Best Things to Do in Canada: Month by Month

Panoramic view along the coastline near Meat Cove Area of Cape Breton Island Vladone/istockphoto.com
What is the best place to visit in Canada right now? From driving ice roads above the Arctic Circle, to hob-nobbing with Hollywood elite, to surfing off the coast of Vancouver Island, we show you how to enjoy the quintessential Canadian travel adventures, from the famous to the unique.

Photo Caption: Panoramic view along the coastline near Meat Cove Area of Cape Breton Island
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Pedestrians skating along the Rideau Canal. Tourism Ottawa
Where: Ottawa, Ontario

It's one of those incomparable Canadian experiences: lacing up a pair of sharp skates and setting out for a long glide along the picturesque Rideau Canal through the heart of downtown Ottawa. Known locally as the Skateway, it's acknowledged by the Guinness Book of Records as the world's largest natural skating rink thanks to its combined width and length. (Winnipeg lays claim to the longest: it's 8.5 km while the Rideau is 7.8 km, or the equivalent of 90 Olympic-sized skating rinks.) It's also a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There are a handful of choice places where you can begin, but it's best for a first-timer to start at the top, which means at the foot of the Parliament Buildings. And to better catch all the sights -- from the fairytale Chateau Frontenac hotel to galleries and museums and some of the prettiest parts of the old town, such as Confederation Square -- it's advisable to skate in daylight. (Evenings are undeniably romantic and the Canal has been the site of many a marriage proposal. It's open 24/7.) Since the rink generally opens in mid-to-late January, picking a date late in the month means getting in before the crowds descend in February for the nearly month-long annual Winterlude festival.

One of the best things about skating the Rideau is the chance to meander. Far removed from the monotonous circles of most rinks, the Rideau snakes along a wide and pretty path past residential neighbourhoods and office towers, under snow-covered treetops and historic bridges, before reaching the gathering place at Dows Lake. Here, there's an outdoor art gallery, a pavilion with restaurants, and change-rooms.

Getting geared up is a breeze thanks to heated change-rooms -- rather grandly called "chalets" -- that are posted at five locales along the route. Nearby skate rentals are convenient, but run to about $30/day. Sleds are also for rent: a great way to get pre-skating youngsters out on the ice. The rink is routinely patrolled, monitored and measured for any safety concerns. There's a team of teams running the operation: 50 skate patrollers, plus several "ice experts" (think researchers, scientists and managers) who analyze the ice, assessing its strength and flaws. There's also a drilling team that uses an ice auger to draw out core samples for analysis. Then there are the snow-clearing crews. Finally, conditions and closures are posted twice daily for the public at the city's website (below).

Photo Caption: Pedestrians skating along the Rideau Canal.
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Outside at the Festival Montréal en Lumière. Hugo Leclerc
Where: Montréal, Quebec

In the thick of winter, Montréal turns up the heat by hosting the High Lights Festival (Le Festival Montréal en Lumière), a culture-packed event that blankets the city, covering all the feel-good things in life like food, drinks, music, art, and sports. The spectacular culmination of this 10-day extravaganza is the ever-popular La Nuit Blanche, which closes the show by rocking out from dusk till dawn. Don't expect to sleep, much less stay cooped up inside, when there is so much to see and do.

Nearly 200 activities and exhibits are open to the public (many of them free), all of which are spread out across the central core of the island. Carefully divided into different zones -- Le Plateau and Mile End to the north, the downtown hub, the historic Old Montréal and the quays in the Old Port, and a fourth wing branching out to such sites as Le Stade Olympique or Biodôme in the east -- each area boasts its own free shuttle with crossover stops for convenient inter-zone-hopping.

The colourful agenda lures vast audiences with all different kinds of interests. Why not spend the night (and early morning) deep breathing at a midnight yoga session, deciphering an interactive art installation, ice-skating to the tunes of a live DJ, navigating a labyrinth of fir trees, country line-dancing at City Hall (L'hôtel de ville), swimming beneath the stars (the Bonaventure's rooftop pool is heated to 28°C), observing a glass-blowing demonstration, mingling incognito at a masked ball, taking an after-midnight museum tour via flashlight, attending an intimate movie-screening, singing -- or merely observing the pros -- in opera karaoke (Don't you know Puccini's "Si mi chiamano Mimi?").

It's important to dress warmly. Don't think you'll be the only one in snow-pants and moonboots, if that's all you have for subzero temperatures.

