Thursday Doors: Vancouver Island

I’m not sure the full blame rests on Norm’s* shoulders, but it has become extremely difficult to travel to a new area and not look for interesting doors to photograph. On our recent trip to Vancouver Island, Canada, I was concerned at first that I may not have any doors to show for our efforts. Afterall, is a vacation without any pictures of eye-catching doors really a success? I think not.

Fortunately, the dearth of interesting doors that we first experienced was remedied when we drove to the northeastern end of the Island. The small communities of Port Hardy and Port Rupert are infused with the rich history and proud traditions of the Kwakiuti First Nation. There, we found beautiful art, traditional crafts, intricately carved totem poles, and yes, doors worthy of a Thursday Doors post.

Big House door in Fort Rupert.

I think this building was a school. 

A very different array of doors were waiting for us at the southern tip of the Island in Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia. We have visited Victoria before and – being July – the main waterfront area was overrun by tourists. So, we decided to head in the opposite direction to see what we could find

Our first stop was Fisherman’s Wharf where we found a flotilla of color and whimsy. Although still touristy (but less crowded), Fisherman’s Wharf is an eclectic collection of shops and restaurants, and floating private residences. Although we were careful to respect the privacy of the people living there, who could resist admiring the brightly painted homes and, of course, taking door pictures? Not me.

Floating homes on Fisherman’s Wharf.
I love this color… sort of a pinky-red.
Lovely door… but the sign in the window (under the plant) caught my eye… beware!
Someone had some extra wood.
Wouldn’t this be a great door to come home to?
Aren’t these water taxis adorable? And, look! They have doors!
If you pass this sign, you’ve gone too far.

The rest of our walk included admiring the World’s Tallest Totem Pole (127 feet, 7 inches), discovering Mile ‘0’ of the Trans-Canada Highway (which spans the entire length of Canada – over 8,000 km), and visiting an old cemetery (which, I’ll admit, was the whole reason I suggested the walk in the first place). No doors, but indulge me in a few tourist pictures:

One very tall totem pole (that’s me at the base).
The beginning (or end, if you start in Newfoundland) of a very long highway.
I understand that cemeteries are not considered “must sees” for most tourists, but that just means they aren’t crowded… by the living, anyway.

And finally, I have to share this last door that we saw just around the corner from the Parliament Building.

It is a terribly boring door, I’ll admit… but look who works inside: The Conflict of Interest Commissioner! According to a Canadian government website, the “Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner is an independent officer of the House of Commons responsible for helping appointed and elected officials prevent and avoid conflicts between their public duties and private interests.” Imagine that! A government that believes so strongly that conflicts of interest should be avoided, they have created a dedicated office to help prevent them.

I think I just fell in love with Canada a little bit more.

* Thursday Doors is a weekly celebration of doors hosted by Norm Frampton (Norm 2.0). Head on over to see his beautiful collection of doors from Kingston, Ontario and to see what others have shared from around the world.

Oh, Ottawa!

Oh Canada you're looking good for 149 and with Justin on the Hill it's only getting better, keep it Trudeau Canada!
Oh Canada you’re looking good for 149 and with Justin on the Hill it’s only getting better, keep it Trudeau Canada!

We had mixed feelings as we left Toronto and made our way to Ottawa, the penultimate stop on our road trip (the last stop would be an overnight stay close to the airport in Montreal). We had been traveling for almost a month and were a bit homesick, but we also were having a great time and didn’t want the trip to end.

Our Airbnb apartment in Ottawa was definitely the nicest one we experienced on our trip. The host, a young, self-described “day-trader” who owned several apartments in the building, was helpful and very welcoming. The apartment was clean, quiet, nicely decorated, and well-located. Once we parked our rental (free parking was included – bonus!), we were able to walk everywhere we wanted to.

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Parliament Hill is the political and cultural heart of Ottawa. The Gothic-style government buildings overlooking the Ottawa River are open for free guided tours (the tickets are first-come, first-served, so get them early). Our tour of the Centre Block building ended with an elevator ride to the top of the Peace Tower which provided sweeping views of the city and the river.

