Friday, September 28, 2007

Our Niagara Falls-Hamilton-Toronto Trip, Part II

Part II: The Canadian Segment, Measured In Centimetres
(long; here's Part I)

Sunday, September 9: Towel Off, Eh?

We didn't get ready in time for the 9 AM Mass at St. Mary of the Cataract, which ironically is right next to the casino. That's where many of my family members went for Mass before the reception. Fortunately, as I was taking my walk the day before, I saw a few other churches, including St. Joseph's in downtown Niagara Falls where we went for 10 AM Mass.

It was an ornate church with an icon of St. Padre Pio and several of St. Joseph, both as husband of Mary and as the patron saint of workers. I appreciated the fact that the Mass stuck to old hymns and eschewed the Oregon Catholic Press/GIA modern bunk. What was disappointing, however, was the amount of talking going on before Mass, as well as what appeared to be a mother and her daughter talking through the entire liturgy. That's disrespectful of the Blessed Sacrament and probably also a violation of the GIRM. If I had been in a more peaceful state of mind, I'd have said something to them. I do plan to e-mail the pastor; he shouldn't be allowing this to happen. (UPDATE: I did so, but have received no response as of yet. I'm not holding my breath.)

Returning to the hotel, we packed up so that we could check out by noon. Then we decided to have brunch at the Denny's we had gone to the day before. I'm sure the Meat Lovers' Scramble wasn't all that good for me, but it sure was good! LC had a similar scramble.

Many of our family members had visited the falls on Thursday and Friday (my uncle, upon seeing the mist from the Falls, said they were on fire!), so we were pleased to find out that my older brother (Bigbro) and his wife and kids (four of our five nieceseses) wanted to ride the Maid of the Mist that afternoon. You don't need reservations for MotM, and the lines are shorter on the American side (accessible from Goat Island). The journey isn't that long, but it's worth it.

First, you get views of the falls that you can't get from standing above them. Then, you get wet. Nice and wet. You get souvenir ponchos, but be forewarned; they don't cover the lower parts of your arms or legs. And just when it seems you can't get any closer to Horseshoe Falls, you do, and the real soakage begins, along with the noise.

Then all too soon, it's over, and you head back to the dock, wondering whether your digital camera survived the liquid assault and wringing the water from your sleeves and the lower part of your pants.

And maybe the second most interesting sight: the girl in her booth on the upper deck reading a book. Oh, well, I guess once you’ve been on a few hundred of these, there’s not much more to see. The falls, the gawking and sodden tourists, the spray, yada yada yada.

(I now return you to your regularly scheduled first-person point of view. :-))

After that, we spent some time gazing off the observation deck and climbing up the side of the American Falls. Then we went through the Obligatory Gift Shop and parted ways with Bigbro, his wife, and his four future wedding receptions; they were flying back the next day. We, however, were just starting our journey.

We swung the Cobalt onto the nearby Rainbow Bridge (alas, no rainbow because there was no sun) and paid the 75-cent toll. Then we showed our passports to the border guard who asked us where we were going and why, and whether we had anything to declare. He then waved us through.

For my first time in nearly 20 years, and LC's first time ever, we were in another country. Coo-roo-coo-coo-coo-coo-coo-cooooooo!

We made the obligatory stop to convert some of our money into Canadian currency, and got introduced to the "loonie" (the dollar coin with a loon on one side) and the "toonie" (the two-dollar coin which is really a composite of two coins). Dollar coins really make more sense (pun not intended); I hope we can come up with better ones in the U.S. than the Susan B. Anthony "quarter" and the Sacajawea. The exchange rate at this time was almost one for one.

First thing to do when driving in Canada (or is that "Canadia"?); convert MPH to KPH (kilometers per hour). Fortunately, the speedometer had KPH on the dial. So does the Cygmobile, for that matter. Later on, we would have to get used to forecasted high temperatures in the teens and twenties.

On the drive along the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) from Niagara Falls to Hamilton, we saw several defense (that's "defence" to you Canadians) radio tower arrays; a ship washed up on the shore of Lake Ontario, and what appeared at first to be an antiques outlet store, which seemed to be a contradiction in terms! It was an outlet store that also sold antiques. Also, we saw many Canadian flags flying proudly. (I know, that number again is 1-800-WELL-DUH!)

We found the Holiday Inn Express in Hamilton (technically, Stoney Creek) rather easily as it was located right off the QEW. To get to it, though, we had to negotiate business parking lots full of speed bumps, which I eventually took to slaloming around. Our room overlooked a lovely trash hauler company. We changed clothes and then headed off to East Side Mario's just up Centennial Parkway.

