are open later than most others throughout most of Canada. A night on George Street is a night to always remember!

- Amit Kiran

St. John’s, Newfoundland, without question, especially in the summer when it’s sparkling with one lively festival after another. It takes a little more effort and planning to make it to this distinct and distant province, but you will never forget the place or the people.
- Julie Ovenell-Carter

When you think of travel in a ‘vacation’ sense, I am not sure Toronto scores high enough. Perhaps it’s because I have friends who call the ‘YYZ’ airport home, but every time I traveled to the Ontario city, I’ve always left impressed with its citizens, culture, and cuisine.
- Craig Zabransky

3. Road trips between the U.S. and Canada are trending up. I've heard varying stories about travelers' experiences when crossing border patrol between the U.S. and Canada. Was your experience difficult or a breeze? How long did it take?

I've crossed the border dozens of times with no real problems. Although I'm also honest with them and I'm almost never smuggling cougars in my pants. On busy days they can get pretty backed up on both sides though, so don't shrug it off when people recommend leaving early.

- Shawn Stafford

I traveled across many borders by land, by sea, and by air. Honestly, Canada caused me the most strife. From the border patrol searching our entire car driving to Montreal to immigration taking my passport in the Calgary airport to search for my friend to ask questions Canada has been difficult. I had an easier time with Colombia wearing wrap shades at night and white linen jacket. Who knew?

- Craig Zabransky

My trips to Canada were before the terror attacks of Sept. 11, so I can guess that security has been tightened since I've crossed those borders. My experience was scarcely different than crossing from Arizona to California ... a little slowdown, a few questions from the border patrol, and off we went again. It was harder getting used to the road signs being in kilometers, instead of in miles.
- Keri Hegre

I have never had any sort of a problem crossing from one country to the other in either direction. Well, maybe once, when I tried to carry an orange into the US from Canada. They made me leave it behind.

- Julie Ovenell-Carter

4. Let's say a friend of yours is heading to Canada but can only choose one of Montreal, Vancouver or Toronto. Which would you choose and why?

Vancouver. How can you beat a city nestled tightly between the ocean and beautiful mountains? Folks in Vancouver are generally friendly, healthy and active so there's more to do there than I can reasonably list.
- Shawn Stafford

Between Montreal and Toronto (Vancouver is a stranger to me), I would suggest visiting Montreal. This is not only based on my experience as a Torontonian, but of those that have visited both cities from other provinces and countries. The same word that pops up in any description of Montreal (and not of Toronto) is CULTURE. Montreal is rich with culture and it can be seen in its people and architecture (pictured left). Toronto, on the other hand, may be bigger and busier, but lacks any type of culture or identity. The architecture lacks character and creativity, and the people are considered to be rude, too busy, and lacking the same type of "joie de vivre" that so many people in Montreal are bursting with. A few other desirable traits of Montreal are the excellent options for shopping, smoked meat and poutine, and a vibrant nightlife. For a nice romantic change of pace, Old Montreal is minutes from downtown and could easily be mistaken for your average tucked away Parisian district. Cobbled streets, french restaurants, and beautiful walks along the river are only a few of the surprised that this small area has in store for visitors.

- Amit Kiran

Totally depends. Each city offers a different and unique experience. What type of traveler? What type of trip? How many days? But honestly, I’d find myself recommending all three.

- Craig Zabransky

Apologies to my good friends in Toronto, but it would never appear on my list of Top 3 must-visit cities in Canada. So between Vancouver and Montreal then…hmmm…they are both mandatory destinations, but for different reasons. I love Vancouver (my hometown) in May when the cherry blossoms veil the city in pink and white and again in late September when the mountains are washed by golden autumn light. Montreal can’t hold a candle to Vancouver’s natural beauty—but ooolala it has a je ne sais quoi of its own when it comes to culture and cuisine. Go in July for the famous Jazz Festival and find out why French-Canadians definitely have more fun…

Julie Ovenell-Carter

5. Canada's fur-trader tradition along with a high immigration rate has lent it a distinct cultural blend, especially with its array of food options. What did you eat in Canada you've never had anywhere else? Would you eat it again? Why or why not?

