Travel parallels life. Due to the obvious fact that it is life. Yet, despite often idealized holiday expectations, things still happen. Having previously landed in a foreign hospital myself, I can attest to this wholeheartedly. Life is art and stranger than fiction. Hence, let us begin with a disclaimer. For the sake of this ambling tale, any resemblance to people either real or imagined is strictly coincidental. (*Also, my husband's name has been changed to protect his identity.)
Ready, set, GO. Let the NoNSEnSe begin.
Welcome to my September holiday review of a Canadian road trip from Toronto to Ottawa, Mont-Tremblant, Quebec City, Baie-Saint-Paul and Montreal, with a few other stops in between.
Toronto, that lively, self loving centre of the universe, was the first landing of our tour; initiating us quickly back into city life after sleepy Salt Spring Island. Taking the bus from the airport at yes, 2 a.m., due to delayed flights, was a peak back inside a life I no longer lead. The mere fact that there still was a bus running, never mind full, was a fun re-awakening into nocturnal options. Amidst young people heading to the next party, (it was Thursday night after all,) and costumed eccentrics including bag lady vendors travelling with their caravan of shopping carts onto the bus, the driver seemed unaffected.
Other delights, besides the joy of reconnecting with friends and family across the country, included the cheap and delicious fish tacos, the most terrific north Indian food, and the surprising fact that Toronto is in fact cheap! Cheap gas, cheap eats, cheap coffee, even public transit. Cheap. At least compared to BC. We are also lucky to know talented artist friends that took us to arts festivals, dance shows including the inventive Peggy Baker Dance Projects, TIFF events, and an evening punctuated by an all female Mariachi band from NYC, inspiring us as dancing fools under a convenient and spectacular full moon. No doubt about it, it was thrilling to be back in the hub of humanity.
I was filling up with culture, art, stimulation, OPTIONS, colour, flavours, friends, diversity---and realizing how much I miss and need the stimulation of the city and people, to balance the solitude of rural living.
Next up, Ottawa was our first exposure on the trip to a fully bilingual city, steeped in french, lively to the ear. Just walking down the street hearing the music of various accents mingling, blended with interchanging languages, is enchanting. This is always a favourite part of travel for me, the multicultural aspect. Human diversity and similarity.
Canada's peace tower, striking as the central axis of the Canadian Parliament buildings, is a bell and clock tower. It's majesty brought a deep sense of rarely felt patriotic pride swelling into my awareness. My heart filled with the beautiful warm September weather, pretty gardens and joy of mischievous gargoyles throughout the architecture; was suddenly transported to a harsh reality housed within.
The peace tower conceals a beautifully rendered memorial to fallen soldiers. It was disturbing and humbling to witness the sobering documentation of page after page of soldiers names. Thousands upon thousands of soldiers. Written beautifully, painstakingly. Ghost names scribed into gilded pages.
Lost souls of too many wars; WWI, WWII, Afghanistan, the Korean war....these books honour their official sacrifice.
A political town, overhearing lawyers briefing over dinner, attending a session of Parliament debating in the house; one realizes how far removed one is from influencing anything; yet how essential it is that we hold influence where we can. Voting. Writing. Petitions. Rallies. I believe this is how travel serves a sometimes loftier benefit and purpose of providing individuals expanded insight, education and when truly lucky, even awakenings and epiphanies. Befriending strangers too, are all worthy events to be celebrated.
Mont-Tremblant brought us just such a lovely surprise, awaiting us at the log cabin we booked. It was no easy feat to find at night, in the inky country blackness. Initially, intimidating barks by a sizable standard poodle and his schnauzer amigo, bellowed through the crisp night air.
The vendor was out. I was cold.
'Was this even the right place?' we wondered.
*'Larry' pushed boldly forward through the door to investigate, ignoring these two 'guard dogs', who quickly turned into welcoming mushy love gluttons. These two furry knuckleheads, Zorro and Naples, became our fast friends and soothed the jangled nerves of city dwelling and provided the requisite grounding and love that only animals can. (Any respectable pet owner understands of what I speak and pines on vacation, far away from their beloved.)
