Tuesday 28 September 2010

Canada 5 - Niagara, Tourist Tat v. Nature's Grandeur

September 3rd

Our last full day in Canada, and we were booked on an all day trip to Niagara Falls.  I had been there before during the time I lived in the country, but for Glenys it was a first and was also one of her long held travel ambitions.  As we travelled along the highway it brought back memories again for me, I remember being so excited at going off on my own for a while, I'd  visited Niagara and explored New York State.  I drove a Mini that the family I worked for had for me to use and in America everyone stared at it!  That  was in the days of massive cars there and being able just to drive over the border.

We had a great driver, Salim, who was very informative and funny.  He gave told us of a way to remember the five Great Lakes using their first letters = HOMES.  He heard a passenger sneeze at one point and said that means someone is missing you - I'd never heard of that saying before but thought it was rather sweet.

For most of the trip we skirted Lake Ontario which was huge yet it is the smallest of the Great Lakes, it makes you realise once more what a massive  country Canada is.  The area we passed through on the journey was mostly built up and not very scenic. 

Our first stop was at a place where you could take a helicopter trip over the Falls.  We debated whether to do it, it would be a fabulous experience, neither of us had been in a helicopter, but the cost was $115 for a ten minute flight and we decided it wasn't worth it.  

The rather fetching essential Maid of the
 Mist attire

We then went on to Niagara Falls and there's no doubt it is a magnificent sight.  The Niagara River is divided by Goat Island into the Horseshoe Falls in Canada and the American and small Bridal Veil Falls in the USA.   The Horseshoe Falls drop about 173 feet, and the height of the American Falls varies between 70–100 feet because of the presence of many giant boulders at its base. The larger Horseshoe Falls are about 2,600 feet wide, while the American Falls are 1,060 feet wide.  Both sets of Falls face Canada and therefore you get the best views by far from the Canadian side.

On arrival Salim immediately took us to the jetty to board The Maid of the Mist for our included boat trip to the Falls.  We collected the blue plastic macs and went onto the upper deck.

We first passed the American Falls, a curtain of powerful, frothing water.  Then it was on to the Horseshoe Falls, which are simply amazing, at one point it felt like we were totally surrounded by the water, we went in a lot further than I thought we would.  The "mist" at times blocked the falls from view.  We also got well soaked despite the macs - memories of our Icelandic boat trip came to mind, but at least the water wasn't quite as icy.  We always seem to get wet on boat trips!  The roar of the water was deafening and around us the water swirled and frothed like a witch's cauldron, whilst birds swooped all around.  It must take some skill to guide those small boats safely around  the Falls, it was an exhilarating experience.
Leaving The Maid of the Mist we passed the queue for the next sailing then we found somewhere close to have lunch.  All around the Falls there are tourist shops full of the usual stuff.  I said to Glenys that it was a shame that Niagara Falls couldn't be more like Gulfoss in Iceland, left wild and almost untouched by the trappings of tourism.  But I realise that it's inevitable that tourism would be eveywhere considering the location of Niagara.  Thinking about it though, I think that nature's grandeur does manage to outdo the glaring materialism. 

And, being tourists ourselves, we went to some nearby shops. We were barely inside when a rain and wind storm suddenly came out of nowhere. I was close to a door and saw monsoon-like rain fall and a strong swirling wind followed, whipping through the trees and sending people scattering for shelter.  We were glad we were inside at the time. It was over quickly though and when we headed back to our bus the rain had stopped and it was calm.


We left Niagara behind and after a short stop at the nearby Whirlpool Gorge headed for Niagara on the Lake. This a picture-book beautiful town, full of flowers and beautiful homes and expenisve looking shops. We passed Cows ice cream parlour and shop "The best ice cream in Canada!" well, we just had to try it! The first thing I noticed was a life-sized statue of a cow with a label around its neck saying "Caution! Bessie may mooove unexpectedly".  Inside there was a shopful of cow memorabilia - never before have I seen a shop dedicated to cows!  I loved the humour of it.  And the ice cream indeed was wonderful! 

Bessie might mooove!

There were lovely shops, one had hundreds of wind chimes, I bought one.  Another had the most fabulous window display of homemade sweets/cakes looking too good to eat.  All around the streets were awash with the colours of the flowers.  We didn't have long there unfortunately, but it was nice to have a short visit to this lovely town.

In this part of Ontario there are lots of vineyards (we wondered how the vines actually survive the harsh Canadian winter, they must be special hardy species).  Our last stop on this trip was at the Pillitteri Winery for a wine tasting.  We had a very hurried lecture from a woman and had a tiny taste of white (nice) and  red (not so nice) wines.  It was all a whirlwind and a bit disappointing really, which was a shame as the winery has won awards. 

