Travelogue time again!
After two years of COVID-related lockdown and a decade of not travelling much, it felt right to hit the road again for some summer holiday adventures. After a successful four-day jaunt to Québec City in July, our merry crew of two (myself and my daughter, henceforth known as Junior Navigator) was ready for something bigger: Toronto, with a side order of Niagara Falls.
Toronto the good! The biggest city in Canada, subject of much envy, still the true centre of nonpolitical English Canada. Only five hours away from the Ottawa area, and yet very, very different.
While heading to Toronto with a junior navigator was something new, this was far from being my first visit. From 2003 to 2010, I was a twice-a-year visitor thanks to writers’ conventions and friends I still remember fondly. I was rarely a full-on tourist (too much to do every time I visited), but I visited enough of the highlights, had my own mental map of downtown and could find my way around the 401 Don Valley Parkway and Gardiner Expressway to the lakefront. But that was a long time ago. In twelve years, Toronto drew dramatically, built condo towers like crazy, gentrified itself and destroyed old landmarks. My frequent old haunts at HMV, Sam the Record Man, World’s Biggest Bookstore, The Beguiling and Honest Ed’s are gone, victims of redevelopment. Others evolved, leaving much to rediscover. Part of the point of the trip was finding out what stayed and what changed, and share some of that historical context with the younger member of the expedition.
My first plans for a quick jaunt expanded and changed slightly after consultations with friends in the GTA and getting a good-for-2022 deal (i.e.: terrible, but better than anywhere else) for hotel rooms in the airport area. I added one more day to the trip to include Niagara Falls and focused each day on a general geographic area. Staying near the Airport area also changed a few things—I would approach the downtown area from the west rather than the east, and force focus on daily destinations rather than just head out on foot from a central hotel location.
Toronto would also be an occasion for putting in action some of our road trip lessons from our previous outing in Québec City—having a better travel kit, picking up better road travelling habits and un-rusting some of those photo-taking skills.
You will notice two persistent complaints in the following travelogue: weather and traffic. Neither of those should be a surprise.
- “August in Toronto” often means exactly the weather we got throughout our entire stay: 30c heat with humidity adding another five degrees to that total. The near-constant sun was more unusual and as you will see, it clearly slowed us down in the later half of the trip—while we were good troopers in facing down the conditions on the first day, we were unwilling to put up with such conditions the longer the trip went on.
- The other persistent irritant we took in stride, knowing what to expect: Toronto is traffic is Toronto and that’s life. You can’t have ten million people (nearly a fifth of Canada’s population!) crammed along the shores of a lake in a golden horseshoe and not expect some trouble getting around, especially if you insist on using a car. While Toronto has a world-class transit system, its vehicular infrastructure is … trying to keep up. We knew this going in, benefited from a car with air-conditioning and tried to make the best of it, even coming up, as you’ll see later, with the idea of “traffic tourism”. The flip side of this is that you have to be a skilled driver in the Greater Toronto Area: the roads are loaded, drivers go fast whenever they can and the GPS won’t save you. (Heck, the GPS even gets confused with some of the express/commuter lanes.) Driving in Toronto will increase your skills, and that’s always slightly terrifying in the moment.
- Over the six days in Toronto, I only missed one exit (cause: truck) and got honked at once (cause: a sudden lane ending… and truck), which is really not too bad. Seeing other local drivers cope with the highway system could be funny at times: we regularly — as in 2-3 times a day — saw cars abruptly cut through traffic lanes and divergence zones in order to make their exit. And let’s not talk about the 3-4 successive merges required on the southbound 427: is that even physically possible, or did we accidentally slip in non-Euclidian geometry?
Day One—Tuesday, August 16—Getting to Toronto
We left our house around 9:00. We’d been up for nearly 90 minutes by then, leisurely putting together the final elements of our trips—mostly consumables, as the bulk of our preparation had been completed by Saturday (and by now we have always-ready travel bags that just have to be filled with clothing to be ready to go).
The way out of Ottawa was slow, but soon enough we were driving south on the 416—possibly the dullest highway in Canada with nary a sight more exciting than an Amazon warehouse and nowhere to stop for a rest. That featurelessness is not such a big deal considering that the 416 is essentially an Ottawa on-ramp to the 401—it’s not a scenic highway, it’s a road travelled by people just leaving or just arriving in the national capital with no need for a rest stop.
Things get more fun and interesting on the 401 Westbound. There’s not necessarily a lot to see before you hit the GTA, but there’s always traffic and many rest stops, with some adventures along the way. (Such as a massive industrial component requiring an elaborate system of escorts to moderate traffic around the truck transporting it.)
This time out, led with the hungriness of Junior Navigator, I decided to make a thorough investigation of all four OnRoute rest stops between Mallorytown and Odessa. Unlike the accidental rest stops along the way, where getting off the highway gets you a haphazard collection of gas stations, Tim Hortons and fast-food joints, OnRoute rest stops are official creations of the Ontario government, directly accessible off the highway and optimized for quick and easy stops. Most of them were rebuilt in 2010–2013, adopting a common layout where only restaurants change slightly from one location to another.
- We refuelled at Mallorytown. Due to the current discrepancy between Québec and Ontario gas taxes, it was actually cheaper to fill up on the highway than in a quiet suburb. Yeas, I know: I’m as surprised about it as you are.
- Trenton: Given that noon was nigh, this is where we picked up lunch: Some Burger King for the junior navigator, a legendary Popeye’s Chicken Burger for the senior driver. We were very surprised with the sameness of the OnRoute setup, down to the convenience store product placement. (Although this one didn’t have the Asian snacks seen in other OnRoute convenience stores.)
- Odessa was good for an A&W Root beer for the senior navigator. By now, the repeated identical layout of this third facility was almost a joke. Harbouring regret for a trinket you didn’t pick up at one of the earlier rest stops? Here it is, in the same location. No, you’re not stuck in a time loop, condemned to approach Toronto without ever reaching it.
