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Sea of pups

Surrounded by a vast sea of ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Quebec’s Îles-de-la- Madeleine may not attract planeloads of tourists in winter, but they are irresistible to hundreds of thousands of other mammals.

The islands are a tiny, sandy archipel - ago deep in the heart of the gulf. Every December, hundreds of thousands of harp seals migrate from as far north as Baffin Island to the waters off Newfoundland and Labrador and the Îles-de-la-Madeleine. There, on the ice, in late February and early March, they give birth to their pups, called whitecoats. The pups are nursed for about 12 days and then left by their mothers to fend for themselves.

Many islanders make a living from the sea; some families have been harvesting seals for their fur, flesh and oil for more than 100 years. Although whitecoats are now off limits, hunters can still take young seals that have been weaned and whose fur has turned a silvery grey. But markets for seal fur are disappearing, and opposition to the hunt is a constant sore point. The islands have long been one of the primary staging grounds for the annual confrontations between sealers and environmentalists. So several years ago, a few canny islanders seized upon media interest in the photogenic pups to attract tourists in the off-season.

In the three-week window between the start of the birthing in late February and the opening of the hunt in mid-March, the Hôtel-Château Madelinot offers natural history buffs, animals lovers and others interested in the spectacle of the vast on-ice nursery three-to-six-night sealobservation packages that include lodging, breakfasts, a session on the natural history of the harp seal and a helicopter trip out to the ice floes. Visitors land on the ice amid the frozen field of cute pups. The open vistas and close encounters with the wiggling, wailing babies are an unforgettable experience.

For rates and dates, visit

— Rick Boychuk



Parks in the city

It’s like squeezing a football field into a peanut shell, but the well-designed Parks Canada Discovery Centre in Hamilton, Ont., does a remarkable job of showcasing the immense range of Canada’s historic sites, marine conservation areas and national parks.

Open since 2004, the centre’s three galleries feature touch-screen profiles of historic figures; an interactive canvas that alternates stunning Group of Seven paintings; voyageur and RCMP clothing; nature sound domes filled with bird calls and the lonely wail of ships’ horns; a water table that floods and recedes; and a “boardwalk” of national parks images.

“It’s important for those living in urban settings to realize that our nature and our history have relevance,” says Darla Campbell, the discovery centre’s manager of communications, visitor services and heritage presentation, “no matter where you live.”

Visit the Parks Canada Discovery Centre at 57 Discovery Drive, Hamilton, Ont. (905) 526-0911.

— Liz Fleming

Going overboard

Want to sail back to the last night aboard Titanic, complete with replica china and luxe linens? That’s the tempting fate awaiting guests booking the Memories of Titanic package at The Ryan Mansion, a fivestar inn in St. John’s, N.L., that opened in May. Owners Robert Hall and Kevin Nolan give guests an actual passenger profile and the chance to come in character to a sixcourse dinner extravaganza based on the ship’s last meal. The mansion, built between 1909 and 1911, was home to James Ryan, one of Newfoundland’s wealthiest merchants. Oral tradition maintains he commissioned the same craftsman who built Titanic’s sweeping staircase to construct his own of English white oak. “Given that Titanic sunk off Newfoundland,” says Hall, “and that titanic icebergs float by each season, it seems appropriate The Ryan Mansion is the location for such a themed getaway.” Reserve ahead. The package is available to guests only.
(709) 753-7926.

— Shelley Cameron-McCarron

No bull

The Calgary Stampede may last only one week a year, but wannabe cowboys and cowgirls can get their rodeo fix any time at the indoor and outdoor arenas of Fantasy Adventure Bull Riding in Balzac, Alta., 20 minutes north of Calgary.

Australian-born Joe Messina, a competitive bull rider for 12 years, teaches Bull Riding 101, a three-hour course involving classroom instruction and a trip to the bull pens for an up-close look at these 900-kilogram animals (don’t worry, the chute gates stay closed the entire time). The real thrills come during the class finale, when students ride a mechanical simulator to learn technique and style. Make no mistake — this isn’t the kind of mechanical bull you’d find in a bar. But you may need a drink when the class is done. For information and reservations, call (403) 455-2074 or visit

— Narissa Tadros

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