Itinerary: Toronto – Niagara Falls – Bruce Peninsula & Georgian Bay – Fathom Five National Marine Park – Ottawa – Québec City – Montreal
Canada is the second largest country in the world (after Russia), but has only 35 million inhabitants. I’m traveling for two weeks in the provinces of Ontario and Québec, located in southeastern Canada. The country is so big that this part of Canada is closer to Europe than Vancouver, which is on the other side of Canada. Canada is culturally very diverse; the population consists almost exclusively of immigrants and their descendants. In Toronto alone, Canada’s largest city, 130 languages are spoken and as many as half of the inhabitants were born outside Canada.
The area now called Canada was originally inhabited by the Aboriginal People of North America, also known as the First People, and by the Inuit to the north. But then Columbus came along (in 1492), followed by John Cabot (in 1497). Although Europeans saw the newly discovered continent initially mainly as a trade opportunity, it would of course not stop there. By the late sixteenth century, France and Britain had claimed much of Newfoundland. The French took it one step further, from 1663 colonizing a large area along the St Lawrence River and calling it New France. They regularly got into a fight with those other settlers, the British, who, in addition to their own colonies in North America, also targeted French territory. In 1759, the French surrendered and New France became part of the British Empire as ‘Lower Canada’.
Due to the independence of the United States, the British lost much of their American territory and many loyalists fled to Upper Canada. In 1867 Upper and Lower Canada were merged into a new Union, the Dominion of Canada. Upper Canada became the province of Ontario, Lower Canada became Québec. Although Canada had a great deal of independence from that moment on, Great Britain continued to exert influence over the country’s governance for a long time. It was not until 1982 that the Canada Act put an end to this and Canada became truly independent. To this day, however, the country is part of the British Commonwealth, with the British Queen as the head of state.
I start my journey in Toronto, located on the shore of Lake Ontario. What is now Canada’s largest city started out as a small village called York. It was still a small town when it became the capital of the British colony of Upper Canada for some time from 1793. Until the mid-twentieth century, Toronto would remain a provincial town. The growth and arrival of the skyscrapers that now define downtown Toronto’s skyline have only happened in the last forty yearsor so. During that period, Toronto grew into the economic and cultural center of Canada and the city was merged with surrounding towns. The Greater Toronto Area now has six million inhabitants.
After a flight of about eight hours I land at Toronto Pearson International Airport. From there I take the train to Union Station, in the center of the city. I’m staying near Toronto City Hall, located at Nathan Philips Square. This square was laid out in the 1960s and includes a large pond in the middle, surrounded by a raised concrete pedestrian promenade. The town hall, which was designed together with the square, consists of two curved towers of concrete and glass, which together form a circle. The design has a somewhat Soviet-like feel to it and forms a stark contrast to the neoclassical old town hall, which still stands on the east side of the square.
Via Bay Street I walk towards the business center of the city. This is the epicenter of Toronto’s banking sector and is dominated by towering skyscrapers. The high glass facades reflect the sun. On Front Street, once on the shore of Lake Ontario but now located a little inland due to land reclamation, is Union Station, with its impressive classical facade with thick columns. The entrance to the historic station, built in the early twentieth century, is currently under renovation, but the great hall inside is impressive and exudes the grandeur of the railway’s heyday.
Toronto’s skyline can be recognized by the CN Tower, the 553 meter high tower and transmission tower, which until 2007 was the tallest free-standing structure in the world. The purpose of the CN Tower (named after the Canadian railway company Canadian National) was initially mainly practical, namely to build a high transmission tower for the Canadian television channel CBC. But the tower soon attracted so much attention that it became a tourist attraction and can now be found on every promotional photo of the city. From an aesthetic point of view, it is not really a beautiful tower and to me it mainly evokes memories of the similar towers I visited earlier in Seattle (USA) and Auckland (New Zealand).
What strikes me is that this part of Canada feels very ‘American’. The political culture in Canada may differ from that in the United States, but the architecture, the layout of the city, the cars, the shops, the atmosphere, the whole ‘look and feel’ largely corresponds to Canadas southern neighbors. Only the Canadian flags and the fact that everything is bilingual (English/French) reminds me that I’m in Canada.
On my second day in Toronto I visit the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). Canada’s largest museum is housed in a historic building, which has been expanded with a contrasting modern section. The old entrance contains an impressive hall with a high, golden and mosaic ceiling. There is a lot to see in the museum, from departments with Oriental art to minerals and rocks and an exhibition about biodiversity. You can wander about for hours.
