Sunday 26 January 2020

The Big Read: Falling for the charms of Canada

Toronto sunset over lake panorama with urban skyline.
Toronto sunset over lake panorama with urban skyline.
Panoramic view of the Gilles Villeneuve raceway in Montreal

Fergus McDonnell

Canada conjures up images of wide open spaces and snow capped mountains, but the country has much to offer the city slickers who enjoy the hustle and bustle.

THE lap record for the Gilles Villeneuve Formula One circuit in Montreal is 1 minute, 13.622 seconds. At 13 minutes 33.53 seconds I accept that I was a tad slower, but then I didn't have the benefit of Rubens Barrichello's 2004 Ferrari with its 865 horse power.

Instead, I had to rely on the pedal power of a rental bike, but in a city where two wheels are considered at least as good as four, and with some 650km of cycle paths, that was no hardship at all.

But that was near the end of a journey that was a classic tale of planes, trains and automobiles, except it had a streetcar, a boat and a helicopter thrown in for good measure.

Panoramic view of the Gilles Villeneuve raceway in Montreal
Panoramic view of the Gilles Villeneuve raceway in Montreal

Because, while most people would think of Canada and immediately conjure images of wide open spaces, snow-capped mountain ranges and fast-flowing rivers, the country has much to offer those city slickers who enjoy the hustle and bustle, the ethnic diversity and the culinary variety offered by the truly great cities of the world.

So we landed in Toronto, eventually. Three hours sitting on the tarmac of Hamilton Airport is not what you might call the ideal start to a holiday, but our thunderstorm-enforced diversion was at least made bearable by the crew of our Air Transat flight, who could not have been more helpful or informative.

We awoke the following morning refreshed and rested in the Toronto Marriott, right in the heart of the city and adjacent to the Eaton Centre - an absolute shopper's delight and a bargain hunter's paradise to rival anything New York has to offer.

Top of our 'to do' list was St Lawrence Market where we discovered a few more links in our personal food chain in the form of turtle meat (bone in, obviously), camel burgers and those new favourites, kangaroo or spicy elk sausages.

This magnificent building, just a small part of Toronto's rich architectural heritage, was built in 1845 to serve as the City hall, police station and jail. Even at that early stage it also accommodated shops, and the various changes to its structure and uses down through the years have resulted in the bustling, vibrant space it is today.

Our hotel accommodation didn't lend itself to making full use of the market, but if you chose a self-catering option you can really spoil yourself with a visit here.

Toronto is an easy and inexpensive city to navigate by subway, streetcar or bus and it has the added extra of a population who are genuinely eager to help you find your way around - a real bonus for the slightly bemused tourist. On more than one occasion we only had to look a little confused (roadworks had caused the diversion of the streetcar, for example) to prompt a friendly local to steer us in the right direction.

The streetcar brought us back to the CN Tower, an incredible structure where the high-speed elevators will take you to the top of the world in just 58 seconds. That's 15 miles per hour straight up, and even Rubens Barrichello would have to be impressed with that.

Toronto sunset over lake panorama with urban skyline.
Toronto sunset over lake panorama with urban skyline.

The views alone are worth the trip, but if you fancy yourself as a bit of a daredevil, you can always sign up for the Edge Walk - and it's not called Toronto's most extreme attraction without good reason.

Assuming you are sufficiently brave and stout of stomach you can walk hands-free while attached via a harness to an overhead safety rail, on a five foot wide ledge a mere 356 metres (116 storeys) above the ground. There's also a fair bit of leaning backwards over the edge involved and you even get a video and a certificate of achievement so that you can prove to your friends just how mad you really are.

So even within their cities it seems Canadians enjoy a touch of the great outdoors and you don't have to travel far from Toronto to sample what is truly one of the world's greatest natural sights.

About 75 miles, a couple of hours drive allowing for traffic, on the south side of Lake Ontario, stand Niagara Falls. And while you may think that having seen them in countless films it might be a bit too much of a touristy thing to do, a visit to the Falls will leave you seriously awestruck.

The bare statistics are impressive enough - 50m at their highest, a total width of over 1,000m and with at least 2,500 cubic metres of water crashing down every second during the summer months.

But even those stats fail to convey the sheer magnificence of this special place and the feeling of insignificance as you stand on the deck of one of the Hornblower boats surrounded by the spray and the sound of all this gushing water.

Everywhere you look there is another interesting sight. The American Falls have steps down along the side which seem too close to be safe, while back on the Canadian side you can try the Journey Behind The Falls for an entirely different perspective.

