Toronto

Toronto
Toronto, Canada

Toronto, Canada

A funny thing happened. I travelled today, switched countries, and didn’t have even a moment’s sense of ‘can’t be *****’ before travelling. Maybe because the journey was in the evening, allowing for a relaxed start, wander round the city in the sun and a gentle meander to the airport, but it’s unusual for me. Toronto was immediately relaxing when I reached it on Saturday.

A line of low buildings on a street, with market stalls
Kensington market.

I had little planned beyond a bit of shopping, but took myself down to the waterfront, which was glorious in the sun. Did I mention I was relaxed? That and a bit giddy at how sweet everything is. Every day should have a little problem, so today’s is: mild sunburn having been caught on a cold but sunny day yesterday at the falls. And I forgot to put any cream on today! But it is very mild.

CN tower from the waterfront
CN tower from the waterfront.

Getting to walk along the waterfront was a bit fiddly, in that there is plenty of work going on down there, sometimes blocking the way, so I had some to-ing and fro-ing. Again, if that’s the worst of my problems, I’m doing okay. Toronto’s taller buildings, and the CN tower especially, looked out on the waterfront, the sun glinted off them and the water and all was well with the world. Thai for lunch, shopped and made it to Black Toe Running in time to catch Rejean at work. He was there at the beginning of my year, in Ethiopia, and at the near end, here. He suffered from the curse of Ethiopia, too, and hasn’t got back to speed since, but still hopes to join the ranks of proper elite Canadian marathoners this week. The shop’s a goodun, too, if you’re passing – 95 Bathurst, run by some very good runners who also give some coaching and run 4 weekly sessions for runners of different standards. From them I learned that it has been a harsh winter, as evidenced by the piles of snow and iced over water despite the sun and positive temperatures I’ve seen.

Old city hall
Old city hall.

All that left was heading to the airport, which is simple enough via metro and change to the ‘Airport rocket’ bus which heads up Jetliner road, though without seeming rocket propelled. Pay your metro fare and then pick up a transfer ticket when through the barriers, total cost $3. I was in the queue nearly 3 hours before takeoff but the fact that there was a-fairly long-queue shows how seriously Canadians take the instruction to be there that far in advance of an international flight. Security was simple, which may account for the fact that once in Iceland the first order to duty is to queue and go through proper, European security. ‘Why must I go through security again?’ is the question answered on signs in the queue. To paraphrase “because North America doesn’t adhere to the same standards as the EC”, which is a fancy way to phrase your two fingers (just one, really, if you’re coming to their level). It seems odd after all the debate and furore around the (USA’s) TSA and their standards and way of enforcing security that it isn’t deemed up to our standards. And odder still that they can’t agree a common area and save us the queue.

Huge University of Toronto sign
University.

Still, that was it for queueing – the passport man waved me through, and my bag was on the carousel. I’d booked a 5-in-1, including tours and transfers, and was on the bus and hyper by 7. Which saved me the £70 I later learnt a taxi ride would cost; poor roommate Scott. Taxis are rarely the right option from an airport, even if sometimes the bus option feels like an airline’s credit card policy – we have to offer one that’s cheap for you to use, but it won’t be the most convenient.

Another view of the CN tower, from a different street
It is visible from all over the place.

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls, Canada

Niagara Falls, Canada

Niagara Falls, population 83,000; a funny town. There is a bewildering array of ways to get there, to which I’ll return, but the Go Transit bus will drop you at the junction of highway 420 and Stanley street, which has two closed information centres – presumably privately owned, giving mostly information on how they can earn commission selling you falls ‘experiences’ – a shabby motel and row of shops under the banner ‘town centre’, and from there is the easiest walk. Or it will drop you in the downtown area, home to an eclectic mix of antique and gift shops, a lively looking theatre, the bridge to the USA and the Via railway station. The latter is where the Amtrak train goes, and that’s another option for travel to the falls from Toronto, though if you want to go without changing trains in winter, you have to go early in the morning and return in the evening. On a train that comes from the States and is often late, it says here. In the summer, a different company, Go, run direct train services. At weekends.

