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Canada's Best Small Towns

Qantas Magazine

Canada is huge. From sprawling glass-towered cities to forest-fringed mountains that define the word gargantuan, the scale of the world’s second largest nation impresses even the most frequent flyers. But there’s more to this country than jaw-dropping magnitude. Ask Canucks for local flavour recommendations and they’ll point to their favourite small towns – quirky, independent and often historic little communities that effortlessly lure visitors under their spell.


And the coolest of the bunch? Dawson City, Yukon.


Those in the know repeatedly eulogize this clapboard northern charmer, which despite the name isn’t officially a city. Just 105km from Alaska and with a population of 1,300, it fans from an elbow of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers, wearing its past like a rusty pair of spurs: Dawson had a brief but shimmering Gold Rush heyday and its dirt streets and wood-plank sidewalks are still lined with decorously crooked old buildings.


But it’s not a museum – just ask the residents, who wouldn’t live anywhere else.


“Dawson is really welcoming,” says visual artist Meg Walker, who has lived in towns and cities across Canada. “People are engaged and interested here and there’s a willingness to accept new ideas and try new things – which isn’t typical of most small towns.” Film and music festivals keep things lively and there are active artist-in-residence programs bringing creative-types from all-over – including Walker, a visiting artist in 2008 who ended up staying. “I didn’t buy a drink for the whole of my first month,” she recalls.


Walker is part of a surprisingly diverse Dawson demographic. Some were born here, moved away and eventually came home. Others were vacationing in the Yukon’s saw-toothed mountain wilderness and found a way to stay. And many more came from across Canada for visits that led to permanent moves. They join famous historic writers Jack London, Robert Service and Pierre Berton – whose homes are still preserved here – on the roll call of indie-minded past and present locals.


Whatever their reasons for coming, the manner of Dawson’s founding – its early pioneering spirit and adventurous transplants – set the tone for its latter-day vibe. The 1896 discovery of nuggets in Rabbit Creek sparked the Klondike Gold Rush and a stampede of 30,000 shiny-eyed prospectors rolled in. Arriving by boat, mule and on foot, old-time photos in Dawson Museum show the town’s newly created streets crammed with waves of hungry-eyed men.


But they weren’t just hungry for gold. The former fur-trading bolthole swiftly expanded from a ramshackle tent town into a raucous boys-own utopia of piano-plinking saloons, jam-packed gambling dens and tassel-fringed houses of ill repute. Here, legendary ladies of the night – including Klondike Kate – expertly parted the suddenly rich from their discoveries, often ending up far wealthier than most panners.


Soon, the area was one of the world’s largest gold producers. But once the easy nuggets had been plucked, Dawson rapidly lost its lustre. The ladies left and bars shuttered, leaving a ghost town of empty buildings and craggy-faced old-timers that, by 1910, numbered just a few hundred. And that might have been the end of it: Canada is full of pioneer towns that rose and fell, their wooden buildings eventually dissolving into the earth.


But Dawson didn’t die. It’s untouched vintage buildings were eventually accorded National Historic status, while an influx of idealistic artists and adventurous young people, lured by cheap rents and character digs, recolonized the town. Fast-forward to now and the one-time Gold Rush capital has a new groove. And this time around, the sourdoughs – the nickname for real locals who stay here for at least one of Dawson’s harsh winters – are committed to keeping things going.


But some things haven’t changed. Ghostly Gold Rush panners arriving today might still recognize the nightlife scene. Grunge-cool dive bars like the Midnight Sun and Westminster Hotel plus the raucous, wood-floored Diamond Tooth Gerties casino are ever-popular hangouts. And then there’s the bar of the Downtown Hotel and its infamous drinking game.


The bar’s Sourtoe Cocktail is a shot of Yukon Jack whisky with an added extra: a mummified human toe dropped in the glass and retrieved once you’ve downed the drink. The original toe was a frostbitten digit found in an abandoned shack in the 1970s, but it’s been replaced several times with donated toes, including one from an unfortunate lawnmower accident. The drink is a rite of passage for visitors, although few feel the need to do it more than once.


In fact, they often retreat to another bar to block out the memory. Bombay Peggy’s – named after a local brothel-owning bootlegger from the 1940s – serves cocktails including Brazen Hussy and Chaste Chastity Belt. But while many of the town’s watering holes close for the winter, Peggy’s keep the flame alive by staging off-season house parties around the town.


“It’s like a travelling happy hour where everyone is welcome,” says Peggy’s owner Wendy Cairns. Moving from Vancouver 20 years ago, she’s still here because Dawson bucks the stereotypes of small-town living. “It never stays the same here. There’s an openness and tolerance in this community but also a sense of adventure among the locals and the transplants that come and go. For a small place, it’s got a real urban edge.”


Canada’s other cool small towns: a six-pack of contenders:


Nelson, British Columbia

Tucked into B.C.’s mountain-studded Kootenay region, coalmining built this pretty town of redbrick banks, stores and restaurants, radiating from tree-lined Baker Street. But it was a latter-day influx of funky artists and ski bums that turned it into the province’s cool town capital. Now lined with independent boutiques and hip businesses like Nelson Brewing and Oso Negro coffee, it edges B.C. rivals Cumberland and Prince Rupert in the coolster stakes.


Waterton, Alberta

Officially named Waterton Park but never called that by the locals, this southern Alberta gem clings to a curve of the glacier-fed Bow River. With just a few dozen year-round residents, the population swells in summer when wildlife-watching nature fans roll in to hike the Rocky Mountain region’s Waterton Lakes National Park, often staying at the grand, gable-roofed Prince of Wales hotel – and joining the locals for breakfast at Wieners of Waterton.


Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario

The one-time capital of Upper Canada, this affluent and impeccably gorgeous waterfront settlement is jammed with visitors in summer. They come for the 19th-century architecture, boutique-lined Queen Street and a bucolic wider region studded with wineries – icewine is Niagara’s not-to-be-missed specialty tipple. Best time to come? Autumn’s picture-perfect fall foliage season or during the annual Shaw Festival, Canada’s leading live theatre event.


Baie Saint-Paul, Quebec

An hour east of Quebec City, this 350-year-old hamlet is a French Canadian charmer. The artsy haven where Cirque du Soleil began, it’s Rue-St-Jean-Baptiste main street is studded with wooden heritage houses converted into galleries, artisan studios and bistros specializing in local produce like creamy cheeses, rustic breads and a Bacchanalian stream of Quebec-produced wine. Replete with cute B&Bs, area trails lead you deep into the spectacularly forested Charlevoix region.


Trinity, Newfoundland

A seaside haven of picket-fenced homes and whitewashed churches, tiny Trinity is a preserved reminder of the east coast’s pioneering past, when merchants used the port to control goods to and from the New World. Things are much quieter now in what is one of North America’s oldest settlements – founded in 1580 – and it’s an easy on-foot weave between its gabled B&Bs and cozy eateries. And when the sea calls, whale-watching excursions enliven the seafront.


Lunenburg, Nova Scotia

A Unesco World Heritage site, this 1753-built east coast fishing village is a camera-loving huddle of bright-painted wooden buildings rising from the sea. But it’s not all good looks. Alongside possibly the most welcoming locals in Canada, there are several homestyle seafood joints serving the best fresh-catch Atlantic fare around. Crack a lobster or indulge in the regional specialty of pickled herring and onions, otherwise known as Solomon Grundy.

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