1. Cape Breton, Nova Scotia
With its salt-tanged fishing villages and mountainous interior cloaked in dense woods, Cape Breton is the prize of Nova Scotia, a green getaway splashed with lakes and lapped by the blue waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic Ocean. Besides the natural beauty to be found here, the Cabot Trail immerses you in the still vibrant Gaelic and Acadian cultures of Cape Breton.
The Cabot Trail makes a 185-mile (297-kilometer) loop around a sizeable chunk of the island, passing through Cape Breton Highlands National Park at its northernmost point. A 367-square-mile (950-square-kilometer), flat-topped plateau cut by deep river valleys, this wilderness is home to moose, black bears, and bald eagles. Mostly, the Cabot Trail skirts the edges of the park, at times clinging to steep oceanside cliffs. The town of Baddeck, on Bras d’Or Lake, is a good starting point for the drive. From there, you can make the Cabot Trail loop in either direction, stopping to feast on fresh seafood, stay in hospitable inns and B&Bs, hike some of the 25 trails in the national park, and enjoy the scenery from the many roadside “look offs.”
Learn about all the other things created by the inventor of the telephone at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site in Baddeck (559 Chebucto St). While in Baddeck, boat around Bras d’Or Lake for a view of the Bell mansion, as well as nesting bald eagles and the lush Baddeck shoreline.
The classy Keltic Lodge in Ingonish for the scenic Middle Head Trail, a 2.5-mile (4-kilometer) round-trip path leading from the lodge to a windswept headland with views looking off toward Scotland.
Take the alternate scenic route between Neil’s Harbour and South Harbour, which follows the coastline where the Cabot Trail veers inland. The road may not be as good, but the scenery—and the unvarnished seaside hamlets along the way more than make up for it.
In Pleasant Bay (23197 Cabot Trail Rd) try some of the best lobster rolls on the Cabot Trail and check out the Whale Interpretive Centre. For a short (20-minute) stroll to see a real Cape Breton Highlands bog, take the—ta dah—Bog Trail.
Just outside the park, take a whale-watching cruise out of the Acadian village of Chéticamp (Whale Cruisers Ltd., Government Wharf, Cabot Trail Rd). Pods of pilot whales are common, as well as bald eagles and moose feeding. Back in Chéticamp, the boardwalk overlooking the harbor is a great place to watch the sun go down while listening to live Acadian music.
South of Margaree Harbour, the Cabot Trail swings inland, and the rolling farmland of the Margaree River Valley cradles the road back to Baddeck. If your timing is right, stop in for Celtic music at The Barn on the grounds of the Normaway Inn (691 Egypt Rd).
Summer is the best time to drive the Cabot Trail. The attractions described above reflect a counterclockwise trip around the Cabot Trail, starting in the town of Baddeck.
2. Banff to Jasper, Rocky Mountains
The route begins near Calgary, heads west 84 miles (135 kilometers) to the border of Banff (Sulphur Mountain Gondola, Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, Lake Minnewanka), then goes 36 miles (58 kilometers) to the northwest through the heart of Banff along the Bow River Valley (Johnston Canyon – 2.7km hike) to Lake Louise (Plain of the Six Glaciers hike). For 144 miles (232 kilometers), the route follows the Icefields Parkway, one of the world’s most stunning roadways (Columbia Icefields, Crowfoot Glacier, Bow Glacier Falls, Peyto Lake, Parker Ridge hike, Sunwapta Falls), farther north to Jasper (Jasper Tramway, Maligne Canyon). If there’s time, consider a half-day side trip into Mount Robson Provincial Park (55 miles/88.5 kilometers west on Trans-Canada to see 12,972-foot (3,954-meter) Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, via a 4-5 day backpacking trip.
3. South West British Columbia
From western Canada’s waterfront cities to the Coast Mountains’ glacier-draped heights, this tour has a bit of everything—first-rate museums, strait crossings, and spectacular scenery mixed with history and the currents of strong and distinct cultures of the Northwest Coast tribes. This five- to seven-day tour commences in Vancouver, hops a ferry to Victoria, skips along the coast of Vancouver Island and returns to the mainland for a sojourn among the glaciers at Whistler. It then scrambles through rough country inland along a gold rush trail to Kamloops, in the heart of cattle country. The route detours to the mighty Fraser River canyon before finally drifting back downriver to Vancouver.
Vancouver is a coastal city blessed by dramatic geography. Ocean water washes its shores, while close inland, mountains rise to snowcapped heights. Top city sights include the flower gardens of Queen Elizabeth Park, the VanDusen Botanical Garden (5251 Oak St.), the Vancouver Maritime Museum (1905 Ogden Ave.), and the Museum of Anthropology (6393 N.W. Marine Dr) with its collection of art by Northwest Coast First Nations peoples. The city’s crowning urban glory might well be the green peninsula of Stanley Park with its winding drives, towering cedars, footpaths and the Seawall walk. Allow several hours for the park and Vancouver Aquarium.
Take Highway 99 across the Lions Gate Bridge to North Vancouver and Capilano Canyon, hike the Grouse Grind or take the Grouse Mountain Skyride that climbs almost 3,000 vertical feet (914 meters) to a view of city and inlet. To stay closer to sea level, follow Marine Drive west to Lighthouse Park. Established in 1881 as a lighthouse reserve, trails lead through the cathedral-like shadows of the ancient cedar and remnant stand of old-growth Douglas-fir fir trees to the lighthouse on a rocky shoreline.