Niagara Falls. Huge volume of water falling over iced and snow-covered areas
First falls, looking over to the US.

Downtown is a longer walk, but there are buses. The 420/Stanley junction is closer to the falls despite feeing like the middle of nowhere – 2.2km, my map said, and it seemed shorter, probably because you reach the other part of Niagara, the amusement ‘park’ part, fairly soon, then walk through to the falls, distracted all the while. So, train to Burlington, change to a bus, hop off the bus at the station and get a bus from a different company (or walk along the riverbank, looking down over the river from the raised road – it is quite a walk). Or, the same, but hop off earlier, with few other people, avoiding the bus taking you further away from the falls, and walk. Not, in my case, down the obvious road, Falls road, because the snow was thick enough on the pavements that people were walking on the roads, and Falls road is a dual carriageway. A parallel road did the job.

After a moment of ‘was I right to get off here and where is everyone?’ I worked it out, and made it to town. First sight, the casino tower. Then, the Ferris wheel, Louis Tussaud’s and Ripley’s Believe it or Not, complete with underworked teenager sat looking slightly bored; while the essence of her soul was gently drained from her, I liked to imagine. The street turned noisy, “come and see Frankenstein!” boomed the PA, “I wanna see Frankenstein!” joined in the youngster. It is an odd side effect of having so many amusements nearby that youngsters forced to accompany parents on a walk past the spectacular falls have a generally grumpy face, waiting to see what’s in it for them.

Niagara Falls, with a plume of spray rising way above the water
Niagara Falls.

But from the main street, which slopes downwards, you are reminded why you are there; in my case, when I was roughly level with Burger King and being tempted, only to have my eyes diverted by the Guinness World of Records sign and from there reestablishing my focus. Down the hill, across the road, there are the first fall; half covered with snow piles, with the US town sitting behind it. Apparently Jay Leno will be there on April 8th. The casino advertising that is a fair way away but don’t worry, the sign is large enough to read from the Canadian side.

The falls themselves, though, are magnificent, and there’s no sponsorship, branding or advertising across them to spoil the view. As a plaque says, the original intent was to preserve a free to enter national park and keep it self funding, and in that they’ve succeeded. The spray at the bottom of the falls themselves varies, but sometimes obscures much of the water fall, an achievement in itself. Some of the vantage points were out of action, walkways not maintained in winter, but the main footpath round the top gives a great view. If you want to go further, the maid of the mist sails in closer to get you wet, behind the falls lets you walk in behind, the fury of the falls takes you elsewhere and the Skylon, with its bulbous yellow external lifts, will let you tower over it all. None is overly expensive, but the best experience is just looking at the thing and getting close enough to hear the cascade. The majesty comes not from the height, which is bested by 100s of other falls, but the sheer amount of water falling.

Rainbow Bridge - to the US
Rainbow Bridge – to the US.

Travel options, Toronto to Niagara.

Cheapest: if you book in advance, Megabus or Greyhound are likely to be cheapest, but you will have to guess at how long you need there. To walk both ways, up and down the immediate falls area and no ‘experiences’, 3 hours is plenty. They’ll drop you downtown, from where you can hop on a bus for a couple of dollars either way.

Train – with changes, you can go with Via rail throughout the day. But there’s little point booking through them as they’ll cost more than Go transit, and unless you take the early morning train and late evening return, you’ll be on a Go train in any case.

Tour: starting from $55, maybe including a ‘free’ city tour. Probably quicker than Go by being direct.

Most flexible: Go transit. In summer, a direct train. For me, a double decker train from Union station, change at Burlington to the number 12 bus. And make sure to follow icons for the bus, in the North parking area. Return for $35.3 (£19.2), hourly services, only downside a 2.5 hour journey where some direct buses take 2.

Reading: John Updike, Rich in Russia. Mark Bowden, Killing Pablo.

View, mostly of spray, from the top of the falls
View from the top.

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