Window on Ontario Canada

Oh, Ontario....

....it's all about water - lakes, rivers, even fountains for dogs!

~~

It's true, the name of Canada's second-largest and most populous province, Ontario, hundreds of kilometres from the sea, means 'beautiful lake. Or 'big body of water'.

It's more than that, though. Ontario could be called the 'Finland of North America' with approximately 250,000 lakes, accounting for 20 percent of the world’s freshwater stores.

Seatbelts fastened? Please come along with us on our road-trip through Ontario.

Surprisingly, we had decided to begin our Canadian trip in the US.

Last year, an attractive bargain airfare meant we could pick up a rental car in Detroit and fly back to Australia from Boston at the end of our five-week exploration of Eastern Canada. But, first, this was one direction we had to get right!

Fortunately, as we would be driving into, and out of, Canada, we also didn't need a visa. This important proviso was something you can be sure we checked and rechecked when planning the trip! 

Windscreen photographs lack charisma, but this was important to record. The 90-year-old, 2.3 kilometre Ambassador Bridge crosses the USA-Canada border, spanning the Detroit River that links Lake St Clair with Lake Erie. There are many other bridges along the Canadian-US border, all carefully supervised and many are separated by - you guessed it! - water.

~~~

 

Off to the Falls

No matter how much we travel, the beginning of a journey is always an exciting, fizzy experience - the days ahead of us, empty of experiences; blank pages, waiting to be completed and illustrated - or perhaps a saga of mistakes and frustrations. Who knows? It's a game of chance!

From Detroit, Niagara Falls is an easy half-day drive, much of it through bucolic rural countryside with orchards and farms, and roadside stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables.

Differences to the US were apparent immediately, and it was easy to see that we had entered a British Commonwealth country. The highway had us heading for London, for example, directed by road signs with a crown over the route number.

Yet there was still American spelling occasionally - we spotted a company called Canada Tires - and red barns and silos, reminding us that USA was still just a few kilometres away, across the lake.

It seems that country folk everywhere enjoy creating unique decorations for their homes and gardens. Notice the silhouette of a moose in the far-left. These huge animals are not to be trifled with by drivers, and we crossed fingers we would not meet one on the road in our travels over the next few weeks.

Settlement began in this part of Canada in the late-eighteenth century. Some houses we passed, like this place, were quite dilapidated. This one appeared as though it was still cared for, at least the grounds, and we wondered about the story behind it.

~~~

After passing through several small towns on the highway, we saw a sign for Port Stanley and, on impulse, took a right-turn. One of many Great Lakes settlements on Lake Erie, this port was vital in the early navigation of Canada's inland lakes and waterways in the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, it's more about tourism than river-trade and the long, sandy, lakeside beach is a drawcard with its Blue Flag Beach status.

Our detour proved to be well worth it as we discovered a good place for coffee and lunch, and also happened upon these two lovely bridesmaids. Very sensibly, their wedding party had factored-in an ice cream stop on the Main Street after the church service.

