Oh, Canada! The best of the big country

Stunning scenery, vibrant cities, wilderness adventuresand friendly airport security. Rob Ryan and David Wickers tour the beautiful north

This summer, armies of Brits are expected to swallow the hassles and humiliations of US immigration for the amazingly restorative payoff of getting nearly two dollars for every pound in their pocket. Fair enough, but before you rush to join them, consider another America — a place where your money goes twice as far as at home, your passport is stamped with a smile and the travel experience still feels big, raw and full of surprises.

Canada is not only kind on the wallet (one English pound buys 2.25 Canadian dollars), but well stocked with the pleasures you find south of the border. It has world-class cities and a big mash of cultures; stunning scenery and profuse wildlife; spectacular roads and railways; and a full suite of activity holidays, from riding to canoeing.

What’s more, the place has gone and become fashionable. Celebrities such as Robin Williams now holiday there regularly, and so many movies are made in Toronto that the hotels are awash with Willises, Jolies and Paltrows. Currently in town are Michael Douglas, Kim Basinger, Alan Rickman and Antonio Banderas.

Before you start planning, though, be warned: Canada is immense, second only to Russia for bulk. So how should a first-timer tackle the Big Moose in a two-week holiday? Simple answer: focus on one experience and save the rest for a second visit. Here are six classic ways to begin your adventures above the 49th Parallel.

THE ROCKIES

“We can’t export the scenery,” declared Canadian Pacific Railway’s first president, William Van Horne, in 1885, “so let’s import the tourists.” They’ve been doing so ever since, very often to the mighty hotels the company built along its routes in western Canada.

The Rocky Mountains stretch from the Yukon to New Mexico, but it is Canada, not the USA, that claims the scenic superlatives. It has the most imposing peaks, the most dramatic glaciers, the most spine-tingling views.

Among Canada’s 41 national parks, Banff and neighbouring Jasper top the bill, and they are linked by the Icefields Parkway, which runs alongside a parade of rugged, saw-toothed peaks. Fifteen glacial tongues of ice can be seen without leaving your car. There’s even a drive-on glacier, the Athabasca, where you board a “Snowcoach” and head for the Columbia Icefield, a 125-square-mile duvet of ice and snow. It could swallow the whole of Vancouver in one great gulp.

Vancouver itself, with its feet in the water and its head in the mountains, is not only the gateway to this wild west, but a good reason to go to Canada in the first place. It has an enormous Chinatown, an even bigger forest (1,000-acre Stan-ley Park) and serious peaks right on the doorstep: a playground for hikers and bikers.

Be sure to add the scenic Rocky Mountaineer train to your itinerary. From Vancouver, it heaves itself up through the mountains to either Jasper or Banff, a two-day journey. Next year will see an extension to Whistler and Prince George, completing a Rockies circuit.

Fly to: Vancouver or Calgary.

Where to stay: Vancouver’s Opus Hotel (00 1-604 642 6787, www.opushotel.com; doubles from £90), in buzzy Yaletown, comes with an eye-popping bar scene. Also on the hip list is the Metropolitan (604 687 1122, www.metropolitan.com; doubles from £110), which combines neat design with good service.

Up in the Rockies, the big, glitzy Canadian Pacific Railroad palaces (now rebranded, somewhat less evocatively, as Fairmonts) still impress, not least because their settings are simply stunning. The Fairmont Banff Springs has doubles from £289; Lake Louise costs from £162; Jasper Park Lodge from £176. Call 020 7025 1625 or visit www.fairmont.com.

A good alternative in Banff is Rimrock Resort (00 1-403 762 3356, www.rimrockresort.com), with great views, friendly staff and a good spa. Doubles start at £125, but special offers can halve that.

The package: North America Travel Service (0845 122 8899, www.northamericatravelservice.co.uk) has a two-week trip, taking in Vancouver, Jasper, Lake Louise, Banff, Calgary and the Rocky Mountaineer, for £1,999pp in July, including flights from London or Manchester and inclusive car hire.

