Cycling the Niagara River Recreation Trail

7 Aug

There are some unforgettable sights in Niagara, Ontario. One vision that sticks in my mind is the convoy of large, leathery women in their 50s and 60s that I came across on my most recent visit to the falls a few weekends ago. Flicking fag ash as they slugged along on mobility scooters, folds of dimpled flesh spilling out of sleeveless crop tops rising above their bellies, the geriatric hooligans seemed oblivious – or impervious – to the fact they were hogging a path that expressly stated: “No electric vehicles of any kind.”

Yep, visiting Niagara Falls requires a tolerance for wheezing tourists, high-rise hotels, tawdry casinos, and gigantic winnebagos. None of this, however, detracts from watching six million cubic feet of water thunder down a 165ft vertical drop each minute, especially when combined with a trip to some of Niagara’s more serene spots.

A fun way to experience the region’s highlights, including the mighty falls, is by taking the Niagara River Recreation Trail from Niagara-on-the-Lake, a genteel town lined with regency and classical revival style buildings – the kind of place that the Lonely Planet might describe as “elegant”.

The 58 kilometre trail runs along the Canadian side of the Niagara River all the way from Fort George, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, down to Fort Erie. Both towns played major roles in the bloody war of 1812 between America and Great Britain, which helped to shape Canadian nationalism.

I cycled a section of the trail a couple of weeks ago, completing a 55km route over a very leisurely five hours.

The route

If you’re driving to Fort George, you can park there for around $8 a day.

The most scenic part is the first section to Queenston, on a path that winds past vineyards to the right, and the river separating Canada from the USA on the left.

Niagara Falls Recreation Trail cycling bike

The trail winds along the Niagara River

Punnets of locally grown plums, peaches and cherries are sold from stalls on the side of the road, and hand-painted signs invite you to pick your own.

Cycling Niagara Falls Recreation Trail

Peach picking along the Niagara River Recreation Trail

It takes around an hour to reach Queenston; from there, the path heads up a fairly steep, shaded hill.

The ground soon levels off and, around half an hour later, the trail takes cyclists (rollerblading isn’t encouraged) past the butterfly conservatory and botanical gardens, which could make a nice detour. Zipping past, I spied a turtle lazing in the shady streetside undergrowth.

Immediately before Niagara, the path vanishes and you’re forced onto the busy main road for around 10 minutes.

As you freewheel down the hill, the falls suddenly come into view. Ta-da!

Niagara Falls, Niagara River Recreation Trail, cycle Niagara

The amazing Niagara Falls

On the return journey, I wanted to see more of the countryside so branched left after Queenston and zig-zagged past rows of sleepy vineyards and orchards.

Niagara, orchard, bike, cycling, Niagara River Recreation Trail

An orchard near Niagara-on-the-Lake

It’s hard to imagine a more scenic, relaxing, bike ride – and all within 90 minutes’ drive of Toronto.

The sunset on the way home topped off a pretty perfect day.

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Sun setting over the water at Niagara-on-the-Lake

If you don’t have a car, the bike train runs all summer, taking passengers from Toronto to Niagara Falls station, which is situated a block away from the trail.

Toronto Gets A Decent Outdoors Music Fest

15 Jul

Toronto doesn’t have a big, outdoors, multi-day music festival to rival Coachella, SXSW or Osheaga, but it recently put on an event that might just come close…one day.

The first ever Toronto Urban Roots Festival ran from July 4 – 7 at Fort York, with a mainly folk-indie line up including Belle and Sebastian, Camera Obscura, She & Him, The Cat Empire, Barr Brothers and my (new) Canadian faves, Whitehorse.

It was very much my musical cup of tea, so I was super happy to cover it for Torontoist.

Capture

There’s a bit of a debate raging underneath the Torontoist article as to whether She & Him’s Zooey Deschanel – yep, her off of New Girl – was being excessively diva-ish by banning photos and videos as she performed.

