A May 2004 trip
to Toronto by MichaelJM
Quote: Our aim was to cram as much as we could into this first visit to Canada without overstretching ourselves. In the end, we tried to do too much. The distances to travel on some days were tiring, and left little time to sight-see.
In our view, Toronto is a place to walk in. The city felt incredibly safe, both day and night, and pedestrian friendly. We sauntered in downtown and took in the smells, feel, and colours of China Town.
On the way to Casa Loma, we strolled in Queen’s Park, rubbing shoulders with local joggers and roller bladders and enjoyed watching the gentle art of Tai Chi. We entered the world of Academia in the grounds of The University of Toronto and then stopped off for a Canadian-style breakfast on Bloor Street West. Having recharged our batteries, we continued on our way walking parallel to Spandina Avenue. Through these leafy residential streets, we paused for a second look at several of the residencies.
Back on Spadinia Drive, we took the staircase to Casa Loma. This "fairy castle", built as recently as 1911, is well worth the admission charge. It’s full of hidden passages, boasts the first ever elevator, houses an early "power shower," and an extremely decorative stable that is blocked (accessed by underground tunnels. Everything about this place must have been hi-tech in its day, and it’s not too surprising that the building of Casa Loma cost over $3.5 million). It resulted in the bankruptcy of Sir Henry Pellatt. All the history and the sadness of the final auction of the household contents are well-documented and available to listen to by the headphones issued as part of your admission.
Toronto has a wealth of museums that we pass, including The Bata Shoe Museum and The First Post Office.
Next, we turn our attention to the shore of Lake Ontario. A short walk from our hotel and we are at the base of the tallest free-standing structure in the world (all 553m of the CN Tower). In the other direction, we could wander past, and, indeed through, the Royal York Hotel. This was the largest hotel in the "British Empire" when it was first built in 1920 and, I’m reliably informed, has been restored to its earlier grandeur.
The CN Tower is a must and the speed of the elevator makes most fairground rides seem slow. Take boiled sweets to avoid ear-popping!! The view from the top was superb, and we benefited from a gloriously sunny day. Nearby is the Sky Dome (one of the first sports stadium to have a retractable roof), and the view of the inside can best be had from the Hard Rock Café. If you fancy a guided tour, they do that, but we’re not big into baseball.
Further down the road and easy to stroll, is the harbour front, Queens’s Quay, and Molson Place (an open-air concert venue). A variety of boats including a single "tall-ship" were docked when we were there. We took a boat trip around the harbour and I would recommend this to you. The running commentary was informative and often amusing and the views of Toronto were well worth the effort of buying your ticket.
It was pleasurable to sit in the local park, overlooking the lake. Take in the sun and see the locals at work and play.
Attempts have been made to make the nighttime view of the falls interesting. I’m not sure that phased, coloured lighting is the right way, as the pure view (i.e., white light) was my preference. However, Niagara does have its tacky side, and in the block behind our hotel it was there to behold. The mass of takeaways, the ghost train and other cheap sideshows sat at ease with the tasteless in a juxtaposition with the natural beauty of the Falls.
Our day-trip away from the Falls was in complete contrast. The journey to Niagara-on-the-Lake was full of contrasts. We enjoyed the spectacular view of the Niagara escarpment, our tangle with history at Queenston Heights, and the sleepy town of Niagara-on-the-Lake (called Newark in 1792, when it was briefly the capital of Upper Canada). At Queenston we managed to latch onto the back of a school trip (no one seemed to mind) to gain a historical perspective on the site - although the gardens have a interest in their own right. Further down the road, we wandered around the broad, leafy streets of the charming little town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, popping into the occasional shop, which put the souvenirs of Niagara Falls to shame, and then spent time at the water’s edge. We didn’t have time to visit Fort George, which some say is a must, and only had glimpses of the town’s tribute to that great playwright, Sir George Bernard Shaw.