TORONTO

Once known as boring old Hogtown, Canada’s largest city is now the most happening hub in the country (partly thanks to all those visiting actors). Less than eight hours’ flying time from the UK, and with nonstop flights from nine airports here, it’s even a weekend option; for those with more time, it is a gateway to premier-league touring.

Current exchange rates make shopping a big draw — in the chic boutiques of Queen Street, elegant department stores such as Holt Renfrew and the ethnic/bohemian mishmash of Kensington Market.

You’ll have the CN Tower to climb, iconic architecture to admire (Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind both have works in progress) and sandy beaches beside a lake the size of an ocean. At night, the city is alive with theatre, music and comedy, and you can dine in Little India, Little Italy or four separate Chinatowns.

The big draw south of town is Niagara. Canada meets the USA here, and again it wins out: the best views are from north of the border, which is also where 90% of Niagara’s water takes the big dive.

Fly to: Toronto or Montreal.

Where to stay: no shortage of luxury hotels here — a famous Fairmont (020 7025 1625, www.fairmont.com; doubles from £110); a Four Seasons (00 800 6488 6488, www.fourseasons.com; from £160); and a Park Hyatt (00 1-416 925 1234, www.parkhyatttoronto.com; from £105).

In the past three years, however, Toronto has discovered funky and small. Try the 19-room Drake Hotel (416 531 5042, www.thedrakehotel.ca), with wacky design and off- the-wall attitude (David Byrne and Heather Graham are fans); doubles start at £70.

Or try the high-tech SoHo Metropolitan (416 599 8800, www.soho.metropolitan.com), its 89 rooms replete with all the trimmings of a stylish modern hotel. It does good weekend deals, with doubles from £100.

The package: with British Airways Holidays (0870 243 3406, www.ba.com/holidays), four nights at the four-star Delta Chelsea this summer start at £1,033pp, including car hire.

COWBOY COUNTRY

If you mention dudes, cookouts and rodeos, most people think Wild West USA. But while Canadian cowboy flicks may be in short supply, cattle ranches and riding holidays are thick on the ground.

The best working ranches are in Alberta, just north and west of Montana and Wyoming (where you’ll pay a lot more bucks for your bucks). In Calgary, they even have a Stampede — not an American Pamplona, but a 10-day, 10-gallon rodeo, with steer-wrestling, bareback riding and chuckwagon-racing. Billed as “the greatest outdoor show on earth”, it’s a highlight of the rodeo calendar. The whole town turns cowpoke — if you are going, best pack a Stetson and learn to dance the two-step. This year’s ropin’ and rustlin’ runs from July 8-17; for tickets, call 00 1-403 269 9822 or visit www.calgarystampede.com.

Fly to: Calgary.

Where to stay: the Kensington Riverside Inn (403 228 4442, www.kensingtonriversideinn.com), in Calgary, is a lovely B&B with 19 rooms and wonderful touches; doubles from £99, but not during Stampede.

Homeplace Ranch (403 931 3245, www.homeplaceranch.com) is in the heart of cowboy country, 35 minutes from Calgary: it’s a working ranch where you can learn all the rodeo tricks you’ll ever need. A three-night stay costs £302pp, including meals and riding; there are special week-long packages during Stampede.

Alternatively, the Rafter Six Ranch (403 673 3622, www.raftersix.com), 45 minutes west of Calgary, is a good family option, with trail rides during the day and hoedowns at night; from £58pp. It also offers non-residential rides — £40 for 2-3 hours, including a steak dinner.

The package: with American Round Up (01798 865946, www.americanroundup.com), a package for two adults and two children aged under 12, departing at the end of August, would cost a total of £5,175, including flights, car hire, four nights, room-only, in Calgary and seven with meals and riding at the Three Bars Guest Ranch in British Columbia, which has western-style cabins, an indoor swimming pool and tennis courts.

FRENCH CANADA

Quebec, a World Heritage Site and the only walled city in North America, has kept a firm grip on its French heritage.

