Making the Most of Canada's Wild, Wild West

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There's plenty of adventure -- and breath-taking scenery -- to be found in western Canada. Our travel columnists suggest five exciting places to visit to help you make the most of your journey west of the Rockies.

Photography by the authors. Who are Canadians? Well, they play ice hockey. They wear long raccoon coats. And they are a warm, welcoming people. They also have some of the most glorious scenery -- especially west of the Rockies.

Canada means mountains: Whether you’re zooming on the Rocky Mountaineer train from Vancouver to Calgary, or bobbing in a kayak in the Queen Charlotte Islands, you can’t miss their grandeur. If you’re hiking in the Bugaboos you may even be overwhelmed by them.

It’s the country next door, friendly, safe -- and the U.S. dollar still holds its value. Furthermore, it’s just different enough to be foreign … so a visit there should be a soft adventure. (“Soft” by the standards of the outdoorsy Canadians, but adventurous enough for any American urbanite.) Here are five suggestions to make the most of your Canadian adventure.

VictoriaVictoria reminds us “good things come in small packages.” Tourists find they can walk across the entire downtown area in about 15 to 20 minutes -- and safely, too, be it night or day. Such a walk reminds visitors what many U.S. cities used to be like in a more gentle time.

Visitors to Victoria find the city’s emphasis is on the simple life, as shown by its interest -- almost obsession -- in gardens. “Our gardens are a combination of factors,” Ken Breakwell, a guide with Gray Line West Tours of Victoria tells us. “First, our benign weather -- anything grows. Second, 20 percent of our people are retired, with the time to take an interest in their yards, and third, so many of us come from a British background with our love of all things green. We’ve been accused of being a miniature England; I don’t see that as a bad thing.”

Breakwell believes Victoria is a great place to vacation because its citizens know how dependent the city is on tourism and they correspondingly show their best face. Still, it’s indeed a great place to visit with its balmy weather, ethnic restaurants, multiple attractions and interesting shops full of Canadian crafts, English bone china and Scottish woolens.

We make a point of standing at Mile Zero, the most westerly point on the Trans-Canada Highway, in front of the heart-wrenching Terry Fox statue to pay our respects to the young man who has been called Canada’s greatest hero. Fox lost his right leg due to osteogenic sarcoma at the age of 18. Three years later in 1980 he started his Marathon of Hope in Newfoundland on the Atlantic Coast to raise money for cancer research. Every day he ran 26.2 miles, a marathon, heading west to the Pacific. Fox’s journey ended after 3,339 miles, after he developed pulmonary metastases. He died a year later, having met his objective of raising the equivalent of a dollar from every Canadian for cancer research.

The Haida Heritage Site

The Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve is as deep as visitors can delve into the very essence of Canadian history. Sometimes called the Queen Charlotte Islands, this area just north of Vancouver Island has been the home, it’s said, of the Haida people for more than 10,000 years. The Canadian government acknowledges claims to those islands by the survivors of the Haida and helps protect their lands and waters. There are no roads and access is only by sea.

Bluewater Adventures has been sailing those waters for more than 35 years. A pioneer in ecotourism, it was grandfathered in when regulations were written to reduce the intrusion of tourism in those private, even sacred, waters. Bluewater now has three boats, two of them being gorgeous 68 foot ketches. The captains take their yachts to remote coastlines and ancient native villages, where totem poles still stand against the sky. A guide leads the way to ancient canoes that are returning to nature in the rain forests, a naturalist talks about the day’s adventures while the chef creates astounding meals from the tiny galley. A voyage here will be one of the highlights of your life -- it was for us.

Helicopter Hiking

Hiking by helicopter has almost everything going for it: Grand vistas, communes with nature, significant exercise, fresh air, friendly people -- and fun. Canadian Mountain Holidays started with helicopter skiing but, to meet the huge cost of maintaining helicopters year-round, it branched out into assisting hikers in the warmer seasons. Hikers fly into Calgary and the tour company takes care of the rest. Canadian Mountain provides proper clothing and boots, and feeds you hearty meals that would knock Henry VIII off his feet. You get to go places you’d never find on your own and see vistas that, years later, still make you catch your breath when you glance yet again at your photographs.

The Rocky Mountaineer

This is not Amtrak. This is North American train travel the way it should be. Trains that leave on time. Clean compartments. Comfortable seating. More than adequate space for luggage. Quality meals. Competent and considerate people anxious to help and add to your experience. And most of all, superb scenery and delightful destinations that are adventures in themselves.

The Rocky Mountaineer offers several routes, a favorite being Vancouver to Calgary. You’ll pay more to ride in the “Dome Car,” but it really provides a better view and may be worth paying more.

The Calgary Stampede

If Victoria is our favorite Canadian city, Alberta has to be our favorite province. It has so much going for it and every July, of course, Calgary bursts on the scene with its Stampede. The event is a unique experience in a one-of-a-kind location.

These competitors are today’s gladiators: Man versus Beast in a city that offers those walking its streets at this special time a breakfast on the house. All you have to do is smile back and say Howdy! That’s so easy in such a friendly city.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the American Society of Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.