Travel

Embrace slow travel with these 8 getaways across Canada you can get to by train, bus or ferry

Under-the-radar destinations from coast to coast that are all about the joy of the journey.

Under-the-radar destinations from coast to coast that are all about the joy of the journey

A person standing on a cliff overlooking a small town with the Rocky Mountains and a lake in the background, in fall.
(Source: Michael Matt/@Michealmatti)

Slow travel — a movement which favours ferries, trains and buses over traditionally speedier modes of transportation and moments of pause over action-packed sightseeing — has been gaining steam as of late. 

After two years of staycationing, and with pandemic travel bans lifting, taking the scenic route out of town, rather than the first direct flight down south, may seem counterintuitive. However, advocates say the journey itself is a big part of slow travel's appeal, with airport delays, traffic jams and steep prices at the pumps traded for hours of quiet reflection while someone else takes the wheel, literally.

For those seeking this kind of mellow escape, we've assembled a list of lesser-known destinations below. Here are eight spots you can reach without a plane ticket or car rental from major cities across Canada, along with places to explore at a leisurely pace once you've arrived, as well as where to stay if you'd like to prolong the adventure. 

Mahone Bay, N.S.

the three famous churches of Mahone Bay. trees in the background and the ocean in the foreground.
(Source: @itstomjoseph)

Situated on Nova Scotia's South Shore, think of picturesque Mahone Bay as Lunenburg's low-key neighbour. Once you've arrived in this postcard-perfect spot, take some time to meander local boutiques, walk along the water's edge and snap a pic of the town's iconic three churches reflected in the Atlantic.   

How to get there in slow-mo: From Halifax Bus Terminal, hop on the Maritime Bus (be sure to book ahead of time) and settle in for a scenic ride that takes a little over an hour. The bus will drop you off conveniently in Mahone Bay's town centre, so accommodations and amenities will all be within walking distance. 

Take it all in: Commune with nature on a hike along the Dynamite Trail, a 10-kilometre woodland and lakeside path connecting Mahone Bay to the neighbouring community of Martins River. Or, if you'd like to get out on the water, hop aboard a 35-foot Island Packet sail yacht with Sail and See for a tour departing from Mahone Bay Civic Marina.

Linger a little longer: Shack up at the Kitch'Inn boutique inn and wine bar on Main Street for comfy accommodations with heaps of East Coast charm. You won't want to miss the kitchen party — or ceilidh — they host each Thursday, complete with Celtic music and a fabulous three-course lobster meal. 

Florenceville-Bristol, N.B.

exterior of two old train cars with a paved walkway next to them
(Source: Lauren Mullaly)

The self-proclaimed 'French Fry Capital of the World' has so much more to offer than just crispy spuds. Florenceville-Bristol, located in the Saint John River Valley, received its starchy moniker after the McCain family started producing frozen fries there in 1956. Along with stunning scenery and farm-fresh food, the town boasts plenty of opportunity for adventure on nearby hiking trails and on the Saint John River, which runs through town.

How to get there in slow-mo: From the Maritime Bus terminal in Saint John, the trip takes roughly three hours and 40 minutes. You'll travel first to Fredericton, then switch buses to continue onward to Florenceville-Bristol. 

Take it all in: Pay a visit to the Potato World museum to learn about the town's history, savour local delicacies at the French Fry Hut and then spend some time exploring the two-kilometre Shiktehawk Walking Trail by foot, bike or snowshoe.

Linger a little longer: Fully embrace the spirit of slow travel by bunking down in a decommissioned train car at Shamrock Train Suites. These refurbished cars at the Shogomoc Railway Site offer the opportunity to step back in time, but with all the amenities of a modern hotel room. 

Bell Island, N.L.

steep sandstone cliffs on the coast of Newfoundland
(Source: Julian Calverley)

With its jaw-dropping landscape of sandstone cliffs, starfish-studded caves and otherworldly sea stacks that jut out of the Atlantic like sentinels, it's shocking that Bell Island — a sleepy spot just five kilometres off the Avalon Peninsula — remains relatively undiscovered by tourists despite its charm and Instagram-worthy vistas.

