We spent a couple of weeks up north with several of our family members and friends in late September/early October last year. We stayed a couple of days in Boston visiting friends before embarking on a week-long Holland America cruise along the Canadian coast with chilly fall weather. After disembarking, we spent a few days in Montreal before flying back home. [Type “Montreal,” “Quebec,” and “Boston” in the search field of this blog to read more about these cities I visited in the past that we revisited on this trip.]

Boston Harbor

Boston Harbor

Here are some attractions from our trip worth seeing:

Bar Harbor, Maine

Bar Harbor, ME

Bar Harbor, ME

Our first port of call: Just as one would imagine a New England coastal town to be, Bar Harbor had charming seaside shops and restaurants lining the sloped roads of this artists’ enclave that was once an exclusive summer getaway for America’s wealthy. We browsed for a few hours and enjoyed homemade ice cream in the blustery cold weather – couldn’t resist. I picked up one of my now-favorite additions to tea: small-batch organic lavender sugar from Lily Belle Farm.  For those who like lobster – I don’t – lobster boat tours and bakes are popular. We didn’t have time to visit the famed Acadia National Park but walked along the beautiful coastline before taking a tender (boat) back to our cruise ship.

Halifax, Mahone Bay, and Historical Lunenburg – A Unesco World Heritage Site, Nova Scotia

Mahone Bay

Mahone Bay

This was the first of three Holland America excursions we took. As its brochure describes, “The craggy shores of the Lighthouse Route are dotted with picture perfect seaside villages, old captains’ mansions and working waterfronts.” A bus took us on a scenic drive through Nova Scotia from Halifax to Mahone Bay, flanked by waterfront churches and full of coastal charm like a postcard. It so happened that we were there during the Mahone Bay Scarecrow Festival, so residents and business owners had put up numerous scarecrows up and down the streets, representing various themes from the British royal family to more common people. From there, we continued on to Lunenburg, a town with a bustling fishing industry and known historically for its shipbuilding.  Our tour guide was the most eloquent and engaging we’ve ever had, and we’ve been on many tours around the world. Other sites worth visiting include Peggy’s Cove, Citadel Hill National Historic Site, and Maritime Museum of the Atlantic (where you can discover Halifax’s connection to the ill-fated voyage of Titanic).

Sydney, Nova Scotia: Baddeck

Baddeck

Baddeck

At the next port in Sydney, we took a panoramic drive through the historic North End. We enjoyed views of Boulanderie Island, Seal Island Bridge, Bras d’Or Channel, Kelly’s Mountain, and St. Ann’s Bay. The Trans-Canada Highway took us to the picturesque resort village of Baddeck on the shores of the Bras d’Or Lakes in the heart of Cape Breton Island, where puffins greeted us. Other attractions worthy of a visit in this Gaelic area famous for its fiddlers include Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site & Museum, Wentworth Park, Whitney Pier Museum, and Fortress of Louisbourg.

Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island: Anne of Green Gables

Green Gables

Green Gables

Canada’s smallest province, Prince Edward Island is the perfect setting for an island drive or horse-drawn trolley ride to see its red earth, white-sand beaches, PEI National Park, and lighthouses. We took a tour of Green Gables, the farmstead with wooded trails like Lovers Lane and scenery as idyllic as described in the classic books of Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. Some of the colors and landscape were so pristine, they looked artificial in a beautiful way. Nearby waves were crashing onto Cavendish Beach.

Quebec: Quebec City on Foot

Quebec City

Quebec City

My husband and I had visited Quebec City in the frigid winter, so it was nice to see it with fall colors. A French-inspired coastal city with both historic charm and modern elements, you’ll find cobblestone streets, a funicular taking you up and down the steep terrain lined with restaurants, outdoor cafes, shops, churches (including the breathtakingly gorgeous Cathedral-Basilica of Notre Dame), and more. We spent the day with my cousin’s family in this city along the St. Lawrence River.

