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Wanna get away, eh?

Canada's calling, whether you're looking for thrills (surf with a kite?) or something a little slower (buy cheese from monks!). Seventeen reasons to head over the border.

By Stephen Jermanok
April 19, 2009
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Vibrant cities, coastlines without crowds, and European flavor -- what's not to love about Canada? For New Englanders looking to escape without crossing the continent or the Atlantic, our neighbor to the north beckons, especially now with a friendly exchange rate (at press time, the US dollar was at $1.24 Canadian; prices listed are Canadian unless otherwise noted). Here are 17 reasons to give the eastern portion of the country a try -- or make a return trip.

1. Simpler camping

Quebec is doing its part to make the outdoors a little more accessible, if you don't mind driving. Sepaq, the Quebec government agency that runs the province's wildlife reserves and parks, offers a "ready to camp" program. Fourteen of Quebec's national parks, including Mont-Tremblant, Saguenay, and Gaspesie, will supply tents or trailers to interested campers. Last summer, Sepaq unveiled the two-bedroom Huttopia tent that sleeps four adults comfortably and includes bedding, lighting, a two-burner camp stove, small fridge, and dishes. You supply the linens or rent them. The Huttopia campsites are $102 per night. sepaq.com

2. A Celtic bash

"Ceilidh" (kay-lee) in Scottish Highland terms means a rip-roaring house party. Gaelic Cape Breton in northern Nova Scotia, home to highlands and coastal bluffs reminiscent of the old country, has turned the idea into a cultural phenomenon. Some of the finest Celtic musicians of our time, such as Natalie MacMaster and her uncle, the legendary fiddler Buddy MacMaster, have their roots here. In the summertime, it's not hard to find a contemporary ceilidh, a little tamer than those of yore, but where you can still sing and dance the night away. Start with the Red Shoe Pub or the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre in Judique. In the daytime, hike in Cape Breton Highlands National Park to spot moose and bald eagles. celticmusicsite.com

3. Spirited fun

At first glance, Montreal's Ghost Hunt might seem like some canned tourist experience. On the contrary, it's a wonderful theatrical affair that families should not miss. The ticket office is on Rue Saint Francois-Xavier. Then you meet at 8:30 p.m. at the Place d'Armes, grab a lantern, map, and French flag, and get ready to wander along the back alleys of Old Montreal for the next 90 minutes to find four ghosts. When you meet them, you'll hear their stories of being burned, tortured, and ostracized. The acting is so realistic that kids should be at least 10 years old to participate. $12.50-$21.50; fantommontreal.com/en/accueil.htm

4. A seaweed snack

Most folks use Saint John, New Brunswick, as the gateway to the Bay of Fundy or consider it an afterthought on the way to the scenic Fundy Trail Parkway. But don't drive through town too quickly or you'll miss the chance to stock up on a bounty of indigenous fish, fruit, cheeses, homemade breads, and pastries. Built in 1876, the Old City Market is the oldest continuing farmer's market in the country. Its roof resembles the hull of a ship, apropos of the city's bustling commercial harbor. The market is thronged at lunch, when locals gather to grab smoked salmon on bagels, fish soup, lobster rolls, and dulse, a native seaweed that doubles as finger food in this town. sjcitymarket.ca

5. Arts immersion

For 10 days in June, the stages and streets of Toronto are taken over by theater, dance, film, music, visual arts, literature, and design as the Luminato Festival of Arts and Creativity comes to town. Last year's list of more than 1,000 performers included Joni Mitchell, who teamed with the Alberta Ballet; singer and poet Laurie Anderson; and young jazz sensation Nikki Yanofsky. The Art Gallery of Ontario, reopened in November with renovations by Toronto-born Frank Gehry, is one of the many venues. June 5-14; prices vary by event (some are free); luminato.com