Between the ROM and the buildings of the University of Toronto is a small park with a walking path, which listens to the name ‘Philosopher’s Walk’. The path follows the bed of a former stream. The name of the path suggests that there are statues of famous philosophers along it, but that is not the case. However, a man is busy stacking stones that are scattered around the park. The stones that balance on top of each other form extremely delicate structures, which often fall over. However, the man continues to build imperturbably on his next building. It reminds me of Albert Camus’ Sisyphus – which makes the name ‘Philosopher’s Walk’ seem appropriate after all.
Another museum worth visiting is the Art Gallery of Ontario. Housed in a building with a striking, undulating glass facade, this museum is huge as well and mainly devoted to painting and sculpture, from Medieval European art to modern art. What appeals to me most are the paintings by the ‘Group of Seven’, a group of Canadian painters who set out as explorers to capture the Canadian wilderness, and with it Canadian identity. You can easily spend a couple of houres here. The Art Gallery sits on the edge of Chinatown, a neighborhood filled with Asian restaurants, shops, massage parlors, and Chinese-character billboards. The neighborhood feels far away from the skyscrapers of the Banking District.
On my last day in Toronto I walk past the Eaton Center, a huge shopping center and through downtown. Old buildings can also be found between the modern high-rises, sometimes completely wedged between the skyscrapers. On the first floor of the otherwise deserted south tower of the Dominion Center, a complex of four black office towers, is the inconspicuous Gallery of Inuit Art. The small exhibition includes a number of display cases with sculptures by Inuit artists.
East of downtown Toronto is the St. Lawrence District. This is the oldest surviving part of the city, where most of the red brick buildings date from the nineteenth century. The district had long been dilapidated, but after a thorough renovation it is now a hip and cozy district. The weather is nice and the benches on the cozy square Berczy Park are full. The market hall, dating from 1844, is still the place where residents do their shopping.
It’s Monday morning when I pick up my rental car in downtown Toronto and leave the city via the Gardiner Expressway. That takes much longer than planned, because the Expressway, the largest artery that runs right through the Greater Toronto Area, is extremely busy. Next I drive the Queen Elizabeth Way, around the west side of Lake Ontario, towards Niagara Falls. The Niagara Falls are probably the most famous waterfalls in the world and together with the Victoria Falls (on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia) and the Cataratas del Iguazu (on the border of Argentina and Brazil) they form the top 3 largest waterfalls in the world.
Niagara Falls consists of two waterfalls, located on the border of Canada and the United States: the 320-meter wide American Falls and the twice as wide Horseshoe Falls (so called because of their semicircular shape). The two falls are separated by Goat Island. The water that flows from Lake Ontario via the Niagara River to Lake Erie continuously pours down 53 meters with a lot of thunder. Due to the erosion caused by the force of the water, the Horseshoe Falls move one foot every year. According to calculations, the waterfall has moved no less than 11 kilometers in the past 12,000 years. A path runs along the river from where you have a beautiful view of the falls. The sheer volume of water and the impressive sound of waterfalls like this continue to impress me.
The Niagara Falls are a natural phenomenon, but the surroundings of the falls are anything but natural. The village of Niagara Falls is a tacky tourist attraction, filled with hotels and restaurants frequented by millions of tourists every year. The streets of Clifton Hill in particular feel like an amusement park. Terrible, but not to be avoided if you are looking for coffee and lunch.
Equally touristy, but a ‘must’ if you are here, is a trip on one of the boats of Hornblower Cruises. On a boat full of other tourists, all dressed in red ponchos, we sail past the American Falls and then towards the Horseshoe Falls. The helmsman brings the boat very close to the waterfall (hence the poncho, otherwise you would be soaked afterwards). Waterfalls are even more impressive from below than from above, the boat trip is therefore very worthwhile!
Bruce Peninsula & Georgian Bay
A long drive is planned for Tuesday: in 4.5 hours I drive from Niagara Falls, around the Greater Toronto Area (a huge metropolitan area, which also includes the cities of Hamilton and Burlington), heading north, to the Bruce Peninsula. After the urban area, the area becomes rural and slightly hilly. The weather is gray and drizzling, a big difference from the past few days, which were very sunny. Once on the Bruce Peninsula it clears up and I drive via a long, more or less straight road to the extreme northern tip of the peninsula. Here sits the village of Tobermory, which is overrun by tourists in the summer, but now, early in the season, it is an oasis of calm. It is a very small village, with a harbor that listens to the endearing name Little Tub Harbour.