I admittedly eat like an unsupervised 9 year old. When in a Canadian store be sure to hit the candy bar rack. There's plenty of great chocolate bars that are exclusive to Canada. I recommend Wunderbar or maybe Coffee Crisp, but go with your gut. In Eastern Canada, definitely give poutine a try. Don't get the cheap stuff with gross cheese though! If you hunt around a bit you can even find super tasty vegetarian poutine. For western Canada, there's tons of great brew pubs in Vancouver and Victoria that should definitely not be missed. Actually, there's great independent beers brewed all over Canada; give them all a try!

- Shawn Stafford

While in Iqaluit, I had the opportunity to taste both Seal and Beluga Whale meat. Not exactly a delicacy in other parts of the country, these meats are considered to be an integral part of the local diet. The ancestors of the locals hunted seal and whale for their meat and fur - which was a means to survive the cold and harsh winters in Northern Canada. Seal meat can be cooked if desired, but I was convinced to eat it raw like many of the locals do. As for the whale meat, I also ate it raw. The meat was sun dried and was accompanied by pieces of the skin. Many of you are probably in disgust after reading this (as I was after tasting these dishes), but I was honored to be given the opportunity to partake in an Inuit tradition that plays such a important role in the local community.

- Amit Kiran

There is not much I found in Canada that I never found in New York. But there is one dish famous in Montreal – Poutine (pictured right). I don’t order it anywhere but in the Quebec Province. Simply delish.

- Craig Zabransky

The thing about Canada is that you can “eat the world” here. Really. Pick a cuisine and you’ll find a restaurant to match. Conde Nast Traveler recently confirmed that Vancouver—and let’s make it even more specific and say the suburban city of Richmond—offers the best Chinese food IN THE WORLD, something I’ve been claiming for years. So long before I visited Hong Kong I’d already tasted things like snake and 1,000-year-old eggs and chicken feet. By the time I got to Hong Kong, I knew what to order off the dim sum cart—and what to leave behind!

- Julie Ovenell-Carter

Poor French chefs, they have to make only French food! In Montreal, we had the best of two worlds. We found cozy French bistros along lamplighted cobblestone streets, where the waitstaff, while greeting us in French, quickly switched to English if we responded "good evening" instead of "bon soir". Next time I visit, I'll seek out Vietnamese fare to see if that also favorably compares.
- Keri Hegre

6. As mentioned, thousands of people will flood into Vancouver for the Olympics this coming month, and everyone's hyping the most essential places to visit when in town. For those with tight itineraries, what typically-touted landmark would you skip? Why? Where would you go instead?

Well, I’d say skip the aquarium unless you have tots in tow. But let’s turn that around and ask: what typically touted landmark would I say you absolutely SHOULDN’T miss? Easy: Granville Island (pictured left), the reclaimed industrial site underneath the Burrard and Granville Street bridges. This place is no end of fun for young, old, tourists, locals, and especially during the 2010 Winter Games when the specially constructed Place de la Francophonie and the Atlantic Canada House will be free and open to the public who want to sample the very best of two of Canada’s most distinctive cultures.

- Julie Ovenell-Carter

Not sure how famous or touted it is, but for the many Northern Europeans, Nordic or Germans who live and die the Winter Olympics, I might skip the Granville Island Brewery. Might be a tasty microbrew, but I’d stick to mayhem and madness the pubs will provide. They have better breweries.

- Craig Zabransky


7. If you could play one Winter Olympic sport, what would it be and why?

Is this a real question? Obviously hockey is the greatest sport in the world. Or did you mean, "In addition to the obvious answer of hockey, what other sport?" in which case I choose.. hockey.

- Shawn Stafford

Are you kidding me? Hockey — of course!

- Julie Ovenell-Carter

Hmm…Luge or Ski Jump. The pure speed and insanity of luge vs the flight and fright of the ski jump. Difficult decision, but I think if I were in a pub talking to a true fan of the games, I’d say Luge. Yes, Luge.
- Craig Zabransky

I'd try Olympic ski jumping. It seems like the closest I could get to flying without wings. How glorious!
- Keri Hegre

Immense thanks to our contributors!

(photo credits: cjmartin, gilles1313, jaymiek, humanoide, Alaskan Dude, wallyg, Gord McKenna - via Flickr)

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