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Situated north of the USA, between the Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific oceans, Canada with its area of 9.97 million sq km is the world's second largest country (Russia takes the guernsey). It extends some 7700km east to west and 4600km north to south. Nearly 90% of 31.28 million Canadians huddle along the 6379km southern border with the USA. Though much of the land is lake and river-filled forest, there are mountains, plains and even a small desert. The Great Plains, or prairies, cover Manitoba, Saskatchewan and parts of Alberta. These former grasslands are now responsible for Canada's abundant wheat crop. Western Canada is known for its Rocky Mountains, while the east has the country's major cities and also its most visited geographic feature, Niagara Falls. The Canadian Shield, an ancient, rocky and glacially sanded region formed more than 2.5 billion years ago, covers most of the north of the country. The Arctic region, in the far north, is where you'll find frozen tundra merging into islands that are ice-bound for most of the year.

Those expecting Canada to be a blander version of the USA should check their assumptions at the door. Canada's wild northern frontier and its distinct patchwork of peoples have created a country that is decidedly different from its brash neighbour. It's the edginess between Canada's indigenous, French and British traditions that gives the nation its complex three-dimensional character. Add to this a constant infusion of US culture and a plethora of traditions brought by migrants, and you have a thriving multicultural society.

Well before Columbus 'discovered' America in 1492, prehistoric tribes from Asia had come across the Bering Strait; around AD 1000, the Vikings, the first European vistors, had tried to settle in northern Newfoundland. By the time subsequent Europeans arrived, Canada's Indian tribes had already developed a multitude of languages, customs, religious beliefs, trading patterns, arts and crafts, laws and governments. Although a number of European countries were interested in establishing settlements in the Americas, it was French explorer Jacques Cartier who made the first claim on the area surrounding the St Lawrence River in 1534.

Another French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, founded Quebec City in the early 1600s. In 1663 Canada, now home to about 3000 French settlers, became a province of France. Just as the French started to thrive on the fur trade, the British entered the scene, founding the Hudson's Bay Company in 1670 to add a bit of 'friendly' competition. For a while, the two European cultures coexisted peacefully. Then, in 1745, British troops captured a French fort in Nova Scotia, and the struggle for control of the new land was on. The turning point in what became known as the Seven Years' War arrived when the British defeated the French at Quebec City in 1759. At the Treaty of Paris in 1763, France handed Canada over to Britain.

By the end of the American Revolution (1775-83), a migration of about 50,000 British 'Loyalists' from the USA created a more even balance between the French and British populations. After the War of 1812 - the last war between Canada and the USA, in which Canada was victorious - Britain, fearful of losing Canada as it had the American Colonies, proclaimed the British North America Act (BNA Act) in 1867. The Act established the Dominion of Canada and became Canada's equivalent of a constitution. By 1885 the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway - one of Canada's great historical sagas - joined the country's east and west coasts. By 1912 all provinces had become part of the central government except Newfoundland, which finally joined in 1949.

After WWI Canada grew slowly in stature and prosperity, becoming a voluntary member of the Commonwealth in 1931. With the onset of WWII, Canada once again fought alongside Britain against Germany, though this time it also entered into defense agreements with the USA, declaring war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

In the years after WWII, Canada experienced a huge wave of European immigration, with a further influx of Asians, Arabs, Indians, Italians, Hispanics and Caribbeans arriving in the 1960s. The postwar era was a period of economic expansion and prosperity. In 1967 Canada celebrated its 100th anniversary with Expo, the World's Fair in Montreal, as one of the highlights. Since 1975, a series of land rights agreements has been signed with Canada's native peoples, giving them some control over vast swathes of the northern portion of the country.

The social upheavals of the 1960s brought to the surface the festering resentments that French-speaking Quebec had with English-speaking Canada. In 1976 the Parti Quebecois (PQ), advocating separatism, won the provincial election in Quebec, though sentiments on the issue have since waxed and waned. In the 1980 sovereignty referendum, the separatists were defeated by 60% of the vote. In October 1995, the vote was extremely close, with Canada coming within a few thousand votes of breaking up. The prime minister, Jean Chrétien, has since attempted to appease the Quebeckers by recognising the province as a 'distinct society'.

