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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 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 hooligans-on-wheels 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.


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’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).

How Cold Does it Get in Toronto?

21 Apr

“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.

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.


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


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

Five things they don’t tell you about Blue Mountain

27 Jan

I spent last Friday night in a pub. Life in Toronto isn’t so different from that in London.

Although, admittedly I’ve never rocked up to a UK drinking hole armed with a pair of skis and poles.

My accoutrements attracted quite a bit of attention from The Oxley’s genteel patrons, some of whom seemed to be under the impression that I’d literally skied to the door. After all, it was -13C and gusts of snow were flurrying  horizontally across the windows.

When I explained that my statement accessories had, in fact, been in a nearby workshop getting primed for an actual downhill ski trip the following day, on an actual mountain, my Canadian drinking buddies looked even more perplexed. “You’re going skiing in Blue Mountain?”

The biggest ski hill in this part of Ontario  – all 1,483 feet of it – sometimes seems to be a source of embarrassment to locals, who jealously eye up the rugged mountain ranges out west and the picturesque, snow-sure villages further north.

Whistler ski Blue Mountain Toronto

The vast ski area at Whistler, by GlobalReset on Flickr

With a maximum vertical of 720 feet, Blue Mountain’s very much the pygmy species of the Canadian ski kingdom. This doesn’t put me off; pygmies are among my favourite types of animal, and – as a Brit – small, cramped environments make me feel right at home.

But, having skied in the Alps, Pyrenees, the Andes and Dubai (in an air conditioned shopping mall – sorry ecowarriers) – not forgetting Milton Keynes – would Blue Mountain be a bit of a disappointment?

Well, here are a few things you don’t always hear about Blue Mountain:

1. There’s a great view of Georgian Bay from the top. On a cold day, when the lake’s totally frozen over, it’s rather pretty.

Blue Mountain Toronto ski

Ok, so not the best pic (cold hands), but you can see Georgian Bay in the distance

2. Everyone will tell you that the queues for the chairlifts can be numbingly long. BUT they often fail to mention that, despite the crowds, tougher pistes can be totally deserted. Well, that was the case on the day we went, anyway. Head for the black runs for the most solitude.

Blue Mountain ski Toronto

The only ones on the piste

3. You’re better off avoiding the busy, kiddy, cafe at South Base Lodge, near to where coach trippers are dropped off and ski schools gather. There are better eating and drinking options at Grand Central Lodge, based at the end of a couple of blue runs, which also has more of a cosy “resort” feel to it. The huge pulled pork sandwiches and burritos at Rusty’s will set you up for a thigh-burning afternoon sesh.

4. The conditions are fab after a week of the white stuff. Maybe that goes without saying, but a 1.5m snow depth at base camp ain’t bad for a titchy hill.

5. The International Ski Federation’s Snowboard Cross World Cup is being held at Blue Mountain in 2013 for the second year in a row – one of only two stops scheduled in Canada. You can catch the action there this weekend.

In summary, it’s clearly no Mont Blanc or Banff but, in optimum conditions, city-dwelling snowbunnies will have a fun day trip. Having your own kit, pre-booking lift passes via your ski club and heading away from the busiest slopes will enhance the whole experience by minimising queuing times.

And some things they do tell you (but I’ll repeat here anyway just FYI):

  • There are 36 trails, ranging from green to double diamond black runs
  • Fifteen lifts carry skiers and snowboarders up and down the mountain
  • A day’s lift pass (9am-4.30pm) costs $59, including tax. Night skiing (4.30pm-10pm) costs $45. Or it’s $69 for a day & night pass
  • You can rent equipment from the South Base Lodge
  • The drive takes around two hours from Toronto

Cross-country skiing: definitely a sport

23 Jan

“On your right! On your left!” Glancing up at the fallen casualties splayed like dilapidated windmills on the nordic trail I’ve just skidded down, I catch my breath and smile nervously at a crowd of polypropylene-clad skiers clustered at the bottom.

“Terrifying!” I pant.

“Yeah, you were,” one of them nods.

This seems an overly harsh assessment of the way in which I skillfully wove through the crowds emitting only the very mildest of swear-words (technically, “shi-euuuurgh” isn’t even a swear-word…or a word). But I let it go; the lycra guy’s brandishing a timer and wearing a ski club vest with numbers written on it – he must be important.

I’m at Highlands Nordic cross country ski centre, 10km south of Collingwood on the Niagara Escarpment – the huge crust of rock stretching from New York State through southern Ontario, forming gorges, waterfalls and cliffs.

There are 25km of trails at Highlands Nordic, winding through hardwood forest and – in some cases  – overlooking Georgian Bay.

Highlands Nordic cross country ski Toronto

A green (supposedly easy) trail at Highlands Nordic

On the day of my visit we’re being pelted with powdery snow, it’s a bone-chilling -13C or, with the windchill, -23C. Mad dogs and Canadians, eh?

It’s the first time I’ve tried cross country skiing. I’m hoping that my downhill experience will come into play, but just in case, I’m taking a morning lesson, which is included in the trip organised by my ski club.

