Banff is beautiful. Montreal is marvellous. And Whistler is wonderful.
Everyone knows about those places. But what about the nitty gritty places, the out of the way towns and goofy sights that folks like to explore? I’ve been a full-time travel writer in Canada for nearly nine years, and in that time I’ve had the chance to check out more than a few out-of-the-way or lesser known spots. With that in mind, here’s a look at some Canadian alternative spots for great food or goofy Instagram photos or just plain good times. Because it’s our 150th birthday on Saturday, I’m making this a list of 15 places. Call it the Funky Fifteen if you like. Either way, I hope you enjoy this light-hearted, slightly different look at the country I call home.
Anyone can appreciate Monet or Picasso. But a giant lobster? Apparently the world’s largest? Now that’s something special. I mean, don’t we ALL want to stop when we see these things at the side of the road? I know I do. This giant crustacean in Shediac, New Brunswick is easily one of the top roadside attractions in Canada, if not the world.
Quonset Hut Church, Yukon
It looks a little strange, but it’s a perfect illustration of reduce, re-use and recycle. When the U.S. Army built the Alaska Highway, they went through Haines Junction in the Yukon. They also left behind at least one Quonset hut, those low-rise, barrel-shaped buildings used to house people or supplies. Local Catholics wanted a church, so they the smart thing and converted the leftover military hut into a charming church. Our Lady of the Way Church doesn’t look like your typical church, but that’s what I like about it. And it’s quite charming inside.
Bottle Houses, PEI
A lot of Canadians think of PEI and conjure up images of Anne of Green Gables and lobster and potatoes. Prince Edward Island has all of those. But there are also some downright strange things and quirky people, such as a folk artist I ran into up near Tignish. Better yet are the bottle houses near Cap-Egmont, structures fashioned mostly out of thousands upon thousands of old wine bottles. There’s even a chapel where folks can get married. It sounds tacky but it’s quite pretty, and the gardens are lovely. There’s another series of bottle houses down near Point Prim, which isn’t far from the ferry that goes to Nova Scotia.
Wawa Goose, Ontario
I drove from Thunder Bay to Toronto a few years ago and stopped to write a story about the poor Wawa Goose was in need of a diaper or serious repair. Her bottom had rusted out and the poor girl (or guy) was leaking badly. Luckily they’ve raised enough money to build a new one, and it’s supposed to be unveiled on Canada Day! Another great roadside attraction in Canada.
I’d never heard of Danceland until I visited Manitou Beach earlier this month. It’s an old-time dance hall from 1928, and the underpinnings are made partly of horsehair (from Quebec, I’m told) for extra bounce. They do old-time dances on Tuesday night for the price of a toonie, and it’s a lovely, lyrical evening with locals dancing slowly to the sounds of a couple of older ladies tinkling the plastic ivories on twin organs up on stage. It sounds hokey. And maybe it is. But it’s real and it’s delightful. And a beautiful building in a very unexpected place.
Bridge Drive-In Winnipeg
I’ve mentioned the BDI many times before. But this is my blog so I’ll do it again. I love places with tradition that locals flock to, and that’s the BDI in a nutshell. One of their specialties is a goog, a blueberry milkshake with nuts and many healthy ingredients. My favourite story about the place is when I asked a local what the bridge was called that’s next to the drive-in. “It’s the BDI Bridge,” she told me. “I don’t know of another name.” Which made me think. “So,” I said. “That means the bridge is named after a drive-in ice cream place that’s named after a bridge that nobody knows the name of.” She looked at me like I was a bit wacko, which may be true. (There is a real name for the bridge; the Elm Park Bridge. But I still like my story. Not to mention the ice cream.)
When I was in Killarney a couple years ago (it’s north of Parry Sound and south of Sault Ste. Marie on Lake Huron) I was told that people in the town have a habit of giving people nicknames. One overweight guy was known as Tummy. That’s one thing. But they go a step further, I was told, and give wives or husbands a nickname based on their spouses name. The woman who was married to the guy with the big belly was known in the community as Cathy Tummy. Crazy.
