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A slow boat across the Atlantic plus a scenic train home to Vancouver add up to a hugely enjoyable three-week trip

Are you a crew member? the security guard asked, fixing me with a stare in the vans rear-view mirror. Passenger, I replied. The guard gave me a quizzical look then muttered something to himself in German, shaking his head. It was 7am and the port of Hamburg was a hive of activity, our port security van speeding past whirring cranes and towering stacks of shipping containers. As the ships immense hull came into view, I entered a world where everything was larger, louder and more dangerous than my life on land. The 300-metre, 100,000-tonne vessel before me was to be my home for the next 15 days.

Four months earlier I had made a reservation on a cargo ship to take me from Hamburg to Halifax, Nova Scotia. My European work visa was expiring and I hoped to make it home to the west coast of Canada in time for Christmas. Recent campaigns such as the Swedish flygskam (flight shame) had shone a harsh light on my blindness to the climate impact of air travel, and I had decided that booking a flight wasnt an option. Since 2017, Id emitted over 14 tonnes of carbon from flights alone. I realised that all my efforts to reduce my carbon footprint at home in Milan I cycle to work, limit food waste and seldom buy new clothes are wiped out by just one flight between Canada and Europe.

First stop Antwerp en route from Hamburg to Halifax

Sustainable travel within Europe often involves trading a plane for a train, but getting to Canada from Europe is more complex. A cargo ship became the obvious low-carbon choice. Shipping companies sell surplus cabin space through selected travel agents and I booked my passage through Berlin-based Slowtravel Experience. This is still a niche mode of travel and ships rarely have room for more than a dozen passengers, so booking well in advance, especially for peak times, is essential. Flexibility with travel dates is also crucial. I was notified just days before departure that the ship would be leaving three days ahead of schedule, and had I not already been in Germany, I would have literally missed the boat.

I anticipated a long and tiresome journey (I packed dozens of books and downloaded films) and had visions of gruelling nights spent with my face in a barf bag, but my experience on board could not have been more enjoyable. The two other passengers, Tony from the Netherlands and Janos from Germany, were hitching a ride for the same environmental reasons and their company made time fly by. Our cabins were simple and comfortable, each with private toilet and shower, two single beds, a desk and vast ocean views. The 25 crew members, a mix of Filipino and eastern European men, were warm and friendly. I was in all-male company for my transatlantic voyage but Isabel Hagen, a Swedish student I met through a friend, made the voyage earlier this year, and said shed had a positive experience as a solo female traveller: The crew was welcoming, respectful, and polite from the moment I stepped on board.

The writers cabin

Left mostly to our own devices, Janos, Tony and I filled our days with darts tournaments, jigsaw puzzles and raucous games of Risk. One morning we played chess on a deck bathed in sunshine; the next afternoon Tony lost his knitted cap to hurricane-force winds off Newfoundland. During port calls in Antwerp and Liverpool, we were allowed to disembark and explore both for a day. Back on board, a daily routine quickly emerged: morning coffee on the bridge with the gregarious chief officer, sociable mealtimes with the crew, and hourly strolls around the outer decks, the frigid ocean wind buffeting my face and dark waters churning below.

A highlight was a mornings tour of the ship, led by crew members. Passenger access to working spaces was restricted, so the chance to walk through the bowels of the ship from bow to stern was eye-opening. In addition to nearly 4,000 containers stacked on the exterior decks, there were six roll-on, roll-off decks carrying vehicles, ranging from a fleet of Range Rovers and transport trucks for the US army to an aeroplane fuselage. As the captain explained, the complexities of the enormous operation, I marvelled at the sheer scale of everything around us, an industry responsible for transporting 90% of goods worldwide.

Arriving in Halifax after 15 days on board

Life on board was so immersive that after a few days I didnt even mind the food. Passengers dine with the crew, and meals are meat- and starch-heavy, with few vegetables (think beef stew and mash or bacon-wrapped chicken portions). As I soon came to understand, the luxury of being at sea is not about fine food or a plush mattress; rather, life at sea itself the tranquil pace and intoxicating sense of adventure is the true luxury. When I finally set foot on dry land in Halifax, it was hard to say goodbye to the hulking ship that had come to feel like home.

Arriving in Halifax, I still had more than 6,000km to go to get home (further than London to New York), this time by train. With limited passenger rail infrastructure, a cross-country trip in Canada means a halting, week-long adventure rather than high-speed rail jaunt. Theres no single coast-to-coast train, so after an overnight train from Halifax I spent a night each in Montreal and Toronto before boarding The Canadian, VIA Rails flagship sleeper train to Vancouver. Designed for tourists, it has a charming dining car, glass-domed observation decks, live music and even wine tastings during the four-night trip.