How to get there in slow-mo: Board the ferry at Portugal Cove, just outside of St. John's (the terminal, situated roughly 16 kilometres from the capital's downtown, is accessible by taxi). The boat ride to Bell Island is just 20 minutes from there, so be sure to keep your eyes on the sea for the chance to spot wildlife, or icebergs during the spring and early summer.

Take it all in: Indulge in exceptionally fresh cod at Dicks' Fish and Chips; hike the coast along the Gregory Normore Walking Trail, which circles the island; or learn about the island's mining history on a guided tour of No. 2 Mine. You'll find the island quite walkable, and anything not within walking distance can be accessed by Lahey's Taxi, a local operation that will take you almost anywhere on the island for just $5.

Linger a little longer: The quaint and colourful Bell Island Cottages provide the perfect place to unwind after a day of exploring. Situated across two picturesque acres that boast a communal fire pit, this set of four fully-equipped accommodations is designed to feel like a home away from home. 

Saint-Sauveur, Que.

a small town nestled in the foothills of mountains with lots of autumn foliage. a church with a tall steeple is in the middle of the town.
(Source: Tourisme Laurentide)

Nestled in the foothills of the Laurentian Mountains, charming Saint-Sauveur carries all the appeal of bustling Mont-Tremblant, without all the crowds. Home to cycling and cross-country ski trails, downhill ski resorts, gorgeous gardens, an impressive water park and even an alpine roller-coaster, the town offers a welcome escape from the everyday. 

How to get there in slow-mo: Board the Galland Laurentides bus from Gare d'autocars de Montréal, the intercity bus terminal in downtown Montreal. The ride via Mirabel and Saint-Jérôme to Saint-Sauveur will take roughly an hour and 40 minutes.

Take it all in: Regardless of the season, Saint-Sauveur's slopes offer an antidote for what ails you. Before the first snowfall, head to the region to experience a hiking and yoga tour, or hop on a chairlift to view the fall foliage up close. During winter, you can clear your mind gliding down more than 100 ski trails.

Linger a little longer: Just a few minutes' walk from the bus stop is the majestic Manoir Saint-Sauveur, which is a recently-refurbished hotel complex complete with all the makings of a truly restful vacation — including a full thermal experience that is complimentary for hotel guests.

Churchill, Man.

A via rail train next to a train station that says "Churchill". Snow is on the ground.
(Source: Travel Manitoba)

Churchill, renowned for its polar bear, beluga and northern lights sightings, is not exactly under-the-radar, but the allure of the train journey to the edge of the Arctic from Winnipeg makes it worth revisiting for the slow travel set. 

How to get there in slow-mo: The VIA Rail train from downtown Winnipeg to Churchill — the only rail line in North America laid over permafrost, says Travel Manitoba — departs twice a week, traversing the province from tip to toe over two and a half days. Watch out the window as the landscape changes from golden fields to boreal forest then barren tundra blanketed in snow in winter.

Take it all in: Wi-Fi is not available on the ride north, so take the opportunity to study the scenery and connect with other passengers. Once you arrive, there's plenty more to admire: In summer take a Zodiac, paddleboard or kayaking tour to see the beluga whales that come into the Churchill River to feed and give birth. In fall, you can hop on a Tundra Buggy to watch the polar bear migration on the shores of the world's largest inland sea. Or in winter, take a tour outside of town to watch the northern lights dance overhead. 

Linger a little longer: Not far from the train station, you'll find the Hotel Churchill, which offers simple accommodations and an on-site restaurant. The property's biggest draw, however, is its collection of Aurora Domes, located about 20 minutes from Churchill. These heated plexiglass bubbles are designed specifically for viewing the northern lights. Inquire at the hotel to arrange a shuttle and dome booking.

Waterton Park, Alta.

