canada & united states of america
Rail Adventures Across North America's Eastern Seaboard
Where: Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Windsor, Quebec, Wendake, Niagara, Detroit. Canada & the Unites States of America, North America
When: August 2011
What: CN Tower, Niagara Falls, Union Station, Montreal Tower, Canadian Parliament, French Canadia, American Indian Reserve, Dundas Square Motown Museum, GM Renaissance Centre.
How: Transatlantic Flight, Canada Railways, Bus, Walking, Taxi, Safety Shuttle.
Counter: 2 countries
Illnesses or mishaps: Being verbally threatened in downtown Detroit by a man who had just been released from prison.
Travelling by railway is a unique experience, giving you a ground's eye view of a country rather than a bird's eye view. It means you mix with the locals, it means you spend some of your travel time relaxing and looking out of the window, it means you get about cheaply. This isn't the first time train travel has been at the centre of my travelling. Trains allowed us to cover eleven countries in three weeks across northern, southern and eastern Europe using the inter-rail link up system back in 2007. Trains have brought other cities into play on a stay in a country too, including our trip to Moscow and then onto St Petersburg, Dusseldorf and onto Cologne, and more recently Brussels to Bruges and Bucharest to Brasov in Transylvania. Trains unlock a country or a region. Canada was to be another adventure in train travel, with the aim to cover the best cities strung out along Canada's eastern coastline.
Canada's rail system, although a little limited, is a real opportunity to see the majority of what there is to see. The country is vast. Indeed, initial plans to travel over from the East to West coast to visit Vancouver were abandoned when we discovered it would take over four and a half days on the train to get there. Pre-booking tickets online for each train was easy in itself but a real pain - something we had to do before leaving Britain. This meant having to plan the trip to the minutest detail: we had to know where we'd be and when, as well as how long we were going to need to stay there, before we could book a single train. To do that we also had to see what each city had to offer in terms of sights. It was only then that we could book the trains. Whilst this sort of research is part of the fun of travel - the anticipation, the nervous excitement - it was also a little stressful; trains had to be booked in advance and this was a train network designed for leisure travellers only. This meant that there were far fewer trains than you would have expected and capacity was limited.
Thus our Canadian research had to be compacted and intense if we were to secure our seats on the trains we needed to travel on. This inevitably lead to some oversights - Detroit being one of them. Our trip was essentially a city-based one. Looking back, it would have been nice to have managed a trip out to The Rockies. We did, however, manage to cover key cities in Ontario and Quebec, as well as a two-day jaunt into America with a simple crossing between Windsor and Detroit - a crossing which proved an experience in itself.
railway journeys down the eastern seabord
As you can see from the travel map above, we spent all of our two weeks in Canada along the east coast. We've barely scratched the surface of this huge country - the world's second largest beaten only by the Russian Federation. Our first impressions of Canada were based on Toronto - an amazing city to visit. As we headed more eastwards into the Quebec province, things took a decidedly more French and, I'm afraid, less polite turn. There was instantly a different feel between Ontario province (Toronto, Ottawa, Niagara, Windsor) and Quebec province (Montreal, Quebec City, Wendake). Ontario was immaculate, the people were extremely friendly and would regularly engage us in conversations, whether it be helping us with locating something on a map, admiring our accents (this was particularly common) or discussing the riots back in Britain, in short, the province was civil, colourful and a joy to be in. Quebec province was definitely edgier - graffiti greeted us as we pulled into Montreal station - something we'd seen very little of in Ontario. People were brusque, unhelpful and would knock into you without an apology - in short, we had walked into a country which felt very European, very French. Customer service was nowhere near as good as in Ontario. I can't comment on other Canadian provinces, and therefore can't comment on Canada as a whole, but between the two provinces we did spend time in, Ontario was, by far, the place which offered a superior travel experience.
Weather in Canada proved to be unpredictable - we regularly had the country's weather channel on in the hotels we stayed in to help us plan our days. Weather ranged from blisteringly hot with near 100% humidity, to massive thunder storms with forked lightening and heavy downpours. We successfully managed to dodge a lot of the bad weather through a combination of planning and sheer luck. For instance, we decided to get the CN Tower tour out of the way on our day of arrival, which was lucky as the following day torrential rain and grey skies would have scuppered any chance of seeing views of Toronto from the top of the tower. I was also thankful that the thunder storm predicted at the time of our return flight back to Manchester never materialised.