- Newcastle is clearly an older OnRoute facility—build in the 1990s, it wasn’t rebuilt in the last round of refurbishing, so it looks more decrepit and barely refreshed, the Starbucks sign having been replaced but the shadow of the Mr. Sub sign still visible underneath. On the other hand, it’s a slightly different layout—almost a breath of fresh air after three identical ones even if it wasn’t quite as lean and optimized as the newer facilities. Being closer to the GTA (in fact, the last one before the GTA) meant that it had substantially more people.
Needless to say, the OnRoute facilities rate highly compared to nearly anything near the Québec highways. Good job, Ontario.
Of course, the fun began after the last rest stop, as we entered highway 401 at the beginning of rush hour. Anyone familiar with the 401 probably has fifteen minutes of ranting material about the highway. As for me, I only know this: the 401 has two speeds, and it’s either “too fast” or “stopped”. We got “stopped” that day, as a truck stopped in the middle of three lanes (rather than four due to construction) had a multi-kilometre ripple effect on traffic. This being said, our inching forward was far better than what was going on in the opposite direction, as a serious traffic accident blocked traffic solid for hours on something like twenty kilometres. It’s tough to complain when the traffic in the opposite direction doesn’t move and keeps on not moving forever.
In any case, we made it intact to our hotel around three-thirty. I picked the Delta Hotels Toronto Airport and Conference Centre out of a few factors—it was, by far, the cheapest option in the GTA but it was also located close to a few major highways, and considering our destinations scattered around the area, it offered a decent compromise between cost, location and what we’ll laughably refer to as “ease of driving”. What I did not realize until pulling up to the hotel was that I had been there before—in 2008, I attended the Polaris Science-Fiction convention for a day at what was then known as a DoubleTree Hotel. (Even today, the Delta is well known to fan audiences—if you walk toward the less-frequented eastern end of the hotel you will find the colourful offices of Anime North, which uses the hotel as a home base.)
The Delta Airport Hotel is not exactly the quietest or most luxurious hotel out there—it’s squarely under the path of one landing strip of the Toronto Airport (meaning that planes fly over the hotel every few minutes at peak hours), is clearly geared toward the frugal short-term business traveller and doesn’t aim much higher than the average. But I liked it quite a bit. Sure, the prices were affordable (not a given during the summer of 2022!) and the location was good, but it also offered a nice little island of hospitality by itself—pool and gym, but also three restaurants, a well-stocked gift shop, plus a very decent amount of convention space that made the hotel large enough to be interesting to explore, and more interesting for the people it brought together. (Over the five days we were there, and understanding that hospitality was still running low due to COVID shyness, we still saw evidence of a wedding, a big birthday party and a beauty pageant.)
The room itself was… OK. Our Junior Navigator was disappointed to find out that the TV channels were underwhelming and that Netflix was not available, but eventually got over that through the sheer power of books. The bathroom was better than the one at the Québec City downtown Delta, but the room itself wasn’t as good. Still, I’d recommend the hotel to anyone on a budget with destinations not tied to downtown.
Having arrived quite early, I was determined to make the most of the time we had left in the day. I insisted on taking a walk down the street to see what was around. Located on Dixon, a main industrial road not too far from the airport, the Delta faces the Toronto Convention Centre, and is near a few chain restaurants, a gas station, and many other hotels. A quick glance at the nearby restaurant cluster told us we had access to Harvey’s, Swiss Chalet, a Sushi place, two different Tim Hortons across the street from each other (something that amazed us until two days later, when we saw the immense line both at the drive-in Tims and the sit-down one) and the unoccupied remnants of an East Side Mario’s.
Then it was off for an adventure! Being it barely 4 p.m., I wanted to go downtown and really take in the heart of Toronto. Sure, traffic would be terrible—but what fun!
Unusually enough for me, the location of our hotel meant approaching downtown Toronto from the west, rather than the east as I usually did coming from Ottawa—and the difference circa 2022 is significant. With its boom in condo towers construction, the west of Toronto doesn’t look the same as it did back in 2010: rather than approaching the serious smooth glass windows of business buildings, Toronto from the west shows you a CN tower obscured by residential towers with balconies and recessed facades—more visually complex, but also more cluttered. The Gardiner Expressway zips between those new towers as you arrive downtown, lending a futuristic flair to this approach that wasn’t there twelve years ago.
Of course, traffic was terrible. Cars everywhere, even if trying to get to the middle of Toronto. But we got a few lucky breaks and before long had parked our car underneath one of those Toronto office buildings—specifically 320 Front Street, which offered a decent evening parking rate, and easy proximity to the fun areas of downtown. My goal was simple: walk from the south-west of the downtown area to the Dundas-Yonge Square, then come back using a slightly different route that would cover many high points (and capture one or two pictures of iconic City Hall). Adding further interest to the walk was that the Blue Jays were playing that evening—and since our parking was next door to the Skydome, this initially meant walking against waves of people wearing Jays shirts going to the game.
For me, it was a chance to show our Junior Navigator the bits of the city I knew personally—the hotels I’d stayed in, the conventions I attended, the City Hall that played Umbrella Corporation’s headquarters in Resident Evil II, the places I’d visited with friends a decade-or-more earlier, etc. Junior Navigator didn’t care much through—Junior Navigator was hungry, and that’s how we ended in the Eaton Centre Food court having some New York Fries and Bourbon Street Grill supper.
Fortunately, Junior Navigator was slightly more amenable to tourism after eating—having a look at Yonge—Dundas Square (including the rescued Sam the Record Man’s facade), posing for a picture at the Toronto City Hall and even browsing a few minutes at the ultra-cute Mimiso Asian-themed store on Queen Street. For me, it was an occasion to spot some of the new buildings that had sprung up in the past twelve years, and to enjoy the colourful clouds as the sun was setting.
We arrived back at the hotel comfortably after dark, with a much easier drive getting out of the city. One stop at a nearby grocery store later to stock up on hotel room snacks, we were more than ready for nighttime.
