Toronto and the amazing Niagara Falls

21 11 2011

Since young, I have always been attracted to the amazing pictures of the majestic Niagara Falls and was hoping that one fine day, I will be able to take in its beauty with my eyes and experience the wonderful work of God. However, the thought of flying so long to “the other end of the world” puts me off. After so many years of procrastination, fate has brought me to the wonderful city of Toronto, all thanks to the need to attend to some personal matters.

The western side of Canada which includes Vancouver and the Rockies have always been the more popular destination amongst people in Asia. Rarely do Asians visit the east coast for vacation. Even if they do, most people primarily are looking at Quebec city and Montreal, and often see Toronto as a transportation hub, quite similar to how people view Frankfurt in their Europe trip. So I was quite thankful that personal matters have forced me to be grounded to Toronto for quite some time, giving me ample opportunitites to explore the city and appreciate the nice city.

Unlike the other Canadian cities or towns which I have visited over the past 2 weeks, Toronto is much more vibrant. As a girl who is so used to the city life, I was very much attracted by the “happening” Toronto, with a good mix of sightseeing, scenery, culture, fun and shopping! The modern CN Tower allows me to have a great view of the city and its famous skywalk, the majestic and romantic Casa Loma castle, the famous AGO museum, the and of course the busy Eaton Centre provided me with countless hours of great shopping, and many more.

What’s more, the amazing Niagara Falls is just a hour plus drive away from Toronto city centre. When I saw the falls, I was overwhelmed by its majesticity. The beautiful horseshoe falls and the pretty American Falls are both amazing and left me speechless except for the occasional “wows wows”. To experience the power of Mother Nature and wanting as near to the falls as possible, I took the Maid of the Mist which brings me to the base of both the American Falls and Horseshoe Falls. What I can say is that the experience is WONDERFUL! I enjoyed the whole ferry ride, getting really up close to the 2 falls and seeing the beautiful rainbows across the falls. After spending time walking around the falls, I headed back to the little town of Niagara near the falls, which looks like the Universal Studio themepark, with eclectic restaurants, contemporary hotels, veritable theme park with the Skylon Tower, Ferris wheels.

I was also quite lucky that my stay in Toronto coincides with the annual Nuit Blanche festival (literally means “white night”). This is an annual all-night arts festival where many museums, private and public art galleries and cultural institutions are opened to all free of charge, with free music/dance/film performances and many interesting activities. I had a great time hanging out with friends the whole night, going from one museum to another art gallery, partying, cycling and really having a night full of fun, fun and more fun!!!

After having so much fun in Toronto, it was finally time to say goodbye. It was an emotional farewell and I do hope that I will return again to the wonderful city of Toronto real soon.

Tips:-

– If you have the time, make a trip to the Distillery District which has many vibrantly restored Victorian Industrial buildings. It’s one of Ontario’s hottest tourist attractions and home to live theatres, galleries, fashion, design and jewelry boutiques, unique cafes and award-winning restaurants.

– At dusk, Niagara Falls are lit in the colours of the rainbow so try to schedule your trip around later part of the afternoon. Start with the Maid of the Midst ride as it closes at around 5 plus. After the ride, you can spend time at the falls for photos and then head to the town for dinner. As night falls, come back to the falls again for the night show. On Fridays, there is fireworks so it’s best you schedule your visit on Fridays.

– The Niagara Peninsula is a great blessing to wine lovers. The freezing winter enables the grapes to freeze naturally, enabling the region to produce one of the world’s best Icewine. You can take a tour of the vineyards. For Icewine, make sure you buy Inniskillin which is the best Icewine in Canada (but more expensive though).

– From CN Tower, walk to Rogers Centre and the train museum opposite. Then walk towards the waterfront. There’s a man-made beach there overseeing Lake Ontario and Toronto Island Airport. If you are lucky, you will be able to spot some swans swimming gracefully in the lake.

– Toronto has this vast underground shopping and pathways (called The Path) linking each buildings in the city and the Skywalk (linking the city to CN tower). I love this as it shelters me from the sun and the rain (and in winter the cold). For the map, go to the metro station and ask for a metro map (which will include the map of the Path ~ the best Toronto map that I have seen so far).

– For those wanting to see the rainbow flags, head to Church Street.

– Prices that is shown generally exclude taxes so don’t get a shock when you are asked to pay more than what you see.

Food:-

– For dessert lovers, head down to Dufflet (the downtown shop is at 787 Queen Street West, west of Bathurst). You will not regret the additional calories.

– For morning tea (Dim Sum) by the lake, try Pearl Harbourfront at 207 Queens Quay West. However, be forewarn that it is extremely crowded during weekends and reservations are required (if you don’t reserve, you are unlikely to get a seat).

