Sunday, 1 October 2017

Canada - February 2017

Back in February I headed back to Canada for the fifth time to see Nicole and Tony's wedding. After a few months of having a brief draft of the trip ready to write up, I decided it was time to get back into the swing of writing again with NaNoWriMo coming up, as well as a few big trips abroad, including another Canadian wedding, so a touch belatedly, here we go again.

I actually landed on the 31st of January (pedant alert) and actually had the most pleasant experience I've ever had at Canadian Customs. The last words the official said to me were "enjoy the wedding" - a big change from previous visits. Thanks to the fabulous Union Pearson Express I also managed to get downtown quicker and much cheaper than the previous trip and the taxi debacle. I was checked into the hotel late afternoon and headed upstairs for a lie down...

Rather stupidly, some might say, I'd decided to ignore the inevitable jet lag and had bought a ticket to watch the Toronto Raptors play a home game against the New Orleans Pelicans in the NBA. It was mainly a chance to tick a new sport/league off and I headed to the very back of the Air Canada Centre to get my standing room spot (basically a small walkway with a rail to lean on) and take in the game. I also stumbled upon a craft beer stand on the lower level which saved me from drinking Molson...



The game had been marketed as a special one for Chinese New Year, with various things going on around that. There were quite a few Chinese at the game as well, seemingly a lot of them were at their first game as well and didn't seem used to being in a stadium/arena.  It would be interesting to know how many have been back since. The start time had been brought forward half an hour as well, which also showed when loads of people started piling in at the original time.

The game itself was difficult to follow, although the increasing tiredness may well have had something to do with that. The end to end nature of the game was extremely quick paced and the turnover of possession was at lightning speed a lot of the time. There also seems to be no advantage rule, every foul saw the game stop, even if players had possession in dangerous territory. The atmosphere was aided by a DJ in the middle of the stand behind one end (no, really), cheerleaders and some blokes walking around into each block encouraging people to start the generic chanting.



The arena hosts both ice hockey (more of that later on) and basketball, so the arena's layout changes for each sport, mainly down on the lower tier. Extra courtside seats, which are basically folding seats, are added in for players, coaching staff and celebrity fans. The game itself was an exciting affair, with Toronto pulling level late on in normal time and then winning 108-106, the winning points coming with 4.3 seconds left of overtime. An enjoyable experience, although I was completely lost by the end of it.

The following day started with a gentle walk about the Eaton Centre before heading towards the Harbour Front for a walk through the snow. This was my first experience of Canada in the winter and, by god, it was cold, particularly in the evening. After a bit more of a wander and a look in a few sports shops, I settled in Real Sports Bar and Grill for food and a couple of beers. A superb place that I always make sure I visit whenever I'm in town.

The photo from this time around doesn't do the place justice. Their gallery will give you a better idea - or just go!

From there I jumped on the Go Train to BMO Field, home of local MLS side Toronto FC. It has been expanded since I last visited, so I had a wander around the outside to check out the impressive new stand. The ground itself was built on the site of the old baseball stadium, Exhibition Stadium. In the car park there are stone plaques marking the positions of the plates, although home plate had been removed for repair. Very interesting for a ground nerd like me, though. Next door to BMO Field is the Ricoh Arena, where the Toronto Marlies, the AHL affiliate side of the Toronto Maple Leafs play their home games.



From there I walked across to Fort York, a National Historic Site. After a quick wander around the bits you could get to without paying to get in (I only got there with about 40 minutes left before they closed) I set off walking again to Lamport Stadium, where the Toronto Wolfpack rugby league side where making their home. I can't see them being able to play there if they ever get to Super League, but then again I also can't see where else they could actually, realistically play.



Walking was definitely the activity of the day, as I set off on another leg stretch into the Trinity-Bellwoods area of town. The first stop off was a brief wander through Trinity Bellwoods Park and then onto the main reason for me being out in this part of town - Bellwoods Brewery.


