2 November 2007

Canada, eh?

Last month, Suzy and I spent 10 nights in Canada. I realise this post will probably be a bit long and boring for most people, but hopefully it will be of interest to anyone planning on going to Toronto, and will also help to remind us in years to come of what we actually did!

WARNING: Very long and potentially boring post coming up! If you’d prefer to look at pictures, you can just view my Toronto, Canada set on Flickr...

Day 1: Monday 8th October 2007

We checked in at Manchester Airport with Zoom Airlines, where we found all their staff to be smiling and unusually cheerful. By booking Premium Economy seats, we got more luggage allowance, more leg room, free alcoholic beverages, a choice of meals, free headphones and priority luggage. Not bad really for about £50-80 extra each way. After a quick stop in Glasgow to pick up some more passengers, we began our flight to Toronto Pearson International Airport.

For our in-flight meals, Suzy had chicken and vegetables and I had Shepherd’s pie, although it may have been Cottage Pie since I heard it called both and couldn’t tell whether it was beef or lamb. Both were served with melon and chocolate cake. Later, we got a ham and cheese sandwich for a snack. Not bad food really (although Suzy says her chicken was a bit grey). During the flight, we both watched Live Free or Die Hard and Shrek the Third which were good enough to keep us amused for a while. Suzy also watched some of Evan Almighty.

To get from the airport to the hotel once we’d landed and waited all of about two minutes for our priority luggage, we went with the TTC route, catching the 192 Airport Rocket bus to Kipling Subway station and then the subway for the rest of the way. When we surfaced from the subway, we got our first glimpse of Downtown Toronto and were quickly shown how polite and helpful the people of Toronto can be when a woman stopped her car in the middle of the road – despite the traffic lights being on green – to ask us if we were lost and needed directions! (I guess our luggage, maps and the ‘lost’ look on our faces gave us away as tourists.)

After finding the Metropolitan Hotel (booked via Expedia) and dumping everything in our room, we went for a quick wander around the area to get our bearings and then had a drink and bite to eat in the hotel bar.

Day 2: Tuesday 9th October 2007

Breakfast at Over Easy (56 Yonge Street) was good, although most things on the menu seem to come in large portions, mostly fried and served with home fries. After breakfast, we walked to the CN Tower (which we couldn’t really see due to the mist) and booked a table in the restaurant for Saturday night. We then walked up through Chinatown on our way to GreekTown on the Danforth. (Apparently I insisted on walking but once we realised how far it actually was, we eventually got the subway.)

Street sign in GreekTown on the Danforth

GreekTown is an inconspicuous place; you’d never know that this is the largest Greek neighbourhood in North America. Some of the street signs are in Greek and there’s an occasional Greek restaurant, but apart from that it looks pretty normal. For lunch, we had really tasty authentic Greek gyros at Messini (445 Danforth Avenue) which each came served with a huge Greek salad.

After all the walking and eating, we headed back to the hotel for a power-nap and then went around the corner to Spring Rolls (40 Dundas Street West) for a Thai meal. The menu there has almost too much to choose from and everything we saw looked really good – and in keeping with what we had experienced so far, the portions were massive and really good!

Day 3: Wednesday 10th October 2007

Nathan Phillips Square

After our McDonald’s breakfast in Atrium On Bay, we wandered down to see the old and new Toronto City Hall at Nathan Phillips Square where there was also a small farmers’ market. After taking a few photos and listening to Suzy read The Rough Guide to Toronto, we made our way back to Chinatown for lunch, going through Kensington Market on the way.

Since we were in Chinatown, we went for an authentic Chinese lunch at Bright Pearl Seafood Restaurant (346-348 Spadina Avenue) during Dim Sum Happy Hour. For anyone like us who’s never had Dim Sum served in the traditional way, the whole experience may seem a little strange.

The dishes are wheeled around on small trolleys by waitresses who sometimes sing what they’ve got (in Chinese) between stopping to offer you one. If you want whatever dish they’ve got, you simply take the plate (and not just one prawn, like I did) and let them mark it off on your sheet so that they know what you’ve had. We tried things like fried prawns, steamed beef balls, steamed pork in rice roll (I think) and steamed squid with curry sauce. Mmmm! If you’re ever in Toronto and like Chinese food, you must visit Bright Pearl. According to their website, Dim Sum Happy Hour is 09:00 to 11:30 and 13:30 to 16:00 (Monday to Friday) and you can get 15% off between 09:00 and 11:00 on Saturday, Sunday and Holidays.

University of Toronto

I could’ve stayed there all afternoon and tried one of everything but Suzy wouldn’t let me because she wanted to take me on a Suzy Tour of the University of Toronto buildings. These all appeared to be well maintained, and the atmosphere around them felt pretty friendly and welcoming.