It has a reputation as a hard-core anglophobe city, which is wide of the mark these days — although exercising your French, no matter how exe- crable, will win you brownie points. So will eschewing fast food for proper cooking: expect to dine on Canadian-French classics at both intimate bistros (such as Restaurant L’Echaud?; 00 1-418 692 1299) and bastions of haute cuisine (L’Initiale; 418 694 1818).

Quebec City is full of small neighbourhoods, and well worth exploring. You won’t bump into many fellow Brits, as this francophone city puts off the unadventurous. Try the arty-antiquey Quartier Petit Champlain a maze of 17th- century lanes in the Lower Town, reached via the worryingly named Escalier Casse-Cou — Breakneck Staircase.

Quebec can be easily combined with cool, cosmopolitan Montreal, which has a buzzy cafe culture, good late-night bars and a strong jazz and rock scene. You can eat crepes, play p?tanque, feast on aparcours gourmand and relax into the all-pervading let-your-hair-down Gallic ambience.

You’ll recognise some of Montreal’s streets, too — De Niro’s funky jazz club in The Score was in Vieux-Montr?al, while Leonardo DiCaprio came to town to film Catch Me if You Can and The Aviator.

Fly to: Quebec or Montreal.

Where to stay: in Quebec, consider the charming, if basic, Hôtel Belley (00 1-418 692 1694), in the Lower Town area: doubles £30-£50. Nearby is the Hôtel Dominion 1912 (418 692 2224, www.hoteldominion.com), with 60 chic rooms from £80. More conventional is the Hôtel Manoir Victoria (418 692 1030, www.manoir-victoria.com), with 145 rooms, two restaurants, a gym, a pool and a spa; doubles from £75.

In Montreal, try the Hôtel Le Germain (514 849 2050, www.germainmontreal.com), part of a small chain that specialises in comfortable francophilia; doubles from £110, B&B. Or consider the minimal St Paul Hotel (00 800 3746 8357, www.hotelstpaul.com) — so cutting- edge, you could nick yourself.

The package: Tailor Made Travel (0845 456 8050, www.tailor-made.co.uk) offers two weeks and three cities — Toronto, Montreal and Quebec — with train travel in between and flights to Toronto (home from Quebec) for £1,099pp.

THE EAST COAST

Canada does the outdoors like nowhere else on earth. Even in the city-centric east, there are some breathtaking drives to enjoy — although you’ll need three weeks if you want an unhurried balance of town and country.

Half of Canada is coated in forest, and the arboreal highlight — within striking range of Toronto and Ottawa — is Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park. You can explore by canoe, following waymarked trails that connect lakes and rivers; several firms can arrange kayak hire.

Rather than return to Toronto, buy an open-jaw ticket and fly home from Halifax, Nova Scotia (see box). Then you’re free to explore the Atlantic seaboard, a 1,000-mile eco-treat of rocky shores, fishing villages, lighthouses, whale-watching, maritime museums and more lobster than you’ve had hot dinners.

Three of Canada’s most spectacular coastal drives run parallel to the east coast: one edging around the Gasp? Peninsula, in Quebec; another on the so-called Lighthouse Route, through Nova Scotia; and a third following the Cabot trail around the rugged coastline of Cape Breton island.

Fly to: Toronto, St John’s or Halifax.

Where to stay: for an easy- going wilderness experience in Ontario, try the Deerhurst Resort (00 1-705 789 6411, www.deerhurstresort.com), a beguiling blend of luxury and seclusion. It’s on Peninsula Lake, in the picturesque North Muskoka region, handy for the Algonquin park and perfect for year-round canoeing, hiking and riding (although snow chains and snowshoes are required in winter). Doubles start at £61.

Also in Ontario, Killarney Mountain Lodge (705 287 2242, www.killarney.com) has been in the wilderness business for 40 years. It has rustic cabins right beside the Lake Huron shore, home-cooked food and a varied outdoor adventure programme — everything from sunset sails to hikes in the LaCloche Mountains. Doubles start at £55pp, full-board.

A new website, novascotia.com, is an excellent one-stop shop for independent travellers in Nova Scotia, highlighting routes, accommodation, food and attractions.

