Canada's westernmost region has a lot to offer travelers, including dramatic landscapes, a vibrant arts culture, and unparalleled access to outdoor recreation. British Columbia and the Canadian Rockies, which stretch across the provincial border into Alberta, are obviously part of Canada, and have a thoroughly Canadian infrastructure and political system. However, these two giant provinces -- British Columbia covers 948,600 sq. km (366,257 sq. miles), Alberta 661,188 sq. km (255,286 sq. miles) -- are separated from the nation's capital, Ottawa, and the political and cultural centers of eastern Canada by thousands of miles of farmland.
Much closer is the northwestern tier of the United States. Although British Columbia and Alberta are definitely part of Canada, they are much closer in spirit to the Pacific Northwest states than to, say, Quebec or Nova Scotia. The states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana share their northern neighbors' climate, economies, and cultural histories. These regions of Canada and the United States have more in common with each other than with the rest of their respective countries -- a reality that seems to please everyone in both the Canadian and the American Pacific Northwest.
There's another cultural overlay at work here, not quite at odds with the above observation, but simultaneously true: In the United States, the westering urge -- that uniquely North American drive to keep moving west toward unspecified freedom and opportunity -- was diffused across a dozen or so states, each of which developed its own culture and institutions. In Canada, only British Columbia and Alberta absorbed all the hopes, idealism, and pragmatism of 150 years' worth of western migration.
British Columbia is often called the California of Canada, with Canada's most temperate climate, a vibrant film industry, a visible and powerful gay and lesbian community, and a soft-focus New Age patina. However, British Columbia is also the Idaho of Canada, the Washington state of Canada, and, incidentally, the Asia of Canada. In terms of cultural diversity and competing interests, there's a lot happening here.
Likewise, the Alberta of prosperous Edmonton and Calgary may seem like an oil- and agriculture-fueled monoculture, but dozens of its rural communities began as colonies of religious refugees whose stories have a lot in common with the Mormons of Utah. And with its nouveau-riche wealth and well-rehearsed swagger, Alberta is more like Texas than anywhere else on earth.
As if these factors weren't enough to explain the schizoid nature of the two westernmost provinces, the populace is further divided by highly politicized environmental issues. Although Canadians in general seem more environmentally conscious than Americans, that doesn't mean that individual Canadians want to lose their salmon-fishing jobs to some vague international treaty, or that they want to close down the mine that's employed their families for generations just because of a little mud in the river. Environmental issues -- especially those surrounding logging, agriculture, mining, and fishing -- are especially contentious, often pitting urban and rural residents against each other.
It's easy to think of Canada as North America's Scandinavia -- well ordered, stable, and culturally just a little sleepy. In fact, during your own travels across British Columbia and the Rocky Mountains, you'll likely find this corner of Canada a fascinating amalgam of cultures, histories, and conflicting interests.
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