Turf, then Surf

“THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE to leave,” the pirate tells me, sword gesturing toward an open window. The MV Amphi-bus is about to plunge bow-first into Montréal’s harbour and I must be showing my nerves. With little warning, the bus accelerates into the water with a splash. For a brief, albeit terrifying, moment all I can see through the windshield is the Lachine Canal.

My heart begins beating normally when the bus buoys up, revealing a spectacular view of Old Montréal. In fact, says Bertrand Desparois, my tricone hat- and billowy shirtclad tour guide, there are more “waves” on the street than in the water.

Amphibious buses bob around several Canadian cities; sightseers get bus tours and boat rides without changing seats. Montréal’s amphi-bus is a retrofitted 1945 American military DUKW (commonly called a “duck”). Company owner Jacques Tourigny bought his first DUKW in California in 1969 and launched Canada’s first amphibious tour business in 1985. “Most cities were built around the water,” he says, and touring by water “gives you a new vision of the city.”

As we cruise into the harbour, the bizarre cubes of the housing complex built for Expo 67 rise on our starboard side and the green mass of Mount Royal looms port side. Tourigny is right: the city looks stunning from here. And I would rather splash into the water on a bus than tackle Montréal’s traffic any day.

— Mandy Savoie

HALIFAX HARBOUR HOPPER — May 1 to Oct. 31, 55 minutes, www.mtcw.ca/harbourhopper
Grand on the land: Roll past the Public Gardens, a Victorian urban oasis featuring fountains, tropical plants and Griffin’s Pond, named after the last man hanged in Halifax. (He was executed pondside in the 1830s — and later found not guilty.) To see from the sea: While in the harbour on a retrofitted Vietnam War-era U.S. military Larc V, soak up the spirit of the RMS Titanic — artifacts from the ship’s tragic sinking are on display at the waterside Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.
CHARLOTTETOWN HARBOUR HIPPO — June 1 to Oct. 31, 55 minutes, http://www.harbourhippo.com/
Grand on the land: Experience laid-back, homey Charlottetown on this 1963 Larc V. See the Victorian Row shopping district and Province House, where the Fathers of Confederation charted the course that led to Canada. To see from the sea: Listen to traditional tunes and historical tales, such as the story of a 1775 attack in which American privateers kidnapped two men and stole the colony’s Great Seal. The kidnappees came home, but the stamp was never seen again.
MONTRÉAL AMPHI-BUS — May 1 to Oct. 31, 75 minutes, http://www.montreal-amphibus-tour.com/
Grand on the land: Vieux-Montréal is crammed with old-world charm: the clock tower in Quai de l’Horloge, a mechanical replica of Big Ben, was a gift from Britain to honour Canada’s fallen WWI sailors, and red bricks brought from Scotland as ship’s ballast form the façades of many buildings. To see from the sea: Expo 67’s legacy includes the American pavilion, a giant geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller and once a set for the Battlestar Galactica television series. It is now home to the Biosphère, a museum dedicated to water and the environment.
OTTAWA LADY DIVE — May 1 to Oct. 30, 60 minutes, http://www.ladydive.com/
Grand on the land: Go beyond land and water … to space? Not quite, but this custom-built bus takes tourists past the National Research Council laboratories, where the Canadarm used on the Space Shuttle was developed, as well as Parliament Hill. To see from the sea: The totem poles and tipis you’ll see belong to the Aboriginal Experiences site on Victoria Island, home to the Algonquin for centuries and now a base for guided canoe trips, storytelling and traditional dances.
TORONTO HIPPO TOURS — May 1 to Oct. 31, 90 minutes, http://www.torontohippotours.com/
Grand on the land: Landmarks such as the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Eaton Centre, Yonge Street, Fort York and old churches right next to even older bars are all in the hippo’s stomping ground, as well as Toronto’s old and new city halls. To see from the sea: This tour goes farther west than others, hitting attraction-packed Ontario Place. There are actually three hippos, all reworked school buses: Happy, Henry and Henrietta all sail the same speed, but no word on which hippo is the hungriest.