Category Archives: Canada

Toronto & Niagara Falls, Ontario ~ July 19 – 22, 2014

Toronto was the largest of the three eastern Canadian metropolises that we visited.  It sits on the northwest shore of Lake Ontario above and across the lake from Buffalo, New York.  It was also the most mainstream, or American-like, city and was obviously in the middle of an economic and building boom – only our home of Austin can compete with the number of building cranes that were in downtown Toronto!

Toronto Skyline
Toronto Skyline

The fact that Toronto is Canada’s business and financial center made staying in the city center out of sync with our budget.  Not a problem though, the Parkview neighborhood in East York was a 15 minute drive from downtown and a short bike ride to Lake Ontario’s beaches and Toronto’s immense park system.

Our host was new to Airbnb and had just finished a complete remodel of her basement apartment.  We also had access to her backyard hot tub. Trey loves telling the story of soaking in the hot tub and looking up to see a family of raccoons coming through the backyard fence, crossing the yard in front of us on their way to their apparent home under the deck on which we were sitting.

We were glad to be Caroline’s first guests.  She and her boyfriend were kind enough to invite us to join them for dinner.  Our first evening in Toronto was a wonderful time of sharing stories and getting to know our lovely host.  It was one of our best Airbnb experiences as many times you never get the opportunity to meet your host.

Toronto vs Texas

We headed downtown to Rogers Centre, the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team’s stadium, well before the game’s noon start time. This gave us an opportunity to walk around downtown a bit and get a feel for the city.  It was also our intent to grab breakfast but found that our options were limited.  We passed up the Texas Lone Star Grill – just didn’t seem right – and instead decided to push the clock and wait in line to be seated at Cora’s.  Glad we did – Cora’s has been a favorite of Canadians since 1987 and is known for their generous portions of fresh fruit and unique breakfast presentations. For instance,  Trey had the Crepomelette – a western cheddar omelet rolled into a crepe.

Rogers Centre was the third major league baseball stadium we visited on this tour, and we were lucky with the schedule as the Blue Jays happen to be hosting Trey’s team, the Texas Rangers.

CN Tower, Toronto
CN Tower, Toronto

The stadium is located at the base of the iconic CN Tower and is quite modern. Its retractable roof was adjusted regularly with the movement of the sun, and I was surprised to see that the stadium has a hotel attached.

The Renaissance Hotel at Rogers Centre sits in right field with guest rooms facing the field – guests don’t even have to get out bed to watch the game!

Rogers Centre - Hotel guests room windows surround the giant screen
Rogers Centre – Hotel guests room windows surround the giant screen

We were satisfied with our mezzanine seats next to the foul pole and looking down the first base line. Unfortunately though, Trey’s Rangers lost the game 9-6.

Great view even from the cheap seats!
Great view even from the cheap seats!

Toronto by Bicycle

Our host Caroline is a personal trainer and serious bike rider.  She offered to lead us on a morning ride along Lake Ontario and onto the Leslie Street Spit – a three-mile manmade peninsula.  We accessed the Martin Goodman waterfront trail from the historic and beautiful Beaches neighborhood east of downtown in “Old City” Toronto. Caroline quickly found that she had to adjust her usual pace in order for me to keep up. It was a lovely ride though and a great way to see Toronto.

We rode along Lake Ontario beaches, through Ashbridge Bay Park, and then had to change our plans upon finding the entrance to the spit closed for road repairs.  Caroline had warned us that Torontonians like to say that there are only two seasons in Toronto: winter and construction.

We continued west along the water admiring the sail boats and yachts docked in the Harbourfront, and then past downtown to Exhibition Place, where the city had just hosted an Indy car race. After going what seemed to be about 15 miles,  I became seriously concerned about my ability to make the return trip if we were to venture further. Gratefully, Trey and Caroline accommodated me and we headed back.

The Distillery Historic District

Taking up two city blocks just east of downtown near Lake Ontario’s shore, “The Distillery” is Toronto’s hub for artisans of all kinds.  All businesses are locally owned and there are no name brands sold in the assortment of specialty shops and galleries.

Spider sculpture in the Distillery Historic District
Spider sculpture in the Distillery Historic District

The site is a revitalized whiskey and spirits distillery that operated from 1832 to 1990.  The many buildings that wind through the old Gooderham & Worts Distillery are the largest collection of Victorian industrial architecture in North America.