After that it was time to head back to Toronto after a very busy day in which we saw so much.  The trip had been reasonable in price too, definitely money well spent.  If you are heading to Toronto yourself and want to take some tours I'd recommend the company http://www.kingtours.ca/

That night, as we'd had a busy day and were tired we ate in our hotel.  We had a lovely meal and wine, the Novotel Centre is a great hotel for the price you pay.  Good location, reasonable price, lovely rooms, excellent service.  Relaxing in wiht our wine was a great way to end our last day in Canada.

September 4th

Me and a cuddly bear Mountie
Our last day, and as we were not flying until the early evening we used the time we had left to go to the C N Tower which was only a short walk from our hotel and right beside the Roger's Centre where we will be seeing U2 next year!  I'd visited the tower when I worked in Canada all those years ago - it hadn't been open all that long then!  And it is still an elegant landmark in the city.  It was cooler and very windy and because of that the outside observation platform was closed for safety reasons. 

It was expensive to go to the top of the tower and we had to queue for over an hour, but it does have fantastic views over the city and Lake Ontario so it's worth it.

And that was it really.  After that it was off to the airport for the trip back home.  We'd done so much on this trip, it was a fabulous experience on all fronts.  Canada was as wonderful as I remembered it and I kind of regret not re-visiting it sooner. But I'm making up for that by going there two years in a row now!  And I do really appreciate that I'm lucky enough to be able to do that. 

Saturday 25 September 2010

Canada 4 - Sky Train and a Bar with a View

September 2nd

Time to leave the cottage and Dianne and Dan.  They drove us to the railway station in Kitchener/Waterloo for our journey to Toronto.  It's always sad to say goodbye to friends, but I knew I'd be seeing them both again next year as we'd be back in Canada to see U2.

Considering the twin cities of Kitchener/Waterloo have a population of approximately 320,000 the railway station was tiny!  It was the size you would find in a very small town in the UK, but apparently train travel in Canada isn't a popular means of transport.  We were early so had a bit of time to wait, I noticed the timetable of trains running from this station - three trains heading west and three heading east per day.  Even with just six trains per day, ours was three quarters of an hour late!

The train was quite full, comfortable and, rather curiously, had blue sky and clouds painted onto the ceiling, The train took an hour and a half to cover the 60 miles to Toronto. 

We stepped out of Union Station into the hurly burly, skyscrapers and speed of city life, a bit of a shock after the peace of the cottage!  We knew our hotel, the Novotel Toronto Centre, was close to the station but decided to take a taxi anyway.  Luckily, even though it was only noon we were able to check into our room.  The hotel was lovely and our room modern and spacious. 

I contacted a friend of mine, Catherine, who lives in Toronto and she said she would meet us at the hotel later that afternoon.  In the meantime Glenys and I went to nearby St Lawrence's Market.  A market has been on this site since around 1820 - old for the New World.  It was a vibrant, bustling place, a mixture of stalls selling almost every food under the sun and other stalls selling all kinds of non-food merchandise.  A place of smells, noise, atmosphere.

View of Toronto from the Park Hyatt bar
Later we met up with Catherine and she took us on the subway to Yorkville, the posh area of the city.  And indeed it was a lovely area.  We went to the rooftop bar on the 18th floor of the Park Hyatt Hotel where we had a fantastic view of the city in all directions, definitely a bar with a view.  It was a pricey bar though, the wine was $15 for a small glass - though I must say it was a very good wine.  It was a very hot day again and there was no shade, but thankfully a few clouds covered the sun and the heat lessened a bit.  It is definitely worth a visit for the panorama of Toronto you get.  I'd love to go on a nightime one day, maybe next year!

Catherine was someone I got to know through our mutual U2 interest many years ago, but we'd never actually met until this day.  She was much as I expected, out-going, chatty, funny and good company.  It was really lovely to hook up with her after all this time and I hope we'll get together again next year.

We headed back to the hotel on the subway, said our goodbyes to Catherine and went back to our room for a while.  We were tired and couldn't be bothered to look far for a place to eat, so we went to the handiest, The Old Spaghetti Factory opposite the hotel.  It was what I'd call cheap and cheerful, full of Tiffany lamps, carousels and streetcars - we got a table in the latter.  The meal was good value, (Glenys noted that our three course meal for two with a glass of wine was the same price as the bill for the three glasses of wine at the Park Hyatt earlier LOL!) and okay for the price.  Then it was back across the road to our room and an early night - we had a long and busy day ahead of us tomorrow.