It was a pity that I could only hang around for a couple. A small, quiet, laid back little bar with a large range of different beers on. Their signature Jelly King was a lovely drop and I would have liked to have tried a couple of the other variations of it, but food plans were getting the better of me. After trying a couple of different beers I walked back towards BMO Field and got the Go Train back to Union Station.


The original plan was to head out to a curry house that was recommended years ago and I've still not made it out to. But by the time I got back downtown I was starting to feel more than a little tired and rough, so I headed into the Eaton Centre and grabbed an Indian from the food court. It was decent, saved me a trip out on the streetcar and I headed back to get my weary head down.

The next day started with breakfast back in the Eaton Centre, followed by my standing outside the entrance to the Hockey Hall of Fame waiting for it to open. I've talked about this place before in previous Canada write-ups, so there's no need for me to do it again here. I spent a good couple of hours wandering around looking at the various exhibits, with the main focus as always being the Stanley Cup. Maybe one day I'll be able to stand next to it after the Leafs have won it again?


The next place I was visiting was a first time visit to the St. Lawrence Market. A myriad of different food stalls with other craft and souvenir places dotted throughout. The sights and smells were wonderful, although I was a bit surprised that the biggest queue was for fish and chips... I settled for a peameal bacon butty and a box of fabulous brownies. Yes, I was a pig! There was quite a bit more walking to make up for it though, as I headed down through the magnificent Distillery Historic District where I spent an hour or so sampling a few wares at Mill Street Brewery. A cracking line up of beers were on offer, although they didn't advertise percentages for their seasonal beers... One or two caught me out with their strength!


From there it was back out into the cold and yet another walk to the railway museum at Roundhouse Park. As well as looking round at their displays, I also ended up chatting to a fella who'd moved to Toronto around 50 years ago... From Preston! He was completely gobsmacked by the fact that he was talking to someone who was over from his old hometown.

From there I crossed the road and walked past the outside of the CN Tower and then round the outside of Rogers Stadium before resting my legs inside the good old Steam Whistle Brewery for a couple of drinks. After that it was back to the hotel for a rest before the next bit of sport.

My first port of call that evening was the old site of Arena Gardens, which was the first ever arena used by the Toronto Maple Leafs (then called the Toronto Arenas) - opening in 1917. I then carried on up the road for a bit and re-visited Maple Leaf Gardens (the previous, famous old home of the Leafs until 1993), only on this trip I was heading up to the Mattamy Athletics Centre in the roof of the old building to watch a local university ice hockey side, the Ryerson Rams, play a home game. Basically because it's as close as I'm ever going to get to seeing hockey at Maple Leaf Gardens. It was a good night and a good game with the home side running riot. After that I had a wander to Nathan Phillips Square to see the Toronto sign lit up at night, before trudging back in the -7 degree cold to get back to the hotel.



Friday saw my last few hours of staying in Toronto, so after a monster breakfast at Fran's on a recommendation, I headed up to Casa Loma on the subway to have a quick nosey around. It's a lovely old building and it would have been nice to have gone inside, but time was against me, so it was eventually back downtown before heading to St. Paul's Catholic Cathedral and then getting the streetcar back to take in the excellent Amsterdam Brewhouse down by the Front. A few beers were sampled in there alongside a good chat with one of the bat staff about all things beer related before I collected my things from the hotel and boarded the Go Train to Burlington from Union Station.


After meeting up with Nicole and Tony, it was back into St. Catharines and food and drink at the Lazy Lizard before heading home for the night. Saturday saw a real lazy day and Sunday I ended up in Chip 'n' Charlie's bar in Niagara Falls for the Super Bowl (no idea what was going on) before a quiet night at Nic's uncle Bobby's turned into a bloody late finish... It was no surprise, then, that Monday also turned into a day of doing absolutely diddly squat.



Tuesday actually saw me leave the house with all traces of jet lag finally gone. So it was off to the Flying Saucer for a spot of dinner joined by Nic's brother Alan and Theresa and her husband Martin. And my word, is it good. Saucer fries... Just try them if you're ever there, trust me. After Nic did some running around for the wedding and a quick visit to Theresa's house it was back to Nic's for a few beers with her and Tony.