“If you’ve done alpine skiing, you’ll be used to the weight shift and some of the fundamentals we’ll be running through this morning, like the snowplough,” says Greta, our instructor. I nod, feeling encouraged. Snowplough? Pah, I passed that stage years ago.

But snowploughing on flimsy nordic skis is akin to trying to snowboard down a mountain on a tea tray (yep, done it). There’s no “edge” to cut, and the skis are less responsive as your ankles aren’t fixed to them with bindings. Needless to say, on my first attempt at the weediest of “hills” – really just a mound of snow – I lose all control and crash into a heap at the bottom.

Things aren’t a whole lot easier on the flats, but I start to get the hang of stepping and gliding.

Highlands Nordic ski cross country Toronto

It’s easier on the flats

Going uphill is another struggle. The “herringbone” move eludes me so I resort to running, which is stupidly exhausting.  Now I get how you can burn more than 1,000 calories an hour and double your cardivascular fitness doing this.

“Give it more oomph” shouts Greta. I give it more oomph, and fall over again. At least the exercise is keeping me warm, and the snow-covered pine trees make a serene backdrop to my group’s giggly screeching.

I’m feeling brave enough after lunch to venture onto the trail again with just my other half for company. As we whoosh through the forest in the afternoon sun, slicing through glittering snow flurries with increasingly fluidity, it’s easy to understand what draws people to the sport.

And, to any naysayers, it IS a sport. That’s what my thighs and calves were telling me three days later, anyway. Look at these guys if you’re unconvinced.

Cross-country skiing: Potentially useful, factual stuff:

How long does it take to get to, from Toronto? Highlands Nordic takes around 2.5 hours from Toronto by coach

How much does it cost? Equipment rental plus a trail pass costs $35 for the day, though we only paid $15 each with the ski club

What to wear? On a normal winter’s day, you’ll probably be too hot in downhill ski clothes. I wore waterproof hiking trousers over thermals, and – as it was so cold – a long-sleeved base layer, hoodie and ski jacket.  On a  warmer day, you could probably get away with winter cycling/running gear

Anything else I might like to know? The shoes are COMFY. This is a major bonus to anyone used to toe-crunching downhill ski boots

Canada Travel 2013 Wishlist

8 Jan

Note that I haven’t called this a “bucket list.” I’d never heard that expression until moving here. Where does it come from? Why does everyone say it, ALL the time?

Anyway, I decided to write a travel *wishlist* because friends and family in the UK have been asking where they should visit, apart from Toronto, when they come to Canada to see us.

It made me think about areas I hope to return to, and those I’m itching to explore this year.

So far our travels out here have included a Vancouver to Alaska boat trip, the Okanagan Valley, the Rockies, Niagara, Algonquin, Parry Sound, the Haliburton Highlands and Prince Edward County. Not bad for six months, considering we’ve been based in Toronto for most of that time.

Peyto, Banff, Toronto, Canada travel

Peyto Lake, Banff National Park, taken July 2012

But there’s so much more to see. It’s quite a big place, as you might’ve noticed.

The main limitations to extensive travel in Canada are the enormous distances and budget-busting flight costs.

For example, one day I’d love to visit Churchill to see the polar bears, but the $500 airfare to Winnipeg, followed by the $1,200 onward flight, make that a bit of a pipe dream for now.

And seeing the Northern Lights in the Yukon would be incredible, but 5,000 km is rather a long way to travel.

Northern Lights, Yukon, Canada

Northern Lights, Yukon, Canada, by Studiolit on Flickr

Lots of prospective visitors tell me they want to travel by train from Vancouver to Banff, but few have $2,000 to spare for the Rocky Mountaineer – and most are shocked at the cost. There isn’t much regular train travel available, and where it exists, you’re at risk of suffering spontaneous outbursts of the national anthem (though personally I love this video!).

Forgive me, then, for the Ontario-centric map I’ve put together, of trips that are high on my agenda for 2013 .

It includes Tobermory, Niagara-on-the-Lake’s wineries, Montreal, Quebec City, but excludes tons of other places I’m desperate to see, like the Maritimes and Laurentians. Hopefully we’ll find a way to slip the rest in at some point.

But it’s not all about me, me, me. With a bit of luck, the map gives any would-be tourists out there some inspiration for things to do around Toronto and further afield, in different seasons.

While there are limitations to cross-country travel in Canada, luckily we’re spoilt for choice in Ontario when it comes to sweet summer spots for sunbathing, swimming, walking, canoeing, cycling and camping – and supping wine, of course.

I haven’t experienced winter out here yet, and, while it’s a shame that the province isn’t renown for downhill skiing (though there are places to do it), there are meant to be good opportunities for Nordic skiing, snow-shoeing and snowmobiling.

This is a good thing, as I’m determined to make the most of the big freeze, rather than turn into a onesie-wearing hermit for the duration. There’s a lot to be said for a onesie, and I shall be wearing mine with pride – but hopefully after a day of exertion on the Ontario trails.

Braving the Eastern Front

21 Nov

Just days after we moved to Toronto in an excitable haze, the city saw its worst ever mass shooting, which was to leave two people dead and 23 injured.

