In the second part of her two-part adventure, contributor HEIDI McALPIN continues her summer 2019 family trip to Eastern Canada…
With Toronto and Niagara Falls in the rear view mirror, so begins the next leg of our five-destination blast through Eastern Canada. And it’s all aboard for a four and a half hour train ride north for me, my husband and two kids to Canada’s capital city.
Ottawa is home to historic Parliament Hill and Rideau Canal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose 4.8 miles of waterway freeze in winter, allowing locals to commute on ice skates. Happily in summer this 19th century feat of engineering, whose thousands of labourers included Irish immigrants, transforms back to a tranquil thoroughfare, providing tourists with balmy boat trips along its sedate stretch.
As the nation’s capital, it is also home to the Royal Canadian Mint where the country’s currency is showcased and visitors can lift a €1 million gold bar under the unflinching eye of a steadfast security guard. A Hop On Hop Off Bus Tour whisks you past an abundance of embassies, PM Trudeau’s and the Governor General’s official residences and the stables of the iconic Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Canada’s history is further explored in Ottawa’s many and varied museums, but it’s the food that’s the star at its most sensory experience. The ByWard Market is a colourful expanse of over 600 stalls and cafes selling everything from Poutine to BeaverTails. These curd-slathered chips and sugary fried pastries shaped like their animal namesake are two national delicacies that positively demand a bite.
Several visits to this fantastic market are made all the more enticing with its close proximity to our downtown abode. Les Suites Hotel provides spacious family-friendly accommodation, with two bedrooms and an open plan lounge kitchen providing that cosy yet well-equipped home-from-home vibe. A swimming pool and ground floor café ramp up the hotel experience and provide a welcome retreat between your full-on sightseeing jaunts.
Ottawa has been a delightful revelation, and our first proper foray into bilingual Canada where both English and French are widely spoken. But it’s time to take the six hour train trip to the next destination where our schoolboy French is about to be truly tested.
Standing on the shores of the mighty Saint Lawrence River, quaint Old Quebec is another UNESCO World Heritage Site and as picturesque as they come. In fact, so charming is this city that cruise lines have named it North America’s most popular destination. Which is something to bear in mind when exploring its whimsical cobbled streets. If your trip coincides with a cruise ship’s arrival, be prepared to jostle and queue for that Insta-worthy view.
And views you will get from both the Château Frontenac Hotel and Parliament Hill, the architectural crowning glories of this, North America’s only walled city. So much of French Canada is embedded in Quebec City which was founded over 400 years ago by French settlers. Locals are proud of their French connection, and English is most definitely their second language. Thankfully, locals will converse fluently with the legions of English-speaking tourists descending on their city.
Its strategic position made Quebec a battleground for French and British troops, and this fascinating history is all around you as you delve deep into the city. Bus and Boat Tours provide a bitesize overview as well as a quick detour to Montmorency Falls whose 83m watery drop eclipses Niagara Falls by a full 30m. A cable car to the top and suspension bridge along its span gets you up close to the spray, while brave souls can zipline across its watery facade.
The picture postcard cuteness continues at Petit-Champlain, an enchanting district of cobbled streets and stone buildings overlooking the Saint Lawrence River. Catch the funicular railway to Old Quebec’s Lower Town and prepare to be beguiled. Old Quebec is the tourist mecca, but save money and stay in a surrounding neighbourhood and walk, bus or Uber your way in and out. We opted for an AirBnB amid the creative studenty vibe of the Saint-Roch district.It’s au revoir Quebec and bonjour Montreal as our French Canadian adventure continues. A three hour train trip takes us to Canada’s second largest city after Toronto, and second largest French-speaking city after Paris with French the first language for half its 1.7m population. But our first stop has more than a hint of modern day Belfast…
The city’s Old Port is a successful example of how to regenerate a once thriving shipping area and the way I see Titanic Quarter heading. It also helps that it is home to the world-renowned Circle Du Soliel acrobatic theatrical troupe. The riverside expanse has been transformed into an entertainment and adrenalin hub with, among its attractions, an aerial rope course, 60m high Observation Wheel and ziplines designed to engage and enthral all ages. I watched with baited breath as both children threw themselves off its lofty perch and flew along the 1200 feet zipline. Thankfully, you’ll be relieved to hear, I survived the ordeal.
Adjacent Old Montreal is reminiscent of Old Quebec, with cobbled streets and historic buildings bustling with cute cafes, boutiques and bars. Its crowning glory is undoubtedly the astonishingly beautiful blue and gold-hued Notre Dame Basilica where celebrated chanteuse Celine Deline married while all of Canada watched the live TV coverage. A dazzling spectacle befitting this quite breathtaking place of worship.
Next up for our three day Montreal stop was another iconic venue that attracted global television coverage as home of the 1976 Olympics. Instantly recognisable with its inclined tower structure, Montreal’s Olympic Stadium almost bankrupted the city and remained unfinished as the games commenced. This ‘white elephant’ was finally completed 11 years later and, today, provides a fantastic observation platform for a venue that witnessed gymnast Nadia Comaneci’s Perfect Ten and Bruce, now Caitlyn, Jenner’s Decathlon Gold. Visitors can read about the stadium’s sporting highs and fiscal lows at its bright and breezy on-site museum.
Our downtown Hotel Bonaventure was conveniently located right on Montreal’s Metro system, shrinking this sprawling city while providing an urban oasis with its lush rooftop pool and garden. Al fresco breakfasts among quacking ducks and koi carp made for a fun start to the day for the children. And evening swims surrounded by skyscrapers was a sweetly surreal ending to our busy daytime excursions. This was a real find in a cosmopolitan city with a huge heart.
Five destinations ticked off, and a five hour train journey back to Toronto ahead, and we were all feeling blissfully Canada-fied. Yes, it’s a big country. But our itinerary gave us enough time at each stop to experience the best of its tourist draws. And with one final night in Toronto, there was still time to take a boat trip around Centre Island for a parting shot of that classic skyline.
The Gladstone Hotel took us to a boho neighbourhood and equally eclectic overnight stay. This Victorian red brick corner building is home to the city’s oldest hotel whose owners are particularly proud of its artsy aesthetics and place at the heart of the LGBT community. Each room is different and our last night was spent in the duplex Tower Suite with balcony overlooking, what else?, the CN Tower. A suitably outstanding ending to a quite memorable 16-day family adventure. Canada, you’ve been truly epic.
For Quebec tourist info visit www.quebecoriginal.com/en-gb and www.quebec-cite.com/en.
For Montreal tourist info visit https://www.mtl.org/en