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Canada’s top 10 drives

From the Maritimes to the Rockies, every province offers spectacular routes for scenic road trips.

Published November 15, 2012

You grip the steering wheel and ease into the driver’s seat, turn on the ignition and hear the engine purr. The intoxicating new-car scent triggers a vision of that first road trip in your fresh set of wheels.

Canada boasts some of the world’s most spectacular motoring vistas, from the Maritimes to the Rockies. Here’s a list of 10 great routes, one in each province, to make that inaugural new car cruise.

More: The top 10 best fall drives in Ontario

The Discovery Trail on Newfoundland’s Bonavista Peninsula is a 230-kilometre historical treasure, where the road takes you through coastal villages and over fertile farmland and windswept plains containing some of Canada’s oldest settlements. It’s a region steeped in history, from the 16th-century harbour heritage of Trinity in the south to the eastern tip of Cape Bonavista, which was discovered by explorer John Cabot in 1497, setting off a five-century rush for the massive stocks of codfish. There are several interconnecting highways and local roads to venture off the beaten path and take in the magnificent scenery.

The Lighthouse Route along Nova Scotia’s southern shore from Halifax to Yarmouth winds 300 km through rugged wave-carved headlands and tranquil island-studded bays, with historic towns and weathered fishing villages along the way. Seafaring heritage is on display in the buildings and museums of Lunenburg, Liverpool and Shelburne. Historic sites and marine landmarks hark back four centuries to the days of the first European explorers. There are also more than 20 lighthouses on this route, including two of Canada’s most photographed: Peggy’s Cove Lighthouse and Yarmouth’s towering Cape Forchu Lightstation.

Central Coastal Drive on Prince Edward Island passes through the Cavendish and P.E.I. National Park region, as it circles the middle of the tiny province. It offers 250 km of scenic vistas along the white sandy-beached northern coast (Green Gables) area and the red sandstone cliffs (Red Sands) of the south shore. The route, with its natural beauty of countless bays and inlets, weaves its way through seaside communities rich in Acadian and Mi’kmaq history and culture, and passes close by the province’s two largest cities, the capital of Charlottetown to the east, and Summerside to the west.

Fundy Coastal Drive on New Brunswick’s southern shore stretches about 400 km from Nova Scotia to the Maine border along the Bay of Fundy, which has the highest tides in the world. From the flowerpot-like land forms at Hopewell Rocks in the northeast, where you can walk the ocean floor at low tide, through the Acadian forest, valleys, mountains and streams of Fundy National Park, to the Reversing Falls at high tide in Saint John, it’s a constantly changing landscape with much to see along the way. The southwestern portion includes fishing villages, lighthouses, scenic coves, beaches and, of course, the charming and historic town of St. Andrews By-The-Sea.

The Kings Road (Chemin du Roy) bordering the St. Lawrence River’s north shore along Highway 138 is said to be the oldest land route in Canada and has, since 1737, linked more than 30 communities from Montreal to Quebec City. The 260-km route is less direct than Autoroute 40 but much more scenic, taking in the rich New France heritage of towns such as Cap Sante, Neuville and Deschambault, which are among the most beautiful villages in Quebec with their well-preserved 17th- and 18th-century architecture.

The South Georgian Bay Drive between sandy Wasaga Beach and rocky Owen Sound along Highway 26 is about an 80-km drive, for the most part following the Nottawasaga Bay shoreline at the southern end of Georgian Bay before rising from the flat limestone plain in the east to the Blue Mountains of the Niagara Escarpment. It’s a busy tourist area, but a scenic drive past beaches and dunes, the harbour towns of Thornbury and Collingwood, into the Beaver River Valley, with its vineyards and apple orchards, and through the forested Bayview Escarpment between Meaford and Owen Sound.

Manitoba’s Highway 26 begins and ends at the Trans-Canada Highway between Winnipeg and Portage la Prairie, on the north side of the snaking Assiniboine River. It’s an interesting 65-km break from the flatness of the straight-as-an-arrow national auto route and it takes in the communities of St. Francois Xavier and Poplar Point. The White Horse Plain area was settled before Manitoba joined confederation in 1870 and has many markers honoring local heritage. The most distinctive is a ghostly statue of a lone white horse roaming the plain, in memory of a Sioux and Cree legend of two young lovers tragically caught and killed in a tribal feud in the 1690s.

The North Woods and Water Route is where the prairie meets the forest in Saskatchewan and, although it’s not quite either, this parkland region is the province’s historic fur trade country, where rivers and lakes draw campers, hunters, fishermen and road-tripping sightseers. Stretching from southern Manitoba to northern B.C., it runs 670 km across Saskatchewan along Highways 9 and 55, taking in Nipawin, Prince Albert, Shellbrook, Big River, Meadow Lake, Dorintosh, Pierceland and Goodsoil, which offer accommodation, museums and historic points of interest along the way.

The Badlands Trail in Alberta’s Dinosaur Valley is a 50-km scenic route along Highways 837 and 838, beginning and ending in Drumheller and passing through varied landscapes, which suddenly shift from rolling hills to steep cliff canyons and hoodoo rock formations. It is home to some of the most extensive dinosaur fossil fields in the world. Landmarks include the Little Church, Horsethief Canyon, the Homestead Antique Museum and the Orkney Viewpoint, which offers a panoramic view of the Red Deer River Valley. At the northern tip of the trail, the historic Bleriot Ferry — one of the few cable conveyances still in use in Alberta — carries vehicles across the Red Deer River.

The Pacific Rim Highway runs westward from Port Alberni to Tofino, 125 kilometers through Vancouver Island’s rugged mountain backbone and down to the pounding surf, magnificent beaches and old-growth forests of B.C.’s west coast in Pacific Rim National Park. The twists and turns of its mid-section can be a challenging drive, all the while offering spectacular views along the Mackenzie Range. Long Beach, the largest beach in the park, stretches 40 km along the Pacific coast between the villages of Tofino and Ucluelet, in the region referred to as the island’s “wild side” and where whale sighting is a common phenomenon.

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