Archive for October 2013
I can remember the moment Toronto began to win me over. It was at BMO Field, an hour after arriving in the city, in the waning minutes of Toronto FC’s MLS game versus the Columbus Crew.
Losing 1-0, many Toronto fans upped and left when a storm swept in from Lake Ontario. Soaked to the skin, my son and I took advantage of space behind the Columbus goal just as Toronto equalized.
We’d barely finished high-fiving the locals when Toronto scored the winner in injury time, sparking more sodden pandemonium. We saw ourselves on TV highlights that night. Just as well we hadn’t worn our Whitecaps jerseys!
Like many west coasters, I harbored some instinctive disdain for Canada’s biggest city. I’d heard about its swagger, its summer humidity, and, of course, the Maple Leafs. Yet riding the bus full of fans back to the Fairmont Royal York, past the CN Tower and Rogers Centre (aka SkyDome), I was warming to Toronto.
Some of that big-city swagger must surely have originated in the Fairmont Royal York, once the biggest hotel in the British Empire and still oozing opulence from every one of its 1,600 rooms. The hotel of choice for royalty and rock stars is down to earth enough to grow its own herbs, vegetables and flowers on a rooftop terrace, as well as maintain three beehives.
The hotel will also store your bikes for you, a bonus in a city that’s expanding its bike lane network. With only two days in Toronto, we rented bikes at Segway Ontario, a short tram ride away in the Distillery District. The endless roadworks and construction across downtown made us glad of the two-wheeled escape.
Once home to the Gooderham and Worts Distillery (said to be the world’s largest distillery by the mid-19th century) the Distillery District today is a well preserved pedestrian village. Upmarket stores, bars and restaurants have taken up residence in the red-brick Victorian buildings and Vancouverites might see some similarities with parts of Yaletown and Gastown. The Mill Street Brew Pub is a great spot for local beers and great food – especially when you’re finished bike riding for the day.
We left the Distillery District’s cobblestones behind and headed for Toronto’s Waterfront Trail. The trail is part of a series of bike and pedestrian paths that connect 31 communities along Lake Ontario’s shores. About 450 kilometers of the trail is signposted and the few kilometers we biked transported us to beaches seemingly a million miles removed from downtown Toronto.
Known as The Beaches, this eastern Toronto neighbourhood is a rarity in that homes and not a freeway still line the lakeshore. The feeling of community is palpable at the beach where seniors and toddlers were dancing to a live Cuban salsa band and dozens of beach volleyball games were in progress. Just a week before, Toronto had sweltered in the upper 30s. Now in the mid-20s it seemed that every dog-walker, kite-flyer, roller-blader and cyclist in the city had descended on The Beaches and its boardwalk. Like proper tourists, we dismounted, bought ice creams and watched the world go by.
Toronto’s weather gods weren’t quite so kind the following day. Under leaden skies and with drizzle in the air, we headed inland on the Lower Don Trail. Whereas much of the cycling in Toronto is on routes shared with cars, the Lower Don Trail is blissfully free of vehicle traffic. More than that, it’s a slice of downtown Toronto far removed from the city’s more popular tourist attractions.
The Lower Don River is only about eight kilometers long but it flows through one of the most densely populated communities in Canada. So it’s odd to cycle by rusting and abandoned footbridges, beneath concrete express ramps, and yet still spot a heron presiding over a river bank that resembles a healthy wetland. In places the graffiti is as dense as the wildflowers and the proliferation of the latter is due in part to the efforts of volunteer groups.
We dried off from the rain at the Evergreen Brick Works, known for almost a century as the Don Valley Brick Works. Evergreen is a national charity and one of the groups involved in reviving the Lower Don. It runs the brick works as a community environmental centre, nurturing the disused quarry as a park, naturalizing ponds and restoring the brick works’ old buildings. On any given day you’ll find a farmers’ market, cooking workshops and family pizza nights at the site which once supplied the bricks for most of Toronto’s major landmarks.
From Evergreen Brick Works we cycled through Beltline Trail and the racy-sounding Milkman’s Run (Couldn’t help thinking of Benny Hill) before zig-zagging our way through quiet residential streets to Sherbourne Street. Sherbourne was the first of Toronto’s separated bike lanes and from Bloor Street to King Street, biking is a breeze.
Even after we’d returned our rental bikes we noticed signs of cycling’s growing popularity in Toronto. After ascending the CN Tower on our last night we walked across historic Roundhouse Park to Steam Whistle Brewing. There outside the brewery on Bremner Boulevard, not far from a BIXI bike-sharing stand, was an urban bike repair station complete with pump and tethered bike tools: free for anyone wanting a tune-up!
If you go:
Segway Ontario in Toronto’s Distillery District rents a wide variety of bicycles for $35 a day, as well as offering walking and Segway tours. Visit segwayofontario.com
Toronto grew up around the historic Fairmont Royal York, which features several bars and restaurants and offers numerous accommodation packages. They will also store your bikes. Visit fairmont.com/royal-york-toronto
Evergreen Brick Works is a hive of activity, combining history, education, and environmental activism. It also serves great food! Visit ebw.evergreen.ca
For all other travel matters Toronto, visit seetorontonow.com
The older my children get, the more discerning they become about holiday activities. My teenagers Ryan and Emma are not big on cycling, history or museums. And like most people they don’t like rain much either.
So there we were with our bikes in the rain, standing outside The Museum of Civilization in old Quebec City.
“Well at least it’s dry in the museum,” I reasoned.
“Can’t we just find somewhere to eat?” asked Ryan.
It wasn’t the first time Quebec had witnessed a clash of wills – what military historians might call an impasse. After a three-month siege in 1759, it took General Wolfe and the British about 15 minutes to beat Montcalm and the French in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.