6. A national treat

If you're headed to Ottawa this summer to catch the 50th anniversary of its changing-of-the-guard ceremony on Parliament Hill, or simply shopping or dining in many of the Victorian-era buildings that line the streets of Canada's often overlooked capital city, you'll need to re-energize with BeaverTails. This whole-wheat pastry, served with toppings such as chocolate, jam, or cinnamon, is a national treasure in these parts. BeaverTails are available year-round in the city's lively ByWard public market. byward-market.com

>7. Wine boot camp

Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario is known for its vineyards, which produce many varieties and styles, most notably the very sweet icewine. Tour the vineyards along the shores of the Niagara River on backcountry roads via a bike, or sign up for Peller Estates Extreme Wine Weekend, August 22-23. Participants will work in the vineyards, taste more than 50 wines (including some straight from the barrel), have a six-course dinner, and put their knowledge to the test at a blind tasting. $550 per person ($895 per couple), including meals and lodging; peller.com

8. Shore wonders

Less than an hour's drive west of Halifax, St. Margaret's Bay is quintessential Nova Scotia, with quaint fishing villages, light-houses, and miles of protected shoreline and inlets that are perfect for sea kayaking. With outfitter Sea Sun Kayak, you can view this seascape the way it was meant to be seen -- slowly. Favorite outings include a seven-hour marine wildlife trip ($100), where porpoises, gray seals, and bald eagles are common sightings, and a three-hour jaunt to the rugged shores of Peggy's Cove ($60). Another favorite activity is a two-hour sunset paddle ($50). paddlenovascotia.com

9. Better drive time

Take a chunk of Vermont and plop it down in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and you can begin to envision how fertile Prince Edward Island really is. So it makes perfect sense that an island this green has some good greens, and PEI golfing doesn't disappoint, with holes edged along the ocean or surrounded by rolling potato fields. The Links at Crowbush Cove overlook the dunes of the north shore, while the long fairways at Dundarave are hemmed in with tall pines and meander along the Brudenell River. Green fees average about $80. golflinkspei.com

10. Surfing with the sky

In the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the dozen or so Iles de la Madeleine (or Magdalen Islands) are unlike any other destination in Quebec -- green hillsides, long stretches of beach, red cliffs, and brightly painted houses. Once there, you can explore by horseback or bike, try deep-sea fishing, scuba diving, sea kayaking -- or the latest craze, kite-boarding, where one rides a surfboard while harnessed to a large kite. Give it a go at Aerosport, the first kite-boarding school in the country. Prices start at $250 for a two-hour private lesson. tourismeilesdelamadeleine.com; aerosport.ca

11. Pastoral peddling

The Prince Edward Island Railway that once connected the island's small villages last roared through the interior in 1989, leaving in its wake hundreds of kilometers of track. By 2000, the tracks were converted into a biking and walking thoroughfare called the Confederation Trail. Crossing the entire island, the trail starts in Tignish in the west and rolls 279 kilometers to the eastern terminus in Elmira. One of the most scenic stretches starts in Mount Stewart in King's County along the sinuous Hillsborough River. MacQueen's in Charlottetown rents bikes (starting at $25 a day) and can arrange a pickup. tourismpei.com/pei-confederation-trail; macqueens.com

12. Smooth paddling

The Rideau Canal Waterway is the oldest continuously operated canal in North America. The 125-mile-long waterway, which opened in 1832, links the lakes and rivers between Kingston and Ottawa, Ontario, offering canoe paddlers a chance to follow the loons, osprey, and herons along the pine-studded shoreline. Even in the heart of summer, the Rideau never feels crowded, and its cool waters are perfect for a refreshing dip. Canoe and kayak rentals are available all along the waterway, including Big Rideau Lake and Upper Rideau Lake. rideau-info.com

13. Luxury quarters

Just over the border from Maine, a portion of St. Andrews, New Brunswick, has been designated a National Historic District, with more than 250 buildings constructed before 1900. For those looking to splurge, one of those estates is Kingsbrae Arms, built by a prominent family of jade merchants with Boston roots in 1897 and now one of the few elite Relais & Chateaux properties in the Maritimes. The 10-room manor, with its spacious antique-laden parlor and marble fireplaces, overlooks the Kingsbrae Gardens, St. Andrews' top attraction. Prices start at $595 a night. kingsbrae.com