Day Two—Wednesday, August 17—Niagara Falls
My earliest plans for the trip included a visit to Niagara Falls. Then they didn’t, as there wasn’t time to fit that in the middle of everything else. Then consultations with friends brought Niagara Falls back in—and led me to add another day to the trip. What’s more, we were told “Downtown Toronto is less busy on weekends, Niagara Fall is less busy on weekdays.” Everything is relative, of course: you can’t go to either place in mid-August and not expect a crowd, but that seemed like usable advice. So, we’d head out to Niagara Falls during the week, and keep downtown Toronto for the Saturday.
We woke up later than expected, but were on our way by 9:00 and the “end” of rush hour. Of course, 9:00 is late when it comes to a Niagara Falls day trip: it takes at least a solid 90 minutes to even get near Niagara, and starting at nine means that you’re arriving in the full sun of midday—if there’s a lesson here, it’s probably to not go during the summer, or have your own helicopter. Otherwise, well, pick your poison: start early and be stuck in traffic, or start late and be stuck in slightly-less-awful traffic, then suffer through the weather.
So, yes: traffic. The road from Toronto to Niagara is not just a touristic route: it’s also an important highway through Ontario’s manufacturing heartland, and a crucial route to the United States through the link to Buffalo and upstate New York—and by extension the rest of the Eastern Seaboard. Spectacular sights long the way include the Ford Oakville Assembly Complex (with its gigantic emission chimney), the soaring Skyway Bridge and the equally impressive bridge over the Welland Canal linking commercial traffic between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.
I did add to our schedule by insisting on detouring through Niagara-on-the-Lake, and I would do it again. It’s not that long nor unpleasant a side trip, as it (through the Niagara Stone Road) drops you right in the middle of one of Wine Country Ontario’s central areas, with kilometres of impeccably manicured vineyards and a variety of wineries (each of them chasing their own aesthetic) along the way. Niagara-on-the-Lake itself is a small but meticulously crafted village at the junction between Lake Ontario and the Niagara River. It clearly aspires to wow visitors with a bucolic atmosphere modelled after 19th-century English villages, playing up the connection to the wineries and the lake. It’s all quite nice and worth a look on the way to the Falls. But other than a stop at Shoppers to grab zip-lock bags whose purpose will become clearer later in this travelogue, we did not stop at Niagara-on-the-Lake—It was nearing noon already, and we still had a lot to do.
After driving through the picturesque downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake, I made my way to the Niagara Parkway, which follows the river and takes drivers straight to the Falls. Milestones along the way include more meticulously manicured vineyards (my own front yard looks worse), a glimpse at the major Lewiston-Queenston commercial Bridge, the Floral Clock and the Butterfly Conservatory. Closer to the city itself, you start getting reminders of those minor tourist attractions such as the Whirlpool Aero Car and the White Water Walk. Simple-yet-eloquent traffic signs showing the way “To the Falls” become more numerous.
But it’s as you go under the international Rainbow Bridge that you really get into the heart of Niagara Falls; in rapid succession, you see the American Falls, then the plume of vapour that signals the massive Horseshoe Falls, and then the main article itself. Helped along with a road that goes straight to the main parking lot of the city, it’s difficult not to be awed at the magnitude of the place even as you speed past it. Can you imagine being an explorer stumbling upon the place before it was irresistibly transformed into a touristic destination? But a closer look awaits those willing to park, and so that’s what we did, using the prepaid City Pass parking tickets for quick entry.
(Niagara Falls has a number of City Passes that allow you one-stop-shopping for the city’s main attractions. The pass I purchased was overkill for the time we spent in the city—as you’ll see, we only had time to visit two attractions, not helped along by how they all closed by 6 p.m.—but the add-on discounted parking valid at all attractions was by far the most cost-effective element of the pass.)
Once on the ground at the falls, my tourist rustiness after my decade-long eclipse led me to make a few elementary mistakes that would eventually have an impact on the day. Most notably, I forgot my wide-brimmed hat and I forgot to bring bottles of water. While this simplified a few moments later on, it also made us unusually exposed to the elements of a sunny-hot-humid day. The other thing I forgot about is just how much weather chips away at energy reserves. A schedule that would have been easy at an overcast 23c becomes an ordeal at a sunny 35c, and I had somehow managed to forget such a fundamental fact. But more on that later.
Still, the real fun begins once you lock the car doors. The way from the parking lot to the falls gets you to follow the flow of water—first the rapids above the falls, then the edge of the falls themselves, then a long pedestrian path that takes you through the spray of the falls, and then to both the best views of the place and its touristic heart. The crowds were busy but not impossible to navigate, and the mood seemed buoyantly happy. We saw a lot of pictures/videos being taken for social media, which paradoxically acted as incentives to put the phone down and enjoy the moment. (It could be fun to track ourselves through background appearances on those posts—but I’ll leave that to the next generation of privacy-invading search engines.)
If you’re on a tight budget, simply walking the path next to the river would be enough of a way to see the falls—no special passes or add-ons required. And while I did have a City Pass stored on my phone, my first priority was simply to walk around, taking in the heart of a touristic destination. Niagara Falls has continually been redeveloped as a tourist destination for the past two centuries, so what you’re getting these days is the result of this refinement process. Once you’ve grown used (but not exactly bored) by the falls, it’s time to look at the city centre and, of course, the amazing tourist trap that is Clifton Hill.
I’m not sure there’s a more purely concentrated density of tourist traps than in the short walk up Clifton Hill. You could gauge its effect by looking at the span of reaction in our small travelling crew: while I was thinking “Ugh—tackiness, commercialism, naked overpricing and flash,” Junior Navigator was enthusiastically saying, “everything looks like FUN!”
To be fair, there are plenty of things to see even from the sidewalk—the sideways Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, the country-fair attractions given form such as the haunted houses or wax museums (yes, plural), the skywheel or the juxtaposition of mini-putt with life-size dinosaur statues. To partake meaningfully with most of those attractions, however, will take an entire day and most of a pay cheque.
Still, I knew that junior navigator would not abide skipping all of Clifton Hill. Conscious of the time of the day, our flagging energy levels, the beating sun and our empty stomachs, I decided that if we were to be taken advantage of, we might as well get an experience out of it—and walked into Rainforest Cafe for lunch.