The VIA Rail Canada network is as unlike British railways as it is possible to be. Staff were unfathomably polite - we ended up having a long chat with two rail guards on our way from Niagara to Windsor. The trains were busy, but never rammed full. Many of the VIA journeys were leisurely, relaxed (with air conditioning might I add), all trains were on time and the ticketing system was faultless - we pre-booked all trains online weeks in advance back home in Manchester - printed all tickets off at Union Station and, when we had to change a train time because we wanted to spend longer in Ottawa, it was "no problem" to change it - as well as being completely free. Everything had to be planned to the finest detail because there was real potential for us to miss vital trains - especially as these were limited. We had to put together an itinerary sheet, which was a god-send when being quizzed by US Border Protection. It must be said that the train network in Canada is under-used and minimal compared to the network in Britain. Many in Canada use cars instead, meaning that users of trains are often tourists and leisure travellers rather than daily commuters. Also, many of the trains only run once or twice per day. Booking ahead, therefore, was essential. In Canada, no seat = no journey. At the end of the rail trip along the eastern side of Canada, we'd clocked up over 1600 miles; the £230 cost of our VIA Rail passes for the Windsor corridor were a bargain compared to prices in Britain. Watching hundreds of miles of Canadian countryside whizz by was interesting enough to keep me awake for a vast majority of the time - with the added intrigue of seeing incongruously familiar place names like 'Aldershot', 'Chatham', 'London' along the way.
Toronto has everything. It is amazing. I loved it. It was the city we spent most time in - like a sandwich it was at the beginning and very end of our Canadian Rail tour. Seeing the Toronto skyline for the first time was a real 'wow' moment. It was, like it or not, one of the real draws which lured me to Canada in the first place. The stunning selection of towers and skyscrapers cut an impressive sight on the skyline - especially when viewed from a medium distance such as from Toronto Island. The CN Tower seemed to spring into every picture going; it being so tall means it can be seen from all over the city, peering in-between buildings or soaring above others. Our four day schedule in Toronto meant we could see a lot of the city - a capital which many countries would be proud to call theirs. Except, weirdly, Toronto is not the capital city of Canada. That honour goes to Ottawa. Curious how Canada has separated the bureaucratic and administrative from the financial and entertainment elements of a capital city and spread them across two cities some 350km apart, the latter making up the general thrust of Toronto. It is definitely the bright lights and the big city of Canada. No more is this crystallised better than in the city's Yonge-Dundas Square - think Times Square and Piccadilly Circus combined. It is the thriving hub of Toronto - a rendezvous point for revellers, a place for street performers, a place where people spontaneously burst into dance and where tourists like me marvel and take panoramic photographs. A large music stage was the icing on the cake - but in my opinion the real performance was happening all around and away from the stage. It all felt very safe and warm-spirited.
Every city worth its place on the international stage needs a thriving gay district, and Toronto did not disappoint on this score. Having such an area becomes a symbol of how civil and developed a country is. Toronto's gay village, known as Church and Wellesley, did indeed, feel 'villagey' with a variety of bars, restaurants and small independent shops. This part of Toronto did feel a little exclusive, being a tourist I did feel a little out of place. This was a far more 'for local people' part of the city where waiters and others were far more interested in catching up with the previous night's gossip than serving tourists who were hungry after a hard day city tripping. It was the only place in Toronto where service standards dipped a little. The partially boheme-feeling Church and Wellesley was eclipsed totally by the district known as Cabbagetown a few blocks away, with its delis, boutiques, graffiti-covered walls. So at home here, we felt the only way to show our love for the place was to stop for dinner. Toronto also has something unexpected up its sleeve. The ability to try a variety of water sports at Toronto Island. Yes, Toronto has its own island which acts as a kind of beach holiday/children's theme park/recreational sports destination (delete as applicable) for the two-and-a-half million Torontonians fancying escaping briefly from the city's hubbub. We were on the island for a long sun-drenched afternoon and so parted with around £20 each to go kayaking on a small inlet of Lake Ontario. The real quandary was whether to take my camera with me. What if I dropped the camera into the water, or worse, if I rolled over - destroying the camera and all of my photographs from the entire trip? I played it safe. The only photographs are from a mobile phone or were taken by an assistant at the kayaking centre.