Entering the restaurant, we looked around for our dining companion, and were just about to put our names on a waiting list . . . when she saw us. She came running up and gave me a huge hug and a *chooms* on the cheek, and then she did the same to LC.

A fellow fan of the CBS show The Amazing Race, Seana (pronounced see-ANN-na) has talked online and by phone with me for a couple years, and I knew I wanted us to meet her if we had the chance. LC and I wound up sitting and talking with her at the restaurant for over *4* hours, as if we'd been old friends. And we talked about everything and anything. What a charming lady. She only had dessert while we had dinner. Now I feel fat.

Oh, before we parted ways, Seana gave us a list of possible activities as well as some Canadian Tire money (click to enlarge). She pulled out a huge wad and produced 35 cents worth, which I still have in my wallet. We never did make it to a Canadian Tire, but she told us it's not just for tires.

Monday, September 10: No, Not The *CNN* Tower!

One reason why we chose the Holiday Inn Express: it provides a deluxe continental breakfast which satisfied us quite well. This in spite of the fact that a perfectly good Golden Griddle restaurant was attached to the building.

Before we could go anywhere, we had to get our laundry done. We started it during breakfast, and then as the clothes dried, I went for a walk along the shore of Lake Ontario, stepping carefully though goose shipoopi (are they Canadian geese if they're in Canada, or are they just geese?) until I hit the paved Hamilton Beach Trail. (No, it's not lined with kitchen appliances.)

It had been so long since I'd seen anyone rollerblade that I was taken aback to see folks doing so on the trail; when we lived south of Baltimore, we saw people rollerblading all the time on the B&A Trail, but our current locale doesn't lend itself to rollerblading. There were runners and cyclists as well, with many geese and a few Cygni. The trail was nice and wide, almost as much so as many streets. I passed a bar with a volleyball court as well as Hutch's, a noteworthy fish and chips place that Seana had told us about, and I made a note to stop there before we left the area.

With our laundry all done, we set out for Toronto, about 45 miles or so east of Hamilton. Seana had warned us that 1) the traffic was hideous in Toronto, and 2) parking downtown could be expensive. Not quite sure what we were going to do transportation-wise, we set off by car.

En route, we stopped at a warehouse-type supermarket to get a few things, and sampled some Canadian sweets. I had my first taste of Smarties since I was a kid. Simply put, the British-made Smarties are M&Ms on steroids, unlike the chalk-like American Smarties. LC indulged in some Special Dark chocolate.

Entering the fashionable suburb of Oakville, we asked at a tourist information desk about some folks who were there last week public transportation options into Toronto. Turns out there was a GO Train stop (that sounds weird) in Oakville, and a train was arriving. We drove down there, searched for a parking space somewhere near Hudson Bay, and tried to reach the train station . . . when the train came rolling in. :-( Another one wouldn't come for an hour. Upset that GO wouldn't allow ticket purchases on the train, I strapped on my mukluks and trapsed back to the car, then picked up my winded DW.

Plan B was to try one of the further-out subway stations, but the parking lots were full. So we had to drive downtown and park in a garage. I must say that while the Toronto highways are congested, there's a nice system of variable message signs to let drivers know what's what.

After driving essentially along the waterfront, passing the Exhibition Centre and Rogers Centre (a.k.a. SkyDome), we did indeed park and trapsed over to the imposing CN Tower. Fortunately, we had a nice clear day for the visit.

Before entering the tower, we were sprayed with air a la at airport security. Then we zipped up to the 1100-foot observation deck, complete with the glass floor and the Really Expensive Rotating Restaurant. On the way up, the first thing the guide told us was that this was not the "CNN Tower." I can see why they have to say that. Geegaw at the superlatives of the CN Tower here.

We also bought a pass up to the 1,440-foot "Sky Pod," but the wait to get into the (considerably smaller) elevator was about half an hour. I felt for an Oriental guy ahead of me who bought a Coke from a machine strategically located in the line, only to find that it was room temperature. The refrigeration mechanism wasn't working. (Not too many English speakers in line, I realized.)

The view from the Sky Pod was awesome; we were able to see across Lake Ontario back to Niagara Falls. When the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars, it's possible to see as far as Rochester, NY, but we couldn't see it today. I pointed out to LC that this was the altitude at which I generally fly when doing airborne traffic reports. One young Indian lady who reminded me of one of my cousins asked us to take her picture, saying she was traveling by herself. Then we went back down to the 1100-foot level and got a much-needed whiff of fresh air and a photo of me on the glass floor.

