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 www.tourismeilesdelamadeleine.com.
— 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
Visit the Parks Canada Discovery
Centre at 57 Discovery Drive, Hamilton, Ont. (905) 526-0911.
— Liz Fleming
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.
— Shelley Cameron-McCarron
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 www.fantasyadventurebullriding.com.
— Narissa Tadros