Sidewalk cafe in The Distillery Historic District
Sidewalk cafe in The Distillery Historic District

They were built at varying times to keep up with company growth, but maintain a consistent look throughout.  In the period between when the distillery closed in 1990 and when it reopened in 2003 as a residential and shopping area, the site served as a set to many films including Chicago and Cinderella Man.

The Distillery, Toronto

The district was relatively subdued on the Monday we visited, but we understand that the reverse is true on weekends when it is full of live music and other performance artists.

Toronto Zoo

The trip to the Toronto Zoo was a spontaneous decision after we eagerly arrived at the famous St. Lawrence Market to find that it is closed on Mondays.  The zoo is located in a suburb about 20 miles northeast of downtown Toronto and ended up being about an hour drive in traffic.

I think our impression of the zoo would have been more positive had it not been an unusually hot afternoon for Toronto.

Sleepy white fox
Sleepy white fox

The poor animals were sluggish in the heat and some, including this poor grizzly, appeared to be outright stressed.

This pacing grizzly bear kept testing the electric fence.  It was disturbing.
This pacing grizzly bear kept testing the electric fence. It was disturbing.

They looked unhappy and we just felt bad for them.

Little ice on a warm day for the polar bear
Little ice on a warm day for the polar bear

Thankfully, the day – our last in Toronto — ended much better.   Our host’s daughter had made dinner for us and we enjoyed the delicious meal of Indian Butter Chicken with rice and steamed broccoli on the deck with a bottle of Niagara Valley red blend wine.  We were pleased to get to visit with our host again and share more stories.

The following morning we were able to meet our host’s friend that had helped with the apartment’s remodeling.  Mary greeted us with a small cooler she had packed with drinks for our drive to Pittsburgh, which we very much appreciated – the cherry on top of our already high regard for Canada and Canadians!

Caroline seeing us off on our return to the U.S.
Caroline seeing us off on our return to the U.S.

Niagara Falls, Ontario

We’d been told by multiple sources to see Niagara Falls from the Canadian side.  We were glad to hear this since the Canadian border was also the most logistically convenient choice for us.  The city of Niagara Falls, Ontario is very clean and quaint, and surprisingly understated despite the fact that it is a top tourist destination.

Niagara Falls, Ontario
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Hotels and businesses, including a casino, tastefully blend in with office buildings that sit along the greenspace that separates them from Niagara Gorge and its spectacular falls.

Queen Victoria Park, Niagara Falls, Ontario
Queen Victoria Park, Niagara Falls, Ontario

Although I had seen the falls in photographs and films, I was surprised to find that there are actually two separate falls on the Niagara River.  Horseshoe Falls is probably the most photographed and sits on the Canada side.

Horseshoe Falls, Niagara Falls, Ontario
Horseshoe Falls, Niagara Falls, Ontario

The falls on the U.S. border is simply named the American Falls.

American Falls taken from Niagara Falls, Ontario
American Falls taken from Niagara Falls, Ontario

The water of the Niagara River flows at 35 mph moving water from Lake Erie into Lake Ontario.   Photos and films do not adequately portray the beauty and power of the water flowing over the 180 foot cliff.

Crestline of Horseshoe Falls, Niagara Falls, Ontario
Crestline of Horseshoe Falls, Niagara Falls, Ontario

Any attempt I make to describe it with words will fall far short of the actual experience.  The best I can do is….Wow! I advise anyone who has an opportunity to experience Niagara, to do so!

Ottawa, Ontario ~ July 16 – 19, 2014

Unlike Montreal’s busy city pace where we were compelled to keep up with the energy the city was exuding – the opposite was true for Ottawa.   Ottawa’s easy pace and laid-back feel seemed to give us permission to slow down and rest.  I very much welcomed this and think it is probably why Ottawa was my favorite of the three eastern Canadian cities we visited.

Farmers Market in Wellington Village
Farmers Market in Wellington Village

The duplex we rented was half of a beautiful Victorian house in the Hintonburg/Wellington Village neighborhood just west of downtown Ottawa, and a short walk to markets and loads of restaurants on Wellington Street.

It also provided us with easy access to the Ottawa River Parkway – a bicycle path that follows the southern bank of the river.

Ottawa River Parkway

It was a quick, safe and scenic route to downtown and Parliament Hill.

Parliament Hill

Ottawa is Canada’s government center – it is the Washington, D.C. of Canada, and Parliament Hill is the city’s regal focal point.

View of Parliament Hill from Gitaneau
View of Parliament Hill from Gitaneau

Four gothic revival buildings, complete with gargoyles and grotesques, sit on the Ottawa River surrounded by beautiful grounds.  We strolled through the grounds stopping at various statues and monuments honoring Canada’s history.

