Country Counter: 24
Cities Visited: Toronto, Montreal
Timeframe: October 2018
Have you ever planned a last-minute, impromptu vacation, just because you suddenly had some time off? I had only heard of these things happening to others, when it happened to me. I am currently between jobs, and was lucky enough to negotiate an early release from my previous employer. This gave me enough time off to unwind, visit my parents back home for 2 weeks, and still have time left over for another trip. Not wanting to miss this rare opportunity, I decided to visit Canada. One of my friends from my MBA program, who lives there, has been asking me to do so ever since she visited us in France on an exchange program.
After a week of rushing to and from the embassy for my last-minute visa, I was off. My trip began in Toronto. I managed to get direct, round trip tickets (Paris-Toronto) for a good deal (€430 – Air Canada). My friend picked me up at Union station, from where we headed off to Oakville, one of its suburbs. As I was on some much-needed time off, I decided to keep it relaxed, and not be in a rush to see a million things in one day. Day 1 included an hour-long, picturesque hike at Rattlesnake point, followed by a walking tour of Hamilton, another suburban town which has gentrified a lot in recent years. In Hamilton, we hit Collective Arts Brewery, a micro-brewery that has gained recognition by merging fine brewing and art submitted by artists.
When you hit Canada Street, while in Canada! *Strolling through Hamilton*
Collective Arts Brewing
Halloween is a festival that is celebrated in North America like nowhere else. Preparations begin a month in advance. When my hosts wanted to pick up some pumpkins to decorate their front porch, we headed out to one of the (many) pumpkin farms around the area. Halloween, being the biggest draw for pumpkins, was a busy time. We stopped at Hutcherson’s pumpkin farm. I would have never imagined that picking up pumpkins could be an entire exercise in itself – we went through entire ranges, of different colours, shapes and sizes. One was aptly named the Prizewinner!
The next day, we set out for Toronto city. We were joined by another good friend of my host. First stop: Kensington market, a pedestrian-only zone lined with shops and street artists. We saw a group of 60 to 70-year olds playing as a band, restaurants selling different delicacies, street performers ranging from solo acts to kids as young as ten (maybe even younger). Post lunch, we headed out towards Scarborough Bluffs. The area, formed as a result of erosion over a number of years, provided for a nice hike, complete with its own ‘beach’ and a washed up boat (which intrigued my friend quite a bit).
After spending the weekend in Toronto, I headed out to Montreal. I had always had an impression of Montreal as being a purely French city. I was quite mistaken. Montreal combines the warmth of Canadian people with the charm of an old French city. The 3 days I spent in Montreal turned out to be among the best of this entire year. I would also like to give a shout out to another connection of mine, currently based in Amsterdam, who kept providing me with a list of places to visit and things to do while in Canada. Her advice was especially helpful in Montreal, where I did not know anyone. She did not ask me to write this 😉
One thing that instantly caught my attention was the street art/graffiti. Prior to this, my idea of street art was limited to what I see spray-painted on columns and walls under bridges in Europe, which comprise mostly of slang and slurs.
Even the street on which my hostel was located was entirely decorated to celebrate the LGBT community.
There was art everywhere, from metro stations to highway restaurants.
Since I had just 2 full days, I was out and about early in the morning. Although it rained the entire day, I was able to cover a lot of ground, owing to the fact that most tourists chose to stay in or start late due to the rain. I found myself first, and almost alone, at various sites. This gave me the freedom to take my time exploring. My first stop was Parc Jean-Drapeau on Saint Helen’s Island (accessible by metro). The park hosts several attractions, most notably the Biosphere. Designed by Buckminster Fuller, it survived fire and ice, and is now a museum.
The park has several trails. These pictures below show the trail I took. I was the ONLY one in the park at that time, and it was quite serene. The rain brought out the glow among the trees. Once I turned into a corner, and was greeted by an open space, with lights hanging on trees. They were still switched on, and the entire place looked like a magical forest. I also stumbled upon the Tour de Lévis (Lévis Tower), which promised great views of the park and the city skyline. Unfortunately, it was only open to public on weekends.
My friend had suggested two notable eateries: Patati Patata for poutine and Schwartz Deli for smoked meat. Although poutine was available everywhere, this place stood out as being one of the best, as per user reviews. I went there for dinner and it was quite nice. One of the (friendly) members who have been running the place for decades suggested a simple poutine with bacon on top. Delicious! For lunch, I had headed up to Schwartz. Even though it was raining heavily, there was still a queue outside, with the inside packed. It was so packed that when I finally got in, I was made to sit on the only empty chair with a family I didn’t know. The place is still a family-owned business, and they claim that they smoke their meat daily to keep it fresh. I was tempted to order 2 sandwiches, but the person waiting on me suggested I start with one. The results are below. The sandwich was huge, hearty and simply amazing!
