Northeast Road Trip Update 4: Canadian Edition

Oh, Canada!

The last third of our trip was doing the greatest hits of eastern Canada: Montreal, Toronto, Niagara Falls. I wish we’d had time to do Quebec City but that was a bit out of the way for this trip.

We were both super excited to experience Canada. Justin has only been to Victoria, for a few hours, when we went on an Alaskan cruise; and I have a bit of experience in Vancouver and Whistler, since my parents used to have property in Whistler. But neither of us had ever been East. I was particularly excited to visit Québec and get my French on a bit. And hey, with the exchange rate as good as it was, we’d basically be getting 20% off everything :-p After DC and Boston, a little discount was going to be much appreciated!

The plan: 2 nights in each spot. Now, I’m wishing we had one less night in Boston, so we could have done 3 nights each in Montreal and Toronto and only one night Niagara Falls, but alas. Live and learn.

 

Montreal

I loved Montreal from the moment we found street parking a few blocks from our AirBNB. We stayed just north of the gay village, along the northwest side of Parc Lafontaine, in a cool neighborhood with a ton of cool looking restaurants, bars, and shops. Driving around wasn’t too challenging, but this city was made for walking.

 

There’s lots of green, lots of trees, and lots of French. 🙂 At once, it felt familiar and non-threatening, since it looks a lot like many north American cities, but it also felt new and exciting because everything is in French first. As a Francophile, the French was comforting, but Justin said it felt very foreign to him. I hadn’t spent the time prepping for this trip that I had wanted to; I didn’t brush up on vocabulary or spend any time listening to French, so even in the moments when I tried to bring out my rusty foreign language skills, I usually fell back to English. Thankfully, this is a bilingual country, where every single person we encountered spoke near perfect English and were never bothered to switch tongues. In many ways, our time in Montreal reminded me of being in the Hague: you walk in, say “hi” and they immediately converse with you in English, seamlessly alternating to their native language when speaking with each other.

 

A few people warned of rude or unfriendly service in Québec, but we did not encounter any of that. For the most part, everyone was accommodating and friendly; the few that were less than friendly weren’t rude per se, more just European. If you’ve ever been to Barcelona at the height of tourist season, or to nearly any establishment in Holland where they act surprised that you want a menu or heaven forbid ask for a glass of water, then even the unfriendliest Montreal waitstaff won’t bother you much. Now, we did hit the city at the beginning of the summer season, so I’m sure come the end of September, as the last tourists leave and the weather turns, things might be very different.

Our first day, walking around, I found myself grinning like a fool. I just LOVE the vibe of cities, especially mid-size cities, and especially cities with a lot of historic architecture. Walking around the gay village especially made my heart beat for Montreal because of all of the cool decorations they’d done for Pride month. I felt very at home in Montreal.

 

The second day, I felt like total crap and didn’t really want to do much, which bums me out more that you know. I guess I drank too much the day before, a day when I was feeling great and just loving life so I suppose I overdid it with food and beverage. So on our second day, I barely ate anything and didn’t drink anything. I didn’t get to eat any crêpes or delicious French pastries. 😦 And we only got to spend a few hours exploring; we checked out the Center for Montreal History, a museum with super creative and techy displays, where we learned about the Expo67 (which sounds AMAZING… why don’t cities do world fair / expos anymore???); we saw their Notre Dame (which, the uber driver tried to tell me was the same size and everything as the Paris one, and it is NOT); we went to a super douchey rooftop bar with terrible service and gorgeous views of the city; and we had one of the best meals at a teeny tiny restaurant called Le Chien Fumant (the smoking dog).

We apparently landed in Montreal during the busiest weekend of the summer: there were like 10 festivals going on at the same time. A beer fest, a couple music fests, a free science festival, an arts/crafts vendor festival, the Grand Prix, AND it’s Pride month. So everyone and their mother was out, but the city never felt over crowded to me, which was nice. In fact, the general size of Montreal felt familiar and cozy, like if Nashville were walkable and French.

I would definitely like to return to Montreal one day, and next time I’m going to actually study some French before I go so I can try to live more like the locals and

 

Toronto

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All of the pre-hype that we’d heard about Toronto was that it was: super cool, very hip, full of great food and cocktails, very diverse, the largest city in Canada. I can now confirm that all of this is true! We LOVED Toronto! Even though Montreal may be a bit dearer to my heart, collectively as a couple, we really jived with Toronto. Toronto is our kind of city.

