Ask about Canada and most friends tell me it’s just a country north of the United States. People are more polite, the temperature is lower and the mountains are higher ; these are the descriptors used often. It’s unfortunate that all these descriptors are comparative, referring to the US as the foundation. In my two weeks, travelling across the country, I’ve come to discover that Canada is a country completely in itself, rich with its own independent history and blessed with the nature of the north.
The nature of how I ended up in Canada is a story in itself. After discovering that it would be too complex to make the journey back home, and consequently to my grandparents’ wedding anniversary, my parents elected to allow me to travel this winter break. The Stooges were all over the world this break, with one in China and one in Austria , and I didn’t want to spend Christmas and the New Year alone. So we remembered we had family friends in Saskatoon, Canada and I ended up plotting one of my iconic cross-country adventure trails. Starting off in Vancouver, I made my way to Saskatoon and took a day trip out to Banff and the Canadian Rockies, spent a couple of days in Quebec City and finally ended the weekend in Toronto. I had also decided to go on a Ski Trip in Breckenridge, Colorado , for a week before this , but that’s a story in itself. Another important note before we start is that this trip happened in the early winter, which is a very different experience from Canada in the summer. I would imagine if I came back in June, I’d see a very different sight.
Vancouver starts in the University of British Columbia for me , also affectionately known as UBC. I was hosted by Kenneth, who served in the Singapore Army with me in Basic Training. The first thing you’d notice about Vancouver is that the city is on the frontier to an amazing amount of nature. The mountains paint the background and you feel like nature is your companion through your time. The UBC campus itself is interesting, paying homage to the issues surrounding Vancouver, and is on the west coast looking out at North Vancouver. My favorite part of the campus is Wreck Beach , which is the first photo in this post. It unsettles you the moment you finish the climb down , with the vast amount of wreckage found. In warmer seasons, it is populated with nudists, that make for an unique experience.
Historical Vancouver is found in Gastown where someone with the nickname ‘Gassy’ started his first saloon. You feel like you’re in a different time, with retro looking buildings and complete gentrification with classy restaurants, cafes and a number of souvenir shops. My favorite highlight was the Gas Clock – a clock that runs completely on steam, and on the dot at every hour conducts a musical symphony from the pressure released as steam is let go. The rest of Vancouver is an interesting conglomerate of districts , with the Harbour hosting the main scenic sights. Most districts have unique qualities, but what I found enjoyable was the mass quantity of Asian food. From Taiwanese to Vietnamese and even to Japanese, there’s quality food found anywhere in the Downtown and Chinatown areas.
Perhaps the most iconic part of Vancouver is Stanley Park. Historically significant for various reasons, including being home to military use and iconic sights, Stanley Park is an hour of exploring temperate nature. My favorite part was the totem poles, paying tribute to the First Nations [Canada’s way of referring to the Natives]. Canada , in my opinion, does a lot better of a job respecting the fact that they are ultimately immigrants to a country populated by people with an already rich culture. Finding ways to coexist and respect each other are seen throughout the country and provide good lessons to take away.
Vancouver is ultimately known as one of the world’s most livable cities. Had I not sprained my ankle on Ski Trip , I would have taken advantage of the natural backyard that’s so accessible. Instead, I looked out for other exciting parts of the city, including Storm Brewery, a super microbrewery specializing in craft beers and unique flavors including pickled beer and whisky wine. They’re all in a slightly shady industrial part of town, but are worth the trip out for the cheap tasters and the rich conversations with the other patrons and craftsmen.
If I was to choose one part of Canada to come back to, it’d definitely be Vancouver. It has most of what I love in a city – good food, affordable lifestyle and vast amounts of nature. It has its fair share of quirks though, from early closing hours to the Mounties [I’m so happy I managed to see these guys] plodding around on the pavement in the city. Thanks for a good time Vancouver, and thanks to Kenneth, Sarang and Visha for taking the time to host me and show me your city.