The package: an alternative family base is the Humber Valley Resort, set in 615 acres of Appalachian forest in Newfoundland. It’s less than a six-hour flight from Gatwick to nearby Deer Lake airport, and four people sharing a three-bedroom chalet in high season would pay £777pp, including flights, with Barwell Leisure (020 8786 3071, www.experiencehumbervalley.com).

CANADA BY TRAIN

Canadians may prefer to take a Toyota these days, but trains still have a strong resonance. Canada was opened up by the railways, notably when tracks were laid across the Rockies — still a stunning switchback ride through mountains, around waterfalls and over verti- ginous viaducts.

VIA Rail’s “The Canadian” links east coast with west via a 2,750-mile track of iron. You can break the 72-hour journey wherever the train stops: in Winnipeg, for example, where you could take the Hudson Bay train north to Churchill, stepping stone to Canada’s Arctic. Or from Jasper, high in the Rockies, you could catch the Skeena through spectacular passes to Prince Rupert, gateway to the Queen Charlotte Islands, then go south by ferry through the fabled Inside Passage to Vancouver.

There is also the Rocky Mountaineer, mentioned above — a tourist train rather than a scheduled service, but retracing the original route across the Great Divide.

Fly to: Toronto or Vancouver.

The trains: the best indep-endent rail deal is a Canrailpass — about £330 for 12 days’ unlimited summer travel within a 30-day period. The passes are available through Western Air (0870 330 1100, www.westernair.co.uk) and Expedia (www.expedia.co.uk).

The Rocky Mountaineer (01622 832244, www.rockymountaineer.com) has several routes with two days on board; from £333pp, including meals and a night’s accommodation.

A vital companion for indep-endent rail travellers is the Trans-Canada Rail Guide (Trailblazer £10.99).

The package: Great Rail Journeys (01904 521940, www.greatrail.com) has an escorted 17-day trip, taking in Niagara Falls, the prairies, the Rockies and the Rocky Mountaineer — £3,350pp, departing on August 22 or August 29 and including flights from London to Toronto (back from Vancouver), many meals, top-class train travel and excursions.

How to get there, how to get around

THERE’S a good choice of airlines and departure airports for Canada. Note that you can usually fly to one city and back from another on an open-jaw ticket for little more than a normal return.

THE ROUTES

Vancouver: British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com) and Air Canada (0871 220 1111, www.aircanada.com) fly from Heathrow; from £590. Air Canada also flies from Dublin and Shannon (01 679 3958); from €667. Air Transat (0870 556 1522, www.globespan.com) and Zoom (0870 240 0055, www.flyzoom.com) fly from Gatwick, Glasgow and Manchester; from £336.

Calgary: Air Canada, from Heathrow; from £723. Air Transat, from Gatwick, Glasgow and Manchester; from £336.

Toronto: Air Canada, from Heathrow, Glasgow and Manchester (from £500), and from Dublin and Shannon (from €532). BA, from Heathrow; from £500. Air Transat, from Belfast, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Exeter, Gatwick, Glasgow, Manchester and Newcastle (from £356), and from Dublin and Shannon (from €379). Zoom, from Belfast, Cardiff, Gatwick, Glasgow and Manchester; from £178.

Halifax: Air Canada, from Heathrow; from £486. Zoom, from Belfast, Gatwick and Glasgow; from £178.

Montreal: Air Canada and BA, from Heathrow; from £489. Air Transat and Zoom, from Gatwick; from £256.

St John’s: Air Canada, from Heathrow; from £486.

CHARTER FLIGHTS

Canadian Affair (020 7616 9999, www.canadianaffair.com) has flights from five UK airports to eight cities; from £178. Or try Charter Flight Centre (0845 045 0153, www.charterflights.co.uk) or Flightline (0800 541541, www.flightline.co.uk).

CAR HIRE

Thrifty (01494 751600, www.thrifty.co.uk) has inclusive weekly rates from £108. Or try Alamo (0870 400 4562, www.alamo.co.uk), or Hertz (0870 844 8844, www.hertz.co.uk).