Canada's capital, Ottawa, sprawls along the southern bank of the Ottawa River, on the eastern tip of Ontario. As you'd expect, it's a government town, dominated physically and spiritually by the neo-Gothic Parliament Buildings. You'll hear a fair amount of French spoken here, as many federal government workers are required to be bilingual. There's not a heap of exciting things to do in Ottawa - other than marvel at being in a national capital - but the air's clean, the streets are wide, there are lots of public parks and the people seem happy and healthy as they jog or cycle their way to work. The city has the usual plethora of impressive buildings common to capital cities: the War Museum (with a life-sized replica of a WWI trench), the Royal Mint, various grand old homes inhabited by ministers of state and a swag of museums to do justice to the country's icons: nature, aviation, science and technology, skiing and agriculture. Ottawa is also home to Canada's premier art collection, the National Gallery, displaying an enormous array of North American and European works. In summer the city is dotted with the familiar red coats of the Royal Canadian Mounties.

As the capital of Canada's smallest province (the delectable Prince Edward Island), it's only fitting that Charlottetown comes across as an old, quiet country town. The issue of Canada's unity was first officially discussed here in 1864, and nowadays the tiny capital is known as the birthplace of Canadian confederation. The pace is slow, the atmosphere still colonial, and the tree-lined Victorian streets are very easy on the eye. The oldest part of town is clustered around the waterfront area, with the usual renovated buildings and recreation dollar-chasing facilities. A strident note is sounded by the 1960s modern structure that houses the Confederation Centre of the Arts, which highlights the work of Canadian artists. Prince Edward Island's main claim to fame, however, is the town of Cavendish, the setting for Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, followed by the island's tradition of whopping big lobster suppers.

Edmonton is the capital of Alberta, the most westerly of the prairie provinces. While Calgary milks the wild west image, Edmonton prefers to hit the headlines for housing the world's largest shopping and entertainment mall. The city enjoys an attractively wooded riverside setting, with parklands following the snaking rhythm of the Saskatchewan River. The province's famed mineral legacy is explored in the Provincial Museum, and there's also Canada's largest planetarium, unsurprisingly accompanied by an IMAX theatre. The gem south of the river is Old Strathcona, a residential area of gorgeous old buildings dating from 1891, interspersed with cafes, bookshops and buskers. Which it appears you won't find in all 48 hectares (118 acres) of the West Edmonton Mall, aka the mall that ate Edmonton's retail life. The 800 shops are tacky and repetitive, the chains are too-well represented, and the 'entertainment' includes an artificial beach and skating rink - but the climate is controlled, and for the frost-bitten denizens of the Canadian Plains that's probably reason enough for the mall's success.

Perched on one of the world's largest natural harbours, fog-bound Halifax has gone from old-salt port to deluxe destination, with its historic areas gussied up into sleek tourist precincts. More and more travellers are setting course for Nova Scotia's capital. Most of Halifax's attractions centre, unsurprisingly, around a maritime theme. The city was the base of rescue operations for the Titanic tragedy and so nabbed much of the highly sought-after flotsam. Its museums, historic warehouses and downtown area, and landmark fort all have a salty flavour.

Montréal's charm lies in its relaxed atmosphere rather than its star attractions. Nonetheless, this city of immigrants has managed to carve out a place for itself as Québec Province's economic and cultural centre. That it's friendly and easy to get around helps. The old town of Montréal is a wonderful feast for the senses. The streets are filled with musicians, restaurants, groovy shops and squares. Grab an outside table, shut your eyes and take in the smells, sounds and general atmosphere of bonhomie.

The immense Northwest Territories were subdivided in 1999 to create Canada's newest territory, the eastern Arctic Inuit region of Nunavut. It's a wild and isolated place, stretching north above the tree line from Hudson Bay up to Ellesmere Island National Park, within spitting distance of the North Pole. The provincial capital is Iqaluit, formerly called Frobisher Bay, on the east coast of Baffin Island. It's more a stopping-off and supply spot than an attraction in itself, though there are hiking trails in the vicinity. Most visitors pass through en route to Auyuittuq National Park, Canada's third largest national park, and one of only a few in the world north of the Arctic Circle. The pristine wilderness of mountains, valleys, fjords and meadows is a spectacular must for experienced hikers, and climbers flock to Mount Thor (1500m/4920ft), the tallest uninterrupted cliff face on earth.

Québec City, the rather European-flavoured capital of Québec province, borrows some of its grandeur from a lofty cape and some from its broad river. The city divides between an Old Town bristling with historic ramparts, churches, narrow lanes and former battlefields, and districts revamped with museums, cafes, bars, restaurants and all the other mod-cons of international tourism.

