Canada: Think Canada, and Chances Are You'll Think Snow, Rugged Mountains and More Snow. but Increasingly, Visitors to This Vast Nation Are Starting to Appreciate the Human Element, Discovering That Canada Has a Cultural Landscape as Rich and Varied as Its Physical One. Jo Bourne Profiles This Diverse Nation

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Second only to Russia in size, Canada spans 5,514 kilometres from east to west and ranges from Arctic tundra in the north to desert in the south. Mountain ranges, great wilderness forests and fertile prairie grasslands make up much of its characteristic scenery, while its lakes--which number more than two million--provide fishing, kayaking and a valuable retreat for city dwellers and tourists alike, One of the country's great assets is the ease with which spectacular scenery and exciting outdoor activities can be reached, with everything from moss-festooned old-growth forests to world-class ski resorts on the doorsteps of many of the major cities.

Of course, it's the latter that attract many visitors, as winter drapes the land in a carpet of light, powdery snow. But hurtling down slopes on skis or a snowboard isn't the only way to appreciate all that glorious white stuff--more and more people are beading into the immense back-country to telemark, snowshoe, scale frozen waterfalls, mush sledge dogs and ride snowmobiles. The less active use the cold as an excuse to pamper themselves in hot springs or stay in luxury hotels built of ice.

Canada may be a relatively young country--it became a self-governing dominion in 1867--but that doesn't mean it's lacking in history. For a start, it's indigenous people have a heritage that stretches back at least 15,000 years. They were eventually followed by European colonists, including the Vikings, French and British. Each of these groups has left its indelible mark on the land. In Quebec City, for example, traces of the settlement's first buildings, dating back to its foundation in 1608, can still be seen.

The major cities that have grown around such settlements are now coming of age, culturally. Visitors can choose from an array of music, comedy, arts and film festivals and upmarket boutiques. Its world-famous restaurants otter a variety of cuisines that reflect the available produce and the many nationalities of those who've settled in Canada. The coastal provinces of the cast, for example, have been strongly influenced by the bounty provided by the Atlantic Ocean. There you can sample superb Nova Scotia lobsters and Prince Edward Island mussels. In Quebec, on the other hand, the influence has come from further afield, with its French heritage providing plenty of fine dining. Quebec is also the world's biggest producer of that Canadian staple, maple syrup. And if you head right up into the frozen north, you'll find Arctic fish such as char and grayling on the menu. The adventurous gourmand might even get a chance to try indigenous staples such as muskox and walrus.

The country's ten provinces offer a multitude of attractions for the visitor, from deserts to polar islands, but of all these, Quebec provides the greatest variety. Dominated in the south by the great St Lawrence River, this 1.7 million-square-kilometre region of peaks, valleys hills and fjords enjoys distinct seasons, a maritime tradition and air abundance of accessible countryside. Its history--both ancient and modern--coupled with its multitude of cultural influences, serve to make Quebec a microcosm of Canada today.

Climate

Canada experiences four distinct seasons. The country's vast interior tends to have hotter summers and colder winters than coastal areas and those adjacent to the Great Lakes. These areas also tend to be drier, with annual rainfall of less than 300 millimetres. In contrast, the east and west coasts can experience rainfall of more than 2,000 millimetres in a year, with much of it falling during the winter months as snow.

More key facts

Population 32,207,113 (July 2003)

Population density 3.1 people per sq. km (2000)

Population growth rate 0.94% (2003)

Life expectancy at birth female: 83.4 years; male: 76.4 years (2003)

People British Isles origin 28%; French origin 23%; other European 15%; Amerindian 2%; other, mostly Asian, African, Arab 6%; mixed 26%

Languages English 59. …