Exploring Montreal

My husband and I had spent a day in Montreal a few years ago – enough time to browse shops, dine at a cafe, and get a feel for this French-style city. This time, we had a few more days to immerse ourselves, dine at restaurants like the classy and highly-rated Suite 701 in Old Montreal, and see more areas, including:

  • Biodome: Transformed from the former Olympic Park, where my parents attended the 1976 Olympics, this is now a huge complex of exhibits related to nature and science. We explored an indoor facility full of animals and plants divided into their own ecosystems, from tropical forest to polar climate.
  • Mount Royal Park: Overlooking the city, we walked several miles along the trails of Mt. Royal.
  • Voiles en Voiles: At the Old Port of Montreal, my little niece frolicked in a giant pirate ship obstacle course while we watched in amazement at how elaborate the theme park setup was.
view of Montreal from Mt. Royal

view of Montreal from Mt. Royal

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snow caves at Lake Erie

ice caves at Lake Erie, Ontario, Canada

I’ve traveled enough to Canada over the last few decades that I’ve seen various parts of it — mainly, the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia — in different seasons, mostly in summer and spring. This year in February, I finally experienced Canada during its historically coldest month — with my husband and our relatives. I had sworn I’d do it only once and was dreading the frigid temperatures before I even departed my much warmer hometown of Houston. (Highs were in the teens, and lows were just as far below 0 degrees Fahrenheit.) But because we were so very prepared with several layers of clothing from head to toe, plus hand warmers placed in strategic locations in our clothes, we fared much better than we had expected and are looking forward to more winter travel around the world to take advantage of the recreational activities and scenery only this season can offer.

Recreate our experience for an active, yet relaxing trip. (For a true vacation, don’t bring your work with you like I did.)

Ottawa

On our first full day in Canada’s capital, we watched some local figure skating champions skate on the Rink of Dreams in front of City Hall, then laced up our own ice skates on the crowded Rideau Canal Skateway in the middle of downtown. Ice skating was free, as it has been everywhere we’ve gone. Where they get you is the skate rental: $17 at Rideau Canal. Fortunately, I have my own skates; unfortunately, my husband doesn’t.

me skating Rideau Canal, Ottawa round-trip & more

me skating Rideau Canal, Ottawa round-trip & more

I skated back and forth on the canal, all the way to the dead end near downtown, while waiting for my husband to rent his skates. His two cousins were also with us. Then the four of us took off down the frozen canal — the world’s largest ice rink — heading toward the other end. A short distance later, the other three decided I should go on ahead because they were too slow. So I did. Skating the iced-over canal was the main reason I wanted to visit Ottawa in February. But I hadn’t planned to skate the entire canal, much less round trip! Before I knew it, I was so far along, I decided to tackle the 7.8-km route. Along the way, I saw kids being pulled on sleds, some people walking in regular shoes, and most people skating with proficiency. The route took me all the way around Dows Lake, then to the dead end at Carleton University, and back to the other end, for a 15.6-km round trip. Add to that the lengths I had skated at the beginning, and I skated a total of more than 18 km, or 12 miles in one afternoon. Long before the end, I was very hungry and without a dime to buy a snack at any of the booths along the way because I had left all my money with my husband. Breakfast was several hours earlier. By the end of my skate, I was exhausted and recharged with maple candy dipped in snow, then some poutine at Smoke’s Poutinerie.

We capped off the evening by viewing elaborate, award-winning ice sculptures after dark at Winterlude. Sitting around an outdoor fire pit, we had a dessert called beavertails — shaped like their namesake but made with flour and sprinkled with cinnamon. Several people brought their dogs out with them — the canines were cutely covered in their own winter jackets and boots.

We spent the next afternoon recovering in Monopolatte, a cafe in Chinatown that offers unlimited board game play all day long until an hour past midnight for a $5 cover charge. Food and drinks are sold separately.

We also bought a new pair of hockey skates for my husband at Canadian Tire — his first pair of ice skates and very affordable compared to U.S. prices.

Quebec City funicular

Quebec City funicular & shops

Monday morning, while adults were at work and kids were in school, my husband and I had two outdoor, natural ice rinks at Whalen Park all to ourselves. The previous night’s snowfall had left a layer of powder on the ice’s surface, making it rough. And trudging through slippery ice and snow surrounding the rinks was challenging. But skating in private was liberating and allowed me to try moves I had been hesitant to in public.

