Explore the North for less

Forget Europe. This summer may be the perfect time to explore the unparalleled beauty of Canada’s northern wilderness.

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From the Summer 2014 issue of the magazine.

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(Michelle Valberg/Adventure Canada)

Tourists travel the Northwest Passage on an Adventure Canada boat. (Michelle Valberg/Adventure Canada)

Most of us have a bucket list of Canadian destinations we’d love to experience some day. But while a wildlife-snapping Rockies road trip or a lobster-cracking Maritimes jaunt is tantalizingly attainable, the far North seems like a price-prohibitive no-go. Fancy a Nunavut holiday? It’s cheaper to fly to Europe.

That’s partly the point, though. Everyone does Paris and London but our unfathomably vast northern region—defining the phrase “rugged wilderness”—is equally exotic: just ask those camera-wielding Europeans who flock there every year.

Dawson-City

The Palace Grand Theatre in historic Dawson City, Yukon (Patrick Kane)

As for costs: with our dollar currently buying considerably less overseas than last summer, this is the ideal time to cover off some iconic domestic destinations. And there’s no need to take out a second mortgage. For a menu of memorable up-North vacations that won’t send your budget too far south, read on.

First up: Yukon. WestJet and Air Canada compete on flights to capital city Whitehorse—think pioneer-era historic sites and mountain-framed regional hikes—but summer return fares from Toronto typically top $1,200. Instead, consider the locals’ favourite airline. Air North’s old-school friendliness echoes how flying used to be—yes, those are warm cookies being served onboard. But there’s also a serious commitment to enticing first-timers to the region. Their regular fares from Ottawa and Vancouver generally undercut the bigger airlines, but their additional tempting discount packages can also save you enough to buy a year’s supply of Yukon Gold beer.

Under the deal—bookable via www.flyairnorth.com—summer return flights and two nights’ accommodation cost $1,040 from Ottawa (or $636 from Vancouver). Fares include taxes, while fall and winter packages (Ottawa excluded) are even cheaper. Travelling to Vancouver? Less than three hours away, it’s an ideal side trip.

Reasonably priced add-ons—from mountain biking to scenic train trips—are also outlined on the airline’s website. But if you’ve made it this far north, be sure to hit Canada’s coolest small town as well.

rabbit

An arctic hare in the North West Passage (Patrick Kane)

The cowboy-esque dirt streets and preserved clapboard buildings of gold rush charmer Dawson City make it a midnight sun must-see. But since it’s 525 km from Whitehorse and Air North return flights between the two typically top $400, consider the summer-only $109-each-way Husky Bus (www.huskybus.ca). Craving scenery? You’ll have seven hypnotic hours to eye the back country en route.

Need more North? Northwest Territories’ capital city Yellowknife is also a big summer draw—and not just for July’s toe-tapping Folk on the Rocks Festival, a city-wide party. By contrast, winter is recommended here if you want to hit the shimmering hues of one of the country’s top wish-list lures.

Northern Lights hunters flock to Yellowknife from January to April (the peak viewing period) to wave their night-setting cameras skyward. Good-value short tours plus immersive overnight excursions are offered by NWT operators. These include Aurora Village (www.auroravillage.com) and Yellowknife Outdoor Adventures (www.yellowknifeoutdooradventures.com).

Tours, of course, make a lot of sense in the transport-challenged North—even for those more used to planning their own trips. While cities like Whitehorse and Yellowknife are fine for self-directed exploring, it’s a false economy in more remote regions where eye-poppingly pricey flights between far-flung communities can blow most vacation budgets.

That’s especially true in our largest and least-populated territory. Designated as a territory in 1999, Nunavut feels like the edge of the world. Raw in jaw-dropping nature and crammed with wildlife, it’s the perfect place to understand just how small you are—and how unbelievably enormous Canada’s topmost region is.

Don’t bother trying to “do” Nunavut on your own. Nightly summertime hotel rates in capital Iqaluit typically start at $200. But you’ll be stuck there with little to do and nowhere to go—roads across the region are virtually non-existent. Instead, select a regional multi-day tour package with a per-person budget north of $3,000. That covers peace-of-mind logistical arrangements like meals and accommodation and efficiently transports you to the real reason you’re here: the grand outdoors.

Options include Baffin Island polar bear-spotting with tour operator Arctic Kingdom (www.arctickingdom.com) and narwhal-watching kayaking jaunts via Great Canadian Adventure Company (www.adventures.ca). Book early: dates are limited and those nature-hugging Europeans snag many of the spots.

Iqaluit

An outdoor performance in Iqaluit, Nunavut (Patrick Kane)

For a real trip-of-a-lifetime, check your finances and consider Adventure Canada’s (www.adventures.ca) epic two-week Northwest Passage cruise on the 118-passenger Sea Adventurer. Sailing in each direction this August, it costs US$8,000 per person for the westbound trip and US$1,000 less for the reverse route. Both prices include limitless brag-worthy photos to make your fellow Canadians envious for years to come.

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