Torontonians were unbelievably friendly, literally forcing help on us when we didn't need it. People in Toronto are up for fun and friendship. I can quite imagine having a circle of friends within weeks if I were ever to move here. People offered help with map reading and we up for any discussion with us - particularly about the English riots back home. Toronto has the fascia of a big metropolis, but the people have the friendliness of a small village. An incongruous but lovely combination. For me the 'Please Walk on the Grass' sign on the lawns on Toronto Island summed the city up perfectly. Toronto has the hustle and bustle of a city which I love, a real mix of people, a variety of places and things to do to make this a perfect city break for even the fussiest of city trippers.
Downtown Toronto skyline as viewed from Toronto Island on a slightly overcast afternoon.
Niagara is a world-recognised icon of travel - one of the key sights to see before you die. Its iconic status means it attracts 25m visitors annually - a number which will not surprise anyone who makes a trip here. The falls were rather spectacular, but the sheer number of tourists and the tacky, mediocre restaurants lining the lake really detracted from some of the magic. It was crammed with families with children screaming, poor food outlets and questionable alternative tourist 'attractions'. It was a real tourist trap - a fate undoubtedly experienced by other sights of world renown. The area around the falls had a distinct whiff of theme park which was difficult to shake off. One bonus was that we'd only scheduled one night at Niagara which meant we would soon be on our way once the obligatory snaps of the falls plus me in front of said falls had been well and truly snapped. Having said all of this, we could not have visited the eastern side of Canada without seeing the famous falls - the ones I'd seen countless times as a child in the 'Superman' film. We stayed in the Tower Hotel at Fallsview which had spectacular views of the falls. Whilst a little expensive, it was one of those decisions based on my travel mantra: 'We are only here once and so may as well.' Whilst we generally travel lightly and cheaply, this was one location where I was prepared to pay a little more to make it extra special. Our hotel room had floor to ceiling windows which filled the entire wall, overlooking both the Horseshoe and American falls, which were lit up at night also. It was the best TV screen in the world.
Two days after having visited, Niagara Falls made international headlines after a Chinese tourist fell into the falls and whose body was recovered days later. She'd been posing on the railings for a photograph - just like I had. Two attractions also helped fill our time in Niagara: the Aerocar which suspended us above the raging whirlpools of the Niagara River, as well as a trip up the Skylon Tower to see 360 degree views of Niagara. Whilst the tower itself was a little down at heel, the views more than made up for it, as photographs below testify. The thing to remember about Niagara is that it is a solo attraction destination. With one of the world's most iconic sights in the bag, we set our compass due south to Windsor, Canada's southernmost border city...
Niagara Falls, with its famous 53 metre drop and its large mist cloud. Possibly one of the biggest world icon letdowns I have experienced.
Windsor is Canada's southernmost city - a pleasant place but one which I'm not sure was worth the several hours on the Via train from Niagara Falls. We did not stay overnight here, but did spend two long afternoons taking in the tranquility and the friendly people. Initially, the plan was to spend a night here, and one in Detroit. Seduced by the glitz of Detroit's skyscrapers, we decided to 'drop' Windsor completely and instead we would 'do' Windsor during the day. I have fond memories of Windsor - it was a well-kept place, full of hanging baskets and which had nice little touches like the harbourfront sculpture trail. An amazing little bistro-cafe along the harbour, from which we could see the towers of Detroit in America, served some of the best food I'd ever tasted and the service was truly impeccable. We returned to the same bistro-cafe on our return leg out of Detroit. We tipped generously on both occasions.
