SASKATOON, Canada — If Canada has a flyover province, this is it. Other Canadians fly over it or ride VIA Rail Canada across its perceived vast flatness on the way to more famous places, and don't even know they've been over or across it.
But it has two national parks; that RCMP Heritage Centre plus the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, both in Regina; Saskatoon's Ukrainian Museum of Canada, just off the city's inviting riverside walking-bicycle trail; and an Indian population (or First Nations, both terms working without apology here). Their relationship with European settlers, though problematic, evolved more gently on this side of the border amid a different ethnic mix (Ukrainians and other Eastern Europeans, French, French-Indian Metis, Asians and, of course, Brits) resulting in an intriguing restaurant mosaic (cabbage rolls, egg rolls and shepherd's pie, anyone?).
There are sweeping landscapes (some of them, yes, hilly) under big, open skies, and there's the mildly intoxicating and even liberating pleasure of knowing you're visiting a (nominally) foreign country without having to fly over saltwater.
Saskatchewan is roughly the size of bordering Montana and North Dakota combined. The upper half is mostly forested wilderness best accessed by bush plane — and unexplored for this story and hardly at all by anyone; the rest, easily covered over a couple of days by car, is mainly vast fields of wheat and canola and lentils and other in-demand commodities, plus potash and some boom-fueling petroleum; two sizable cities (Regina, the province's pleasant-enough capital; and the biggest, lively, restaurant-blessed Saskatoon); small villages and towns, some of them interesting; and those two national parks, which we'll talk about right now.
Grasslands National Park, just across the Montana border, is what it sounds like, only prettier than it sounds. Yes, it's grassy prairie, but it's got streams and mesas and badlands that make it exceptionally photoworthy, especially when the early-evening shadows add extra texture to the land.
Prince Albert National Park, at civilization's northern edge but less than an hour's drive north of Prince Albert town is, compared with Grasslands, like another country. Families flock to beaches and lodgings along Waskesiu Lake and hike its forested (and mostly unflat) trails, and paddle its ponds and rivers. Anglers who aren't satisfied with shoreline access to perch and walleye hike to wilderness waters for lake trout, whitefish and northern pike. Bison are here, too, along with the wolves that love them, plus moose, elk, beaver, bear, cranes, white pelicans and more.
In all, this is a province that rewards poking around. The coolest thing about Moose Jaw may be the town name "Moose Jaw," but it's home to the Tunnels of Moose Jaw, where costumed interpreters lead visitors through a series of basement passageways with a purported link to Al Capone's liquor import business. (OK, it's a hokey tour, the history is dubious, and the accents are ridiculous, but it's a fun diversion.) There's a nice little regional museum in Swift Current. Wanuskewin Heritage Park and Batoche National Historic Site near Saskatoon honor Metis and First Nations cultures and attempt to explain their places in historic and modern Canada, a not-uncomplicated and still-evolving narrative; Fort Carlton Provincial Park, with its fur-trade reminders, provides a chance to canoe the North Saskatchewan River with costumed, congenial voyageurs.
Gravelbourg, north of Grasslands, was founded early in the last century by worried Francophiles eager to establish a French-Catholic presence in this transitioning part of Canada. It didn't quite take — the charming little town today could be called bilingual-when-convenient — but the 1919 Our Lady of Assumption Co-Cathedral is reason enough to come here. It is a jewel, and visitors are welcome to marvel at the art-filled interior.
After wiping out Custer and his troops in 1876, Sitting Bull and his followers found their way into Canada for refuge. They settled near Wood Mountain, a not-flat area northeast of what's now Grasslands. Facing starvation when the buffalo dwindled, the Indians, including the leader, drifted back to the United States — but not all of them.
Their photos are on a museum wall; the stories are there to be savored — by you.
The Mounties. To Canadians, the RCMP is, today, a familiar police presence, primarily in rural areas too small to support their own. To Americans, they are an inescapable symbol of Canada and, to those of certain generations, radio-TV's Sgt. Preston and the very silly cartoon icon, Dudley Do-Right.
"It was just a funny thing," said unoffended ex-Mountie Alan Nicholson, who signed up in 1964, when Dudley episodes were part of the "Rocky & Bullwinkle" series. "It was no big deal. It was — Dudley Do-Right."
The real Mounties train in Regina, adjacent to the museum that is the RCMP Heritage Centre. Both the center and the training are done right.
So that's Saskatchewan. Worth a visit. And the flat truth: Those other Canadians don't know what they're flying over.
If you go
Getting there: Regina and Saskatoon are served by major U.S. airlines, including American, Delta and United, often in combination with Canada-based Air Canada and WestJet. VIA Rail, Canada's Amtrak, stops in Saskatoon.
Getting around: A car is essential, but driving in Saskatchewan is a pleasure, and distances are rational: The two major cities are about 160 miles apart and connected by an interstate-quality highway; either works as a base.
Staying there: Along with the usual chains are B&Bs and places of particular interest. Three of note include two elegant classics: The Hotel Saskatchewan, a Radisson, in Regina (800-333-3333, hotelsask.com); and in Saskatoon, the Delta Bessborough (888-890-3222, deltahotels.com); and in Gravelbourg, the Bishops Residence B&B (888-648-2321, bishopsresidencebandb.com). Expect to pay U.S. prices for familiar-brand motels (ours averaged about $125 a night); the bargains are at the high end: A room at the Canada-elegant Delta Bessborough went for $122, tax included.
Dining there: As with lodgings, expect U.S. prices for standard dining (and if you like McDonald's, which are plentiful, you'll like Tim Horton's, which are everywhere), but tabs at the splurge joints will delight. Sample: Entrees at Saskatoon's Truffles Bistro (306-373-7779, trufflesbistro.ca), by consensus one of the best French restaurants in the province, average about $27.
Information: Tourism Saskatchewan (877-237-2273, sasktourism.com).