Visiting Ontario, Canada: A Travel Diary
An Anglo-Canadian and Franco-Italian's eighteen day trip to the Great White North
Nearly four years have passed since I moved to Italy in late 2008. I have made friends, lived in two homes, learnt the language, found and lost jobs, met the love of my life, and transformed into a fully-fledged adult. I have also been back to my homeland, Canada, only once.
Tomorrow, my fiance Mathieu and I will finally make the trip "home" we have dreamed of since we met. He, a Franco-Italian, has been outside of Europe only once, so this will be simultaneously a trip into my past as well as his first time walking on Canadian soil.
I invite you to join Mathieu and I on our exciting journey to the Great White North. Our voyage will begin just north of Toronto in my grandmother's sleepy village of Tottenham. We will then turn towards the southern town of Guelph where my brother plays in a band, followed by a trip up to the picturesque lakeside town of Tobermory. The next four days will be spent in my hometown of Newmarket where I will encounter old friends and Mathieu will meet new ones. During our time there, we will also fit a day trip down to Toronto to experience the buzzing atmosphere of the Toronto Film Festival. The adventure will end dramatically with a three-day excursion to Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake. We hope you'll enjoy the journey as much as we will!
Day 1: The Plane and Our Arrival in Ontario
The journey from London, England to Toronto, Canada
Flying has never been a passion of mine, but the journey from Gatwick Airport in London to Pearson International in Toronto was about as comfortable as a near-8 hour flight can get. Air Transat's decision to modernise its aircraft was a good one, as there is now more leg room and a tablet-style television set on the back of every seat. With over two dozen popular television programs and films to choose from, you might actually find yourself willing the plane to delay its landing just so you can see the end of a good movie!
Sadly, not much praise can be given to the airplane meals. What we were told was hot and sour chicken was actually a mixed concoction of squished rice, overcooked veggies, and a kind of spongy meat, which tasted like anything but chicken! We neutralised the unpleasant aftertaste with a couple of biscuits we'd brought from England, but that hasn't stopped my tummy complaining ever since.
Despite a brief delay on take-off, we landed perfectly on-time. Mathieu was fascinated to observe that all the signs in the airport were posted in French and English. His cheekiness got the better of him when we arrived at the passport check, where he decided to chat with the bilingual officer in French, just to hear the sing-song quality of the Quebec accent. For some reason, the two French-speaking nations find one other very amusing.
Coming out of the baggage collection area, the first person I saw was my brother Nick, waving his arms and clapping, so excited he looked like he might take off. In the flurry of hellos, we took a while to find his car, but within the hour we were on our way to Tottenham to see my grandma.
Nick and I spent most of the car trip chatting about old times, while Mathieu suddenly turned speechless. He mentioned later that he had been mesmerised by the long undeviating Canadian roads that seemed to run forever, then disappear over the horizon, and the thousands of farms that cosy up to the highway. I suppose, for him, it must have been like stepping into a North American indie film.
Grandma was delighted to see her two grandchildren together for the first time in a year, and was over the moon to meet her future grandson-in-law about whom she had heard so much. We chatted over cups of tea, took a small walk down to the local Conservation Area to snap some photographs, and fought against our drowsiness until about 8:30 p.m., when the temptation of a soft bed could no longer be resisted.
Did you know that...
you can see an abundance of wildlife in Tottenham's Conservation Area, from blue herons to red foxes to pheasants?
Day 2: Overcoming Jetlag
And facing a rare rainy day in Ontario
Rain is a rare occurance during a full-blown Ontarian summer. Not the torrential rain that comes with thunderstorms - we get a lot of that - but the persistant drizzly rain that characterises places such as Great Britain and Vancouver. However, today, it seemed that the rains of Great Britain decided to followed us all the way to Tottenham. At 5 a.m., when jetlag woke me up, it was bucketing down so hard I could hardly see a few meters beyond our bedroom window.
To pass the time, Mathieu and I donned our raincoats and headed out for a peaceful walk down to Tim Hortons, the most popular chain coffee shop in Canada. There, Mathieu had his very first doughnut and vanilla coffee, while I gobbled down a box of 'Tim Bits' (small bite-sized donuts without the hole in the middle) and an Iced Cappucino. (To my shock and horror, I later found out that one doughnut contains 2000 calories!)
