Canada is big; really big. We had been under the impression that we were going to Canada for our holidays, but on our return from three weeks of travelling, we’ve realised that at no time did we leave the geographical environs of just one particular river. Admittedly, the St Lawrence does cover a lot of ground, passing through the Great Lakes, including Niagara Falls and Lake Ontario, running up through Quebec and eventually emerging into the northern Atlantic, a distance of some 4000 kilometres, but one waterway does not a country make. On the other hand, we didn’t exactly spend our time sitting on the beach.
We spent a week in the Toronto area with our friends Phil and Penny, who live in what can only be described as the posh end of Toronto, the Beaches, with its own lake shore board-walk and an excellent bar called Captain Jack’s, where the wonderful Tanya learnt how to mix increasingly fierce Manhattans for the curious pair of Englishmen, one hairy and the other shaven-headed, who had blundered into her bar in the middle of the night.
We spent our days checking out the extensive selection of locally brewed beers and a number of tourist attractions, some more obvious than others. The CN Tower, a major feature of the famous Toronto skyline and the tallest building in the world, was, well, very tall indeed.
The Badlands, a curious geological feature formed from pink clay, was very weird, and Black Creek, a recreated 1860s pioneer village, was fascinating.
All the guide books warned that we would be disappointed by Niagara (most reprinting the old adage that it is the “new bride’s second great disappointment”), but in actual fact the Falls are awesome, especially when viewed from one of the Maid of the Mist fleet of pleasure boats that take you right inside the curve of the Horseshoe Falls. Looking around me on the deck, I couldn’t see a single face, young or old, that wasn’t fixed in a crazy grin amidst the thunder and the spray.
After the spectacle, we weren’t too keen to return to the bright lights and amusement arcades in town, and the Lonely Planet Guide – which quickly became our infallible bible for the trip – recommended a walk up the gorge, so we took the shuttle bus to the far end of the resort (for resort it most definitely is) and clambered down to river level for the long walk back up the valley. The gorge was indeed spectacular, bounded by sheer cliff faces and packed with enough trees and undergrowth to make the going rough enough to be amusing.
I had spoken to a park ranger at the top, who pointed out that we we were going to get wet. “Rain doesn’t bother us,” I responded… but boy, when the heavens opened, things got a bit messy down there. Those vertical cliffs became impromptu muddy waterfalls, and we were drenched in minutes. The unmarked trail that we were following became a series of cascading rapids, and when we finally got to the famous Whirlpool, we were hard pressed to tell where it ended and the land began. Once we finally dragged ourselves out of the gorge, we found that the buses had stopped running – we’d spent too long sheltering under a rock – but we hitched into town and were very grateful to pour ourselves into a convenient Planet Hollywood, where the staff were equally diligent at pouring cocktails into our rapidly drying bodies.
The following week saw us staying with our friend Mark in Kingston, some two hours’ drive downriver. Phil had lent us a spare convertible, an elderly Chrysler le Baron with some interesting eccentricities, the most endearing of which was probably the failure in the starter motor relay system. My first fix involved booster cables snaking out from under the engine, but after Maria pointed out that I’d have to crawl underneath the car to start it every morning, a few moments thought and a couple of minutes with some pliers fabricated the necessary hot-wiring. In order to start the engine, I had to turn the ignition, get out, open the bonnet (sorry, hood), and jam a screwdriver between the posts of my converted solenoid. It worked a treat.
It was Mark’s birthday, and since his parents (thanks Gill and Derek for putting up with us!) have a pool, we had a pool party, which swiftly and appropriately degenerated into a violent free-for-all involving increasingly disintegrating pool noodles.
Kingston has a number of interesting attractions, including a candle-lit evening ghost walk, and the fascinating prison museum, containing all sorts of ingenious weaponry confiscated from the inmates. The town is, however, most famous for being the gateway to the Thousand Islands, and the cruise amongst the islands was really quite something. Almost every island is owned by some millionaire and/or recluse, and each contains a home commensurate with its size, ranging from entire towns to huge castles to tiny shacks perched on a single rock. To add to the confusion, exactly half are technically US soil, the other half Canadian, but the different nationalities are all jumbled in one with another. A real millionaire’s playground, a wonderful place.
