The Place:

Charles Dickens once described Canada as a land of "hope and promise". Today, it is that and more: a land of exuberant cities, striking scenery and diverse cultures. This hope and promise can be seen the entire length of Canada's 5,500-km border, from Montreal, with its old-world charm and new-age outlook; to Toronto, teeming with street energy, theatres and ethnic restaurants; to Vancouver, on the far west coast, where individuality is a valued trait and the pioneer spirit of a young culture pervades every aspect of life.

In between, and north of the big cities, lies some of the most beautiful landscape in the world. There are almost three dozen national parks, home to wild birds and brown bears. There are 68 designated "natural regions", 39 of them terrestrial and 29 of them marine. More than half the countryside is forest, and trees soaring to a height of more than 60 meters are not uncommon.

Theatres, art, restaurants, breathtaking scenery. Time to put all modesty aside, because Canada has a great deal to shout about.

Geography:

Canada is the second-largest country in the world, stretching over 5,500 km from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific and over 4,600 km from the northern tip of Ellesmere Island to the United States border. This sprawling country is not, of course, fully inhabited: 89 percent of the land has no permanent population. In sharp contrast are the urban areas, where nearly 80 percent of Canadians live in large centres located within a few hours' drive of the southern border, mostly in Ontario or Quebec.

Rural Canada is divided into 10 provinces and three territories. Newfoundland & Labrador is the most easterly province, bordering the North Atlantic; Prince Edward Island is the smallest just off the north eastern coast; Nova Scotia is a peninsula in the east; New Brunswick is a gentle, undulating surface just north of Maine; Quebec’s and Ontario's cities and high-octane profiles make them the best known; while the prairie provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta are less exuberant. Rudyard Kipling was particularly pleased with the clean air and pioneering spirit of British Columbia, observing in 1908 that "such a land is good for an energetic man. It is also not so bad for the loafer." On the other hand, energy is certainly needed for exploring Canada's three far-flung and hard-scrabble territories, the Yukon, the Northwest, and Nunavut, which extend into the Arctic Circle.

Climate:

It is difficult to generalize about the Canadian climate. Most visitors come during the summer, when temperatures average around 24°C. During July and August, however, the mercury can climb into the 30°s on the prairies and in southern Ontario. In northern Canada, summer temperatures stay at 15°C during the day, but can drop close to freezing at night. Don't forget to pack heavy-duty protection against mosquitoes and other biting insects, particularly if you are travelling in the early summer and off the beaten track

Winter temperatures average between -5°C and 10°C from the Maritimes through southern Ontario. It gets colder and windier from northern Quebec through the Rockies, with temperatures ranging from -18°C to -5°C. In the Yukon and Northwest Territories, the mercury can drop to as low as -40°C. On the balmy southern coast of BC, however, warm Pacific currents generally keep the temperature above freezing in winter.

The snowfall is consistently heavy throughout Canada, with the exception of parts of southern British Columbia. Skiers take to the slopes and trail by late November, with the snow in the mountains generally lasting until April or even May.

Highlights:

Algonquin Provincial Park (Ontario) To the north of Haliburton and the northeast of Muskoka lies the last real expanse of wild land in Southern Ontario - the 7,600-sq-km Algonquin Provincial Park. Algonquin preserves the primordial, aboriginal and pioneer heritages of Ontario as a kind of natural museum. The cry of the loons, the oldest known birds, haunt all of the park's 2,500 or more lakes as they did 10,000 years ago after the last Ice Age. Vision pits were dug in the northwest corner of the park; in these rock-lined holes, a young Algonquin would fast for days waiting for the vision of a spiritual guardian who would draw the rite of passage to a close.

Toronto (Ontario) Toronto is cradled within small hills that roll down gently to the calm north shore of Lake Ontario. A sheltered Great Lakes port, it has a magnificent downtown skyline when viewed from the highways that hug the lake shore. In the dark, the glowing office buildings and the trademark CN Tower have an alien beauty.

The water surrounding Toronto brings the city to life. The Harbourfront Centre is lined with speciality stores, restaurants and a theatre. Toronto Islands are actually a 5-km strip of sandbar with several names, jutting out into the city's harbour. The island community receives their goods via ferry or plane, but during the summer the islands are Toronto's favourite getaway. The Beaches are another favourite haunt on Toronto's east side. A stroll along the Boardwalk gives you a view of the sail boats and seagulls skimming the waves of Lake Ontario.

Niagara Falls (Ontario) The Niagara Falls, where Lake Erie overflows into Lake Ontario at the rate of 14 million litres of water per minute, has always been a celebrated attraction. The Falls, or rather the crowds of honeymooners and other tourists that swarm around them, have attracted a host of sideshows over the years.

Ottawa (Ontario) The capital of Canada houses some of the nation's best museums. The Musée Canadien des Civilisations houses the nation's collection of native artefacts. The National Gallery of Canada dominates the capital's skyline. Designed by Moshe Safdie, it is a haven of spacious galleries and tranquil courtyards. Made primarily out of glass, the foremost gallery in Canada contains a reconstructed 19th-century chapel. The National Museum of Science & Technology located in the heart of Ottawa contains an impressive display of steam locomotives.

Health:

Visitors are urged to obtain health insurance before leaving their own country. Anyone using prescription medicine should bring an adequate supply as well as a copy of the prescription in case it needs to be renewed. Travellers requiring medical attention needn't worry - Canadian hospitals are known for their high medical standards.

Customs & Visas:

Visitors may be asked to produce return tickets and possibly evidence that they have the funds to support themselves while in Canada.

Until recently, crossing the Canada-US border has been relatively simple. American visitors to Canada do not need a passport to cross in either direction. Visitors may be asked to verify their citizenship and should therefore carry any one of the following documents: birth certificate, naturalization certificate, Green Card or passport. Photo identification is also required so visitors should carry their driver's license or other photo ID with them.

However, in April 2005, the US government announced the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which will require all travelers, including U.S. citizens, to present a passport or acceptable alternative when entering the United States. Currently, this rather draconian measure is set to be launched on December 31, 2006 for air and sea travel, and on December 31, 2007 for land-border crossings. Given the probable impact on trade and tourism, the Canadian government and border communities on both sides are extremely concerned, and urging the US to consider a more pragmatic approach to border security.

Canada's customs requirements for visitors are simple. Personal effects for use during the stay may be brought into the country. There is no problem with bringing rented cars from the US, but drivers should carry the contract in the car.