If you’re of the philosophy that restaurants are as much an experience than a meal, then Rainforest Cafe (23 locations worldwide—but this is the only Canadian one!) fits the bill: The food is ordinary at best, but the restaurants themselves aim to be a spectacle: Their entire interiors have been transformed in a rainforest jungle environment complete with lush plastic foliage, large aquariums, animatronic animals and “thunderstorms” every thirty minutes. Despite the visual overload, it’s not a bad place to recharge in the middle of a day. Of course, you don’t go there for the fine cuisine or affordable dining: our mediocre burgers and slushies (with tip) cost as much as weekly groceries … but at least Junior Navigator found the entire thing terrific, so that counts as a success. It’s a restaurant with a gift shop, which tells you everything you need to know.
Getting back in the outside sun, heat and humidity wasn’t fun, but at least we had a better look at Clifton Hill, and made our way to the next attraction on our list. In doing so, however, we went “backstage”—walking east on Victoria Avenue until we left the tourist area. It doesn’t take much to be reminded of Niagara’s darker areas—such as the sad-looking Planet Hollywood shaped like a planetarium, closed for half a decade now and now a reminder than not everything touristic thrives.
Seeing such a run-down attraction did put us in an interesting frame of mind for our next stop—the “Bird Kingdom”, an old museum converted into an aviary. Most of the tourist guides promise you that it’s worth a trip as “the world’s largest Free-Flying Bird Sanctuary”, but the place leaves a terrible first impression. The first few things you see after buying your ticket are reminders of the building’s past years as a corset factory (built 1907 as one of the first concrete buildings in Canada) and then museum in the oldest of old-school traditions: As a paean to Great White Hunters travelling the world to bring back exotic artifacts then shown to amaze the rubes. There’s a quasi-tongue-in-cheek quality to this first immersion in the museum that can either be read as satire or as an earnest celebration of the place’s origins. (To be fair, the place does have an amazing history—including having hosted Ramesses I’s mummy for more than a century without realizing it, as its pedigree was only discovered years after the museum got rid of the artifact.)
Things get slightly better once you make it to the Small Bird Aviary. While still decorated in European-Explorer-of-the-Unknown chic, the cages are relatively large, and some colourful tropical birds even get to roam around the room. While we were there, the bird keeper was even able to call the bird from across the room to her hand, and the animals seemed relatively calm even given the tourists milling about. A few more animal exhibits (including the Night Jungle) follow, at which point the Bird Kingdom already justifies a visit as a decent, if overpriced attraction for the kids and animal lovers.
But then you get into the Kingdom’s final room and that’s where it gets amazing. Because the climax of the visit is a large five-story high open space featuring dozens of birds freely milling about, a concrete walkway going down to the ground floor, a curtain-style waterfall you walk behind, quite a bit of greenery and even an authentic Javanese House whose provenance (explained inside the House) is amazing enough by itself). This is what the Bird Kingdom is about, and the impact is quite astonishing. There are plenty of photo opportunities here, and just as many cool birds to see.
Alas, we had to leave at some point (through the gift shop, naturally) and the inevitable next step was to go back to the Falls themselves. Whether we wanted to take the cliché boat ride to the falls was not a certitude—I certainly wanted to go, but Junior Navigator wasn’t so sure, and I wasn’t about to leave half our crew on the shore. By this point in the day (3 p.m.), however, the prospect of not walking and getting sprayed with cool water was surprisingly appealing, so off to the boat ride we went.
There have been boat rides to the middle of the Horseshoe Falls every 15 minutes for decades now, and the infrastructure required to make this as smooth and rapid as possible is impressive—multiple elevators, concrete hallways penning tourists to the intended destination, wide-open ferries and everything else in between. They even provide the disposable red plastic ponchos required to shield you from much of the spray (and you will appreciate them—getting soaked is part of the experience.)
Despite the cliché everyone’s-done-it nature of the experience, I enthusiastically recommend the boat ride to the falls. It’s a safe thrill, it’s exceptionally well managed and more than anything else, it’s the difference between witnessing the falls as a cool medium (impressive, but safely “over the railing”) and experiencing it as a hot medium surrounding you. At the climax of the boat ride, safety within the horseshoe and getting thoroughly sprayed by the falls, you can look at the falls and have them fill up your entire 180-degree field of vision. The sound is quite impressive as well. I did take a lot of pictures (the phone safely contained inside a ziplock bag) but seeing everyone else do the same had me pocketing the camera for a while to take it all in—no video can do justice to the entire experience.
Inevitably, the boat ride either skirts or technically crosses the Canada/US border. It wouldn’t worth be noting, except for my phone company helpfully sending me a text message essentially saying “Welcome to the United States? Would you like a roaming data service?”
Soaked and refreshed, we made our way through the inevitable gift shop and ended once again at the epicentre of Niagara tourism. As the sun dried us once more, my twin concerns were a mixture of time and energy—specifically running out of both. Looking at the elements included in our still-unused City Pass and the too early 6 p.m. closure of most attractions, our next stop was to see the falls from another angle—a Journey Behind the Falls.
Let me skip over the far-too-long line to get to the attraction, or my polite exasperation at being lectured by the ticketing-booth operator about not having enough time left to do everything else that day. The Behind the Falls attraction is two (not really three) things at the end of an elevator going down 45 metres—an observation deck at the base of the falls, allowing you to see where the water flies off the edge of the falls and then falls down; and two tunnels taking you right behind the falls.
I (and Junior Navigator) have mixed feelings about the experience: While the view from the bottom of the falls is worth it by itself, it’s hardly worth braving the mass of fellow tourists all doing the same (the tunnels and the elevators are small—the place doesn’t have the people-moving infrastructure of the boat ride): It would be twice as nice with half the people, so my take is that it’s worth it off-season and not so much at the peak. Have a look at the line-up to get your ticket as a strong hint of how much pain you’ll have to endure.