While it is very unlikely they will be there when you visit, this quaint small town has many other attractions. There's a lifting bridge across Kettle Creek, marinas, restaurants, hotels, shops, the Port Stanley Festival Theatre in the former town hall on Bridge Street, and the Port Stanley Terminal Rail, which operates a tourist train between St Thomas and Port Stanley using a portion of the former London & Port Stanley rail line.

~~~

 

Falling for the Falls

How often have you visited a famous landmark and then been (privately) a little disappointed? We hoped it wouldn't be the case with this one.  See what we found and make up your own mind.

Was it laziness, or lack of time? Whatever. We hadn't done enough homework on this major scenic attraction and, the next morning in Niagara Falls (yes, that's the name of the town too) we found ourselves wondering just how far we would have to walk to see the waterfalls properly.

Spoiler alert: unless you count the distance from where you have parked your car - the distance is almost zero. Just take that 60-second Incline Railway to the street, cross  to the Welcome Centre (above)....

.....see the mist, follow the people, and then the world's greatest water feature is right in front of you!

What we noticed immediately was the noise! Waterfalls are not quiet, and here, the roar and thunder, the rushing energy of millions of kilolitres of water constantly catapulting 51 metres (around six storeys) over the cliff face and into the basin below, underlined the strength (and danger) of these falls.

Of course, there are good fences and signs that do not intrude on what we have all come for - that view - yet these flowers grimly holding on the rocks show just how close visitors can get. As we took it all in, fine mist covered our skin and hair, making us feel part of one of nature's most exciting showpieces.

Almost unable to tear ourselves away, we moved slowly along the walkway. It was full of people, backs to the view for photographs or selfies, others hanging out over the railing as far as they could to capture photo after photo of the tourist boats below!

A man, no doubt seeing this as the ultimate romantic location, dropped to one knee to propose to his partner, and those of us nearby smiled and clapped when she accepted. Just another day at Niagara Falls!

Tourist boats leave from each bank, the Canadians protecting their passengers from the spray by royal red slickers....

...while passengers from the US side keep dry in blue gear.

Although the view from the footpath is magnificent, for an overall panorama you need to take the lifts up the 160-metre Skylon Tower. For CAN$14 plus tax you have the view of a lifetime and will understand why over 14 million tourists are attracted here annually. For a special view, dine in the revolving restaurant at the top, or come back for the evening fireworks display.

Horseshoe Falls, like a giant overflowing reservoir, is the largest and perhaps the most attractive of the three falls. It is the first one that you see as you come down on the Incline Railway and cross to the Table Rock Welcome Centre.

The tourist boats seem to reach almost the base of the falls, almost disappearing in the mist. Here, we’re standing on the Canadian side but of course the land across the waterfall is USA. On the map, the border is approximately halfway across the falls.

This view of the Horseshoe Falls from the Skylon Tower shows the US side, to the left, and paths to the lookout towards Canada, however it does seem that while the US geographically has 2.5 of the waterfalls, Canada has the more impressive views. Americans would probably argue otherwise!

This is a dynamic waterway. The second-largest, American Falls, show perhaps better than anywhere else that nature is still in the business of changing the profile of this area, as tonnes of rocks further complicate the base.

The very best views from the US side are probably seen from the walkway and the tower on the far left of this picture. The Rainbow Bridge connects the two countries, but be aware, there can be long delays in high season.

Visitors to the falls can also take a Journey behind the Falls via tunnels that allow an unique view, experience a white water boardwalk beside the rapids, or - if they dare - take a hair-raising trip on a 670-metre zipline, 67-metres above Niagara Gorge.

The walk along the Canadian foreshore of the falls stretches  for quite a distance. Although fascinating, for those who want to conserve their time or energy, this bus is worth knowing about. A daily ticket is around CAN$9 and reaches most of the local tourist spots.

It was almost impossible to resist taking just one more photo, but sooner or later on this sunny afternoon, we knew that the light would catch the fall's spray at the right angle, and we would have a rainbow right in front of the stunning and well-named Bridal Veil Falls. Luckily the weather allowed this and, once we had our shots, it was time to reluctantly left the Falls area to explore the rest of the town.

Like many exceptional places in the world, pictures cannot fully capture the dynamic beauty of Niagara Falls. FOR ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE, make sure to VIEW THIS VIDEO to see them in action.

 

 

Niagara Falls is, of course, a tourist town - it couldn’t be anything else. There are hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes, shops, cinemas, a casino - and also plenty of fun activities for families and children on Clifton Hill, where you will find the Speedway, Sky Screamer, Niagara Sky Wheel, Marineland Theme Park, and more. 

Just don't go looking for classic Canadian cuisine here. Most of the fare is geared to suit tourists, the options varying from BBQ steakhouses, pizzerias, burger joints, and places like Vinny's (above) serving popular American-Italian food, as well as other ethnic restaurants and fast-food outlets.

~~~

 

Niagara-on-the-Lake

Just 30 minutes drive from the busyness of the Niagara Falls, although the name is similar, the ambience of Niagara-on-the-Lake could hardly be more different. This small town's quiet pace, its historic buildings, the genteel air, gives visitors a sense of having stepped back into another era. 

Despite this, in a side street, we fell for Balzac's cafe serving the best coffee and contemporary breakfast we'd had so far in North America.

This World Heritage-listed town is postcard-perfect even on the damp early-spring morning we visited. Niagara-on-the-Lake is often called 'the prettiest town in North America', and we could see why.

In the main street, Wine Country Vintners introduced us to the local specialty, ideal in Canada's chilly conditions - ice wine, made from grapes that have frozen on the vine. As you can see, though, this region is also perfect for rose wine - which tastes as delicious as it looks.

Of course we had to spend some time wandering the vineyards nearby where, as the name suggests, many are located south-east of the town, on the banks of the Niagara River. 