Again, after all the walking, we headed back to the hotel and I started to read my copy of the NOW magazine which I’d picked up earlier. While browsing the week’s live music listings, I read that Klaxons were playing in Toronto at The Opera House and that tickets were still available.

Having seen the extremely posh and impressive Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts – Toronto’s Opera House and home to the Canadian Opera Company – earlier that day, we went down to see if we could buy tickets on the door... only to find that we actually needed to be at The Opera House which is in a completely different class! (It’s basically like the Leadmill but in Toronto.) Anyway, we got a streetcar to near the venue and got some food from The Real Jerk (709 Queen Street East) where we had some really tasty homemade Caribbean cooking before the Klaxons gig. (I’ll be covering the gig in a later post...)

Day 4: Thursday 11th October 2007

For breakfast, we called in Subway across the road from our hotel for BLTs. Despite ordering two six inch BLTs on different bread, the shop assistant insisted on charging us for one foot long instead, explaining that it would be cheaper and that the customer is always right! After that, we got the subway uptown to Casa Loma.

Casa Loma

Casa Loma is described as being “Canada’s Majestic Castle” when really it’s more like a mansion, or even just a big house, with one hundred rooms; old buildings and castles are something the Brits do much bigger and better than the Canadians! Casa Loma was a fascinating place with an intriguing history. More recently, it’s been used in various films, including Chicago, Cocktail, The Pacifier, The Tuxedo and X-Men. If you want to know more about it, I suggest you read the Wikipedia articles on Casa Loma and Sir Henry Pellat.

Since we hadn’t finished looking around by lunchtime, we had something to eat at Druxy’s in the basement of Casa Loma. I got the best roast beef deli sandwich on an onion roll, complete with a proper helping of beef and some Dijon mustard that was so hot it came down my nose, and Suzy had a roast chicken and guacamole sandwich. Eating places like these, where they’re inside the attraction, are usually overpriced and poor quality but this place was pretty reasonable considering the freshness and quality of the excellent sandwiches.

After we’d finished at Casa Loma, we headed back Downtown and checked out a few restaurants we’d read about.

Jumbo Combo starter to share at Hard Rock Cafe

In the evening, we went to Hard Rock Cafe (279 Yonge Street) for some cocktails at the bar before being shown to our table. Oddly, the barman advised me not to have a Joe’s Bloody Mary – “a headbangin’ combination of rich & spicy Bloody Mary mix, Absolut Citron vodka and Joe Perry’s (of Aerosmith) mango tango hot sauce” – as they’re often returned because it’s not what people are expecting. But after a pint of boring lager, I had a couple of these anyway and they were fantastic! Naturally, we ordered and ate too much, especially considering we were already nearly full after sharing the Jumbo Combo starter!

Day 5: Friday 12th October 2007

We woke up and realised that for the past few days we’d been eating lots and lots of meat and not much fruit or vegetables, so went to Richtree Market in the Eaton Centre for a fruit salad and cup of fresh mango juice before walking down to the see the buildings on the waterfront. We had contemplated getting the ferry across to the Toronto Islands but as it was cold and windy (and, frankly, my feet were still aching from all the walking around we’d been doing) we decided to give it a miss.

Steam Whistle Brewing

Instead, we went on a tour around the Steam Whistle Brewing brewery, located in an old building shaped like a horseshoe which used to be home to a steam locomotive repair facility. (The similarity between the name and location is apparently a coincidence, as the owners had already decided they wanted a steam whistle like in the Flintstones before they found the premises.)

On the tour, we learnt all about the company and what makes them different, and I got to sample quite a bit of their premium pilsner lager which is nice and crisp and apparently won’t give you much of a hangover because it only uses just four natural ingredients.

Tony and hot dogs!

We left before I had time to test that theory and I finally got to sample a hot dog from one of the carts we’d walked past every day since we arrived.

At night, we’d booked a table at Fisherman’s Wharf (69 Richmond Street West) which had won the WHERE Toronto Most Memorable Meal Award 2007 for the Seafood category. Once we were at our table, we were a little worried about what sort of meal we were going to have as I could hear an American man on a nearby table saying how the meal he was eating was the worst meal he’d ever had in his entire life and that they should have gone to the steakhouse like he’d apparently said in the first place. As it turns out, he was probably sulking because his friends didn’t want to go to the steakhouse.

Seafood platter for two at Fishermans Wharf

Our starters here were pretty average, but the seafood platter for two which we had for our main course was great... but only if you like to eat prawns, mussels, scallops, crab, oysters and a full lobster, otherwise you may as well go to a steakhouse instead.

After our meal, we went for a walk and saw loads of teenagers running around the city wearing different coloured fluorescent necklaces. After trying and failing to figure out what was going on, we eventually stopped some of the kids and asked them. It turns out they were playing a huge game of urban capture the flag.