By the time we were done with our less-than-magical Journey Behind the Falls at around 4 p.m., the clock was ticking and Junior Navigator was once again asking what was in it for her. Fortunately, I had planned the day around one last attraction, farther away from the bustle of the falls and designed to appeal to the animal-loving Junior Navigator—a visit to the Butterfly Conservatory a few kilometres north of the Falls. We bade farewell to the Falls, exited the parking and drove one more time next to the river, basking in the car’s air-conditioning. Notable things we wanted but did not have time to do in Niagara Falls include the Skylon Tower, Skywheel, Power Station visit and the other unused bits of our City Pass. (Junior Navigator also nudges me to say, “ALL THE THINGS on Clifton Hill”.)
If you’ve never been to a butterfly conservatory—well, you should give it a shot. Not all of them will be as soothing as the Niagara one, however: with a rather large open indoor area, the place features a tropical environment where you can wander the paths, stare at the many, many butterflies and relax after a day walking around the falls. We both knew what to expect from previous experiences at Ottawa’s Museum of Nature periodic “Butterfly in Flight” experience, but the Niagara Conservatory, being a permanent exhibit, has a unique quality of its own—fewer butterflies per cubic metres, but more of them in general, and a more relaxed natural atmosphere. Junior Navigator loved it and stayed (trying, and the getting to have butterflied landing on her) until five minutes to closing—I liked it as well considering that it marked a decidedly less stressful end to our day in Niagara.
We were in such a relaxed mood in the gift shop that we were perhaps more shocked than we would have otherwise been at another visitor’s angry behaviour—clearly agitated for what must have been valid reasons, he harangued the poor cashier trying to make it to the end of the day, threatening a human right complaint about racism and fumed for a few more minutes just outside the gift shop. By the time we left a few minutes later, he wasn’t just still there fuming—he was heading back into the store to presumably share more of his boiling frustration. We’re quite happy not knowing the end of this specific incident—most of our chatter going back to the car was about how difficult it was to be mad after spending time around butterflies.
I had a specific stop in mind for supper. Spurred by the closed restaurant near our hotel, I let the GPS guide us to an East Side Mario’s restaurant in Hamilton, where I took a break from the drive back to Toronto, had myself a Brio Chinotto (hilariously described as a “root beer” in the menu) and we reflected on the day at the Falls. It also gave us the chance to fill up gas at Hamilton prices—noticeably lower than the 401 or Toronto itself.
The drive back to Toronto was rather uneventful as the sun set, although we did get to witness an unusual atmospheric phenomenon on the Skybridge—while a fair amount of haze prevented us from seeing very far away, there was an unusual blob of bright pink shining through the haze where Toronto was supposed to be. A moment later, I realized what was happening—the sunlight from the setting sun at the north-west of us was at the exact right angle to bounce off the glass of the Toronto high-rise and make its way back to us, shifted to pink through the haze. Nice!
By the time we made it to the hotel, we simply crashed—the weather had been punishing, I had a mild sunburn, Junior Navigator made a convincing case for being tired, and our iPhones both recorded kilometres of walking for the day—which would be a constant for the five days we spent in Toronto.
Looking over the day, there were a few things we could have done better—accounting for the weather, getting there earlier and being slightly more strategic about a few destinations. Nonetheless, it was quite a day to experience, with few dull moments and many fun ones as well.
Day Three—Thursday, August 18—North-of-Downtown
The third day was, by design, the messiest and least structured. Our general area of interest was the north-of-downtown area—roughly the area around Bloor Street, with expeditions north to Casa Loma and south to Queen’s Park.
The day did not begin on a promising note, setting a tone for the rest of the day. Still tired from the previous day, Junior Navigator was not looking forward to another day walking around in sunny-hot-humid temperatures, and I wasn’t in complete disagreement. Still, one Tim Horton breakfast later as a bribe, we were in the car and fighting our day through Toronto traffic to park at the northernmost end of Spadina. My intention was to take advantage of the relatively cool morning to walk around the area, taking in some street-level views of Toronto and looping around the luxurious Yorkville neighbourhood.
Junior Navigator was not a willing participant to this goal, so we adapted, cut off a few destinations, made our way to the essentials (which is to say: Queen’s Park’s front steps, where we witnessed one sitting minister cut a promo clip for an association of some sort) then made our way to Bloor/Bathurst, both to take in the disappearance of Honest Ed’s and find a chain restaurant for Junior Navigator’s lunch. (Toronto is a fantastic foodie destination, but kids are kids—only the familiar will do.)
Reassessing our plans over A&W burgers and taking in the temperatures for the rest of the day, the answer became obvious—we immediately stopped at the nearest Shopper’s Drug Mart (in Toronto, this meant one block away) for a TTC day pass that would give us access to the mass transit necessary to make the rest of the day less punishing.
With one near-rebellious Junior Navigator in tow, I still insisted on one more side trip—a pilgrimage to the newest location of the venerable-and-nomadic Bakka Phoenix Science Fiction and Fantasy specialty bookstore. I’ve been stopping at Bakka since 2003 and it’s not their newest location on Harbour Street that would deter me. Readers will note that while we did frequently wear masks during our trip (most notably when crowds became a bit too much), Bakka was the only location that still required masks—rather ironically, since we were the only ones in the store’s rather large space. Bibliophiles should note that the store has new books on the ground floor, but also a great assortment of used books in the spacious basement. One paperback book later, Junior Navigator was happy to see that we were going to the TTC station to wait for the next streetcar rather than walking, and from there made our way via the subway to the north end of Spadina and the bottom of the stairs leading to the iconic Casa Loma.
The ascension wasn’t necessarily fun, but the Casa Loma is worth a look anyway. Originally built by a rich businessman as a castle overlooking downtown Toronto, the vast Gothic mansion has since been embalmed and opened for plebeians to roam around the place. For cinephiles, it’s notable as a near-obligatory shooting location for major Hollywood productions in Toronto—indeed, one of the most interesting exhibits in the place is in the basement, where several posters detail where and how the place can be seen on film and television.