Newfoundland & Labrador's rugged island capital is St John's, North America's oldest city (1528). The hilly town is splendidly located on a series of terraces rising up from the waterfront - there are stairs, stairs everywhere, leading to narrow, winding streets lined with multicoloured clapboard houses. St John's has a quaint, homey feel, and reminders of its fishing village origins are never far away. Not coincidentally, the number of drinking establishments in town is huge. The legacy of the extinct Beothuk tribe who once lived here is explored at the Newfoundland Museum, as are the exploits of the Vikings who used to visit. Many of St John's old buildings were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1892, but those that remain include the Murray Premises, a renovated warehouse from the 1840s. Signal Hill, overlooking the town to the east, is the site where Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless message back in 1901. On the other side of the hill is the picturesque fishing port of Quidi Vidi, complete with microbrewery and historic fort.

Although the famous Niagara Falls are nearby, Toronto isn't a city with a checklist full of attractions. It's a city that grows on you slowly. Its summer festivals, the spicy corners of its markets, the beachfront boardwalks and the music pouring out of its neighbourhood eateries seduce you. Toronto is an experiential city that reveals its secrets slowly. Apart from icons like the cloud-brushing CN tower, the best experiences you'll have in Toronto come from wandering through its ethnically-flavoured neighbourhoods, checking out Victorian architecture and quirky museums.

There aren't many cities in the world that offer Vancouver's combination of big-city lifestyle and outdoor fun in such cheek-by-jowl proximity. Ski in the morning, sail in the afternoon and still make it back to town in time for a cocktail or three. Taking in some First Nations art and culture is a good way to begin a tour through Vancouver. Continue through its many green spaces, its countercultural and cosmopolitan neighbourhoods, and Gastown, the city's original settlement, now transformed into a gussied-up historical quarter.

Canada's wild west begins in the prairie province of Manitoba, and Winnipeg is its capital. But this culturally alive city is anything but provincial: with its US ambience and architecture, it's often compared to its grain-handling, transportation counterpart, Chicago. The similarities don't end there, as Winnipeg is said to have the windiest downtown corner on the continent (steer clear of the Portage Ave and Main St intersection). Downtown is the place to head for the historic sites and museums. The Museum of Man & Nature is a sight, sound and smell-fest of dioramas that bring the lives of Plains Indians and 1920s Winnipeggers alive. The meeting place of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers has been a people magnet for 600 years and these days it's known as The Forks, a riverside recreation area of redeveloped warehouses and factories. The Exchange District is one of the city's most interesting areas, crammed with Victorian commercial buildings and featuring distinctive old advertising signs. Across the Red River, the residential district of St Boniface is one of Canada's oldest French communities, and is well worth an atmospheric wander.

East Ontario's Algonquin Park is one of Canada's best-loved parks, with a dazzling array of hiking and canoeing options. The lake-dotted semi-wilderness has 1600km (992mi) of charted canoe routes to explore, the waterfall-filled Barron Canyon to jump around in, and bear, moose and wolves to run away from. Hikers can opt for a half-hour jaunt or spend days crisscrossing the park's many trails. Algonquin Park is 300km (186mi) north of Toronto, and is accessible by bus in the summer months.

Almost the entire southern edge of New Brunswick is licked by the constantly rising and falling waters of the Bay of Fundy, home to the world's highest tides. The Bay is dotted with the peaceful Fundy Isles, where fishing for lobster is the most strenuous thing to do. The islands include Deer Island, a wooded place of lobster wharves, whales and Old Sow, the world's second-largest natural tidal whirlpool. Campobello Island is a tranquil summer getaway for wealthy New Englanders, while Grand Manan Island, the largest of the Fundies, has spectacular coastal topography, excellent birdwatching, fine hiking trails and sandy beaches. The town of Saint John, on the Fundy Shore, can claim the actor Donald Sutherland as its own, but it's best known for the Moosehead Brewery tours that are run from mid-June through August. East of Saint John, a 12km (7.5mi) cliff-edged stretch of the Fundy Trail Parkway links the town of St Martins with Big Salmon River - it's rugged, wild, drivable, hikable and just gorgeous.

One of Canada's few accessible northern outposts, remote Churchill's lifeblood is the 1.5-day train journey linking the town with Winnipeg, Manitoba's capital, a mere 1600km (992mi) away to the south. Churchill is a major grain-handling port, but eco-tourism is an increasingly important industry for the town. Despite the subzero temperatures and minimal facilities, visitors flock to see the region's huge array of arctic wildlife - from polar bears and beluga whales to caribou and Arctic foxes - and to catch a gaudy glimpse of the aurora borealis. Churchill dubs itself the 'Polar Bear Capital of the World', and for a good reason: the town sits smack bang in the middle of the animals' migration route, and the cute but lethal white bears have been known to wander right through the township. Tours to the tundra to see the bears are Churchill's star attraction during the migration season (September-November), followed closely by May-June birdwatching and the June-August spectacle of 3000 beluga whales moving into the Churchill River.