On balance, I probably side with “HotDang”, though I’d couch my views in slightly different terms. There’s definitely something to be said for living the moment, rather than documenting it, but it’s a difficult argument to make when you have 2.1m Instagram followers and once tweeted: “Being away from my dogs it feels my camera has no purpose.” Zooey suggests there’s a kind of purity to enjoying music “in 3D”, but isn’t above using Twitter to post links to She & Him music videos, or flog tickets to her gigs. It’s almost as if the camera ban’s just an attempt to control PR.

Ignoring all of that, it was a great festival; here’s hoping TURF becomes a permanent fixture on the Toronto summer calender.

The Great Canadian Cheese Festival

3 Jul

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A few weeks ago, I posted a reader’s offer for discounted tickets to the Great Canadian Cheese Festival.

Naturally I had to venture up to Picton, in Prince Edward County, to check it out myself; let’s put the delayed report down to an epic cheese and wine coma.

The festival calls itself the “biggest artisan and homestead cheese show in Canada”, and 36 cheesemakers turned up to show off their produce, all made with the milk of Canadian cows, goats, sheep and water buffalo, using no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives, and no modified milk ingredients.

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I was there on the first day of the weekend-long cheese-fest. There were so many samples being thrust politely in my direction, it was hard to know where to start, but the rich, creamy Maple Dale “aged” (Canadian for “mature”) cheddar was a big hit, as was the Dandelion wine jam by Henderson Farms, based on nearby Wolff Island.

Major Craig’s Inc put together a hearty charcuterie plate, and the four cheese wood fired pizza by the Flatbread Pizza company ensured that we didn’t go short of a square – or, rather, circular – meal.

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Prince Edward County is, of course, famous for its wineries, so there was plenty of booze to keep everyone merry. The Waupoos ice wine cider was the perfect cooler in the sticky end-of-Spring weather, but the Pinot Gris by solar-powered Redtail Vineyards, and the draught beers by Church-Key Bewery were also appreciated. Luckily, I had a designated driver.

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There were also cute goats:

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And a one-week old bull; the farmer raved about its breeding, I was mainly impressed by its eyelashes:

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After filling our chops with rich food, it would’ve been rude not to show off our expanded bellies at nearby Sandbanks Provincial Park, which boasts the world’s largest freshwater sandbar and dunes.

The park’s beautiful enough in the winter, but it’s even easier to admire its transparent water while wading knee-deep in the absurdly warm lake, or lounging on the rippled white sand.

Sandbanks Provincial Park

Sandbanks Provincial Park, courtesy of Kate Brown on Flickr

I’m slightly in love with Prince Edward County, so the cheese festival was the icing, or maybe the mascarpone, on the cake.

What’s weird is that, despite being just over two hours from Toronto, tons of city-dwellers have never been to Prince Edward County and, in some cases, seem unsure as to where it actually is. It’s a lovely corner of Ontario well worth a daytrip or weekend break not only for its beaches but also for its wineries, cycling, camping and – as I now appreciate – cheese.

Toronto’s Top Bike Trails

20 Jun
Best Toronto bike trails

View from Humber Bay Park

 

It’s Bike Month in Toronto, meaning the place is crawling with cycling evangelists waddling about with their padded bottoms, inciting everyone to get on two wheels.

Whatever their fashion crimes, the wild-haired ones are onto something: This compact, flat city’s ideal for cycling, aside from some inconveniently placed streetcar tracks and spatially challenged supertruck drivers.

As a signed up member of the tribe, with the oil stained calves to prove it, I recently decided to take part in one of the Bike Month events, a group ride around Ward 18.

This involved cycling around Little Portugal and nearby neighbourhoods, stopping off enroute to scoff delicious pasteis de Nata. Anything for the cause, cycling comrades. Photos from the ride have been posted here (spot the lanky cyclist in the fourth picture down).

My unwavering commitment to the right to wear impossibly tight lycra and feel a little superior truly knows no bounds.

So, to further demonstrate my unwavering solidarity, here’s an extra contribution to Bike Month:

My pick of Toronto’s cycle trails, in no particular order.