– There are 2 chinatowns in Toronto (the Old Chinatown and the East Chinatown), so if people tell you Chinatown, make sure you check out which particular Chinatown they are referring to. The Old Chinatown is the famous one though (the one along Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street), and I love all the nice Chinese food there. I have tried a couple of restaurants there and they are pretty good.

– Toronto has a good community of Jewish. Try the Jewish bagel. I am not a bagel fan but I love these.

Shopping:-

– For shopping, walk along Yonge Street to Dundas Square (at the junction is Eaton Centre). It’s like the Fifth Avenue in New York. Champ Elysees in Paris, Oxford Street in London, George Street in Sydney and Orchard Road in Singapore. Eaton Centre itself is a shopping wonderland.

– If you are looking for outdoor shopping, head to Dons Mills’ which is Toronto’s first open air mall. It has many branded stores and is a nice place to walk around during the summer and autumn time. As it is slightly away from the city centre, it is also less crowded. For details of how to get there, see the website.  http://www.shopsatdonmills.ca/en/Pages/default.aspx

– There are also a couple of outlet shopping in Toronto (the largest being Dixie Outlet Mall). Of course, outlet shopping is always best in US.





Ottawa ~ Capital of Canada

20 11 2011

Departing Montreal for Toronto via train, I made a stopover at Ottawa, the capital of Canada. From the main train station, there’s a bus that goes to the city centre (around 25 minutes ride).

The main sights in Ottawa city centre are all within walking distance. Dragging my luggage with me, I strolled along the streets of Ottawa, visiting the beautiful Parliment Hill, the Supreme Court, Notre Dame Basilica, Rideau Hall, the Canadian Aviation Museum, Byward Market, Veterans Memorial Buildings, Rideau Canal, etc. I particularly like the Parliment Hill, with the lush green in the foreground, the nice majestic buildings in the background, and the famous Centennial Flame at the centre of a fountain located symmetrically in the walkway between the Queen’s Gates and the Peace Tower.

Tips:-

– Sightseeing places in Ottawa are mostly concentrated in the city centre. Hence, most of them are accessible by foot. If you are not looking at spending time in the muesums, a half day stoppver in Ottawa will be more than sufficient. I will think that Ottawa is always a good stopover when travelling between Toronto to Montreal/Quebec, providing a good rest spot.

– If you are visting Ottawa during winter, the Rideau Canal will be a good place for ice skating. Note that Canadian winter is very harsh though so be very prepared!

– Prices that is shown generally exclude taxes so don’t get a shock when you are asked to pay more than what you see.





Montreal

20 11 2011

From Quebec City, I took a 3 hours train to Montreal. Downtown Montreal is a bustling city in constrast to the quaint Quebec City. I like Montreal more than Quebec city, maybe because it has a good mix of constrast, with the modern skyscrapers to the neo-Gothic churches and cobbled streets. Similar to Quebec city, the primarily language in Montreal is also French. In fact, Montreal is the second largest primarily French-speaking city in the world, after Paris.

I find the town really pretty with its old buildings and picturesque streets. Maybe it’s also because of the season that I am here ~ it’s mid autumn and the maple trees have all turned colours. I enjoyed walking down Avenue Du Mont-Royal, a lively street with little cafes lined up with people, to nice boutique shops. Constrasting to the downtown Montreal, old Montreal has a romantic charm with its narrow cobbled streets, giving an European town feel. This is the historic area of downtown with main attractions such as the famous Notre-Dame de Montreal basilica, the Old Port, Place d’Armes, Marche Bonsecours, etc. Art galleries, cafes, terraces, artisans’ boutiques lined up the narrow cobbled streets with gracious 18th and 19th century buildings. At dusk, the old town light up, giving the town a romantic vibe. There’s also a light show in the evening at Notre-Dame which is really nice and a way to spend an evening (there’s no shopping in the evening so it’s a good activity).

The north of Montreal city has also quite a lot to offer. Little Italy (Jean-Talon metro station) has nice churches, shops and cafes and Montreal residential architecture of the early 20th centyry, wih exteria wrought iron winding staircase. The Marche Jean-Talon in Little Italy is a nice market to visit.

Montreal is quite similar to Quebec City except that it has much more live (and more city-like). But similar to Quebec City, it is like a replica of a European town, and as always, nothing can beat the real thing. Nonetheless, I still like Montreal, especially walking in the old town along Rue Saint-Paul and Rue-Notre-Dame. Of course, autumn is best spent in Canada with its red maple leaves.

Tips:-

– Downtown Montreal has this vast underground pedestrina walkways with shops and restaurants, provding a sheltered link to various buildings and attractions.