There were times in Detroit when we wished we'd opted for the uneventful safety of Windsor. The tourist office in Windsor was, for instance, so dead that I think we literally woke the man up from his desk. Windsor - pleasant, but a little too quiet perhaps. It has a slightly darker side to it, having once been key in the making of motor cars and therefore once inextricably linked to Detroit which lies just across the Detroit River. Just like Detroit, Windsor's motor-making heyday is well and truly over, resulting in economic stagnation and joblessness in the city. It is not a tourist destination in any way, and probably does not warrant a stop-off by travellers. Windsor feels dwarfed by the glass and brick skyscrapers across the river. Indeed, typing 'Windsor Canada' into the internet returns images of the Detroit skyline instead. Windsor is pleasant but has little to offer those on a rail trip around Canada. Whilst I look back on Windsor with fondness, it was perhaps only because of the friendliness of Windsorites themselves, rather than the place itself. Use the time you'd inevitably spend getting to Windsor travelling somewhere else instead.
Along Windsor riverfront with Detroit in the distance.
Ottawa is Canada's capital, but doesn't feel like it. Sure, it has the parliament and is the seat of political power, but in almost every other way, Ottawa is second best to Toronto. It is only the capital because Queen Victoria declared it to be - something some Canadians feel uneasy about. It is sleepier, more traditional, more olde-worlde than the Toronto experience. It was, for me, like spending two days in a city which was like Westminster in London. There were some fantastic views and, luckily, we came across the Changing of the Guard ceremony in front of the parliament - remarkably similar to that at Buckingham Palace - complete with red jackets and bearskin hats. We'd travelled nearly four thousand miles to be... in London.
A measure of people in Ontario was epitomised in the local cafe we had breakfast at in the market area of Ottawa - the owner, an overweight, friendly, bursting-with-energy character made me repeat my order because she loved the way I'd pronounced 'cereal'. Having laughed loudly, she returned with another waiter and made me repeat it, declaring "It's because we love your accent." Other diners laughed along too. It was clear that friendliness and warmth was not just characteristic of Toronto, but of Ontario as a whole. It was not a friendliness we would experience in the cities of French Canadia: Montreal and Quebec City. There wasn't exactly a lot do in Ottawa - a boat trip along the Ottawa River was largely uninspiring and a bit of a let down, and the dramatic lighting up of the buildings on Parliament Hill was cancelled due to torrential rain. The view from Nepean Point was truly great, as was staggering across the giant iconic spider statue from artist Bourgeois. Meeting up with an old university friend on the final day also added a new personal dimension to Ottawa. The strangest thing we saw was the 'Cat Man' on Parliament Hill - a man and his son who look after a dozen or so once stray cats in a small fenced-off area in full view of the capital's parliament - a little incongruous to say the least.
The seat of the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa.
Montreal was a surprise. I knew it would be more French than places in Ontario, but it was literally France. Travelling thousands of miles to be in France is a bit of a disappointment in my opinion. There appeared to be hardly any attempt to be bilingual here. Most things we came across were written in French only. It was definitely more gritty and urban than Toronto; more graffiti, more noise, more attitude, more arrogance. There were annoyingly pretty little French pattiseries and boulangeries, prissy cafes and street names like 'Rue du Notre Dame'. Montreal Old Town down by the harbour was typical tourist trap fayre - cobbles, tacky souvenir shops, street portrait painters. Cliche and not unique in any way.
I am glad to say that my initially negative reaction to Montreal subsided by the end of the first evening: Montreal does have an amazing gay scene, with the longest gay street filled with cafe's, bars and restaurants I have ever seen - it was literally an entire boulevard. It did, however, have a really odd mixture of people - drunks, old women on mobility scooters, young and hip people. Annoyingly we'd amissed the Montreal gay pride festival by just one day. This may have accounted for the slighltly sullen feel to the village when we first visited - most frequenters probably sleeping off their excesses from the previous days' frivolities. There were large art installations in the village as well as parking meters painted polka dot pink. Even the outside of the Beaudry Metro station which serves the village was painted using the internationally recognised rainbow colours. It's kind of nice when the local Metro station gets in on the gay action.
