The maple leaf tour
I spent an action packed 10 days in Canada this autumn. It is a great country to visit with clean cities, friendly people and beautiful locations. I got to spend time in 5 cities across the trip, each with its own charm and character. The St Lawrence river forms the backdrop for much of the trip and many boat trips were enjoyed as I find being on the water relaxing and a good way to unwind.
I've really enjoyed my return visit to North America, and seeing a lot of Canada in a short space of time certainly makes me want to return and see what else is on offer and perhaps plan my own road trip from New York up into Canada as getting back to New York is definitely on my wish list. The trip I’ve done was an organised trip so was at the mercy of the tour company in terms of locations and timings but once in each place I was able to make my own itinerary and see what I wanted. I’ve broken down the trip into the locations and given my tips of what to see and do in each city.
Niagara Falls / Niagara on the lake
First hotel was the Sheraton Niagara Falls - a great location within minutes of the falls, close to the shops, gardens and restaurants. The hotel was clean and tidy, staff friendly and helpful, with a gym and pool on site and a Starbucks in the lobby everything was on hand. The restaurant boasts perfect views of the lakes and has a small balcony area which is an ideal photo opportunity. Breakfast choices in the area include the secret garden restaurant opposite the hotel with views of the lakes and a well designed gardens, offering a good choice of food and drinks for all tastes. The fresh fruit with French toast is heavenly and when topped off with maple syrup will keep you going until lunchtime.
Words cannot really explain how magical the views of the falls are but from the boat, helicopter or on foot it is always stunning. 36 hours in Niagara was plenty of time to see the falls and walk around to explore the downtown area. Niagara is a town of 2 half’s....the falls and then the ‘strip’, a mix of Blackpool or mini Vegas with neon lights, attractions and slot machines as well as the standard food chains. It’s really something for everyone and you can tell from being there for 36 hours why people vacation there.
I would recommend the hornblower boat trip, the helicopter flight over the falls and also taking the viewing area from the Skylon tower are all great photography opportunities as well as giving different perspectives of the might lakes. Don’t forget at the weekends in peak season there are the falls fireworks which are free to enjoy.
Be sure to head down to Niagara on the lake before leaving town. It’s a complete contrast to Niagara town, all independent stores and restaurants, old style character in the art and buildings and a stroll up the high street in the sunshine is pure relaxation.
For more information on falls view points check out https://www.niagarafallstourism.com
After a few days in Niagara we next stopped in Toronto which is a vibrant city with plenty to see and do even if time is limited. Here are some of the attractions and sights we enjoyed. The second stay was at the Chelsea hotel. Situated in the middle of the Downtown area and was a vast hotel offering 24/7 food, drink, shops and leisure. There are a number of entrances to the hotel and in easy walk of china town, the shopping district and the famous CN tower and aquarium. It was a large hotel with plenty of places around to grab breakfast and dinner so you didn’t need to spend to much time in the hotel but was a great base for the city stop.
For a starting place and to get an idea on the popular food on offer in Canada you have to browse around the famous St Lawrence Market. A great place to enjoy lunch as there’s plenty of choices on offer. The famous Peameal Bacon Bun is delicious and very popular, as is the Nanaimo Bar, a very sweet treat of biscuit, custard icing and thick chocolate topping which is possibly a weeks calorie intake in one sitting.
After a bite to eat it was off for a leisurely wander around the Distillery District which was a little walk away and is home to a number of great little boutiques and artisan shops such shoe stores and bakers. It is also home to a number of breweries and as its pedestrian street you can wander with the camera and capture the atmosphere, art and architecture. It was definitely a highlight and there is a rich history in the district and I would definitely recommend it.
The CN tower dominates the skyline and no first visit to Toronto should be complete without heading up and checking out the views from the viewing platform of the 553 metre tower which soars above the city and over the waterfront. By getting to the tower first thing in the morning you’ll avoid the queues it says in many guides but due to the mist we opted for going in the evening for sunset and also booked dinner at the revolving restaurant which was an amazing experience. The food was beautiful in taste and presentation and the menu was definitely made with care and attention to give a magical experience. The menu isn’t cheap but it does include entrance to the tower and allows you to go to the viewing platform after dinner. If you celebrating a special occasion or just want to treat yourself on the trip then book for this, you will not be disappointed.
If you’re looking for something a bit alternative and also call yourself a bit of a thrill-seeker you can try the CN tower skywalk, where you harness yourself to the outside of the tower and walk around the circumference of the roof. Obviously it’s a weather dependent activity and has a $200 price tag but I’m sure the views are out of this world and the experience will live on for a lifetime but not something I chose to try on this trip.