We ended the evening with sleigh rides (three of us taking turns pushing the others) between Dows Lake and Bronson on Rideau Canal. The heated chalet gave us a much-needed warm break with hot chocolate and another beavertail, this time covered with a chocolate-hazelnut spread.

Quebec City

We took the train VIA Rail Canada through Montreal to Quebec City. We had a room booked at the Hilton Quebec on the hill across from Parliament. Priceline.com gave us the ultra-cheap rate of $88/night — almost half price. For a Hilton! A beautiful, full-fledged, convention hotel. The third floor had an outdoor, heated pool, which was connected to the indoors, so people could swim in without getting out of the pool in the cold.

We headed out on foot to an arctic blast of air, as the temperature fell rapidly below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. There are only a few gates through which one can pass between the old city and new city, and we walked through one of them. Dinner was exquisite at Le Grand Cafe on Grande Alleé Est, where we had French onion soup, salmon tartar, and French-inspired entrees like roasted duck penne pasta. The street was decked out in Christmas lights and outdoor bars made of ice. We ended the night exploring the underground tunnels that led to other buildings around our hotel.

snow sculptures, Carnaval Quebec

snow sculptures, Carnaval Quebec

We spent the first half of the next day exploring the old town, stopping to gaze at the statue of the city’s founder, Samuel de Champlain. We had brunch at Cafe Buade, Quebec City’s oldest restaurant, then shopped the boutiques along that street, rue De Buade. We admired the elegant architecture of the buildings and the charming planters hanging from window sills that were covered in snow. We found ourselves on rue Sainte-Anne, a picturesque, cobblestone street with colorful bistros and shops. Every turn led us to another gorgeous view of the city. One of the more spectacular scenes was ice floating down the partially frozen St. Lawrence River. We skipped the funicular and instead took the Breakneck Staircase from the Chateau Frontenac to rue de Petit-Champlain, the oldest merchant street in North America. The cutest shops sold handcrafted wares, big-name bath & body brands like Cucina, and souvenirs with a heavy emphasis on all things Bonhomme, the clown-like snowman mascot of Carnaval Quebec. We stopped for afternoon dessert, tea, and coffee at La Maison Smith Boutique Gourmande in quartier Petit-Champlain.

We spent the late afternoon and evening at Carnaval Quebec, the annual winter carnival on the Plains of Abraham, across from our hotel. For $15/adult, you get admission to the carnival as many times as you want throughout the season — pretty good deal. Most of the rides and attractions are included: snow tubing, ice slide, tour of the ice palace, snow sculpture show, and beanbag toss game were all activities we participated in. We watched part of a youth ice hockey game and also took advantage of the refreshments tent and free chicken soup inside “Space D,” sponsored by the bank Desjardins to warm up. We had to pay an extra $10 for my husband to drive a dog sled of huskies once around the track, which took less than a couple of minutes.

my husband & me on ice slide, Carnaval Quebec

my husband & me on ice slide, Carnaval Quebec

We needed to defrost after about eight hours in the arctic air, so we opted for dinner at the hotel at Allegro, which served some local cuisine. We ordered two thin-crust pizzas: one with rose`e sauce, smoked salmon from Fumoir Grizzly in Saint-Augustin-De-Desmaures, and cream cheese; the other with creamy Paillot de che`vre goat cheese, prosciutto, rosemary, maple syrup, and pear.

Our final morning in Quebec City, we took a tour of Hotel de Glace (Ice Hotel) — a small hotel made entirely (literally, entirely) of ice and snow, newly constructed every year for the 3-month winter season, then torn down. Intricate sculptures and furniture made of ice can be found throughout the hotel, from the chandelier in the lobby to the telephone at the front desk. Each of the few dozen rooms has its own unique ice and snow art on the walls, carved into the ice furniture, and freestanding. An ice bar serves drinks in ice glasses. We slid down the 2-story ice slide. Guests staying overnight are encouraged to dance at the discotheque and take a hot bath in the outdoor spa before wrapping themselves in the cocoon-like bedding to sleep in their frozen rooms on a bed of ice. The only comfort is a mattress and pillows not made of ice. But night stands and sofas are solid ice. About 25 weddings are held each year in the ice chapel, with only a thin blanket laid across each ice pew. About 100,000 people, like us, pay to tour the facilities each season; a few thousand of them are brave enough to stay the night, which requires a safety briefing and training session.

