Montreal, Quebec, Ottawa, Toronto
On August 21st, 2000 we set out for a tour of Canadian Capitals. We selected Tauck Tours, because of their reputation for a hassle-free experience, with deluxe accommodations and no restrictions on dining choices. Departing from Orlando around noon, we traveled through Cincinnati, and arrived in Montreal — unfortunately — during rush hour. The trip, almost due north, took only a little over four hours; but the cab ride from the airport took another hour.
Monday was really the day before the tour officially started. We wanted time to relax at the hotel. The Hilton Bonaventure in Montreal is an interesting place. The building is seventeen stories tall, but the hotel occupies only the top two floors. It is built facing the interior to eliminate street noise. Most of the rooms surround the swimming pool and garden area in the middle.
On Monday night we had a lovely dinner at the Castillon restaurant, where Danielle experienced the first of many multi-course French meals on this trip. She decided that the cheese course was probably her best bet at most of these French restaurants.
We had most of the day free on Tuesday. After a short walk around the city near our hotel we had lunch at a deli in the underground city of Montreal. We thought about going to the planetarium, but it wasn’t open yet, so we wandered up to the visitor center, where I discovered that the Cuban cigars in the shop across the street were priced for tourists. $45 for Cohibas?! Admittedly that translates into about $30 US, but still…
We browsed brochures for a while, but nothing really captured our interest. I’d spent a month in Montreal one week in the early 90s, and I got the same feeling this time — that there’s no “there” there.
In the end, Linda took a nap, I smoked a delightful cigar called a Vegueros, and Danielle spent nearly four hours in the hotel swimming pool, where she made friends with a girl from the United States named Michelle.
At 6:00 we met with our tour group for a wine reception. Our tour director, Julia Stewart (“spelled the right way”, she says) is excellent: friendly, organized, knowledgeable, and helpful. She was able to learn everyone’s’ names almost before she’d met them! Her stories of her experiences make the tour much more personal and memorable. Julia is from Nova Scotia originally, but now lives in Vancouver. This is her second year as a Tauck tour director.
Danielle was a bit disappointed to discover that there was no one else her age on the tour; we later found out that she was the youngest guests our tour director had ever had! Nevertheless, she gets along well with older people, and is doing a great job of being a mature traveling companion.
The average age of our fellow travelers is well into retirement, but that’s not surprising, since school has started almost everywhere. They’re a very nice group, and have proven to be friendly and punctual.
After the wine reception we had a delightful dinner at the Castillon restaurant with a couple from North Carolina, Dick and June. We talked about Harry Potter and many other books, travel, and our hometowns.
After a nice breakfast in the hotel coffee shop, we met our group for a tour of Montreal. Our motor coach is amazingly quiet. Even climbing a steep hill, there is virtually no engine noise or vibration. Andre, our driver, is from Montreal. Whenever we get on or off the coach, he stands nearby in his coat and tie ready to help.
A local guide name Lis showed us around town, including the 1967 World Expo site and the Olympic Village.
In the old part of the city we visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Although I’m not much into cathedrals, it was very beautiful, with elaborate woodwork and unusual stained glass windows depicting the local history. Danielle lit a candle for GinGin, her step grandma.
Behind the cathedral is a chapel which was burned and reconstructed in the 1960s. Its architecture is jarringly modern, but the bronze sculpture at the front is impressive. The largest in the world, it was made in England and transported to Montreal by ship in thirty-two sections.
Up on Mont Royal (for which the city is named) the view was nearly obscured in fog — which later turned to rain. Fortunately, Montreal is not a particularly scenic city, so we didn’t feel like we’d missed much.
After a quick stop back at the hotel, we crossed the bridge to the Isle Sainte-Helene for the Festin du Guviniers, in The Old Fort. Lunch included singing and piano music. Like many of the old forts in the area, it was constructed after the war of 1812 in case the United States ever again invaded Canada.
In the afternoon Danielle went ice-skating in the high-rise building next to our hotel. Then, for dinner, we wandered down into the underground city beneath Montreal and had an eclectic meal at a fresh food buffet restaurant called Movenpick.
Thursday was a day for traveling. Our bags were picked up from our room at 7:45, and we were on the road by 8:45, headed from Montreal to Quebec. We stopped for lunch at Montmorency Falls, where we dined on a terrace at the Manoir Montmorency, overlooking the falls. The manor was originally built by Edward, Duke of Kent during the 1800’s. Edward was the son of George, and inherited his father’s fascination with clocks, but fortunately not his manic depression. A military genius, he led an unhappy life, and was eventually forced to separate from the mistress he loved and return to England, where he married. He was the father of Queen Victoria.