Grotesque on Central Parliament Building
Grotesque on Central Parliament Building

We also enjoyed Parliament Hill in the evening after learning of a sound and light show that takes place nightly during summer months.  We joined hundreds of others for an amazing light show.

Illuminated Central Parliament Building
Illuminated Central Parliament Building

The main parliament building seemed to come alive through projected images.  It danced in sync with a mix of orchestra and techno music that was blasting out of a wall of speakers and amplifiers set up on the vast lawn.  At one point the building’s windows appeared to stick out into another dimension apart from the rest of the building – then another window would pop out while the other would move back into place – and then more and more would pop in and out as if the windows were trumpet keys blowing out the beat of the music.  It was magical!

The light show then went on to tell Canada’s history through large mural-like images projected onto the entire central building.  Scenes included the stories of the “First Nation,” French explorers, fighting back invading Americans during the War of 1812, and Canada’s alliance with the U.S. in current conflicts.  The show culminated with even larger images of Canadian icons blasting rapidly to the beat of music.

Ottawa, Parliament Light Show

This finale was followed by an explosion of applause and Canadian pride – even from us Texans!

Three months later we would hear of the terrorist attack and shooting death of a Canadian soldier at one the monuments we had visited.  We hope that the violence and fear of the lone zealot has not affected Parliament Hill, as our memories of visiting this area are of a peaceful, diverse, welcoming and safe environment.  We would gladly return without hesitation.

Canadian Museum of History

The Canadian Museum of History is located just north of downtown Ottawa and across the Ottawa River in Gatineau, Quebec.

Totems in the grand hall -- note the hull-like ceiling and oars columns between the windows
Totems in the grand hall — note the hull-like ceiling and oars columns between the windows

We enjoyed their collection of Northern Pacific totems, but were most impressed by the building itself.  The museum’s architecture very appropriately reflects the art and culture of Canada’s first nation people.

Canadian Museum of History
Canadian Museum of History

To simply walk around the building and its grounds is a great experience in itself.  It was not surprising to find that the architect, Douglas Cardinal, is Blackfoot.  He was also an architect for the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. and is a University of Texas at Austin graduate.

Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica

From the history museum we walked across the Alexandra Bridge back into Ontario to explore the arts area by foot.  We discovered that the gorgeous silver twin steeples that we could see from the north river bank was another Catholic basilica [see Montreal].

Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica
Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica

With our new fascination in these special Catholic churches, we just had to check it out.  The Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica was smaller and more humble than Montreal’s basilica, but certainly did not lack in beauty.  The sanctuary had a deep blue ceiling that appeared to be sparkling with stars, and it had a more peaceful and sacred feel to it than Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica – probably due to the absence non-stop guided tours and tourists with cameras.

National Gallery of Canada

The basilica is located across the street from Canada’s National Gallery – a previously planned “must see” since we’d missed Montreal’s Museum of Fine Art.  A giant spider sculpture that sits on the gallery’s grounds greeted us on our walk and conjured up comparisons to the creatures in War of the Worlds that scooped up people into holding sacs underneath their bellies.

National Gallery of Canada
National Gallery of Canada

Inside, the gallery has a wonderful collection of indigenous art, many masters and contemporary works.

Van Gogh Still Life - Bowl with Zinnias and Other Flowers
Van Gogh Still Life – Bowl with Zinnias and Other Flowers
Intricate carvings of animals in caribou antler
Intricate carvings of animals in caribou antler

Ottawa, Canada National Gallery 2

Rideau Canal

The Rideau Canal intersects Ottawa between downtown and Parliament Hill.  It connects the Ottawa and Rideau rivers, and has been in continuous operation since 1832, making it North America’s oldest operating canal.

Rideau Canal
Rideau Canal

It was built following the War of 1812 to open an alternative supply route from Montreal, Quebec to Kingston, Ontario in case the pesky Americans decided to invade Canada again.

Each time we were in the area of the canal we couldn’t help becoming captivated with the slow process of moving boats through the hand operated locks.  The 21st century crafts were dependent upon 19th century engineering – a very entertaining juxtaposition of time and technology.

The water levels are raised and lowered allowing passage of the boats through the hand operated locks
The water levels are raised and lowered allowing passage of the boats through the hand operated locks

Sparks Street

We happened upon Sparks Street while trying to locate the source of a reverberating salsa beat after emerging from a public parking garage near Parliament Hill.  Four blocks of Sparks Street are permanently closed to car traffic and lined with sidewalk cafes and boutiques.