If you visit Canada, you can bet your bottom Canadian dollar that someone will make you go to Tim Hortons, or Timmies as the locals call it. Tim Hortons is our country's most famous chain coffee shop. For Canadians, it stands on par with giants such as McDonalds, Starbucks and Burger King. While I am personally not overly struck on their food (with the exception of the refreshing Ice Capp), Timmies is a part of the Canadian identity. To say that you've visited Canada and NOT had a Tim Hortons coffee would be a federal crime.
What do you think of Tim Hortons?
Later, I showed him around the Canadian supermarket Foodland. While Mathieu continued to comment on how cheap everything was compared to Italy, I silently marvelled at how much the prices have increased since my last visit. $7.00 for a box of cereal? I'll starve before I pay that!
Fairly soon, the day started to clear up. We, along with my grandma, took a spin down to Sheena's cafe and gift shop, situated in the unlikely highway-side village of Schomberg. I say unlikely because besides the local LCBO liquor store and a second Foodland, not much goes on in this sleepy town. As such, to find such a lively little locale, abound with festive harvest decor, desserts of every type, and bubbly waitresses, was akin to discovering buried treasure. Mathieu and I both had a tuna sandwich, while Grandma tucked into a ham sandwich and free salad.
Grandma and Mathieu enjoying their lunch at Sheena's cafe and gift shop
The day ended with a family lunch down at the famous Canadian rotisserie called Swiss Chalet. We could not wait to see what a Franco-Italian would think of the Swiss Chalet chicken, garlic loaf, and most importantly, the special sauce. To our delight, he loved all three, declaring that he could have devoured not one but ten garlic loafs in one sitting! He was also flabbergasted to learn that Canadians have brought tipping to the debit/credit card machine, a true modernisation that Italy will take ten years to discover and twenty years to accept as common practice. (His words, not mine!)
Mathieu trying his first Swiss Chalet 1/4 chicken dinnner. Mmm mmm!
Day 3: Kleinburg and Downtown Toronto Photo Shoot
Expanding our horizons with brother Nick and uncle Martin
Mathieu, besides being an incredible film director, is also very talented behind the digital camera. As such, my family and I wanted to take him to two places where he could get some interesting shots to add to his portfolio: the rustic village of Kleinburg, and the skyline of downtown Toronto.
My brother Nick was the one to accompany us down to Kleinburg. Known for its famous Canadian art museum, the McMichael Gallery, we were quite excited to raid the gift shop for uniquely Canadian souvenirs for Mathieu's mum who adores anything to do with Native Americans and Canadian art. In fact, more than once, she had jokingly asked us to bring a Native American man home for her in the flesh! Sadly, she will have to settle for a small hand-painted totem pole and a calendar featuring the artwork of the Group of Seven, a band of talented Canadian landscape painters who believed that art could be conjured from nature in the creation of these figures.
After the gallery, whose interior we never actually visited due to the extravagant entry price, we took a meandering stroll along the luscious and leafy park leading down to the town of Kleinburg. Along the way, we encountered the Sculpture Garden where famous Canadian artist Ivan Eyre had donated a series of massive bronze figures to the gallery. Though a few of the statues were too abstract for my liking, I could appreciate the manner in which Eyre had subtly fused Western art with Native American art.
Nick and Mathieu outside the McMichael Gallery of Kleinburg
Do you enjoy Native American artwork?
Kleinburg was, as always, alive with tourists from every corner of the globe. Out of the Rock Shop flowed a melody of thick southern Italian accents, whereas the pub where we ate was feeding primarily Mexican and Portuguese mouths. The only true Canadians to be found were those working in the stores - the chatty woman at Starbucks who praised the fact that I treated my fiancee and brother to a coffee, the snooty French Canadian waiter at the pub who did not want to split our bill into three or accept debit, and the poor lady in the Rock Shop, who was desperately trying to deal with the Italian invasion that had entered her humble abode.
Mathieu was enchanted by the century-old buildings, bountiful gardens, and small accents, such as the hanging baskets, antique vehicles painted and placed outside for decoration, and picket fences, that come together to reflect a Canada long gone. It is a far cry from the modernisation you see happening just outside of Kleinburg - the new housing estates packed like sardines with cold and characterless cookie-cutter homes and the sprawling highways that continually cut through more farmland as the years pass. Will small gems like Kleinburg really continue to thrive in the midst of such chaos?