After lunch we took the cable car to the base of the falls and back. The falls are higher than Niagara Falls, but don’t carry nearly the volume of water. We walked along a boardwalk that clung to the mountain, eventually venturing out over the falls on a suspension bridge. It was very noisy.
After lunch we drove past Quebec City and on to the basilica of Ste. Anne-de-Beaupre, a relatively uninteresting church, the current version of which was completed in the 1920’s. The columns at the back of the congregation are decorated with sculptures made from crutches and various orthopedic devices, presumably to symbolize all of the people who have been healed there. I’m not sure what the artificial limbs symbolize, but it must have been impressive! I suspect this stop is on the tour merely to kill time until the hotel rooms are ready.
On the way back to Quebec City we stopped at a place that served maple butter on fresh bread. That was delicious!
Due to road construction we were somewhat late to arrive at the Chateau Frontenac. We’d already made a 6:00 PM dinner reservation, and were dismayed to discover the lobby filled with hundreds of Japanese tourists, all attempting to cram themselves into three small elevators. It looked like a Tokyo subway.
The Chateau Frontenac is the most famous hotel in Quebec — and perhaps Canada. It is easily identifiable, because of its steeply sloped green copper roof. Built in 1893, (although the section we were in was added in the 1920s), other sections have been added as recently as 1993. Our room was spacious, with modern bathroom facilities, and had obviously been completely refurbished quite recently. The Chateau Frontenac is now part of the Fairmont organization.
In spite of the late arrival, baggage delivery to our room was prompt, and we made it to dinner relatively on time, and had a lovely five-course meal. We were delighted to be able to select any items on the menu, all included in the tour. The waiter even flambéed Danielle’s steak at the table, although in the flame height competition his flames were about a foot shorter than at the Castillon. The other highlight of the meal was that the waiter asked Danielle if she cared for some of our wine. Although not strictly legal here, if the parents ask, it’s accepted. We had a 1995 Corton Charlemagne, by the way. It was only moderately expensive — until they added all of the taxes!
Friday began with breakfast at Cafe Terrasse, where the croissants and pain au chocolate rivaled those of Paris. Then we went on a two-hour tour of Quebec City. Our guide, Eric — (Quebec law requires a local guide in the city) — took us down to the old city, where it seemed that almost every shopkeeper and restaurant owner was one of his relatives. Since he’s a tenth generation resident of Quebec, I suppose that’s not surprising.
We had lunch at Le Continental, a four star restaurant, reputed to be the best in town. Once again Danielle was able to taste the wine, a 1998 Clos du Val Chardonnay (“Le Clos”).
At Danielle’s insistence, we had a lovely carriage ride around town. Our horse was named Roadster. Compared to the summer weather in Orlando, the 70 degree breeze here was heaven.
After a rest, some journal entries, and some long-division practice, we headed down to the old city on the funicular. Danielle did some curio shopping, and we took some funny pictures.
Saturday was another day of travel. After breakfast at Cafe Terasse we headed out of Quebec City — to the regret of all. We wished we could stay longer to more fully explore this charming place.
Heading along the St. Lawrence River, we stopped for an elaborate buffet lunch — featuring several dozen salads, among other things — at Chateau Vaudreil, a new hotel built on the banks of the river.
After lunch we followed a winding road past many lovely homes on the Ottawa River, crossing into Ontario and arriving in Ottawa at 5:00 PM.
We learned that Ontario means “sparkling water”; Canada means “collection of huts”; and Ottawa means “floppy ears”(!) — an Iroquois reference to the dangling earrings of the Heuron tribe.
Ottawa is a charming city of parkland and beautiful buildings surrounding the river and the Rideau Canal. The canal runs 120 miles, paralleling the Rideau River. Rideau is french for curtain, so-named because of the way the Rideau River falls into the Ottawa.
Our room at the Westin overlooked the canal and the parliament building, with a view to both north and south. It is one of the nicest hotel rooms that we’ve ever had.
Saturday evening we had a fairly awful meal at the Elephant and Castle, an English pub near the hotel. The culinary contrast between the French and English parts of the country is self-evident!
Sunday we had breakfast at Daly’s in the hotel and set out for a tour of Ottawa. Now that we are out of Quebec, Julia guided the city tour herself.
First stop was the Canadian Parliament building. It’s a beautiful structure, filled with elaborate carving, woodwork and stained glass. The House of Commons is like a smaller version of the one in London.