Water and boats featured heavy on this trip and on a misty morning we took a city of Toronto ferry tour for around $20 and the trip took you out and around the Islands, which are 15 islands off the harbour which are home to Billy Bishop Airport, expansive green spaces, an amusement park, beaches and the boat club. In the summer many will get off and explore the islands either by foot or bike but as the weather was poor and time was limited we enjoyed the views from the ferry but would love to go back in the summer and see all that is on offer. Be sure to get a photo of the Toronto skyline as the ferry departs and look out for the small planes taking off and landing as the boat travels under the flight path.
Toronto is a great city to wander through and take in the many small parks and areas of the city. Queen West area is definitely where you’ll find the cooler people. The shops and coffee bars are alternative in style and it has great shopping choices such as independent book and record stores, numerous art and design studios, live music venues and amazing food, all against a backdrop of historic buildings and bohemian vibes. Walking through the streets you’ll stumble upon hidden gems displaying art, the Trinity Bellwoods park and “Graffiti Alley,” the self-explanatory street art display that will be the perfect background for your profile photo on any social media platform. I would say that this could possibly be one of the coolest neighbourhoods that I’ve been through and has a Brooklyn or Shoreditch vibe about it.
Another former industrial area, Liberty Village, which is now the popular place to live for Toronto’s urban and tech professionals who have set up home, community and lives within the old converted factories. Toronto’s Chinatown district is a fantastic place to immerse yourself in the local Asian community. It is a large area that stretches right through the downtown area and there is all kinds of Asian cuisine on offer and was a short walk from the Chelsea hotel.
Toronto has also become known as a popular shopping destination with stores for luxury designer items, fashion and vintage gifts around every corner a small,over the city with pockets of the city having lots of independent boutiques and Canadian brands but for the major brands then the Eaton Centre will be your destination as the mall has around 250 outlets and is located in the downtown area. It is said to be the busiest mall in Canada and a great place to grab your souvenirs and in the cold months offers shelter from the weather.
Canada is also the home of sports, if hockey fans are in Toronto , a trip to the Hockey Hall of Fame in downtown is a necessity. Learn about the greats, see team history alongside the greatest players in the game and get yourself some of your own memorabilia to take home. See what’s on offer at www.hhof.com
If your into your history and castles then Toronto's only castle Casa Loma is for you. It has never housed a royal but it is as grand as any other palace and the 98 room home is worth a visit. You can take a self-guided audio tour through Edwardian mansion as well as through the nearly 800ft tunnel to the stables and be sure to check out the military history museum on the top floor. For timings and more information on the Casa Loma go via Casa Loma: Homehttps://casaloma.ca
Whatever your interests Toronto has it, it may not be the most beautiful of cities but it has charm and a rich array of characters and a vibrant atmosphere with welcoming people and well worth exploring.
Third stop was the Sheraton Ottawa. It was close to the parliament buildings, canal, shopping district and markets. The location was perfect for walking and seeing the sights. It was only an overnight stay but hotel once again offered a pool and gym for an early morning workout and had a restaurant and bar on site but we preferred to get out in the evening for a meal.
Ottawa is the capital of Canada, home of the countries parliament and possibly one of the most amazing markets in the country. I spent most of my time in Ottawa around the downtown area where all main attractions seemed to be. We stayed close to the parliament buildings, a few minutes from Sparks street and its wide range of restaurants and bars and also close to the shopping centre with a wide range of stores if you need a touch of retail therapy.
We started at the parliament building, stunning architecture and views and then walked down from Parliament Hill – down Wellington Street towards the top of Elgin Street. Here, you’ll find the famous Locks of the Rideau Canal. Probably one of the best know sites in the city, a great place for photography and sights across the river and from all angles you can capture stunning aspects of the area.
The Rideau Canal – and the Ottawa Lockstation is said to be Ontario’s only UNESCO Heritage Site for the category of Culture. The whole waterway, like most things in Canada is larger than life and it stretches for over 200 km and travels all the way to Lake Ontario in Kingston, which we stopped at during the tour.