– To save, buy a day pass (or the 3 days pass) which allows you unlimited access to the public transport system.

– Take a walk to the clock tower along St Lawrence River. It may be a little way out but it is a nice relaxing and lovely walk. I love this walk with colourful maple trees lining the path (yes it’s autumn and the maple trees have turned colour).

– For a nice view of the whole Montreal, go to the lookout place at Mount Royal Park (Parc du Mont-Royal). This place is accessible by public transport even if you are not driving (there’s a bus going there from Mont-Royal metro station).

– Some museums in Montreal are free after 6pm so you may want to check out the details at the Information centres and plan your trips to the muesum accordingly.

– The botanical gardens is beautiful. If you enter before 8am, it’s free entrance!

– Prices that is shown generally exclude taxes so don’t get a shock when you are asked to pay more than what you see.





Quebec City

20 11 2011

As the saying goes, the end of a journey is a start of a new journey. I have ended my memorable western Canada trip, leaving me with fond memories of the Canadian Rockies. With this, I embarked on exploring the eastern side of Canada, flying from Toronto to Quebec City.

Quebec City is a small little city, lying on the Saint Lawrence River. The city is the second oldest exisiting European settlement in Canada and is divided into the upper town (which include the old quarter) and the lower town. Most of the major sights all within walking distance. The old quarter (old town) is the only walled city in North America and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with main sights such as the Chateau Frontenac, Citadel, Quebec Parliament, Plains of Abraham, etc.

When I first step foot in the old town of Quebec city, I thought I was in Europe. Indeed, this place with the narrow streets, the European houses and the French speaking community makes me feel as if I was back to France. For those who have not visited Europe before, you will find Quebec city a nice place, very different from what you will see anywhere in the Americas. However, for those who have been to Europe, you may feel that Quebec city will be just a replica of Europe (but a smaller and more condensed version). To me, the real one is always better.

Tips:-

– From airport, the only way to get to the city is via the taxi (a flat rate of CAD 25).

– French is the main language used here, not English. But people do understand English though if you speak French, they will be more helpful.

– If you can, stay in Chateau Frontenac itself. It feels like you are staying in a castle and worth paying the extra.

– Regardless of whether you are staying in Chateau Frontenac, I will recommend that you take the tour of the hotel, with guides dressed in the old Victorian costumes bringing you round the hotel and into some special rooms that are not opened to public and guests and explaining to you all the history (and gossips) surrounding the hotel.

– Prices that is shown generally exclude taxes so don’t get a shock when you are asked to pay more than what you see.





Beautiful Canadian Rockies and Vancouver

19 11 2011

My second stop on my round the world trip is Vancouver. Actually, the main reason why this “round the world” idea came about is really because I wanted very badly to see the Rockies. I have some private matters to attend to in eastern Canada but didn’t want to travel all the way to this part of the world without seeing the Rockies. Since young, I have been hearing so much about how scenic the Rockies are and hence I decided to visit it notwithstanding that the east and west are quite a distance apart.

I flew super early in the morning from San Francisco to Vancouver (it’s a huge challenge for me as I am so not an early bird but somehow I wasn’t tired that I need to wake up at 4am). Vancouver is a nice coastal city, with its beautiful Vancouver Island. But this trip has confirmed the fact that I am really a very city person. Coming from San Francisco with the nice trams and yet bustling city, Vancouver seems to be too quiet and laid back. Even the Chinatown which is usually the most crowded place in most cities pales in comparison to San Francisco’s. Personally, I think that Vancouver is an oversell. Nothing much really except for its famous steam clock, the Sun Yat Sen garden, Capilano suspension bridge and the nice garden in Vancouver Island.

From Vancouver, I took the Rockies Mountaineer to the Rockies. It’s one of the 10 best train rides that’s highly recommended to take so I decided to try it even though the price is rather steep. There are 2 popular routes – one to Jasper and the other to Banff. As I wanted to visit Jasper, I chose the one that goes to Jasper, where I can then visit and drive down to Banff. The train ride was amazing. It started with a nice welcome at the check-in counter at Vancouver Rockies mountaineer station with the staff warm welcome (and Scottish bagpipes performance). On board the train, delicious free food, snacks & drinks were served almost non-stop! One thing about the rocky mountaineer is that trains only travel during the day (a night stopover in Kamloops) so you get to see the nice scenery.

After 2 days, I reached Jasper. Jasper is a small tranquil town in the Rockies, with the backdrop showing nice mountains with ice cap and glaciers. I visited the Jasper National Park, which include the Maligne Canyon, etc.