Now getting to Toronto from Montreal….. we had a bit of a frustrating travel day. The map showed a simple 5ish hour kind of driving day. And though it did only take us over 6 hours to get there, it was not simple. Construction traffic was a nightmare, so we kept getting rerouted. It was not a pleasant drive. In fact, it was ten times more stressful than driving in either Montreal or Toronto proper.

We stayed in a beautiful 2-story early 1900s home a bit outside of the city in Riverdale, just south of Greektown and just north of Leslieville, which is a hipsteresque part of town where we ate dinner after arriving our first day. We didn’t have energy to do more than go find dinner (sushi! and it was good!) and a post-dinner drink (I got to be the bartender’s guinea pig for a new martini) before retiring home, and enjoying a nightcap in the garden (Budweiser for him, echinacea tea for me) and fighting off some raccoons.

 

After grabbing coffee from the local shop and getting a few hours of work done the next morning, we Lyfted into the heart of the city to get our tourist on. Downtown, in the entertainment and financial districts, we felt like we were in Chicago. Toronto is easy to navigate, both mentally and physically, and, because my anxiety was acting up, we forewent public transit or Lyft and walked everywhere. Kensington Market, Chinatown, College Street, Queen Street, Little Portugal, Old Toronto… we kept finding places we wanted to go, and one bartender wrote us a list of suggestions that we didn’t have time to try.

 

We really needed another night in town, to get more acquainted with a city that we were both pretty sure we could fall in love with. We did a few of the touristy things — the CN tower for a beautiful bird’s eye view of everything; St. Lawrence market, which doesn’t even compare to the ones we went to in Budapest or Rotterdam; we walked through Chinatown and and stopped for a drink in at a place in Kensington market, which is like if East Nashville could have been built on the beach, funky and colorful. And this wasn’t the only area with great street art, it was everywhere. There was even a famous street, Graffiti Alley, just south of Chinatown off of Queen street, which offered a lot of fun artwork.

 

We also, obviously, went to some cocktail bars and ate some delicious food. One of my favorite stops of the night was The Lockhart, a Harry Potter themed bar. (I’m still mad I had no idea it’s second location was only a few block from us in Montreal!) The reviews I’d read had said not to worry, the theme was very subtle so non-Harry Potter fans won’t be put off, so I was a little nervous that I was going to be disappointed. But as soon as I crossed the threshold I knew that if this place existed in Nashville, I’d be there every week. The theme was on the nose, not subtle at all, and I loved every little detail. The bartender on shift was one of the co-owners who was super friendly, chatty, and nerdy about Harry Potter. When I inquired about the name, which would not have been my first choice for a Harry Potter bar, he said, “Lockhart is one of my favorite characters – ”

“One of the worst human being though,” I countered.

“Oh yeah, terrible person but great character. And also, obliviate.

Obliviate. Ah. “I got it,” I said. That tells me everything. And that’s when I knew this guy was a true HP nerd and aficianado. (And then I spotted his deathly hallows tattoo.) (For the uninitiated: Gilderoy Lockhart was a pompous, arrogant, shallow wizard celebrity famous for his published tales of grand adventure working with werewovles, banishing banshees, and vying with vampires. As it turns out, he’s a talentless wizard who would interview other people about their adventures with ghouls and creatures, then wipe their memories using the one spell he was any good at (obliviate), and write books claiming fame on others’ endeavors. And ya know, alcohol can wipe your memory the same way the spell can, so….)

 

Overall, we had a fantastic time in Toronto, met so many nice people, ate some good food, drank some creative drinks, saw some beautiful street art, and learned which neighborhoods we’d want to stay in next time. Maybe summer 2019? 🙂

 

Niagara Falls

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I was going to try to find a nice way to say this but this is my blog so screw it: Niagara Falls, the town, sucked. Niagara Falls, the waterfalls, were AMAZING, but the town you have to stay in to see the falls is, as my husband said, “pure misery.” Granted, he said those words after a very frustrating experience at the Skylon tower (which had the absolute worst designed user experience of any tourist attraction ever), but this is not our kind of place nor is it a place we ever want to return to. I’m sure that families with kids who need an easy one-stop to keep the little ones entertained enjoy the vast array of overpriced and kitschy entertainment options: fun houses, maze and mirrors, haunted houses, dinosaur mini golf, go karts, etc.

We walked around taking some silly photos, because besides looking at the falls and forking over cash for a wax museum, there’s nothing else to do.