Moving on, we pointed the Le Baron northward up the St Lawrence river into Quebec, stopping for the night in Trois Rivieres, where we stumbled on the most amazing Bed & Breakfast belonging to a family of chiropractors who also happened to collect mid-19th Century antique furniture. The place had been lovingly restored, and each room reflected a different period or style. Incredible.
Downriver, Quebec City was dominated by the amazing Chateau Frontenac, a Victorian railway hotel of prodigious size which we just had to stay in. Our room on the 17th floor gave tremendous views over the city, but the room itself was something of a disappointment after the previous night’s Manoir DuBlois, looking much like any other business hotel.
Quebec City itself was similar; from a distance it showed great promise, but when you actually got in close you found that almost every building was a souvenir shop. We did find a fascinating purveyor of hand-made mediaeval (sorry, medieval) clothing, and a fine bar with an excellent selection of beers from the province and from around the world, as well as a restaurant specialising in ancient Canadian food, an interesting and on the whole successful attempt to cross pioneer trapper dishes with haute cuisine.
Even further north, in the pouring rain in the middle of nowhere, we came across a trio of young German hitchhikers who were quite bewildered to be packed into the back of a convertible and whisked onto the ferry to Tadoussac, where they squelched into the youth hostel and we checked into the faded grandeur of the Hotel Tadoussac, a forties confection in red and white-painted wood, with rooms looking out over the St Lawrence river.
We stepped out into the deluge to see if we could find a restaurant, but everything was shut so we crawled back to base to eat in the rather fine dining room, painted on all sides with a mural depicting English troops trouncing the City of Quebec.
The morning found us bouncing around in a Zodiac-style rubber-sided powerboat, hunting for whales. It was still raining, and visibility was very poor, but as we hit the chop at the edge of the estuary it all cleared, and as far as the eye could see there were whales, seals, dolphins, and various sizes of whale-watching boat.
Many who know me well will long have been aware of the existence of The List, an unpublished and constantly changing agenda of Things To Do Before I Die. There is a dark and shady corner of The List that contains things that I really want to do but which, realistically, I doubt will ever happen. One of these is to go into space; another is to see a blue whale. Incredibly, a huge one simply popped out of the sea nearby, and was content to swim along with us while all the other whale boats chased off after other prey.
The huge beast didn’t breach or tail dive, it just shimmered along just below the waterline, giving us tantalising glimpses of its enormous bulk.
Many whales later, I was extremely content, and it was pure icing on the cake when, speeding back to base, the pilot suddenly jinked hard to the left with the cry “La balene blanche!”. There they were, a whole pod of white belugas, swimming around underneath the boat. Marvellous.
Back on land, it was time for us to head back south, but first we wanted to jink inland so that we could make our way back through a series of national parks. One of the other things on The List was to stay in a roadside motel, as in all the best Hollywood thrillers (you’ve got to remember that this was my first time in North America), and in fact the Lonely Planet recommended a particular one in Chicoutimi, so I was delighted to pull up and check in.
Yep, it looked exactly like they do in the films; a bed, a lamp, and a small bathroom. It was hardly a dive, but I was pleased to note that some of the tiles were cracked and one of the ceiling tiles was leaking insulation; I could pretend that it was vaguely sleazy and, if I squinted a bit, ignore the beautiful views downriver toward the St Lawrence.
In the morning we had intended to visit a pulp mill in Jonquiere, but the tourist office had been shut down, and after a while we gave up and headed off on a road that – on the map – passed through a huge featureless white area that spread northwards as far as the Arctic. I had assumed that this was logging country, and I was not mistaken. The sun, which had remained stubbornly hidden for the last few days, finally reappeared, picking out the many shades of green in the ranks of trees as they marched endlessly over the hills, faithfully reflected in the limpid blue lakes below.