Overall, our days spent around Niagara were "days well spent." Words struggle to describe the awesome quality of the Falls – needless to say, I do not support those words expressed by Oscar Wilde!
St Jacobs was our first stop-off, a fascinating little town. It’s full of shops with quality merchandise at reasonable prices. If you don’t want to buy, then the shop owners really don’t mind you looking – a polite thank you as you leave the shop seems to be expected and makes everyone feel good. The museum of Mennonite History is highly recommended – there is no admission fee but they ask for a donation – and here you can listen to and read about the Mennonite religious movement. It’s extremely informative and well worth the time. Additionally, there’s the museum telling the story of maple syrup – ok, doesn’t sound enthralling, but it is free and you can take in as much, or as little, as you want. We reckon it’s worth a visit.
Just down the road from St Jacob’s is Elmira and West Montrose. You’re in the heart of Mennonite country and, although you may have seen the distinctive horse-drawn buggies in St Jacobs, here they are just there. They are now part of the countryside, the environment, and indeed the culture. Not staged for the benefit of the visitor, but an integral part of this community. More buggies were seen than cars, and they were parked outside of the local shops with gay abandon. We passed over the Covered bridge Kissing Bridge at West Montrose and had a wander around this very small community. The bridge is one of the oldest remaining covered bridges in Canada - it’s not hard to picture the buggies being pulled over the bridge, a slight pause, as the carriage moves out of view, to allow the young couple a quick fleeting kiss before the buggy re-emerges from the darkness of the bridge. Alternatively wait a few moments and you might hear the trip-trap of the horses’ hooves as they progress over the bridge.
Stratford is another place to visit, and you know it mimics the original town quite well. The locals call the river the Avon; it does have a Shakespeare festival and is a very pleasant, picturesque town to walk round. We parked, very cheaply, near the river bank and enjoyed a walk along the river bank, appreciating the Victorian architecture of the turreted town hall.
A few miles west, on the banks of Lake Huron, we next visited Godderich. It’s a fairly unique town, as it was formally laid out with streets radiating out from the eight-sided town centre. Visit the Huron Historic Jail and take in the delights of an authentic Victorian Prison. Alternatively, head for Lake Huron and enjoy the well cared for delights of Rotary Cove, an area of Godderich that has been taken over by the Rotary Club and is being carefully tended by the local community. It was here that we appreciated the vastness of Lake Huron.
The area west of Kitchener-Waterloo is highly explorable, and we were privileged to have spent around 15 minutes in a Mennonite Country Store (between Elmira and Stratford) talking to its owner. He sold everything (I mean everything!) and was a pleasure to talk and listen to.
Montreal was, however, not a city that we fell in love with, perhaps because it’s so big and we were based several miles outside of the city. However, we did enjoy our time there and managed to take in a carriage ride around the old town. If you have limited time, I would commend this to you. We walked along the Promenade des Artistes and risked life and limb as the skate-boarders and roller-bladders hurtled along towards us. The Basilica Notre-Dame has to be worth a visit, but we would recommend that you avoid the local traffic wardens. We were advised by a police officer where we could park (it was a Sunday and local parking laws are more lenient on that day, he told us). The police may be lenient, but the traffic wardens were not – a parking fine pursued us across the water and the car hire company very kindly(!) paid for it off my Visa. Never mind that it could not negatively influence our Canadian experience.
We spent a very pleasant afternoon at the Biodome and the exploration of the Olympic Park. This, in my view, is a must if you are in Montreal. The Biodome re-creates several climate zones, and you can go bird spotting in the Tropics, penguin-watching in the Polar Zone, and spend a fascinating time watching fish in the aquarium. I have to say the Polar Zone was one of our favorites.