 

People who enjoy the predictability of chain restaurants would be pleased, as well, since literally every single one you can think of is there. It was actually kind of challenging to figure out where to eat since everything catered to tourists and there wasn’t a “local flavor” to taste. The first evening, we ended up eating at an average Italian restaurant that actually had good pizza and decent service, but that overcooked the other food and poured sugary drinks. We went to the Sheraton hotel bar afterwards, to watch the falls light up at 8:45 (but didn’t happen until nearly 9:15 and it was super faint) where we had two decent cocktails. The second evening, we didn’t even try eating in town and went to Buffalo, NY so Justin could get some real buffalo wings. We went to a dive bar in a strip mall called Elmo’s that Twitter told Justin had the best wings. When we walked in, we knew it was the real deal: low lighting; a 60-something year old bartender who’s probably been there for thirty years; about a dozen people, mostly men, nursing beers and watching golf; no decor to speak of. Definitely a locals place; we were the only unfamiliar faces there. The food was good, the service was great, and everyone was super friendly. One of the guys chatting with us at the bar even bought our meal!

On our way back over the border, we made a quick stop in the American side of the Falls, in Niagara Falls, NY…. and were headed home exactly 20 minutes later. First off, the “town” is smaller than the Canadian side with even less to do; they didn’t even have a hotel or tower with a great view. We paid $3 for street parking, and then walked through the first American National Park, made friends with a squirrel, and then made it to the falls…. and was like, “Oh. That’s all you can see?” You can’t see much from the railing. There is an observation tower, which we tried to go on, but it (a) costs money and (b) closes at 6 pm. So we went right back to the car and then sat in a 40 minute line at the border.

 

So, if you go to Niagara Falls, which you SHOULD do because it’s unlike anything you’ll see on this continent, stay on the Canadian side. The falls are ALWAYS open, because it’s a national park and ya know, they’re water falls, and free. You never have to pay once to see the falls. (Maybe that explains why everything else in the town costs so much, and why they’re trying so hard to get your money?) And seeing the falls is quite a sight. So much power flows through those waters. And we had perfect weather on the 2nd day, so the colors were just so vibrant; it felt like we were in a technicolor movie. I am so so glad that this was part of our itinerary; I just wish we’d spent one night here instead of two.

 

 

Final Thoughts

A few final notes about our experiences in Canada.

For one, the country seems to have recycling under control. Every trash bin included a recycle bin. And in Montreal, many of them also included a third hole for compost. Walking down the residential streets in Montreal revealed that in addition to taxes paying for trash and recycle pick up, they also had COMPOST pick up. I hope this is a trend we’ll see here in the states.

Secondly, thank goodness for the exchange rate. It was 77 cents to the dollar, so 77 American cents bought us a Canadian dollar. It was like getting a 23% discount on everything. In general,  we found things to be reasonably priced but also saw our fair share of overpricing, when even the exchange rate didn’t help.

Third, it was interesting to travel during Pride month and see how the various cities on our journey celebrated or honored the LGBTQ communities. Since we visited mostly large, diverse, liberal cities, or small, northeastern, progressive towns, we saw a LOT of rainbow flags. I thought the celebration in Montreal seemed big, with the gay village being completely decked out. But Toronto gets the prize for being the loudest and proudest: nearly every single building throughout the city, regardless of neighborhood or district, proudly waved a rainbow flag. (Within about a 10 minute period, I took the following four photos, and then decided to stop since I was going to run out of storage space.) Buses and billboards and signs advertised the city-wide efforts and celebrations, storefront windows boasted paint or flags, sidewalks bore rainbow pathways. I bet the Pride festival there kicks ass, and I would love to attend one year. (But actually, next on my wish list is attending the Carnival that takes place there in mid-late summer; it sounds like a total blast.) 

 

Finally, during our short time in their country, 90% of the Canadians we met were welcoming, friendly, open-minded, pretty liberal about everything from weed and gay marriage to not judging you when you’re having a panic attack or not speaking their local language, and the cities we visited (even Niagara Falls in its own way) seemed like outlets for diversity and for people to easily come together. We definitely plan to return to eastern Canada, and I hope to add Quebec City to the itinerary next time!

 

Have YOU been to Montreal, Toronto, or Niagara Falls? Where did you stay and what did you do? What was your favorite city? What parts of Canada have you been to? Were you as awe-inspired by the falls as we were?