The next day saw the obligatory trip to the Falls themselves. I was on my own for a few hours and with it being out of season, it was nice and quiet with a chance to wander round and take everything in without thousands of tourists getting in the way. I crossed over to the American side for a bit, but as most of it was shut and the temperature was getting towards -10 I decided to go back to Canada and warm up in the fairly new Niagara Brewing Co. - which was a very good idea. The beer was spot on, including an ice wine beer which is one of the best I've ever tasted. The two girls serving were extremely friendly and knowledgeable making it a very nice hour or so in there. After grabbing a burger at Wendy's and having a last wander round I met Tony when he'd finished work and we headed back to St. Catharines, where, as there was now a house full of kids, I moved into the Capri Inn for a couple of nights.



The next day started off quite lazy, with a walk up to Montebello Park and back from the hotel and taking the opportunity to try a Bacon Big Mac, purely for the novelty. Later on I wandered back into St. Catharines and, after a quick walk round, got the bus back into Toronto to finally watch the Leafs play. I was stood in the same spot that I did for the Raptors game to watch them take on the St. Louis Blues, ticking the NHL off the leagues list meaning the only major North American league I've not seen a game in now is the NFL.

The game itself started off poorly for the Leafs, but they came back into it and should have won. Instead, 20 seconds into overtime, the Blues won it and I trudged back through Toronto to get the coach back to St. Catharines. It was a late night, but it was worth it, despite the result. I fully enjoyed it and enjoyed the whole experience a lot better than I did for the Raptors game. Knowing the sport in question probably helped with that, though.





The next day I dragged my tired and groggy self back to Nic's house before the drive to Niagara on the Lake, where the wedding was taking place. I was staying at the Best Western, but the wedding itself was at the Pillar and Post. After settling in with a drink at my hotel, I walked across and met Nic for a couple more and the rehearsal. After that, we went for something to eat at the Olde Angel, a British themed pub in NOTL. From there it was back to the hotel, a few presents were dished out and I eventually got back to my own bed for the night.



The wedding wasn't until the afternoon, so after getting up I went for a walk through the snow, taking in the local golf club (you wouldn't have known it was a golf club thanks to the snow), Lake Ontario, a monument to the Battle of Fort George and, after a failed attempt to find what Google Maps had labelled Mississauga Beach, back to the main town, through Simcoe Park to Queens Landing and a spot on the harbour looking across to the USA. After all that I needed food and beer, so I headed back to the Olde Angel for a few halves before the wedding itself.




Not a lot I can say about the wedding itself. I managed to survive doing a reading and the service itself was a lovely, quiet affair and it was really just ace to see Nicole happy. The night descended into the usual with me waking up the next morning with an unfinished beer in the room!

It's safe to say I didn't feel my brightest on Sunday. When checking out of the hotel one of the women on reception saw my name and started going on about Reg from Coronation Street. I just smiled and went along with it... I then attempted to drag a suitcase with a broken wheel through a few inches of snow in the rain... It wasn't going well, until a couple pulled up and asked if I needed a lift. Back home you'd have had people laughing at you as they drove past... I got back to the Pillar and Post in one piece and joined a few others for brunch. There were a few sore heads to say the least. Nic and Tony were staying at the hotel for a few days, so I said my final goodbyes to them and Dave (Tony's best man) and his wife Natalie ran me back to St. Catharines. The day ended with me in front of the telly doing nothing with a pizza...

And so began my last day in Canada. After clearing up quite a bit of poo thanks to an upset dog (I'll let him off though, because I just love him) I spent the last few hours in St. Catharines sat round with Bayleigh and her boyfriend Dryden, with Theresa popping in to say bye as well. Eventually the Airbus came and took me back to the airport, where a bit of duty free shopping and the odd beer killed the time before I flew back to Manchester.

As always it was a top trip and it was good to see so many friends again. After promising I wouldn't leave it as long again before coming back, I didn't quite realise I'd be back in May 2018... Before you know it the next adventure will begin.

The full set of photos can be seen here.

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