1. Don Valley-Sunnybrook Park-Edwards Gardens. 17km, 1 hour.

Look out for raccoons and rabbits on the Don Valley, and take some extra time to meander through Sunnybrook Park. Walk your bike round serene Edwards Gardens, admiring the rock gardens and meadow flowers.

Best bike trails Toronto

Don Valley bike trail

2. Waterfront Trail Westwards-Humber Bay Park. 12km, 45 mins.

Keep left when you get to Coronation Park and take the lakeside trail. Pause on Humber Bridge and drift round to Humber Bay Park, through the butterfly meadow and over to a peaceful rocky beach with a fabulous view of the city. Keep an eye out for tortoises!

Humber Bay tortoise bike Toronto

A tortoise I spotted at Humber Bay during a bike ride last Sunday

3. Humber Bay Park-up the river until your legs get tired. Up to 35 km, 2.5 hours.

Ride alongside the river, through a series of quiet parks. The occasional steep hill gets the glutes going. In late September/early October you can spot salmon jumping out of the river.

Best bike trails Toronto

Along the Humber River

4. Waterfront Trail Eastwards-Cherry Beach-Ashbridges Bay Park-Kew Beach. 11 km, 45 mins. Optional weekend detour: Tommy Thompson Park.

Take a detour past urban Sugar Beach, stop to watch kite-surfers at Cherry Beach, then weave around Ashbridges Bay Park harbour before dodging rollerbladers and kids on the path running along the sandy shores of Kew Beach.

Best bike trails Toronto

Cherry Beach

5. Don Valley-Evergreen Brickworks-Moore Park Ravine-Mount Pleasant Cemetary. 10km, one hour.

Gorgeous in the Fall, when the ravine and cemetery are carpeted with auburn-yellow leaves.

Best bike trails Toronto

Moore Park Ravine in Fall

6. ??????

This one’s my all-time favourite. It doesn’t seem to be as “on-the-map” as the others just yet, which works for me. Maybe I’ll reveal all in a future post. Possibly.

Note: Times and distances are approximate and are based on setting off from Union Station. They don’t take account of any detours, wildlife spotting or pausing for photos of the CN Tower in the distance (you can never have too many of those, after all).

Cheesy Reader Offer

31 May
Cheese 101

Cheese, courtesy of Steel Wool on Flickr

Based in or near Toronto? Stuck for weekend plans? Like cheese?

As a special (last minute) thank-you to my lovely readers, here’s a discount to Canada’s biggest cheese festival, taking place tomorrow and Sunday in Prince Edward County.

You can get 25 per cent off tickets for The Great Canadian Cheese Festival by entering the promotional code CF13NEW before starting your online ticket order here.

It’s only good for tickets purchased online in advance of the festival on June 1-2.

Let me know if you go and what you make of it!

Second Life for Toronto’s Trash

21 May

Crowdsourcing’s one of those promising concepts that’s often put to fairly uninspiring uses, whether it’s adding social media sparkle to lacklustre government policies, or advertising tortilla chips.

But last week I wrote about a crowdsourcing site with a social purpose that seems to be carrying out a genuinely useful function.

The article, for Torontoist, was about Trashswag, a website that maps out the location of unwanted wood, furniture and other salvageable bits and bobs left lying in Toronto’s streets.

Image

Anyone who spies some potentially useful junk can add to the map by taking a picture of it and posting the photo on Instagram or tweeting it, using the hashtag #Trashswag.

Creative types are using the site to find materials they can turn into art, wardrobes, seats and tables. Brilliantly, this also means that less stuff is getting sent to landfill.

I wonder whether this has been done in other cities around the world? I hear the site’s founder, Gavin Cameron, was invited onto the Morning Show after producers read the Torontoist article; perhaps the growing momentum will help him expand his empire.

Have you done any “upcycling” via the site? Is it something you might find useful? If you’re not from Toronto, is there anything similar in your home town?

