A walking holiday in the second largest country in the world seemed a bit ambitious for beginners, but my wife was keen to go.
Fortunately we weren’t covering the whole country. Our itinerary encompassed Toronto, Quebec and Niagara, some of the highlights of this vast country that is home to only 35 million people, less than the population of California.
So, armed with waterproof jackets (which we didn’t need) and our most comfortable walking shoes, we set off on our adventure.
We had to delay the start of our trip. However, we met up with the rest of the group over dinner in Quebec, caught up on what they had experienced in Montreal and Sacacomie and immediately made new-found friends.
The next morning we boarded our coach to the toughest walk of our trip. A short drive took us to the Jacques-Cartier National Park, 260 square miles of mountains, lakes, rivers and walking trails. Blessed with almost cloudless blue skies, warm sunshine and trees turning to their Fall shades of red and gold, we chatted to our new-found friends as we walked the steep inclines through the forest. As the going got tougher and trails became staircases, conversation ceased and it became a struggle for us two beginners to keep up the pace. Thankfully our guide, Jean-Francois, made regular stops to admire the view and allow us to catch up. Those views were fantastic and well worth the climb, and as the trail started to descend we felt we had already achieved something special.
We stopped at the Visitors Centre and Jean-Francois produced picnic lunches for us all at a spectacular location, right on the water’s edge. It couldn’t have been better.
Later that day we had some free time to explore the city. Old Quebec has a strong European feel and is the only fortified city in North America north of Mexico. It is divided into the higher and lower towns, the latter being right at the water’s edge of the St Lawrence Seaway and offering moorings to an increasing number of cruise ships. We enjoyed walking along part of the fortification walls and gates that stretch nearly three miles around the edge of the old city. The streets are lined with buildings of great character, none more imposing than the Chateau Frontenac. It claims to be the most photographed hotel in the world and we could see why.
We walked along the boardwalk past the hotel to the Citadel and the Plains of Abraham where, in 1759, the English and French armies, under Generals Wolf and Montcalm, battled it out. The Plains are now a spacious urban park and being right in the City are easily accessible to locals and tourists alike.
After a short flight the following day we found ourselves in Toronto. Originally named York, it changed its name in 1834. Situated on the northern shore of Lake Ontario, towering new skyscrapers and ongoing re-development are evidence of the rapid growth the city is experiencing. Tallest of the structures is the CN Tower and the best way to get an overall view of the city is from its revolving restaurant and viewing platform around 1,150 feet (351m) above the ground. If you are brave enough you can also venture onto the vertigo-inducing glass floor – great for selfies.
Toronto is the commercial hub of Canada and home to the Canadian Stock Exchange as well as its five biggest banks. This contributes to not only a high standard of living but also high housing costs and high-rise accommodation.
The city is culturally diverse with more than 80 ethnic groups. Street signs often proclaim the nationality of the immigrants who built their community there.
However, it’s not all concrete and glass skyscrapers, some older building survive including the famous ‘flat iron’ building and the St Lawrence Market, an indoor market founded in 1803 and full of stalls selling fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. Toronto is also a major Arts centre and boasts theatres, concert halls and galleries as well as the University of Toronto which dates back to 1827.
After two days of city walks we needed some open spaces, and where better than our next destination, Niagara Falls.
Many people think that the Falls are in a remote area but they are in the city and the hotels are in walking distance. There are in fact three falls that flow into the Niagara River which forms a natural boundary between Canada and the US, but the Canadian falls, the Horseshoe Falls, are the biggest. The other two falls are the American falls and the much smaller Bridal Veil falls, separated from the American falls by Luna Island, a mere 130ft (40m) wide. All three falls are best viewed from the Canadian side but recent passport controls have reduced the number of people walking or driving over the Rainbow Bridge that links the two countries.
The area along the waterfront consists of well manicured gardens and smart hotels but just behind this area, downtown Niagara Falls and particularly the Clifton Hill area, looks more like an amusement park with a range of attractions, lower priced accommodation and eateries catering for families. Attractions such as the upside down house, Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum and several wax works can keep kids, young and old, amused for hours.
No visit to Niagara would be complete without a boat ride into the whirlpool at the foot of the Horseshoe Falls. All passengers are provided with hooded plastic ponchos to help keep out the water which, as you get closer to the falls, feels more like driving rain. It is from the foot of the Horseshoe Falls, cascading half a million gallons of water a second into the Niagara River, that you really appreciate the might of the second largest waterfall in the world.
Whilst the Falls are the central attraction, the area boasts numerous vineyards, many of which are happy to welcome visitors in the hope that you might buy a bottle or two. There is also the famous Welland Canal, allowing cargo ships to sail between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, its seven locks allow ships to navigate the Niagara Escarpment which, in 1990, was designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. It is part of a network of canals linking the Great Lakes that allows cargo from both Canada and US cities like Detroit and Chicago to reach ocean-going vessels at ports such as Montreal and Quebec.
Nearby townships such as Niagara on the Lake and Jordan provide picturesque places to visit and the nearby Balls Falls Conservation Area, one of the earliest settlements in this part of Canada, includes the Grist Mill dating back to 1809 and St George Church, built in 1864.
Our final walk was along part of the famous Bruce Trail. The trail follows the Niagara Escarpment for over 500 miles (800km) and is the longest marked trail in Canada. It’s paths and bridges are maintained by a number of clubs that have sprung up along its route. For many hikers around the world it ranks as a ‘must do’ trail.
This is just a slice of what Canada has to offer, from big modern cities to wide open plains, forests and mountains. One thing all the places had in common, however, was the warmth and friendliness of Canadians themselves who, from the assistant in a local Subway to the staff at the smart city hotels, were genuinely pleased to see us, happy to help and keen to hear about our experiences in their great country. We had walked many miles along trails, sometimes steep and rocky, along canals and through cities; we had enjoyed great exercise, fresh air and making new friends with our fellow hikers. Truly a trip to remember.
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