Those crazy kids!

Day 6: Saturday 13th October 2007

Royal Ontario Museum

On our way to the Royal Ontario Museum, we stopped at Tim Hortons for a sausage, egg and cheese (they put cheese on everything) breakfast bagel and a coffee. The museum’s housed in a pretty impressive building where they’ve literally fused modern architecture with the original church-like building. When we went, a few of the rooms were empty as they were re-jigging their exhibits but what we did see was pretty interesting, particularly all the First Peoples artefacts.

For lunch, we went to Sushi Train (750 Yonge Street), our first proper sushi restaurant where all the dishes go round on a conveyor belt. The plates are all colour-coded according to price, ranging from $2.00 to $5.50, so you just take what you want and the waitress adds up how much you owe by counting your empty plates. I could have stuffed my face with sushi all afternoon but didn’t want to spoil my appetite too much as we’d got a table booked at the top of the CN Tower for early evening.

View from the CN Tower

You obviously can’t go to Toronto without visiting the CN Tower. Although many people say it’s expensive to eat at the 360 Restaurant, it’s actually pretty good value because you get to go up in the lift and check out the lookout and glass floor levels for free providing you purchase a main course, saving around $25 each. We managed to book a table for 17:15 which meant that we would get to watch the sunset at 19:45 and see Toronto in daylight and by night.

After doing 15 MPH in the lift up to the restaurant, the first thing you notice is how fast the restaurant turns. It takes 72 minutes to do a complete revolution but when you see the room moving it does feel like it’s moving pretty quickly. And when you get to your table, you then realise how high up 351 metres actually is. Our table was right next to the window, so we had a fantastic view and were able to take lots of pictures in between each mouthful. The food was tasty, it was well presented, the service was excellent and the location was amazing. Definitely recommended.

Day 7: Sunday 14th October 2007

The Distillery District

For our last full day in Toronto, we had a McDonald’s breakfast somewhere on Yonge Street and then walked down to St Lawrence Market, dodging all the people who were running The Toronto Marathon on the way. After that, we walked to the The Distillery District, a national historic site which represents the “largest and best preserved collection of Victorian Industrial Architecture in North America” formerly known as The Gooderham and Worts Distillery. Today, it’s basically a load of expensive boutiques, studios and coffee shops which is occasionally used as a backdrop for films. All we bought was a couple of drinks and two massive slices of cake from Café Uno.

After walking back Downtown, we went shopping in the Eaton Centre. Thankfully, neither of us are serious shoppers, so it only took a couple of hours before we’d finished and were having a hot dog from the usual place for a mid-afternoon snack.

In the evening, we had a nice meal at the Pickle Barrel (312 Yonge Street) – once again, good food and massive portions – and then we had an early night in preparation for leaving early the following day to go to Niagara Falls.

Day 8: Monday 15th October 2007

We woke up early, packed our suitcases and went to Starbucks across the road from our hotel for breakfast. Shortly after that, we checked out and waited for Auntie Wendy and her husband Vic to pick us up in their massive people carrier. (Auntie Wendy was a school friend of my mum’s who emigrated to Canada when she was about 13 years old. They kept in touch for years via airmail and more recently moved to email and the occasional phone call.)

After two or three hours on the road, we arrived in Niagara Falls, parked up near the SkyLon Tower (in a dodgy car park for $5 rather than the official one for $10) and had a few sandwiches before walking down to see the falls.

Tony and Suzy with the Canadian Horseshoe Falls behind them

Before we went, I didn’t realise that “Niagara Falls” is actually the name for the set of waterfalls which includes the Canadian Horseshoe Falls, American Falls and the smaller Bridal Veil Falls. (In fact, I only learnt that the falls were shared between America and Canada a few weeks before we went!) Nor did I really know how HUGE all the falls are. As you get nearer to the Horseshoe Falls, it suddenly feels like it’s raining, but then you realise that it’s just the spray! And it’s only when you stand right next to the top of the falls and can see the sheer volume of water throwing itself over the edge that you realise how amazing the waterfall actually is.

Tony and Suzy on the Maid of the Mist with the American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls behind them

Of course, we went on the Journey Behind the Falls, where you “experience the awesome spectacle of one-fifth of the world’s fresh water crashing down 13 stories to the basin below” from both the side and behind the falls, and the Maid of the Mist, which takes you up close to all the falls on a boat ride. Visiting the falls in October when it was almost out of season meant we got a good, clear view all along the wall overlooking the falls and didn’t have to queue to do anything.

Also at Niagara Falls is a stretch of buildings which contains amusement arcades, souvenir shops, waxworks, museums and other attractions; it’s a bit like Blackpool only smaller and possibly cleaner. After seeing all this, Vic and Wendy took us back to their house in the quiet community called Port Elgin, called at a Swiss Chalet for some tea (or supper) on the way.