The next day saw a hike up the back hill with these enthusiastic and loving companions, a delightful vigorous hour with Zorro and Naples bounding ahead, to begin the day before another long drive. This air b and b, is worth the trip off the beaten path! (www.Rivkahrachel.com) Mont-Tremblant is lovely countryside any time of year, not just for it's celebrated ski season. Kai, a young German guest sharing our lodging was another reminder of the happenstance encounters that can serve to expand your world view and remind you to push past the parameters of your living room netflix menu.
Quebec City itself was our mutual favourite spot. It was lovely, charmed and historically interesting. The art galleries were impressive. The miles walked revealed layers of life, love, art, cuisine, and history. Food was plentiful. Our lodging was fantastic staying in old Quebec at a former nunnery, the first home for wayward girls in the late 1700's, the classic french design lent terrific European essence to savouring the day, the meal, your life and your coffee. Another successful air b and b, compliments of our fantastic host, Francine!
Quebec city appreciates artists; appreciates art. We attended so many art openings throughout the 3 week tour, several were happy walk by accidents. This trip lit up the thrill of city living again and got this gal out of the forest back into the concrete jungle, soaking up the inspiration of Quebec art legends, language and libations. We even lucked out on the festival de cinema, which had street screenings going all day long! A terrific place to rest your feet and fill your creative spirit.
Driving through the Charlevoix region, was perhaps the quaintest and most fullfilling day we had, complete with picturesque hilly vistas leading to Baie-Saint-Paul, another enchanting town on the St Lawrence. Full of art, joie de vivre, friendly gallery curators and artists, and wonderful bistros, Baie-St-Paul was in mid swing of a local artists festival as well. Quebec in general feels subjectively as though it supports its artists and culture better than other areas in Canada or at least celebrates them with more verve.
Montreal, a worthy world class destination; full of life; music, art, food and various cultures—didn't exactly welcome us with open arms, but rather the spit of a troubled vagrant, as we took our first steps onto city streets.
'Larry' was completely thrown off by his erroneous GPS and failed to listen to common sense and his wife's extraordinary inner compass. This resulted in the usual aches and pains locating our accommodation on a busy city street, struggling for change at the parking meter. An air b and b secured in a 'central walking neighbourhood', (read downtown Sherbrooke St) became a bit of a 13th floor walk up nightmare, due to a broken elevator. Ouch.
After our initial city spitter greeted us, the next person to speak to us literally blurted out,
“Does this look infected?” This was then punctuated by showcasing his scars from a recent 'accident.' We reassured him things seemed to be healing fine.
"Larry” was now already hating my previously beloved Montreal. In fairness, his attitude wasn't the only thing that coloured the not so great 2 days here. The ABSOLUTE WORST restaurant meal of my entire life on our last evening, (YES, recommended by trip advisor no less,) in this usually celebrated culinary city, also greatly served to dissuade favour. (The WORST, I tell you.) 'Larry' swears there was a hacked app cross firing information on that mishap, but I say, trust your gut, not your technology. Montreal is such a great walking city, just stroll around and move toward what calls to you; do not become a heat seeking missile on a mission to some obscure site a la 'Larry' style. [Travel tip for "Dummies": Do not wait until you are 'hangry' to negotiate and find a restaurant.]
Along with lousy sleep due to construction on our apartment complex and almost being tackled returning from the loo at night, mistaken as an intruder by a half asleep Larry,-- all conspired to sabotage impressions of a usually awesome city.
A rookie move, we also mistimed the closed day for Musee des Beaux Art, looking longingly past street sculpture at the treasures denied us through locked doors. This disappointment was offset by one sweet Persian cafe, a hidden jewel in the otherwise murky long corridor of yet even more street construction on a cold, damp morning.
Old Montreal did lend some lovely boutique stores featuring local clothes and jewellery designers to which my creative fashion heart beat faster, as well as a slew of interesting small galleries along the oldest street in Montreal, Rue de St Paul.
