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Urban chic

Canada’s captivating cities

Thought it was all about prairies and mountains? Think again, says Stuart Forster as he reveals ten brilliant examples of city chic

Epic road trips across vast prairies, luxury rail journeys through mountain ranges and a fabulous choice of ski resorts - these are the obvious holiday options when heading to Canada. But travellers risk missing the country's most exciting places - its cities.

They are scattered across a vast expanse: The city of St John's on the east coast is actually closer to London than Vancouver on Canada's distant west coast.

But each of the ten cities described here is packed with art, excitement and history and worth a visit in its own right. And every one gives you a chance to discover the heart of Canada.

Colourful houses in St Johns

St Johns
At noon on summer days in St John's, in the Newfoundland and Labrador province, you can hear the boom of the three-pounder gun ceremonially fired next to Cabot Tower. It's a reminder of North America's last battle of the Seven Years' War, which took place at Signal Hill in 1762.

Reminiscent of a castle keep, the landmark overlooks the Narrows - the rocky, gate-like entrance to St John's Harbour - and on to the North Atlantic. From late spring into summer, the hilltop is a brilliant vantage point for watching mountainous chunks of ice drift southwards on the stretch of ocean known as Iceberg Alley.

Walking trails drop towards Quidi Vidi, the fishing village where the Quidi Vidi Brewery uses water from icebergs to brew lager sold in cobalt blue bottles. Stop by the waterfront taproom on Fridays for some foot-stomping live music.

Eat: Expect hearty portions at the cosy Mallard Cottage restaurant in the heart of the village.

The star-shaped fortress on Citadel Hill, Halifax

History-lovers should head to Halifax in Nova Scotia to visit its extraordinary star-shaped fortress, Citadel Hill. It is one of five historic Halifax Defence Complex fortifications, and the ramparts offer outstanding views over the seaside city whose deep harbour was strategically important during the days of the British Empire. Today, you'll spot a cruise ship or two.

Do explore the waterfront Maritime Museum Of The Atlantic where you'll learn about the accidental collision between munition ships on December 6, 1917 which wrought more damage on Nova Scotia's provincial capital than any enemy action. Known as the Halifax Explosion, it is rated as the pre-nuclear age's most powerful man-made blast.

Exhibits also examine the city's role following the Titanic disaster of 1912 and you can pay your respects at the Baron de Hirsch and Fairview Lawn cemeteries where more than 100 victims are buried.

Eat: Tuck into outstanding seafood in Five Fishermen Restaurant, infamous for its role as a temporary mortuary after the Titanic sank.
The province of Prince Edward Island, or PEI, is the setting for Lucy Maud Montgomery's classic novel, Anne Of Green Gables, which was first published in 1908. See where the author found inspiration for one of Canada's most-loved fictional characters at Green Gables Heritage Place, near Cavendish, where a restored farmhouse with shuttered windows has interiors like those in the books. The visitor centre also tells the author's life story.

There's also The Anne Of Green Gables Museum near Park Corner and Montgomery's birthplace at New London.

PEI's provincial capital, Charlottetown, is regarded as the birthplace of modern Canada. The Confederation Centre Of The Arts introduces the story of the Charlottetown Conference of 1864, where Canada's federal structure was initially discussed.

Eat: Join locals feasting on platters of shellfish at the Claddagh Oyster House.

Algonquin Hotel Resort in St Andrews by-the-sea

St Andrews by-the-sea
The gorgeous town of St Andrews by-the-Sea in New Brunswick has charming pastel-fronted shops on Water Street. From the harbour, whale-watching tours sail into the Bay of Fundy, with humpbacks among the species that visit during summer.

The USA lies across the St Croix River and St Andrews Blockhouse on the waterfront was built for protection during the War of 1812.

Kingsbrae Garden is today one of the treasures that attracts visitors from across the border. Spread across 27 acres, it features a maze, sculptures and is a pretty spot for an al fresco lunch. Cross to Ministers Island during low tide to visit the sprawling summer estate of Sir William van Horne, who oversaw the construction of Canada's first transcontinental railway.

