It was spring 2020, a time that none of us could have predicted. As the world entered a state of lockdown in March, halting our international travel plans, we found ourselves contemplating what lay ahead. As perpetual nomads, the notion of “staying home” felt like an unbearable task.
One night over too many glasses of wine, an idea was born. As Canadians, we had often dreamed about exploring our own backyard in a campervan. Perhaps this was our chance to do it.
VAN LIFE 101
Buying a campervan or renting one might have been a better idea, but I blame YouTube and Instagram; #vanconversion had us hooked on the idea of building one. It took us three months, a whole lot of sweat and a fair amount of tears but we did it.
When we finally rolled out of my parents’ garage, Benji, our 75-square foot home on wheels was more luxurious than many hotel rooms we used to frequent on our travels.
The first few weeks in the van were a bit of a shock to the system. Instagram did a great job at highlighting the beauty of waking up in scenic places but a terrible job of sharing the realities of van life. It was Van Life 101, a crash course in tiny-home living with too many rookie mistakes and plenty of challenges.
But it didn’t take us long to hit our stride. We figured out a way to trade Walmart parking lots for free lakefront campsites, got creative with cooking delicious meals in our tiny kitchen, and learned how to stay connected without churning through $1,000 worth of data on our phones.
The good days outweighed the challenging ones, and the excitement of being on the road again had us rejuvenated.
Our Favourite Destinations in Canada
Over the course of more than two years, we traversed almost 30,000 kilometres in our van, visiting all 10 Canadian provinces (the Territories remain on our bucket list). Some destinations and experiences etched themselves into our hearts, forever becoming the most cherished memories from our cross-Canada adventure.
Icefields Parkway, Alberta
I remember the day we set off on a drive along the Icefields Parkway, from Banff to Jasper in the Rockies. It was a typical #vanlife morning, riddled with everyday challenges. We almost turned around and gave up on the day’s plans but instead pulled into a parking lot at Bow Lake for a little breather. We made a cup of tea and opened the back doors of our van to admire the view.
It was there and then that we fell in love with this region. The magical moment brought on by a set of unfortunate events set off the most beautiful day, filled with incredible stops along the Icefields Parkway.
We admired stunning views of mountain peaks, valleys, and roaring waterfalls, hiked through the forest to impressive views of canyons beneath, and listened to the rush of the rivers echoing off of the rocky walls. That evening we watched elk bathe in the cotton candy hues of sunset and spent the night sleeping in the shadow of the Athabasca Glacier.
Tweedsmuir National Park, Bella Coola, British Columbia
If there was one dream we had for our Canadian road trip, it was to wake up with wildlife at our doorstep. While building the van, we joked that we manifested the encounter by painting a mural on our van with a family of grizzly bears in the forest. The manifestation worked!
While in B.C., we made our way to a beautiful region of Bella Coola, home to the Great Bear Rainforest that covers 21 million acres on the northern coast of British Columbia.
We timed our visit to coincide with the salmon-spawning season when the bears emerge from the forest and make their way toward the Bella Coola River to feast on the salmon.
They were easier to spot than we had imagined, but the sense of awe during our first sighting, a mom and cubs on the river banks, was indescribable. The bears moved with graceful power, their fur glistening in the afternoon sunlight. It was as if time stood still. We watched in silence as the mother bear skillfully navigated the rushing waters, her cubs playfully trailing behind. They made their way across the river, right past our van and disappeared into the forest.
Cabot Trail, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia
Setting off on the scenic drive along the Cabot Trail, we found ourselves immersed in a world where rugged cliffs kissed the Atlantic Ocean and vibrant green hues painted the landscape.
We meandered up and down the winding roads, making plenty of stops along the way. We went whale watching and kayaking, tried traditional Acadian food, followed hiking trails that led to hidden waterfalls, and watched a fiery sunset on the Skyline Trail.
We could have spent an entire summer cocooned in the hospitality on Cape Breton Island, but our short five-day visit was enough to make us crave more.
Our time in Newfoundland coincided with iceberg season, and our fascination with these majestic ice giants grew stronger with every passing day. One day, while in Central Newfoundland, we joined a local whale-watching tour only to find no whales but to come face to face with a majestic iceberg.
It was a beautiful clear day, and the sun cast a shimmering veil on the iceberg, illuminating the surrounding waters with a turquoise hue. As our boat circled the formation, we admired it in silence, humbled by its presence, a testament to the extraordinary power of nature.
Prince Edward Island
The charming island of P.E.I., with its picturesque landscapes and vibrant coastal communities, was probably the biggest surprise from our time on the East Coast. And it wasn’t just the romanticized Anne of Green Gables charm, although I really did feel like braiding my hair to frolic through the fields, basket in hand.
From the charming streets of Charlottetown to the iconic lighthouses, beautiful beaches, and rugged coastline, P.E.I. offered much more than we expected. It was here that we fell in love with clam digging (yes, it’s a real, local activity in P.E.I.), dug our toes into the softest sand at the Basin Head Provincial Park, and slept inside a wine barrel.
We loved the compact nature of P.E.I. and the fact that we saw it all in just one week, with short driving distances and lots to see along the way. The red dirt roads and rolling green fields dotted with quaint farmhouses and grazing cattle felt like a storybook brought to life.
The more destinations we visited, the more spots were added to our ever-growing bucket list. Spots to come back to, experiences we missed, or ones we wanted to live through again and again. Every photograph we have taken now serves as a reminder of what an incredible destination we call home–one we will continue to explore for decades to come.
Photography by Oksana and Max St John
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Read This Story in Our 2023 Summer Outdoor & Travel Issue
Featuring Alison Jackson, Canadian cyclist and only North American male or female to win the famed Paris Roubaix. Travel the country’s most stunning hot spots by campervan. Become a better trail running by improving your ascents and descents—plus, train outdoors with Canada’s Top Fitness Trainers. Enjoy plant-based summer recipes and so much more.