Post lunch, I headed towards Notre Dame cathedral. Nestled between residential buildings, the cathedral was bustling with tourists and performers playing live music. When I walked into the square, all the surrounding noise from traffic simply faded away to soothing violin music and friendly chatter. It was like I had stepped into another world just by crossing the street.
From there on, if you keep walking north along the water, you reach the old port (Vieux Port) of Montreal. During the walk to the port, I passed by Bon-Secours market. Along with Jean-Talon, these two markets attract a lot of tourists and locals alike for their variety of fresh products, and almost a million varieties of maple syrup 😊
Walking along the water, I stopped by the old port to get some pictures. The trees were just starting to change colour for fall, and it was a contrast to the dull, grey overcast sky.
View of the city from the Old Port
Another thing worth mentioning. My hostel, M Montreal, was the best one I’ve ever stayed at (yet). The location was great (right next to central Berri Uqam station), the staff was friendly, the rooms were fully equipped (personal curtains), loads of activities, a rooftop with spa and city views, etc. In short, everything was taken care of to make the occupants feel at home. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed such a hostel experience before, and I’ve stayed at many all over Europe. This experience was even better than the one I had in Los Angeles just a month ago. I would recommend this hostel to everyone, of all age groups. In fact, I might just go to Montreal again just to stay at this hostel 😊
Anyway, back to day 2. The hostel had a group hike on Mont Royal planned as one of its activities. I had read that the Mont (hill) was located inside the city, and therefore, a hike to the summit led to great views of the city itself. I did hike up on day 1 at night, but wasn’t able to see much due to rain and clouds. Even though it was pitch black at night, people were jogging on the hill. Hiking up at night, on a path I could barely see, was one of the most exciting (and a bit scary) experience.
The morning was better, weather-wise. Our group headed out on foot after a short bus ride. We soon got to know each other well, and spent the rest of the day together. It reminded me a bit of my hike to the Hollywood sign last month. There are two paths to go up. One involves a lot of stairs; the other, an incline. However, the hike is suitable for first timers or casual hikers. Once on the summit, there is a chalet, with rooms to stay, restaurant(s) and a café. A platform on the front has a bird’s eye view of Montreal. The skyscrapers are near eye-level, with the city in the background. A picturesque photo spot!
View from the platform
The hostel hiking group
While our guide headed back to the hostel to cook (that evening was pasta night at the hostel), I suggested that we walk along the hill to the other side, towards Saint Joseph’s Oratory (Oratoire Saint-Joseph). Almost the entire group decided to join me, and we had a lovely time walking, talking and laughing with each other. We spent some time at the oratory before heading back to the free pasta that was waiting for us. Later, we hung out at the hostel bar and, as I was leaving the next day, some of them joined me for breakfast as well.
Saint Joseph’s Oratory
I returned to Toronto the next day and had dinner at my friend’s place. It was my last night in Canada and I was quite sad to be leaving the day after. An impromptu trip that had materialised at the last moment turned out to be an experience I will never forget, mostly due to the warm hospitality of my hosts, and people in general. I spent the next morning casually strolling in Toronto (I had an evening flight) as I wanted to take in the last moments in Canada before leaving.
*With my friends/hosts on my last night in Canada*
Among the places I visited were the Distillery District, which was once one of the largest distilleries in North America, and Saint Lawrence market.
The Distillery District
St. Lawrence market
This picture below captures another colourful moment during my stroll. I simply loved how the trees and the buildings contrast the grey skyscrapers behind them.
After having lunch with my friend, I decided to check off something that I had been planning to do since I had arrived. I’ve always had this weird fascination of capturing skylines of different cities around the world through my lens. I had seen a picture of Toronto’s skyline on the Internet before the trip, and I wanted to capture a similar one. But I had no idea from where it was taken. My friend suggested that I take the ferry to Hanlan’s Point on Toronto Islands. There are 3 drop off points, and ferries run every 15 minutes. With just 2 hours left before I had to take the train to the airport, I decided to risk it. In short – ran to the ferry station, booked the next ferry, reached Hanlan’s point, explored the islands a bit, and returned with loads of pictures. I had what I wanted.
I now have a 10-year tourist visa for Canada, and rest assured, I will be visiting again. My Canadian hosts said that the west coast is more beautiful. ‘til the next time, Canada! You’ve been amazing.