Walking into the town of Kleinburg
Visiting downtown Toronto was, on the other hand, my uncle Martin's generous offer. We sailed down the highway to chase down the sunset over the Toronto skyline, one of the most stunning sights this city can provide. Trouble paid us a visit about 3/4 of the way down, however, as we met the influx of traffic heading towards the Toronto Exhibition. Detours were made and horns were honked, but we just missed the sunset by a mere twenty minutes. Instead, we were greeted with an equally enchanting dusk. It kindly hung around for another fifteen minutes before the dark took over, turning the cityscape into a carnival light show.
The Toronto skyline at dusk
You've seen the Toronto skyline at night... - ...so how about during the day?
This HD video shows you an excellent view of the Toronto skyline from a boat heading out towards Toronto Island.
Day 4: The Conservation Area and the Mall
From pure nature to concrete jungle
Ever since my visit to Wales to see my parents this summer, I have developed a keen interest in butterfly photography thanks to my dad, otherwise known as the 'butterfly expert' in our family! Since Mathieu and I hadn't made any specific plans for today, we wandered down to the Tottenham Conservation Area once more to see what wildlife we could photograph. While Mathieu went after the Canada geese, I tried to hunt down a few of the butterflies of Southern Ontario for my dad, as he had told me that there were at least ten varieties in the area. What a delight it was to find seven different butterflies thriving in the grasses, marshes and woodlands of Tottenham! Amongst the varieties were:
(1) Northern Crescent (2) Common Ringlet (3) European Skipper (4) Juvenal's Duskywing (5) Common Buckeye (6) Clouded Sulphur and (7) Cabbage White
I do hope I can find more as we travel up north to Tobermory, and down south to Niagara Falls.
The second part of our day was spent at the Upper Canada Mall in Newmarket with grandma. Our mission was to find Mathieu a nice pair of walking shoes, but the visit was also complemented by a latte at Timothy's cafe and a deliciously abundant meal at Casey's. Mathieu had a double burger with his first ever side of poutine, a Canadian artery-clogger made up of chips, gravy and melted cheese.
Showing Mathieu my hometown of Newmarket for the first time was a rather surreal experience. At first, it was as if he had been superimposed on the backdrop that was my life up until only a few years ago. However, he is slowly becoming part of the surroundings. It is as if the final puzzle piece in our relationship has fallen into place. I've now seen every important place from his childhood, and he's seen every one of mine.
Day 5: A Fertive Visit to Newmarket
Experiencing my hometown - just the two of us
As our visit to Newmarket yesterday only consisted of a walk around the Upper Canada Mall, I felt a second visit was fitting. It is true that we'll be in Newmarket from the 4th-7th, but amidst trips to Toronto and Niagara, we'll only have one full day there. Most likely, we will be wanting to spend that one free day seeing old friends.
As such, at around noon, we hopped into grandma's old white car (which has been going strong for over 20 years would you believe) and zipped down Highway 9 to Fairy Lake, the prettiest spot in all of Newmarket. After leaving the car at the entrance, we started out on a long stroll down past the old playground where I used to clamber like a monkey up and down the red rope jungle gym, across the bridge where the Mallard ducks gather, and along the lakefront, which can hardly be seen now for the tussocks and weeping willows that hug the banks.
Since Mathieu was starting to feel hungry, the Maid's Cottage, a popular tearoom on Newmarket's Main Street, seemed like an appropriate stop. The Maid's Cottage had humble beginnings as a one table establishment run by two sisters, Debbie and Pam, and their mother Jackie. Jackie's expertise in the kitchen soon became local knowledge, and within a few years, they were forced to expand into the large and bustling tearoom that it has become today. In fact, I hardly would have recognised it if it hasn't been for the familiar people who work there. After finishing our delicious tuna sandwich and buttertart, I said a brief hello to Pam, as she has been in contact with my mum since she left Newmarket four years ago. She seemed pleased to see me, thought it took her a few moments to recognise me after nearly a 7-year absence!