Notre-Dame Basilica, the oldest catholic church in Montreal founded in 1642, the original wooden chapel now housed by the current impressive structure built in 1824-29, opened in 1830. Upon entering, the luminous blue vaulted beauty transfixes and transports you as though somehow you are swimming underwater in a teal sea of treasures. It served as a curious soothing balm to the spirit, both arresting and calming to the weary traveller, otherwise struggling with her short sojourn through this city.
The morning we left did bring sunshine, warmth and the redemptive graces of warm Montreal bagels, fresh out of the 24 hr/a day available oven. Accompanied by a perfect latte made by the industrial cafe next door, we began to finally imbibe the finer qualities of a complex city. This along with the contrasts and curiousities of a Hasidic Jewish neighbourhood lent much more interest to a city seemingly plagued by particularly bad construction this year (as reported by locals), much excellent graffiti, (apologies on limited photo documentation) and too many angry or numb looking faces. (That might of just been 'Larry').
Travelling through the province of Quebec at large, you will find there will be no shortage of rich food to indulge in; including french onion soup, warm baguettes, croissants, chocolat chaud, crepes, poutine, a tremendous emphasis on meat particularly pork,[ frightening to this current pescetarian,(wannabe vegan ]and of course wine flowing readily. poutine, for the random non-Canadian reading this, is a Quebec invention of french fries, covered in cheese curds, then topped with gravy. I would call it 'heart attack on a plate', but I can see how, Poutine, has more cachet! One does naturally query, 'what is the life expectancy in Quebec anyway, with all this meat, bacon and cheese?'
One of the most enjoyable meals we had on our journey was in Baie-Saint-Paul, at the Chez Bouquet Eco-bistro; along with the 2 hour lunch we savoured at the Musee national des beaux-arts du Quebec situated in the sprawling Plaines d'Abraham. (I am getting both hungry and nostalgic just writing this.) The french understand the way food was meant to be enjoyed; sensually!
Kingston’s prettiness was a pleasant surprise although admittedly arrived at accidentally, as a washroom break detour. It was a relief to get off the busy trans Canada expansive highway encroaching on landscapes and wildlife, demonstrated by the all too frequent heartbreaking road kill of coyotes, racoons, and various other unfortunate creatures. The tragic weight of human influence. The serious lack of recycling options on this trip was another disheartening concern along this continuum, although Ontario definitely out performed Quebec on this front.
Kingston, at the mouth of the impressive St Lawrence meeting the great lakes; was a very fitting lunch stop for us personally. Many moons ago, “Larry” had arrived in Canada as a young boy sailing down the St Lawrence after 7 days on the Atlantic ocean. We had a lovely lunch under a spectacular weeping willow, one of my all time favourite trees, as he reminisced about his journey immigrating to Canada. A familiar tale for many fellow Canadians. A brash group of young thug sea gulls also joined us for lunch, (it is unclear as to where they originated) squawking about and providing entertainment. This, along with the memory of the recent final tour of the Tragically HIP just weeks prior, lent an odd poignancy to our stroll down the Kingston streets. Another distinctly Canadian landmark moment to wind down our trip.
A short flight from Vancouver back to SSI was smooth and pretty, exposing the intense greens and blueness of the west coast. It's definitely a different world out here. I am deeply grateful for the vast and varied beauty and gifts of this entire nation. As a prairie person in my bones, I felt happy throughout our small eastern Canadian tour; lighter and a sense of being ''at home'' throughout Canada. Wide open spaces were found and savoured. This is a great nation! And I feel my Canadian pride deepened as a result of this 3 week dapple into other bits and bites.
On our first night back home; surrounded by abandoned suitcases and the laundry machine whirring; I turned to kiss “Larry” goodnight and lay my weary head to rest. I smiled the deeply felt smile of blissful, quiet, gratitude. And lo, an owl doth hoot, ushering me into peaceful slumber.
'Cause it remains a timeless truth; ' there just ain't no place like home.'
[Now, get out there and explore. Put your phones down first. Trip advisor be damned, there is much more to be gleaned with your inner compass and eyes wide open. Safe travels.]
Playfully yours, nh.