Friday 24 September 2010

U2 360 Brussels - Bad is Back!

Another interruption to my Canada write up by way of U2!  Below you'll find the stunning version of Bad they performed last night in Brussels.   Of course I wasn't there, but it feels like it was one of those special U2 moments you sometimes get at their gigs. The crowd were so into it even singing the song in the opening chords, so, so good to see this song re-appear in the set of the 360 Tour.  I just love how the band is approaching this leg of the tour, they seem to have found a whole new level in their lives shows and are proving they still have the balls to take risks.  Anyway, enjoy!

Sunday 19 September 2010

Canada 3 - The Tooth of Time and Rocky the Raccoon

We had another easy going morning of sitting outside our cottage soaking in the sun and view. I went for a walk through the cedar woods to the river, I really enjoyed the peace and beauty of the place. There is a beaver's dam on the river, I watched for a while from a distance, but the animals remained well hidden.

At noon we headed out to Elora, a small, pretty town about half an hour's drive from the cottages.  It was our last full day with Dianne and Dan and Glenys and I took them for a thank you lunch at the place of their choice.  We went to Shepherds, an Irish pub.  It was quite authentic inside, and the food (I had fish and chips) was delicious.  

The Tooth of Time and waterfall at Elora Gorge
(Photo by Glenys Newcombe)
After our meal we walked the short distance to the Elora Gorge.  Here the Grand River falls 25 feet into the Gorge.  Between the waterfall lies a small, angular rock islet known at the Tooth of Time (sometimes the falls are also known by this name) that just seems to hang precariously.  In fact it has been shored up a little to prevent it being swept away by the constant power of the water.  We had tea at The Mill right beside the waterfall  - we could hardly hear ourselves talk for the roar of the water.  We watched a group of six ducks swimming in the rapids, defying the swirling water and currents, nature is amazing. 
It was an extremely hot and humid day (temperatures were above normal for the time of year) and I was wilting - trying to stay out of the direct sunshine.  I love warm weather, but find it hard to deal with it when it is very hot.  Luckily we next went shopping and everywhere is air-conditioned.  Elora seems to have a strong artistic community as there were lots of interesting and unusual shops, often selling original works of art and merchandise, so there was plenty to browse round.

We left Elora and drove to another small town called Drayton to visit June, Dianne's sister-in-law who had invited us round for drinks.  Her home was a beautiful, large brick built home, fabulously decorated inside in a Victorian style with lots of her husband David's lovely handmade stained glass.  We sat  in a covered outside porch and had orange juice, what a lovely place to live!

June came back with us to the cottages.  Glenys and I did our packing before joining the others for a light meal of crackers, cheese and tuna followed by a delicious Dutch apple pie.  Again we had a lovely evening chatting as the night fell. 

At one point there was a loud rustling by one of the bird tables, Dianne shone a torch in the direction of the noise and there was a raccoon holding onto the bird table with its front feet and anchored to the nearby tree with it's hind legs.  Rocky (as Glenys christened him) seemed unperturbed by the light being shone at him or our close presence and he continued to eat from the table.  Glenys and I were entranced, we had never seen a raccoon in the wild before and here was one just a few yards from us!  Rocky stayed around for about 20 minutes, munching happily on yesterdays leftovers, though he did leave the butternut squash!  

It was the perfect way to end our time at the cottages, it was like he was saying goodbye to us, and indeed Dianne and Dan who had another week at the cottage said they didn't see him again in that time.

Rocky the Raccoon (Photo by Glenys Newcombe)
I felt sad as we walked the short distance from one cottage to the other our way illuminated by torchlight.  We lit the oil lamps for the last time and chilled for a while before retiring to bed.  A place like this is not for everyone, but I (and Glenys too) had found it all a bit of an adventure, it was quite nice not having TV, the Internet, watching the time, or the noise of our modern world.  I coped fine with no electricity or running water, though I did miss a "proper" toilet a bit.  I enjoyed drawing water from the well, showering in the cute outdoor shower with apples on the roof.  It was good just to slow down and kind of be part of, or at least almost live alongside nature.  It's an experience I will never forget, and I'd like to thank Dianne and Dan for inviting us. 

Monday 13 September 2010

Mercy Me!