Behind the building is the older Library of Parliament, which survived the fire that destroyed the earlier Parliament building — due to someone’s closing the steel door that separates the two.
On the south side of the building is the Senate chamber. Unlike the U.S., Canadian senators are appointed until age 75. Perhaps because of this, they don’t seem to have any significant role in the government.
After Parliament, we hurried off to Rideau Hall, a park across the street from the home of the prime minister, to view the trouping of the colors. Adrian, one of our co-travelers, is from London. On the way, he gave us a detailed history of the British army, and described the significance of the colors, the elaborate flags given to each company. The flags are actually blessed, and presented by one of the royal family. Even when they are worn out, they are never destroyed, but are stored away in a chest.
The colors, of course, were used as primitive semaphores during battle, since the drums and bugles could not always be heard.
We watched as the red-coated troops marched about the field. The band — which included bagpipes in addition to the full array of usual instruments — was quite impressive. They played for about a half hour.
The final stop on the tour was the Musee de Civilization, an enormous structure on the Hull side of the river. The others on the tour were most impressed by the exhibits, but we’ll have to take their word for it — we never made it out of the children’s museum! It’s the best I’ve seen, with dozens of fascinating experiences that captivated the imagination of the many children packed into the place. In our brief hour, Danielle drove a Pakistani bus, explored a pyramid, unloaded crates from a freighter using a crane, tried on snow shoes, and visited a dozen countries.
On the way back to the hotel the bus dropped us off a few blocks away at the ByWard open-air market, where we had lunch at a sidewalk cafe.
After a break for journal writing and relaxation, we headed out to the Rideau Canal for a boat ride. The guide on Paul’s Boat Cruises (since the 1920’s, the sign says) was named Frank. A student of French Literature at Ottawa University, Frank was quite a comedian.
We learned that the Rideau Canal was constructed by Irish and French workers in just six years in the 1820s. It was built in preparation for a sequel to the War of 1812, which never came. The eight-kilometer portion we toured was created from sections of swamp, bedrock, and a farmer’s fields. Four hundred of the workers died in the swamps alone, from what was later called malaria.
This section and one other that is ten kilometers long are the only manmade portions of the canal. The rest of the 200 kilometers is comprised of natural bodies of water.
Traveling along the moss-laden waterway, it was hard to imagine it in winter, when they drain all eight kilometers by opening the locks that feed the Ottawa River, Then it becomes the world’s longest supervised ice rink.
We had dinner back at the hotel, at Daly’s, then packed for the trip to Toronto tomorrow.
After breakfast at Daly’s, we headed south for Toronto.
It was mostly a day of riding on the bus, but we stopped at Gananoque for a one-hour cruise of the Thousand Islands. If you think Thousand Islands is an exaggeration, so did we — but there are actually 1865 of them! (To be an official island, it has to have at least two trees and six square feet of ground cover!)
The area is one of the most beautiful we’ve seen, rivaling Yosemite, Vancouver, et al. The narration was recorded, and perhaps a bit out of date, but you could have bought a six acre private island with cottage and dock for the astronomical price of $100,000 in 1982. I want one!
Seriously, though, it would be a great place to spend the summer, swimming and boating off of a tiny rocky island, commuting to Ganonoque across the channel. Winter, on the other hand, sounds a bit harsh. Some residents snowmobile across the frozen river to get to town!
We could see the US side of the river from the boat. The international boundary was drawn after the War of 1812, and splits the islands between the US and Canada. No islands straddle the line, although it runs between a pair that are connected by a short bridge — making it the shortest international bridge in the world.
The lunch on the boat was pretty grim, so I stuck with the salad, which was quite tasty and served with — you guessed it — 1000 island dressing.
Mid-afternoon we stopped at a roadside oasis called the Big Apple, which was actually a lot of fun, The bake their own pies, have a large gift shop and restaurant, and the obligatory restrooms. But the real attraction was out back, where you can feed the sheep, rabbits, ducks and llama. The rabbits wander free through the woods, and Danielle had a great time photographing them. It was a well-timed visit, since our current nighttime reading is “Watership Down”.
Julia passed around a clipboard so that we all could contribute to a group poem. Linda’s contribution was:
We greatly enjoyed the tour and eating,
But soon Tauck’s buses will need wider seating!
I had fun although I’m only nine
I even got to taste some wine.
I didn’t get a chance to do one, but it would have been:
Hilton beds are pretty rotten,
But Westin’s are the best we’ve gotten;
Still in all, for what’s around it,
Frontenac’s tops, I’m glad we found it!
