The Trans-Canada Highway stretches nearly 5,000 miles and crosses six time zones. If you’re in a rush, you can probably drive it in a week. But add a temperamental SUV, two working parents and three school-age kids, and it turns into a month-long adventure.
Motoring from one end of Canada to the other is a once-in-a-lifetime journey, but seeing it through the eyes of three children, ages 9, 11 and 14, makes it all the more wondrous — and worthwhile.
Our TCH trip took place in two stages. Part one, from Montreal to Vancouver in early fall; part two from Ottawa to Charlottetown, on Prince Edward Island, in late spring. Grant me a small literary license to tell the story from east to west.
Americans are born with an almost DNA-level desire to take big road trips: The TCH beckoned us, her kilometers of open road waiting to be explored. I had high hopes of sharing the diverse cultures and must-see landmarks north of the border with my kids, and while I did, I’m pretty sure they’ll remember the trip as a culinary tour.
Our journey began in Charlottetown, on Canada’s Atlantic coast. During the fall of 1864, this seaside village was the site of a meeting that led to the Canadian confederation. Prince Edward Island — or PEI, as the locals call it — is also home to one of Canada’s most famous beaches, the Singing Sands in Basin Head Provincial Park. The beach hums when you drag your feet along its powdery quartz sand.
Where to stay
But when we visited, the only sound we could hear was the rain beating relentlessly against our umbrellas. Curiously, the PEI answer to cold weather is ice cream. The place to go is Cows, which has locations throughout the island and bovine-themed flavors like Wowie Cowie and Gooey Mooey. What’s in them? Ribbons of caramel, chocolate and ingredients most adults should only eat sparingly — such as bubble gum, cake frosting and rainbow sprinkles. Years from now, the kids will have long forgotten our week-long visit to the birthplace of the Canadian confederation and the rainy beach. But we’ll always have Cows.
The baguettes of Montreal
It’s a full day’s drive from Charlottetown to Montreal along roads that invite you to explore New Brunswick and Quebec. The kids, normally either transfixed by a Roblox session or taking swings at each other in the back seat, seemed distracted by the French road signs, but in a kind of educational way. Yes, Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! is a funny name for a town, children. There’s probably more where that came from. We should really take that French immersion class next summer.
It takes a lot of discipline to resist the detour, but your reward is Montreal, and it’s quite the trophy. It can seem more French than France, yet is also thoroughly Canadian. There was only one way to see this place: by bicycle.
Hundreds of miles of bike paths crisscross the city. We took a spin around town in unseasonably balmy weather, pedaling past the port through the islands of Montreal to the site of the 1967 World’s Fair. Highlights included running the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, Montreal’s Formula One track and a close encounter with the raging St. Lawrence River, which engulfs the islands on both sides. Watching the ferries push against the rapids using the power of the current to move downstream, with a grand view of the city, was one of the most memorable parts of our journey.
And what will the kids remember from this bike tour? “The baguettes,” exclaimed my youngest daughter. Fresh out of the oven from one of the city’s many boulangeries. We paired it with soft cheese and a fruit plate, bought from Atwater Marche, one of Montreal’s famous public markets. Sigh.
The mousse of Ottawa
About two hours down the road, we pulled into Canada’s capital.
We dragged the kids to all the requisite tourist attractions, which included the Parliament and the Rideau Canal, with its impressive stair-step locks that lead to the Ottawa River. The kids complied without making a fuss. Our fourth “child” — our finicky Honda Pilot — wasn’t as well behaved. As we navigated Ottawa’s narrow streets, a blinking light started to nag us about low pressure in our front right tire. I thought it was a faulty sensor, as all of the tires on our SUV appeared to be inflated.
We spent the afternoon in the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum, hoping our technology-enamored teenage son would connect with some of the exhibits. The displays are separated thematically into islands within the large, hangar-like building. One exhibit in particular drew his attention. It was dedicated to the Canadian aviation pioneers who flew into the remotest parts of the country in aircraft such as the de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver, first placed in service in 1947. He’s into that kind of thing.
But not as much as the ByWard Market, a district filled with shops, bakeries and boutiques. Our visit coincided with the annual weekend during which we celebrate three family birthdays. A cake needed to be bought. The kids bounced from one patisserie to the next, searching for the perfect baked goods, and finally consulted the great oracle — Yelp — before deciding on a hazelnut mousse cake from a small French bakery on Bank Street. Long after they’ve forgotten the locks of the Rideau, we’ll all be reminding each other of the hazelnut mousse.
The meat of Toronto
By the time we reached Toronto, a four-hour drive away, we decided to try reverse psychology. Instead of making the food an afterthought, why not think of it as the main course? No sooner had we landed in Canada’s most populous city than we headed to the St. Lawrence Market, where we had promised the kids a visit to the legendary Carousel Bakery. Our young foodies had heard about the peameal ham sandwich — we Americans refer to it as Canadian bacon — and desperately wanted to try it. Try it they did. We scarfed down seven sandwiches. The adults applied hot mustard for a little extra zing.
I admit, the ham sandwich is a great excuse to visit Toronto. The meat is delicate and flavorful without being overpoweringly salty or sweet. But once we finished, I said, “Okay, kids, can we see Toronto now?” When they agreed, I thought that our parent mind tricks had finally worked.
But kids are clever. Even as we walked past the Legislative Assembly, through Queen’s Park and around the University of Toronto, with postcard views of the iconic CN Tower, I could almost feel the gravitational pull toward every cafe. Before we could finish our hike through town, we had been sucked into one, where the children persuaded us to try the coffee cake. Their excuse? They wanted to see if it tasted like American coffee cake. It kind of did.