When there was gold in them thar hills, Dawson City was the place to spend it. The city was built at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers in the gold rush of 1896. At its height, Dawson City was known as 'the Paris of the North', and was home to 38,000 people; these days fewer than 2000 call the city home. It's the most interesting of the Yukon towns, with many attractions remaining from its fleeting but vibrant fling with fame and infamy. The protected buildings create a real frontier atmosphere, and with the Arctic Circle just 240km (150mi) away, they're built on permafrost. Tourist season is limited to May-September, and sights include Diamond Tooth Gertie's Gambling Hall, a re-creation of an 1898 saloon complete with honky-tonk piano and dancing girls. There's also the flamboyant Palace Grand Theatre; a museum housing 25,000 gold-rush artefacts of one kind or another; the SS Keno riverboat; the typically rustic gold-rush cabin that housed Robert Service from 1909 to 1912; a Jack London Interpretative Centre; a couple of old mines to explore; and a graveyard of paddlewheel ferries. Dawson City is a 6.5-hour bus ride north of the Yukon capital, Whitehorse.

Jutting into the Gulf of St Lawrence, north of New Brunswick, the Gaspé Peninsula is often compared with the popular Cape Breton Island of Nova Scotia, but it's much less crowded. The excellent Gaspésie Park, in the centre of the peninsula, is a huge, rugged and undeveloped area of lakes, woods and mountains. Deer and moose amble the backwoods, and the fishing is good - but the real attraction is the hiking. Trails traverse the wonderfully named Chic Choc Mountains, culminating in Mont Jacques Cartier, at 1270m (4165ft) the highest peak in these parts. The hike to the top of the peak is shared by shy woodland caribou, and the alpine scenery and views are fantastic. Other climbs include rigorous Mont Albert and lakeside Mont Xalibu, a fine half-day return walk with superb alpine scenery, a waterfall and views of mountain lakes. The main entry to the park is from the nearby town of Sainte Anne des Monts, 300km (185mi) or so north of Quebec City.

L'Anse-aux-Meadows is the oldest European habitation site in North America. Led by Leif Eriksson, son of the Eric the Red, the Scandinavian Vikings crossed the North Atlantic in 1000 AD, becoming the first known Europeans to land in North America. Now protected as a national park, the historic site is set on the edge of the Strait of Belle Isle, across from Labrador, in a rough, rocky northern environment. It's a fascinating place, made all the more special by the unobtrusive, low-key approach taken in its development. The Viking settlement includes replicas of sod buildings, complete with smoky scent, and there are also eight unearthed originals of wood and sod. There's an interpretive centre to help make sense of things, and if you're lucky you might be offered some Viking snacks to sample. You can also take a two-hour tour on a replica Viking ship.

Running south from Halifax is Nova Scotia's South Shore, a fogbound, jagged coast dotted with rocky coves, fishing villages and historic towns. For tourist purposes it's been dubbed the Lighthouse Route. The gorgeous little shipbuilding town of Lunenberg is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is best-known for having built the racing schooner Bluenose back in 1921. Fishing has always been big in Lunenburg, and things haven't changed too much: Atlantic Canada's largest deep-sea fishing fleet sets sail from here, and North America's biggest fish-processing plant is located in town. Lunenburg still has the flavour and character of an 18th-century British colonial town, thanks to its tradition of wood-construction architecture, maintained since the 1750s. Other than explore the town's Fisheries Museum and beautiful old churches, the thing to do here is to just wander, taking in the wooden houses, wharves and old-fashioned streetscapes - and of course finishing up with a dinner of halibut or haddock, mussels or lobster.

Sprawled along the Alberta-British Columbia border, the Rockies are barely contained within two gigantic national parks - Banff to the South and Jasper to the north. Banff was Canada's first official wildlife sanctuary and these days the town that lent its name to the park is the nation's number one resort spot year round. But Jasper National Park has a larger, wilder and less explored landscape on show. Banff's glorious turquoise Moraine Lake, while in danger of suffering cliche overload, is one of Canada's most idyllic natural attractions. Connecting Banff and Jasper parks is the Columbia Icefield, a vast bowl of ice made up of about 30 glaciers and a remnant of the last Ice Age. For those not glacially inclined, the Rockies offer wildlife walks, swimming, caving, camping, hiking, canoeing, hot-spring soaking, mountain climbing and plenty of places to stay. Accommodation costs are generally lower at the Jasper end of this quintessential Canadian mountain playground.