Must butt into my Canada holiday write up to update on some U2 tour news.  Earlier in the week I was delighted to hear that U2 had been rehearsing Mercy.  I have loved this song from the first moment I heard it, it's a true U2 song, no one else could have written, played or sung it.  It was dark and raw and fabulous.  Then last night in Zurich they played it live for the first time.  I've watched it on Youtube and, though it was not as raw and dark, it was still amazing.  Some of the lyrics were changed, and forgotten by Bono. "You're gravity, searching for the sound"...(quickly notices mistake)..."ground" LOL.  

Personally I prefer the original purely for it's menace and rawness, but for a first performance this was pretty good!  Mercy has long been a favourite of U2 fans, seems like the band have finally listened to us and put this song where it deserves to be.   I'm so proud of the band for being brave enough to do things like this, they can be control freaks, but they are really experimenting on this tour, keep up the good work lads.

Canada 2 - A Great Lake, Creatures of the Night and Shopping

30th August

We had breakfast outside our cottage, at 8am it was already very warm, the chickadees were chirping all around, the cicadas lazy summer sound filling the air.  Below us the Conestoga River meandered through the valley, and I watched a blue heron flying low over the river, what a wonderful way to start the day!

Soon we were on our first trip away from this idyll, to Lake Huron. which was around an hour and a half drive north west.  The countryside we drove through was mainly flat farming land, corn seemed to be the main crop, it reminded me of the area where I used to live, which wasn't that far from here.  Occasionally, along the roadside were signs bearing religious quotes such as.  "Repent and ye shall be saved" and the suchlike.  There is a strong Mennonite community in this area, their homes and farms often distinguished from others by a star on the outside.  The Old Order of Mennonites still wear old fashioned clothing and drive horse and carts, we saw a few on our travels around the area.
We arrived at a small town called Southampton which was on the shores of Lake Huron.  The pure blue sky was reflected in the lake which stretched off in all directions to the horizon.  It was like a sea - in fact this lake is at least as big as our Irish Sea. Often it just hits you how massive a country Canada is and this was one of those moments.

Lake Huron
The only break on the horizon was Chantry Island, which is about a mile out in the lake, it's white lighthouse dazzlingly bright in the sunshine.  In the 1850's six lighthouses, called Imperial Towers,were built along this dangerous coastline to help settlers sail safely on the lake.  The Great Lakes can be as treacherous as any sea or ocean, there are 50 shipwrecks around Chantry Island alone.  The lighthouse was first operational in 1859 and is still in use today and you can go on tours there.  The island is now also a bird sanctuary.

The shoreline at Southampton had a lovely beach, it was a very hot day, but a cooling breeze came in off the lake which made it very pleasant.  Surprisingly there were few people on the beach, and we just wandered along it and paddled in the water.

Glenys and me outside the Little Barn shop
We had lunch outside in the shady rear terrace of the nearby Walker House Hotel before heading a short distance north to one of the Saugeen (a local river) First Nation Reservations.  The original people of Saugeen are Ojibway. They became known as Chippewa by people who could not pronounce Ojibway and this is the name the people are now known by.  It was noticeable how much smaller the houses were within the reservation.

We stopped at the Little Barn Craft Shop run by an elderly, chatty guy called Orlyn Solomon.  The shop sold native goods, some made on the local reserve.  We all bought something, I got a wooden horned owl cleverly carved using the natural contours and colours of the wood and bark to show the bird's details. 

After this we headed home and relaxed for a while at our cottage in the afternoon sun.  Where ever I am I always love the late afternoon/early evening, when the colours become rich and the mood mellow.

We later joined Dianne and Dan at their nearby cottage for our dinner.  We had a lovely evening eating, drinking wine and chatting as night fell.  The creatures of the night started to come out, we heard a rustle nearby and shone a torch (torches are a constant companion at the cottages due to having no electricity) in the direction of the sound just in time to see the black and white tail of a raccoon disappear into the night.

31st August

I woke at 5am with my legs and feet itching madly - unfortunately as well as creatures of the night coming out it also meant the flies of the night come out and I'd got a lot of now very itchy mossie bites.  I managed to get to sleep again and in fact ended up having a bit of a lie in.  Once up, I counted my scarlet bites, 23!  Glenys had a few too but not as many as me. 

We were short of well water so I went to the hand operated pump and drew some water, quite hard work! Then we went over to the other cottage and had a brunch of peameal bacon (a bit like gammon, very nice) and waffles with syrup, though I skipped the syrup, too sweet for me.

Then Dianne and Dan took us to Conestoga Mall in the city of Waterloo about a 40 minute drive for our shopping fix.  We agreed that they would come back for us in three hours.  We wandered around the mall which was really nice, not too big so not tiring to look around.  I bought a bag and some shoes, unfortunately prices in Canada are not as cheap as the USA compared with UK prices, so neither of us bought a lot, still it was fun.  I also got some cream for my itchy bites!