A climb to the top of Montreal's Mont-Royale hill (from where it gets its name 'Mont-Real') in the midday heat gave us some fantastic photographs of the city, being, as it was, a real highlight of our second day. Montreal also offered me the chance of ticking off another of the towers on the World Federation's Great Towers list, so a trip to the Montreal Tower - the biggest incline tower in the world - was also in order. Also, an otherwise wasted morning before our next train departure in the afternoon to Quebec (which would prove to be even more French than Montreal) was profitably used to great effect by cycling around Montreal on the city's 'Bixi' public bike system - once we'd worked out how to pay by credit card at one of the bike stations. Cycling under the huge New York-style skyscrapers along giant New York-style boulevards on a sunny morning was fantastic, if not a little hair-raising at times. I clearly took a few risks I shouldn't have not exactly being cycling proficient at the time.
Mont-Royale hill views of Downtown Montreal.
Quebec was very French. Very. Everything was in French, and I rarely heard spoken English unless it was called for by me in an exchange. Quebec was full of old world charm - if you like that sort of thing. Personally, it is rather tiring and I've-seen-it-a-million-times fayre. Quebec certainly attracted the crowds - but crowds of pensioners and retirees. It wasn't exactly hip - more like hip replacement. There wasn't a great deal to do or see, which was disappointing because I had heard of the place Quebec City beforehand and expected it to be a place which would impress me. As a result we looked outside of the city for inspiration, heading deep into the province to see the Wendake Native American Indian Reserve. Catching a tour bus from outside the tourist centre we spent the best part of a day in a recreated village complete with camp fires, wig warms, traditional native American Indian performances and a wonderful vegetarian meal Wendake style. Getting the ferry from Old Quebec port to Old Levis was an pleasant early evening experience.
On our final night, and as a last-minute decision, we decided to go to an expensive revolving floor restaurant at the top of a hotel just outside the city's ancient walls. There had just been a powerful thunderstorm and we weren't going to bother. The sun had just about finished setting meaning that the views were amazing. We made sure that we took our time ordering our meal in order to make sure we got the full 360° rotation of the restaurant - the views came to us rather than the other way round. Prices were so expensive we managed with two drinks and two starters. Seeing Quebec from above really saved the Quebec experience for me. A walk around the parliament and city walls after this meal also afforded me some of the best photographs from the city.
The Chateau du Frontenac, the symbol of Quebec. I find it quite difficult to get excited by such buildings.
united states of america
Detroit was the most under-researched place we'd visited as part of the Canada Rail trip. There was an opportunity to include an American city in the trip with a simple border crossing into Detroit. Light-weight research revealed that it was the home of Motown - it was the Motown from which the new sound got its name; Detroit a motor town. It was also home to some amazing and unique brick-built skyscrapers built at a time when Detroit was on the up. This was how Detroit had ended up on our itinerary: the battle was between Detroit from Windsor and Buffalo which we would have entered through Niagara Falls, but Detroit won the battle. For $3.50 a transit bus (Nexus) takes you through the Canada-America link tunnel, where you are stopped at the border point and have to get off again, taking your bags with you. The bus waits about ten minutes, leaving with or without you. We were kept the longest out of the people on our bus, having to catch the next one coming through the tunnel. Like lambs to the slaughter the friendly bus driver sends you to your doom. We waited, and were interrogated in, what I can only describe as a cramped job centre-style waiting room with large golden flag poles carrying the stars and stripes flag, as well as a prominently placed framed picture of Obama. There were also two large charters on the wall setting out the mantra that this room was America's "front line" followed by "God bless America". I found it all rather bizarre and, if truth be told, a little worrying.
Detroit is certainly no longer on the up. We'd arrived having been put through the wringer at US Customs on the Windsor (Canada) / Detroit (USA) border, the US border protection man concluding the interrogation by asking "why the hell" we wanted to go to Detroit. Back in Windsor, we'd got similar comments from a couple in a cafe where we'd had lunch who, in typical Canadian style, started chatting to us about where we were travelling - our huge back packs acting as the perfect conversation starter: "Are you going to Detroit with those bags? Good luck" came the comment. Not reassuring. Having been to many places where people had issued warnings and consequently found them to be groundless, we brushed off the cautionary notes. This time, however, the warnings were truly deserved. Within minutes of being on foot downtown I was verbally abused and threatened by a man in a car who thought I was taking photographs of him. He was out on probation. Ironically this was directly in front of the Detroit courts of justice. It must be said, it wasn't the first time in my life that I'd been called an "asshole", so I brushed it off, but did make sure my taking of photographs was a little more surreptitious from then on!