Look up and the Rainbow Bridge, with its halfway border crossing clearly marked by the Maple Leaf and Star Spangled Banner flags, towers above, and beyond that, you will see the occasional helicopter, well more than occasional actually. And if you really want to get the complete picture, this is the way to do it.

Niagara Helicopters operate ten minute flights above the Falls and it really is an incredible experience. If you're lucky enough to get a clear day, the view from above is beyond spectacular and into the realm of unforgettable. If the term 'must-see' has lost some of its impact from over use, then Niagara Falls is a 'must-must-see'.

Back on firm, and dry, ground it's fascinating to compare some of Mother Nature's finest handiwork with some of man's most tacky. I'm sure there are people who will enjoy a visit to the City of Niagara Falls and good luck to them. But be warned, the main street is a sort of cross between the worst theme park you can think of and, well, the second worst theme park you can think of. You would be much better advised to jump in the car and follow the Niagara Parkway all the way to the beautiful town of Niagara On The Lake.

The drive will take you through some wonderfully peaceful countryside. This is wine country and you can't help but notice as one mansion melts majestically into the next that you probably have to have a few quid to set up home here.

The vineyards occupy a piece of land stretching between the Niagara River and the Niagara Escarpment and if, like me, you thought that Canadian winters would be too cold for vines to survive then, like me, you were right and you were wrong.

This particular piece of real estate has a micro climate which protects the vines from the worst ravages of winter, but they have also made a virtue of their freezing weather with the production of icewine.

We visited the Inniskillen winery where it really was fascinating to learn about the production of this wine. To put it in a nutshell, the grapes are picked at -8 degrees or below, usually in the middle of the night, and pressed immediately to produce a wine that is highly concentrated in natural sugars and acidity.

Each grape yields just one drop of precious liquid, so you can imagine that icewine doesn't come cheap, but a visit to Inniskillen or one of the other wineries in the area for a tour and a taste is hugely rewarding and informative. They also offer a selection of more recognisable table wines, so you won't leave empty handed.

We left Toronto with heavy hearts, and headed to Montreal in Business Class aboard the VIA Rail train. From the moment we checked in at Union Station, this was a step back to a time when travel was as much about the journey as the arrival.

The modern miracle of WiFi allowed me to tune into a hurling match from Semple Stadium live on the radio while enjoying a decadent mid-morning Bloody Mary and a beautiful meal served by attentive staff.

It's a five-hour trip to Montreal, but it's so relaxing without the hassle of getting to and from the airport, security and all the other little annoyances that go with air travel, that you would almost wish it took longer.

Train travel may be as old as the hills and is certainly considerably slower than the 2004 Ferrari that carried Rubens Barrichello around the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, but when it's done properly it leaves everything else standing in the station.

Take three

Niagara Falls

You've probably seen them a thousand times on the silver screen, but until you get up close to one of Mother Nature's most spectacular phenomenons, you haven't seen them at all. Take a trip on a Hornblower boat with its intoxicating mix of sound and spray, experience the Journey Behind The Falls or, best of all, take a helicopter ride. But hurry, at the current rate of erosion, you only have about 50,000 years before they disappear.

CN Tower

Built between 1972 and 1976 as a communications and observation tower, at 553.33 metres the CN Tower was the world's tallest free-standing structure until 2010. Just standing outside it, it looks impressive and if you don't have a head, or stomach, for heights, then this is as far as you will want to go. Take the high-speed lift to be rewarded with fantastic views - or edge walk for daredevil-level excitement.

St Lawrence Market

Everywhere you look in downtown Toronto you'll see breathtaking architecture, but while many of the city's impressive buildings are modern, there are many that have stood the test of time and retain an elegance that will never go out of fashion. Add to that a bustling, vibrant market place and you get a great place to visit. Even if you are only browsing, you can't help but be amazed by the quality and variety of food on offer.

Getting there


Canadian Affair offer direct non-stop flights from Dublin to Toronto and Montreal, and from Shannon to Toronto, throughout the summer months from April to October.

Return flights start from just €448pp return and are operated on Air Transat's Airbus wide-body aircraft, with newly refitted interiors offering exceptional comfort and generous legroom. Toronto City breaks start from just €619pp based on return Eco Class flights from Dublin to Toronto, plus 4 nights at the 4-star Sheraton Centre Hotel, Toronto on selected dates in October 2014.

Further information

For more information visit or, or call on 01 866 6700

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