Canada is synonymous with maple syrup (Quebec is responsible for 75% of the world’s output), bears and Mountie’s – that was about all I knew of Canada but it was another place to tick off my travel bucket list so I decided it was time to learn more.
After the horrendous flight out to the States and the hustle and bustle of New York City (in my opinion the greatest city in the world outside London) my husband and I were pleased to join the Amtrak train for a 12 hour relaxing trip which would whisk us through up- state New York and into Canada. Some of the scenery on the journey was breath taking and I had plenty of time to ponder my trusty Lonely Planet guide on what was the longest train journey I have ever done, not that it felt like it. The stop at the Canadian border was a little chaotic with them first suggesting passports would be checked on the train only to then detrain us and our luggage to go through the check!
Upon arrival at Toronto we were surprised at the grandeur of The Fairmont Royal York hotel we were staying in, across the road from Union Station. The hotel was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway and is steeped in art deco opulence being that it opened in 1929 and has often been the hotel of choice for Queen Elizabeth II. We only ventured a few steps from the hotel to grab dinner, still tired from our long journey. Here I sampled a Canadian sundae which had maple leaf biscuits in it.
The following morning after refuelling with a Starbucks (a life saver for lattes in any foreign country) we joined a coach trip out to Niagara. The first stop was right up my street with a visit to a vineyard and a wine tasting. Needless to say I purchased a bottle to take home.
When we approached the falls – nothing could have prepared me for such a spectacular sight. Pictures really do not do justice to what in my opinion should be included in the seven wonders of the natural world. Victoria Park offers fantastic views of the falls and apart from the visual experience there is the audial one of the power of the water cascading down. More than a million bathtubs of water plummet downward every second according to the Lonely Planet Guide.
Following lunch overlooking the falls we joined the Hornblower boat trip, formally known as the Maid of the Mist tour. This is an experience like no other. It is a chance to view the falls up close whilst feeling the mist or spray and hearing the mighty roar.
The tour finished with a stop in Niagara on the lake village. This is such a quant 19th century village that really is what you think of when you imagine an American or Canadian village. The boutiques are wooden and painted in pastel colours. The highlight was the Christmas shop! We also found a jewellery shop where my husband treated me to a Pandora maple leaf charm exclusive to Canada.
Once back in Toronto, we rounded off our day with a trip to the Rogers Centre Baseball stadium to see the Toronto Blue Jays. Neither of us really understood the complexities of the game but it was great to immerse ourselves in the atmosphere of what is an integral part of North American culture.
Canada, although part of the continent of North America is in some ways very European being that it has had a long history of both France and England ruling it. To this day, although now independent – our Queen is still their head of state. Montreal is the only officially bilingual city; speaking both French and English. The landscape and the people of what is the second largest country in the world is truly diverse and by visiting only the Eastern side I fear we may have missed out on some of the beauty the country has to offer. Toronto itself is the most multiculturally diverse city in the world with over 140 languages spoken. It is said that over half of the people that call Toronto home were born outside Canada.
Had we had longer in Toronto, I would have liked to go up the famous CN Tower in the glass lifts but sadly it was time to move on; we did however get to admire the 1970’s structure illuminated by the nightly light show.
Our next stop was Ottawa – Canada’s capital. One of the main attractions here is the Rideau Canal with a series of 8 historic functioning locks. The banks are flanked by the parliament building and Chateau – Laurier – a hotel which is a national historic site.
The following morning we observed the changing of the guard ceremony outside parliament. The ceremony echoes that of England’s changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.
We refuelled at Zak’s Diner, a typical 1950’s American diner, where I enjoyed pancakes and maple syrup and a coffee milkshake.
Unfortunately there wasn’t a lot more to do in Ottawa and the weather also took a turn for the worse. We spent our final day here riding the open top tourist bus and getting soaked. We did jump off the bus at the Canadian Mint which was an interesting insight into how coins are made as well as getting to feel the weight of a gold bar. We also visited the Notre Dame Cathedral-Basilica which is the oldest church in Ottawa, built in 1841.
I was taken by a local delicacy here called the Beavertail which was served in the Byward market. The name comes from the shape of the sweet treat which is a fried dough pastry topped with any number of delights – I had a cinnamon and apple one.
Back on an Amtrak service, we headed to Quebec City. This was one of the highlights of the trip for me, along with Niagara. Not having really practiced my French since A Level, I was looking forward to being surrounded by it; after all it is such a beautiful, romantic sounding language. We stayed at Hotel Clarendon, one of the oldest hotels, built in 1870 and right in the hub of the old town. A few short steps from the hotel the Rue du Tresor can be found. This is a short, narrow street which has been commandeered by local artists to showcase and sell their work, giving the air of Monmartre in Paris.