How Cold Does it Get in Toronto?

21 Apr This January day felt as cold as it looked.

“The other day, when it was so cold, a friend of mine went to buy some long underwear. The shopkeeper said to him, “How long do you want it?” And my friend said, “Well, from about September to March.”

That’s a quote from Mary Poppins, for anyone who didn’t watch the film so many times as a child that they can still recite it line-by-line.

Having just emerged from the longest, harshest winter of my life, I wonder whether Uncle Albert’s friend had been planning a trip to Toronto.

How cold?

Warning: This section contains detailed information about the weather. If that’s likely to bore you, please feel free to focus on the pretty pictures below and ignore my meteorological musings:

Friends in the UK started asking how cold it was here as soon as we moved to Toronto last July. “30C!” I replied, gleefully. And there it stayed, more or less, for the next two months.

I relished the predictability of hot summer days and nights, though feared the inevitability of plunging winter temperatures.

The impending seasonal shift intrigued me: How cold does it really get here? Is it dangerous? Will my contact lenses freeze to my eyeballs (Google told me probably not)? Should I overcome my aversion to furs?

The slideshow below tracks how the climate’s changed since we’ve been here.

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As the pictures show, a roasting summer led to a progressively cooler September.

By Thanksgiving weekend in the first week of October, it was bitter, at around -6C with wind chill – and even colder in cottage country.

“Fall” was a cold and short-lived, but stunning, season of fiery hues of yellow and orange warming the bluey greens of lake and sky.

After Christmas, it suddenly bucketed with snow, turning the weather unpleasantly “frigid”, as they like to say on this side of the pond (teehee).

For over a month, -25C wind chill wasn’t out of the ordinary. Industrial slabs of cracked ice paralysed the harbour and jagged frost sprouted like cacti over our windows.

After admitting during an ill-advised walk in a snowstorm that my “warm winter coat” was nothing of the sort, I embraced the ubiquitous Toronto uniform of snow boots and goose down jacket – a small sartorial (and not insignificant financial) decision that truly rocked my world. Venturing outside during the Toronto winter is totally plausible with the right outdoor gear.

There’s also the PATH system, effectively 27km of interlocking shopping malls and food courts, which keeps you warm – and well fed – as you wander from A to B in the city centre.

While it may have been a cold winter, it wasn’t a damp, gloomy affair. There was a ton of sunshine, it hardly ever rained and the snow made for fun weekends spent skiing, tobogganing and ice skating at the free outdoor rinks dotting the city.

March and April have dragged on a bit. There’s been the odd moment of T-shirt weather interspersed with snow, hail and – more recently – lots of rain (boo).

This has been the first week in which temperatures have climbed into the 20s, and the city’s already undergone a tangible transformation.

The other day I watched a bare-legged girl absently ripping juicy chunks from a whole mango on the bus. I inhaled BBQ smoke seasoning the downtown air and darted out of the way of puffing joggers patrolling the waterfront in micro shorts. The party boat’s back in its summer mooring and yachts are zipping around the harbour once again.

The trees may still be shorn of their leaves, and yep, it actually snowed yesterday, but something strange and rather wonderful is definitely afoot. If I’m not mistaken, it’s Spring.

The Dragon’s Den Canadian Visa

11 Apr

Toronto Canada immmigration expat

I’ve written an article for Telegraph.co.uk on Canada’s Start-Up Visa, likened by one lawyer to “the Dragon’s Den of immigration”.

The visa’s aimed at enticing entrepreneurs looking for venture capital, or angel investor, funds. The government believes the promise of investment – and a permanent visa – will encourage foreigners to move here to build their tech start-ups.

I’m not so sure. Take the Conference Board of Canada report, which placed the country 13th of 16 peer nations for innovation. Canadian firms were “rarely at the leading edge of new technology,” it said. Canada also ranked poorly on barriers to competition, which won’t surprise anyone who’s tried to buy a phone contract, broadband package or bottle of wine here.