For such a touristy area, the Obligatory Gift Shop had some nice, reasonably-priced, embroidered T-shirts, and we bought one each. Then, after noticing how close we had parked to it, we decided to trapse along the waterfront. While not quite Baltimore’s Harborplace, the Toronto waterfront affords some nice views of the islands that are only accessible by boat or airplane.

After a delicious and late lunch at the Boathouse Grill, we decided to go on a three-hour 45-minute boat tour of the harbo(u)r islands, which proved to be relaxing and enjoyable. Many geese and Cygni greeted us. All the while, however, we kept looking back at the CN Tower which dominated the skyline. But if we didn’t look that way, we’d have thought we were on a southern Florida canal.

We endured the heavy traffic on the various roadways out of Toronto and sauntered back to our Hamilton hotel, where we had missed the beginning of the Monday night Ravens game against the Cincinnati Bungles. I had hoped we could watch the game at a local sports bar, but LC was whooped, and so was I. We opted for pizza for dinner, but then encountered Pizza Hell as one place after another told me that they didn’t deliver anymore, they didn’t honor THOSE coupons, etc. I didn’t know whether to be more upset with the pizza places or the front desk for not knowing this stuff. So I found a Pizza Pizza (no, not Little Caesars) near where we had met Seana the night before and got carryout. Unfortunately, the Ravens did themselves in with six turnovers in the loss to Cincy, even though the officials robbed Todd Heeeeeeap of a late touchdown.

Tuesday, September 11: I’ve Already Forgotten His Name

We hoped that getting an earlier start today would help with the transportation logistics, so we ate breakfast and left around 8:30 AM. At 8:46, we observed a minute of silence in memory of the victims of the 9/11 Islamofascist attacks.

Our plans were soon jolted by an accident that jammed things up on the QEW skyway, one which we knew of from the morning news but had not yet cleared. Thinking quickly, I decided to take the other, smaller bridge instead . . . but so did everyone else. Meanwhile, traffic started clearing on the skyway. D’oh!

We had every intention of catching the GO Train at Aldershot, but the parking lot was already full, so we had to continue to Appleby. We parked somewhere near Banff and made another futile dash for the train, but we couldn’t find the ticket machines. And as mentioned above, unlike our commuter train here in the States, we couldn’t buy tickets on the train itself. So once again, we found ourselves out of breath and nowhere near the GO Train, with another not scheduled to arrive for an hour. That was about as Ugly American Tourist as I got, uttering a few colorful metaphors.

Once we arrived in the city, we decided to cruise Yonge Street for a while. If it’s a shop, it’s on Yonge Street, which runs north from the harbor. You’ll find everything from jewelry to clothing to electronics to “adult” things. We lost count of the Tim Horton’s and Starbucks shops, in many instances side by side.

It was a means of killing time before we had our second peep meet of the trip. Like Seana, I met BYoffer (short for Billy Yoffer, a fictional character) through the Reality TV World boards. When he heard that we were coming to Toronto, he wanted to meet us for lunch (we would have done dinner, but he had Scouts that night). We met the nattily clad BYoffer (don’t tell his wife about Natalie!) at his office building in the heart of the Toronto financial/entertainment district. (Whaddya mean, those aren’t synonyms?)

He took us over to Big Daddy’s Crab Shack and Oyster Bar, a dark, but classy, below-ground, Cajun restaurant. Like with Seana, I felt like I’d known BYoffer all along. We too discussed everything and anything, including our frustrations with the GO train. I think we kept him a little longer on his lunch hour than he intended! Nice, laid-back guy. He mentioned to LC that Cadbury chocolate in Canada was really made by Cadbury, not Hershey as in "the States." On our walk back to our car, we stoped in a shop where she bought a Cadbury bar and I a Nestle Aero bar. Mmmmmm.

By this time, the whirlwind nature of our trip was starting to catch up to us. We decided to cut this day a little short, but not before venturing over to Greektown on the east side of Toronto. I had a specific reason for going there, but more on that in a bit. It was nice to see what a more residential area looked like, versus the forest of condo towers that competed with the CN Tower for attention downtown. It seems that condo towers can’t spring up quickly enough, especially near the water.

In the heart of Greektown is the corner of Danforth and Pape Streets, which is referenced as a section of the Rush instrumental “La Villa Strangiato.” My favorite rock band, Rush is based in the Toronto area. I appreciated LC’s indulgence while I did this. The other place we should have stopped was in front of the provincial parliamentary building, which was the backdrop for Rush’s Moving Pictures album cover. I guess I should have read more of the Rush Fan’s Guide To Toronto. (There are some good travel tips in there for those coming from “the States,” even if they aren’t Rush fans.)