Drive south on Highway 99 to the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal and take the ferry to Victoria. Crossing the Strait of Georgia, you realize that for all its water, Vancouver is not an oceanfront city. It stands protected by numerous small islands and one very large one: Vancouver Island itself. An hour into the passage, a long chain of snowcapped peaks comes into view: the Olympic Mountains in Washington State. The white dome to the east is Mount Baker, also in Washington. The ferry docks at Swartz Bay, and you make your entry to Victoria by driving south on Highway 17 to the southeastern tip of Vancouver Island.
Victoria. The heart of the city is its inner harbor, a delightful place to spend an afternoon among seagulls, artists, and musicians. Take tea at the grand Empress Hotel, explore the Royal British Columbia Museum (675 Belleville St.) and the Maritime Museum of British Columbia (28 Bastion Square). Make time for an excursion outside the city and see the lavish floral displays of Butchart Gardens (800 Benvenuto Ave., off Hwy. 17).
From Victoria, follow Trans-Canada 1 as it rolls north toward the ferry dock in Nanaimo. Along the way, ride a train and hear the story of what is still the province’s largest industry at the B.C. Forest Discovery Center (2892 Drinkwater Rd., Duncan).In Nanaimo, explore the rocks and coves of Newcastle Island Provincial Marine Park (by passenger ferry), or visit The Bastion, a wooden gun tower built in 1853 to protect the harbor. Learn about coal mines at the Nanaimo District Museum (100 Museum Way).
Head to the ferry dock and back to the mainland for an excursion among glaciers. Disembark at Horseshoe Bay, turn north, and follow the coast road along spectacular Howe Sound, one of British Columbia’s trademark fjords. The glaciers that carved this narrow channel also smoothed the rocks on both sides, exposing valuable ore near Britannia. The copper mine here once employed 60,000 people and turned out over 50 million tons of concentrate. Now it houses the B.C. Museum of Mining (Britannia Beach).
A few miles (five kilometers) farther, at Shannon Falls Provincial Park, walk the short trail to British Columbia’s third highest waterfall (1,100 feet/335 meters). The lookout point is set among tall cedar and fir, which seem big enough except for the huge stumps that tell of even greater giants that once grew here
Past Squamish, rock climbers appear like spiders on the monolith of granite called Stawamus Chief. From here, the road begins a long climb toward the mountain and ski resort of Whistler, also a full summer destination with restaurants, golf courses, river-running, hiking, and more. A chairlift ride to the top of Blackcomb Mountain takes you through forest and meadow to a rocky ridge a mile (1.6 kilometers) above the valley floor. Garibaldi Provincial Park, a wilderness of glacier-clad peaks, stretches into the distance. Trails lead in that direction, and also back down the mountain.
Leaving Whistler, the highway drops scenically toward Pemberton. Take the trail at Nairn Falls Provincial Park to where the Green River’s glacial waters explode through a narrow canyon. The road lingers in the relative openness of the Pemberton Valley, then begins an ear-popping climb to Duffey Lake Pass. At Joffre Lakes Provincial Park, take a five-minute walk through the cool forest to Lower Joffre Lake and, if you continue down a steep path, thundering views of the Matier Glacier and surrounding peaks. Then it’s down and down as the road plummets to the valley of the Fraser River.
Occupying flat benches above the river, Lillooet was the largest city north of San Francisco and west of Chicago in 1860, with nearly 16,000 miners searching for gold.
Highway 99 crosses the mighty Fraser, then rolls through dry grassy hills to the Thompson River Valley. This is Canada’s dry belt, the parched interior, where summer temperatures rise above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius). About seven miles (11 kilometers) north of Cache Creek, Historic Hat Creek Ranch was once a roadhouse and supply point on the Cariboo Wagon Road.
Continue east through brown hills, ponderosa pine, and occasional prickly pear cactus to Kamloops. At the Kamloops Museum and Archives (207 Seymour St.), exhibits describe the city’s first days as a Hudson’s Bay Company post, and follow events through the gold rush to more recent times. For a glimpse of First Nations’ culture, go northeast across town to Secwepemc Museum and Native Heritage Park (355 Yellowhead Hwy). View the artifacts, then step outside to an archaeological site and a reconstructed village. If the high country is on your mind, head for the ski lifts and alpine flower meadows of Sun Peaks Resort (N on Hwy. 5 to Heffley Creek, then E on Tod Mountain Rd).
Leaving Kamloops, Highway 5A climbs south over the gentle hills of what settlers called the Empire of Grass. This is cattle country, where huge ranches were established starting in the 1870s.
At Merritt, Highway 5A joins the Coquihalla Highway, the four-lane road to the coast. Coquihalla Canyon is the shortest route from Vancouver to the interior. In 1914 the Kettle Valley Railway was forced through with great difficulty and expense. At Coquihalla Canyon Provincial Park, walk the abandoned rail bed to a series of four tunnels above the river. If time allows, drive up the canyon, where a footbridge offers a white-knuckled view directly above boiling rapids. Just downstream, picnic in Alexandra Bridge Provincial Park.
From here, it’s back down the Fraser River Valley to Vancouver. Stay northwest of the river and follow Highway 7 to Hot Springs Road and Harrison Hot Springs Resort and Spa or in summer the woodland lakes of neighboring Sasquatch Provincial Park
Cross the Fraser and take Trans-Canada 1 to Langley and Fort Langley National Historic Site (Mavis St.). Formerly a distribution point for the Hudson’s Bay Company, the fort is now a living history museum set up to re-create conditions in the 1850s.
As a last stop before Vancouver, consider New Westminster, once the capital of the Crown Colony of British Columbia. Head for the waterfront and step aboard the S.S. Samson V Maritime Museum, last of the sternwheel snag boats and deadhead grubbers.
May through September is the ideal time to drive this 550-mile (885-kilometer) route.