Be sure to head down to the Byward market which has been in Ottawa since 1826 and is still the hub for food, drinks and shopping. Home grown farm produce, delicious baked goods, souvenirs and a decent coffee are all found in this area. Historically it has always been local meeting place and it feels like the central point of the city still today. It competes with the chained restaurants and the malls but it holds its own, keeps its original charm and retains the vibe of the days of old by not being overly polished and shiny but stays authentic in style and atmosphere
Best advice for Ottawa is to head down to ByWard Market for lunch after seeing the views from Parliament Hill and the canal. If your a fan of history then the Canadian history museum and the nation gallery along with the opportunity to take a tour of the Senate and House of Commons which are free but you must make sure you reserved in advance and the historic landmarks and attractions will all keep you busy and are all available to enjoy.
The last hotel was the Sheraton in Downtown Montreal. A huge hotel with stunning views over the skyline. The terrace was perfect for relaxing (I’m sure a lot busier in the warmer months) and the large pool and gym catered for all needs. The hotel had bar, restaurant, boutique shops and a hairdressers so all guests are catered for if choose to stay in and relax. It was a short walk from the port, cathedral, restaurants, shops and the busy nightlife that Montréal offers.
A good starting point is the “mountain”, named Mount Royal and the park as the views of the city are stunning. Montréalers are extremely proud of their mountain, which is actually a hill but it is worth the trip up to the summit. Once you arrive up to the location you are surrounded by people as it is a good place for jogging, dog walking as well as cross country skiing in the winter. The trees had started to change and autumnal colours were on display. The views across the lake and over the city show the vastness of Montreal and in the summer is a popular spot for horse riding and picnics.
Old-Montreal is a great walking tour to undertake and if you are only here for a short time do not miss out the area which has French vibes in the design and style. Many things to see and do, from street art, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and art galleries for your enjoyment, and as compared to other cities Montreal is known as a relatively cheap city to visit and live in, so the prices are quite fair even for a super touristy area in comparison to Quebec City and Toronto. From the hotel to the old town was around a 30 minute walk via china town and relatively easy to find.
Be sure in the old town to try the famous Poutine (fries, gravy and cheese curd), not the most beautiful looking dish but worth a taste and actually really good but share a portion as it’s a heavy meal. Also there is the Maple Delight store whereby you can get all the maple syrup products that you need and can learn how the syrup is produced.
I’m not really into recommending religious buildings but in this case, The Notre-Dame Basilica is one of the finest buildings in Montreal and was just down from the hotel so was worth a walk around and it was a stunning gothic building and appeared to attract a lot of tourists and locals. Also, a fun fact for all the celebrity lovers is it is said that this is where Céline Dion got married.
Whatever you see above ground in Montreal is only half the story. Throughout Downtown Montreal is a network of underground malls, boutiques and food courts. Designed so that in winter months you can still enjoy the city and avoid the cold.
Passageways connect seven metro stations, with the attractions being in between them. It also links some of the downtown area’s major buildings, like the Central Station and Place des Artes as well as being handy for students as also links to the McGill University. You can also access the underground via many of the
hotels such as The Queen Elizabeth, so even as a tourist you can avoid the winter chill not that you need to be staying there to use the access points.
A trip out to the old area of Quebec City was definitely a highlight for me and it is well worth adding to your travel itinerary. After the big cities of Toronto and Montreal it was nice to get to see some of the alternative style of Old Quebec. I only had a few hours to explore the old town and so took an hour guided tour which told of the history of the city. The guide was an ex firefighter who had always lived in the city, so had plenty of stories of how the old town has evolved yet still maintained its charm.
I found that for me Old Quebec City was beautiful and yet similar to the old town area of Montreal, filled with plenty to see, eat and enjoy but was a smaller area and easy to navigate your way around. People as in all the other cities were friendly and welcoming to tourists. Look out for some stunning street art and there is a beautiful mural in the lower part of the city that covers the side of the buildings depicting the walls and architecture of the city. The art work is also on sale in one of the narrow side streets, a covered area with a dozen of local artists selling photos and work at varying price points for an authentic street souvenir to take home and display.
I really loved the Lower Town of Old Quebec City. I found the narrow cobblestone streets and colourful buildings to be beautiful, and felt the area had a unique personality with some great views of the city from the steps which overlooked the rows of shops and houses. Make sure you head down Rue du Cul de Sac to see the fun umbrellas hung up in the street, another form of street art that adds a pop of colour to the area.
There are many roads around Old Quebec City that have been sectioned off as pedestrian only which considering the amount of people around seems like a sensible idea. If you’re heading into Old Quebec City from the west end, then you’ll likely be passing through Porte Saint-Jean which is the old city wall area and some of the wall is possible to walk on top of.