That there was a thriving wine industry and around 100 vineyards (as well as micro-breweries and distilleries) so close to a world-class tourist destination was something that we had not realised, and it added a delightful new perspective to our visit.

~~~

 

Toronto, capital of Ontario

Toronto is Canada's largest city with the highest population (over six million), and its size and complexity has to be seen to even begin to understand it. Like all Saint Lawrence River cities, this was originally a trading post and, appropriately, its name in the native Huron language means 'plenty'.

Having booked accommodation in an outer suburb, on our first morning we took a train to the city centre. As we stopped at each station we noticed billboards on the walls, inviting migrants to come to Toronto to work, study or settle here.  

(Immigrant Family, by the popular American sculptor Tom Otterness on Yonge Street, Toronto)

Why was this? We asked a local - always a good way to find out something - and it was explained to us that quite simply, Canada (with a total population of 37 million) needs more people. Simple as that!

Exploring the city, we noticed a wide range of ethnic cultures, mingling easily and of course bringing the vibrancy and flavours of their home countries with them.

As so much of travel is also about food, we find it impossible to miss out on a good market. Or, for that matter, an Old Town centre.

The streetscape in this old part of town reflects the age of the area.

 

The busy St Lawrence Market was an easy walk along Front Street from the train terminus. Established in 1803, the market has provided farm produce direct to customers for many generations. It also reflects the cosmopolitan demographic of the local shoppers.

Canadian cheese is well respected, and the range here was mind-bogglingly extensive.... and a little confusing! Just what is 'cow's applewood', for instance?

Here was something I had long wanted to see. I've encountered these baby ferns in recipes from Canada over the years, but never had the chance to see them. Fiddleheads are the young edible fronds of a local fern that taste like a mix between asparagus and baby spinach. They may be sauteed or stir-fried and served as an accompaniment to meals.

Before leaving home, we had heard about the 'dog fountain' and wanted to see it, however the only directions we could find said it was in the park behind the 'flatiron building'.

I have seen flatirons - the non-electric sort our grandmothers heated on the stove to iron with (or in some cases filled with coals to keep the heat). Its distinctive shape made it quite easy to locate and, as we were in the Old Toronto area, it was only a short walk to find it, discovering it is more properly called the Gooderham Building.

Triangular Berczy Park has been redesigned as a pet-friendly park behind this historic building, adding a massive two-tiered dog fountain that attracts humans - as well as their dogs.

The wide end of the Gooderham Building, which faces onto the park, has been decorated with this realistic mural. Simply named The Flatiron Mural, it reflects the Perkins Building that is located directly across the street.

In this whimsical addition to the park, 27 cast-iron dogs spray water from their mouths. There is even one cat, and do notice the golden bone on top of the fountain.

But here's someone who can't bear to look at it!

Read more about it here....

~~~

No story about a Canadian city is complete without a mention of this dietary staple.

Poutine is known as Canada's favourite food. It can be an acquired taste. For those who have not grown up eating potato fries (chips) and curd cheese doused in gravy, it may well be a step too far - but most Canadians love it. So much so, these mobile kitchens are often seen at recreation areas or events. The name, poutine, comes from Quebec and means ' a mess'. I rest my case!

~~~

Not all travel needs to be about must-see buildings and stylish places. Regular readers of this website will know by now that we like to seek out unusual spots. Someone had told us about this undercover garden just north of Old Toronto.

The gardens were set up in an old conservatory and paths wind through several 'rooms' with a wonderful variety of flowers, ferns, succulents and shrubs. Occasionally these plants combine to become works of art (see above).

Toronto is not all about big buildings and busy people - although there is plenty of that too. There is a fun side that bursts out in artistic murals like this.....

... or modern, angular facades like the Student Learning Centre of Ryerson University

Toronto is the sort of city where you can turn a corner, and suddenly the past returns. Here, the Cathedral Church of St. James seems tangled up by the modern era.

As always we realise that we have not allowed ourselves enough time to fully explore this fascinating city. Toronto has SEVERAL trendy districts - each one distinct and worth experiencing.

We have often compared the life of travel writers and photographers as having just a degustation (a little taste) of each city or country, so that we can whet the appetite of readers and viewers. With many places, of course, we know a small taste or a sip is just not enough.

SORRY about the quick visit, Toronto. We'll come back ASAP to feast properly on your many treasures!

~~~

.....to be continued.....

~~~

Coming next - thousands of island homes, the river that became a highway, and ....

....prepare yourself for the tastiest tails in Canada.

~~~

Sally & Gordon Hammond travelled independently to Canada, self-driving and staying at their own expense.

~~~

Words and images: ©Sally Hammond

Video: ©Gordon Hammond

 

 

 

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