Day 1: getting there
Having conducted a long-distance love affair for an entire year based on the mercy of a blue and yellow automotive of the skies, we swore on a four-leaf clover that we’d never fly budget again. Well, never say never! We received a very “Marmite” (love it or hate it) review of WestJet that had made us rather apprehensive about the eight-hour-long flight from London to Toronto. Perhaps we were expecting too little. Perhaps all those flights between Barcelona and Rome had been training for this very journey. Perhaps we were better prepared thanks to Marks & Spencer’s delicious food aisle. Either way, the journey was delightful, the service impeccable, and we arrived in Canada in one whole, happy piece. Despite nearly being run over during our first road crossing due to marvelling at a real-life racoon (Leslie Knope comes to mind), we arrived safely in what we soon discovered was known affectionately as “yuppie” Yorkville. Here we were treated to a delightful guestroom in our friends’ condo – shout out to Megan & Nick!
First stop: Canadian Tire. Why on earth you may be asking yourself? In two words, duct tape. This was the only item we forgot to pack before leaving the UK. Sim got terribly excited by the funky colours and patterns on offer, so this little trip took a lot longer than expected and resulted in us buying some very fetching turquoise and purple leopard printed tape that now adorns Ali’s rucksack sack (more on that later).
Chore completed, we moved onto sightseeing. Living with the locals afforded us a break from the usual trawling of TripAdvisor, Rough Guide, Lonely Planet and various travel blogs to uncover the city’s hidden gems. Armed with recommendations and a brief orientation thanks to CityMapper – which welcomed us with a rather cool graphic – we headed off to St Lawrence Market, a seemingly quintessentially European covered market in the heart of ‘downtown’ (look at us using the local lingo) Toronto.Somewhat mesmerised by the intoxicating smells of fresh coffee, delightfully pungent cheeses and straight-from-the oven bread, we successfully followed our noses and made it to Buster’s Sea Cove, a well-oiled machine of fresh fish heaven. We settled on the crab cakes, which did not disappoint.
We then headed to the Distillery District in Toronto. Once the largest distillery in the British Empire, and in the world, the district diversified during prohibition (somewhat paradoxically, it denatured alcohol, and it also was the home to explosives production), only closing its doors in 1990. The Victorian vestige is now full of cool art galleries, cafés, eateries, bars – including one serving sake ice cream! – and boutiques. Having perused the district, we stopped off at ARVO Coffee for some light refreshments: cascara, a deliciously fresh drink made from the husks of dried coffee berries, and a refreshing Nitro brew.Reinvigorated, we meandered along the tree-lined waterfront of Queen’s Quay. There’s a phenomenal amount of building/regeneration ongoing in Toronto, and the waterfront was no exception. We marvelled at the consideration given to community spaces in these developments, which will hopefully provide their residents with entertainment and a fulfilling outdoor lifestyle; such thoughtful planning is so often lacking in London. Along the way, we took in several waterfront gardens, our favourite of which was the aptly named Music Garden. Each section of this beautiful garden corresponds to a different dance movement from Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G Major for unaccompanied cello, BWV 1007. A very welcome break from the midday sun.
Buoyed by the promise of delicious treats in Kensington Market, we hopped onto a streetcar (sadly not named desire!), stopping off at Graffiti Alley – a tiny spot on the map that hawk-eyed Ali spotted. We meandered through some back alleys and found a world of constantly-evolving graffiti and street art. Though the focus seemed to mostly be on tagging, some remarkable artists have left their mark, so it’s well worth a detour if you’re in the area. Check out some of our snaps from here.
Kensington Market itself was delightful. It had a great vibe, excellent food and drink options (we particularly enjoyed munching some sweet treats from the Blackbird Baking Co), and was the perfect place to while away a couple of hours. Sim’s hopscotch attempts were a particular highlight; it turns out you do forget how to do some things!