14. Revered cheese

On the shores of 28-mile-long Lake Memphremagog in Quebec's Eastern Townships, near the quiet seaside village of Knowlton (just over the Vermont border), sits an impressive monastery high atop the waters. Some 50 Benedictine monks call the stone edifice and the expansive grounds of the abbey of Saint-Benoit-du-Lac home. You can enter the monastery at midday and hear a Gregorian chant inside the chapel walls, but the real reason to come is to buy the monks' homemade cheeses and cider. A sharp, crumbly blue cheese known as L'Ermite, among Quebec's most popular, is produced at the monastery. st-benoit-du-lac.com

15. A fresh look at the world

Quebec City's Musee de la Civilisation is one of the most innovative museums in the country. Wander inside, and you'll be treated to an exhibition on extraterrestrials and, in "Free Time, an in-depth look at an adult's leisure time, or lack thereof. Children will enjoy climbing into a realistic earthquake simulator, a makeshift house that shakes as you slowly reach the higher side on the Richter scale, and then heading to the Middle Ages section, where they can dress up as a knight, queen, or serf. $11 (free for children under 12); mcq.org

16. The many faces of Toronto

No need to travel the world to find varying culture when you can simply walk around Toronto's ethnically diverse neighborhoods. Start with dim sum in Chinatown, try traditional walnut cake in Koreatown, head to Greektown for helpings of saganaki and lamb souvlakia, order a cappuccino at one of the outdoor cafes in Little Italy, purchase silks at the bazaar in Little India, and dine on pirogi and borscht in Little Poland (or Roncey, as the locals call it). For more insight, sign up for a walking tour with historian Bruce Bell. $25 for a two-hour tour; brucebelltours.ca

17. Rarefied fish

A mere 10-minute drive from the Newfoundland capital of St. John's is a small inn called The Beach House Inn and it's restaurant, Atlantica, where you can feast on fresh seafood caught in the local waters of Conception Bay. Chef Jeremy Charles traveled North America, fine-tuning his craft in Montreal and working as a personal chef for the Bronfman family, owners of Seagram's. After one bite of the tender cod or pan-roasted Atlantic salmon, you'll begin to understand why it often takes up to a month to get a reservation. The restaurant is closed Sundays and Mondays; entrees start at $29. atthebeachhouse.ca

Freelance writer Stephen Jermanok is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

If You Go

GETTING THERE

Car Approximate distances from Boston: Halifax, Nova Scotia (700); Gaspesie, Quebec (705); Kingston, Ontario (430); Mont-Tremblant, Quebec (390); Montreal (315); Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario (480); Ottawa (430); Prince Edward Island (650); Quebec (395); Saguenay, Quebec (510); Saint John, New Brunswick (405); Saint-Benoit-du-Lac, Quebec (260); St. Andrews, New Brunswick (355); Toronto (550).

Plane In June, round-trip flights to Halifax start at about $405 US; Montreal ($484); Ottawa ($530); Quebec ($531); Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island ($587); Saint John, New Brunswick ($503); St. John's, Newfoundland ($593); Toronto ($343).

Ferry/boat A ferry connects Portland, Maine, and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia (5½ hours, $99 US one way, catferry.com). There's also a ferry from Digby, Nova Scotia, to Saint John, New Brunswick ($40 Canadian one way; acadiaferry.com). Cars are extra. Holland America offers Canadian cruises from Boston (hollandamerica.com).

Note: Going to the Magdalen Islands is more involved, since there's no direct flight from Boston. You can take a ferry from Prince Edward Island (five hours, $45 Canadian, ctma.ca), or travel to Montreal, then fly ($740 Canadian round trip; pascan.com).