The UK, meanwhile, was deemed to have the lowest barriers to competition and received the top score for “ease of entrepreneurship”.

In Canada’s favour is its comparatively strong economy and the UK’s decreasing levels of venture capital investment. This report provides an optimistic view of entrepreneurship in maple leaf land.

Interested in finding out more? The government’s giving away up to 2,750 of the new visas annually for the next five years. Time will tell whether they turn out to be the Reggae Reggae sauce, or the DriveSafe glove of the immigration world.

Walk in the park

3 Apr

Half an hour’s drive from central Toronto is a big space known as Rouge Park. When I say big, it’s 10,000 acres. I’ve never been very good with distances, but that’s 12 times bigger than Central Park and 13 times the size of Hampstead Heath.

As any BBC Radio 4 listeners will be fascinated to know, it also amounts to 1/500th of the size of Wales.

So yeah, big. And also wild, especially for an urban park surrounded by industrial towns and cities. Apparently, deer, coyotes, otters and even wild turkeys roam there. Who knew wild turkeys even existed? They look terrifying.

I drove there last weekend for a “hike”. Or, as us Brits like to call it, a walk.

The walk

Parking at Rouge Park Beach, I watch V-shaped formations of Canada Geese cutting through the cerulean sky before landing in the noisy marshes, which in summer act as a jumping off point for canoeists heading up the Rouge River.

A boardwalk takes me past the wetlands to the wide, sandy beach on Lake Ontario’s shoreline.

There doesn’t seem to be any access to the rest of the park from here, so it’s back in the car and round to Twyn Rivers Drive, from where I join the start of the 2km Orchard trail.

The trail hugs the rushing river, taking me through pine and beech forest, crunchy snow underfoot.

Rouge Park Toronto

Rouge Park river

“Ah, a Grey Tit,” my husband points out, gesturing at a cute little flapping bird. He’s a bit of an ornithologist, but I suspect he just wanted to say “grey tit” out loud. Needless to say, when a panting woman wearing crampons rushes over to tell us about the Pussy Willow she’s spotted, there’s some quiet guffawing.

Pushing on to the Cedar trail through an open area surrounded by small rolling hills, I stop to watch a never-ending train chuff past on its way to somewhere far, far away.

Rouge Park Toronto

A long, loooong train chugs through Rouge Park

Slippery wooden steps take me back into the forest, and it’s a short hop to Meadowvale road, where I turn back and do the route in reverse, noticing how the snow’s rapidly ebbing away in the sun. It’s a roughly 8.5 km walk and, other than crampon woman, we only pass about five other people.

National Urban Park

I was interested to read that the federal government’s planning to turn the area into Canada’s only “National Urban Park”. It’s not entirely clear what the designation means, other than an expansion of the park’s boundaries, but the aim’s to encourage more people to take advantage of the country’s wonderful natural landscapes, amid declining visitor levels at national parks.

The people in charge of all this might like to consider how to make the park more accessible to those without cars. Getting there via public transit takes more than two hours from downtown Toronto – ridiculous! Luckily we rented a car that weekend.

Some would also argue that the government’s mission isn’t going to be helped by the $29m spending cut to Parks Canada’s budget. Parks across the country have already been forced to cancel winter services; some trails and car parks in Quebec and Nova Scotia are reportedly no longer being maintained in the off season.

Perhaps it’s right that parks in more populated areas are prioritized over those mainly serving smaller, remote communities. But it’d be a terrible shame if the investment in the admittedly fabulous Rouge Park came at the cost of the beautiful wilderness areas for which Canada’s rightly famed.

This might make you a bit jealous

10 Mar

Of all the smug utterances at the expat-in-Canada’s disposal, “we’re going to Whistler” has to be among the most powerful. It’s the ultimate weapon in your bombastic armoury, the Mario mushroom of envy provoking power ups.

It’s an unnecessarily cruel reminder to pals at home that your winters involve zipping down mountains at world class ski resorts, while theirs involve (probably) damp afternoons eating baked beans in front of The Cube. Well, there has to be an upside to walking around with nostril icicles four months of the year.