The first thing we noticed was that Detroit was eerily quiet; the streets were deserted. There were no retail shops; most shops were boarded up, apart from a couple of convenience stores. Normally this wouldn't set off alarm bells, but this was the city centre, or 'Downtown Detroit'. There were several 'bums' on the street, the stereotypical ones you see in American films; clumped hair and a bottle of alcohol in a brown paper bag. The steam rising from the road plates just added to the cinematic-feel lawless city we'd just walked right into. The city was so bad that our hotel, as a matter of course, laid on a free shuttle to take people staying at the hotel anywhere around the city they needed to go. I have never been to a hotel where they offer what was essentially a safety shuttle. The famous brick skyscrapers I'd come to see were nearly all derelict and empty. There was a real sense that 'The D' had just been abandoned. At this point, having made a daring photo-raid on the buildings I'd wanted to see for about an hour, walking up deserted streets, I googled Detroit from the safety of our hotel: for the last four years Detroit was, according to CNN, the most dangerous city in America. In 2011 it had dropped to position 2, having been beaten by St Louis in Missouri. Oops - really should have researched this a bit more. We were in Detroit for two nights and had to make the most of it.
Going to the Motown Museum was a real highlight; one of south east Michigan's most popular attractions. It was a real surprise; a real gem in the middle of a mass of dereliction and abandonment. The tour guide regularly burst into song and we did the Temptations' walk in Studio A - the studio where all of the best Motown hits were recorded by artists including Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, Diana Ross and The Supremes, Gladys Knight, and The Jackson Five. This museum 'rescued' Detroit for us; it made a trip to one of America's most dangerous cities worthwhile. Unfortunately no photographs were allowed, hence the reason we took loads outside the Museum 'Hitsville U.S.A'. Another, more curious, highlight of Detroit was the General Motors' Renaissance Centre, which felt like a futuristic city-within-a-city; a walled city protecting people from the danger of the outside. In this walled glass city, overlooking the deprivation and economic failure below, were businessmen and women drinking cocktails and eating haute cuisine. It felt weird and incongruous - and a little uncomfortable.
These photos make 'The D' look quite impressive - and it is an impressive place to visit, albeit sometimes for the wrong reasons. These skyscrapers and glass palaces are impressive. This was the problem when researching the city as a destination to visit - these images pop up on your browser but do mislead and trick you out of any reservations or cautionary tales you may have heard. This is what happened in my case. Seduced by such images we ended up in America's second most dangerous city like lambs to the slaughter - and there are 275 cities in the States. 'The D', whilst being a research oversight is probably the place I will remember the most from the whole Canada Rail tour; its gritty reality made up for the obnoxious tourist traps on other parts of the journey.
The glass palace of the Renaissance Centre, owned by GM Motors, which overlooks the dilapidation of the city. You feel a little guilty eating and drinking in here knowing what is outside. It is part of a slow regeneration attempt but I'm unsure just how this is helping the average Detroitian on the streets. This complex cuts a remarkable presence on the Detroit skyline when you look across the Detroit River from Windsor in Canada. This complex contains Detroit's tallest building. Photo taken whilst on Detroit's 'People Mover' monorail.
Hitsville U.S.A: Outside the home of Motown on Berry Gordy Boulevard where all the great artists recorded their hits. Berry Gordy, the founder of the Motown label, named the new sound after Detroit, known as the Motor Town - or Mo-Town.
travel tips, links & resources
- As we were to find out to our cost, all I can say is research your destinations well in advance of completing any kind of itinerary. Don't rely on google image searches like I did. Having said this, Detroit was fascinating in its own way.
- Canada rail tickets can be purchased easily online. This is important as buying tickets on the day could prove problematic as trains, particularly on more popular routes, can be fully booked - and on Vis Canada Rail you won't get on without there being a spare seat.
- You can get the latest from Motown Museum on their website here.
you may also like