Approaching the Rocky Mountains on the VIA train, the Canadian

As on the ship I was immediately struck by the hospitality of the crew servers and attendants who seemed genuinely happy to be there despite being thousands of kilometres from home. The food was impressive as well, like the brunches of fluffy buttermilk pancakes drowning in the maple syrup that Id missed so much in Europe. Dinners of hemp-crusted trout, roast veal chops and fresh vegetables were equally delicious. The atmosphere among passengers was jovial, with communal mealtimes and a rowdy bar where we swapped travel stories.

As on the ship, the vast expanses passing by my window made the journey special: the endless boreal forests of northern Ontario, the icy, placid prairies and the magnificent Rockies in the west, every landscape shimmering under mid-December snow. Sitting in the dome car watching a blazing sun set over white Quebec forests and waking to whiteout blizzards in Manitoba deepened my connection to the land I call home, and reaffirmed my commitment to protecting this natural beauty.

Dome car on board the Canadian train

Stepping off the train in Vancouver, having travelled more than 13,000km and crossed nine timezones, that van ride at dawn through the dreary port of Hamburg felt like a lifetime ago. World travel with a low carbon footprint may not be convenient or easy, but I had proved to myself that it is achievable. Now its time to plan my next adventure.

Way to go

The 15-day cargo ship passage from Hamburg to Halifax, booked through Berlin-based Slowtravel Experience, costs just under 100 a day (including full-board and carbon offset) in a two-person cabin. The best-known shipping companies offering passenger berths include Hamburg Sd and Grimaldi Lines. Other agencies to look at are New Zealand Freighter Travel, London-based Cruise People, and Maris Freighter Cruises. Train travel was provided by VIA Rail Canada. The Ocean travels from Halifax to Montreal three times a week from 68 (C$117) one way, daily trains from Montreal to Toronto from 22 one-way and The Canadian, from Toronto to Vancouver twice weekly from 271 one-way.

Carbon emissions (according to weight of passenger)

Flight Frankfurt-Vancouver: 1.3 tonnes*
Cargo ship Hamburg-Halifax (via Antwerp & Liverpool): 5.3kg**
Trains Halifax-Vancouver: 204.2kg***
Total CO2 Hamburg to Vancouver: 209.5kg
* myclimate Foundation
**International Council on Clean Transportation
***Via Rail

Looking for a holiday with a difference? Browse Guardian Holidays to see a range of fantastic trips

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The worlds longest trail, ready this year, traverses the entire country. Its a busy path, our intrepid writer is told, so there shouldnt be bears

When I was a teenager, I met someone who had done the Pennine Way long-distance footpath. And I gazed with awe on him. After all, 267 miles seemed a heroic achievement, requiring several bars of Kendal mint cake and the courage to face aggressive sheep dogs. I recall that man as I step out, for the first time, on Canadas new long-distance footpath, The Great Trail (aka Trans Canada Trail). I am not at the start, or the finish, but somewhere in between, on a path that is a mind-boggling 15,000 miles (24,000km) in length, by far the longest footpath in the world. If you were to chop this distance into a series of satisfying 20-mile-long day walks, there would be sufficient for two years.


Yukon, Tombstone park

The Great Trail starts near St Johns, in Newfoundland and Labrador, and finishes on Vancouver Island, after an Arctic detour. I am in Yukon Territorys Tombstone territorial park, taking the first of my own day walks along the path. Here it follows the Dempster Highway through the park, heading north towards Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic coast. I am not going that far, only a few miles up a valley called Grizzly Creek towards the spectacularly jagged Tombstone peaks. Underfoot is soft mossy forest floor speckled with flowers, the path later climbing steeply on to a stony ridge with sweeping views of dark brooding peaks. En route, my guide Benny points out moose, then marmots, but no grizzlies.

Tombstone Mountain, Yukon

Im not sure what I think about the grizzly bear, the Great Trails top predator. In theory I would very much like to see one. In practice I have twice watched The Revenant, a movie that shows what will happen if you wander alone through the woods without bear-repellent spray. Im pretty sure Leonardo DiCaprio will not be making that mistake again.

Up the path we meet a Canadian family heading towards Grizzly Lake for a two-night camp. What does the Great Trail mean to them? We love the idea its like a huge long thread, connecting all Canadians together. And what about the bears? They smile they are from Yukon, where bears are as normal as sheepdogs in the Pennines.

My Tombstone hike ends with me watching beavers in a pool by the Dempster Highway. They slap their tails on the waters surface in an attempt to scare me away. Nearby, a skunk hustles off, fortunately without using his human-repellent spray.

Dawson City and gold rush territory

Dawson was at the epicentre of the 1897 gold rush

My next walk more of a stroll, really is 50 miles south and a very different experience, proof that the Great Trail is not only about wilderness. I pick it up as it crosses the Klondike river and heads into Dawson City.