Toronto

frozen harbor, Toronto

frozen harbor, Toronto

We’ve been to Toronto many times. This time we again focused on spending time with family, dining at the numerous restaurants offering a diverse mix of global cuisines, and seeing some of the attractions we hadn’t before, specifically the winter ones. We helped my niece pick out her first pair of ice skates and broke them in that evening at the outdoor rink at Nathan Phillips Square outside City Hall. Another afternoon was spent ice skating outdoors at Natrel Rink at Harbourfront Centre, near CN Tower.

Niagara Falls

We’ve seen Niagara Falls many times too, but never in the dead of winter. It was a spectacular sight to see the falls frozen over in large, cascading sheets of ice. We took the Behind the Falls tour, which offered views from behind the falls — some completely iced over, some boasting large icicles. A stroll along the rim of the falls gave us frozen hair, frozen clothing, and frozen handbags, as the mist from the falls formed ice droplets all over us. We revisited The Keg Steakhouse + Bar for dinner overlooking Niagara Falls.

Ridgeway

Our final day in Canada was spent trying out my uncle’s snow blower to plow through the excessive amounts of snow in front of his house on expansive acreage. And for a finale of a Canadian adventure, my uncle sent us into a mini blizzard of blowing snow at the ice caves along Lake Erie!

A fun, memorable vacation that whetted our appetite for Antarctica…

frozen Niagara Falls, Canadian side

frozen Niagara Falls, Canadian side

Hotel de Glace (Ice Hotel), Quebec City

Hotel de Glace (Ice Hotel), Quebec City

 

Canada

I just returned from a 2-week trip to visit relatives in different parts of Ontario, Canada and to take a side trip into the province of Quebec. My husband and I got to experience Canada’s Independence Day on July 1, before returning to the U.S. on July 4 to celebrate our Independence Day. I’ve been to Canada several times over the years, mainly to visit relatives and sightsee. Below are my suggestions for where to go and what to see in the cities I’ve visited, based on my experiences. And in the spirit of writing about Canada, I’ll even touch on Vancouver and Victoria in British Columbia, where I’ve traveled in the past.

Ontario

view of Niagara Falls from Maid of the Mist boat

view of Niagara Falls from Maid of the Mist boat

Ridgeway – Fort Erie – Niagara Falls
Flying into Buffalo, NY, renting a car, and driving across the border turned out to be the most cost-effective way for us to enter Canada. Sometimes the line can be long at the border checkpoint, but we lucked out and got behind only a few cars on the way to Canada and on the way back. We spent the first night with my uncle at his self-built country house in Ridgeway and did a driving tour of Fort Erie.

Dinner was at The Keg, a steakhouse overlooking Niagara Falls. The view of Horseshoe Falls (the larger falls on the Canada side) was incredible and surreal. A closer view is a must from the railing on the ground overlooking Horseshoe Falls, American Falls, and the smaller Bridal Veil Falls. For an even closer encounter, take a cruise on the Maid of the Mist, a boat that takes you right up to all three falls, where passengers on the deck get soaked by the mighty mist of the roaring water falls. The souvenir poncho provided by the boat company doesn’t cover every inch of your body, leaving your face and lower legs and feet exposed. Gift shops, an ice cream shop, and Table Rock House also kept us entertained on shore.

Hamilton

view of Hamilton and Lake Ontario from Sam Lawrence Park

view of Hamilton and Lake Ontario from Sam Lawrence Park

Visiting the former house of my late maternal grandmother, the home of one of my aunts, and my late uncle’s alma mater McMaster University were part of our itinerary in Hamilton, a small city of industry and beautiful views. For scenic nature excursions, visit the escarpment at Sam Lawrence Park, which overlooks Lake Ontario and the city of Burlington across the water. Also take a stroll through King’s Forest to see Albion Falls. Lunch at Williams Fresh Cafe comes with outdoor seating overlooking the lake and marina.

