Hit the asphalt and feel the rush of the open road through Canada's seasons and scenic routes.
The Cabot Trail, Nova Scotia
Words: Kate Robertson
Windows down, fave playlist cued, new world rolling by. Nothing beats an epic road trip. With the most stunning seascapes and scenery imaginable, the 300km Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia is one of the most iconic in Canada.
So, fly into Sydney, Cape Breton Island’s largest city, rent a car and start your voyage. Give yourself five days, because you won’t want to just get in your car and drive. The Gaels, immigrants from Scotland, settled Cape Breton as early as the 1700s and still form half the island’s population. Explore this cultural history at the Gaelic College, just past the quaint village of Baddeck, to learn about their traditions, such as bagpipe and fiddle playing, stepdancing and kilt-making.
If you’re a water baby, at the nearby North River Kayak Tours you can go for a paddle on the briny river towards the open Atlantic. Keep your eyes open for bald eagles, or if you’re lucky, sea lions. Next, start the loop north, where you'll pass along the coastline, through small fishing villages and over mountain passes to Highlands National Park. You’ll likely spot a majestic moose or two along the way, and, if your timing is right, minke or pilot whales.
Pull out your hiking boots and have fun searching for the giant red Adirondack chairs hidden by Parks Canada staff in awe-inspiring locations along the trails. A local favourite is Skyline Trail, where beautiful boardwalks take you over fragile headland plants for a stunning view of coastline as far as the eye can see and the mighty Gulf of St Lawrence.
In Cheticamp, visit the Centre de la Mi-Careme (‘mid-Lent’ in French) tolearn about the age-old history of this celebration, which still happens here every year when residents make masks and disguise themselves from head to toe. Down the road, browse whimsical folk art at the Sunset Art Gallery. On the lower end of the island at Point Michaud Beach, see why the island is making a name for itself in the surfing world. The Summer Surf Program offers lessons and wetsuit rentals, a must for the cold water. Of course, one of the best parts of a road trip is trying the food along the way. Fish and seafood are top-notch, and in-the-know chefs say Cape Breton lobster is the best in the world (in season May to July – just one of the reasons the best time to drive The Cabot Trail is from early summer to early autumn; activities and accommodations can also be closed at other times of the year). Visit Baddeck Lobster Suppers for a traditional feast.
But what makes The Cabot Trail especially memorable are the locals, dubbed ‘Capers’, who are passionate about their island and the history. In fact, they’re so friendly, don’t be surprised if you get invited to a ceilidh (pronounced ‘kay-li’), an impromptu kitchen party where local Celtic musicians get together and jam. All definitely worth stopping the car for.
Icefields Parkway, Alberta
Words: Ilona Kauremszky
When I opened the door to our station wagon at Banff National Park, only Mother Nature knew what was in store. Our alfresco picnic lunch by an open field had grabbed the attention of one curious black bear. Food stuff, beware. Hungry critters lurk everywhere.
The animal encounter was one of many surprises on our summer road trip througha fabled Canadian motorway called the Icefields Parkway. Named after the largest frosty patch of icefield in the Canadian Rockies, this piece of wintry paradise is a north-south route that ends, or begins, in Jasper, Alberta at Mile O. “You have to drive the Icefields Parkway,” has become a common declaration for this world-class road trip. National Geographic Traveler reveres the scenic stretch of highway as one of the 20 drives of a lifetime. It’s easy to agree.
Built almost parallel with the Continental Divide, the roadway has been described as driving on the backbone of the North American continent. The nature-rich beauty surrounding this asphalt ribbon of 232km motorway on Highway 93 N makes it impossible to whip past quickly. It’s roadtrip heaven. Allow time to breathe in the fresh mountain air and prepare for wildlife viewing in unexpected places.
You can’t lose on your departure point for this Great Canadian Road Trip either. Icefields Parkway is smack between two of Canada’s finest national parks, Banff and Jasper, so whether you leave iconic Lake Louise nestled in Banff, or the splendour of the Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park, get ready to be blown away.
For this westerly camping holiday, we started in the quaint town of Banff, Alberta. We loaded up on camping condiments, ate lunch at a coyote-themed diner and solicited sightseeing tips from friendly locals and other tourists who had completed the circuit.