Bruce Peninsula is a peninsula in Lake Huron, or rather between Lake Huron on the west side and Georgian Bay on the east side. The environment here is characterized by what is called the Canadian Shield. This is an area in which the surface consists of rock that is more than 500 million years old and has been eroded by glaciers in later ice ages. A large part of the Canadian wilderness is made up of this Canadian Shield.
The eastern side of the Bruce Peninsula is characterized by high limestone cliffs. These cliffs are part of a long line called the Niagara Escarpment. The Niagara Escarpment runs along and through the ‘Great Lakes’ on the border of Canada and the United States, and the height difference caused by the Escarpment is partly the cause of the formation of those lakes. One of Niagara Falls, because the Escarpment also includes the cliffs from which Niagara Falls flow.
The northern part of the peninsula largely consists of the Bruce Peninsula National Park and the Fathom Five National Marine Park just off the coast. The former park offers a number of walking routes, some of which start at Cyprus Lake. On Wednesday mornings I take a leisurely walk here along Horse Lake, through the woods, before arriving at the shore of Georgian Bay. The bay has a beautiful coastline, with limestone cliffs and large boulders.
When you come to the water from the forest, you are on top of such a cliff, but you can climb a little further, to a high cliff called Indian Head Cove, where with some imagination you can indeed see the head of an Indian. You have a fantastic view over the bay and the coastline. From the cliff you can clamber down, over the boulders, to the crystal clear water. Beneath the rocks is the Grotto, a cave carved out by erosion, and a little further up is the Natural Bridge. On the way back through the forest I come across an Eastern Ribbon Snake, a harmless snake species (of course I only learn that it is harmless after returning to my motel).
The next day I join a boat tour that takes me to Flowerpot Island, one of the many islands in the Fathom Five National Marine Park, but the only one that is accessible. The island takes its name from two large limestone pillars, which resemble a flower vase. The ‘flowerpots’ are the result of centuries of erosion, this area was once covered by meters high glaciers. The water here is also crystal clear. I walk on a footpath that runs along the shore of the island, climb over the boulders to the flowerpots, and then cross the island back through the forest. Along the way I come across several Garter Snakes (just as harmless as the Eastern Ribbon Snake) and at the end a large Gray Rat Snake, lying on boulders in the sun and although not dangerous, it looks like it is.
On Friday and Saturday I drive in two long stages from Tobermory to Ottawa. Friday is a gray, drizzly day and I don’t really feel like going for a walk like I planned to. The drive to Ottawa is the last car trip this journey, after this I will continue by train. I hand in the rental car and walk about downtown Ottawa. The capital of Canada, which has one million inhabitants, is located on the border of the provinces of Ontario and Québec and the street signs are therefore bilingual. It is a pleasant city, but there is not much to see. The most interesting part is Parliament Hill, a modest hill on the Ottawa River, which is home to the Canadian Parliament buildings. Three large, stately buildings in Victorian style, the middle of which houses the Canadian House of Representatives and Senate. The buildings are currently undergoing a major renovation.
Near Parliament Hill is Confederation Square, with the National War Memorial. Across the Rideau Canal is the old Ottawa train station (now a conference center) and opposite the castle-like Fairmont Château Laurier hotel. Completed in 1832, the Rideau Canal runs all the way from the St Lawrence River at Kingston to the Ottawa River, which was an important trade route at the time. On the north side of the canal, from 1855 the town of Bytown developed, which was later renamed Ottawa, and became the capital of Upper Canada in 1857.
The next day I visit the National Gallery of Canada. The museum takes you through time, from Aboriginal art, via Canadian and European painters (including seventeenth century Dutch masters) to modern art. After a short visit to a huge shopping center I settle down at a terrace of one of the many restaurants and cafes in the Byward Market area.
On Monday morning I am already on the train at half past six. In six hours I travel from Ottawa to Québec City. The train is comfortable and has reserved seats, catering and Wi-Fi on board. The view along the way is not really exciting. This part of Canada is pretty much flat and there isn’t much to see. When I arrive in Québec City and walk into the city, I feel like I have arrived in France. Not only is the language different (everything is in French here), the architecture and atmosphere are also different.