Photo Caption: Outside at the Festival Montréal en Lumière.
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Driving the ice road from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk James Malone
Where: Northwest Territories

On the edge of the Arctic Ocean in early March, the days are slowly getting longer. The temperature in Inuvik remains below zero but it's not the bone-crunching cold of early winter. Cars and trucks ease their way along the 185-kilometre ice road to Tuktoyaktuk -- or Tuk as it's known to locals. The treeline disappears as you head north, the blue ice is solid beneath your wheels. The road's wide surface looks fragile but is almost as strong and smooth as an Ontario highway.

Once the weather is cold enough, winter roads are built over rivers and lakes to provide a lifeline to isolated northern communities such as Tuktoyaktuk that are only accessible by plane the rest of the year. Trucks use winter roads to haul in a year's worth of fuel and other supplies during the few months of the year the road is open. The TV show Ice Road Truckers makes it look like truckers are risking life and limb, but real life is nowhere near as dramatic. A pretty smooth ride is more like it.

Rent a vehicle from National Car Rental (Norcan Leasing in Inuvik) or Arctic Chalet Car Rentals. The ice road is open from late December to late April, but the best time to drive is in March because the road is still solid but the weather isn't as bad. When the road is groomed, it's like driving on pavement. It's often covered in a bit of snow early in the day, offering good traction. Watch your speed because once the sun starts shining and melting the snow, there is glare ice -- which can be slippery. The speed limit is 70 kilometres per hour, but take the time to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Drive slowly and stop often to experience walking on the ice, taking pictures and enjoying the bleak surroundings that seem to go on forever. When will you get another chance to peer through the ice at the Arctic Ocean beneath your wheels?

If you prefer to have your own ice road driver, Up North Travel & Tours (www.upnorthtours.com) and Arctic Chalet (www.arcticchalet.com) offer tours.

Photo Caption: Driving the ice road from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk
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Winter surfer along the beach at Tofino. pat_ong
Where: Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Outside magazine hailed Tofino as "the best surf town in North America" in 2010. While this laid-back rainforest community on Vancouver Island's west coast doesn't boast the bronzed bodies of, say, California's Huntington Beach, it gets amazingly consistent big waves, facing the open Pacific Ocean. Water temperatures hold steady year-round at 10°C (50°F) along Tofino's 35 km (22 miles) of coastline. Surfing in April on spacious Long Beach, or underrated Cox Beach, lets you beat the high-season tourists.

Before you can carve waves and pull adrenalized tricks like the 100-plus pros that hit town for the annual O'Neill Cold Water Classic, you'll want some cold-water gear. A number of businesses have sprung up to address the needs of surfers, including Pacific Surf School (tel. 888/777-9961; www.pacificsurfschool.com), which offers lessons and camps for beginners, plus rentals and gear sales. (private lessons are also available). Live to Surf on 1180 Pacific Rim Hwy. (tel. 250/725-4464; www.livetosurf.com), is Tofino's oldest surf shop -- since 1984. It also has the largest selection of new and used boards, and offers lessons and advice on local beaches. For a wave report for Tofino, plus photos of Canada's top surfers, check out www.surfcanada.ca.

Craving extra personal attention? Guests at the Long Beach Lodge Resort can book customized 2.5-hour lessons, while Surf Sister (www.surfsister.com) caters exclusively to female surfers.

Photo Caption: Winter surfer along the beach at Tofino. Photo by pat_ong/Flickr.com
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The Rocky Mountaineer passing through the Canadian Rockies. Rose Chase
Where: throughout British Columbia

In mid-May, as the landscape of western Canada emerges from its wintery cover of snow, the world-renowned Rocky Mountaineer train begins operation for the season, running along three captivating routes between Vancouver and the Canadian Rockies.

Considered one of the world's best train journeys, travel aboard the Rocky Mountaineer is during daylight hours only, allowing passengers to fully appreciate the mountains, lakes, and rivers of western Canada from the warmth and comfort of luxuriously appointed trains. While the two classes of Rocky Mountaineer service offer the same memorable scenery, GoldLeaf offers upgraded everything. For most travellers, the highlight of GoldLeaf is the two-story glass-domed car that allows unparalleled views of the ever-changing landscape, but there is also better quality of meals, which are enjoyed in a dedicated dining car outfitted with white linens and freshly cut flowers. The food is prepared by world-class chefs, who source the very best ingredients from local suppliers, and the wines are supplied by the Okanagan Valley's premier vintners.

