Veteran globetrotter, John Carter, former presenter of Wish You Were Here, revisits some of Canada’s most remote and spectacular regions, brimful of wildlife and adventure… Reflecting on a lifetime of travel, certain experiences come instantly to mind. There are obvious ones, such as the first sight of the Grand Canyon, or the first visit to Venice. And others, less predictable because they are unique to the moment and to me. Watching two female Grizzly Bears standing in a fast-running river, hooking out salmon with deadly accuracy and, with a flick of their huge paws, sending them spinning through the air and on to the bank, where three cubs waited to pounce and devour. Or sitting silent in a canoe for close on an hour, keeping station with an occasional use of the paddle, waiting for a whale to breach. And, when it did, being overawed by the sight, half-disappointed that it was not closer, half-grateful that it wasn’t so close as to upset the tiny shell in which I huddled, wrapped against the Canadian cold. Or unexpectedly encountering a Moose – the creature being as surprised as we were – in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park. Standing within a few feet of each other, staring, silent and motionless, until the spell was broken and the creature ambled away.
I wish everybody could have similar experiences when they travel. Unfortunately, the majority never will, for they take their holidays off the shelves of the travel supermarkets, selecting the big brands who bombard us with their advertisements and their brochures and their special offers. For the most part, these are honestly-crafted, value-for-money deals which will deliver what they offer. But though you may not be disappointed, you will also not have that “wow!” factor of an experience so out of the ordinary that it will remain in your memory for the rest of your life.
What has brought about this mood of reflection? This recollection of special moments? I’ll explain. A friend recently sent me a holiday brochure, asking for my thoughts. It sets out the offerings of a small London-based company whose rationale is to provide the kind of holiday experiences I have described. Windows on the Wild is its name. Its brochure photographs are not of aircraft or hotels or beaches, or any of the nuts-and-bolts ingredients of the usual holiday package. Instead, there are photographs of the amazing wildlife and spectacular scenery to be seen on a selection of its Canadian itineraries.
Take, for example, the experience it offers in the Torngat Mountains National Park, Labrador. It does not exaggerate when describing this as one of the world’s last wildernesses, and the tour incorporates sightseeing by helicopter, kayaking, whale watching, viewing Polar Bears, and an encounter with Inuit customs and culture. A six night trip taken between mid June and the end of August, starting and ending in Goose Bay, costs £3,659, with the nine night trip costing £5,419. Apart from the first and last night in Goose Bay, you stay in permanent tented accommodation at a scientific base camp.
Another August itinerary includes the aforementioned Riding Mountains National Park. The trip to Manitoba gives you the chance of seeing Moose, Black Bears, Bison, Beluga Whales and Polar Bears on a seven night “safari” costing £3,865, departing from Winnipeg and covering not only the National Park, but the unforgiving but spectacular tundra to the north.
Other experiences for wildlife lovers can take you to the Canadian Arctic or to Spirit Bear Lodge in Klemtu, British Columbia, searching for walrus and bowhead whales off Baffin Island, or seeking the Northern Lights in the North West Territories. All very tempting. For me, these holidays represent real travel. Don’t get me wrong. If you happen to be a traveller who carries the responsibilities of a young family, say, or are of a careful and cautious disposition – trepid rather than intrepid in your approach to going away from home – then the less adventurous packages offered by the bigger companies are probably right for you. But if you want to have real experiences, going off the well beaten tourist track, then the offerings from smaller travel companies like Windows on the Wild are certainly worth studying.
Are there any drawbacks, any cautions or caveats? I suppose the most obvious is that when you are dealing with wild creatures there can be no guarantees that they will be where you expect them to be, or in the numbers anticipated. However, when you have studied the seasonal habits of, say, the whales or the bears, over many years, you can be more sure than most people about knowing where to find them and where to take your clients. Companies like Windows on the Wild offer this expertise. And, of course, you must not expect to stay in multi-storey hotels with deep pile carpets, satellite television sets and all the over-the-top trappings of a luxury suite. But Canada’s National Park lodges and permanent tents are more than comfortable and provide a more than adequate way to get off the beaten track. My hunch is that you’ll find the lack of a mini bar worth it. www.windowsonthewild.com John Carter