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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.

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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.

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.

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

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.

First Five Months

12 Dec

Facebook’s inviting users to: “See your 2012 in review: Look back at your 20 biggest moments from the past year.” According to the site’s handy photo memo, I’ve spent much of the year with a drink in my hand and/or wearing questionable hats or wigs. Usually while pretending to be a pop star.

Personally, I’d have included emigrating to another continent, fulfilling my dream of travelling to Alaska and making the huge decision to leave my magazine job  in a list of 2012’s “biggest moments”, but Facebook’s  clever algorithms don’t seem to have quite captured any of this.

You can’t blame Facebook for trying; at this time of year, everyone’s clamouring to get in on the “Review of 2012” action. This blog’s nothing if not bang on trend (even though the phrase “bang on trend” really isn’t), so I’ve created an interactive Dipity timeline of my experience in Toronto, which starts when my husband and I touched down in mid-July.

Annoyingly, WordPress.com doesn’t like Dipity, but you can see it here:

Highlights

The timeline includes loads of highlights that I didn’t get a chance to blog about, including (not in any particular order):

Toronto Nuit Blanche

Colourful speakers in Nathan Phillips Square blasting out choral music during Nuit Blanche

  • Nuit Blanche – Definitely one of Toronto’s cooler events.  An all-night contemporary art festival, with car parks, public squares, cinemas and municipal buildings converted into installations for the night.
  • Haliburton Highlands – When my parents came to visit in early October, we spent Thanksgiving in cottage country. The Fall colours were at their beautiful, golden, peak and we had a perfect weekend of games, wine, a cottage with a dock down to the lake, some silly canoeing and a day trip to Algonquin Provincial Park.  If my little sis had been there too, it would’ve been perfect. It wasn’t bad though (sorry sis):
Algonquin Fall Colours

Fall colours

  • Niagara Falls by helicopter – Every bit as cool as it sounds. Niagara-on-the-lake is a really pretty town to wander through, too. I’m sure the wineries will call us back.
  • Taste of the Danforth – A meaty cloud wafted over Greektown while crowds lined up at stalls selling grilled quail, souvlaki and fried calimari at the hugely popular (Toronto’s most popular, according to the website) August festival.
Taste of the Danforth Toronto

Grills line the street at Taste of the Danforth

You’ll have to check out the timeline for the rest.

Btw, this isn’t meant to be a “hidden gems of Toronto” guide – these diamonds are all very much on the  map. But it all depends on what map you’re using; I don’t think Nuit Blanche features in any of the guides I bought before arriving here, yet I’ve never seen Toronto’s streets so buzzing (in more ways than one, by the early hours).

Some of them are personal highlights, like passing my sailing practical exam.

And  there are so many great experiences that aren’t on the timeline. It’s just intended as a visual reminder of what a fantastic introduction we’ve had to our new city – and hopefully, a handy set of suggestions or reminders for anyone planning to be in Ontario next year.

I’d love to know what other people’s Toronto/Ontario highlights have been in the latter part of this year – and what a newbie can look forward to in the first half of 2013.

In search of wine

4 Dec

You can’t find a bottle of plonk for much less than $15 (£9.30) in Canada. And if you can, you probably don’t want to drink it.

It took me months to come to terms with this, and many fruitless hours of searching the shelves for a label cheap enough to sustain my midweek wine habit. There are certain rituals to which I’ve become accustomed over the years – just like the Queen, but her vices probably don’t involve £4 bottles of Sauvignon Blanc.

The high prices suck. But a seasoned expat offered some sage advice when I first arrived, concerning  relocation-related annoyances: “Don’t think of it as stupid or backwards, just see it as different.” Wise words.

The history bit

I was surprised to learn that the reason for the hiked-up wine harks back to the prohibition era, when bootleggers compelled the authorities to enforce strict controls over the sale of liquor which, to this day, is regulated by provincial agencies.