You’re also likely to see buskers performing along this streets, playing a variety of styles, there was a great trio called the Saint Jean Street Band who had the crowds dancing and really added to the atmosphere!
Because of this being a tourist area, prices at restaurants are a bit higher. We had a great onion soup and fries for lunch which was tasty but around $25 per person so not the cheapest place but the flavours and service was definitely good compared to tourist spots in other countries. Along with the architecture and shops be sure to stop for a coffee and pastry with a side of people-watching which is a good shout outside many of the coffee houses in the autumn sunshine.
My best advice for exploring Old Quebec City is to just wander around and get lost among the cobblestone streets. It’s small enough that you’ll find your way back to your hotel/pickup place but the streets wind around the city giving you a sense of exploring and discovering the real nature of the old city.
Other towns / attractions on the routes
Whistle stop visit to Kingston after leaving Toronto and heading towards Ottawa for the next stage of the Canada tour. Kingston is a Canadian city on the banks of Lake Ontario, at the mouth of the Cataraqui and St. Lawrence rivers.
It's also known as "Limestone City" due to its 19th-century stone buildings, including the City Hall which is set on the side of the lake. The whole area was a beautiful little paradise on the bank of the Ontario Lake. The buildings and shops all had charm and character and can image is a great summer destination. This was a comfort stop and we popped into the Pan Chancho Bakery and Cafe and it was wonderful and I would definitely recommend it.
The smells of fresh bread and pastries welcome you as you enter and the desserts, salads and lunch offerings will be sure to overwhelm your senses and leave you spoilt for choice. Although I have visited many a bakery and am a bread lover , I have to say the pretzel buns was a real winner and perfect as an indulgent snack. Combined with the blueberry scone I was carb loaded and ready for the rest of my journey. There was a local produce market in Kingston and lots of little independent and chain stores so something for all tastes. A walk to the waterside too see the boats and views should be considered. I am sure Kingston is a popular stop off for road trippers and the pictures will give a flavour of the area.
Trois-Rivières Cathedral, I’m not a religious person but the short stop at the cathedral sitting on the banks of the St Lawrence river showcased beautiful architecture, epic views and a peaceful surroundings for a coffee and Nanaimo bar (local snack and well worth trying, in fact I’ve been making them since I got home!)
The church was in full service when we arrived and we were told that the Cathedral was constructed and developed in around 1888 and has evolved since then and as a sanctuary for folks attracts yearly more than 400,000 visitors either for mass, peace or to walk the grounds and take in the atmosphere.
Discover a true oasis of peace and greenery, stained glass windows, architecture that is impressive and grand, all with the river and gardens as the perfect back drop. If going to Canada next year it’s worth noting that the historic chapel inaugurated in1720, will celebrate its 300th anniversary in 2020 and I’m sure this will be marked with celebrations.
Montebello - pit stop en route to Montreal. A small village in Western Quebec that was a brief stop to stretch our legs. The harvest decorations were out in force and very sweet way to brighten up the front of homes, churches and the hotels.
There are a few pubs plus the tourist information area has a chocolatier and ice cream store if you need a sugar fix. Not much was seen in the brief stop but was nice to see the more rural areas of Canada.
As we approach the end of the adventure we had time for a bit more sightseeing on way from Montréal to Toronto. We stopped in the quaint little town of Gananoque. It is on the banks of the Saint Lawrence river.
The 1000 lakes tour cruise was a chance to relax on the water, take in the views of wildlife and houses scattered amongst the islands. We took part in a 1 hour boat cruise with commentary giving information on the history, current usage of the island and what wildlife to look out for. The boat allows you to weave around the islands and takes you up close to many of the houses and islands. There is also options for longer tours depending on your time and there is also a museum if you want to deep dive into the area and get more information.
The locals seem to welcome people looking around and many of the cottages dotted around the islands have been in families for generations and have great pride in the peace and tranquility of the area. Gananoque is said to be the gateway to the 1000 islands, It was located central in terms of the geographical area of our trip around the cities of Canada and so around 3 hours from Toronto and 3 hours from Montreal in either direction.
Gananoque is also close to the boarder of New York State so is well accessed by many tourists each year. A short distance from the river side is the “high street” area of Gananoque with boutique stores and places to eat. It was the perfect way to sit back and have some quiet time before the manic nature of Toronto airport and the flight back to London.
Bit of a random but fun spot to consider if passing through to Toronto is not in many of the guide books. With the airport approaching, one final stop was on the cards and if you are someone with a sweet tooth then Big Apple Store is for you! It is a bakery, restaurant, chocolate store and a kids activity park. Being just off the highway ( Ontario Highway 401, South side) it is the idea place for a stretch, refuel and break and is In the community of Colborne.
