They call it shoulder season: that magical time of year in travel when summer holidays are over but the weather’s still great. The crowds have mostly gone home, making it a perfect time to explore some of the best parts of Canada.
Can you hear it? Or, perhaps more to the point, can you not hear it? The sounds of the city; they’re gone.
In your case, you’re fortunate enough to have an old log cabin on a leased lot in the park. It’s nothing fancy, which is just the way you like it. Yes, there are a few mod cons: running water and electricity. But that’s about it. The nearest neighbour is across the lake. It really is just you, a cabin, the woods.
And there are few places you’d rather be — especially in September.
At the peak of the summer, the park is a busy place. Parking lots are jammed, knots of tourists bunch up on the shoulders of Highway 60 to photograph moose, and canoeists arrive by the busload for treks to the interior.
The soft crunch of twigs on the walk in through the woods. The protest of slightly wet wood in the stone fireplace, at first resisting and then giving in to the flame. The wind in the trees, simultaneously above you, around you, inside you. The familiar and oddly comforting squeak of the old wooden screen door. The rhythmic lap of the lake.
You drive to the park late on a Friday night, arriving at midnight. After getting the boat, loading up and unloading at the cabin, you walk down to the floating dock at about 1:30 a.m. It is a moonless, windless, cloudless night and the stars stretch toward infinity.
You listen, hard. There is nothing. Not a single audible sound, save for a faint hiss in your ears from the three-hour drive. All is quiet. Perfectly quiet.
Having lucked into a Newfoundland gal for a girlfriend years ago, however, I get to make a couple of trips a year to her hometown, so I’ve learned a few tricks. And one of those tricks is to save your summer travels to St. John’s for the very end of the summer. To arrive in that town in late August or September is to be greeted with clear, blue skies, cordial jeans-and-a-T-shirt temperatures and relieved sighs from locals who tell you every chance they get how lucky you are to be in St. John’s right now because the fog set in during June and it was utterly cold and miserable until, like, last week.
Anyway, St. John’s isn’t nearly enough Newfoundland if you’ve never been out there — a road-trip northwest across the Rock to Gros Morne is essential business — but a representative taste of the province can be had in even just a weekend in the city.
For instance, you can hike an hour out of town along the spectacular East Coast Trail in either direction, up from the quaint (if developing) Quidi Vidi Village and its fabled Gut or down from Fort Amherst at the harbour Narrows toward Cape Spear, and find yourself in complete wilderness or atop daunting cliffs hundreds of feet above the North Atlantic. The 15.5-km stretch between Fort Amherst and windblown Cape Spear, the easternmost point in North America, is utterly mind-blowing and doable in a day. For the less ambitious, a stroll around the peaks and spires of Signal Hill on a sunny afternoon can still change your life. For the even less ambitious, a 45-minute drive south puts you in an authentic Newfoundland fishing village like Petty Harbour.
St. John’s is a pretty cosmopolitan little burg, too, flush with trendy shops and restaurants along Water and Duckworth Streets and infamously well stocked with bars that know how to make the most of patio season. Down the fish, chips, dressing and gravy at the Duke of Duckworth and you’ll be plotting your return next September after about the third mouthful. For real.t.
Not that it’s ever predictable: In the mountains, erratic weather is the norm. But in early fall, travellers to Banff National Park should be prepared for especially quick slides up and down the thermometer. Summer is definitely over (oh, except when that hot sun blazes over the mountains) and winter is far off (that is, except when that decidedly icy wind suddenly picks up). Best travel tip: Pack layers. Many layers.
Over the years, I’ve seen Banff in all its environmental extremes. Growing up in neighbouring Saskatchewan, my family made many trips to Calgary and Banff area, braving the summer hordes and the ski-hill crowds along with everyone else on school breaks. When I finished school I started taking advantage of the quieter fall season, when students were back in class.
A funny thing happens in shoulder season: The carnival-like atmosphere of trinket shops and bus tours fades and Banff’s natural beauty and serenity starts to reassert itself. The lines for the Sightseeing Gondola are more manageable and it doesn’t take 30 minutes to get a table at the Saltlik steak house. Plus, you can walk down the street without running into camera-carrying crowds gaping up at the mountain scenery. (OK, that will actually happen any time of the year.)
Several of my friends took hospitality jobs in the area over the years, and they have more time to socialize during that brief autumn lull between the summer hiking enthusiasts and the ski bums.
Not that it’s boring. In addition to the spectacular fall foliage there are festivals such as the 2012 Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival, which starts Oct. 27. Nearby Lake Louise’s Fall Festival, until Oct. 8, features events and special offers from participating businesses along with deep discounts from hotels.
Many hotels in Banff also offer fall deals. The Fairmont Banff Springs has a package offering travellers up to 45 per cent off accommodations, plus discounts for activities including golfing at the hotel’s renowned golf resort.
And if your round gets rained out (or, more likely, snowed out), just adjust your layers, head indoors and order up a drink. Chances are you’ll get a table right away.