From its misty Atlantic City fishing villages to the booming cities of oil-rich west, Canada offers a moasic of cultures, life styles and unblemished scenery ripe for exploring.

For the budget-conscious American, this vast country holds out the thrill of visiting a foreign land -- but one that is often within a one or two day's drive from home, where the U.S. dollar is worth $1.17, and gasoline is, on the average, 20 cents a gallon cheaper (all prices quoted below are in U.S. dollars).

A few facts issustrate why Canada is a superb haven for those who want to get away from it all. With 6.1 million square miles, Canada is the world's second-largest country. But it has a population of only 24 million. There are permanent settlements in only 11 percent of the nation's territory.

Of course, Canada is more than parkland, beaches, mountains and prairies. Its modern, vibrant cities have an urban flair shaped by the nation's two founding cultures -- English and French -- and spiced by distinct influences of other European, Asian and Caribbean immigrants who have flocked here in recent decades.

Tourism is the most important employment-creating business. So the government makes things as easy as possible for visitors, particularly the Americans (11.5 million last year) who constitute the bulk of foreign tourists. Citizens or permanent residents of the United States do not need passports or visas when entering Canada. Only a piece of identification showing U.S. citizenship or residency status is required.

After crossing into Canada -- the 5,521-mile boundary is famous as the world's largest undefended border -- Americans will find their hosts friendly and helpful, as befits dealings between neighbors with a long history of close and peaceful relations.

With a few exceptions, American tourists here are free of the usual hassles of being abroad. All electrical outlets are 110 volts, as in the United States; Canadian money is in the familiar dollars and cents, and most Canadians speak English.

But Canada is a foreign country. In Quebec, the Eastern Province inhabited mainly by Canadians of French heritage, not everyone speaks English. Therefore, as in France, tourists in Quebec who can speak French -- even a bit -- should do so.

Also, Canada is converting from the imperial system of weights and measures known to Americans, to the metric system. A booklet with conversions for basic necessities (e.g., 100 kilometers per hour equals 60 mph) can be obtained at the border.

Though a country not given to violence, Canada is in the throes of a national identity crisis somewhat like the period in the United States before the 1778 Philadelphia Convention that led to the U.S. Constitution. b

Canada's federal system -- comprising a central government in Ottawa (led by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau) and 10 provinces -- has been strained in recent years by strong regional measures.

In the west, three provinces -- British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan -- are flexing the political muscle created by the new-found petroleum wealth. In the east, Quebec, historically unhappy with the lot of Canada's French-speaking minority, continues to agitate for greater provincial autonomy even though a historic bid for independence faltered a year ago.

These discontented provinces have joined forces with most of the others -- Ontario and New Brunswick being the exceptions -- against Trudeau in a bitter conflict over provincial rights versus the power of the central government.

This often raucous and divisive debate, fought over provisons for a new constitution and the apportionment of energy riches, has raised questions about Canada's future unity. But to American visitors, the internal feud should be no more than an interesting learning experience.

Many residents of the eastern United States will prefer Canada's Atlantic provinces -- New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland -- both for their proximity and the relaxed, easygoing way of life of the region's fishermen and farmers.

The main attractions are the beautiful, unspoiled beaches, but visitors can also enjoy sightseeing, boating, fishing, hiking and some of the world's best seafood. And the region's windswept, serrated coastline -- all 14,000 miles of it -- shelters an inexhaustible profusion of fishing ports and towns, with their monuments, historic sites, restored forts and other attractions.

A tourist favorite is the breathtaking Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island, part of Nova Scotia. The circular highway, named after 15th-century navigator and explorer John Cabot, follows the scenic coast of the island for 185 miles. This trip was the highlight of a two-week driving and camping vacation in the Atlantic provinces a few years ago by two American friends who declared the trip one of the best of their lives.

North of Vermont and Maine lies Quebec Province. Its capital -- Quebec City -- and Montreal are never-to-be-forgotten cities. The former -- with its walled old city, its impressive citadel rising 300 feet above the St. Lawrence River and its cafe-lined, twisting streets -- echoes the 17th-century French colonial period.