Still, Junior Navigator was not particularly impressed. Fortunately, my next destination (at the end of another subway trip) was an ace in my sleeve—the Royal Ontario Museum, and specifically the special temporary exhibit “Fantastic Beasts: The Wonder of Nature”, a film-themed exploration of weird creatures set alongside movie props … exactly what was needed for a fan of the film series. The mood was not good when we arrived at the museum (I had to quash a mounting rebellion with a strategic but subpar smoothie), but it improved steadily throughout the exhibit and its combination of movie magic and air-conditioning.
Recognizing that our energy levels were unlikely to rebound much higher, we did not do justice to the rest of the museum. The visit became to blitz through the exhibits, focus on the most interesting areas and get back to the hotel. Some of the dinosaur galleries held our interest.
Otherwise, Junior Navigator spent some time in the “Hands-On Biodiversity” Gallery, while I was very impressed by the world-class collection of minerals in the Earth’s Treasures gallery. (Seriously, that gallery is exceptional and worth a visit to the museum by itself. I hold the mineral gallery at Ottawa’s Museum of Nature in very high esteem, but it looks fragmental compared to the one at the Royal Ontario Museum.)
After that, we were done—or more specifically Junior Navigator was done and didn’t want to do anything more than sit down and rest. I wasn’t against more driving, especially considering that we still had to make our way from the north end of Spadina to the Airport area. When I asked the GPS the best route to get there, it didn’t give me the complex route across north-western streets I was expecting: It flatly told me to drive all the way south on Spadina until we were in the middle of downtown, then take the Gardiner Expressway back to the hotel.
You’re kidding, right? I asked the GPS.
It coolly remained unaffected by my objection, daring me to do anything about it. To escape Toronto, it seemed to say, I first had to submerge myself in Toronto.
I eventually came to realize the perverse advantages of the suggestion. By driving down all of Spadina, I could experience more of the street-level Toronto, check off a glimpse at Chinatown and satisfy my craving for more while respecting Junior Navigator’s refusal to do anything more on foot or in the sunny-hot-humid weather.
All right then—All the way south on Spadina it was. Thus was Traffic Tourism (patent pending) invented—seeing the city while not minding too much being in traffic, a concept that would be reused two or three times more during our trip. And yes, we saw plenty—from the streetcars to the iconic Dundas/Spadina intersection, another glimpse at downtown and then away from it on the free-flowing Gardiner Expressway.
Back at the hotel, we had supper at the nearby Swiss Chalet, where once more we realized that St-Hubert was the best chicken chain restaurant.
Day Four—Friday, August 19—North-East Big Tickets
After running out of energy trying to chase too many rabbits on the previous day, our Friday was designed to be simple. Two places to visit, both of them north-east of downtown: The Toronto Zoo and the Ontario Science Centre.
I had been to the Toronto Zoo before—decades ago, back when it was still called Metropolitan, featured elephants and a monorail running through the exhibits. But over its colourful forty-plus-years history, the Toronto Zoo changed a lot. It ditched the “Metropolitan” when Toronto amalgamated beyond its borders, deemed the monorail too costly, and suffered a major embarrassment when three elephant deaths over an eighteen-month period led to public pressure for evacuating the remaining elephants to a California facility.
Today, the Zoo remains a major destination by any measure. Dozens of major exhibits, hundreds of species … and kilometres to walk. I picked the zoo as our morning activity largely because I was (correctly) anticipating another hot humid day—at least we would be able to minimize some of that by being early on the ground. That theory held true for the first hour: Arriving barely fifteen minutes after opening time, we were just ahead of a rush of other visitors (the zoo is very, very popular with young kids and parents, so prepare accordingly) and walked from one exhibit to another in relatively cool weather.
But this didn’t hold for much more than an hour. By ten-thirty, the sun was already beating down hard on us, and even being better prepared (with hats and ice-water bottles) wasn’t necessarily more helpful. The animals were just as resigned to the weather as we were—many were lying down on the ground, sleeping or resting in the shade during another too-hot day. Arctic animals such as the polar bears and snow wolves seemed most affected: despite having good facilities and copious access to both shade and water, they weren’t having much fun. (Despite this, I had a special sadness for the lone orangutan that seemed bored out of its mind.)
The liveliest animals were to be found inside the pavilions—including two hyperactive river otters that were having entirely too much fun diving and showing off to visitors. The other highlight was clearly the Siberian tiger—big cats are still cats, and seeing this one play with gigantic toys before going to have a nap was both eerily familiar and impressive at once. Of interest to visitors is an out-of-the-way area where the veterinarian facilities of the zoo are visible to visitors.
That struck me about the Zoo, having seen my share of smaller animal exhibits over the past few years, is how much there is to see in what feels like throwaway exhibits. The Brockville Aquatarium has river otters as its featured attraction, but here they’re just one more thing to see in a bigger pavilion that also has a rather wonderful terrarium filled with small colourful toads that’s a showstopper by itself.
There are countless smaller exhibits alongside the headliner acts, and you can easily spend a day trying to take it all in. (But try to go during a day where the animals can be more active, otherwise much of the day becomes a Where’s Waldo of sleeping critters.) Also don’t expect too much in terms of pictures—it was great fun to see a red panda far up on a tree, but it was also un-photographable.
You can measure how much the sun was beating on us by how, toward the end of the visit, we looked at the map of the zoo and realized we’d missed an entire area—the Canadian zone— … and decided we were not going to backtrack throughout the entire zoo just for it. We kept it in reserve for the next time. We liked the place a lot (it was my Junior Navigator’s favourite thing in Toronto), but we did not like the weather.
Back in the air-conditioned solace of the car, we set direction for our second and last stop of the day: The Ontario Science Centre. But rather than do the sensible thing like taking the 401 and then the Don Valley drive, I set out to do some more traffic tourism by lounging west on Lawrence Avenue, going through a good portion of Scarborough along the way. We briefly stopped for a Pizza Pizza lunch but otherwise arrived at the Ontario Science Centre by 2 p.m.
Something different waited for us over there—in a break from a largely isolated Toronto visit, I was fortunate enough to arrange to meet with an old University friend of mine, who also had a Junior Navigator the same age as my own. Much of the three hours spent at the museum were thus led by the two younger members of our group, while we doddering middle-aged men caught up with the last few years. This made this segment of the trip different in itself, but also a lot more fun for everyone.
