As the blades whirr into action, I take a deep breath and tighten my seat belt. Beside me, my helicopter pilot, Aaron, makes his final checks. “Whatever you do, don’t touch the controls,” he reminds me, his voice crackling over the headphones. Then, Aaron sends the helicopter forward – and my heart lurches as we soar into the sky.
Soon we’re flying at 100mph, high above the airstrip in Gananoque, a town in Canada’s Ontario province. This area is famed for its 1000 Islands – actually 1,864 isles scattered through the St Lawrence River, where Lake Ontario feeds into it on the border with the US. And this bird’s eye view of a landscape that is traditionally seen by boat is something to behold.
Although there are plenty of companies offering 1000 Islands river cruises (Rockport Cruises and Gananoque Boat Line are good options for clients seeking a lunch or dinner boat tour), seeing them by helicopter offers a fresh, thrilling perspective. My 10-minute flight with 1000 Islands Helicopter Tours (from ￡57pp) reveals sapphire waters dotted with islands — some large enough to house small communities, others no bigger than a rocky platform with a couple of trees.
“This is where the Thousand Island dressing was invented,” Aaron says, adding that nowadays the privately owned islands become a millionaires’ playground in summer. Travelling by private helicopter, with a personal narrative of the scenery beneath us, I feel like something of an A-lister myself. It’s just one of the surprises my fam trip group uncovers while exploring this province.
Agents selling Ontario routinely recommend its star attractions: Toronto and Niagara Falls. But our four-day itinerary takes in some often-overlooked destinations, including Ottawa, Canada’s cultural and political heart, where our trip begins. It’s an easy hop for British travellers, with direct Air Canada flights connecting Heathrow and the Canadian capital in less than eight hours.
“The number one piece of feedback I get from tour groups is that, if they’d known how much there was to do in Ottawa, they would have stayed longer,” says our See Our City guide, Margo. “I would recommend at least two days here. Just the museums could take two weeks.”
Ottawa is extremely rich in culture, Margo explains, and everything is still looking spick and span thanks to the recent 150th anniversary celebrations. Clients with a passion for culture should not miss the National Gallery of Canada, housing remarkable Inuit art, and the 19th-century Rideau Chapel, which was rebuilt inside the building. Families will enjoy the interactive, child-friendly displays at the Canadian Museum of Nature, while across the river in Gatineau, the Canadian Museum of History tells Canada’s story, from First Nations to modern day, with exhibits including totem poles on the ground floor.
But Ottawa has something for outdoor lovers, too. The Rideau Canal that flows through the city is dotted with boats in summer (and tracing the water is an ideal cycling route, with bikes available to hire at RentABike on Rideau Street). In winter, it freezes and becomes the world’s largest skating rink. The 4.8-mile stretch is the focus of Winterlude, an annual festival celebrating everything from ice sculpting to BeaverTails, sweet pastries that have become something of an institution in Canada (clients can sample them year-round at the BeaverTails kiosk in ByWard Market).
Margo explains that Ottawa was chosen as Canada’s capital by Queen Victoria in 1857 because it was deemed “the least objectionable place” to locate the seat of government. The capital was previously in the city of Kingston (albeit only for three years), a two-hour drive south, with the helicopters of Gananoque located en route.
Set on the shores of Lake Ontario, Kingston has a hip, vibrant feel, with more restaurants per capita than almost any other city in Canada, including Toronto. Foodies should check out Atomica, a lively pizza and wine bar serving good food made with fresh ingredients.
A trolley tour is a great way for clients to get their bearings of the waterfront and downtown, past limestone buildings preserved as they were in the 1800s. Stops include the Kingston Penitentiary, the country’s oldest and most notorious maximum security prison that closed in 2013, where former guards now give fascinating tours.
If your clients like history, a visit to Fort Henry is a must. Staffed by students acting as soldiers in the British Army from 1867, this living museum houses an extensive collection of 19th-century British and Canadian military uniforms and equipment. Standing on the fort walls, I look out over the majestic waters of the St Lawrence River, with Lake Ontario and Toronto, our final destination, beyond. With beautiful scenery, a rich history and culture and cosmopolitan cities, Ontario’s lesser-known destinations are certainly worth more than just a fleeting visit.
Book it: North America Travel Service offers six nights in Ontario from ￡1,165pp, with Air Canada flights, two nights each at Ottawa Marriott, Delta Kingston Waterfront and Chelsea Hotel Toronto, plus car hire. Based on two sharing.
In October 2017, travel agents from around the world convened in Toronto. Ontario’s vibrant capital was the final meeting place for agents on the Destination Canada MegaFAM. Before returning home, the 11 fam groups shared feedback from across Canada’s provinces and territories.
Gordon Lawrence from Gazelle Travel said the Yukon would appeal to outdoorsy types.
He said: “I was expecting the wilderness but this was more remote than I’d imagined. Canada’s west coast can be busy, but the Yukon is different.”
Westoe Travel’s Joan Brett added: “The Northern Lights, unspoilt scenery and friendly locals make this an easy sell. It’s perfect for clients who want to get away from it all, and it’s an ideal progression for those who have already done Canada’s big cities and the Rockies.”
Newfoundland was full of surprises for Clare Collins-Doyle from Independent Travel Experts.
“Although much of Canada is about wildlife and the outdoors, in Newfoundland the people are so important. The locals were interesting characters, with unrivalled hospitality. I fell in love with the place.” She added: “Everyone who goes should visit the Bonavista Peninsula and St John’s – an amazing city with quaint, colourful houses and incredible food.”
The Northwest Territories
Mike Ward, of Audley Travel, was impressed by the quality of accommodation in the town of Inuvik.
“I was expecting remote, basic accommodation but the Mackenzie Hotel offered comfortable, spacious rooms and a lovely restaurant.” Ward recommended selling the Northwest Territories as an add-on to self-drive tours around the Yukon, and as a year-round destination. “In summer, 24-hour daylight allows visitors to experience vast wilderness and wildlife, while winter offers snowmobiling, dog sledding, and Northern Lights viewing.”
The highlight for Westway Travel’s Nicole Roberts was a helicopter tour of the 1000 Islands.
“It gave a different perspective to a boat tour – I couldn’t stop smiling. It’s a must.”
Lizzie Adamson-Brown from Travel Counsellors was pleasantly surprised by Kingston.
“It’s never been on my radar, but it’s a vibrant city with a fabulous food and drink scene in a beautiful location.” She added: “Ontario has something for everyone. Anyone interested in history would particularly love it. I’d advise clients to hire a car and tour around.”