Canada by car

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]fter driving 2,224 km across 10 provinces, taking 4 ferries, hitting one mink, and spending six weeks with my significant other, I can honestly say that driving across Canada is one of the best things I’ve ever done.

It was 2011, and I was working a co-op job in the Canada Revenue Agency call centre. Most of my time was spent answering boring tax questions or calming people down after they just received an intimidating letter from the CRA, but sometimes, when speaking to someone from the opposite end of the country, I would imagine what it was like where they lived. And this inspired to drive there and find out.

A trip like this is an opportunity that doesn’t come around often — so make sure you embrace it when it does. A semester off during university may be the only time that you can take such an extended leave and not worry about letting your commitments fall to the wayside. If you can, I suggest you take this road trip of a lifetime before you become encumbered with obligations and it becomes something that you always wish did.

My boyfriend and I set off on July 20 in our tiny Chevy Aveo and didn’t have to be home until Labour Day. That boyfriend is now my fiancé, and I have to say that this type of trip is also a great test of any relationship’s strength. Spending that amount of time with anyone is likely to make things a bit tense, but with little else except the road ahead, the only thing to do is be quiet and get over it unless you want to make your own way home.

Cash saving tip number one: get in touch with every friend and relative you have across this grand country and tell them you’ll be stopping by. Our first stop was my grandpa’s house in Kelowna — we took it easy on the first day and only drove a few hours. If you’re not used to long hours in the car, it’s probably a good idea not to overdo it on the first day.

From there, we made our way to Calgary, via a stop for the night at Banff National Park and the beautiful Lake Louise. That brings me to cash saving tip number two: get used to roughing it. That was our first camping stop, and although we only did about 50 percent camping (after a few days you just crave a real bed and a good shower), but we did manage to camp in every province.

What we thought was a deserted side road in the middle of the night turned out to be somebody’s driveway in the morning.

Roughing it also includes eating sub-par food. We equipped ourselves with a hand-me-down cooler and kept it stocked with cold drinks (this reduces unnecessary stops for overpriced gas station beverages) and a variety of groceries such as cold cuts for sandwiches and milk for cereal (not every cheap hotel comes with continental breakfast). With a couple of plastic bowls, plates, and cutlery, it’s surprising how many makeshift meals you can prepare. When camping, we would stop at a grocery store and buy some snacks, meat, and vegetables, throw our cheap grill on the fire, and voilà, dinner was served. Food is probably the most expensive component of any travel experience, and we were on a budget.

Of course, the other thing that adds up is the gas — cash saving tip number three: if you are planning to drive over 20,000 km, take a small car (even if people in Labrador stare at you like you’re from another planet).

In Calgary we had the fortune of staying with more family, and the only other places where we knew anyone were Cornwall, Montreal, Quebec City, and a tiny island in Nova Scotia. We continued on through Drumheller, Saskatoon, and Regina, and camped in the beautiful Buffalo Pound Provincial Park in Saskatchewan where we had the fortune of witnessing a spectacular lightning display that night. Saskatchewan is referred to as “land of living skies,” and when the sunset turns the whole sky pink, it’s magical.

Not everywhere in that province was as impressive. After a long day of driving we stopped at a roadside motel in the middle of nowhere. After checking in, we noticed countless bugs in our room — dead and alive, and could not imagine getting into the bed, never mind getting any sleep. Of course the next sign of civilization was a long way off, so we ended up deciding to park ourselves inconspicuously on a side road and sleep in the car. What we thought was a deserted side road in the middle of the night turned out to be somebody’s driveway in the morning. . . we woke up to a knock on the window, but instead of anger we were met with an invitation to come inside for coffee and breakfast. Those prairie people are just so friendly. We declined and said we had to be on our way.

Saskatchewan is referred to as “land of living skies,” and when the sunset turns the whole sky pink, it’s magical.

It was true, though, we did have to be somewhere by a certain date — Stratford. It had long been a dream of mine to visit the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, so I bought us tickets to Twelfth Night, and we were in a hurry to get there by July 30. Ontario isn’t nicknamed “longtario” for no reason, but we made it to the city of Shakespeare in time after a very scenic ferry ride across Lake Superior. On the way back across the country we stopped in Stratford again and saw Camelot and on the cliffs in St. John’s we were treated to a free outdoor production of Hamlet by Shakespeare by the Sea. One day, I’ll do a Shakespeare tour and stop at Shakespeare by the Saskatchewan as well.

We continued through Ontario and spent a few days in Niagara Falls, which is spectacular, spent some time in Montreal with family, and stayed in a friend’s cabin just outside Quebec City. The Gaspé Peninsula is another stunning sight that was worth the drive around, and that took us into the Maritimes. Confederation Bridge feels like it will never end, Anne of Green Gables’ house is just as magical as I pictured it, and New Brunswick has a beautiful coastline. In Nova Soctia, we spent a couple of nights with family in a hundred-year-old house on Long Island, only accessible by a ferry that runs once an hour. A 13 hour ferry ride got us to Newfoundland where I had trouble understanding a few people through their accents, and a ferry — a questionably seaworthy one — took us over to Labrador.

If I tell you everything about our trip, we’ll be here for a week, but one place that really stood out was Labrador. We saw the northern lights, drove on a gravel highway, got a flat tire, drove on a gravel highway with a spare tire, hit a mink, and slept in the car again. We almost slept in the car twice in a row, but Labrador City had one room left for us — at a bed and breakfast that turned out to be a spare room in someone’s house. The Atkins were a wonderful couple who took us in, fed us homemade cookies, helped get our tire fixed (there was only one of those left in the city too), and made us feel like we were right at home when we were the farthest we had been from it.

Our drive back across the country took less time and we did less sightseeing, but it was by no means boring. There is always more to see, and I hope I’ll be able to take this trip again someday. My favourite city in the country? That’s a tough one, but I will say Quebec City. It has that 400-year-old European charm, stunning architecture, and of course, le Français.

My least favourite city? That’s easy: Winnipeg.