We arrived at the Toronto Hilton at 5:00 PM. The building has just been completely remodeled into what can only be described as Parking Garage Moderne. The concrete lobby has all the charm of a cement plant. And the trendy Tundra restaurant offers fine dining in an environment slightly more austere than your average stainless steel box. The food was elaborately presented and mostly top notch, but the designer of the place really should be shot. We had a good time playing with the rocks(!) that held down the napkins, designing hypothetical weighing puzzles for each other. Example: You have four rocks, three of which weigh the same. How many weighings does it take to find the different one?
Julia went to special efforts to get Danielle accommodations on a high floor, so we have an expansive view of the city. But the best thing about the room isn’t that. It’s not even the trendy easy chair that has only one arm(?!). It’s the Internet connection. Plug your laptop’s 100Base-T jack into the cord, launch your browser, and you’re immediately connected to the Hilton’s welcome page. Log in for $9.95 a day, and you’re on the Internet at T-1 speeds. No set up, it just works — I have no idea how.
I’d never actually used the Internet at these speeds; it’s a whole different experience. Ironically, our web and mail server was down (which never happens) when I first connected , but after dinner it came up and I transferred all of the pictures from this trip in under two minutes. Whew!
Toronto is a city of glass and steel, the antithesis of Quebec. The homes of 4 million people sprawl around a block of towering buildings at the edge of Lake Ontario, smallest of the Great Lakes.
Other than the big buildings, there’s not much character to the city. A local guide showed us around for a couple of hours, walked us through city hall, and then dropped us off for a self-guided tour of Casa Loma.
Casa Loma is a castle-like house built by Sir Henry Mill Pellatt in 1911. More precisely, it was built by about 300 laborers. It cost the equivalent of about $40 Million. Sir Henry and his wife lived in it for less than ten years before he discovered that it wasn’t nearly so profitable to own an electric utility company once it wasn’t a monopoly. The furnishings and house were auctioned to pay his debts.
One of the more interesting things we found in the city were some 600 moose statues. Sponsored by corporations at $6000 each, the moose are clever and often comical. The fiberglass creations have mostly lost their antlers to souvenir hunters or pranksters, but they’re still cute. They will be auctioned in the fall.
For lunch we went to the 1800-foot-tall CN Tower, the world’s largest free-standing structure. The Restaurant 360 makes a complete turn every 72 minutes, affording a terrific view of downtown and the Lake Ontario waterfront. After lunch we walked across the glass floor, which gives you a rather queasy feeling, since it’s 1100 feet straight down!
One the way back to the hotel we passed the theater where we saw The Lion King later in the evening. What a show it was, with fabulous costumes and lighting, and all the great songs from the movie plus many new ones. Several of the performers were quite good, including the ten-year-old boy who played young Simba, and the woman who played Nala — she was truly of Broadway caliber.
After my solo breakfast in the aptly-named Tundra (Danielle opted for room service) we boarded the bus for the ninety-minute drive to Niagara Falls. I had always pictured the falls in the middle of a national park setting, but in reality they’re surrounded by something across between Coney Island and Las Vegas. Still, even the miniature golf courses and haunted houses can’t overwhelm the beauty and massive size of the falls. The Maid of the Mist boats get right up into the spray of the horseshoe-shaped Canadian side. The boats are named after an Indian legend about a maiden who was sacrificed by sending her over the falls in a canoe. Her spirit is said to live in the mist behind the falling water.
Speaking of people going over the falls, the first one known to survive was a schoolteacher who went over in a barrel about one hundred years ago. She was 63! More impressive is the boy who, about ten years ago, accidentally went over the falls in swimming trunks and life preserver and survived. He was pulled out of the water by the crew of one of the boats.
It’s a good thing they hand out ponchos, because the water really comes down when you’re up in the thick of it. The flow is fairly turbulent, and the boat rocks as if it’s shooting the rapids.
We stopped for lunch at The Queen’s Landing, a new and very nice hotel in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It’s a charming town, and we wished we had time to explore it, and to visit some of the many wineries in the area. But too soon were headed back to Toronto, for our farewell dinner and packing for our early flight tomorrow — and a 4:00 AM wake-up call!
It’s been a great trip. Now we have the excitement of getting back so that Danielle can see her new school.
