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From eastern beaches to northern lakes, ziplining to horseback riding, puffins to dinosaurs, there's a family vacation destination in Canada to charm restless kids and engage demanding teens--and mom and dad. Discover new places beyond your family's backyard and re-engage with the kids and Canada's natural wonders--and maybe some cheese curds and musical spoons. Here are 13 family getaways to take across Canada.
British Columbia: Vancouver Island
Take BC Ferries across the Georgia Strait -- and watch for whales -- to Vancouver Island from Horseshoe Bay, Vancouver. Arriving in Nanaimo, start the weekend family vacation by following the coast north, where things to do for kids include spelunking on a cave tour at Horne Lake, spotting "goats on the roof" in Coombs and searching for sea stars in tidal pools at Beachcomber Regional Park or Rathtrevor Provincial Park in Parksville. Refuel with salty and squeaky cheese curds at Morningstar Farm and meet rescued bear cubs Goldie, Crumpet and Elkie at the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre.
Saskatchewan: Cypress Hills
Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, in the southwest corner of Saskatchewan, is home to one of the largest Dark Sky Preserves in the world. From stargazing to ziplining, it's a multi-day family vacation spot four hours from Regina or Calgary. In the south end of the park, march-step back to the 1870s with red-clad North West Mounted Police at the National Heritage Site of Fort Walsh. There, kids can hear M?tis legends and how Sitting Bull came to Cypress Hills after the Battle of Little Big Horn. Saddle up at Historic Reesor Ranch -- a western take on Canadian family resorts -- for a horseback tour into the grasslands while wee cowpokes ride a pony.
Manitoba: Whiteshell Provincial Park
Whiteshell Provincial Park, one and a half hour drive east of Winnipeg, is one of Manitoba's most popular family vacation spots for a weekend or an entire week--a water-filled playground of lakes, rivers and waterfalls. Get a bird's-eye view from Top of the World, a 2-mile hike through rocky forest (bring bug spray!) that will burn active kids' energy. Cozy up in a cabin at Falcon Trails Resort, a year-round family basecamp from which to also schuss when the snow falls. In the town of Falcon Lake, walk the boardwalk and slurp milkshakes after biking The Great Trail.
Spend a few days in Alberta exploring Drumheller, the dinosaur capital of the world. By the end, the kids will know an Albertasaurus from an Allosaurus and want to be a paleontologist! Set in the Canadian Badlands between Calgary and Edmonton, dinosaur sculptures rise from the streets (kids can climb into a giant T-Rex's jaws!) and world-renowned dinosaur fossils are showcased at the Royal Tyrrell Museum. In nearby Dinosaur Provincial Park, the Centrosaurus Quarry Hike is a trek for older kids and Jurassic Park buffs to discover fossils and the natural hoodoo formations. Blackfoot and Cree legends say the hoodoos come alive at night to protect the land--something the family will appreciate while camping in the park, although there are always cabins back in town.
Ontario: Rideau Canal
Rent your own houseboat, family-bubble style and tour the Rideau Canal from Kingston to Ottawa. Le Boat is an easy-to-navigate adventure in which the family vacation becomes a self-guided cruise along the historic 125-mile-long waterway. A shorter four-night trip up the northern canal from Smith Falls to Merrickville includes the fun kids activities of going through locks as water rushes in and out and hopping off in ports for snacks like crunchy caramel Hokey Pokey ice cream (or 100 other flavours!) and climbing aboard a caboose. Boats and locks and trains, oh my!
Nova Scotia: Southwest Nova Biosphere
Take the family to the Southwest Nova Biosphere, where Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site is a Dark Sky Preserve. Over a few days, kids can learn about traditional Mi'kmaw birch-bark canoe building, take a canoe trip on waters travelled by the Mi'kmaq for thousands of years and even sleep in a tipi at kid-friendly Mersey River Chalets and Nature Retreat. Go south to the seaside section of the park (with a take-out picnic!) and then back inland to Deep Sky Eye Observatory, where the family will marvel at the Milky Way and constellations as an astronomer gives stargazing workshops, followed by another fun kids activity: roasting marshmallows on the campfire by the river under those stars.
New Brunswick: Bay of Fundy
East of Saint John, the Fundy Trail Parkway takes the family vacation along the Bay of Fundy, where epic tides and tree-tufted, surf-eroded sea stacks like Flowerpot Rock dot the coast. Task kids with tracking the world's highest tides and plan a short hike to Point Wolfe Beach in Fundy National Park while the water is high, then continue east to Hopewell Rocks, where the whole family will get a kick out of walking on the ocean floor during low tide. Camp on the other side of Saint John at New River Beach Provincial Park, where kids can try sand sculpting and go on a treasure hunt.