There is plenty here to while away a good few days with the most famous site being Le Chateau Frontenac which is in fact a luxury hotel originally built in 1893 by the Canadian Railway.
The funicular, across from Le Chateau Frontenac, is a must and transports you to the beautiful cobbled streets and squares of the lower town where murals, statues, street artists and amazing boutiques can be found.
For another angle on the city, outside the city walls, we ascended the Observatoire de la Capitale for views at 221m up. You can see all the green roofs which started off copper, like the one on the historic armoury building which is being rebuilt following a fire in 2008. We also admired parliament building Hotel du Parlement which was mid renovation. The front lawn has statues honouring women obtaining the right to vote.
Unfortunately the weather let us down again and we ended up on a walking tour of La Citadelle in the teaming rain. This fort was built over a century, starting with the French in 1750 and finished in 1850 by the British. The fort serves as a base for the Canada’s Royal 22s and was intended to serve as a defence to an American invasion which of course never happened.
We finished the day with a meal and a bottle of wine, in a restaurant that had an accordion player to entertain you whilst you ate.
Following a visit to Basilica Notre-Dame de Quebec which is one of the continents first cathedrals, I wanted to make the most of the romance of the place, so I persuaded my husband to part with a somewhat large chunk of our cash for a horse and carriage ride around the city which was stunning and we finished up the day eating at the Auberge du Tresor 1640 restaurant, thus named after the year the building was constructed – the oldest building in Quebec City with a hard to miss bright red roof.
The final leg of our tour, took us to Montreal. We arrived late afternoon and our stomachs were requiring some attention. An Indian restaurant called Gandhi which was listed in the guide book caught our eye. We decided to walk it from hotel but picked the most dodgiest route possible which meant our initial impressions of Montreal were not the best. The meal however was spectacular and after we wandered back to the hotel via a much nicer route; taking in the Basilique Notre Dame which was beautifully lit and passing a number of projections on the walls which is a project depicting the history of Montreal in advance of the 375 year anniversary next year.
Feeling a little tired of city sites we decided we wanted to get out to Mont Tremblant and the Laurentian Mountains to see some of the breath taking Canadian landscapes you see in photos. It appeared from a quick search online that to do the trip in a day there was only one bus a day out there that departed at 0730. Foolishly thinking this couldn’t be true, we set off on foot for the long walk to the bus station, arriving around lunch time only to find that the internet had of course been correct and there was only that early bus to Mont Tremblant if you intended to do the trip in a day. Feeling hot and sweaty from the long walk, we were desperate to not write the day off and the Lonely Planet guide mentioned the town of St-Jerome as the gateway to the Laurentians. That was a place we could visit in a day so we purchased a ticket and waited in the nearby picturesque park of La Fontaine, soaking up the sun before joining the bus.
The book mentioned a beautiful cathedral to visit with a beautiful stained-glass window. On arrival late afternoon we discovered said cathedral closed an hour earlier than the book had said.
Disappointed, we wandered about only to find ourselves among the local down and outs. This was my first bad experience in many years of Lonely Planet guides. We parked ourselves in a bar and just drunk until the bus returned to pick us up. Never have we been so glad to see a bus!
Shattered from the day we got the metro back to our hotel rather than walking back from the bus station, changed and then enjoyed a meal and a few cosmos in a restaurant near to the hotel.
The final day was unbearably hot and we were up early hoping to see a few more sites and then cram in the obligatory last minute shopping.
We headed out to the Olympic park, built when Montreal hosted the Olympics in 1976. The funicular that takes you to the top of the 165m Tour de Montreal is well worth doing if only giving you the chance to say you have been up the world’s largest inclined structure.
I couldn’t leave Montreal without going inside its most famous sight – Basilique Notre-Dame. It was built in 1829 and has a stunning alter and a midnight blue ceiling covered in stars. Celine Dion was married here in 1994.
We walked back to the hotel to check out via Place Jacques Cartier which in the centre of old Montreal is a square full of activity with stalls, entertainers, cafes and bars. Nelson’s column stands at the north end of the square.
All that was left to do before heading back to the airport was some shopping. I was amazed that even my husband caught the shopping bug. We got some great deals in North Face and I couldn’t resist an eye shadow from Sephora.
Before we knew it we were on the flight home. It was a whirlwind of a trip that once again we tried to cram too much into. On reflection I think we should have either spent more time away or had more time in New York and Toronto and then a few days in Quebec. I hope one day I will get to do the Rocky Mountaineer train trip and experience Vancouver and some of the picture postcard views of Canada away from the big cities.