Another tourist favorite during the summer months is the Changing of the Guard ceremony, which takes place each morning on the front lawn of Parliament Hill.

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The Rideau Canal is the oldest continuously operated canal system in North America. There are 45 locks along the 125 mile (202 kilometer) length of the canal. It was completed in 1832 as a precaution in case of war with the United States and remains in use today primarily for pleasure boating (and ice skating in the winter). The canal begins (or ends, depending on the direction of travel) in Ottawa where the large wooden lock doors are opened and closed using hand cranks. The park surrounding the locks was beautiful and we spent a relaxing few hours just watching the process of the boats making their way up through the gates.

Standing on very spindly legs next to the world-class National Gallery of Canada is the Maman sculpture by Louise Bourgeois – a 30-foot bronze cast of a spider.  The title is the French word for Mother, which explains the sac on her belly containing 26 marble eggs. Similar Maman sculptures can also be found at art museums in the UK, Spain, Japan, South Korea, and the US.

We also enjoyed exploring the historic and trendy ByWard Market, one of Canada’s oldest and largest public markets. It was just a few blocks from our apartment and the four-block area was full of shops, cafes, pubs, and galleries.

As we left Ottawa after only a few days, we once again felt that our too-short stay only allowed us to scratch the surface of this beautiful city. I’d love to return some day and explore all that we missed this time around.

Vibrant Toronto

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Toronto is Canada’s biggest and busiest city, and its most diverse. Over 140 languages are spoken there and it is estimated that over half of its residents were born outside of Canada. The most populous city in Canada, it is the fourth largest city in North America (behind Mexico City, New York City, and Los Angeles).

Even knowing all of this, I found myself a little overwhelmed at first by the size and vibrancy of Toronto.

Our Airbnb was located on a side street in the downtown area, between two busy boulevards. It appeared that most of the residents of the tall apartment building were students, possibly attending the nearby Ryerson University. The flat itself was quiet and nicely appointed and, because it was up on the 21st floor, we had a nice view of the downtown.

Although we didn't sit around much, our Airbnb flat was very comfortable.
Although we didn’t sit around much, our Airbnb flat was very comfortable.

As we did during most of the other stops along our recent road trip, once we parked our car (free, off-street parking was included – a huge plus in this busy city), it remained unused for the three days we were there. We were able to get everywhere we wanted to go either on foot or using public transportation.

Dancers enjoying the Salsa Festival.
Dancers enjoying the Salsa Festival.

In addition to a high-quality outdoor art show (top picture), we were delighted to discover that there was also a food festival and a Salsa music festival taking place on the days we were in town.

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All within walking distance from our flat was Toronto’s Chinatown, the funky Kensington Market neighborhood, Old Town Toronto’s famous St. Lawrence Market, the Entertainment District, the busy Waterfront, and lots of tempting places to eat.

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Like other Canadian cities we visited, street art seemed to be everywhere in Toronto. Much of it was big and gorgeous, but there were also plenty of unauthorized contributions.

After just a three-day stay in Toronto, we felt that we hadn’t even scratched to surface of this amazing city. It’s loud and messy and crowded, but the vitality and energy is infectious. Although our travel schedule didn’t allow us to stay any longer, we agreed that a return trip – one that included much more time to explore other neighborhoods and indulge in additional culinary delights – could quite possibly be in our future.

The Power of Niagara Falls

Horseshoe Falls
Horseshoe Falls

I’ve been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to see many amazing sites over the years – natural wonders, great works of art, and man-made structures of historical significance. Many have inspired genuine awe, but only a few have brought me to tears; bowled over by their impact deep inside of me. The Statue of David, the Grand Canyon, and Mount Rushmore are a few that come to mind. The Niagara Falls is another. I’m not sure where the heightened emotional response comes from, but it’s powerful when it hits.