At this point, we could have looped back through Fairy Lake to the parking lot, but I decided it would be more interesting to take Mathieu through the historic residential area of Newmarket. The elegant and lofty houses in this part of town are particular in that they feature plaques upon which are written the name of the original resident, his or her occupation, and the year in which the house was built. It is also said that Jim Carrey lived in this area as a young boy, though nobody knows exactly where.
The final stop was my old house - the house where I spent 20 years of my life. I thought I might become emotional seeing it again after so much time, but perhaps thanks to Mathieu's presence or my own inner strength, I was completely tranquil - happy, in fact, that it was in the hands of a loving family with young children. We turned back towards the car at this point, hand in hand, saluting my childhood memories while forever looking forward to what the future holds for us as a couple.
Mathieu in front of my old home in Newmarket. My childhood and present have finally met!
Day 6 & 7: From Tottenham to Guelph
The prelude to our first big trip within Ontario
Day 6 of our trip may as well have been titled "How to eat your way through Ontario." The highlight was an extraordinarily massive meal at the Pickle Barrel in Thornhill, consisting of titanic milkshakes, steaks the size of a cow's thigh, salads without a bottom, and sandwiches that you had to split in half before they would even have a chance of fitting in your mouth. Thank goodness they served mini-desserts - otherwise we would have been rolling home!
On Day 7, Mathieu and I said our goodbyes to Tottenham and drove down to my brother Nick's town of Guelph with my grandma and uncle. There, we had a lovely meal at The Boathouse, a quaint tearoom/old-fashioned ice cream shoppe bordering the convergence point of the Speed River and the Eramosa River. The plan was for Nick to pick us up after our meal, drop us at his house, and continue on to his band's recording session. We, in the meantime, intended on walking from Nick's house, through his old university, to the centre of town where we would meet him and his girlfriend Kirstyn after recording.
All went as planned - we got caught up in the excitement of the University of Guelph's frosh week, chased down squirrels, groundhogs and rabbits that seemed to roam freely wherever there was a spot of green, and had an excellent dinner at the Red Papaya, a Thai restaurant where Nick used to play gigs with his band. Before we knew it, we were back at Nick's house, sipping on green tea and discussing the first big trip of our holiday, the 3 day excursion to the popular northern lakeside town of Tobermory...
Did you know that...
Both the wire coat hanger and jock strap were invented in Guelph?
'In Flanders Fields' poet John McCrae was born and lived in Guelph?
Guelph was named after King George IV who was of Guelph family lineage?
Day 8: Arrival in Tobermory
A trip up to the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula
Tobermory, located on the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula, is a little slice of heaven every nature or photography enthusiast should visit. When it isn't welling over with foreign tourists, you will find it unpretentious and inviting, with a simple main street that curves around Tobermory Little Tub Harbour and a handful of shops featuring Native American clothing, artwork and souvenirs. In and out of the harbour run a number of boat tours that take eager visitors to Flower Pot Island and beyond. You will also certainly see the MS Chi-Cheemaun, a gigantic cruise ship which parks in Little Tub Harbour and takes cars and people over to Manitoulin Island.
This morning, after a hearty breakfast, Nick, Mathieu and I set off on our four-hour journey up towards this gorgeous area of Ontario. The journey went surprisingly fast owing to the ruggedly beautiful Canadian shield which made up most of the landscape from the town of Owen Sound upwards. When we were within 10 km of Tobermory, we swerved off the highway to take a peek at Dorcas Bay, a slice of beach with the warmest and shallowest waters in the region. (And as Nick kindly reminded me, the most leeches!) Whilst we weren't prepared for a swim, Nick did dip his feet in the water while Mathieu and I enjoyed the balmy temperatures and sweet northern breeze.
The next stop was the Harbourside Motel, the place where we would always stay as kids and had decided to stay this time as well, for nostalgia's sake. Between a fresh layer of dark blue paint and a spiderweb or two less than I recall, it was for the most part unchanged. I am even convinced that we booked the same room that my family had stayed in the last time we came. After dropping off our belongings, we circled around the main street, reliving the faded memories of a childhood long gone.
The Harbourside Motel on the other side of Little Tub Harbour in Tobermory
The most spectacular part of the evening was dipping our feet in the cold waters and watching the sun set over the far bank of Little Tub Harbour. Just as it began to graze the horizon, the Chi-Cheemaun glided onto the scene as if on cue. The normally calm waves of the harbour lapped up furiously against the banks as it passed by, wetting not only the dry rocks upon which we were sitting, but my trouser legs as well.