After a night in Jasper, I travelled on one of the world’s most scenic road – the Icefield Pathway, which links Jasper to Banff. Enroute, I stopped by the beautiful Athabasca falls before reaching Columbia Icefield where I took the Icefield explorer to go on the glacier. It’s definitely worth the CAD 50 to do this as I really enjoyed learning much more about the glaciers (bringing back memories of the Geography lessons) & standing on one of the famous glacier in the world. That night, I stopped by Lake Louise, which is the most photographed place in the Rockies. Before reaching Lake Louise, I made another stop at Peyto Lake (really beautiful with the dark blue water).

After spending time in the scenic Lake Louise and the nearby Moraine Lake, I moved on to Banff, driving along Bow Valley Parkway to see Johnston Canyon and Castle mountain.

Banff has a slightly different feel than Jasper. It is more vibrant with more visitors. Main sights in Banff include the Bow Falls, Sulphur Mountain via the Banff Gondola (CAD 30), Lake Minnewanka, etc.

From Banff, I headed off to Calgary for my flight to the east, ending my good 1 week in the Rockies.

On a side note, many people have always like to compare which is most beautiful ~ Switzerland, Canada or New Zealand. I haven’t been to New Zealand yet so I can’t compare that. But comparing Switzerland and Canada, I will say that the Swiss Alps is like a beautiful lady whilst the Canadian Rockies is like a handsome young man. Both are nice, beautiful in different sense and worth the visit.

Tips:-
– Most attractions in Vancouver city are within walking distance. However, Capilano suspension bridge and Vancouver Island are far away. If you are not driving, I suggest that you join a day tour to Capilano suspension bridge. For Vancouver Island, it is possible to take public transport there (but quite cumbersome so I will suggest joining a day tour as well).

– Rockies Mountaineer has 2 classes – Gold Leaf and Red Leaf. The price difference between these 2 are huge but Gold leaf serve hot food while Red leaf doesn’t. If you can afford it, go for Gold leaf. Otherwise, Red leaf service is also pretty good. You will not regret taking the Rockies mountaineer, any class.

– At Lake Louise, do try to stay at Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. It has scenic view of the lake (make sure you book the lake view). There’s a fine dining restaurant on ground floor overseeing the lake which serves 2-3 courses dinner. Make sure you try that as it is really yummy! If you have craving for pizza, take the shuttle to Lake Louise Inn. There’s a restaurant on level 2 that serves nice pizza.

– Moraine Lake which is around 25 minutes drive from Lake Louise is a very scenic place to visit (different from Lake Louise so worth the drive). Be careful driving on the winding roads though.

– There’re 2 routes from Lake Louise to Banff, one is via the old route (scenic drive) while the other is via the expressway. I will suggest that you drive via the old road at least till Johnston Canyon where you can stop for a hike. Afterwhich, you can then continue your journey to Banff via the expressway (just need to turn back slightly before you will see the sigb to the expressway) Johnston Canyon has 2 waterfalls (lower an upper). The walk to the lower fall takes around 40 minutes to and fro. Upper fall is a bit of hike and you need an additional 1.5 hours if you want to cover it. If you have time constraint, just do the lower fall will do.

– At Banff, I will recommend the Banff spring hotel. This hotel looks like a castle and is one of the best in Banff. However, its location is slightly out from the town centre but there are good transport to the town centre so no worries.

– Nothing much in Calgary. It’s really a city so if you are not flying out from Calgary, you can give the city a miss. However, I do recommend that either you fly out or take the rockies mountaineer from Banff back to Vancouver (covering a different route from Vancouver to Jasper).

– Prices that is shown generally exclude taxes so don’t get a shock when you are asked to pay more than what you see.

– For those who prefer to join tours, there are a couple of tour agencies that provide Rockies tour (or activities). I recommend Key West Tours (http://www.keywesttravelandtours.com/index.html), or Brewster (http://www.vacationscanada.travel/packages/Canadian-Rockies-Elements-from-Vancouver-7301.aspx). The travelling time from Vancouver to Jasper/Banff is pretty long so for those who prefer not to take long distance coach travel, the alternatives will be either (1) you take the Rocky Moutaineer which is really scenic but expensive, or (2) you can choose to fly to Edmonton (near Jasper) or Calgary (near Banff) and starts you tour there.

The Rockies trip has left me with fond memories. As I reflected on my 3 over hours flight to Toronto, I penned down the following:-

On the other end of the horizon far from where I grow, there is the land of mountains, glaciers and snow.
I saw God’s wonderful creation, so majestic and beautiful, the amazing scenery made me cheerful.
The tranquil Jasper, Banff and Lake Louise, all  leave me with fond memories.
The grandeur of the Rockies I love you so, your beauty has seduced me and my soul.