We arrived in Niagara Falls well after dark but, thankfully, not too late to see the 10pm fireworks display. Our Airbnb was located down-river and as we hurried towards the main observation area, we started to hear the relentless pounding of the water before we could see the falls. When they came into view, my eyes immediately welled up and my heart started to beat with what felt like the force of the falls. Their incredible beauty and power stopped me in my tracks.

My husband and I were back in Canada after spending almost half of our month-long road trip in the U.S. (Vermont and Upstate New York). On the other side of the Gorge from us was Niagara Falls State Park – America’s oldest state park – but we had read that the Canadian side has the better views and accommodations. Our Airbnb – it actually turned out to be a B&B (Lion’s Head http://www.lionsheadbb.com/) – was nicely situated and the delightful owner, Helena, a trained chef, provided incredible breakfasts for her guests each morning.

Our room at Lion's Head B&B
Our room at Lion’s Head B&B

After a restful night’s sleep and sumptuous strata for breakfast, we headed off to see the sites. In order to get the most out of our one full day in Niagara Falls, we decided to purchase an Adventure Pass which allowed us to visited four main attractions (White Water Walk, Journey Behind the Falls, Hornblower Niagara Cruise, and the 4D film, Niagara’s Fury). The pass also included bus transportation.

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The Niagara Falls were formed at the end of the last Ice Age when the glaciers receded and the water from the newly formed Great Lakes began to carve a path towards the Atlantic Ocean.  The three waterfalls – Horseshoe Falls, American Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls – are geological wonders estimated to be about 12,000 years old. Millions of gallons of water spill over the falls every minute – about 750,000 gallons each second. The water’s force has been producing hydroelectric power since the first generating station was built in 1881.

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I read recently that New York State is planning to divert the water from the American Falls sometime in the next few years so they can replace two 115-year-old stone arch bridges. If this happens, it will be the first time since 1969 that the water flow has stopped.  The American Falls was slowed to a trickle in 1969 to study the effects of erosion and buildup of rock at the base of the falls. When that happened, people came from all over the world to see the falls turned off.

1969 water diversion. Photo credit: Niagara Falls Public Library
1969 water diversion. Photo credit: Niagara Falls Public Library

If they do in fact divert the water – a once (or twice) in a lifetime event – it could be a perfect excuse for us to visit Niagara Falls again.

Cycling to the Chute

 

Street rider

Québec City – like most Canadian cities we visited on our recent road trip – is very bicycle-friendly. When we mentioned to our Airbnb host that we like to cycle, he recommended a ride that would take us from Lower Old Québec to Chute-Montmorency, Québec’s majestic waterfall on the Montmorency River.

Fortunately, Québec City not only has a wonderful network of hiking and bike paths, but they have several rental shops that are happy to provide bikes, helmets, locks, and a helpful map. For about $25 dollars (Canadian) each for a four-hour rental, my husband and I had everything we needed to explore the area via pedal-power.

Me rider

The ride to Montmorency Falls was a pretty easy one. Just under ten miles and fairly flat, it took us alongside the harbor, under and around railroad tracks, and through parks, residential areas, and some commercial zones. We made the ride on a Saturday but, because we started early, we didn’t have a lot of company on the trail.

Montmorency Falls Park is just a few minutes from downtown Québec City and is easily accessible by car (but, I really encourage anyone to go by bicycle if they can). There is plenty of parking, several picnic areas, and a visitors’ center where we picked up a map of the park and bought tickets for the aerial tram.

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The waterfall is 275 ft (84 m) tall, which is actually higher (98 ft or 30 m) than the Niagara Falls (as you will be proudly told more than once) and is truly spectacular. The park is really laid out nicely with well-groomed paths, a suspension bridge that spans the top of the falls, and an amazing 487-foot wooden stairway that hugs the side of a cliff. We opted to ride the aerial tram from the bottom of the park to the top of the falls and come back down via the stairway, but plenty of hardy souls take the stairs both ways. And, for the real adventurous types, there is a zip line across the falls and rock climbing opportunities.