Starting at the foot of the Rockies and heading out long, wide and flat through Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba is Canada's heartland prairie country. Golden fields of wheat, or sunflowers, stretch forever in these parts, and locals might be heard to sigh 'the Rocky Mountains may be nice but they get in the way of the view'. Alberta's busiest prairie attraction is the quaintly named Blackfoot Indian heritage site - Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, near Fort Macleod.The massive Riding Mountain National Park is a forested oasis in the Manitoba prairies, where bison and bike riders roam. Next door in Saskatchewan the prairies are scattered with evocatively named national parks, and canoe routes often outnumber roads. Eclectic surprises here include Yorkton - north of the Crooked Lake Provincial Park - where onion-domed churches reflect the area's Ukranian heritage. Park your UFO just southeast of Yorkton, near the tiny town of Rocanville, and you'll be at one of Canada's most famous crop circle sites.

Yellowknife is the place to organise your canoe, fishing, kayak, camping, skiing and hiking requirements before heading out into the mountains, forests and treeless tundra of Canada's wild Northwest Territories. The territorial capital sits on the northern shore of Great Slave Lake, catchment basin for the mighty Mackenzie River which runs 1800km (1115mi) northwards to its delta on the Beaufort Sea. A walk around Yellowknife's Old Town takes you past wooden miners huts built during the 1934 gold rush, on streets with good-luck-turned-sour names like Ragged Ass Rd. Visit the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre to learn about the lifestyles of the Dene and Inuit, or head outdoors (weather permitting) for dog-sled tours, visits to a beaver colony or guided fishing trips. The famed Northern Lights (aurora borealis) light up the fall-to-winter sky October-February with streaks and haloes of green, yellow and rose. In March the city celebrates the end of winter with the Caribou Carnival, and July explodes with the Festival of the Midnight Sun and the Folk on the Rocks music festival.

Canada's greatest attribute is its natural environment - it would be simpler to list the activities that aren't available in Canada than those that are. Pursuits on the available list should begin with hiking. In Ontario, Killarney Park has a long-distance trail around the tops of its rounded mountains. Other impressively vertical regions include Gaspésie Park and Mont Tremblant Park in Quebec, Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland, and Cape Breton National Park in Nova Scotia. More hardcore multi-day hikes can be had in Pukaskwa National Park on Lake Superior and on the partially completed coast-to-coast Trans Canada marathon trail (can you spare 750 days?). Many parks provide outfitters for canoeing, kayaking and white-water rafting. Some of the best paddling can be found at Nova Scotia's Kejiumkujik National Park.

For beach activities, surf's up on the east coast at Ingonish Beach in Nova Scotia and in the warmer waters of Melmerby and Caribou beaches near New Glasgow. Skiers are spoilt for choice, with good cross-country skiing found all across the land. The main alpine ski centres are in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and around Whistler in British Columbia. There's also rock climbing; Collingwood and Thunder Bay in Ontario, Banff and Jasper in Alberta, and Squamish in BC are all good places to try. Fishing is abundant and popular, even in winter; you'll need a license. Some of the most popular cycling areas are the hilly Gaspé Peninsula in Québec and the Atlantic Provinces, excluding Newfoundland. In Ontario try the Bruce Peninsula and the Thousand Islands Parkway. There's also good cycling in the Rocky Mountains (especially off-road mountain biking) and throughout British Columbia.

The ecotourism movement has a long history in Canada, and unlike most countries, the costs involved are reasonable. One of the best trips is to the Magdalen Islands of Quebec, where baby seals await your cooing adoration. There are also many trips specializing in the culture of Native people.

Canada has an incredible mix of native flora and fauna. It comprises eight vegetation zones, most of which are dominated by forest. Some of the common tree species include white and black spruce, balsam and Douglas fir, western red cedar, white pine and the sugar maple which bears one of Canada's best-known symbols - the maple leaf which appears on the country's flag. Endemic animals include the grizzly, black, brown and polar bears, beaver, buffalo, wolf, coyote, lynx, cougar, deer, caribou, elk and moose. There are also 500 species of birds, such as the great blue heron, Canada geese and many varieties of duck. Moves are afoot to ensure protection for endangered species like the beluga whale, burrowing owl whooping crane and eastern wolf. Canada has 39 national parks, 145 parks-administered national historic sites and 13 areas of such natural significance that they are on the UN World Heritage list.