Québec: Capital Region
Set the family's sights (and sites) high and within a day's drive from historic Québec City. Just 15 minutes from downtown is 83-metre-high (taller than Niagara Falls!) Montmorency Falls. The Parc de la Chute-Montmorency zipline and via ferrata challenges older kids and teens (and adults!), and a post-flight créme glacée molle (soft-serve ice cream) at the Dairy Bar soothes hoarse throats from happy shrieks. Another 30 minutes east, Canyon Sainte-Anne's newest activity will get the kids screeching again and off their smartphones: Air Canyon, an aerial traverse across a 90-metre-high gorge. Keep the no-device distraction going by spending two nights in the Laurentian Massif at Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier in a yurt, a round tent-like structure traditionally used by nomadic families.
Northwest Territories: Great Slave Lake and beyond
A tepee under the northern lights in the Northwest Territories - Credit: Jay McDonald
For anglers and their families, the lakes and fly-in fishing lodges surrounding Yellowknife are the makings of a classic Canadian family holiday, from casting a reel to aurora and wildlife viewing. Whether two nights or seven, it starts with a floatplane ride that will elicit oohs and aahs at any age, skimming treetops and rippled waters before landing at a remote, all-inclusive resort like Frontier Lodge on the East Arm of Great Slave Lake.
Yukon: the North Klondike
Drive the North Klondike Highway from Whitehorse to Dawson City and into the Gold Rush era. What's "in them thar hills?" Plenty, if you spend the five days it once took to originally travel this route to the goldfields. Stop for a family photo op amidst the wild-west aura of Moose Creek Lodge, let the kids pan for gold, count the many stairs to Five Finger Rapids viewpoint and snack on Braeburn Lodge's gooey and gigantic cinnamon buns. Campsites along the way let the family channel frontier life, such as at Stewart Crossing, where a side trip on the other "rush" of the Silver Trail starts.
Newfoundland: Avalon Peninsula
Create your own multi-day wildlife safari--whales, seabirds, icebergs--south of St. John's along the coast of the Avalon Peninsula. The whole family can take a boat tour through Witless Bay Ecological Reserve to see the trifecta (and puffins!). Southwest is Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve, the most accessible seabird colony in North America with an easy walk to 60-metre-high Bird Rock, covered in the white forms of thousands of nesting gannets--like a colossal ice cream cone! At the peninsula's southern tip, St. Vincent's cobblestone beach is the place to spot humpback whales--right off shore!--and icebergs, which drift by in spring and early summer. Nearby, at the UNESCO World Heritage Site Mistaken Point, yet another lifeform will spur children--and any budding naturalist--to trace the outlines of earth's oldest deep-sea fossils on the craggy rock.
Prince Edward Island: Points East Coastal Drive
The Points East Coastal Drive (295 miles along the eastern coast of Prince Edward Island) takes the family through classic seaside towns and past 50 beaches, six lighthouses, 12 provincial parks and Greenwich National Park (Challenge the kids to keep count!). Spend a couple of days midway, near Inn at Bay Fortune, chef Michael Smith's culinary farm and getaway, where kids can follow the sign to "happy pigs" while you pick up a picnic-to-go for lunch at Souris Beach. Kids can splash and wade in the shallow, warm waters. Then embark from Souris with the Fiddling Fisherman on another fun kids activity aboard a lobster fishing boat, jigging and playing musical spoons (or catching lobster dinner!). After returning to shore, let the kids choose a colourful camping-like cabin for an overnight in a "shanty shack."
Nunavut: Iqaluit and Qaummaarviit Territorial Historic Park
Discover the far north in Iqaluit on Frobisher Bay (a three-hour flight from Ottawa), an adventurous family vacation base for kayaking, hiking and camping in caribou country. Its Arctic landscape and seascape are the wild backdrop of fun kids activities such as meeting furry friends at the dogsled yard of outfitter Inukpak ("gentle giant" in Inuktitut) and learning the ways of a musher and some new lingo...gee (right!) and haw (left!). Local guides can also take you to Qaummaarviit Territorial Historic Park, 7 miles away by boat, where kids can search this small and shiny island--Qaummaarviit means "the place that shines"--for the remains of semi-buried sod houses of the Thule people.