Sparks Street in Downtown Ottawa
Sparks Street in Downtown Ottawa

There was literally dancing in the streets and all were invited to join in the fun!  Intimidated by the salsa skills we were witnessing, we opted to just watch.  L’Ange Café sat directly adjacent to the “dance floor” and allowed us to continue enjoying the music and dancing while sipping cappuccinos and sharing a crème brulee.

Sparks Street Salsa!
Sparks Street Salsa!

Shakespeare in the Park

I picked up a pamphlet promoting a local Shakespearean group, A Company of Fools, at a coffee house across the street from where we were staying.  A quick Google search revealed that their next performance was on our last evening in Ottawa at a nearby park. The “fools” version of As You Like It was funny, entertaining and downright delightful.

I simply loved Ottawa.  I loved its pace, its people, its culture and fun spirit!  I’m hopeful to return there someday.

Cuddling Ducklings
Cuddling Ducklings
It's a good thing Ottawa still had phone booths since we had no cell service!
It’s a good thing Ottawa still had phone booths since we had no cell service!
Picasso - Woman in Hat with Flowers
Picasso – Woman in Hat with Flowers

Montreal, Quebec ~ July 13 – 16, 2014

Neither Trey nor I had stepped foot outside of the United States until Sunday, July 13, 2014.   We acknowledge that Canada can barely be classified as international travel, but that is how it worked out for us – plus, we accept the fact that Canada is a good baby step to acquainting ourselves with foreign travel prior to our planned travel across the Atlantic in the spring.

Entering Canada
Entering Canada

Verizon Wireless knew exactly when we crossed the border and started blasting our phones with texts on the limits of our plan, data service costs, and the fact that we no longer had mobile service.  Regardless,  we managed to successfully navigate the kilometers to our Airbnb apartment situated between the Quartier des Spectacles and Quartier Latin areas of Montreal.  A great location to walk or bike to everything we wanted to see in Montreal!

We unloaded quickly as we were anxious to check out a nearby festival we noticed on our trip into the city.   We walked just a few short blocks south and then east and came upon barricaded streets, rows upon rows of tents, and loads of people of all sorts.

Art and Performance Festivals in Quartier des Spectacles
Art and Performance Festivals in Quartier des Spectacles

Most like us, spectators, but many that would put Austin’s weirdness to shame – like the little person, a male, wearing nothing but a white cowboy hat, matching boots and a cloth diaper!

We soon realized he and the others were performance artists.  We were enchanted watching a pair of what appeared to be large air conditioner ducts dancing to techno.

Dancing Ducts
Dancing Ducts

Then there were the deadpanned faced robot dancers.  And these guys…

Montreal, Art Festival 1

It was a fantastic welcome to Montreal which made us feel comfortable and at home despite the fact that everyone was talking French.

Without cell phones to guide us to restaurants and unable to confidently read menus we were completely reliant on intuition to find a place to eat.   We were hungry, but not feeling too adventurous, so selected what appeared to be a chain that had a name we could read – Baton Rouge.  It was similar to the U.S.’s TGIF chain in food quality and ambiance, but we were able to refuel and watch Germany beat Argentina in extra time to win the FIFA World Cup.

Mount Royal

Feeling refreshed the next morning we hopped on our bikes and peddled our way toward Mount Royal.   A hill located in the center of relatively flat Montreal and just west of downtown.   It rises roughly 740 feet above the city and is visible from many parts of the city — the entire city is visible from atop Mount Royal!

The beauty of Montreal is best appreciated atop Mount Royal
The beauty of Montreal is best appreciated atop Mount Royal

A city park, as well as nature and recreation areas encompass the hill.   It also makes for a beautiful and challenging bike ride.  The foot and bike only path is an old carriage road that winds around the hill for about 4 miles ascending at a steady grade to the summit.

It was only from the top of Mount Royal that we could truly appreciate the beauty of Montreal.

Mount Royal, Montreal

It is an obvious must see for visitors, but it was also an obvious favorite of the locals as well.

A chalet at Mt. Royal's summit hosts community events and is a gathering place for locals
A chalet at Mt. Royal’s summit hosts community events and is a gathering place for locals

Having gained some confidence with our ability to communicate with the locals we ventured to find a neighborhood lunch spot near Mount Royal and wound up at Café Santropol – mostly vegetarian and very funky.  Perfect!

Jean-Talon Market

Next, it was off to Jean-Talon market, which we had been told is the best of the city’s several outdoor farmers markets.  Had we researched previously, we would have found that it was the further of three in our area and the main route required a harrowing bike ride on a heavily traveled street.  Once we safely arrived though, we very much enjoyed the market’s energy, colors and freshness.