The wide sweeping roads were empty of all traffic apart from the occasional logging truck, and my heart was singing with the wide-open beauty of it all. I really wanted to park the car and just get on out there into the quiet and solitude.
Conveniently enough, we zipped by the office of the St Mauritie Nature Reserve, and a quick U-turn got me inside, where I explained what I wanted. There was a surprising amount of red tape, but I paid eight dollars to register my name, address and vehicle details, and then another twelve dollars to get over the toll bridge into the reserve itself. Only then could we motor the 18 km down unmade logging roads to reach our assigned footpath, a circular walk around a small waterfall called Dunbar Chute.
The footpath was pretty notional, the undergrowth thick and the mosquitoes vicious: it was wonderful! And so very very quiet, just the sounds of the birds and the water and no background noises at all. To a townie’s ears it sounded as though there was a hole in the world, something missing as we paused to admire yet another stunning lakeside vista.
Sadly, however, it had to end eventually, so we de-registered at the control booth and headed for Montreal.
The idea was to find a hotel in town, and indeed our guide told us that there were plenty of B&Bs both down town and in the old quarter, so we decided to try both. Down town Montreal appeared to be evenly split between office blocks and lively bars with cool dudes cruising loudly up and down outside. We couldn’t see any hotels, so we tried the old quarter, which was snarled up with picturesque flower-bedecked horse-drawn taxis, but nary a sign of a B&B.
Getting a bit desperate, we cast our net wider, and finally found a whole street full of what appeared to be hotels. At first we ignored the groups of young men lounging around in the lobbies, but as receptionist after receptionist first admitted that they were a hotel but apologised that they were full, I began to notice that every time we stopped, swarthy figures would appear in the windows staring at the convertible and apparently counting the wheels.
By nine o’clock we thought, to hell with it! and attempted to find a highway out of town. By half past ten we were completely lost… but there on the other carriageway was a 24-hour motel. This one was really sleazy. As the proprietor showed us to our room (I’d better help you with the door, the lock sticks since somebody stole the keys), three girls ran giggling from the one next door to a waiting car (I’d wondered why he’d asked how many people I was planning to put in the double bed), and through the (nailed shut) window we had a fine view of a purple neon sign declaring ’11 til 3 video poker’, whatever that is.
I’d asked if there was anywhere to eat at that time of night, and he pointed us in the direction of an all-night diner, but he seemed a bit hesitant so we approached it with some trepidation. However, the place turned out to be an award-winner for its fries and smoked-meat sandwiches, the walls papered with plaudits from food critics, and sure enough the food was excellent.
We sat, well-earned red beer to hand, and listened to Muddy Waters as the chef’s seemingly endless stream of old friends dropped in for a chat and a take-out. Back at the motel, we tried to clear the smell of stale cigarette smoke, attempted to close the blinds against the searchlight mounted outside, brushed the pubic hairs from the nylon sheets and composed ourselves for sleep.
Maria drifted right off, but unfortunately I was reacting badly to some of the day’s mosquito bites, and so watched miserably as one finger swelled up into a big red balloon while the rest of the hand itched maddeningly in sympathy.
An early start saw us on the road to Ottawa, and it was a relief to leave Montreal’s cracked and potholed roads behind and get onto some smooth tarmac. It was simplicity itself to park in the centre of town, and shortly we were standing in the sun on Parliament Hill, gazing at the Houses of Parliament that looked suspiciously similar to the buildings of the same name in London.
With so much to see, we settled on an open-top tour bus which was well worthwhile, giving us a geographical and historical overview of this attractive green city.
Finally, it was back to Toronto to return the car to Phil and Penny, to wander around the pleasant park and beaches that form the Toronto Islands, and of course to revisit the bar Captain Jack’s**, where Tanya was delighted to see us again.
Phil carried me home in a shopping trolley. Need I say more?
**Historical Note. At about this time, although we at this point had never met, Bronwyn was in fact a regular at Captain Jack’s. Possibly she was there in the bar that night. Possibly she was even one of the locals that thrashed us at table football. The world is indeed a very, very small place.