In practical terms this means you can’t pile wine into your supermarket trolley or pick up a quick bottle from the all-night offie – you can only get it from official Liquor Control Board of Ontario stores, or from wineries. You can’t even import more than a case of wine from another province within Canada. This means there’s a monopoly, which means high prices.

You’re probably thinking: “That’s stupid! Backwards!” No, no, remember: Just “different”.

The LCBO also has a paternalistic mission to curb alcohol consumption and it claims the mark-ups generate revenue for health and education services.  Others argue the government would save more money by axing a $300m a year bureaucracy and privatising liquor retail sales.

But this long pre-amble, whilst fascinating I’m sure, is just background info. It helps to explain our trip to the Prince Edward County wineries last weekend – the original point of this post.

Prince Edward County

PEC’s a two-and-a-half hour drive north east of Toronto and, since the early 2000s, has attracted a growing wine industry thanks to its rich soil, cheap land and the temperature-moderating effect of Lake Ontario.

It’s also home to Sandbanks Provincial Park, which bills itself as “the world’s largest fresh water sand bar and dune system”. Also known as a bloody big beach:

Sandbanks Provincial Park Prince Edward County

December probably isn’t the prime time to visit Sandbanks

There are now over 30 wineries, most of which are pretty small – too small to get their products onto LCBO’s shelves and, since selling elsewhere isn’t an option, their customers have to go to them.

Attracting bus loads of wine fans in the winter, when the more established Niagara region’s closer to Toronto, isn’t easy, so they came up with the “weekend wassail”. This sounds like something from a Thomas Hardy novel, but there was no sign of mead, peasants  or ill-fated heroines. Instead, there was lots of free (woo!) wine, rum balls, s’mores, mini beef Wellingtons, spiced cider and carol singing.

Prince Edward County wine map

Where to go

The fact the wineries aren’t overly commercialised made for a really personal experience – maybe slightly too personal in one case, when the two of us were forced to sing a carol of our “choice” in exchange for wine and my husband chose the famously easy-to-sing Good King Wenceslas. The owner was good enough to reward my tuneless mumbling with a fruity Chardonnay. I don’t normally enjoy Chardonnay, but the ones in PEC seemed to be less oak-ey and crisper than normal.

Naturally we treated ourselves to a few choice bottles…well we were bound to be getting some sort of discount, straight from the supplier, right?

Our stash

Our stash

Lots of the wineries are clustered together in the west, and it’s possible to tour them by bike. I might save that for a weekend when it’s not minus 6.

A very intimate howling

29 Oct

Booking a yurt in Algonquin Provincial Park is a tricky business. There are only eight of them, serving a 7,653 square kilometre area crawling with lakes, streams and bear-inhabited forests.

And, unless you fancy sleeping in sub-zero temperatures in a tent or have an RV (British translation: House-sized campervan), the yurts are your only option for winter camping. So they get booked up incredibly quickly.

This meant that, even though the weekend weather forecast was dire, there was no way we were going to cancel our overnight stay in the park, at Mew Lake campground.

It’s fair to say that Algonquin yurts, with their bunk beds, plastic chairs and lino flooring, aren’t quite the luxury glamping experience you get elsewhere.

But, on arrival, there were no regrets as our nostrils filled with the nostalgic waft of smoky, burning logs mingled with musty pine.

Algonquin Yurt Toronto

Our yurt in Algonquin Park

Even without fur throws or a wood-burning oven, the electric heating was enough to keep us toasty, and there were hot showers nearby. Comforting to know, when you’re cooking dinner outside with snow falling around you.

Algonquin Toronto yurt

You weren’t allowed to cook inside the yurt

What we hadn’t realised was, as well as enjoying the classic Canadian Shield scenery, we’d be getting the full Canadian Halloween experience. Brits don’t really “do” Halloween in a big way – it’s mainly just an excuse to drink beer while wearing a bit more make-up than normal – but our fellow campers had gone to great lengths to decorate their pitches with carved-out pumpkins, skeletons, cobwebs and in one case, a headless canoeist.