The Ontario Science Centre was not its usual self in August 2022—hampered by the close of the bridge linking its main entrance to the exhibits on its lower levels, the museum was forced to implement shuttle buses to lead visitors to its back entrance so that they could go through the museum in inverse paths through its exhibits. Making the most out of a bad situation, the museum was still quite a lot of fun to visit: The interactive exhibits that are usually the culmination of the visit now make for a good entrance for the junior visitors, and the rest of the museum is still perfectly serviceable. Of note: the punch-card-driven Jacquard loom (a two-hundred-year machine for which new, ahem, softwear is still being developed), some great interactive exhibits and a rather nice space section. We had déjà vu to find that the temporary Air and Space exhibit was the same we had experienced back at Ottawa’s Aviation and Space Museum back in 2019. Best of all, maybe, was being inside while the weather outside turned to rain. Temperatures were marginally more tolerable by the time we finished our visit a few minutes before the museum closed at 5 p.m.
After saying goodbye to our new-and-old friends, the only thing left to do was to get back to the hotel and have supper. Ignoring the GPS’s exhortation to get back on the Don Valley Parkway and then the 401, I decided to do some more traffic tourism, this time travelling through Toronto on Eglinton Avenue. It was, in many ways, a terrible decision: hampered by near-constant construction, Eglinton was a mess of blocked lanes, broken pavement and standstill traffic. You were just as likely to be squeezed in the rightmost lane than to find yourself driving what would normally be on the other side of the street, forced to stop in the middle of intersections or driving on wood planks. (Later discussions with Torontonians earned an exasperated “It’s been that way for ten years!”) Still, it was a glimpse at the working city that no bus tour would have undertaken—a succession of Shoppers Drug Marts, mom-and-pop stores, new and old condos and drivers in a hurry.
We capped off the day with a supper at the nearby Montana’s restaurant—a chain restaurant with some décor flair and unpretentious steak-and-grill food for the airport traveller.
Then we went to sleep surprisingly early.
Day Five—Saturday, August 20—Downtown/Lakeshore
The trip was definitely getting to us by the fifth day. Even waking up relatively late wasn’t quite enough to refresh us—and the thought of heading downtown in the traffic and the heat (with weather forecasts undecided in between 36c heat and/or thunderstorms during the afternoon) wasn’t necessarily the most welcoming prospect. So, we temporized—by getting breakfast at the hotel restaurant. It was a good way to reboot for the day even if the menu had its quirks (I couldn’t resist the “short ribs poutine”, but should have—beef short ribs on waffle fries with a few cheese curds and weak gravy was exactly what was advertised, but not necessarily something that should exist). We also ended up sitting to semi-celebrities of sorts: contestants and den mothers for the “United Nations Pageant” whose Canadian finals were taking place in the hotel later that day. Many Instagram shots were taken during breakfast.
Still, Saturday had its privilege, and the biggest was a relatively pleasant drive back to downtown, coming from the West Gardiner Expressway. Our quick expedition at the heart of the city on our first day served us well, as we were able to go back to the 320 Front Street parking lot without trouble. (We ended up going back to the car once in the middle of the day to regroup, bolstering why it was a better choice than trying to navigate a lengthy subway trip downtown.)
We had two mandatory stops for the day in order to get the most of our city pass, so we started on a high note. A very high note as we went up the CN Tower to catch a glimpse of the city before any potential thunderstorms rolled by.
The CN Tower is near and dear to Torontonians for many reasons. While it may not still be the record-breaking free-standing structure that it once was, it still remains the most distinctive element of Toronto’s skyline, and I can testify that it still acts as a navigational beacon whenever you’re within 20 kilometres of downtown Toronto. Built to attract tourists, it still does so effectively: Line-ups are in three stages (to get a ticket, to go through the security check, to get on the elevator) but everything moves briskly even as it handles hundreds of tourists per hour. The ascent is impressively quick (yawn to unblock your ears … three times) and the main floor of the tower can sustain quite a few tourists at a time. (We wore masks, though.)
Visibility was pretty good—we didn’t quite see all the way to the Skyway Bridge, but still got good views of most of Toronto and the lake. It’s impressive to see the city from so up high, even if many new towers are now blocking views.
We used this opportunity to go back over the past few days, showing our trips to various locations, pinpointing landmarks when we could (The Casa Loma is easy to spot once you trace Spadina up north, for instance) or tracing city streets we’d taken.
But once you’ve walked around the perimeter, what’s left to do? Go back down. Which was more interesting than going up, since we faced the city side of the tower.
After that, the second mandatory stop of our trip was right next door: Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, a very much for-profit tourist attraction offering fish tanks next to the CN Tower. I kid a bit, but compared to the vast majority of aquariums I have visited in the past, this one doesn’t really try to wrap itself in the respectable accessories of research, conservation or education: It’s a pure spectacle with a mid-visit playground/snack-bar and an extensive gift shop. To be fair, it does feature some really nice exhibits: The showpiece attraction is a long twisty “tunnel under the sea” with a clever conveyor belt “glidepath” that allows everyone willing to stand in line with the opportunity to leisurely make their way through the tunnel without jostling for a place next to the glass.
Sharks and rays regularly pass overhead for a few added thrills, and the twisting path means that there’s a bit of constant discovery throughout. Other exhibits pale slightly in comparison, but the jellyfish (artfully illuminated) and colourful reef exhibits are also spectacular. Even the machinery of running the aquarium is featured in bright primary colours near the end of the tour … right before the gift shop.
Having checked off the last two exhibits on our City Pass, we took a break for lunch, getting burgers at the nearby South Street Burger. I had two scenarios in mind based on the weather: mild temperatures would have brought us to the Toronto Islands via the nearby ferry, while harsher conditions would lead us to the sanctuary of air-conditioning. But the weather was being obstinate: sunny at a base 30c temperature, with a humidity factor going to 36c. Under these conditions and us being fed up with those conditions, the islands were not a good pick.