Ever since I read Jack Londons tales of the Yukon as a boy, I have wanted to visit Dawson, capital of the Klondike gold rush. I feared, however, that all traces of the sprawling, brawling, caterwauling town he knew might have been erased. London himself arrived here in 1897, as a 21-year-old greenhorn. Gold had been found just a few miles from town and every panhandler and freewheeler who had ever seen a newspaper headline was heading for Dawson, at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers. It was one of those seminal moments in human history, like Woodstock, when you had to be there, or miss out forever. Most people missed out. The Klondike was so remote and dangerous to reach that the vast majority either gave up or died.

From the bridge on the outskirts of town I follow the Great Trail along the riverfront, admiring the period houses built on blocks to avoid sinking into the thawing permafrost. There is even an old bank made of tin, where the poet of the Yukon, Robert Service, once worked. He wrote the mantra for footloose long-distance walkers: Theres a race of men that dont fit in, a race that cant stay still He is remembered here less so in his native Scotland. A Parks Canada costumed guide does a great one-man show at Services old cabin in Dawson.

Up one side street I find remnants of Londons cabin, now part of an excellent museum. Back on the trail, I head around to Front Street. In one shop I buy, on impulse, a gold-panning dish and ask where to find the real flavour of London-era Dawson. The request leads to two tips. You should take the ferry and walk down river to the shipwrecks, says one man. Then tonight go to The Pit. He grins mischievously. Thats the bar the tourist office dont tell outsiders about, even though it was built during the gold rush.

One of the wrecked paddle-steamers by the Yukon river near Dawson

According to my map, I am on a spur of the Great Trail that actually ends where I catch the ferry across the river, so I am extending the path a little, adding about a mile. But that is the spirit of the trail, a project that started in 1992, Canadas 125th anniversary of confederation, with the aim of finishing it later this year, for the 150th. The entire, gargantuan production is the result of community effort: thousands of individuals and local organisations working on their own sections, with a small team of enthusiasts to stitch it all together, like some pioneer patchwork quilt.

I walk off the ferry, then along the muddy riverbank. I stop and pan for gold, without success (I should have tried publicly accessible Claim 6 upriver, apparently). After a mile I spot my destination: three stern-wheel paddle steamers abandoned on the gravel bank above the river.

The paint has long since been stripped by a century of savage winters, but the old paddle wheels are there, and the smokestacks. I clamber across splintered decks, but it is difficult to recreate that lost world of gold fever, good-time girls and godawful hardships.

Sourtoe Sue gets up on the bar in The Pit

Later that night The Pit (actually the bar of the Westminster Hotel) proves a little more redolent, especially around midnight, when Sourtoe Sue gets up and dances on the bar to celebrate the arrival of a gold miner, who rings the bell and buys everyone in the house free shots. My head full of booze, I examine the colourfully suggestive paintings that adorn the walls. Did Queen Victoria really visit Dawson during the gold rush? And do that to a mounted policeman?

Alberta and the Rockies

Peaks surround the Great Trail in the Rockies of Alberta

For my final taste of the Great Trail, I transfer to Alberta and the Rocky Mountains. Above the town of Canmore, a new section of trail heads south along the spine of the Rockies, almost as far as the US border. Together with guide Nathan and the Great Trail co-ordinator for Alberta, Kirsten, I am going to walk by Spray Lakes reservoir and take a side path up to a viewpoint.

Is the Great Trail actually finished, I ask Kirsten.

Trails need to evolve and be dynamic, so maybe itll never be done. Its a work in progress, she says.

Has anyone actually walked it all?

Only one person has done it in one go: Sarah Jackson, a student from Edmonton. It took just under two years. Before that a forester, Dana Meise, also walked right across, touching all three oceans, but he did it in stages.

Did either have any trouble with bears?

I dont think so.

Will we have any trouble with bears?

Unlikely. The trail is pretty busy.

Trans Canada Trail sign on the path

It is a crisp sunny day in the Rockies and all the snow-streaked peaks are sharp against a deep-blue vault of sky. We rise up through spruce and fir towards West Wind Pass. Nathan points out pink calypso orchids and the white and yellow dryas flowers. Below us in the valley, the Spray Lakes are a glacial milky turquoise.

Around lunchtime we arrive at the pass and a magnificent panorama. I set down my rucksack and take out a sandwich. A hiker, coming up behind us, strolls over. I think theres a bear, he says. Its coming up the trail.

Nathan and I exchange a glance. For some people, every tree stump can become a bear about to pounce. I pick up my camera and take a few steps back down the path. Almost immediately I see a tree stump ambling directly towards me, a tree stump with black fur and white teeth. He disappears behind a clump of pines.

Lets bunch together, says Nathan.