The Rocky Mountaineer runs between Vancouver and Banff or Jasper, and from Whistler to Jasper via Prince George. Each trip takes two days, with an overnight stop at a regional hotel (GoldLeaf offers upgraded accommodations). There's also a tour offering a VIA Rail connection from Toronto, or packages that include links to the Inside Passage from Prince Rupert to Victoria. Tours range from 2 to 12 days, with stays in both the mountains and cities.

Photo Caption: The Rocky Mountaineer passing through the Canadian Rockies.
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Searching for icebergs in Newfoundland and Labrador. Denise Seach
Where: Newfoundland and Labrador

A century after an iceberg put a tragic end to the maiden voyage of the Titanic off the coast of Newfoundland, viewing these ancient wonders is a major springtime attraction in Canada's easternmost province. Although Newfoundland's Iceberg Alley, along the island's northern coast, is one of the most reliable and accessible places in the world to view icebergs, there are no guarantees as to where and when you'll find them. If your trip to Newfoundland is all about icebergs, set the second week of June as a target date. They appear along the Newfoundland coast as early as May, but are often caught up in sea ice, while by late June and through July, numbers taper off as temperatures warm.

The icebergs sighted off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador mostly originate from Greenland and are formed when an advancing glacier slowly inches forward into an ocean, until massive pieces of ice break off and are carried south by ocean currents. Ranging from the size of a compact car to a multi-story high-rise, they come in every shape and size, with colours ranging from the whitest of white to deep blue.

Word travels quickly when a "berg" is spotted floating by the city of St. John's, as locals and visitors alike scramble to the top of Signal Hill for the best views. Reached by road from the provincial capital of St. John's in five or six hours, the village of Twillingate promotes itself as the "iceberg capital of the world," and is indeed the best-known destination for viewing icebergs. This historic fishing village of 3,500 is well prepared for the springtime onslaught of visitors, with boat tours leaving regularly from the town dock, and even an art gallery devoted to "bergs." One of the most experienced captains, Cecil Stockley of Twillingate Island Boat Tours, has been taking visitors out into Iceberg Alley for over 25 years.

Both Twillingate and St. Anthony, the two most popular iceberg-viewing destinations, have a range of accommodations, with the former offering a wonderful selection of character-filled bed and breakfasts such as the Harbour Lights Inn, which has ocean views. Although St. Anthony is more remote than Twillingate, if you're serious about your icebergs, a visit here allows the flexibility of catching a ferry between nearby St. Barbe and Labrador, then driving up the Labrador Straits, where shore-based viewing is usually more productive than the island of Newfoundland.

Photo Caption: Searching for icebergs in Newfoundland and Labrador.
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Canada Day celebrations in the capital city Ottawa Denise LeBlanc
Where: Ottawa, Ontario

It's a day to celebrate all that is Canada: that means music, fireworks, fine food and drink, dancing in the streets, parades, marching bands and Mounties. Sometimes, even royalty drops in for a cuppa: the big news for 2011 is that newlyweds William and Kate, just two months after their Westminster Abbey nuptial spectacle, are expected to join the party.

Music rings out all over town: The Ottawa Jazz Festival stages a series of free concerts at Confederation Park 11am-7pm. The National Arts Centre's musical program is one of the city's most ambitious on Canada Day -- and it's all free. A typical July 1 begins at 10 am with the 400-voice Unisong Massed Choir, then moves onto a series of hourly kids concerts, a series of stand-out performances by the NAC Orchestra, the NAC Young Artist Programme and African Drummers. July 1 is also a good time to check out the city's top museums -- so long as you don't mind line-ups -- since most offer free admission for the day.

Rideau Street keeps a street party humming all day with sports demonstrations, skateboard competitions, crowded patios, street food (including the Annual Great Canadian Chicken BBQ) and live music, and as nightfall descends, evening concerts begin. Again, the event organizers manage to attract top Canadian acts to regale the crowds as the party continues on Parliament Hill. The day closes with a spectacular fireworks show over the Ottawa River (starting at about 10pm). The best views are from across the River in Gatineau at the Canadian Museum of Civilization or Jacques-Cartier Park. The unofficial partying continues into the night on both sides of the River: in open parks, on restaurant patios, and in crowded clubs. July 2nd is a good day to plan on sleeping in.


