The other week I hopped on a plane over to Canada to see one of my closest friends and her family after a two year gap. I spent a fair chunk of the trip on my own due to Nicole working which, whilst not ideal when you've travelled a long way to see someone, at least gave me the chance to put my own plan together and get out and see and do things I normally wouldn't get the chance to.
I landed in Toronto mid afternoon and faced the usual friendly welcome from Canadian customs. Considering all the stereotypes, mainly true, of how polite they all are, you think border control would be less menacing. "What are you doing when here? How do you know these friends? What do you do for a living?" Still, I got through without the need for rubber gloves, picked my gear up and got an expensive taxi to the hotel. At least I'll be able to get a train next time...
After setting myself up in a swanky 4 star gaff and failing to get a conversation going with two young ladies I went out for a wander. Maple Leaf Gardens, former home of the Toronto Maple Leafs, was just around the corner. There's a university athletics centre in the roof and the rest is now a supermarket with recognition of the building's past around the place. Including centre ice marked in aisle 25. Canned goods, if you're making notes.
After that I had a mooch down to the Eaton Centre, grabbed a quick drink before I passed out and thought about buying something in the Blue Jays store before I realised I hadn't brought anything more than change out with me. So with jet lag and the lack of food catching up with me I headed off back to hotel before jumping on a streetcar out of the city centre.
The area I found myself in found a mixture of Canadian natives of varying backgrounds as well as immigrants going about their daily lives, side by side, without a care in the world. I loved it. Felt like home. One belting curry at Alok's recommendation later and all felt right with the world. A trip home with the same cultural melting pot and an encounter with a local piss-artist (non threatening, I hasten to add) and I was back at the hotel armed with breakfast and ready to turn in.
The next day started off quite leisurely in anticipation of the potential runaround ahead. I got the subway to Union, wandered around Maple Leaf Gardens and the station before mooching to Harbourfront. It was nice to wander around at my own pace, do my own thing and see things you don't normally get taken to as a tourist. After all, you're on your holidays, surely you want to see "x, y and z" instead...
But, from this moment on, I was playing tourist for a bit. Thanks to Nicole I'd got a cheap ticket for the Hockey Hall of Fame and a half price voucher for a "photo package" with the Stanley Cup. Why the hell not? I was second in line behind dad and two lads and, whilst they went straight to the immediate exhibits, I belted straight for the Great Hall. Previous experience counting in my favour...
I had a good ten minutes on my own in there with the Cup, having a good look at it and the other stuff in the hall, including the original bowl. Once the kids piled in and it got a bit noisy I headed back to the rest of the museum. It was a bit of a quick race around, I could come in and out all day and had other things to fit in before the evening train. So I headed on over to Roundhouse Park, by the CN Tower.
The two things to see here were Steam Whistle Brewing and the Toronto Railway Museum. After a good look at the old engines, station buildings and carriages outside on the park, I headed into the brewery for the half 11 tour.
It was a corker. I was trumped on distance travelled by a young couple from New Zealand and there were people from across the States, too. After an interesting hour and a couple of free beers it was back down to the bar, another freeman's, chatting with locals and a few more drinks before deciding being half cut at 1 (I hadn't eaten since breakfast) was a bad idea. So I headed out and into the museum next door. I'd recommend the tour to anyone, well worth it.
The railway museum building itself was small, but there are plans to expand after a long battle for being recognised as a legitimate organisation. Plenty of interesting stuff, the chance to drive a simulated train and the stuff outside meant the $5 was well worth it to help keep the place going. The history and heritage of the human race should be celebrated and preserved. Just a shame the miniature railway wasn't running. I had a good natter with the woman in there and then headed over towards the CN Tower and Rogers Centre (or Skydome, if you prefer) wondering what to do next.
After wandering into the base of the Tower and deciding against paying the asking price to head up, I stumbled on the ground tour for the Rogers Centre. Surprisingly, considering there was a game on that night, they were still doing tours. I booked myself on the next one, grabbed a hot dog, nosied around the shop and then headed back for the tour.