Bike path home with Quebec City in the distance.
Bike path home with Quebec City in the distance.

After spending a couple of hours enjoying the falls, we returned to beautiful Québec City for our final afternoon and evening. We were happy to find that the main avenue had been closed off for a street fair and enjoyed several hours of music and people watching.

Then, to top off a glorious day, we were treated to a spectacular sunset. We had to leave in the morning for our next destination, but we knew that some day we’d be back.

GratiTuesday: European charm without the jet lag

Our second stop after enjoying a few days in Montreal was Quebec City, North America’s only walled city north of Mexico City. Based on a visit my husband made there many years ago (pre-me), we decided to allow for a longer stay so we had more time to take in the sights.

The fortifications were developed between 1608 and 1871, erected under both French and British regimes.
The fortifications were built between 1608 and 1871, erected under both French and British regimes.

Upon entering the old walls, it was easy to see why Old Town Quebec has been designated a World Heritage site. The stone buildings and cobblestone streets are reminiscent of European cities and, of course, the French influence is evident everywhere. We were eager to check into our Airbnb and ditch our rental car. This was a town that begged to be explored on foot.

This was to be our first experience with Airbnb and we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Fortunately, from the moment we met our host, Frederick, and saw our apartment, it was obvious that we made a good choice. The apartment was well-equipped and comfortable, and the small kitchen would help us avoid too many expensive and unhealthy meals out.  It was just a few blocks from a busy area, but, since the apartment was located on a side street, it provided a quiet respite from the hub-bub. We were also pleasantly surprised that Frederick had put together a nice guidebook with helpful suggestions of things to do and see as well as places to eat.

As soon as we got unpacked, we put on our walking shoes and left to explore our new neighborhood, pick up a few groceries, and sign up for an English-language walking tour the next day.

 

I am so grateful when I visit an historical gem like Quebec City. Even though the streets are filled with tourists (and, there wasn’t even a cruise ship in port), and Subway Sandwiches and a few tacky T-shirt shops have found their way in, Quebec City has managed to hold on to its core beauty. The centuries-old architecture, historic sites, beautiful views of the Saint Lawrence River, and lovely sidewalk cafes invite you to explore this living museum.

Read more about our visit to Quebec City in my next post.

Oh Canada!

Although I have visited Canada several times, my most recent trips have been to the west coast (Vancouver and Victoria).  I was five when I visited eastern Canada, and that was only a day trip to see the Niagara Falls.

I was very much looking forward to the first stop on our month-long road trip, which began on June 14. Our itinerary had us flying in and out of Montreal, but, when we’d be in Montreal again one month later, it would be quick stay overnight by the airport. For our initial visit, we booked our hotel for two nights; not nearly enough for a city with so much to offer, but we had a lot of stops ahead of us and we could only fit in so much.

Even though we lost three hours when we travel from the west coast to the east coast, we still arrived at our destination with plenty of daylight and energy to enjoy a beautiful summer evening in Montreal. We were thrilled to discover that just a few blocks from where we were staying, Les FrancoFolies de Montreal was in full swing. This 10-day, multi-stage musical event has been held in downtown Montreal every summer in since 1989. It features hundreds of French-language performers from all over the world and many of the venues are absolutely free… how great is that?!

FrancoFolies

Our only full day in Montreal was devoted to sight-seeing. Our hotel was well-located within walking distance (a long distance, but we like to walk) from Old Montreal, the waterfront, China Town, Little Italy, and the Norte-Dame Basilica.

I love street murals and Montreal didn’t disappoint!

That evening, we treated ourselves to a lovely dinner at a sidewalk café and then wandered over to the outdoor FrancoFolies stage area for more music and people-watching.

Even though we were only at the beginning of our trip, we agreed that future travels must include an extended stay in Montreal. There is so much to see and do and we knew that we had just scratched the surface.