Saturday, October 13, 2012

O Canada! From East to Western Sea

Bike ride to Montmorency Falls outside Quebec City.
Our summer 2012 vacation adventure was four and a half weeks in Canada. Because of the craziness of the Summer Olympics happening in London, we decided to avoid Europe in August and visit our neighbor to the North.

A quick summary: Visited the cities and towns of Quebec City, Montreal, the Eastern Townships of Quebec (Magog, North Hatley, and Eastman), Toronto, Stratford, and on the west coast, Victoria and the Gulf Islands (Saltspring, Galiano, South Pender, and Saturna Islands.) Ten of the days were spent hiking in the Eastern Townships of Quebec and on the Gulf Islands off Victoria. We attended 8 plays at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and toured a dozen or so world-class museums. Peddled on 4 half-day bike tours and walked for miles through interesting Canadian cities and neighborhoods. Slept at 12 different B&Bs (most with incredible 3-4 course breakfasts). Had fun exploring two Gay Villages (Montreal, Toronto) and met lots of new friends. Our excursions from one location to the next required travel on planes (prop & jets), trains, buses, ferries, and water taxis.

A pose in front of a Quebec fountain.
We began the vacation by flying to Quebec City. The place is like visiting an old European city. It has winding streets surrounded by a walled fort. Quebec City decided early in its existence to preserve its architecture and historic sites. We stayed at a charming gay hotel called Hippocampe located within the fortified city. The first night we attended the multi-media video history of Quebec that was projected on the wharf grain silos called “Image Mill.” On the second day our friends from Palo Alto, another couple, met us there and spent the next week with us. We visited the Canadian Museum of Civilization, walked all over the city from the Plains of Abraham to Place Royale, wandered around the “Festival of New France” where actors in costumes take over Old Quebec City to reenact the look and life of a French colony in the 17th and 18th century. We did a half-day bike ride to Montmorency Falls where we climbed the staircases and walked across the suspension bridge over the falls. We spent three days exploring the city before taking the train to Montreal.

A warm day on Mont Royal
above Montreal
In Montreal we stayed at a nice gay owned Bed & Breakfast called La Conciergerie close to the Gay Village. Our friend Paul had gone to college in Montreal at McGill University. He showed us around many parts of the city including Lacline Canal, Atwater Market, McGill University, and hiking up Mont Royal. We did three half-day bike tours that covered most the city. They consisted of: Vista Architecture Bike Tour (Canal, Grey Nuns Island, a ride across the Saint-Lawrence river via the estacade, Notre-Dame island created for Expo 67 site, Saint-Helen island, etc.); City Classic Tour (cycle through many neighborhoods of Old Port, Old Montreal, Latin Quarter, Gay Village, Le Plateau, McGill, International, and a stop at St-Viateur Bagel for a snack), and City of Contrasts (A ride through downtown, up to the very wealthy Westmount and back down to the worker's St-Henri area and the history of the English, Scottish and French communities.) We visited a number of museums too: McCord Museum of Canadian History, Montréal Museum of Archaeology and History, and Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. We also saw a lot of churches. Mark Twain said of Montreal, "This is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn't throw a brick without breaking a church window." We attended two festivals as well: Under Pressure - International Graffiti Convention and Montreal Pride Festival. We ate dinner most nights in the Gay Village and went to several clubs.

Gourmet breakfast at the B&B.
After 5 days we took a bus ride to the Eastern Townships of Quebec to begin five days of hiking. The region is very similar to rural New England. It is located in southeastern Quebec between the Saint-Lawrence River and the US border (Vermont and New Hampshire). We started at North Hatley on the shores of Lake Missiwappi. We did a day hike from Lennoxville back to North Hatley. In Magog we did a hike along the marshland on the Cerises River and a historical town walk. The third day we hiked in Mont Orford Provincial Park. We finished the week with a hike from Magog to Eastman. We stayed in some of the nicest B&B’s. They featured a gourmet 4-course breakfast.

Gay village on Church St. in Toronto.
After the hiking, we took the bus back to Montreal and caught a train to Toronto for two days there. Again we stayed at a gay owned B&B near the gay village. We walked throughout Toronto:  Gay Village, Univ. of Toronto, Ottawa Parliament buildings, Chinatown, Kensington Market, Entertainment district, Distillery District. In addition we visited three museums: Art Gallery of Ottawa Museum, Royal Ontario Museum and the Bata Shoe Museum. And believe it or not, the shoe museum was very interesting and well done.

Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
From Toronto we took the train to Stratford to spend the next four days seeing theatre at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. We saw eight outstanding productions: 3 Shakespeare’s: “Henry V”, “Cymbeline”, and “Much Ado About Nothing”; the musical “42nd Street”; a new musical about the Canadian poet Robert Service called “Wonderlust”; a new play called “The Best Brothers”; and 2 one-man shows, “Hirsch” about John Hirsch, the former artistic director of the festival and Hungarian Holocaust refugee, and “A Word or Two” staring Christopher Plummer that’s an autobiographical journey through the literature that stirred Plummer's imagination. All eight shows were impeccably directed. The Festival is truly a national theater of Canada. Among the renowned performers who have performed or got their start there are Alan Bates, Len Cariou, Hume Cronyn, Brian Dennehy, Lorne Greene, Uta Hagen, Julie Harris, James Mason, Eric McCormack, Loreena McKennitt, Amanda Plummer, Christopher Plummer, Jason Robards, Paul Scofield, William Shatner, Maggie Smith, Jessica Tandy, and Peter Ustinov. We stayed at another gay owned B&B that was centrally located called the Artful Lodger. The Stratford festival and town reminded us of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, OR. Both towns are small, quaint, and charming and are surrounded by beautiful parks. They are destination spots for theatre lovers and a talented crew of repertory actors, artisans and technicians.

Hiking the Gulf Islands of British Columbia.
After Stratford we took the train back to Toronto and flew to the west coast. When we arrived at Victoria, we took a ferry to our next destination of hiking, the Gulf Islands. We spent four nights at the lovey Beach House B&B on Saltspring Island. We did a number of local hikes, shopped around the artistic town of Ganges and visited a lavender farm. Then we took a ferry to Galiano Island for a two-night stay at the Galiano Inn and did several hikes there. A water taxi took us to South Pender Island for a day hike from Mortimer’s Spit to Beaumont Provincial Park. The final island was Saturna where we stayed two nights at the Saturna Lodge B&B. There we did a beautiful ridge hike along the coast.

Lunch at Barb's Place Fish & Chips.
We finished our holiday with two days in Victoria. We didn’t do the 2 most common tourist things in Victoria: afternoon tea at Empress Hotel and a visit to Butchart Gardens. Instead we hiked all along the waterfront, had lunch at Barb’s Place Fish & Chips, and visited the superb museum, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. We stayed at the most beautiful and artistic gay-owned B&B called Albion Manor.

Additional impressions:
Hiking shadow.
The hikes: Both hikes were self-guided. We booked them through Randonnée Tours ( a travel company out of Vancouver. We have mostly done guided hikes in the past but we were interested in trying some hikes that offered more flexibility with dates, daily start times and route changes. This was mostly to accommodate my post-cancer lifestyle. We also wanted the route details, booking of accommodations and luggage transfers to be handled for us. The B&B’s and Inns we stayed at were outstanding and were some of the best we have ever stayed at. The transfers mostly went smoothly. But the detailed route notes and maps were not always up-to-date. We had several confusing episodes on the trail and were fortunately able to find someone nearby to help us.

History: We were in Canada during the bicentennial for the War of 1812. We learned a whole different perspective about this war than we were taught in school. Did you know that many Canadians consider the War of 1812 as a victory because they were able to stop US aggression in taking over Canadian land? Or that the British burned Washington, DC in retaliation for the Americans’ sacking, plundering and burning Toronto (then called York)?

Poutine: the stable of Canada.
Food: If Canada had a national junk/comfort food cuisine it would be Poutine. It is a favorite in Quebec but served everywhere from upscale restaurants to fast-food takeaways. We never heard of it before and we did try it once. Poutine is french fries, topped with brown beef gravy and white cheddar cheese curds. Other ingredients are often added to this artery-clogging concoction. This traditional comfort food is a nutritional nightmare full of fat, salt and calories. On lighter fare, Canadians love coffee. While there are Starbucks everywhere, it seems real Canadians prefer to get their coffee (and doughnuts) from Tim Hortons.

Final thoughts about Canada: We would definitely go back again. There is still so much to see: We want to hike some of the beautiful trails in the middle of the country. We would also love to return to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and include the Shaw Festival Theatre at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario and include some of the many theatres in Toronto. It would also be fun to go back to Toronto and Montreal during one of their pride festivals.

O Canada! Where pines and maples grow.
Great prairies spread and lordly rivers flow.
How dear to us thy broad domain,
From East to Western Sea,
Thou land of hope for all who toil!
Thou True North, strong and free!

--Original poem by Judge, R. Stanley Weir, 1908. It was the basis for the national anthem.


JustAMike said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed your Canadian vacation and I hope you do come back. I must correct one error, the main town on Salt Spring Island is called Ganges, not Gringes.

I live an hour north of Victoria. As such, I've avoided the usual "tourist traps". The Empress Hotel is a beautiful building and they welcome "walk-through's" so I'd encourage visitors to do just that (and avoid the over-priced "high tea"). I also do encourage you to visit Butchart Gardens at some point. Having lived a mile from there in the '90's, I did my best to avoid it until we succumbed to visiting relatives who wanted to visit there one year. It was spectacular and well worth the price of admission. I became a local regular after that. At Christmas, they mount a stunning light display that is also worth attending.

Buddy Bear said...

I was so pleased to hear of all your wonderful Canadian experiences and positive comments. I'm very proud of my beautiful country!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...