As we fly home, we’ll also be remembering the sights (especially Quebec), and thinking about our tour director, Julia, who starts it all over again tomorrow afternoon…
Itinerary from the Tauck catalog:
1. Fly to Montreal
Tour begins: Bonaventure Hilton Hotel at 6:30 PM. Discover the many charms of the delightfully French city of Montreal; the day is at leisure upon your arrival. This evening you are invited to a 6:30 PM reception and dinner to meet your Tour Director and fellow travelers.
2. Sightseeing Montreal
With its dual English and French cultures, Montreal is one of Canada’s most unique cities. This morning enjoy a sightseeing tour including St. Joseph’s Oratory, McGill University and Mt. Royal, plus a visit to Notre Dame Cathedral. After lunch the afternoon is free to spend as you wish. Visit the fashionable shops of Place Ville Marie, Place Bonaventure, St. Catherine and Sherbrooke Streets, or explore on your own. Montreal is delightful, with many things to do at any time of the year.
3. Montmorency Falls / Quebec
Leave Montreal and head east through the heart of French Canada. Follow the shores of the mighty St. Lawrence River through Trois Rivières to magnificent Montmorency Falls, higher than Niagara Falls! Enjoy lunch beside the falls, then journey to Quebec City for two nights at the Château Frontenac. Sprawled atop sheer cliffs rising above the narrowing St. Lawrence River, Quebec reflects an old-world charm and grace of another era. Highlights include the Plains of Abraham, the provincial Parliament buildings, Porte St-Louis and the narrow, cobbled streets lined with boutiques and cafes.
4. Quebec City
This morning take a sightseeing tour of Old Quebec, capital of the province, the only walled city north of Mexico. Grayed by the brush of time, ancient stone houses huddle beside venerable churches and historic monuments. You may wish to stroll on Dufferin Terrace, watch the unending line of ships from around the world, or visit the small boutiques of the Old City. For those who wish, continue on to the Beaupré coast and visit the shrine of Ste. Anne de Beaupré and its famous basilica. Return midday to Quebec City; the remainder of the day is at leisure to enjoy this beautiful city.
5. Vaudreuil / Ottawa
Travel west, past Montreal, along the route of early French explorers and fur traders. After lunch continue to Canada’s capital city of Ottawa, perched on the banks of the Ottawa River. As the center of Canadian government, it is renowned for beautiful flower gardens, tree-lined streets, numerous parks and noble buildings. The city was chosen as the capital of Canada by Queen Victoria in 1857; at the time it was a somewhat rustic outpost on the edge of the Canadian frontier. View the training center of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police before arriving in the heart of the city for a relaxing two-night stay.
6. Canada’s Capital — Ottawa
Ottawa captivates the visitor with the charm of its magnificent boulevards, exquisite gardens and regal architecture. This morning’s sightseeing includes views of the Royal Canadian Mint, National Research Center, City Hall, the residence of the prime minister and Rideau Hall, the governor-general’s home; you also have an opportunity to visit Parliament. In July and August see the “Changing of the Guard” (weather permitting). Enjoy the remainder of the day at your leisure.
7. 1000 Islands / St. Lawrence
Head south to the St. Lawrence River for a luncheon cruise among the lovely Thousand Islands. Some of the islands are lushly forested while others support only a few pines perched precariously over the blue water. Continue to Kingston, where the great river opens on to Lake Ontario. Travel the MacDonald-Cartier Freeway to Toronto, Ontario’s largest city, for the next three nights.
8. Toronto / Lake Ontario
Today enjoy a sightseeing tour of Toronto to see the downtown and residential areas as well as the Royal Ontario Museum, Parliament Buildings and the University of Toronto. Visit magnificent Casa Loma mansion, the opulent legacy of Canadian Industrialist Sir Henry Mill Pellatt. The afternoon is at your leisure to visit the museums and waterfront shops, or perhaps take a boat excursion on Lake Ontario. Join us for a special evening attending a theatrical performance of the magical Tony Award-winning musical, The Lion King.
9. Niagara Falls
Travel along the Queen Elizabeth Way to Niagara Falls. In addition to viewing the thundering falls from high above, you will descend to the churning waters of the Niagara River and take the famous Maid of the Mist boat to view the falls from below. It’s a breathtaking experience! Travel along Niagara Gorge to view the world-famous Floral Clock, giant hydroelectric plants, Niagara Parks School of Horticulture, and the Whirlpool Rapids. Visit the charming village of Niagara-on-the-Lake for lunch with time to browse through the shops. Return to Toronto for a farewell reception and dinner.
10. Journey Home
Tour Ends: Toronto. Fly home anytime. A transfer is provided to the airport.