By contrast, Montreal (population, 2.9 million) is the new French Canada -- big, fast, cosmopolitan -- with fine shops, exquisite restaurants and a flourishing cultural life that gives expression to the growing confidence and pride of a once-backward province.

Toronto, capitol of Ontario and now Canada's largest metropolis (population, 3 million) has replaced Montreal as the business and communications hub of the nation. It figures to be a major benficiary of the lifting last year of U.S. tax restrictions that since 1976 cost Canada an estimated $100 million in lost convention business.

An extra draw for conventioneers to Toronto will be a new, $64-million convention center, to be built by 1983. It's going up at the base of the CN tower, which, as the world's largest free-standing structure, is a must for most tourists. At the top of the tower are a revolving restaurant and observation deck.

"Toronto is very attractive as a convention site because it's very safe to walk around and it has an efficient, clean transit sytem which means there's no need for visitors to rent vehicles," says Suzanne Choicin of the city's convention bureau.

But Toronto is getting a good run for its money from fast-growing western cities such as Vancouver on the Pacific coast and Calgary, the brash, mushrooming headquarters of the Canadian oil industry, a city that is quickly becoming a northern Houston.

Canada has a fine highway, the Trans-Canada, that runs from coast to coast, and it is an enjoyable and at times spectacular drive. You need at least a week, preferably two, to do it right. Along the way, there is camping in some of the continent's best parks.

Another popular and time honored way to cross Canada is by train. From Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Vanvouver costs $310 one way with a berth. The trip, run by Canada's passenger-train company, via rail, takes four days and five nights, with a change of trains in Montreal. By air, the same trip costs $312.

The cost of an average-quality double room in a Canadian hotel will range between $45 and $60.

This year Candada is adding a handful of new attractions to the thousands of festivals, resorts and fairs available to tourists. One of the most talked about is Canada's Wonderland, the country's first major theme park, a $100-million Disney-type facility near Toronto.

In Drummondville, Quebec, 70 miles east of Montreal, a new historic town, the village Quebecois d'Anton, is opening. It consists of 67 historic buildings from the late 1800s.

Catching on in Ontario is renting a houseboat for use on the Rideau Canal, that runs from the nation's capital, Ottawa, about 100 miles to Kingston on the St. Lawrence.

In western Canada, at Whistler, B.C., near Vancouver, a $353-millon mountain resort complex has recently opened, with 58 acres including five lakes, a provincial park, a 300-room hotel, an 18-hole golf course and tennis courts.

Among the tried-and-true favorites are:

The Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. May 27-Oct. 4. Plays by Bernard Shaw.

Caribana, a festival of Caribbean music and art. July 25-Aug. 4, on the islands in Toronto Harbor.

Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont. June 4-Oct. 31. Featuring productions by Shakespeare, Moliere and Gilbert and Sullivan.

Saint-Jean Baptiste Day celebrations, province-wide in Quebec, June 24.

Molson Grand Prix, Trois-Rivieres, Que. Automobile race in the city streets. Date in August to be announced.

Charlottetown Festival, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. June 29-Aug. 29. Featuring musicals such as Anne of Green Gables.

Calgary Stampede, Calgary, Alberta. July 3-12. Exhibition and rodeo.

World Championship Bathtub Race, Naimo, British Columbia. July 19. Comic race in bathtubs across straight of Georgia to Warsaw.

Dawson City Discovery Days, Dawson City, Yukon. Aug. 14-17. Parades, dances, sporting events.

One of the most exciting trips to see Canada is on a cruise ship. From the U.S. northeast, numerous cruises of Canada's Atlantic seacoast and the St. Lawrence leave from New York, Boston and Portland, Maine. Similar trips up Canada's west coast to Alaska leave from Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Americans coming to Canada will also find rewarding vacations hiking or canoeing in Canada's extensive system of wilderness parks and running its many wild rivers.

Full information can be obtained by contacting the Canadian Government Office of Tourism, located in the N.A.B. Building, Suite 200, 1771 N. St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036.