I know what you’re thinking: This sounds like a great vacation. And it was great — mostly — if not always a vacation in the traditional sense. Between driving, parenting from behind the wheel and planning daily excursions, there was work, and lots of it. The almost-constant search for a reliable WiFi signal defined almost every day on the road. I was knee-deep in deadlines and coping with the unexpected death of a close friend. My better half, Kari, was wrestling with deadlines of her own, on top of making sure our home-schooled kids finished their assignments.
Even our SUV was feeling the strain. It didn’t have a faulty sensor after all. Instead, a nail had burrowed itself into a tire, setting off the alarms.
In Toronto, things started to come apart at the seams. We’d lined up rentals at our previous destinations through VRBO, but because of a scheduling error, found ourselves suddenly homeless there. We scraped together a few hotel points and found a Staybridge Suites in Markham with room for us.
It was neither the first nor the last time we asked ourselves, “What are we doing here?”
The fish of Winnipeg
A few days later, we stopped in Thunder Bay, which will forever be known as A Good Place for Finnish Pancakes. (Check out the Hoito Restaurant, known across Canada for its lettu, or thin, plate-size pancakes.) Finally, after two uninterrupted days in the car, we decided to make our last stand for expanded cultural horizons in Winnipeg. The children needed enlightenment, so we took them to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, with its thought-provoking displays that climb toward a glass spire overlooking the provincial capital.
We examined a rare copy of the Magna Carta. We strolled through exhibits that explored every kind of human rights violation. And then, just as I thought the kids understood what this road trip was all about, and as I began to believe they were making contact with the real Canada, they asked about dinner.
As it turned out, they had a place in mind — the nearby Forks Market, another one of those Canadian food courts where you can find almost anything. The kids decided that, as they were thousands of miles from the ocean, they required fish and chips — which they found at a place called Fergie’s. I think it was the long line that made them ask for it; they never eat fish at home. Winnipeg may not have deepened their social conscience, but it certainly expanded their appreciation of seafood. I’ll take it.
The poutine of everywhere
A day’s drive west, across the flat prairie of Manitoba, we arrived in Regina. Until now, this road trip had been a series of “oohs” and “aahs” and “let’s-stop-here’s” but the Canadian prairie is a different kind of experience, with vast stretches of flatness, farmland and open fields with nothing to do except count down the kilometers. It tests your patience and your endurance. You do not hear the words, “Are we there yet?” coming from the back seat. Those words do not exist, because you want to arrive at your destination sane.
Of all of our the planned activities, I most looked forward to visiting the training headquarters for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and its Heritage Center, which has exhibits and multimedia displays that explain the law enforcement agency’s origins.
Nothing could be more Canadian than the RCMP, with its trademark red uniforms and Stetson hats. The museum was everything I had hoped for, and because we were there in the early afternoon, we had a chance to see a practice parade at the RCMP Academy.
We’d made it half a day without stumbling into another culinary trap, but just as I was getting hopeful, our middle son asked one of the officers a great travel-journalist question: “Where do the locals eat?”
“The cadets go to Coney Island Cafe,” he said, matter-of-factly. “They have the best poutine in Canada.”
Well, you can probably guess what happened next, right? A few minutes later, the children were ordering poutine — french fries with gravy — topped with pierogi and barbecued pork. I admit, it doesn’t sound appetizing, but the cadets are correct. I’m no fan of french fries or gravy, but put the two together and I will happily join you for lunch.
The Indian food of Calgary
Maybe I should have given up then, scrapped every planned stopover and let Gordon Ramsay adopt my children. But I’m a fighter. After another day’s drive west to Drumheller, I pushed them into the Royal Tyrrell Museum. (“Hey kids, who wants to see dinosaurs?”) The following day, in Calgary, we plunged down the Olympic ski jump on a zip line. It’s not that they didn’t enjoy any of those activities. I’m sure they did. But for them, the main event remained the meal.
Our kids weren’t the only ones acting up. Our empathetic SUV began to flash intermittent warning lights. A look at our well-thumbed owner’s manual suggested the left rear tire had a slow leak but we could find no evidence of one. During the afternoon, I set up camp in our hotel room to file a story while they prowled around Calgary in search of ever more exotic food. They returned with shopping bags filled with spicy Thai noodle soup and butter curry and naan. In Canada? Yes — and they insist that it was the best Indian food they’d ever had.
By the time we’d crossed the Canadian Rockies and arrived in Vancouver, the parents admitted defeat. Yes, I could have taken them to Stanley Park or the Vancouver Aquarium or driven up to Whistler, my favorite Canadian ski resort. But almost 1 in 5 people here are ethnic Chinese, and if there’s one thing we could agree on, it was that we all loved Chinese food. I mean, Canadian Chinese food.
Our search for Chinese fare led us down Broadway, on the perimeter of Vancouver’s Chinatown. We found a small table during the lunch hour at Peaceful Restaurant where we ordered tasty egg drop soup, beef rolls and sweet and sour pork. Even our car seemed to have righted itself. The flashing lights went dark after we crossed the mountains.
We’d set out to discover Canada by car, but I think our mistake was wanting to experience it as adults. You know — museums, monuments, and culturally significant buildings. Our children had other plans. For them, it was about the food.
Maybe they’re right about Canada. Maybe it’s the kind of place you have to savor, one meal at a time.
Christopher Elliott's latest book is “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). You can get real-time answers to any consumer question on his new forum, elliott.org/forum, or by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.