Day 9: Tuesday 16th October 2007

Port Elgin Beach

After a long and lazy lie in, we finally woke up and had breakfast, which was when I realised that bagels aren’t so bad after all (especially cinnamon and raisin ones toasted with butter) and Suzy realised that Canadians buy milk in bags rather than bottles! Imagine that! After getting over the shock, Vic and Wendy took us on a tour around Downtown Port Elgin (which is actually just a main road through the village) and to see the beach and their boat which they’d just pulled out of the water for the winter.

After soup and sandwiches for lunch, we then went on an educational trip to the visitor centre at Bruce Power Nuclear Generating Station where Vic used to work. Learning all about nuclear fuel and how a CANDU reactor generates electricity may sound like a dull thing to do on your holiday, but it was actually really interesting – and we got to see some Wild Turkeys walking down the road on the way there!

In the evening, Auntie Wendy made us a lovely steak pie for tea and then we just watched TV and relaxed.

Day 10: Wednesday 17th October 2007

After more bagels for breakfast, we took a ride out to the small community of St Jacobs, home to many Mennonites. On the way, we saw one of the few roundabouts in Canada and stopped at Picard Peanuts Ltd, where we saw the most varieties of nut-based products we’ve ever seen. You get to try before you buy, so after sampling almost every type of nut on display, I bought some Wasabi Peanuts and Blazin’ Hot Peanuts... and they are both MEGA HOT!

St Jacobs

St Jacobs itself has quite a few tiny shops and museums. We went to The Maple Syrup Museum, Home Hardware Exhibit, Electricity Exhibit and Telling The Mennonite Story at the Visitor Centre, where we went on a “multi-media journey” to learn more about the Mennonites and their beliefs.

Later that afternoon, we went to At The Crossroads restaurant for an all-you-can-eat-buffet. There was an excellent variety of home-style cooking hot meals, salads and homemade desserts, and it was excellent value for money. Needless to say, I definitely got my money’s worth...

Day 11: Thursday 18th October 2007

Tony and Suzy outside Vic and Wendy's in Port Elgin

In the morning, Vic kindly cooked us all bacon, egg and home fries for breakfast before we left Port Elgin and made our way to Wendy’s sister’s, who lives near Toronto airport. On the way, we stopped for a coffee and cookie at Starbucks and looked around the huge Chapters bookstore, Wal-Mart and Fortinos, where we bought a roast chicken and Caesar salad for dinner.

After dinner, we got dropped off at the airport, checked in and got on our flight home. We decided not to watch Mr. Bean’s Holiday or Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban but did watch Wild Hogs which was pretty funny in the early hours of the morning.

For tea / supper / breakfast (what do you call that meal they give you on an overnight flight?) we had beef ‘something’ with vegetables and rice, served with a strange salad that wouldn’t have been out of place on a kebab and a weird chocolate brownie which didn’t seem to be cooked. I thought it was all pretty good. Suzy wasn’t convinced. Later on, we got a cheese and red onion sandwich for a mid-night snack (that hyphen’s there because it’s a snack you have in the middle of the night and not necessarily at midnight) and managed to get about 30 seconds of sleep before arriving back in England.

Any questions? Is there anything I’ve not covered?

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Yeah, I made it to the end! Good post. Two questions: if you don't mind saying how much (approx) were the flights, I assume you did a bit of price checking etc. so were Zoom good value? And you don't say much about the hotel - was it in a good location, value for money, what were the other guests like, recommended?

Well done! In answer to your questions...

Flights cost about £425 each return, including the Premium Economy surcharge. Standard flights would have been around £280 each which would have been a real bargain but not really an option for Suzy's long legs. Thomas Cook had similar price flights but no Premium Economy option. I would say that Zoom are incredibly good value and would definitely fly with them again.

The hotel was in an excellent location. We paid around £80 per night for a luxury room, which is a good price for a hotel downtown. (We got 25% discount through Expedia for booking 4 or more nights.) It was a proper posh hotel really, although our room was starting to show its age a bit and could've done with a few things replacing to make it a bit more modern. The other guests were a mixed bunch but the hotel seemed to be used by a lot of air hostesses and pilots so it can't have been that bad! I'd definitely recommend staying there if you could get a decent room rate like we did.

i live about 4 hours east of Toronto, and hour south of Ottawa :)

My god! How do you two keep so thin?! Well, suzy anyway :p You should work for the lonely planet :)

Looks like you had a good time. Some of the food sounds very nice. Thanks for the popping corn cobs. We look forward to filling our microwave with fresh hot popcorn! Isobel likes her T-shirts. She plays with the picture on the front while she wears it.

You mentioned that like their yankee cousins the Canadians like to put cheese on everything. Could you get peas with cheese if you like cheese and peas?