In case you didn’t hear it enough, Canada turned 150 this year! As a country, have we hit puberty yet? I will have to ask Greece. Anyway… For the occasion (and also because our dollar wasn’t in great shape), a lot of Canadians visited their own country this summer. I was one of these Canadians.
For our summer trip, we decided that we would visit our neighbouring province: Ontario. There were a lot of places I was eager to visit: Toronto, the many waterfalls of Hamilton, Elora Quarry and Bruce Peninsula, to name a few.
Last year, we were gone a little less than two weeks and drove almost 5000 km throughout the Atlantic Provinces. We hit great weather and all our plans seemed to work out fine. Apart from a debacle in a motel that I will never visit again, everything went great. This year, on top of the notoriously bad weather, the elements I planned the trip around all seem to fail for a reason or another.
Here are a few tips so you don’t make the same mistakes as me.
- The Thousand Islands
Leaving Montreal in the morning, we started by driving 2.5 hours to Brockville, called the ‘city of the Thousand Islands’. Brockville was named after General Isaac Brock for his exploits during the war of 1812 and this is where the rich lived. For this reason, driving through the city, you’ll see many beautiful stone houses and buildings dating from early 19th century.
After a walk through the city, we dined at the charming Buell St Bistro and went on the classic boat tour of the Thousand Islands. Boat tours are the main reason why tourists stop by Brockville. The Thousand Islands region actually is an archipelago in St Lawrence River made out of 1,864 islands. Some of them are inhabited by humans, others by trees only and some of them by an impressive population of birds. For example, the Ironsides Island is where great blue herons go to breed in the spring, which is why it now is a National Natural Landmark.
If conditions aren’t great, it is possible for boat tours to be canceled. In our case, it was a very windy day and the boat didn’t go as far as it usually does. If you are there for more than one day, do not hesitate to postpone your tour if the weather isn’t great. Also, if you really want to see something in particular, like the famous Boldt Castle, you better compare the itineraries of the boat tours before buying your tickets (I didn’t do that). You also need to do it before you leave because it might change where you stay at night. For example, the boat tours in Brockville are all offered by the same company. If you want other options, you have to go to other towns like Kingston, Gananoque or Alexandria Bay from the United States. Moreover, if you love a bargain, there are a few deals on Groupon for those boat tours.
Two more hours of driving and we arrived near Sandbanks for the night. If you want to pay less for accommodation, I recommend staying the night in bordering towns like Belleville or Trenton.
The main attractions in Sandbanks are its famous beach and the wineries.
Due to last spring flood and the damaged it caused, plus the high level of the water on the day we wanted to go, there were four Important Notices on the Sandbanks website. Many sections of the beach and trails were closed. Since it wasn’t a great beach day weather-wise anyway, I quickly searched for another thing to do in the region. However, colleagues of mine went to Sandbanks later in the summer and didn’t have the same problem as me. So do not be afraid to go. Just check the website beforehand and don’t be too afraid is a trail or two are closed.
As a plan B, we decided to go visit nature at Presqu’île National Park in Brighton. It is a great place to go for camping, trails, and beaches. When we were there, the beaches were closed, the trails full of mosquitoes enjoying the marshy conditions and there was so much fog we couldn’t see much of the usual landscape.
However, even though it wasn’t perfect, the scenery was very beautiful. If you’ll be in the Sandbanks area for a few days, I would recommend a stop at this park.
The next stop was a big one, like the biggest city in Canada kind of big. Don’t ask me how the public transportation system works in Toronto. We walked everywhere the three days we were there. (I am still a bit traumatized from my experience with the transportation system in Boston.) The good thing about big cities is that, even if the weather is terrible, you will have many things to do. In Toronto, you have hundreds of restaurants and cafés, plenty of museums, cinemas, shopping malls, etc. You won’t be bored.
One of the highlights of our visit to Toronto was the gorgeous libraries. If you are a book lover, I highly recommend the old library of Osgoode Hall and Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library. The book nerd that I am loved it. Bonus: both visits are free. If you are interested in rare books, I also heard great things about the Monkey’s Paws bookstore. Plus, it is near the Harry Potter-inspired bar The Lockhart where you could enjoy a glass of Gin Weasley or Better Beer.
As tradition goes, we went to say hi to the dinosaurs at the Royal Ontario Museum. Anecdotally, in front of the museum, evangelization efforts were through the roof. As we were eating outside, right next to the hotdog vendors, one person was distributing Koran. Next to him, four women from Jews for Jesus were handing out iced tea and pamphlets to evangelize Jews. And then, Jews for Judaism showed up. Weird city, eh?
Next stop: Casa Loma, from outside only. It may look like a castle and a museum. But Casa Loma actually was the personal residence of millionaire Sir Henry Pellat. If you want to go see inside, just know that it costs 27$, and there is a lineup.
Another mandatory stop was the Eaton Centre. This huge shopping mall was a nice air-conditioned stop on our itinerary. Amongst the 250 stores, there is a Disney store: important stuff. We also walked around the hip Kensington market neighbourhood and Chinatown. These two areas are great if you are looking for something to eat.
One of my favourite stops was St Lawrence market. Going to public markets is a great way to discover the best food a city has to offer. Influenced by Anthony Bourdain, we tasted a peameal bacon sandwich at Carousel Bakery. We added to that lobster chowder, great grilled shrimps from Buster’s Sea Cove and a delicious coffee from Everyday Gourmet, where they roasted their coffee on-site. A lot of the stores take cash only, so be prepared.
As I planned the trip, I found a lot of restaurants in Toronto that I wanted to try. However, we often ended up eating somewhere near us because we were getting ‘hangry’. Next time I stop by Toronto, I will definitively make time to go to Electric Mud BBQ and WRST.
If you have favourite spots in Toronto, I would love to hear them! This won’t be the last time I set foot in this city, that’s for sure.
Stay tuned for part 2 of my trip to Ontario.