There’s no need to mention to said pal that visiting Whistler from Toronto is no cheaper than it would be from London and involves a five hour flight. Or that you still spend way too many winter evenings eating junk in front of mindless TV shows. Or that Canadian TV is, by any standard, 1,000 times shitter than British TV.

Despite the hideous costs and pain-in-the-ass distance associated with travelling to Whistler from Toronto, anyone into skiing or snowboarding will understand why we wanted to go there so badly.

But would it live up to the hype?

The snow

We were pummelled with 1.25m of powder over seven days. That’s on top of the existing 2m base, meaning we were carving fresh tracks every single morning on fluffy, tree-lined pistes.

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Fresh tracks at Whistler

There were some fantastically powdery gladed runs although, after face-planting at the bottom of one, I vowed never again to ski through trees without a helmet.

Being used to heaving European resorts, we were also chuffed to find the mountains empty of people; the 4pm home run, normally a terrifying gauntlet of ski school pile-ups and slush, was a long, smooth blue or black trail that took us straight to our condo.

The vibe

Luckily, the mountainside isolation didn’t translate into  a ghost town feeling further down in the villages, where the bars and restaurants were full to the rafters.

Thoughtful touches, like tune-up tools laid out with a “help yourself” sign, piste maps on the chairlifts, and excellent food served with a smile (and, usually, an Aussie twang), all helped to make it a truly friendly, happy place to be.Whistler chairlift map

No fiddling about with cold hands and paper maps

Accommodation

Unfortunately, few Canadian ski resorts offer catered chalets, which are, imho, the best value for money accommodation option at big resorts in the Alps.

At Whistler, you therefore choose between hotels and self catered condos/chalets, which are scattered between the main village and a range of smaller areas such as Creekside, where we stayed.

Creekside, a 10 minute bus ride from Whistler village, worked perfectly for us. Our self-catered condo at Evolution was five minutes’ walk from the normally queue-less main lift up to Whistler mountain and had a full kitchen, balcony, and a shared outdoor pool with hot tubs and a steam room/sauna.

Creekside also has a big supermarket with reasonably-priced food, a rowdy bar/BBQ restaurant (Dusty’s) at the bottom of the home-run that often has live music playing, and a great organic pizza joint, Creekbread.

Any downsides?

It seems a bit churlish to complain about the weather at Whistler when it brought us so much lovely snow. As one skiier put it to us: “The less sun the better.” Maybe I’m a fair weather skiier, but my personal heaven is gliding along a velvety mountain ridge under a big blue sky,  hot and cool air concertinaing as I drift between overhanging shadows and sunlight.

Heaven isn’t getting dizzy and disoriented in a swirling white-out, losing all concept of whether I’m skiing up or down. Or skiing through lashing rain, as on our last day, when the lack of visibility and damp conditions forced us to abandon plans for an epic finale.

Reading the ski blogs, our weather experience seems fairly standard for a week in Whistler, although we were told the clouds often lift in January.

And when the clouds dissipate and the blizzard stops, Whistler lives up to its rep for being the ultimate snow playground, offering an immense expanse of pistes and wild backcountry trails, ranging from double black diamond mogul fields to serene treeline pistes.

Whistler Toronto skiing

Serene treeline skiing

To demonstrate just how MUCH it snows in Whistler, I’ve put together a chart comparing its annual snowfall with that of a few North American and European resorts.

The chart also includes stats on peak mountain height and the number of pistes. This is partly to counter the irksome way in which North American resorts tend to put together similar comparisons for their own websites that downplay the impressiveness of European ski areas by using sneaky methodology.

For instance, when it comes to calculating the number of pistes/trails,  some create separate entries for ski resorts that share integrated lift passes, like La Plagne and Les Arcs, or Tignes and Val D’Isere. Cheeky.

You can play about with the chart by clicking the icon below:

Ski Resorts Comparison Many Eyes

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