On our way out of Montreal, we spent some time in Parc Mont-Royal. I’ve seen it referred to as a green bump rising out of the city, but locals prefer to call it La Montagne. In the middle of the built-up city, it offers Montrealers a chance to visit the countryside and wander the 250 acres of meadowland and forest. The views from up here are worth the effort
A final must-see in Montreal would be the Oratoire Saint-Joseph. We loved it – memories of Paris’ Sacre-Coeur. We hauled our way up the 300 steps (although there is a lift and staircase if you struggle) and enjoyed the view, the vista of Montreal. We were enthralled by the internal and external architecture and touched by the story of Brother Andre, a simple priest whose vision and dedication to his belief resulted in this amazing building.
Then it’s back on the road to Quebec. Quebec City, overlooking the St Lawrence River, was the furthest east of our journey. This city is an absolute must to visit, and we loved every step of our stay. This almost entirely French-speaking city feels truly cosmopolitan, whilst retaining its very strong French identity.
I’ll start where we started - a visit to Parc de la Chute and the Montmorency Falls. This lies to the East of Quebec City and boasts falls higher than that at Niagara, but there is a substantial less flow of water. We loved these falls and the trails around them are both interesting and enticing. Views pop out of nowhere and everywhere you are treated to the sounds and a fresh view of the falls. Cross over on the bridge and you can virtually touch the water. Look down and the odd matchstick (tree trunk) or two is evident. Continue the trail and you arrive at the scene of another battle between French and English Troops. There is the evidence of the original defenses, and tourist information details the historical importance of the site. Crossing back over the river – we didn’t fancy the long walk down to the base of the falls – you get a great view of the Manor Housecliff. The Manoir Montmorency was built in 1871 as a private residence, but used later as a hospital, a monastery, and a hotel. It’s had some well-known visitors, including the Duke of Kent, the Queen of England's father, from 1791 to 1794, and, of course, myself! Pop in and mention my name – I’m sure they’ll make you very welcome.
Quebec City needs exploring on foot. We started by climbing the steps onto the Plains of Abraham. I suspect this was somewhat easier than Wolfe had found it in 1759, although I could still imagine the surprise that General Montcalm must have felt when the British appeared. They learned from the French mistake and constructed the Citadel, an enormous star-shaped fortress, to prevent attack from the same direction. Quebec City was, however, prepared for my invasion – the citadel was closed to visitors when we arrived. I’m told that it is well worth the visit and was a bit disappointed that we were unable to get inside (I would have liked to have seen Vimy Cross if only to link with my visits to France and, in particular, Vimy Ridge – I will write about that sometime).
Not to be discouraged, we headed for town. Wow!! First impressions say I’ve landed in France. Every turn we make confirms that it is a real delight to explore the narrow streets and gaze at the architecture.
The Basilica was worth a glance, and the Chateau Frontenac … well this is a major architectural site that needs to be seen from all angles in daylight and at night. The buzz around the Chateau at night is unbelievable. There were local entertainers, locals just chilling out, and of course bucket loads of tourists with cameras and videos. You see, the view of and from the Chateau is worth crowding for. Some lazy soles use the funicular, but we walked – both ways. It’s not strenuous and you miss some terrific views if you ride.
I suggest that you don’t leave Quebec City without visiting their Parliament. Guided tours are arranged and it was an incredibly informative visit. There is no restriction on photography and the parties are small enough for individuals to pause and take in some of the grandeur of the building. We sat in the galleries of the upper house and, after the information, were allowed to wander its length.
If you walk at night, from the upper town near to the Chateau and down to Rue de petit Champlain, you will be treated to a view of the oldest and narrowest part of the town. It is littered with shops and restaurants, filled with pedestrians, and full of interesting boutiques. People loiter outside of restaurants checking out the menus. Restaurants generally offer good value for the money and staff who offer polite and welcoming service.
Walk further on, along the side of the main road, and you'll see a wide variety of original properties, which were originally bordering on the water's edge.
We "did" the history of Quebec exhibition, to be found near to the Basilica, and thoroughly enjoyed a very straightforward 3-D presentation of the history of Quebec City.
Appreciated the city, respected the people, loved the food, and treasured the memories.
We’ll be back!!