Tomorrow, we plan to hike to the Grotto, a thousand-year-old cave carved out by the unabating waves of Georgian Bay with cool waters where you can swim. We may also walk a piece of the Bruce Trail, a 700 km walk that begins near Niagara Falls and ends in Tobermory.
Views of Tobermory - Stunning views from Little Tub Harbour and the surrounding areaClick thumbnail to view full-size
Mathieu's List of Differences Between Canada and Europe - Differences between the two places separated by an ocean
Being his first trip to Canada, Mathieu has not been able to help but notice a number of differences that intrigue him. Maybe they will make you smile as well!
- In Canada, you have to tip waiters. Not only do you have to tip, but you should tip 15%. What's more, it can even be done on a debit/credit card machine!
- In Canada, you have to add tax onto anything you buy, whereas in Europe, tax is already included in the price. A $10 meal, after taxes and tips, can actually become quite expensive!
- Canadians seem to love everything they own or do to be BIG. Houses, cars, dogs, meals, pints of beer. Perhaps the only area in which they hold back is in the size of their families.
- At an intersection, the first person to arrive has priority. More than once, Mathieu has confused an approaching Canadian driver by waiting to turn at an intersection with a stop sign.
- At a red light, you can turn right if the road is clear. Another big shock for this European driver!
- Returning to the topic of BIG, Mathieu has come to realise that small cars here are actually big cars in Italy. Big cars here would not fit on the roads in Italy.
- In Canada, newspapers are packaged in plastic and thrown onto people's lawns. In Italy, you have to go to the store or find a newspaper seller on the streets to buy a paper.
- Canada is abound with squirrels. In Italy, they are quite the rarity!
- Booths in restaurants are a uniquely North American phenomenon.
- Children as young as 5 or 6 years old walk home from school on their own in small towns.
- Waiters bring you the bill before you've finished eating at a restaurant instead of asking you when you'd like the bill.
Day 9: Tobermory and the Bruce Peninsula National Park
Enjoying Canada's beauty at its finest
The following day in Tobermory took Mathieu, Nick and I to one of the most famous national parks in Ontario, the Bruce Peninsula National Park. We had been tempted to walk from Tobermory to the park, but discovering that it was actually an 18 km hike made us think we made the right decision by driving.
About five miles down a long dirt road bordered by lazy summer trees of all sorts was the start of the Georgian Bay trail. It was a level walk made easier by gravel and boardwalks, unlike later walks whose stones and roots would catch your toes if you paused even a moment to watch a passing bird, butterfly or ray of sunshine peeping through the canopy.
At the end of the trail was a sparking grotto that looked as if it had been carved out especially for foreign holidaymakers, who had of course gathered in dozens. The mouth of the grotto was filled by a smooth and slippery shelf of rock no more than ankle-deep. However, as you approached the open water of Georgian Bay, you would encounter a steep drop - a literal underwater cliff face with a depth of over 100 feet. Strangely, the water was so clear and blue that the bottom of the lake almost appeared within arm's reach.
We watched the hours pass by like minutes, dipping in and out of the cold waters, munching on homemade peanut butter sandwiches, and forever doubting that such a beautiful moment could have an end. I even managed to overcome my fear of swimming in deep waters, but that did not stop me from returning to the safety of the shelf every now and then!
The Grotto in all its splendour!
Our hike then took a turn down towards to Overhanging Point, a lesser-known area with only a few bathers enjoying its beauty. After another refreshing dip, we continued along the Cyprus Lake walk, a 4 km woodland hike around the lake that gives the walk its name. I focussed on photographing the forest butterflies, whilst Mathieu took care of everything else. We were quite peckish by the time we'd finished, so we ended off the day with a simple barbeque consisting of four hamburgers divided amongst three, one tomato, an excess of buns and ketchup, all cooked, sliced and flipped with Nick's one solitary utility knife.
Our only regret of the day was that our plans to photograph a second Tobermory sunset were thwarted by incoming clouds and rain.
A view of the end of Cyprus Lake. Also the halfway mark on our walk!
COME BACK SOON FOR DAY 10 OF OUR TRIP TO CANADA!