Jarabacoa and Bayahibe, Dominican Republic

I’ll be honest and say up front that I never really had the Dominican Republic on my radar before. I mean, what do you think of when you think of the DR? All-inclusive resorts, sure. (Flying from Ottawa to Saskatchewan via Punta Cana, definitely.) Baseball? Reggaeton and loud blaring music? Adventure tourism? I can appreciate all of that (except for the satire-friendly political grift), but I wouldn’t include any of those things amongst my preferences.

But hey, when in Rome DR‚Ķ. I’m here for the wedding of my dear friends Paul and Louise, along with a small group of our friends who’ve all flown in from Vancouver. While I’m not staying with them in the resort, this event did bring me to the country, and I chose to explore a little with the few days I had before it.

After Santo Domingo though, I was definitely looking for a little bit of respite from the hustle and bustle. Mountains, fresh air, and quiet? Sounds great. Oh look, Santo Domingo weekenders!
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 Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

On my first trip outside of Canada in three years, I find myself in a foreign land learning about Columbus (Col√≥n). Amongst the beautiful Zona Colonial of Santo Domingo is the Alcaz√°r de Col√≥n, lived in by the sorta-Spanish-Italian explorer’s son and his family, with his familial artifacts lovingly presented by the obligatory local guides — an elephant-skin trunk here, a harp there, those tiny beds Europeans liked sleeping in back in the 1500s, all of that stuff. It’s the centerpiece of the tiled Plaza de Espa√Īa, ringed by some ritzy international restaurants.

A few blocks down, past more 16th century buildings — colourful, stately, balconied, and draped in jacarandas — is the Parque Col√≥n, with a proud statue pointing opposite the first (and largest) cathedral of the Americas. It too is ringed by a bunch of ritzy restaurants, including a lovely rooftop rum bar overlooking the cathedral.

Across the Ozama River (lined by a Spanish fortress used as a prison in the colonial days, with a blur of other details I don’t remember) is the Faro a Col√≥n (Columbus Lighthouse), a semi-brutalist…thing with a bright light that could sap all the electricity from nearby for miles if turned on. Championed by previous dictator/president Rafael Trujillo and eventually completed in 1992 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival, written large on it are Bible verses used to proclaim the virtues of expansionism as a means of spreading Catholicism.

So far, it seems like a great trip to Spain. Oh wait, you mean I’m not in Spain?
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 Churchill, Manitoba

It’s not easy getting to this town of ~700 people, and yet so many people do it. Like in Nunavut, a stone’s throw away, there are no roads to Churchill. However, there’s a train… and it plods. Moving at a snail’s pace, it’s 45 hours from Winnipeg, or “just” 18 hours from Thompson (itself only a 6 hour drive from Winnipeg).

We met people from far and wide who took this option, both domestic and international travellers. Even an elderly Chinese couple from Calgary, for instance, driving 15 hours (sleeping two nights in their car) to Thompson, a city with a notoriously sketchy reputation, and taking the train up. Nobody had any good things to say about the ride, beyond the money they saved. For us though? Again, like Nunavut: airline points. Two hours in an otherwise extremely overpriced flight from Winnipeg. Between 2017 and 2019, that was actually the only option, when floods wrecked the train tracks and repairs were delayed.

It’s really a wonder how this community survives. Of course, there’s one big draw: polar bears.
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 Gimli to Riding Mountain, Manitoba

This trip was planned to be just Churchill, with a side of obligatory Winnipeg. Maybe a short drive too, given how much time we had before heading to Churchill. With good weather in the forecast, we bit the bullet and I quickly cobbled together a plan together solely based on the only reasonably priced accommodation I could find with space available on Thanksgiving.

Well, that short drive turned into two of the most Canadian days I’ve ever had.
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 Winnipeg, Manitoba

My last time in Winnipeg was two years ago, on the way home from Quebec. Knowing that I’d probably never have a reason to come here otherwise, I picked a flight home with a nine hour layover in Winnipeg, and spent an exhausting six hours walking downtown and visiting the spectacular Canadian Museum for Human Rights before taking the bus back to the airport.

That was enough time to say I’d been to Manitoba, I thought then. And yet here I am again…with a few days.

This time though, I’m with my friend Daniele, in a sort of sequel to the Yukon trip. One Canadian bucket list item down then, and another one now: we’re headed to Churchill.
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¬†Moose Jaw to Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan

Exhausted from days of driving, Louise and I arrived into Moose Jaw and made a beeline for the geothermal mineral pool…where time and any sense of urgency slipped away from us. That alone was worth visiting town for, and it seems that plenty of families and couples from nearby Regina had the same idea.

