I confess. In keeping with my presidential nature, I have lusted in my heart. That's right, I see travel articles about riders who tour exotic lands, such as Brazil, China and New Zealand, and I want to be with them. Now don't get me wrong. I'm a pretty lucky guy. I live in Virginia, an area steeped in history whose proximity to the ocean, the Blue Ridge Mountains and the mysteries of West Virginia offers spectacular vistas and challenging roads. Still, there is a lot to be said for a change of venue.
Of course, there are the little matters of time and money. It takes a lot of time to prepare for such a trip. You have to get a passport, do a lot of research about potential routes, check out lodging possibilities, and learn at least a few words in the host language (e.g., "No, I don't want to buy a wife,"). If you hire a tour operator to handle these logistics, you can expect to pay mucho dinero.
But there is an alternative. How about riding in Canada? I have ridden there on many occasions and keep going back. Although I've ridden all over the world, it's hard to find better riding and more interesting sights than some of my favorite Canadian locations: Niagara Falls, Ontario; the Cabot Trail and Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia; the walled portion of Old Quebec City and Trois Rivieres, Quebec; Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan; and anywhere in Alberta's Rocky Mountains. Here's why.
1. Canada is close. A large majority of Americans live within an easy two-day ride (600 miles) of the Canadian border. If you can get a week off to go riding, even three days is enough to sample the wonders of Canada. If you live closer to the border and can get there in less than two days, so much the better. Pick some new roads in the United States to get there and back and you'll be way ahead of the game.
2. Canada is easy. If you're a U.S. citizen and ride across the border (or enter by ferry), you'll need proof of U.S. citizenship or permanent residency--you can use a notarized copy of your birth certificate if you don't have a passport (for more info see http://travel.state.gov/tips_canada.html). Money is no problem, either. You can use most of your U.S. credit cards, and most places along the border take American dollars. If you belong to AAA, you can use your card for discounts at many hotels. And, with respect and a slight apology to Winston Churchill, Americans and Canadians are a people divided by a common language. You won't need to struggle with language tapes, dredging up all those bad memories from your high-school days, to prepare for your trip. Accents may be a bit different, but you'll get by, eh?
3. Great people. Actually, I think people everywhere are pretty nice if you take time to know them and appreciate their history and culture. And while Canadians are rightly proud of their heritage and unique accomplishments, they are very open and warm toward Americans. Perhaps this affinity is due to our common links to Great Britain, or that our lands have served as beacons to the dispossessed and those seeking greater freedoms and a better life, too.
4. Great scenery. Canada's geography is breathtaking. One can enjoy sandy beaches, rocky shores that easily compete with those along Big Sur and the Oregonian coasts, and mountains, rivers and forests teeming with wildlife. In some areas, all of these magnificent features exist within a day's ride. Whether your trip originates from the East or West Coast, beauty awaits. Vancouver is a bustling yet charming city, the Canadian Rockies are majestic, the hinterlands are unspoiled, and the fishing villages along the Atlantic are more picturesque than they appear on the postcards. Best of all, you won't have to battle thousands of tourists to enjoy these beauties. I am always astounded by how few people I encounter during my Canadian rides, even though they occur during the height of the summer tourist season.
5. Great roads. Beauty is all well and good, but as motorcyclists, we crave good roads, too. Canadian roads are well-maintained, wide, clean and lightly traveled. Some highways are designated "limited access," which means you will encounter few vehicles due to their lengthy stretches without entry and exit ramps. The speed limits throughout Canada are slightly lower than those here, so you will not be bothered with frenetic traffic. You can travel the roads and enjoy the scenery without having to dodge legions of rude and incompetent motorists. If you do find yourself on a two-lane road and want to pass someone, there will invariably be a long and wide passing lane within a few miles.
6. Great food. If you like lobster and seafood, visit Canada. If you like beef, visit Canada. If you like game, visit Canada. If you like fresh vegetables, visit Canada. If you like French cuisine and culinary treats from around the world, visit Canada. Get the picture? If you're a chowhound, you'll find every meal can be a feast. Even a quick stop for a McLobster at the local McDonald's can be a delight.
7. Great prices. The dollar is strong in Canada, so a vacation there is reasonable. As a rule, multiply prices in Canadian dollars by 60-65 percent; a gargantuan dinner that costs $25 Canadian will only set you back about $15-$16 U.S. Sure, gasoline is a bit more expensive north of the border, but you'll save enough on meals, accommodations and souvenirs to offset added fuel costs. And if you save your receipts for lodgings and other nonconsumables, you're entitled to a refund of Canada's Goods and Services Tax (GST) with proper documentation for the dates of your visit. This refund makes a sweet deal even sweeter! For more information on this tax, visit www.2ontario.com/traveltips/tips22.asp
So, are you convinced? Are you lusting in your heart to visit Canada? Well, it's right there in your backyard waiting, so ride there, eh?
Here are a few tips to make your journey smoother:
·The single best source of information about Canadian travel can be found at the government's official Web site, www.canada.gc.ca. Click on "Non-Canadians" for information about weather, cities, museums, parks, historical sites, exchange rates, maps, travel tips and more. Two other useful sites are www.canada.com and www.travelnotes.org. The latter site is useful for worldwide travel.
·Do not bring weapons into Canada. You know that folding knife with the four-inch blade you wear on your belt? The one you use to cut your cigars? Leave it at home. Customs officials on both sides of the border scrutinize travelers, even innocent-appearing babes in the woods like myself, with a bit more care, especially toward the end of summer as the anniversary of the terrorist attacks approaches.
·Blinking green lights are like green arrows in the U.S. They indicate it's safe to make a turn after a red light. When a turning vehicle no longer has the right of way, the light turns solid green. The first time I encountered a blinking green light, I sat on my bike like an idiot, not knowing what to do. (At least I had an excuse that time.)
·If your bike has a high-compression engine, you may want to bring some octane booster along. As a rule, 91 octane is the highest you'll find in Canada.
·Bring a wind shirt. I put one on and took it off six times in one day. Canadian weather can be very fickle, even during the summer. Within a few miles you may ride through bone-chilling fog in the lowlands and hot temperatures as you climb upward.
·Plan for fog. If you ride along the coast or any of Canada's myriad lakes, expect fog. It's beautiful, albeit potentially dangerous in light of the enormous wildlife population. Sightseeing ventures may be thwarted by early morning fog, so plan accordingly. If you don't have a tall windscreen, consider a full-face helmet, and use an antifog coating.
·Buy some prepaid phone cards. My cell phone roamed all the time when I was in Canada. I used prepaid phone cards purchased before I left and saved a bundle.
·Plan ahead. Hotels, gas stations and bike shops do not appear on every corner as they do in U.S. megalopolises. Provincial tourist information offices, found in most towns and at points of interest, will call ahead to make reservations for you. This is a great service--use it. If your bike has a small gas tank, don't pass up an opportunity during a stop to top off your tank. Gas stations can be pretty rare, especially if you're out in the hinterlands, you're running low on gas, it's raining and you're tired and hungry. Finally, carry a few spare fuses, a tire repair kit and other parts you might have trouble replacing. You'll probably never need them, but the peace of mind they provide can be comforting.