Toronto
One of my cousins and his adorable daughter played host to us in Canada’s most populous city. Toronto boasts a seemingly endless array of restaurants, shops, and other businesses on almost every downtown street. From Little Italy to Chinatowns (yes, plural) to Koreatown to Little Tibet to Greektown, you can travel the culinary world and pick up accessories, clothing, and home decor along the way. Enjoy dim sum at Casa Imperial, a Chinese restaurant in a Victorian-style mansion, where the waitresses dress in French maid outfits. For a view from above, dine at CN Tower‘s revolving restaurant.

Eaton Centre, a downtown mall now famous for a recent deadly shooting, is also known for its global-cuisine food court in the basement of the multi-level shoppers’ paradise. For a multi-cultural culinary tour, try Moroccan stew with tofu and black & brown rice, Thai green curry beef, and a Mediterranean salad plate. Head upstairs for an Orange Julius or bubble tea drink.

From Eaton Centre, you can head into The Path, an underground world of tunnels connecting more restaurants, shops, and businesses like hotels and office buildings throughout a large area of downtown. We also took the subway and walked for hours around the city, seeing diverse neighborhoods, from Queen West to Queen West West West, up and down Bloor Street, through the colorful “Gay Ghetto,” and many kilometers in between. Conveniently located bike rentals peppered throughout downtown are an affordable alternative mode of transportation.

For a break from the hustle and bustle, step into the serene greenhouse of Allan Conservatory, admire the grand and varied architecture on the campus of University of Toronto, or learn some new things inside the Ontario Science Centre.

Mississauga – Scarborough – Markham

Moira River, Belleville

Moira River, Belleville

Some of the best Chinese food can be found in these cities surrounding Toronto. Tasty Cantonese fare abound in Mississauga and Scarborough. Feast on dumplings and xiao long bao at the famous Ding Tai Fung in Markham. Get lost in Pacific Mall, also in Markham, where you can find an extensive food court and shops selling everything from music and qi pao to toys and teas. It’s where I found (and bargained) my Chinese-style gown for my wedding reception several years ago. Our visit coincided with the weekend-long Taste of Asia food, vendor, and performing arts festival. Stinky tofu, lamb skewers, and spicy, cold noodles were some of my favorites.

Belleville
Another of my cousins and cousin-in-law live in the charming city of Belleville, which is on the way from Toronto to Kingston. The Moira River runs through quiet neighborhoods and downtown. We enjoyed dinner at a Thai restaurant and an evening stroll by old houses with unique architecture.

near Fort Henry, Kingston, Ontario

near Fort Henry, Kingston, Ontario

Kingston

A picturesque college town on Lake Ontario, Kingston is home to Queen’s University, where one of my husband’s cousins works and attends graduate school. The Princess Street area is a shopper and diner’s heaven, with gourmet pizzas of unique flavors at Woodenheads and homemade chocolate maple ice cream. Step back in time at Fort Henry, a commanding limestone fortification used after the War of 1812 by the British to protect Canada against an American invasion. Now it’s a tourist attraction with a 10,000-sq. ft., interactive Discovery Centre and a sunset closing ceremony complete with a canon firing, lowering of the flag, and soldiers’ marching in formation. You can walk through the rooms of the 2-level fort to see where the soldiers slept, ate, and trained. Items from that era, including weapons and uniforms, are on display.

Ottawa
Canada’s capital city has both modern structures and old buildings that tell the story of the country’s history. The Parliament Buildings in Ottawa are open for tours, but inside tours are hard to come by, especially during peak holiday weekends, when tours are quickly booked by groups. Still, you can see Parliament Hill from just about every angle — by walking its grounds or cruising the adjacent Ottawa River on Paul’s Boat Lines. Choose the departure from Hull Dock at Jacques Cartier Park to get a longer cruise for the same price. The narrated boat tour also takes you by the statue of explorer Samuel de Champlain holding an astrolabe upside down (the artist’s mistake), Museum of Civilization (where you can spend hours viewing all the different sections which could each stand alone as a single museum – art, religion, children, postal, famous Canadians, settlers), Justice and Confederation Buildings, National Gallery of Canada, Supreme Court of Canada, Royal Canadian Mint, Residence of the Prime Minister, Rideau Falls, Rockcliffe Park, several embassies (including American, Japanese), and the famous Chateau Laurier hotel (a popular wedding venue because of its ornate design).