But aside from being a getaway for Reginans, Moose Jaw is a pretty cool town in its own right. Though small and compact, Main St downtown is picturesque with beautiful historical buildings, murals, and tree carvings in the nearby parks. Outside of downtown, well, there’s Mac the Moose and a cute little burrowing owl centre dedicated to the pop can-sized birds that take over gopher holes.

Its branch of the Western Development Museum, which we didn’t have time to visit, is dedicated to planes, trains, and automobiles, and that legacy lives on. Formerly an important rail junction between the Canadian Pacific Railroad’s cross-country Dominion line and its Soo Line heading southeast to Chicago, there’s a grand train station too…which is now a grand liquor store. Well, at least there’s still the planes: Moose Jaw’s home to the Canadian Air Force’s famed aerobatics team, the Snowbirds. We were lucky enough to see them on a lark, practicing in formation right above us.

What it’s currently most famous for, however, is what’s underground.
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 Cypress Hills to Grasslands NP, Saskatchewan

As we left behind the prairie on our way to Maple Creek, we felt more like we had took a wrong turn and left Canada for a different continent. Surrounded by flat fields one minute, then descending into an Okanagan river valley the next. (Hey, there’s even a winery in the area.) Left turn onto some gravel roads, then here’s what looks like a bunch of desert shrubs. Now right turn aaaaand we’re in the Sahara.
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 Saskatoon to Maple Creek, Saskatchewan

I know what this looks like.

It’s the second year of a pandemic, international borders are a hassle, the world’s on fire (specifically British Columbia), and I’ve visited every other province and territory of Canada. And so, Saskatchewan, right?

Even Saskatchewanians (Saskatchewaners? Saskatchewanderers? who knows) seem altogether forgiving of this explanation. When I mentioned that my friend Louise and I are on here a roadtrip, they assume we’re passing through. When I then say that we flew in and rented a car for a 10 day “Saskatchewander”, well… Even some of them were surprised. Many expressed the irony of us picking a trip here, when they would pick Vancouver for theirs.

Surface knowledge doesn’t exactly spark passion: Canada’s quadrangular province renowned for being flat, treeless fields of grain, containing the portion of the Trans Canada highway you can speed straight through on a cross-country trip without stopping. I’ve made all these jokes myself.

I will admit that this originated as an exercise in box-checking, to fill in that last gap. But the planning process alone revealed so much to see, turning what started as a joke idea into genuine enthusiasm such that I had to cut out large portions of the province (the forested northern part full of lakes!) from my plans and focus just on the southwest. This wasn’t a trip I would have done without a pandemic, but having done it, this is a trip that I would heartily do in a world without one. It’s a shame that it took a pandemic to made me realise how much I’ve been missing out.

Stereotypes be gone! Saskatoon makes an immediate first impression — and it’s not one of being flat and treeless.
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 Kluane, Yukon / Tatshenshini-Alsek, British Columbia

About two hours west of Whitehorse is Haines Junction, the gateway to the St. Elias mountains, the world’s highest coastal mountain range. The whole chain is divided into four parks: Kluane (Yukon), Tatshenshini-Alsek (BC), and Wrangell-St. Elias and Glacier Bay (both in Alaska), all of which combined form a UNESCO world heritage site. The Himalayas of North America, so to speak, minus the fame — I admit I hadn’t even heard of this place until this trip.

The tallest mountain in Canada is Mount Logan (a whopping 5250m), deep inside Kluane National Park and Reserve. Without a helicopter or any serious mountaineering chops though, it’s neither accessible nor visible. But does it matter? Just look at this landscape! Continue reading

 Dawson City, Yukon

The city of Townsville! The Town of the City of Dawson! Dawson City may no longer be an actual city, with well under 2000 people remaining, but in 1898, it may as well have been the centre of the world. In just a few walkable city blocks, 40,000 prospectors from around the world crowded into what was once a First Nations settlement, transforming it with newfound riches into a place to see and be seen.

It’s not hard to imagine. Strip out the cars from the dirt roads. Un-collapse a few buildings falling apart from being built directly on the permafrost. Slightly straighten the walls of some hundred-year-old buildings. Picture everyone dressed like a costumed Parks Canada employee, and multiply the population by a few hundred to account for the covid visitor numbers. To make those sepia photos all over town come to life, I don’t even need to close my eyes to do it.

The endless stories associated with this place are the stuff of legends. The crazy thing is that Dawson continues to thrive and continues to be stranger than fiction.
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