So many trick-or-treaters knocked on our yurt that we had to make a quick dash to buy some emergency extra “candy”. Annoyingly, having stocked up on treats, the only other person who called in was an adult who wanted us to touch his “moose brains” (some kind of oily spaghetti in a bucket).

Meanwhile, a masked man was lolloping through the campsite, scaring groups of small children by menacingly revving a chainsaw. Halloween is weird.

We also discovered our trip coincided with Algonquin’s first ever “Halloween Howl” – a night-time stroll aimed at hearing wolves replying to our guide’s imitation howl. This, captured below, made us giggle (requires sound):

Algonquin wolf howl

Algonquin’s 300 wolves weren’t playing ball that night, but, hey, it was worth a shot. And, as there were only around 40 of us mad enough to brave the cold, we were fortunate to experience a “very intimate howling” as our guide put it; similar sessions in the summer attract up to 2,000 people.

Crazy Halloween fever had obviously got to us by the next day, as we decided to embark on a “challenging” six hour hike with rain and wet snow forecast. Surprisingly enough, we didn’t see another human soul the entire time (though, worryingly, heard gunshots). But we did spy a cute beaver:

Algonquin beaver Toronto

Beaver spotted on the Mizzy Lake trail

And, just as we were starting to despair of ever seeing a moose, we saw TWO! They were gobbling grass in the distance and seemed quite unfazed by our presence.

Algonquin moose Toronto

One of the moose we saw

That just leaves the elusive Algonquin bear to spot, although we may now have to wait until they come out of hibernation next year (we opted against the “leaving a bit of bacon outside the yurt” tactic).

Tips/Facts:

*Driving to Algonquin from downtown Toronto took 3.5 hours on the way there and 3 hours on the return journey

*You have to return the yurt keys by 12pm the next day at either the East or West Gate, which is a bit of a pain if you plan to hike that day as it involves backtracking.

*Remember to keep food in the boot/trunk of the car to avoid attracting bears!

*Our “six hour” hike was the Mizzy Lake trail. It actually took us around four hours at a brisk pace, stopping for lunch and wildlife viewing.

Canadian Cottaging

9 Aug

After a hedonistic start to the weekend involving tequila, dancing and an ass contest in Toronto’s gay village, we were in dire need of some quiet cottaging.

Apologies to Canadians; us Brits can’t help but resort to seaside humour at the mention of your favourite summer pastime. Headlines like this are just plain titter-inducing. This probably isn’t news to you, but our definition of cottaging is a little…lewder than yours.

Chortling aside, we really did decide to escape the city over the long public holiday weekend, heading to Parry Sound – just three hours north of Toronto (the ass contest bit also really happened…but that’s another story).

The 30,000 Islands – for which Parry Sound is the jumping off point – were beautiful. Cruising around them on the Island Queen’s four hour afternoon wilderness tour was the ideal way to escape the 37 degree heat and see areas that are only accessible by water.

But we couldn’t help but observe that many of the “cottages” were rather grand, often with their own boat dock, a yacht or speed boat, or at the very least several jet skis and canoes.

Here’s an example of one such “cottage”:

Canadian cottage

A Canadian “cottage”

And here’s a typical English cottage, with thanks to www.cottagehomedecorating.com:

English cottage

A typical English cottage

I’d be pretty chuffed if a friend invited me to their out-of-town cottage if it turned out to be on a private island:

Parry_Sound island cottage

One of the many private islands we passed

On our second day, we took out some sea kayaks and battled against seriously choppy waters, passing hot stony ledges that we swore were buzzing with the sound of Massasauga rattlesnakes, to reach a deserted strip of white sand and sunbleached rock on Franklin Island. The water was crystal clear – what a stunning place. I just wish I’d bought a waterproof bag so I could’ve taken my camera.

Definitely somewhere that warrants a return visit – hopefully in a tent – once all our camping equipment arrives from the UK.

John Howson

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