(Eerily enough, we learned the following day that at 5 p.m., a crash at the ferry would send five people to the hospital. No, it’s impossible to know for sure if we would have been on that boat or if we would have been affected. But still!)
Which left the other plan: Find a nice, air-conditioned place to visit. Fortunately, I had just the thing: the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), three subway stops away from our current location. I’m not the most artistically minded visitor out there, but art museums can be interesting and entertaining in the right mindset—the trick is to let it wash over you and be open to whatever comes up. The AGO is clearly designed for those casuals like me—it’s a blend of styles and periods not necessarily constrained to specific galleries, and there’s almost always something interesting around the next corner.
Ironically, I was most disappointed by the gallery I was most looking forward: the Contemporary art gallery on the fifth floor was sparse and underwhelming (although one work did make me laugh), even as other better works of contemporary art were scattered throughout the building. One thing I didn’t do but regret slightly is not taking the time to see the Infinity Mirrored Room—it looked complicated to reserve a specific spot and Junior Navigator was not having any patience with any dilly-dallying, but watching clips of the room online now has me earmarking this for a next visit.
There were other things to see anyway: The Thompson collection of boat models is worth looking at, as is the building’s architecture and its gallery of Group of Seven paintings. The place is quiet but not stuffy, large enough to accommodate crowds without feeling cramped. My Junior Navigator was not overly convinced by the experience, but did not complain as much as I had anticipated.
Still, by the time we were done with the AGO, we knew we were done being outside. Even the relatively short walk from the Gallery to the subway was strenuous. Calling it a day, we went back to the car for one last bout of traffic tourism up Yonge Street. I won’t get into the professional reasons why a pilgrimage from 1 Front Street to 4900 Younge was essential, except to say that getting out of downtown via Yonge was a terrific way to see the city slowly get less and less intense as we moved north. It’s also interesting to say that, sure, I’ve visited the Younge-Dundas Square on foot, but I have also crossed it by car.
And that was the day (indeed, the vacation sightseeing) for us. Our destination for supper was the Airport Jack Astor steak and grill restaurant—not high cuisine, but exactly what we wanted to end the day. Surprisingly enough, my Junior Navigator liked the restaurant better than I did (given the choice, I’d pick the atmosphere and food of Montana’s)—but then again, being served the worst single cream soda I’d ever tasted did not help. (Jack Astor serves alcohol. Even when serving soft drinks, it’s serving soft drinks designed by local alcohol company Henderson’s—and Henderson’s doesn’t want to understand soft drinks.)
Then it was back to the hotel for early lights out. Toronto was over, but we weren’t back home yet!
Day Six—Sunday, August 21—Coming Back
We took it easy on our day of return—getting up at 9:00, leisurely packing our things in time for the 11:00 checkout time, which we met with a few moments to spare. Unfortunately, we were perhaps too leisurely—our plans to eat breakfast at the hotel were dashed by the checkout time, and the nearby Perkins was in the middle of brunch rush, meaning that it had an hour-long waiting list.
So, we headed out back to Ottawa. Ironically or not, this was the day the weather changed in Toronto—with showers and even thunderstorms predicted for the afternoon. I was hoping I’d put a bit of a buffer between the worst of the 401 and the upcoming rain, so the first priority was to get past the three-lane section of that highway before it really started raining. We weren’t entirely successful, as a few drops of rain got to us near Pickering—but at least we were down to three lanes by then, past the collector lanes and into a generally saner traffic flow. (Which wasn’t as bad to begin with—and with much fewer trucks on the road on a Sunday morning.)
Our experiences at the OnRoute rest stops were almost identical—travelling during the weekend is inherently busier than during the week, so in rest stop after rest stop, we met packed parking and long line-ups for both food and gas. It was not just busy but unpleasantly busy—the online order terminals were all deactivated, meaning that we were looking at a 15–30 minutes’ wait for anything hot. Lines were non-existent in the convenience stores, though, which explains how a few snacks kept us going through the first two rest stops. A somewhat smaller line at the Trenton Burger King got Junior Navigator their lunch, and that’s also where I filled up on gas despite a short line. Alas, the one restaurant I was waiting for—the Mallorytown South New York Fries—was closed for the day. (This being said, despite the frustration factor, stopping regularly even for a few minutes did wonders to make the trip seem more manageable.)
The most unpleasant part of the drive happened about fifty kilometres east of Kingston, when it started raining hard enough that visibility nearly disappeared: numerous people put on their hazard lights, the entire highway collectively slowed to roughly 60 km/h and some people bailed for the nearest exit. Going much slower meant added safety for everyone, but there were still a few white-knuckles moments as the rain went on for nearly ten minutes. Fortunately, it cleared up—and we never got more than light rain on the way back.
As the 401 led to the boring northbound 416 up to Ottawa, we knew we were getting closer to home. My experience in Toronto clearly had me levelling up in driving skills (and two levels in GPS reading) because by the time we hit the afternoon rush hour on the 417, what would have been mildly unnerving Ottawa traffic looked like a sheer breeze compared to the 401.
We arrived shortly before 5 p.m., to a house that had clearly experienced its share of rain during the day. First order of business? Cleaning the car. Second order of business? A quick nap.
Overall, this second road trip of 2022 was another success—we saw plenty of things, learned from a few minor mistakes, found a blend between planning and adaptation, and I renewed my acquaintance with a city I like a lot despite its annoyances.
The few lessons to learn usually came from mild problems caused by forgetting the usual routine, failing to plan for the weather, or not quite anticipating proper time management. I’ll point to the hot and humid weather as being a constant irritant throughout the trip. While not unexpected (Toronto in August, what do you expect?), it perceptibly slowed us down in outdoors activities. Forgetting my hat and water bottle in the car didn’t help, but at least by the end of the trip we were using the subway, planning outings to air-conditioned venues and getting used to not completing our full agenda. There’s probably something to be said about rearranging a future trip to begin and end during the week as so to better manage rest stop traffic.
This being said, the rewards were much greater than the inconveniences. Enough so that a trip back in a year or two to revisit the greatest hits and have a look at what we missed isn’t out of the question.