A person standing on a cliff overlooking a small town with the Rocky Mountains and a lake in the background, in fall.
(Source: Michael Matt/@Michealmatti)

Stunning scenery abounds in Waterton Park, where the rolling prairies meet the imposing Rockies. With just over 150 inhabitants, this town on the southern edge of Alberta is chock-full of amenities and attractions. Waterton Lakes National Park boasts world-class hiking and watersports, along with accommodations that range from campsites to luxe hotels — all with jaw-dropping mountain views.

How to get there in slow-mo: From Calgary, you can access Waterton by booking a ride with the Waterton Shuttle Service. The journey takes roughly three hours.

Take it all in: Waterton's trails beckon no matter the season. In summer and fall, plan to spend your time roaming in search of waterfalls, wildflowers and local wildlife. In winter, pack your snowshoes or cross-country skis to experience absolute serenity in the snow-blanketed evergreen forest.

Linger a little longer: Waterton Glacier Suites is a great bet for accommodations year-round. This family-owned mountain lodge features suites with private balconies, fireplaces and hot tubs, in addition to several on-site restaurants.

Bowen Island, B.C.

The Bowen Island Ferry on the very calm water of Howe Sound with trees on both sides of the image and mountains in the background.
(Source: Destination BC/Alex Guiry)

Though it's located just a few kilometres across Howe Sound from West Vancouver, Bowen Island can feel like it's a world away. This idyllic island enclave made headlines in 2016 with a cheeky "Tell your friends it's awful here" tourism campaign, nodding to Bowen's love-hate relationship with visitors. Luckily, the area still retains its characteristic quiet charm, sense of community and beautiful natural surroundings — the perfect environment for a change of pace. 

How to get there in slow-mo: From downtown Vancouver, hop on the 257 Horseshoe Bay Express bus for a 35-minute ride to the ferry dock. From there, you'll board a BC Ferries boat for a 20-minute transfer to Snug Cove on the island's east coast.

Take it all in: There's plenty to explore in Snug Cove just steps from the ferry dock. Take a five-minute stroll to Sandy Beach to spend the day by the water's edge, book a tour with Bowen Island Sea Kayaking to explore the coastline or grab a rental from Bowen eBikes and go for a cruise inland.

Linger a little longer: Kitoki Inn's forest cabins — there are only three of them — are reason enough to visit the island. Designed to mesh seamlessly with nature, the cabins offer luxurious amenities, kitchenettes, books, games and puzzles, as well as flawless rainforest views. Kitoki's open-air Japanese bathhouse is also an ideal place to soak away your worries amidst an awe-inspiring forest canopy.

Kingston, Ont.

Two people dressed for fall standing next to their bikes, smiling and looking out over a lake with trees in the background.
(Source: Tim Forbes)

Gateway to the Thousand Islands and home to beautiful historical architecture, Ontario's oldest public market and thriving music and makers scenes, Kingston, the first capital of the Province of Canada, has plenty to offer visitors. Spend your day hiking, cycling and getting out on the water, or take a more mellow approach and peruse the city's many independently-owned boutiques, restaurants and craft breweries.

How to get there in slow-mo: From downtown Toronto, board the VIA Rail train, which arrives just outside Kingston's downtown core. From the train station, you'll need to walk about 10 minutes and hop on the No. 4 bus, which will take you downtown.

Take it all in: For a truly unique experience, kick back on a sunset dinner cruise of the Thousand Islands, complete with live music and a three-course meal. Boating aside, Kingston's food scene is actually a great reason to visit, especially if you're a fan of farm-to-table fare. Many local chefs turn to producers in nearby Frontenac County to source ingredients and inspiration for seasonal menu items. Sign up for a food tour for a sampling of some of the city's most delicious offerings.

Linger a little longer: Decompress at the swish Rosemount Inn, a Victorian house turned boutique hotel, conveniently located in downtown Kingston. This recently-renovated property offers a glimpse of the city's storied past via 11 well-appointed rooms. You'll feel especially pampered waking up to a gourmet continental breakfast box each morning, which the hotel staff delivers right to your door.


Jen O'Brien is an award-winning editor and freelance writer based in Toronto. Follow her @thejenobrien.

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