Oh, Canada! The first thing I think of when I imagine Canada is the vastness of it. It’s the second biggest country in the world by total area, behind only Russia. If you wanted to drive across the whole of Canada, it would take you 2 full weeks! I also think of hockey rinks, maple syrup, moose, Arcade Fire, and bears. And also a weird accent which seems to hook words and twist them (how about becomes ah-boot).
In truth, Canada is very urbanized, since more than 80% of people live in big cities. We recently had a chance to visit two of the three biggest states in Canada: British Columbia (Vancouver) and Ontario (Toronto), plus Niagara Falls, which belongs to Ontario as well. The Vancouver one was by accident, because we were stranded by our airline and therefore had a half-day to explore. Toronto and Niagara Falls was planned, though we only spent 4 days there total, split half and half. This will be a whirlwind tour of all 3 places, and my impressions of seeing Canada in person for the first time.
Here’s some related posts about Canada for further inspiration/planning:
Before I came to Vancouver, all I knew about it was that it was one of the hottest real estate markets in the entire world. So many foreign investors were buying properties here, the city had to slap a 10% tax on every property sale to a foreign investor. In other words, I was curious as to why people were going so crazy about Vancouver.
Capilano Suspension Bridge
Our first touristy thing was to go to the Capilano Suspension Bridge. We were picked up by the friendliest bus driver in the entire world, and as we drove through downtown Vancouver and past Stanley Park, and into the park where the Capilano bridge is located, I could see why people loved living there. It was colorful, vibrant, diverse (practically all the Asian countries were represented), and it has a giant, stunning park (Stanley Park) right in the middle of the city. Oh, and it’s also on the water, so they pretty much have everything covered.
The Capilano Bridge was a bit overpriced ($30 or so per person), and very crowded, but it was still fun to walk across a very long suspension bridge and rock back and forth during the walk. Besides the bridge, you can also go on various trails in the park and talk to professional owl and hawk handlers, who have some fascinating stories about those beautiful animals.
Stanley Park is a big park positioned pretty much in the middle of the city, sort of like Central Park in some ways. It’s a beautiful place with tons of activities, from swimming to an aquarium, to trails, biking, botanical gardens, you name it. It’s surrounded by the Vancouver Harbour, so the views are quite nice as well.
One of the great things about the park is Siwash Rock, which, yes, is a giant rock that sits just off the edge of the park, in the water. It is 32 million years old, and like a fine wine, it has aged well with time.
Speaking of old, there is a Western Red Cedar tree in the park that’s about 800 years old. It’s called the Hollow Tree because its trunk is, well, hollow and large enough to hold an elephant. In fact, an elephant did walk inside the tree at one point in time, so that gives you an idea.
Of course, the great thing about this park and all other great parks, is the fact that you can spend the entire day here just by walking around seeing natural beauty everywhere, and breathing fresh air. I’ve been to many great parks (Central Park in NY, English Garden in Munich), and this one is not far off.
It isn’t a stretch to say that Niagara Falls is one of the greatest wonders of the world. The falls were formed 10,000 years ago, and they still pump out over 85,000 cubic feet of water per second, making the entire site a very powerful provider of energy.
The unique thing about Niagara is that it sits on the US/Canada border. There is Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side, which is the bigger and more famous portion, and there is also the American and Bridal Veil Falls, on the Buffalo, New York side. There is a bridge (Rainbow Bridge) between them that you can walk across and see the attractions on both sides and cross the border too.
However, the Canadian side is much more vibrant, has better views, and gives you a chance to visit the greater falls. There are many activities on the Canadian side (it kind of looks like a family friendly Vegas), but there are really two main ones: Hornblower, and Journey Behind The Falls
Imagine being on a ship and heading into the heart of Niagara Falls. Yep, that’s the Hornblower experience from the Canadian side. The US side is called Maid of the Mist and it’s pretty much the same thing. You get on a two-story vessel and head out towards the biggest part of the Falls. As you get closer, the wind picks up, the water starts hitting your face with greater intensity, and once you come close to the actual waterfall, you are drenched from head to toe with water.