The bear re-emerges suddenly very close indeed, only 10 metres away. He looks a bit ragged: his left ear is torn and there is fur missing from his shoulder. He looks like he needs a sandwich. I edge closer to Nathan and Kirsten.

The bear shows little interest. He crosses behind us and goes to a place where he can descend the slope safely. In a few more seconds he is gone. Only then do I realise that I had totally forgotten about the bear spray. It had never occurred to me.

Bears do sometimes attack, of course, but mostly they dont. The Revenant is a film and not a guide to bear behaviour. The creature that attacked DiCaprio was actually a stunt man in a fat suit. I should also point out that the man who walked the Pennine Way, all those years ago, was threatened by a dog, but not actually bitten. Scare stories should never deter us from the big trail.

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A tongue-in-cheek website offers Americans refuge in the case of a Trump win. But there are lots of good reasons for visiting this corner of Nova Scotia whoevers US president

In early February this year, Destination Cape Breton, the tourist association for the rugged island off Nova Scotia, was fielding its usual one to two online inquiries a week. Then local radio host Rob Calabrese launched a cheeky website called Cape Breton If Donald Trump Wins, encouraging Americans to consider a move. Its home page read: Hey Americans! Donald Trump may become the president of your country! If that happens, and you decide to get the hell out of there, may I suggest moving to Cape Breton Island?

The media picked up the story, which quickly went viral, and Destination Cape Breton had to hire extra staff to field 5,000 questions from Americans who were either seriously interested in moving to the island or adjusting their summer travel plans to include a visit. Questions ranged from What is the process to immigrate to your beautiful island? to What are real estate prices like?

What are real estate prices like? is a common question from Americans interested in moving to the island. Photograph: Tara Nolan for the Guardian

Every summer, Cape Breton (permanent population around 128,000) welcomes about 300,000 tourists. Its a short season early June to mid-October and most come to drive the Cabot Trail, the main route around the island, that meanders through treeless expanses and densely forested wilderness, past windswept, rocky headlands and precipitous cliffs that grace postcards. Long stretches of conifers or deciduous trees and that ubiquitous, rocky Canadian terrain will suddenly open to reveal quaint villages. Moose sightings are not uncommon. This landscape often puts Cape Breton at the top of best island in the world rankings.

Even on days when brisk winds off the Atlantic or Gulf of Saint Lawrence (depending on which side youre on) threaten to blow you over, the island still exudes a sense of serenity.

The north tip of Cape Breton island. Photograph: Alamy

To outsiders, Cape Breton presents the perfect antidote to modern life, either permanently or as a temporary respite. Ben Affleck was spotted here last year during his marriage crisis it was suspected he escaped to Gampo Abbey, a Buddhist monastery. Accommodations range from rustic Parks Canada recently installed a suspended cocoon tent at Ingonish Beach to upscale, like the newly renovated Keltic Lodge, a resort that is steps from a golf course and offers luxurious, two-bedroom suites with scenic views. Youll also find an assortment of cosy inns and B&Bs, as well as Mongolian yurts and geodesic domes at Cabot Shores.

The island has managed to preserve its rich, cultural heritage Acadian, Gaelic and Mikmaq. Perhaps its because it wasnt connected to the mainland until 1955, when the Canso Causeway opened for cars.

rapidly decreasing population inspired Calabreses idea. Our island is experiencing unsustainable population decline this year, 17 schools have been marked for closure, he says, so the future appears to be somewhat bleak.

Cape Breton a Trump-free zone

Despite its rural, close-knit community, newcomers are welcomed and referred to as CFAs (Come From Aways). Greg Weir moved with his family from Ontario for the music. An amateur fiddler, he had timed vacations to coincide with the Celtic Colours festival a popular October celebration of Celtic music and culture and finally decided to move here.

Its easy to get involved in the culture here, he says. You cant go a day without finding music somewhere on the island. Indeed its not uncommon to go to a pub where live Celtic music (fiddle, guitar, piano, bagpipes) is a side dish to your catch of the day. Hotspots include the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou, the Doryman in Chticamp and Governors Pub in Sydney.

Cape Breton has also long been a haven for creative types, a mix of established artisans, like folk artist William D Roach, who you might see carving at Sunset Art Gallery in Chticamp, and young entrepreneurs, like Jeremy White and Melanie Bock-White, CFAs who started Big Spruce Brewing in Nyanza in 2013 and cant seem to brew fast enough. Were CFAs, but here by choice and here to stay, says White enthusiastically. We respect the pride that Capers have in coming from here, and we try to operate our business in a way they can proudly say is uniquely Cape Breton.

Calabrese has since edited the wording on his website to be more inclusive and less provocative. It now reads: The truth is, we welcome all, no matter who you support, be it Democrat, Republican or Donald Trump.

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