Top ways to... explore Canada and Alaska

| December 31, 2014

Are you planning a trip to Canada and/or Alaska? We have compiled a list of the top ways to explore these exciting destinations, so read on to gain a little travel inspiration.

Vancouver at sunset. Photo credit: Thinkstock/ iStock

Abounding in natural wonders, Canada and Alaska offer striking landscapes, amazing wildlife and a warm welcome – a medley that has long made them firm favourites among travellers. Friendly, culturally rich cities contrast with wild, isolated terrain to make holidays in these destinations a true voyage of discovery and delight.

But how best to make that voyage? Cox & Kings' expert Neill Prothero has offered a wealth of advice on the best ways to travel around Canada and Alaska, from exciting self-drive itineraries for the adventurous to luxurious cruises for those craving a more relaxed holiday.

Canada by rail

Why rail?

So sizeable is Canada that exploring a large area in a single holiday can be difficult. There is, however, an effective way to make sure you cover as much ground as possible – embarking on one or two train journeys.

Travelling by rail will give you the opportunity to explore a far greater area than would be possible by road (unless you have a lot of time to spare!). What's more, Canada is home to some truly spectacular rail journeys that will take you through its most iconic landscapes, including the dramatic Rocky Mountains.

Where to go

Canada's most famous rail journey is the Rocky Mountaineer, which provides a number of routes originating in Vancouver and travelling to destinations such as Whistler – the country's celebrated ski resort – and Jasper. In 2015 a new route beginning in Seattle and travelling up to Vancouver will be added to the Rocky Mountaineer's already impressive array of journeys.

Neill enthused about the quality of trips on the Rocky Mountaineer, explaining that if you book silver or gold leaf class, you can enjoy specially designed viewing carriages which provide glorious panoramas of the passing landscapes. Moreover, you will also have the opportunity to find out more about these landscapes, thanks to the on-train guides who offer talks about local history, nature and more.

Fabulous food and the opportunity to spot some of Canada's much-loved wildlife, such as bears, are just some of other reasons to travel on the Rocky Mountaineer.

While this might be the most famous of the country's rail connections, Neill noted that there are plenty of other possibilities. VIA Rail offers a variety of interesting routes, including one that runs from Toronto all the way to Vancouver – a journey that would be unfeasibly long if tackled by road. Smaller local services are also worth considering – they can take you out to Atlantic Canada to experience destinations such as Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Canada by coach

Why coach?

Canada is an excellent country to explore by road – but its size means that a self-drive holiday is not for everyone, due to the long distances involved. Coach travel offers the perfect balance between experiencing Canada by road and not having to spend hours behind the wheel. Instead, you can sit back, relax and give your full attention to the landscape you have travelled to see. Plus, you will be accompanied by a guide, who will further enrich the experience by sharing their expertise on the places you visit.

Where to go?

A journey through the Rockies is the classic Canadian coach tour. This will lead you through Banff and a selection of scenic mountain towns, past Lake Louise and then down to Vancouver. Other notable options include exploring the east coast, travelling to Toronto, Niagara Falls, Quebec and Montreal, and taking a coach tour around Alaska.

Self-drive adventures in Canada and Alaska

Why self-drive?

Self-drive trips are perfect if you want to have the freedom to explore in your own way. While you will of course have an itinerary to follow, you will be able to stop whenever you please – something that is particularly advantageous if you hope to get a good look at some of the wonderful wildlife that is found throughout Canada, such as moose and bears.

It's important to bear in mind that self-drive holidays in Canada involve long distances, typically spanning several hours between destinations, which means you need to be prepared to spend a long time behind the wheel. The routes can be counted on to provide spectacular scenery, and so are a delight for keen drivers.

Where to go

The classic destinations to visit on a self-drive holiday largely mirror those of coach tours. However, there are certain destinations you can explore with a car that coach tours don't tend to go to, such as the Yukon. This intriguing destination not only possesses the rich history of the Gold Rush, but also wonderful wildlife and the opportunity to see the Northern Lights in the winter.

Cruising in Canada and Alaska

Why cruise?

Cruising is, of course, a wonderful way to explore Canada and Alaska's spectacular coastal scenery and glacial landscapes. It also offers variety: you can cruise on large, luxurious liners, or board smaller, more basic vessels for more of an adventurous feel. The latter also have the advantage of getting you closer to the coast and, consequently, the wildlife that can be viewed there.

Where to go

Canada and Alaska offer some wonderful cruising opportunities. Among the classic routes is a seven-night journey to Alaska, beginning and ending in Vancouver. This round trip takes you up to Seward and Glacier Bay, where you can see the mountainous and glacial landscapes that characterise Alaska. Keep your eyes on the water, too, where you can see whales and dolphins.

A good alternative to this is a similar seven-night itinerary, but ending in Seward – this will give you time to explore Alaska once your cruise has finished. After disembarking, you can travel up to Anchorage and continue on to Mountain Denali National Park, Fairbanks and other attractive destinations that combine Alaskan scenery and wildlife.

If you want to feel like an Arctic explorer, take a cruise into the North West Passage. On an itinerary like this, you can see the old Hudson Bay trading post, as well as find out more about the history of Arctic exploration.

In search of polar bears: Tundra buggies

While all of the above methods of transport offer plenty of opportunities to see wildlife, Neill noted that there is one animal you will need to make another kind of trip to see: the polar bear.

If you want to experience seeing polar bears in the while, you will need to travel to Churchill in the Manitoba Province (usually, this involves flying to Winnipeg and then boarding another plane to Churchill). Once there, you will go out in tundra buggies – which can be best described as heavy duty four-wheel drive vehicles – to seek out the polar bears. Polar bears often wander up to the vehicles, which means you can extraordinary close-up views – an unforgettable experience.

Floatplanes and flight-seeing plane tours

It is also possible to board a small floatplane from Vancouver to access a range of wilderness lodges in western Canada, allowing close encounters with bears accompanied by local naturalist experts. In Alaska, Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park and Kodiak Island are superb places to see grizzly bears. Flight-seeing plane tours are some of the best ways to appreciate the scale and beauty of the Canadian and Alaskan landscapes, especially of Kluane National Park in Canada’s Yukon province, and the Denali National Park in Alaska.

View all Cox & Kings' tours to Canada and Alaska on the website.

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