It was very enjoyable, seeing bits of the ground that were normally blocked off. The guide was a touch eccentric, but very knowledgeable and had family from the north of England. He knew the value of HP Sauce well!
From there I went back to the Hall of Fame for a final wander around before retrieving my bags from the hotel. Which turned into a harder slog than intended due to the ensuing thunderstorm that rattled the city. Eventually, piss wet through, I got into Real Sports Bar & Grill for food and a pint. After that it was onto the GO Train and off to Burlington.
There I met Nicole and Tony and we headed off to St. Catharines. It's always good to see her and even though it's usually only every couple of years or so, it's as though we've never been apart. A good couple of days followed, including a family barbeque which ended drunkenly in the early hours of the morning.
Of course, itchy feet got the better of me on Sunday, as well as the urge to groundhop. Which is why I found myself hopping on a bus then hiking through Niagara Falls to get to Niagara United and watch a bit of the Niagara Cup Classic tournament that was going on. Only it turns out it is a youth tournament and I was sat on the main pitch watching an under 15s girls' final. Still, it was football at a new ground and it was good to tick it off. It was also a walk through familiar territory. Some old haunts greeted me on the way down.
Monday saw me with a day to myself so, after negotiating an annoyingly late coach to Niagara Falls, I finally walked over Rainbow Bridge and crossed into the United States of America for the first time. Country number 16. This really did turn into a box ticking exercise, but it was good to do and I'll be heading back over again in the future. Niagara Falls State Park is lovely and it's nice that they've done their best to keep it more natural and scenic. Even the border guards were friendly and human. Take note, Canada!
After getting stuck behind a couple changing $US3,000 worth of cash, I eventually got some US Dollars of my own and wandered off into the park.
After a mooch around Goat Island and Terrapin Point, I headed down to the Cave of the Winds for a good old drenching. Back up onto the surface and it was now chucking it down, although it didn't take long to pass and I ended up relatively dry. A wander onto the observation deck later and, after just a few hours, I was ready to head back over.
Canadian Customs were at it again. When I said I was over visiting friends, after the questioning on how I knew them, I got a pearler.
"And did she not fancy walking out with you today?"
"Well, she would have loved to, but she's in work."
After all that I had a brief wander around the Canadian side of the Falls for old time's sake and then went for the coach back.
The next day was fairly lazy, which I needed. A lie in, finally working out the local transit buses and meeting Nicole at work for dinner were followed by a gentle walk around St. Catharines. And, having been introduced to the musical delights of The Trews by Nic, I had to go and have a mooch around Montebello Park.
The next day was a bit more adventurous. A long walk through St. Catharines, off the beaten track once more (not that there is a beaten track around there, they don't expect tourists to get to S.C.) taking in the railway station (nerd alert!) and Club Roma, where a dilapidated ground marked the home for St. Catharines Roma Wolves. Once of the Canadian Soccer League, they now just operate junior sides. Politics. It's a long story.
After a look at a baseball field next door it was off back into downtown St. Catharines, getting into a bar just before the rain came down. Not quite on the levels of the Toronto storm, but it was a good downpour.
After a nosebag and a couple of pints, it was back to meet Nic and later on we were off out for more food and drink in the familiar Celtic Club. Well, I say familiar, some parts of my last visit are a bit hazy to say the least. No such shenanigans this time and it was a pleasant last full evening in the company of good friends.
Not a lot to report after that. I had a final wander around St. Catharines, finally got into Preston Pies, did a spot of people watching in Montebello Park and had a look at the cathedral and armoury. Then it was spend a bit more time with everyone before the airbus whisked me away to YYZ. My usual routine at terminal 3 ruined by the ongoing building works. Still, time was killed easy enough and a smooth flight brought me back to the North West.
It's never good leaving close friends behind, especially when they're such a long way away, but there's something comforting about the familiarity of home. And knowing you're leaving them behind settled and happy helps as well. Here's to the next one.
Flickr set of photos: https://flic.kr/s/aHske918Ba