Market Colors
Market Colors

The indoor and outdoor market takes up two square blocks and is surrounded by eateries. It is well worth a visit even to just browse among the fresh food and flowers.  Even though we were on bikes, we couldn’t resist buying a few fresh vegetables which Trey stir fried us up for dinner the next evening.

Trey's yummy stir-fry
Trey’s yummy stir-fry

We found an indirect but safer route back to our apartment cutting through neighborhoods and for a portion, an actual bike path.

Quartier Latin

Too tired at that point to cook, we opted to walk several blocks north to Rue Saint-Denis – a lively street lined with restaurants, street musicians, hungry tourists and more than a handful of homeless 20-somethings.  Without a particular craving we strolled several blocks before our indecisiveness was overcome by our hunger and we settled on a Mexican food restaurant.

Mexican food in Quebec?  I know, but it had been over 6 weeks since we’d left Austin and our two Tex-mex meals a week habit.  Plus, the sign on the restaurants entrance advertised the best margarita’s Montreal.  Sold!

The walk back to our apartment at dusk provided us with the most disturbing image we had experienced to date on our travels.  I can now say that it was the most disturbing image of our North American travel period.  An older than the average Rue Saint-Denis homeless man followed us for a couple of blocks talking sporadically and incoherently.   As we neared an open green space I noticed a young woman with light brown hair sitting on the lawn to our left with her backpack contents spread about her.  She had some type of makeshift tourniquet tied around her right upper arm and a syringe in her left hand – she was shooting up.

This site also caught the attention of the homeless man who promptly turned away from us and made a beeline to this young lady.  I wanted to intervene and tell her that she didn’t have to live like that.  But very much feeling my own vulnerability in that moment, I instead opted to continue walking with Trey toward our apartment.  The well-being of this young lady and our reaction to the scene still haunt me today.

Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal

Our last full day in Montreal was just that – a full day.  We walked again through the festivals of the Quartier des Spectacles on our way to the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal — the first of four basilicas we ended up visiting in North America.

Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal
Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal

We’re not Catholic, nor particularly religious.  We were simply drawn to Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica’s grand gothic architecture; however, it was the opulent interior that left us awestruck and wanting to learn more about what exactly sets basilicas apart from other Catholic cathedrals and churches.

Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal
Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal

The designation of a church as a basilica can only be made by the Pope and it generally is due to the cathedral’s level of historical or artistic significance, and/or its importance or role in the local community.

Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal's Pipe Organ
Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal’s Pipe Organ

Montreal’s basilica did not seem to be lacking of any such credentials.  The massive organ has an impressive 7,000 pipes and four keyboards, and the alter showpiece was a whopping 20-ton bronze sculpture.

Montreal Basilica 3

We were two of about 30 that paid $5 to take one of two guided tours that are offered daily every 30 minutes — The 190 year old gothic revival cathedral was bustling, beautiful and bodacious.  My new belief that perhaps the Catholic Church believed there was a direct correlation to the level of grandiose-ness and Godliness would gladly be adjusted later in our trip.

Old Montreal

It is a short walk from the Basilica to Rue Saint Paul — a street in an upscale residential, shopping, art and dining area that includes several blocks closed off to cars.

Rue Saint Paul, Montreal
Rue Saint Paul, Montreal

It is located in “old Montreal” which had been surrounded by a wall in the 1700’s and sits along the Saint Lawrence River.  I was sorry that we did not allow ourselves more time to explore and absorb the old city.  It provided our first experience of what I imagine some European cities will be like – narrow cobble stone streets lined with quaint Victorian buildings full of unique shops and engaging people.

Old Montreal
Old Montreal

After arriving too late at the Montreal Science Museum to secure entrance, we started the mile and half trek back to our apartment enjoying the scenes and scents in China Town along the way.

China Town, Montreal
China Town, Montreal

We were happy to give our sore feet a break when we came upon a spirited pick-up soccer match – very competitive and entertaining.

This 7v7 pick up game was serious business
This 7v7 pick up game was serious business

We left Montreal enriched with the experience and people we encountered there, and with a few regrets – again, would have loved to have had more time in “old Montreal,” and will assure that time is allowed on our next visit to tour the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Chihuly outside of the Montreal Museum of Art
Chihuly outside of the Montreal Museum of Art
Ducklings on the St. Lawrence River
Ducklings on the St. Lawrence River
They're everywhere!
They’re everywhere!