Tuesday, 27 September 2011
The Great Canadian Roadtrip
People who haven't heard about the whole tree-on-the-house saga (and that's only about three people in our small town, where news travels fast), have been asking me if we had a good vacation. I've got a bit tired of explaining that yes, it was lovely until our house was destroyed by a giant oak, so I just smile now and say 'yes'.
And it really was lovely, so it seems a shame not to talk about it a bit here, just because the second week was ever so slightly ruined. Rather than write the whole holiday off as a time of stress and worry, I'd like to remember the good parts, and there were plenty of them.
First of all, Niagara Falls was spectacular. Not the town itself, I hasten to add - that is a hodpodge of overpriced hotels, overpriced restaurants (the most expensive meal we had in Canada was in an mediocre steakhouse there), random tourist attractions not related to the waterfall and rather seedy casinos. Everyone had warned us it was tacky, and it was. Although the part of town lower down, near the Falls, is quite pretty, with a very English looking esplanade all planted up with flowers, and a funicular railway. So overall the impression is of a weird mixture of Bournemouth, Disney and Las Vegas.
But the waterfalls themselves- both the famous Canadian Horseshoe Falls and the smaller, but nonetheless dramatic, American Falls themselves are something else. What I hadn't appreciated from photos and films was that there is a huge, swirling cloud of mist that lingers over the Falls, so great is the volume of water constantly raining down from them. It looks like the devil's cauldron, and the air around it is constantly damp with spray, like being in an enormous steam room.
Niagara Parks have done their utmost to make sure you get to see the Falls from every angle possible. There's the Maid of the Mist boat ride (where you get extremely wet). The Journey Behind the Falls, where you go down in a lift and see the Falls from tunnels carved into the rocks behind (you get a bit wet). The completely fake one (Niagara's Fury, I think it's called) where you stand in a sealed room and watch a "4D" video of the Falls, and they throw water on you (you get fairly wet). The latter was a bit silly, but the first two were fantastic, as was the walk along the White Water rapids (Littleboy 1 loved this so much that he announced he wanted to live in Canada).
If you want to escape from Niagara's tackiness, you can drive to Niagara-on-the-Lake, a pretty little town a few kilometres downstream and with a slightly classier clientele than the Falls itself. There, we managed to find a decent meal that didn't cost the earth, and drive down to Lake Ontario for a sunset view of distant Toronto.
After Niagara, we drove to the other end of Lake Ontario and stayed in a little cabin on a campsite. This was a brilliant plan. All the benefits of the campsite - activities for the kids, al fresco meals - but, importantly for me, No Tent (I am not really a fan of nights under canvas). The boys, who seemed to have very set ideas about camping, delighted in having a campfire every night and toasting marshmallows. Every night, they showed an outdoor film on a big screen just across the field from our cabin. They would walk off into the darkness and watch Toy Story 3 or something, while we drank our wine under starry skies. It was great (well, except for the times they ran back saying they were scared, which was pretty much every night).
Here, we experienced more fabulous Canadian scenery. It's all about water, really. The St Lawrence River and its Thousand Islands (where you'd probably pay several thousand million to buy a private home). The Rideau Canal, wooded and pretty and looking a little like the Thames. Lake Ontario itself, as wide as a sea and particularly attractive from the Sandbanks Park, where you can walk along an endless white beach and swim off the dunes in clean, fresh lake water.
After that, we moved on to Ottawa and Montreal, and although that part of the holiday was, well, marred by the Tree Incident, I did appreciate what rather lovely cities these were. Montreal in particular; how wonderful to be able to sit down for a croque monsieur lunch in North America, order in French and feel as if you were in Paris. The children loved the 'Biodome', an ecological park where you experience four ecosystems under one huge dome and see otters, penguins and other cute animals. They even enjoyed climbing up the 410 steps to the top of Mont Royal, the mountain after which the city is named - we made counting the steps into a game.
So would we go back to Canada? Definitely. Littleboy 1 in particular is a big fan, and not just because of the rapids in the Niagara river. Canada appealed to his love of activity, of Big Nature and the outdoors . He's announced that when he's grown up, he's going back there with his own kids, for At Least Two Years.
We might have to join him.