We ambled through postcard-pretty Lake Louise in Banff National Park, revered for its glassy turquoise water against a snowcapped mountain. In summer, hikers and horseback riders have tea next to a glacier (it’s called the Plain of Six Glaciers) at a remote wooden tea house with soaring glacier vistas.
The next day, away from the lake crowds, we joined a gondola ride for one of the best Rocky Mountain views around. Feeling on top of the world, the surprisingly smooth ride had us oohing and aahing at the sight of a grizzly bear roaming far beneath us on the grassy alpine slopes. Wildlife sightings occur daily at the Lake Louise Gondola. Park rangers recommend watching for animals at dawn or just before dusk as animals come out of their dens and burrows.
That night we camped at Rampart Creek, one of the 12 campgrounds along the parkway. Located on the bank of the North Saskatchewan River, we slept under a blanket of stars on the doorstep of some of Canada’s most beautiful wilderness.
The final day in Jasper National Park we marvelled at the Columbia Icefield and later stuck our toes at the edge of the Glacier Skywalk, a glass-floored observation deck high above the glaciers.
For many, like me, experiencing the icefields in all its forms is a must-do. We managed to walk safely atop the icy motherlode, drank fresh ice-cold glacier water from the source, and recounted our bear encounters during a dip at the Miette Hot Springs up the road. Surrounded by the lofty Canadian Rockies, its white-capped peaks piercing the sky, you can score some big bragging rights along the Icefields Parkway.
Sea-to-Sky Highway, British Columbia
Words: Claudia Laroye
It’s hard to know where to look when you’re winding along the scenic Sea-to-Sky Highway. The views are all around. Look up to see the snow-capped peaks of British Columbia’s Coastal Mountains, or north towards the blue waters of Howe Sound fjord and the Sunshine Coast. Around each bend is a new vista and roadside stop that can lengthen the 120km drive between Vancouver and Whistler into a longer journey worthy of several days for those who appreciate the natural beauty of their stunning surroundings.
The Sea-to-Sky corridor (aka Highway 99) is one of the most scenic driving routes in Canada. The winding road is a bonanza for photographers and those who love a great drive. It’s also home to fantastic pit stops and attractions that beg for visitors to pull off and linger along the route.
Summer is the ideal time to drive the Sea-to-Sky Highway. The winter’s ice and snow conditions will have melted away, leaving excellent dry road conditions. Leaving Vancouver, we head north towards Whistler, watching ferries come and go as we pass Horseshoe Bay.
Thirty minutes in, we fuel up on lattes and homemade treats at Galileo Coffee Company in Britannia Beach before heading into the Britannia Mine Museum. At this National Historic Site, visitors travel back to the heady days of copper mining on the coast. As we continue on towards Squamish, we refresh in the spray of Shannon Falls, British Columbia’s third-highest waterfall.
We hop aboard the Sea to Sky Gondola for a 10-minute ride to the top. At 885m above sea level, Summit Lodge features sweeping views of the Howe Sound Fjord. It’s a short hike to renowned natural landmark Stawamus (Squamish) Chief. A leisurely walk along the Spirit Trail loop reveals the history of Squamish First Nations. The more adventurous can test rock climbing skills on the Via Ferrata.
We turn in to our rustic cabin along the Cheakamus River at the forested Sun Wolf resort north of Squamish. A leisurely brunch at onsite local favourite Fergie’s Cafe fuels our hike among the lakes and wildflowers of the enormous Garibaldi Provincial Park en route to Whistler.
The popular resort village of Whistler shines with active summer adventures. South of town, we take in a tasting flight at the Whistler Brewing Co. Settling in at Pan Pacific Village Centre Hotel, the concierge tempts us with active adventures, like stand-up paddleboarding, zip-lining, hiking up or mountain biking down Whistler Mountain. We soak away soreness at Scandinave Spa, where silence is golden. Dinner choices abound, from Spanish-inspired sharing plates at Bar Oso to fine dining at Araxi and Champagne-sabering at Bearfoot Bistro.
Our scenic road trip weekend isn’t complete without a box of decadent baked treats from Purebread bakery for the drive back to Vancouver. Fresh mountain air does wonders for both the soul and one’s appetite.