Eastern Canada 2008
Back in 1992 we enjoyed a great trip to the Canadian Rockies and vowed to return to this spectacular and hospitable country. This time we chose to visit the east coast cities along the Saint Laurence river, beginning in Toronto where we are lucky enough to have some good friends. During our stay in Toronto we were generously entertained by Peter and Norma, and by Norma's cousin Jim and his wife Myra at their midtown home in the city.
On our second day we were treated to Jim's Niagara special, a relaxed tour of the famous falls and their environs. We began at the falls with a trip on the Maid of the Mist, a boat ride to the foot of the Horseshoe Falls, spectacular despite the indifferent weather. After lunch overlooking the iconic view we drove along the river to see the whirlpool where two flows meet, and then hiked down a steep escarpment to the river bank to see the furious water maelstrom at close quarters.
Our next stop was at the Inniskillin winery to sample their famous ice wine, very sweet but quite delicious. Jim is somewhat of an aficionado and took the opportunity to sample some variants previously unknown to him. We enjoyed it so much that we bought some at the Toronto duty free shop on the way home. By now the sun was shining as we made our way to Niagara-on-the-Lake for a walk around this delightful little town. After the bustle of the main attraction it proved a peaceful haven to browse in pleasant surroundings. After stopping at a wonderful farm shop that sold locally made produce we finished a splendid day with dinner at a newly opened restaurant.
Sunday was a family day, spent at a party to celebrate the birth of Norma's great nephew, involving a pleasant drive to the small town of Barrie some sixty miles north of Toronto. Canadians are a hospitable crowd, and we were made very welcome. Somehow you seem to learn more about a nation from the inside of a private home than any amount of sightseeing. Once again we recognised how lucky we are to have so many good friends in such interesting places.
On Monday morning we said our farewells to Toronto and took the train to Ottawa. As the journey lasted almost five hours we had decided to travel in style in the first class car, which included an excellent meal with wine in spacious and comfortable surroundings. Just like Japan everything went like clockwork, leaving and arriving on time without hassle. The new station is on the edge of the city and as modern and efficient as any airport concourse. After a quick cab ride to our sumptuous hotel we found a magnificent shopping mall. North Americans know a thing or two about retail, so it was not the frightful experience that it often is at home!
Ottawa is a compact place with many fine buildings as befits a capital city, although some seedy areas are quite close to the centre as we found when searching for a Western Union office. But there was plenty to fill the couple of days we spent there. We had a great view of the city from the top of the Parliament tower, and enjoyed seeing the Canadian version of the Westminster model in the Commons and Senate chambers. Canada was in the throes of a general election during our stay so we had no politicians under our feet; they were all on the hustings!
On our second day we took an unusual city tour in an amphibious bus, giving us fine views of the city from both land and river! The city has funky public art and many quirky but charming buildings, like the giant spider sculpture and the hotel built like a castle. We visited the Royal Canadian Mint, a fascinating insight into the production of coinage and medals. Memorable images we left with include large stacks of gold and silver bars, the gold ones almost unliftable (as we found when we tried), a one million dollar gold coin (no kidding!), and the beautifully designed medals for the 2010 Winter Olympics to be held in Vancouver.
The train ride to Montreal was a relatively short hop of two hours, and we arrived there on Wednesday afternoon. The difference was immediately apparent - the city is French, with little concession to the Anglophone. Taxi drivers and hotel staff greeted us in French by default, signs are in French, the babble of the city is French and the general response to spoken English is polite but distant. It was not the friendly place I remember from my last visit in 1966.
We took the city tour in the hope of finding its secrets, but apart from a fine catholic cathedral and commanding views from Mount Royal it had little to capture our imaginations, and we were driven to the Planetarium in search of entertainment on a wet afternoon. In short it is a crowded, expensive, commercial city much like London but with little of interest to the tourist.
We had an enlightening few minutes with a Toronto businessman in Montreal, who explained that Montreal's reluctance to integrate and its defiant attitude to the English speaking majority in Canada had resulted in many organisations abandoning the city for Toronto. Thus Montreal is in slow decline, increasingly becoming a besieged enclave of minority culture and losing its Canadian identity as the population relocates. This was reinforced by our city tour guide, who bemoaned the transfer of both commerce and culture to Toronto and the attendant demise of the city.
The city of Quebec, on the other hand, is the jewel in the crown. We arrived for our final three days to find a delightful city, albeit French, with much to see, friendly people and exquisite cuisine. We walked both levels of the old walled city, circumnavigated the ramparts, enjoyed the street musicians, shopped in the old town and indulged ourselves with three magnificent gourmet dinners. We took another wet tour around the environs of the city, seeing the Montmorency Falls (higher than Niagara), the quaint villages on the Île d'Orléans and the scenic route along the Saint Laurence Seaway.
We walked the boardwalk along and down the Heights of Abraham, saw the site of Wolfe's famous victory and watched a diorama of the battle, smiling with schadenfreude at the French attempts to spin the story, and took the funicular back to the Upper Old Town to shop and lunch. It was a fitting climax to our trip, and left us with pleasant memories of our holiday.
Incredibly, on our final morning walking the old town ramparts, we met two friends we have known for over thirty years (photo right). Their stay overlapped with ours by less than twenty-four hours, yet somehow we managed to be in the same place at the same time thousands of miles from home. It really is a small world.
Our holiday was organised byTrailfinders