Eat: Pre-shelled 'naked' lobster is one of the beautifully presented dishes at the Rossmount Inn.
The Montreal Museum Of Fine Arts in Quebec has the most gallery space in the country. Spot the Dali and Miro works among Canadian works, including Inuit art. For more contemporary art, head to the stylishly refurbished industrial premises that house the Bradley Ertaskiran gallery.

As ever, walking tours - and easy-paced ones at that - help give a brilliant insight into the city. Try Spade & Palacio tours and you'll be taken past street art while visiting a selection of the city's top gastro spots.

Eat: Chips and gravy are elevated to a different level in poutine, a traditional dish which is topped with cheese curds and foie gras, served at Au Pied de Cochon.
Take a lift to the CN Tower observation decks to view the layout of Toronto - Canada's most populated city. If you're a thrill seeker, book the tower's EdgeWalk - it puts a different perspective on the phrase 'hanging out downtown'.

Or if you're into sport, the city has a number of pro teams, but for a thoroughly Torontonian experience head to the Rogers Centre to watch a Blue Jays baseball game. It's as much about chomping a foot-long sub with all the toppings and sinking cold beer as the on-field action. At Hanlan's Point on Toronto Islands you can find a board that commemorates the place where baseball legend 'Babe' Ruth hit his first home run as a professional.

Eat: Relax with beer and smokehouse-style food by the waterfront at Amsterdam Brewhouse.

Enjoy a relaxing break at Thermea Nordik Spa-Nature

The Manitoba Legislative Building is one of grandest landmarks in Winnipeg.
Frank Albo's engrossing Hermetic Code Tours tell the story of its architect, Frank Worthington Simon, and of symbolism relating to freemasonry that is hidden in plain sight. Albo asserts that measurements and underlying meanings indicate Simon made efforts to faithfully recreate the Temple of Solomon.

Unwind at Thermea By Nordik Spa-Nature. The heated outdoor pools and relaxation areas are perfect for recovering after the intense warmth of a ritual 'aufguss' infusion in the Finnish sauna.

Eat: Head to the Exchange District for the refined tasting menu at Deer + Almond.
If you appreciate art, the Remai Modern is a reason to stop by the prairie city of Saskatoon in Saskatchewan province - it displays the world's largest collection of linocuts by Pablo Picasso and paintings by Lawren Harris of Canada's influential Group Of Seven.

View the angular building from the South Saskatchewan River during a cruise aboard The Prairie Lily. Combine sightseeing with a delicious Sunday brunch in the vessel decked to resemble one of the vintage steamboats from the 1880s.

Eat: Share a charcuterie board then sip cocktails at Ayden Kitchen & Bar.
Studio Bell is the home of Canada's National Music Centre. Based in Calgary, Alberta, it houses the Canadian Music Hall Of Fame plus the national songwriters and country music equivalents. Among exhibits displayed over five floors are the white piano used by Elton John while composing his first five albums and the Rolling Stones' mobile recording studio.

Head across the Elbow River into the Inglewood district to kick back with an evening of live music at The Blues Can. The long-established venue hosts gigs seven nights a week, while the surrounding streets are home to craft breweries.

Eat: Order plates of Japanese dishes made with west coast seafood and Albertan ingredients at Shokunin.
With totem poles and fine views of Vancouver's skyline through the brightly coloured autumn leaves, it's easy to spend a day in Stanley Park. The city in British Columbia is bicycle-friendly and you'll find a handful of rental shops on streets close to the park. Or you could always opt for a romantic moment on Lovers' Walk before a sundowner at the park's elegant teahouse.

While on two wheels, head to Kitsilano Beach for a dip in the heated outdoor pool, then continue on to Jericho Beach for a picnic and views on to Burrard Inlet.

Eat: Visit Granville Island for the seafood platters at The Sandbar.

First published in the Mail on Sunday - September 2021

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