Photo Caption: Canada Day celebrations in the capital city Ottawa.
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Whale-watching off Cape Breton in late summer gives you the chance to glimpse more than a dozen species. Katherine Dougas
Where: Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia

Late August is prime time for whale watching as the migrations from southern waters are complete. Lured by the ample food supply, 15 species of whales stay until the fall when, like human snowbirds, they again seek the warmth of the south. Finback and Minke arrive in the late spring followed by Humpback in June. By mid-July whales, including the rare North Atlantic Right Whale have returned.

The Cabot Trail in Northern Nova Scotia is world-renowned for whale sightings. The highlands of Cape Breton are one of the few places where you can spot whales from land. From the viewing decks on the headland cliff at the end of the Skyline Trail, you can often see whales spouting in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Lakies Head Lookoff and Green Cove Trail are also good spots to watch for whales. Visit a Cape Breton Highlands National Park Information Centre for directions. The Pleasant Bay Whale Interpretive Centre is also a great source of information.

Sightings from land are a teaser. There is no question that the ultimate viewing experience is up close and personal from a whale watching tour vessel. There are numerous tours to choose from, located at communities along the Cabot Trail including Cheticamp, Pleasant Bay, Bay St. Lawrence and Ingonish. With numerous tour choices, it is advisable to investigate options on the web or at a Visitor Information Centre. Most tours include other wildlife or experiences. In Cape Breton seals, dolphin, porpoise, leatherback turtles, moose, bear, puffin and eagle sightings are also possible. Some operators include shoreline highlights such as sea caves, cliffs, and waterfalls or local history.

The type of boat dictates your experience. Zodiacs place you closer to the water, making an up-close encounter even more thrilling. The ride can be jarring as they speed over swells or waves, but exhilarating. Catamaran's and larger vessels offer comforts such as washrooms, snack bars and top decks for sightings. First-timers, or anyone a little nervous, will be happier on larger boats. Some tours guarantee a whale sighting. Read the fine print: remember that these are wild creatures in a huge body of water, affected by the whims of Mother Nature and enjoy your grand ocean adventure. In rare cases that a whale is not sighted most offer refunds, or another trip.

Photo Caption: Whale-watching off Cape Breton in late summer gives you the chance to glimpse more than a dozen species.
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Actor Ryan Gosling at the "Blue Valentine" premiere during Toronto International Film Festival.
Where: Toronto, Ontario

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is a must for any serious film-lover -- and given the infectious buzz around town, it's one of the most exciting times of year to visit Toronto. There's the thrill of being among the first anywhere to see that latest megawatt Hollywood flick or a glimpse of its leading stars, as well as the pleasure of multiple parties around town.

TIFF screens more than 300 films from 60 countries in only 11 days -- with red-carpet galas every night. But while premieres hog most of the media attention, the majority of the titles are lesser known, ranging from American indies to truly obscure and often rewarding work from far-flung corners of the globe. There's Midnight Madness for those with a taste for horror and kitsch, Vanguard for cutting-edge cinema, a wealth of Made In Canada features and shorts, Contemporary World Cinema, kids films and documentaries for days.

Visiting TIFF requires some advance preparation. If you just show up and hope to get into a screening or two, you'll likely be disappointed. Starting in early July, the festival offers My Choice packages for sale online, over the phone and at the festival box office. In return you get vouchers and the long wait till late August, when the lineup of films, screening dates and times are confirmed. You're not done yet though -- remember that demand for certain films is very high, so your selections are then entered into a lottery. When the results are finalized, the festival emails each buyer a list of confirmed tickets.

Being here also means hanging out in some of the city's trendiest bars and restaurants (new places often time their opening to coincide with festival parties), waiting to catch glimpses of megawatt stars and renowned filmmakers before they disappear into the VIP area. For those with an ambition (and a knack) for getting into private parties, it means schmoozing your way into these invitation-only events, of which there are dozens around town, especially during the festival's first weekend. Read the local papers for listings of what's on and turn on the charm, but don't be disappointed if you're stuck out on the sidewalks with the many other party-crashers who get turned away.

Photo Caption: Actor Ryan Gosling at the "Blue Valentine" premiere during Toronto International Film Festival.
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The Cabot Trail tour takes you to the heart of Acadian and Maritime culture. Nova Scotia Tourism
Where: Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia

Cape Breton's Cabot Trail, a 300km circle tour of Nova Scotia's northernmost peninsula, is considered one of the best scenic drives in the world. Winding around the protected wilderness of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, the Cabot Trail is your gateway to the wonders of nature. After crossing the Canso Causeway into Cape Breton, Rte 19 takes you through a region that has fostered traditional music for 250 years. You've come at the right time: this is when The Celtic Colours International Festival opens its doors to an extravaganza of all things Celtic. Music lovers from around the world come to theatres, churches, and fire halls to revel in singing, dancing, and music.