In the evening, we were treated to another of Nick’s culinary delights. We also tried to work out what we had done to break Beorn, our hosts’ otherwise peaceful golden retriever puppy who couldn’t help barking when he saw us; we Londoners must be an odd bunch!
The day we had long been waiting for finally arrived, Niagara! A bus ride, and one very chatty and entertaining driver – Salim – later, we arrived at the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The only ones on our bus tour not to hop onto a Hornblower cruise to get a closer look (Sim’s memories of doing just that at a year old, and hiding in her mum’s jacket, were still pretty raw), we instead opted to stroll alongside these majestic, roaring feats of nature and to picnic in possibly the most astounding setting possible. A truly humbling experience that would make even the most ambivalent tourist reflect on their infinitesimal place in the world. Enter casinos, an Elvis impersonator, tacky souvenir shops, Tim Hortons and sky-scraping hotels. Way to ruin the vibe Canada! Nonetheless, a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience that should not be missed. This very cute village, colonial in style, somewhat resembles a toy-town and is home to the famous Olde Angel Inn and a rather fabulous all-year-round Christmas store. We were unable to resist the latter and stocked up on some beautiful pieces for our next tree (‘Megamoon’ theme we suspect), though how we’re getting them home is anyone’s guess.
Niagara-on-the Lake also has several wineries and is a great place to try Icewine. This sweet wine, which we were informed is not a dessert wine (we remain unconvinced), is made from grapes that have naturally frozen on the vine and are picked when it hits -8° C or lower. All in all, we’ll stick to a Riesling, Sauternes or Vin Santo. Wine aficionados – what are your thoughts?
After a long day, we rewarded ourselves with a delicious Thai takeaway and an evening stroll/dog walk for ice-cream.
What to do when the rain arrives? Shopping of course! On our list? Sandals for Sim and a white cotton top for Ali. The former were simple to find, the latter nigh on impossible. Why are you reading about this? Well, on this three-hour-long hunt for a top that had to be “just the right shade of white” (!), we stumbled straight into Manolo Blahnik where Ali abandoned Sim so quickly for a pair of shoes it led her to question some of her life decisions. The shop assistant saw this from a mile away and bounded over like a gazelle spotting a quick and easy kill. To be fair, the shoes were stunning and quite irresistible. They remain on Ali’s mind several weeks later. Watch this space…
Shopping completed and rain over, we headed off to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). Although shocked at the ticket prices – it seems we’re incredibly spoilt by London’s free museums and galleries – we relented given the interesting exhibitions on offer. We were served by a very helpful woman who was curious about our accents and to know whether we were still students. The thirty-something raised her hand, but without a card to back this up looked like an aging con artist. Thankfully, it transpired that the server had worked in Bath and so our University of Bath alumni status convinced her that Sim was indeed telling the truth about her student status. Discount granted!
We particularly enjoyed the exhibition of Captain Liannaeus Tripe’s photographs from Burma and India that he took when stationed there with the British Army. Many of these were the first photos ever taken of archaeological sites/monuments in the two countries – imagine that! The Free Black North exhibition, which featured portraits of the descendants of Black refugees who had escaped slavery in the Southern United States and were living in Ontario in the mid-to-late 1800s, was equally fascinating and incredibly thought-provoking.
After quite an intense day of art, it was definitely time for some good coffee. Cue: Dark Horse Espresso Bar. One of the growing number of third wave coffee houses in the city, this coffee shop made the most delicious flat whites that we washed down with a butter tart – a quintessentially Canadian dessert consisting of a flaky pastry case filled with a mixture of butter, sugar, syrup and egg and baked until a crunchy top is achieved. Mmmmm!!
Not quite ready to hang up our fooding shoes, we also frequented DingDong Pastries & Cakes – thanks for the recommendation Megan! – where we tried some authentic Chinese delicacies, including a rather delicious pork bun and several red bean rice cakes.
After all this food, we were surprised to still have room for another yummy meal à la Nick and a G&T.