It took the Judds about the same time to finish arguing, lock their bikes and enter the museum. Then something remarkable happened. “Game Story, the exhibition you play,” read the sign in the lobby. Yes, besides first-rate exhibitions about Quebec history and a showcase of Paris between 1889 and 1914, The Museum of Civilization was hosting a video game exhibition, featuring 450 artifacts and 88 video games to play. Everything from World of Warcraft to Pong was available.
We were still in the museum long after the rain had stopped and the sun had returned. It was just the first of several surprising events during our two-night stay in Quebec City. That night we cycled our bikes to the Port of Quebec Agora, an amphitheatre hosting Cirque du Soleil’s Les Chemin Invisibles. Quebec City might just be the only place where Cirque du Soleil is free! Had they been charging, our floor tickets would have cost a fortune because most of the show unfolded just a few yards from where we stood.
The Harbour of Lost Souls is the fifth chapter of Les Chemin Invisibles. The employees of an old customs officer decide to put on a show for his birthday in the hopes of helping him to find purpose in his life. The show is spectacular in its conception with performers suspended from cranes just a few feet above the audience and on moving stages that spring up in the crowd.
Cirque du Soleil is a tough act to follow, but the Image Mill is timed to follow it and succeeds if only for its epic setting. A legacy of Quebec City’s 400th birthday in 2008, the Image Mill is a sound and image show projected onto massive grain silos in Quebec’s harbour. We joined the hordes lining the harbour to watch this summer’s show, a tribute to Scottish-born, Canadian filmmaker, Norman McLaren. A pioneer in synchronizing animation with music, McLaren, who died in 1987, would surely have approved of his work being presented on the biggest ‘big screen’ ever conceived.
Back at the Hotel Royal William in Quebec City’s trendy New St. Roch neighbourhood, we locked up our bikes and I ventured out for a nightcap on Boulevard Charest Est. The Mo Resto Bar had one more surprise in store for me; beer pumps at the table! The beer is metered of course (it’s not heaven) at 35 cents an ounce. But for my wife, I might still be there pouring modest amounts of Belle Gueule Blonde or Red ale.
Thanks to the success of Day 1, we sold the kids on a guided bike tour the following day.
At first glance, Quebec City doesn’t appear built for bicycles. Narrow lanes, cobblestones and hills usually look good in postcards, not from a saddle. But first impressions can be deceiving. A few bumps and the occasional grind are a small price to pay for a two-wheeled tour of North America’s only walled city and UNESCO World Heritage site. For visitors with more time, there are several hundred kilometres of bike trails to ride beyond the fortress walls.
Our guide, Marc Lupien of Cyclo Services, has been riding the same Nishiki road bike for 35 years (“I changed the brake cable once or twice – and the seat!”) and has seen the growth of bike culture here.
“It’s not uncommon to see people buying $10,000 bikes in Quebec City,” said Marc. “It’s a relatively short season, but cycling is growing faster than golf here.”
While bike lanes line the edge of the St. Lawrence River and part of the escarpment above, cycling through Vieux Quebec itself takes some improvisation. In summer the streets are busy with pedestrians preoccupied with their centuries-old surroundings. Fortunately, it’s legal to ride the sidewalk and we were soon slaloming on either side of the kerb.
Marc’s tour skirted Laval University, formerly the Seminaire de Quebec and the oldest centre of education in Canada; the Citadelle atop Cap Diamant, adjoining the Plains of Abraham; Quebec’s National Assembly and Chateau Frontenac, said to be the most photographed hotel in the world. (I’d swear it was the inspiration for Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.)
Just across from the National Assembly we stopped at the Fountaine de Tourny, built for the city’s 400th birthday and a popular spot for wedding photos. It was hard not to notice the monolithic Hilton and Delta hotels, whose desperately unimaginative architecture is in dramatic contrast to most buildings in Vieux Quebec.
We lingered in Place Royale, site of Samuel de Champlain’s first permanent settlement in New France. Grey stones mark the footings of where Champlain’s home once stood, right outside Notre Dame des Victories, the oldest stone church in North America, dating back to 1687. There are similar grey stone markers all over Old Quebec, said Marc, signalling other historic sites that would be impossible to excavate now.
We rode the waterfront and part of the old port of Quebec before an adventurous ride through crowds of shoppers in the narrow, cobblestoned lanes of Quartier Petit Champlain. Once a fur-trading portside village, it’s now full of boutiques, bistros and frescoes. A funicular railway connects the area to Dufferin Terrace, a beautifully landscaped boardwalk with the best view of the St. Lawrence River. It seemed like a fitting place to stop for an ice cream and consider the view Champlain enjoyed in 1608.
People had told me that Quebec would remind me of an old European city. Aside from medieval Bruges in Belgium, I don’t know of another place as beautiful as Quebec City. Even Ryan and Emma liked it!
If you go:
In the heart of old Quebec City since 1995, Cyclo Services offers bike rentals and a variety of guided bike tours. Visit http://www.cycloservices.net or call 1 877 692-4050.
The Hotel Royal William is in the heart of New St. Roch, a neighbourhood full of great bars, coffee shops, restaurants and independent stores. It’s a few minutes bike ride from the old city and the train station. Packages start at $99 per person. Visit http://www.hotelroyalwilliam.com/en/
Free shows by Cirque du Soleil and the Image Mill are known collectively as Rendezvous sous les Etoiles and run Tuesday to Saturday, concluding with a Sunday performance Sept. 1.
For more on Quebec’s Museum of Civilization, visit www.mcq.org/en/mcq
For all other travel information about Quebec City, visit www.quebecregion.com/en