Vieux Québec, the old part of the city, is the only walled city in North America and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The town is located on the St Lawrence River, the walled Haute-Ville on a high cliff, Cap Diamant, and Basse-Ville at the foot of the cliff, on the water. Basse-Ville is the oldest part of the city, dating from 1608, Haute-Ville dating back to 1620. On the east side of Vieux Québec is the old city wall, with three city gates: Porte St. Louis, Porte Kent (which sounds weird) and Porte St. Jean, and old barracks and weapons depots in Artillery Park.
In the heart of compact Haute-Ville, teeming with tourists, stands the Hôtel de Ville dating from 1883. Next door, the Edifice Price Art Deco building towers above it all. Towards the river is the Place d’Armes, with a fountain and benches, which seems to serve as a gathering point for anyone visiting Québec City; touring cars and carriages come and go and I see more Asian looking tourists than Caucasians.
On the corner of Place d’Armes is the old Palais de Justice from 1877, but all the attention here goes to the enormous Château Frontenac. It is a mixture of castle, fortress and hotel – the latter because it is actually a hotel, built in 1893 by the Canadian Railways. Impressive yes, beautiful not really (if you ask me). A wide wooden pedestrian promenade, Terrasse Dufferin, runs along Château Frontenac, where you can not only admire the castle in full glory, but also have panoramic view over the St. Lawrence River.
At Place d’Armes, a steep staircase leads down (the comparison with Montmartre in Paris is inescapable) to the lower Basse-Ville. This is a very picturesque neighborhood with cobbled streets and houses dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Rue du Petit-Champlain is Québec’s oldest street. Here too you have the feeling of walking in an old French village. Albeit one full of restaurants and tourist shops, which were created after the district received a thorough makeover in the 1970s. Place Royale (once Place du Marché, priorities change apparently) is where the city began in 1608.
On Wednesday morning I leave Québec City and in three hours I travel, again by by train, to Montreal, Canada’s second largest city (after Toronto) and also the second largest French-speaking city in the world (after Paris). Where Québec City feels really French, Montreal is more of a mixture. Both French and English are spoken in the streets, the architecture is more American and the atmosphere is international.
Like Vieux-Québec, Vieux-Montréal was derelict until the 1960s, but has since been revitalized and is now home to numerous restaurants, shops and galleries. Here too you will find a Place d’Armes, with a church as well as the Banque de Montréal, which is reminiscent of the stock exchange building on Wall Street, and the striking sand-coloured art deco Aldred Building.
Rue Notre-Dame is the oldest street in Montreal. The Old Courthouse and the Edifice Ernest Cormier both have an American feel, while the Hôtel de Ville from 1870, a little further away, is inspired by French architecture. Opposite the town hall is Château Ramezay, which was built in 1705 as a residence for the governor of Montreal. From here, the Place Jacques-Cartier, built in 1804, runs down towards the river.
The Marché Bonsecours, dating from 1850, is located on Rue St.-Paul, with a striking silver dome. The other side of the building overlooks the Vieux Port, the old port of Montreal. The area is now part park with walking trails, part event site and part amusement park, with an indispensable Ferris wheel. From the pedestrian promenade you have a beautiful view over the river. Since the weather is beautiful, this is a great place to relax.
I spend my last day in Montreal, and in Canada, downtown. Lots of high-rise buildings, offices, shops, restaurants, museums and theaters, interspersed with green squares and parks, such as Square Dorcester (in French, so not Dorcester Square) and Place du Canada. In downtown you will also find the Underground City. Its construction began in the 1960s with the underground shopping center Place de Ville Marie. In the years that followed, a whole system of tunnels was built connecting metro stations, shopping centers, offices and apartment buildings. This underground network, called Réso, is used by the inhabitants of Montréal to get from one place to another, especially in the usually very harsh winters.
West of downtown is Mont Royal, contrary to what the name suggests, a hill (233 meters high is not a mountain). It is a green oasis in the middle of the city, an urban forest with sheltered footpaths. At the top, at Chalet de Mont-Royal, you have a beautiful panoramic view of Montréal and the St. Lawrence River. The pack behind the Chalet is a wonderfully peaceful place to chill out, surrounded by curious (and hungry) squirrels.
The next day it’s time to go to the airport. My two weeks in Ontario and Québec are already over. It was a very nice trip, in which pleasant cities with interesting museums and sights alternated with the impressive Niagara Falls and the quiet Bruce Peninsula. And in which I especially noticed the difference between the American-looking Ontario and the French-looking Québec. Next time, I hope to visit the allegedly beautiful western part of Canada.