They give you a thin raincoat before the ride, but it doesn’t really help because the combination of the wind and water gives you a nice rinse. The experience of being so close to such a powerful waterfall is quite incredible and a lot of fun.
Journey Behind The Falls
The other major activity you should do is to actually go inside the falls. Instead of being hit with bursts of water on the boat, you will now be hit with bursts of water from a vantage point near the foot of the falls. So, yes, you will get wet. Again. It is, however, nice to see the Falls from another angle, and this allows you to get a lot closer to the source of the Falls than the Hornblower, where you can hear and feel the rumble of the gushing water.
Famous for the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team, and the Toronto Film Festival, Toronto is a bustling metropolitan city. Kind of like New York, only not as loud and much cleaner.
Thanks to the Toronto CityPASS, we were able to see 3 major sights for a nice discount. We could have seen 4 sights, but the Toronto Zoo is almost an hour away from Toronto, so we decided to skip it.
Besides the price discount, we also had express access to the sights, which easily cut our waiting time to only a few minutes instead of an hour plus. The first place we visited was the behemoth CN Tower, a large…tower, which features sweeping views of downtown Toronto, and a throng of sweaty, impatient tourists. The views are nice, but it’s not worth an hour wait, so we were glad we got inside fairly quickly (within 20 mins).
If you like castles or historic buildings, then this is certainly a good place to visit. Overflowing with tourists, sure, but it has an interesting, if a little sobering, history. It was built by a famous soldier and local businessman, and the grand mansion was so famous, it attracted a bevy of famous guests, including royalty. However, the upkeep proved to be too pricey, so the owner eventually went into default and most of the furniture had to be sold off. The rooms have been restored with meticulous precision, however, and the property now looks great.
Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada
Located right next to CN Tower and the Toronto Blue Jays baseball stadium, this is a nice aquarium with a lot of different sea creatures, including sharks, sting rays, eels, crabs, sea horses, you name it. A nice place to spend a few hours. Ruby particularly enjoyed it. Then again, she likes all animals. Got off narrowly without buying anything from the gift shop, after Ruby started pointing and asked if she can get a toysie. Her persistence obviously didn’t pay off and she ended up empty-handed.
Hockey Hall of Fame
Since I’m a hockey fan, I visited the Hockey Hall of Fame in downtown Toronto on a sunny afternoon while Ruby sipped some coffee at Tim Horton’s, Canada’s version of Starbucks (and ironically, named after a famous Toronto hockey player!). Little did I know she actually made it to the shopping district, Yonge Street, after she finished her iced latte.
The hall of fame is actually located inside a mall, on the ground floor, so it’s a little confusing at first trying to find it. It’s not a very big place, but it has a lot of excellent exhibits for both casual and serious hockey fans. There are nice plaques of some great hockey stars, from past (Guy Lafleur) to present (Sidney Crosby/Alexander Ovechkin). If you have kids, you can watch them play as a goalie in a virtual hockey experience, or even as a sniper trying to score one past a virtual goalie. These activities get crowded, so be prepared to wait for a bit.
There is also a great exhibition which discusses international hockey, including the legendary battles between Canada and the Soviet Union in the 1970s. The entrance fee is $17, so if you’re a hockey fan, that’s not a bad price.
You can read more of Ruby’s insights about Toronto and Niagara Falls on her itinerary post.
In our limited excursions to Canada, we’ve definitely been charmed by it. We saw both a landmark tourist wonder (Niagara Falls) as well as two metropolitan cities (Toronto and Vancouver), and would love to come back, perhaps to do a train trip across Canada, or see Montreal. Canada is often described as a cleaner, safer United States, and I kind of see why it’s regarded as that. Its big cities are well planned, clean, and not as loud as their counterparts across the border, and they have very good public transportation. Certainly a destination worth visiting.