At Margaree Harbour join the Cabot Trail for the clockwise drive said (by some) to ensure the greatest views. The journey reveals the magnificent "colours" being celebrated. Woodlands, tundra and bogs are a vibrant showcase of autumn reds, golds, yellows and greens. There are 24 lookouts ahead. Be safe, pull over, and partake of the visual feast.

This jagged coastline has few harbours or beaches. Mountains plunge up to 300m into the gulf below. Swells endlessly hammer cliffs, creating headlands and secluded sea stacks. West, across the Gulf of St. Lawrence, you may see Prince Edward Island, misty grey where sea and sky meet. Coastal communities offer sea excursions for whale, seabird, seal and wildlife viewing. At Pleasant Bay a Whale Interpretive Centre answers questions about the magnificent mammals. Headland lookouts on both the Gulf and Atlantic are ideal for spotting fishing boats, sea birds, perhaps a pod of whales, or an eagle fishing. The park's interior wilderness offers an amazing range of landscapes.

It's not just the driving that makes the Cabot Trail one of Canada's not-to-be-missed adventures: there are great eats along the way. Acadian and Scottish specialties, wild and local cuisine, and the homemade goodness of traditional down-home meals are as much a part of the trip as the culture and legendary warmth of the people of the Highlands.

Photo Caption: The Cabot Trail tour takes you to the heart of Acadian and Maritime culture.
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The Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge in North Vancouver. Kyle Pearce
Where: Vancouver, British Columbia

Film critic Roger Ebert once noted: "Almost every suspension bridge in the history of the movies has failed while the heroes were trying to cross it." Fortunately, you won't encounter that scenario at the Capilano Suspension Bridge or the Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge in North Vancouver. However, you will get a one-two punch of thrills and education at both sites. November rains often create wild water below the North Shore Mountains, amping up the experience.

Feel your heart pounding as you step out on the Capilano Suspension Bridge. Originally built in 1889, its 137-metre (450-foot) span teeters 70 metres (230 feet) above the surging Capilano River. Fear not: 13-ton concrete blocks anchor it securely. And there's much more to explore. Roam on smaller bridges between giant Douglas firs in the Treetops Adventure, view native totem poles and interpretive nature exhibits, and chow down at the Canyon Cafe. Don't miss the 2011-completed Cliffwalk attraction, featuring glass-bottomed decks and narrow walkways along Capilano Canyon's cliffs.

Though narrower and lower, the bouncy Lynn Canyon bridge has one big advantage: free admission. Striking views of pools, waterfalls, and second-growth forest abound on nearby trails. Kids also love learning about black bears, mushrooms, and slugs at the Lynn Canyon Ecology Centre.

Photo Caption: The Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge in North Vancouver. Photo by Kyle Pearce/Flickr.com
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Riders inside Whistler's Peak 2 Peak gondola. Robin O'Neill/Whistler Blackcomb
Where: Whistler, British Columbia

It is an experience so magnificently intense that it can bring tears to your eyes. That might sound like hype -- until you actually ride Whistler's Peak 2 Peak Gondola, the world's biggest. Connecting Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains at Canada's top ski resort, it provides a panorama of snowy trees, icy lakes, and deep valleys surrounded by coastal peaks that's almost beyond description. Selected cars have glass floors, upping the visual delights.

Those into engineering find this iconic attraction just as compelling as poets and nature-lovers do. The product of advanced Swiss engineering, it opened in December 2009 at a cost of $52 million. It has the world's longest unsupported lift span at 3.03 km (1.88 miles), and the crossing takes just 11 minutes. That's remarkable, as the total distance -- 4.4 km (2.73 miles) -- is three times longer than the Golden Gate Bridge.

The biggest beneficiaries are skiers seeking an ultra-varied experience at the home of 2010 Olympic alpine events. You'll ride free with your lift ticket. Grab lunch at Whistler Mountain's Roundhouse Lodge, and then Peak 2 Peak it over to Blackcomb for popular runs like Jersey Cream or Ross's Gold. Or pull tricks at the terrain parks on both mountains. The options are endless.

Photo Caption: Riders inside Whistler's Peak 2 Peak gondola.
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