The incident in Scarborough, an eastern suburb, sparked a frenzy of newspaper columns and TV reports about Toronto’s inequalities and spiralling crime.

In a city with a reputation as an orderly safe haven, in a country so polite and friendly that a standard email sign-off is “very truly yours”, the shooting was a warning against complacency. It reminded us that Toronto, like any major city, has an edgier side and contains pockets with deep-rooted social challenges.

It also slightly dampened our enthusiasm for exploring eastwards. Besides from crime, any local will tell you that if you travel east of Yonge Street you’ll either lose your soul in a strip mall or fall off the edge of the planet.

But I wanted to try my luck. That’s me all over; I’m a thrill-seeker, a Jane Bond, a…keen cyclist. Yeah, that’s right adventure-shunners, I was raring to strap on my windproof anorak, pack a mean cache of cereal bars and show those suburban bike paths who’s boss.

So that’s what we did on Saturday, and discovered that Scarborough (pronounced Scarbour-o, rather than the English Scarbour-er) really is a world away from downtown Toronto. In the sense that it took seven hours to get there and back, involving a dark, cold evening cycle home, and we didn’t even reach our intended destination. Oops.

Our journey took us up the Don Valley, through the secluded Taylor Creek Park, across a bleak no-man’s-land and up the Hydro corridor:

Hydro corridor Toronto bike cycle

Hydro = Canadian for electrical power

From there, we tried to access Morningside Park, but came up against a slight, watery, problem:

Toronto cycle Morningside Scarborough

Er, how do we get across?

Having conquered the ravine, we were cycling around looking for the trail, when I spied a small, antlered deer weaving through the trees. Ahhhh. Deer in Scarborough?! And not a gun in sight.

The plan was to carry on to the University of Scarborough campus, but it was getting dark and we couldn’t find the trail. So in a strip mall car park, we decided to head home. It was quite a picturesque ending to our trip, I’m sure you’ll agree:

Tim Hortons Scarborough Toronto cycle

At least the coffee was cheap

Despite some temporary numbness to the fingers and toes, we survived our 70km round-trip to Scarborough unscathed.

On the way back, we even saw a raccoon peering from a tree with its bank-robber eyes:

Raccoon Toronto cycle Don Valley

On the pitch-black Don Valley trail. Thank goodness for bike lights!

We probably had nothing to worry about in the first place. This rather neat crime map of Toronto shows there most definitely isn’t a clear east-west divide when it comes to violent assaults.

Clicking on the map shows that in eastern Scarborough there were 17.57 “crimes against the person” per 1,000 residents and workers in 2006, compared with just 3.7 in my neighbourhood. But then, Chinatown has a rate of 20.3 and that’s not going to keep me from my General Tso Pork.

The excellent Toronto Life magazine published a well-researched piece on Scarborough’s demographics, worth a read.

Although the route took longer than we’d planned for and there were gaps in the trail involving some busy roads, it was impressive to see – again – how well set up Toronto is for cyclists, and how quickly you can escape the dense inner city if you want to.

Here’s where we went:

Guilty pleasures of a closet sunset fan

15 Nov

This post’s dedicated to that much maligned art form – the humble sunset photo.

It’s all too easy to criticise the ubiquitous evening sky shot, but who hasn’t been tempted to take a “sun kissing the horizon” snap after a perfect day on the beach? Only the most committed wedge-haired art hipster could resist a reddy, pinky, Rothko-layered sky after a few pina coladas.

Me? I like an urban sunset, and the massive Toronto sky is the gift that never stops giving (though the gifts aren’t always welcome when in the form of a four day downpour, like last week).

My number one spot for Toronto sunsets is Ashbridges Bay Park, which I just happened to be cycling through this evening:

Ashbridges Bay Park Toronto

Not bad, eh?

I got a bit carried away; here are some more pics from my ride home:

Ashbridges Bay Park sunset Toronto

Same sunset, (very slightly) different view

Ashbridges Bay Park Toronto sunset

Peeping through the leaf-starved winter trees

Beaches Toronto sunset

Nice evening for a beachside bike ride

For what it’s worth, my other top Toronto sunset spots would be:

*Canoe restaurant, 66 Wellington Street West.

With its sweeping, floor to ceiling window views, it’s a sure-fire romance hotspot. It also does a nice line in surprise desserts:

Romantic sunset restaurant Toronto anniversary

We didn’t even order this! Hooray, even more pudding!

*Lake Ontario

As in, the actual water. Preferably from the safety of a canoe, or other floating vessel:

Toronto canoe sunset

During a summer evening paddle across to the Islands

*My apartment!

Sorry to brag, but the view ain’t half bad. No, we don’t take paying guests. Yes, you can quite possibly get a very similar view from many of the high condo blocks or hotels along the harbourfront:

Sunset Toronto CN Tower

The CN Tower, all lit up

Toronto lake sunset

The harbour at night

Toronto sunset lake

West Jet stage and Islands

Oh, I know these aren’t going to win any photography prizes – and I totally get that taking pictures of sunsets is neither cool nor clever.

But go on, admit it, they’re pretty. It’s a harmless guilty pleasure. I won’t tell anyone if you don’t. It can be our little secret.

John Howson

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