This was the part of the trip that I needed the most. Staying with friends of the family, allowed me to be an ‘adopted’ son for a week and have some semblance of a family after a while.That did mean I had to make an unorthodox stop in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which has the unique catchphrase of being the ‘land of the living skies’. What that essentially means is that there’s vast amounts of flat land, allowing you to see the horizon far and wide. It makes for amazing landscape photography like the photo above, but I was also very excited to see the Northern Lights while on the road near Saskatoon. If anything, that made Saskatoon capable of providing a traveler his kicks.
Moving out of the plains of Saskatoon, we took a road-trip out to the Canadian Rockies – mainly the Banff region. Now, I had just spent the week before in the American Rockies at Colorado and was already pretty impressed by the mountainous terrain. But the Canadian Rockies are plenty times better, being unfettered and home to so much more natural wonders. There are visual sights around every corner, and lots of photography moments. My favorite was here at Lake Louise.
In the summer, Lake Louise is an actual lake people go to take boat rides in and engage in other lake activities. But in the winter, it freezes up, providing the breath-taking view of a lake surrounded by mountains. You can do plenty of activities include sledding, as my family friends did above, or even play ice hockey or ice skate, which was super risky in my opinion but YOLO right?
It takes a true traveler to break off the regular tourist paths and appreciate Canada’s natural abundant beauty. Here, moments are frozen for you to stare back at and enjoy; humbly presented for your awe. For that, Banff did a lot for me.
Food in this part of Canada isn’t especially creative, although the beef is famous [AAA Alberta Beef] for being not just free of food enhancement, but also more delicious. I tried one up in Banff and was not disappointed – probably in my top 20 steaks. Go to Banff, enjoy the beauty. Thanks to Uncle Anand, Aunty Mercy, Deepa , Esther and Janet for making me feel like home.
Before I spent New Year’s in Toronto, I wanted to spend some time in East Canada, also known as New France and/or True Canada. This is where Canada deviates from the U.S. plentifold. Rather than visit another big city like Montreal, I took some of my friends’ advice and visited Quebec City instead. It’s smaller, more French and a lot more charming. This is where New France actually started, and in the winter, this city is beautiful beyond measure. With warming Christmas lights and charming buildings in the Old City, destinations like the Quartier Petit make for not just great photo opportunities but encouraging spirits as people carol and enjoy each others’ company. There’s plenty history embedded in this small city, and fulfills a full weekend’s agenda.
I took the time here to truly enjoy Canadian French cuisine then, as this is where culture takes priority. At Aux Anciens Canadiens, staff dress up as waiting staff from the past in a cosy little cottage and transport you back to the days of old. The lunch set menu is value for money, and the food is authentic. I had the Lac St Jean meat pie, a pie unique to Quebec that makes use of game meat and roasted vegetables. With the sweet potato mash and tomato jam, this meal was rich in flavors and definitely reminiscent of my time in France.
Of course. the star in the Canadian cuisine world is the Poutine. The original dish is made from fries, poutine sauce – which is similar to a light steak sauce – and cheese curds. Anything else is a deviation, but welcome addition. Ashton is a fast food chain dominant in the city and particular only to east Quebec. This is where most people go to eat Poutine, and I’ve seen people so much that I felt embarrassed with my small portion. Worth the hype? I’d say it’s an interesting dish to try and Quebec did it best for sure, but it’s not my go to indulgence.
My absolute favorite meal in Quebec City was in the Creperie Le Billig for brunch. Famous for affordable crepes that are incredibly well prepared, the Creperie Le Billig sits on Rue St Jean, a famous street for food and shops, and hosts plenty of patrons in a small outfit. I had the duck confit eggs benedict crepe and spent a whole one and a half hours just enjoying the crepe and ambience. I guess it’s at moments like this where I relished in being a traveler in a foreign city where no one knew me. I had my own schedule and was blissfully enjoying my time , and God, was it fulfilling.
