You could say the interview with Todd Geist has a hint of irony to it. There he is, a proud and spirited American – talking at length about ... Canada.
But a look at the 37-year-old’s résumé immediately dispels any sort of cynical remarks. As Insight Vacations tour director, Geist has been managing trips to the United States and Eastern Canada for the past eight years. In other words, Canada is sort of like his backyard.
It helps that he is well-versed with the pop culture surrounding the world’s second largest country (in terms of surface area).
“Robin?” he says, his eyebrows arching up at the mention of a character from the American sitcom How I Met Your Mother. “Yeaaaaah, they always make her seem like she’s from the outback.”
“But the majority of Canadians are from the city. Maybe if you go out to the countryside, you might get more people like Robin’s relatives,” he says, laughing, during our recent interview at a cafe in Kuala Lumpur.
In the popular television series, the fictional character Robin Scherbatsky’s Canadian background is the subject of many jokes by her friends.
“The Americans and Canadians have a great relationship. I mean, we tease each other ... but it’s more like sibling rivalry,” he adds.
Here, Geist – who has been guiding for over 14 years – shares more about Canada and how US travel policies might affect the country’s tourism industry.
One of the itineraries you lead is called The Best Of Eastern Canada & USA. What do you like best about Canada?
By the best of Eastern Canada, I mean the history of places like Old Quebec City. I’m a huge history nerd, so I love it. There’s the walled city and cool cobblestone streets. But one of the best parts of Canada – east or west – is the people. They are just some of the nicest people you are going to meet anywhere in the world.
I’ve heard that Canadians are generally nice people.
Oh, yeah, they are very nice. It’s a stereotype that Americans tease them about. A lot of our Canadian jokes is about them apologising and being too nice, which is a great thing to be known for.
Besides that, Canadians are always great about embracing cultural diversity. If you go to Toronto, half of the city are immigrants from everywhere in the world. And they (the Canadians) just do a great job of being inclusive and mixing everybody together and co-existing. That’s something that everybody could learn from.
It’s interesting that you mention how Canadians are very inclusive. Canada has been in the limelight recently because of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s openness plan. And then there are the new policies in the United States. How do you think those events will affect tourism in Canada?
It’s going to encourage people to go to Canada, for sure. In the States, we are really hoping that our tourism will not suffer due to the politics at the moment – but it might. And I think if anybody benefits, it would be the Canadians. They are also having their 150th birthday this year, which is a great way to encourage people to visit.
What are some uniquely ‘Canadian’ experiences that travellers can look forward to?
Hockey comes to mind. The Americans and Europeans play it too, but the Canadians take (ice) hockey to the fanaticism of a religion. So if anybody has a chance to go to a hockey game in one of the big cities, then that would be excellent.
Other than that, there’s a very special event that they do in Calgary every July called the Calgary Stampede which is a giant rodeo festival. They make a big fair out of it, with games, rides and live country music performances. It’s quite a spectacle.
Canada is such a big country that it can be quite overwhelming to decide what to see and do. What are some attractions that travellers should absolutely include in their itinerary?
First, figure out what your priorities are. If you want scenery, wide open spaces and national parks – you go west. The American Rockies (a major mountain range in western North America) are wonderful, but the Canadian Rockies are better (laughs). Specifically, go to Banff and Jasper National Parks. My favourite spot is called Lake Louise, and there’s a famous Fairmont Hotel right on the lake that looks like a castle.
If you’re looking more for cities, culture, history, nightlife, food and all that action – more of that is famous in the east. One of the biggest attractions is CN Tower (in Toronto) which is quite cool. Or you can go down to Niagara Falls where you get to go on a cruise that takes you right up to the waterfalls.
There’s a great town next to it called Niagara-on-the-Lake. It’s a picturesque little colonial town with cottages and great shopping. It’s a quaint alternative to the tourism centre that is Niagara Falls.
If you like churches, there’s one called Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal. It looks OK on the outside, but then you go in and there’s gold leaf, wood carvings, stained glasses ... it’s just “Whoa!”
Let’s talk about the amazing food experiences you have enjoyed in Canada.
One of my favourite Canadian dishes is one they are probably most famous for – it’s the poutine. You’ll find it throughout Canada. It’s a trendy thing that a lot of the new American restaurants are doing. But it’s a simple dish; you take a bowl of French fries, put cheese curd on it and cover it in brown gravy. It’s not for everybody, but I encourage anybody who goes to Canada to at least try it once. And if you love it, you will find it everywhere.
What’s the best way to get around?
Coach is a great way because the eastern cities really aren’t that far apart. It’s also good if you’re heading out west to the national parks. They also have the Via Rail, a train service that connects the whole country.
What advice do you have for those who are travelling to Canada on a budget?
Try to keep the transportation cost down by focusing on one neighbourhood. Don’t get too ambitious. The train tickets are pretty affordable, too, compared to if you’re renting a car, for instance.
What’s the best travel advice you have received?
Just be flexible and have an open mind. Remember that it’s not wrong – it’s just different. Everywhere in the world has their own customs and traditions that are just as valid as our own.