Combine winter fun and discounted holiday shopping with a trip to Canada.
Need a winter getaway? Looking for holiday sales? Head to a place where everything — food, lodging, transportation, souvenirs. Everything. — is on sale.
That magical place would be Canada, where the exchange rate for the “Loonie” right now favors the American dollar. At this writing, one U.S. dollar equaled $1.34 in Canadian dollars, which is bad for them but good for American travelers who want to experience Canada’s unique culture and scenic wonders.
Keep in mind that in winter it may be snowing up there, and pretty darn cold. That’s an advantage in some cases, like for attending the big winter festival in Quebec, or seeing polar bears in Churchill, or for skiing in Banff. The weather in Vancouver is much like Seattle’s, so just pack your fleece and rain coat.
How much can you save? Well, you could go to the spectacularly romantic Fairmont Banff Springs hotel — one of the world’s most amazing — for a deeply discounted $383 per night weekdays December through April.
Oh, but wait. That’s the Canadian price. The price in American dollars? Only $286, which normally would still make a cheapskate like me cringe, but since this “Castle in the Rockies” is on my bucket list, I’m signing up.
Note when you are booking your trip, the designation USD means American dollars, whereas CAD means you’re paying in the discounted Canadian dollars, so mentally subtract 30 percent.
Not to belabor the obvious, but you will need a passport to cross the border, though if you fly into a U.S. airport and drive across, you can get by with the cheaper $30 passport card, rather than the full passport book that costs $110.
If you plan to visit more than one Canadian national park, check out their Discovery Annual Pass, which admits you to 100 fee-for-use national parks, marine conservation areas and historic sites. Cost is $68 individual, $58 senior and $136 family, all in Canadian dollars.
WHERE TO GO
Vancouver: This is one of the most scenic cities in North America and has an interesting, diverse culture that’s vibrant any time of year. And you can take a day-trip ski bus from Vancouver that includes a lift ticket to Whistler Blackcomb for only $108 total.
Whistler: One of the most popular ski resorts on the continent, this resort in British Columbia is worth a stay and visit, though it can also be done as a day trip from Vancouver along the Sea to Sky Highway. If you saw the 2010 Winter Olympics, you’ve already seen this resort town, and you can visit the Olympic Plaza and enjoy the cross-country skiing trails built for the games. You can find last minute rooms for as little as $99 CAD per night — that’s $75 in American dollars!
Banff: One of the most spectacular mountain towns in North America, this is a playground for outdoors enthusiasts. Watch for cheap flights into Calgary, Alberta, then rent a car and head 75 miles up into the Rocky Mountains.
Banff was Canada’s first national park — and for good reason. Among the attractions: great skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating, scenic drives, the stunning Lake Louise, hot springs and ice fields.
Niagara Falls: I am in love with Niagara Falls, which is on the border between Ontario, Canada, and Buffalo, N.Y. It’s possible to experience both sides of the falls in one day and you should go on a boat tour. You can go any time — in fact it’s darn cheap in the winter — but late spring and summer are optimal when all the attractions are open.
Enjoy walking the free and wild scenic state parks on the New York side, then cross over for the touristy fun on the Canadian side. We stayed at the Holiday Inn by The Falls, which was a good value because it was only a short walk to the falls, offered free parking (a big benefit), had both indoor and outdoor pools, and was surrounded by affordable restaurants.
Montreal and Quebec: Get a taste of French culture without crossing the pond by visiting French Canada, where 80 percent of the residents speak French (but English is also spoken). In winter, check out magical outdoor festivals such as the world-famous Quebec Winter Carnival in Quebec City, the Fete Des Neiges de Montreal or Montreal en Lumiere.
Toronto: Toronto reminds me of New York City, but without the omnipresent sense of menace. My favorite neighborhood is The Beaches, with colorful stores and restaurants. One of these days, I’m going to stay at the historic Fairmont Royal York, one of the great railway hotels in Canada. If you like shoes, you really must visit the Bata Shoe Museum.
Note that you can take the beautiful Maple Leaf train to and from New York City, and there are day trips and a train to Niagara Falls, too.
Canada by Rail: The Canadian passenger train system, called Via Rail, is similar to Amtrak, and if you book in advance, you can get some great deals. You can even take the train across country from Toronto to Vancouver, or just along some spectacular local routes.
If you want to travel extensively, check out the rail passes the system offers. And keep your eyes peeled for its annual spring deals on Via Rail for out-of-towners.