Toronto ended my Canada tour, and boy, did it end on a grand note. Toronto is the New York of Canada – flashy, diverse and exciting. The Yonge-Dundas Square in central Toronto is the main city district and you can find most retail and entertainment options here. It’s similar to Times Square, with the addition of a huge central promenade for activities.
Heading down to south Toronto and you’ll see most of the tourist attractions. One of my favorites was the Steam Whistle Brewery, which embellished its grounds with vintage locomotives and trains. It lent a very rustic feel to the brewery that was refreshing. Steam Whistle is a uniquely Toronto beer brand that adds pride to the Toronto identity. Its Pilsners are pretty good and are a good try while in the city. You can also take tours of the brewery and taste samplers.
Rogers Centre, Air Canada Centre and the Ripley Aquarium all occupy south Toronto as well, but the prominent landmark is always the CN tower, a tower that at one point held the world record for tallest building. You can conduct an edge walk at the top that’s really exciting, but I didn’t dare given the cold winds. It’s a quiet reminder of the power of the city, following you around most of downtown and exciting you with every look.
Something else that is big in Toronto is hockey. Probably most of Canada, but especially Toronto. The Hockey Hall of Fame sits in South Central Toronto and is filled with memorabilia and cool motifs from Hockey History. I don’t really follow the sport, but even I enjoyed the walk through the past of how hockey has become the great sport it is.
St Lawrence Market is a classic western market, that throws back to Toronto’s history. Most of it is regular groceries and meats, but on the west side, one can find many hot meals. Toronto’s ‘famous’ food is the Peameal Bacon sandwich , a thicker bacon placed in a sandwich. It’s severely overpriced, but I wagered it must be worth the price. It wasn’t really, so I’d recommend to try splitting it with someone to make it more value for money. Markets are a good look into the daily lives of locals as well, and I enjoyed seeing how locals interact and go about their lives.
What I looked forward to most to be honest was The Toronto International Film Festival’s Lightbox Cinema that screens movies selected for TIFF and that are significantly important. I watched Son of Saul, a Hungarian film about the gas chambers in the Nazi regime, that was extremely disturbing in showing the realities of being a Jew in those times. The cinema is slightly less commercial and provides a better appreciation of the film genre. I was really happy I managed to spend some time here.
Another place that surprised me was the Art Gallery of Ontario. It provides free entry to everyone from 6pm – 9pm on Wednesdays, and the exhibits cover a spectrum of periods and themes.
What made my night though was the surprise visual arts performance that was held in the central hall. There was a rock band that played, which contrasted awkwardly with the poignant paintings and sculptures around the building, and my favorite was the light art being done with water containers and projectors that projected shapes as the artists made movements in the container. It reminded me of how cities are ultimately destinations of youthfulness and promise , and why I love taking in the energy there. Major thanks to Angel and Kesigun for spending time with me and adding to the life of the city.
My final stop on the trip was a Day Trip out to Niagara Falls. It’s a lot cheaper to book way ahead and use MegaBus to get to Niagara Falls. The falls are everything people say it is – beautiful, magnificent and inspiring. The town itself is extremely touristy the closer you get to the falls, but it’s probably a good idea unless you have restless kids, to make your way straight to the falls. The Canadian side of the falls is definitely better, with the American side only being able to see the American Falls and glimpses of the Horseshoe falls. I even bought tickets to go behind the falls and stand at eye level with the middle of the falls. It’s here that the weight of my journey finally pressed down on me and I realized how blessed I was to be able to stand here and witness this.
It took me 19 years to realize my dream, but now I’m travelling so frequently I have to remind myself of the advantage I possess with what I do. Travelogues help me remember my own journeys, but my hope is that people get infected with the same wanderlust that I have. Break out, explore and be pushed out of your comfort zones. Let yourself be exposed to beauty , and let yourself breathe the air you are given.
Canada, you’ve been simply beautiful. I definitely want to come back.