A few summers ago, I convinced my husband to join me, our rapidly growing fetus, and our two-year-old and ten-month-old boys, on a 3,500 mile, 13 day trek to Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. This Canadian adventure was the very first of what has become our annual (sometimes semi-annual) family road trip, these unruly journeys that have cemented themselves at the very top of my favorite way to travel.
Since that initial adventure three years ago, we’ve logged over 30,000 miles and God knows how many hours behind the wheel with our crazy crew. It’s bonkers. It really is, and on this inaugural trip, we walked away with a few steadfast rules for any road trip, but more specifically, we took away some valuable lessons pertaining to Canada and how best to traverse its terrain.
1. Do not bring pepper spray across the Canadian border.
We set off from our home-base of Michigan and crossed the border in Sarnia where we were met by a Canadian border patrol officer who disapproved of my cousin (our free vacation nanny) carrying pepper spray. Unfortunately, my husband and I didn’t realize this was in her possession, which ended up making us look like arms dealers sneaking weaponry across international lines. After a full-blown interrogation and cavity search (I jest), we gave up the contraband and were on our way.
2. The drive from Michigan to Montreal is a bitch.
The road time from the Michigan border to Montreal is 8 hours 45 minutes. For a family traveling with a pregnant woman and two toddlers, the official time is two dull days and one angry night. We cruised across Ontario, stopping in Toronto for a comfy bed and a tour of Toronto Island (definitely worth the short ferry ride for those looking to amuse children). We did nearly lose our three-year-old to a disgruntled goose, so don’t let your guard down.
The next leg of the trip was a freaking nightmare. We had spent the morning and early afternoon meandering around Ontario’s beautiful capital and were looking forward to enjoying the rest of the trek to Montreal that afternoon. It would be a solid twelve hours until we finally completed the second 300 mile leg.
3. You better love Tim Horton’s.
We were hungry, but ready to put some miles behind us and get out of the hectic buzz of Toronto. Little did we know that upon leaving the bustling metropolitan area, we would find nothing except dozens of Tim Horton’s (a maple leaf staple) along the miles of roadway crossing the country’s interior.
I’m sure Canada has tons of fantastic dining options – moose and giant fresh-water fish and little baby bunnies braised with bacon and maple syrup; however, we found very few of these delicacies along its major highways. These restaurants are nestled soundly in the cities, for certain, but if you need a meal out on the road, your options are pretty much null.
What we did find, at each exit and around every turn, was a Tim Horton’s. I like donuts as much as the next girl, but for the love of all things, I was sick of seeing that red and brown sign by the time we returned stateside.
4. It is not necessary, but incredibly helpful, to speak some level of French while in Quebec.
If you do, this will save you a handful of dirty looks and a 27-minute conversation at Tim Horton’s while attempting to order a cappuccino (which resulted in a cold, blended milk shake with whipped cream and chocolate syrup). I thanked the cashier and took my ice cream dessert because after 27 minutes in a Tim Horton’s you’ve given up on life anyways.
5. The closest thing to Europe in North America is Old Quebec.
After two memorable days in Montreal, we headed to Quebec City. From the narrow cobblestone streets to the looming medieval buildings to the quaint outdoor cafes spilling into the avenues (along with the two and a half hour wait for your bill), the neighborhood of Old Quebec in Quebec City is as close as I’ve come to European charm this side of the Atlantic.
If you have not been, put it on your list. I will advise that you skip having the hotel valet park your vehicle, though, as ours was clipped by a tour bus and the international laws regarding car insurance and deductibles cost me days of my life upon our return. Save the tip money, park your own car, and enjoy.
6. Do not forego the poutine.
French fries, cheese curds and brown gravy. Three of the four major food groups.
I don’t care if you are on a diet. I don’t care if you’ve given up fried foods or gluten or dairy or gelatinous brown substances; if you find yourself in the land of lumberjacks, there is no reasonable excuse for sidestepping this side dish (or entrée if you roll like we do). I might have developed a gag reflex to the sugary sweetness of those fluffy Tim Horton’s donuts, but I do not regret a single gravy-smothered, deep fried potato or cheese ball that graced my lips.
7. Eat all the seafood.
The poutine is worth the added pounds, but the seafood is life-changing. If you find yourself in Canada’s Atlantic provinces, you cannot pass up the deep sea fare. It is the freshest, most delectable thing on any menu up there.
Once we finally reached Prince Edward Island’s sandy beaches, we left the babies with my cousin, and my husband and I found a cozy corner booth at the Claddagh Oyster House in Charlottetown where we inhaled the most ridiculously amazing snow crab legs of my life. Hands down. No comparison. Lobster, crab, mussels, scallops – it’s all drool-worthy on the eastern shore. Go crazy.
8. Everyone’s a winner in Canada.
I’ve never won anything in my entire life aside from the occasional euchre game, and if you ask my husband, he’ll tell you even that’s a lie. But the magic of Canada knows no bounds, and when the race horse shares the same name as your free vacation nanny, you throw your money down and bet it all on Holy Moly Maggie – and damned if Holy Moly doesn’t bring it home.
We spent our winnings on three hot dogs, a large french fry and an order of onion rings, and I can still recall the sweet taste of fryer oil and victory at Red Shores Summerside Raceway on PEI.
9. Unplug. Completely.
Canada’s greatest appeal to me is its vast and rugged emptiness. It is a place that makes you want to leave your dinging cell phone and squawking television far, far behind.
In most regions, you don’t have much of a choice anyways. Cell service was spotty in much of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and by the time we reached our generator-powered cabin on the rocky shores of Digby, my phone was buried deep in the recesses of my purse, not to be recovered until we touched American soil.
In the absence of all artificial light, the meteor shower that welcomed us to Nova Scotia that first night was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. We stood on our front porch in the August air and watched the universe thrust flaming hunks of rock toward Earth, blazing dust illuminating the midnight hour. Who needs Seinfeld reruns when the sky is filled with such ferocious beauty?
10. Tell your friends
As much as I’d like to keep Canada’s hidden gems all to myself, something this marvelous really needs to be shared. Anyone who knows me (or rather, listens to me) knows how much I adore our northern neighbor, and I never walk away from an opportunity to rattle off the countless sites and scenic byways that have etched themselves inside my mind. Nearly every time, though, I am surprised by the quizzical look that meets my enthusiasm, “Really? Canada?”
Yes, Canada. It’s everything. It’s all of America’s natural beauty with almost none of the commercialism, and as long as you can live on donuts, poutine, and seafood straight from the icy Atlantic, it might just be your next great adventure.