We had a snack,  and used the toilets - which were gorgeous, you really get to appreciate proper toilets when you are using porta potties and a privy LOL!

We were picked up at the agreed time and just had an easy rest of the day.  We watched birds in the valley with our binoculars.  We saw a flash of scarlet - a red cardinal and we also saw a red tailed kite in a tree by the river. If you,love nature and wildlife, as both Glenys and I do, this is a wonderful place to be.

ianne and Dan and again had a lovely evening.  Glenys hadn't known either of them before but now they were like old friends and of course they have been good friends of mine for years now.

We went back to our, Russell's, cottage following the beam of the torch, and something scurried away as we got near the building, maybe a raccoon?  The sky was pitch black and stars very bright, there was no sound except for the cicadas.  We got into the cottage and lit the oil lamps (I loved the smell of the oil) and switched on the battery lights.  It created a gentle light, and I found it nice to have no TV, I liked this simple life.

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Canada 1 - Memories, Apples on the Shower Roof and Peace

On August 27th my cousin Glenys and I was flew to Canada. As we descended into Toronto airport I saw the azure blue of Lake Ontario glimmering below, then plane then banked sharply and I saw downtown Toronto, dominated still by the elegant CN Tower. In that moment I suddenly went back in time to when I was arriving in the same city, 22 years old, young, adventurous and somewhat scared. After having worked in offices since leaving school and being bored out of my mind, I knew I needed to rethink my future career, I was in arriving in Canada to work as a mother's help for a year and to give me time to work out where my life was going to go. It turned out that the woman I was going to work for was a psychiatrist, I read her books and realised that was the way ahead for me - two weeks after returning home I started my training as a psychiatric nurse, and, as they say, the rest is history! I was surprised how strongly that arrival all those years ago hit me, this was the first time I had been back to Canada since.

Immigration was surprisingly easy and soon we were on a shuttle bus to Waterloo, Ontario. My friend Dianne and her husband Dan were there to meet us, it was great to see them again. It was about a half an hours drive to the cottages where we were going to stay. Dianne had inherited the two buildings from her parents, they were in the country north of Drayton by the Conestoga River. By time we arrived it was dark and we had to walk down the step incline to the cottages by torchlight! We got to Russell's Cottage (named after Dianne's father, Dianne and Dan were in the other cottage, named Edna's after her mother, nearby) which was to be our home for the next six days.   It was cosy and homely, full of character, lots of pictures on the walls and ornaments.

Russell's Cottage
You have to be flexible, willing to rough it a little and easy going to stay at the cottage. There is no electricity or running water. You get your water from a well, use a porta potty at night and an outdoor privy (in a wooden building) during the day. Lighting is by oil lamps, and solar/battery lights, torches become your constant companion at night. No TV or phone. There is an ingenious shower inbetween the two cottages, rain water is piped by gravity to the wooden shower building, water is heated up by propane gas and you end up with a lovely refreshing shower!  The plastic roof of the shower was covered in tiny apples that had fallen from a nearby tree.

We were exhausted and went to bed soon after arriving and I was asleep within minutes.

Next morning we woke up to blue skies, sunshine and a wonderland! Our cottage looked out over a hill that flattened out to create what Dianne and Dan call The flats, running through this area is the Conestoga River. Bird feeders were everywhere and the cheeky Chickadees were as numerous as our sparrows. To the left around Edna's Cottage were cedar woods, to our right more woods.  It was beautiful, relaxing and peaceful, Glenys and I both love nature and we spent ages watching birds we had never seen before.

Conestoga River
We had breakfast in Edna's cottage with Dan and Dianne.  It was dark in there as it was surrounded by trees (which gave it shelter from the sun) so for the first time in my life I had breakfast by candlelight! 

We had a lazy day just admiring the view and chilling out.  That evening, Dianne and Dan had a barbecue, Dianne's brother and his wife came, along with their daughter Shelley who looked 20 but to our astonishment was 34!  Also there was a friend called Shirley.  All were very nice and we had a lovely fun evening.  It's lovely having barbecues, something we do rarely in the UK due to the weather.

Sunday too was spent just relaxing and getting over jetlag.  I loved this life, no rush, no looking at the time, no computer or TV.  The only sounds are from the wildlife, including the loudiest cicadas I've heard - they sounded like an electric saw!  It was simple but wonderful, for years Dianne has told me how much she loves this place and now I can see why, it's a paradise.