Neon Museum, Edmonton
This is a cool spot, partly because there’s a “Toronto Star Weekly” newspaper featured on one end of the old neon sign display and that’s the paper I worked at for 32 years. So there’s that. But I also like the old school feel of this neon display on 104th St. NW in Edmonton. It’s just cool.
Random house in Newfoundland
I was on assignment here seven or eight years ago, doing a golf story for the Toronto Star’s golf magazine, when I drove past a modest home (I think it was near Twillingate but I could be wrong) that was positively littered with lawn ornaments; Porky Pig and Winnie-the-Pooh and several members of The Simpsons. There was an old-timer out on the lawn, so I pulled over and chatted with him. He showed me how he made the figures and even managed to find an old copy of a newspaper story written about him. He was so excited to show off his work and I just fell in love with the place. And with his passion.
Chateau Lafayette, Ottawa
My friend Jantine from the Ottawa Tourism board took me to what they “The Laff” a couple years ago, and I fell in love with the place. Ron Burke has performed every Saturday afternoon for something like 30 years, and the audience knows every song and every guitar lick. He looks a bit like Johnny Cash and sings a bit like Stompin’ Tom Connors and Cash mixed together, and he’s hugely entertaining. Just as much fun is the interaction from audience members who know what’s coming and sing along and dance like there’s no tomorrow.
Iles de la Madeleine, Quebec
It’s not a goofy place, although I was intrigued by this seemingly abandoned boat with the name Purple Rain and a confederate flag waving in the wind. No, I’m giving these islands a shout-out because the people are wonderful and welcoming and their islands are pure magic. The food and the inns are terrific, but it’s the warm people I really enjoyed meeting. Not to mention the beaches that go on just shy of forever, often without a soul on them even in summer.
Mom’s Café, Sooke BC
We can all agree that Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal have many a fine restaurant: Dailo, Joe Beef, Hawksworth and more. But how many of those places stuff 50 apples into a single pie the way they do at Mom’s in Sooke, B.C. None of them, that’s how many. I love fine food as much as the next overweight travel writer, but I honestly think I’d rather eat apple pie at Mom’s than almost any dessert a fancy restaurant would whip up.
Eastern Shore, Nova Scotia
Most of us know about Lunenburg and the south shore of this wonderful province. But there’s hardly anyone on the road when you drive along the Eastern Shore, which runs northeast from Halifax towards Sherbrooke, N.S. I found several beautiful, lonely bays and a couple of artists’ outposts I quiet enjoyed. Especially fun was Colpitt’s, a side of the road place near Ecum Secum (what a great name) where you’ll find tons of colourful folk art, including “Barry’s Head Museum.” I only had a few minutes but I loved it.
This place wasn’t exactly top of mind for the Lonely Planet tour book folks 20 years ago. But someone in Vulcan decided that they’d take advantage of the name and have a Starship Enteprise built (Vulcan being the home planet of a key player in the Star Trek TV show and movies, Mr. Spock). It pretty much put the town on the map, to the point where Star Trek fans (Trekkies) show up regularly to pose for photos. They even had the actor who played Mr. Spock, the talented Leonard Nimoy, come to town a few years ago for a parade.
Wilensky Light Lunch, Montreal
The salami and bologna sandwich at Wilensky isn’t nearly as tasty as the smoked meat at legendary Schwartz’s Deli. But the atmosphere at this Montreal restaurant is something else. It’s old school to the max, with counters that appear to have been built in the time of Sir John A. MacDonald. And wait staff that probably went to school with him. Okay, the place actually dates to 1932. But that’s still impressive. They serve only mustard on the salami bologna sandwich, so don’t think of asking for sun-dried tomoatoes. Or even mayonnaise. They also serve chopped egg sandwiches and other treats, and there’s a great, old-time soda fountain. You’ll find hotos of Mordecai Richler on the wall and tons of atmosphere.