Unlike many service stations this one has a fun side and many of the chocolate and baked goods are made on sight in full view so can see the volume of goods that they produce. The apple pies, bread and donuts are all popular as well as the slabs of chocolate on offer. For those on a diet apples can be brought as well.
It is easily recognisable when in the highway due to its huge apple-shaped statue on the road side that is proudly claimed to be the world's largest Apple structure.
Top 3 highlights
1- My top spot was the Distillery District which is set on the site of the Gooderham and Worts Distillery which are heritage (listed) buildings given a new lease of life after the distillery closed.
The area is east of Downtown Toronto and hosts a variety of shops, coffee places, restaurants and breweries in the heritage buildings. The traditional brick-paved streets and lanes are still in tact and the leisure area is restricted to pedestrians and cyclists, meaning that I could wander and capture some good images of the area without having to dodge the cars and buses.
All motor vehicle traffic is restricted to streets and parking areas outside of the historic centre so you can drive to the area as plenty of parking. It is also easily accessible via streetcars and buses.
There are a number large sculptures installed along the lanes as well as some interesting art works and images to enjoy. It is a mixture of styles and tastes so something for everyone and plenty of photography opportunities.
The district comprises more than forty heritage buildings over ten streets, and is said to be the largest collection of Victorian-era industrial architecture in North America, for me it felt that it was similar to the regeneration that has taken place in London, the Coal Drops Yard for example. The former distillery consisted of a series of buildings, which is said to have centred around a seven-storey windmill and wharf. Although the windmill and wharf have been demolished some time back , a number of buildings from distillery operations remain. These historical buildings including the Yeast store, Malt house and the pump house.
There is a real mix of stores and things to see, from candle stores, beer shops and clothes. Here are some of my recommendations to see when in the district and limited on time:
Bakery - The Brick Street Bakery offers a good selection of pies, pastry’s and cakes. Locals raved about the sausage rolls that are served here, which had sold out by the time we visited so guess they are good. It also offered a great selection of breads as well as the butter tarts which are a popular Canadian sweet treat and the queue of people confirmed the popularity of the bakers. Ideal place to stop for a drink and snack with plenty of outside seating so you can sit and watch the world go by.
Chocolatier - SOMA chocolate makers is a real treat for the senses. The smell of the rich chocolate hits you as you enter the store and as the chocolate is made on site you can see the works of art being made and the detail in the sweet treats offers chocolate for all tastes.
Brewery - There are a number of breweries on the site and we popped into the Mill Street Brewer who off samples of the beer ( as well as root beer for the non drinkers), have a take out service and a dining and drinks area so you can have a rest after a busy day exploring the city.
2- Graffiti Alley- hidden gem of Toronto - When looking for the sights of Toronto don’t miss out on the alternative landmark that allows for individuals to express views and experiences freely... graffiti alley is location you want to see.
Sometimes you may see it referred to by the name of the alley ‘Rush Lane, but it is located within Toronto's Fashion District, and runs south of Queen Street west from around Spadina Avenue to Portland Avenue.
Graffiti Alley is more than a series of murals and paintings, amazing as they are: it represents the moment Toronto's relationship with legalized street art changed since it was awarded in 2011 and has allowed for the opportunity to start classes aimed to develop new talents.
The area has hosted Street festivals, video shoots and attracted guided tours of people (although I don’t think you need a tour guide to enjoy the sights here but they are available if needed).
Adding to the charm is the puddles and the cardboard boxes underfoot, this is a great walk through and ever changing outdoor museum of street art history and the stories of the artists of Toronto.
For more information on the street art of Toronto and the development programme
StART which is aimed at educating and celebrating emerging talent go to (https://www.toronto.ca/services-payments/streets-parking-transportation/enhancing-our-streets-and-public-realm/streetartoronto/ )
3- Seeing Niagara Falls was definitely an experience that I will not forget. Either from the helicopter, the horn blower boats, the top of the Skylon tower or just the side of the lake it is a breathtaking view. At night the falls are lit up in various colours and the place is always busy throughout the day. I got up early on the first morning and went for a run along the lake and the surroundings and peace was beautiful and if I lived here could run the route every morning and not got bored I’m sure. I took 100s or pictures and videos but they do not compare to seeing and hearing the falls in person....be sure if you get the opportunity to see them you take it.