water display on Canada Day at Parliament, Ottawa, Ontario

water display on Canada Day at Parliament, Ottawa, Ontario

The Alexandria Bridge takes vehicles and pedestrians between Ottawa and the Quebec province. It’s an easy route to take to experience Canada Day (July 1) from both sides. Food and souvenir vendors, face painters, street artists, and buskers performing different acts and stunts line the streets and lawns. Parliament turns into a backdrop for a concert stage by day and fireworks show by night. This year a powerful marketing campaign debuted on bodies of water in several Canadian cities, Ottawa included. An image of the Canadian flag shone almost eerily above the Ottawa River on a fountain spraying up from the water in a 3D/holographic show. The effect was like a spotlight projecting the image onto rapidly moving water (as pictured). After the 10 p.m. fireworks show with no music, the crowd sitting on the hill outside the Museum of Civilization suddenly heard intense music and the rumbling of a car zooming around a lighthouse projected onto the same water fountain that previously showed the Canadian flag. The car appeared to be driving on water and plunging freely into and out of the water. The captivating motion picture ended with a reveal that it was the 2013 Nissan Altima. I don’t think any of us spectators will ever forget that commercial.

Rideau Canal, Ottawa, Ontario

Rideau Canal, Ottawa, Ontario

Walk through downtown Ottawa, bike along scenic Rideau Canal, and rent a canoe, paddleboat, or kayak at Gatineau Park. Find locally grown produce, buy an Obama cookie (made famous when the U.S. President bought one at the bakery Le Moulin de Provence), and have a meal indoors or out, all in the busy Byward Market. Explore the East End, one of North America’s biggest Ikea stores in the Kanata area, and Chinatown and Little Italy. Come back in the winter to skate an iced-over Rideau Canal and try the Nordik Spa (which will relax and freeze you all in the same day).

Don’t leave Canada without trying the iced cappuccino at Tim Horton’s or poutine (french fries with gravy).

Quebec

Montreal

architecture in Montreal

architecture in Montreal

You’ll feel like you’ve entered another country when you arrive in Montreal, a few hours’ drive from Ottawa and where French is the dominant written and spoken language. It’s good I’m multilingual, can figure out new languages quickly, sang French operas, and danced ballet (all steps are spoken in French). The subway can get you around the city, but it’s old and slightly trashed. The streets are a bit tattered and dirty, making this one of our least favorite cities. But we enjoyed crepes and shopping the French boutiques along St. Denis, St. Laurent, St. Catherine streets near the center of town. Chinatown — with wide streets for pedestrians only and inviting bakeries, cafes, and retail stores — is definitely worth a visit. There were as many non-Asians as there were Asians wandering through its blocks.

British Columbia

Vancouver – Victoria
Some people say Vancouver has the best Chinese (specifically, Cantonese) food in the world, even surpassing Hong Kong. I’m sure some folks in my parents’ Eastern homeland would argue with that, but either way, you can bank on satisfying your taste buds on this side of the world. I have an aunt and more cousins in this Western Canadian city.

I went to British Columbia in 2000, sailing to Victoria Island, seeing The Empress Hotel, Queen Victoria statue, and Royal British Columbia Museum. The most beautiful part of the trip was spending time in Butchart Gardens, with colorful flowers of every kind. Afternoon tea made the day even more delectable.

The Spirit of Vancouver Island took us by water to Vancouver, where we rode a gondola up the mountain at Whistler/Blackcomb Resort and watched skiers go by.

Whistler Blackcomb, Vancouver, B.C.

Whistler Blackcomb, Vancouver, B.C.

Overall, Canada is a laid-back country, where people are friendly and take it easy. I was very pleasantly surprised that on Canada Day, despite the crowds, no one was pushing, shoving, or jockeying for a good position to view the festivities. In certain other countries I’ve been, people rush to try to get ahead or even cut in line. For a relaxing, low-key vacation, Canada is a good destination.