We left Greektown before 3 PM, but a couple wrong turns and some early traffic jams guaranteed that we’d still need a while to get back to Hamilton. We sampled some local talk radio on the way there. Once back, we discovered that our room keys didn’t work, so for their penance, we took extra cookies from the front desk.

After a nap, we arranged to meet Seana again. She had lent us a pass from the local library that would have allowed us to visit a couple notable sites around Hamilton, but it became increasingly evident that we wouldn’t have the time to do so on this trip. Oh, well, we’ll just have to come back another time!

So we drove off toward chez Seana (a little bilingualism for you there) to return the pass, but were met with quite a thunderstorm. Since the next day was trash day in her neck of Hamilton, the high winds blew all sorts of trash and trash bags through the streets. I felt like I was in an action movie for a minute! But we survived, and got to meet Seana’s DH (and thanked him for letting us borrow her) as well as her incredibly cute DS and DD.

After leaving the Seanas, we decided to check our cholesterol counts at the door and check out the noted fish and chips place, Hutch’s (which I passed while walking the day before). It was definitely a throwback type of restaurant, looking very fifties-esque. So we ordered our platters and everything was fine until . . .

. . . we pulled out the Visa card.

It seems that a lot of smaller places in Canada (or at least outside Toronto and Niagara Falls) do NOT take Visa for some reason! We couldn’t even use it as a debit card! The lady guided us to an on-site ATM . . . where we found that it wouldn’t accept our network! And we didn’t have enough Canadian currency on us. So we had to leave Hutch’s with our meals already being made because we couldn’t pay for them. Drat.

Our drop-back-and-punt option became another Canadian chain, Swiss Chalet (not to be confused with the small hotel chain, Susse Chalet). When we walked in, however, we were surprised to find the place almost empty. True, it was a Tuesday night, but it was only 8 o’clock. Our waitress server, a delightful lady named Maria, explained to us that everyone was home watching the finale of Canadian Idol to see whether local Hamilton boy Brian Melo would take home the title. Seana had mentioned this also, warning us that we could hear car horns going off. It was as if we were dining out on Super Bowl Sunday.

Maria was one of the most interesting personalities we ran into on the trip. Finding out that we were from “the States,” she chatted with us about things like how hard it was to get a Maple Leafs ticket (we told her to come to DC; after DebCapsFan and the Canadian Embassy, there wouldn’t be much competition), how busy the place usually was, how Hamilton needed an NHL team, etc. We gave her a nice tip.

Shortly before the end of the meal, a shout went up from the kitchen to indicate that we had to get out Brian Melo was indeed the new Canadian Idol. While there was much rejoicing throughout the city, we didn’t hear it in terms of car horns. We were grateful for that as we returned to the hotel and went to sleep.

Wednesday, September 12: I Like This Kind Of Exchange Rate

Following breakfast, where the news was all Brian Melo all the time, we packed up our junque, stuffed it into the Cobalt, and then headed for the nearest Tim Horton’s (donut and coffee shop chain, for those of you in the Land Where No One Has Ever Heard Of Brian Melo; there are a few Tim Horton'ses in "the States"). Those aren’t too difficult to find, especially in Ontario, and LC wanted to sample some of their coffee. But once again, we were Visa’d! They wouldn’t take it, debit or credit! Grrrrr. Life may take Visa, but Canada? Not so much.

Since we couldn’t visit any of the local Hamilton tourist spots without putting our schedule in getting back to the U.S. in jeopardy, we decided instead to spend the day on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. It definitely is the side that affords the better view. I let LC drive from Hamilton back to Niagara, and we found a $5 parking lot near the casino.

We walked down a long flight of stairs to the Falls and joined the kazillion other tourists gawking at them and blasting away many a megapixel on them. With a few of these folks in tow, we took the Journey Behind The Falls, donning another couple of disposable ponchos. A series of tunnels leads to an outcropping of rock right near the Horseshoe Falls, and there are a couple of inlets where the water cascades by in full force, sometimes splashing into the tunnel. Again, not a long tour, but worth seeing once. More useless fascinating facts about the Falls here.

We succeeded in getting LC her Tim Horton’s coffee at the visitor center, where they took Visa (finally); she liked it, comparing it to Dunkin’ Donuts coffee in the States. We sampled their bagels also, but only after quite a wait; they were jammed at lunchtime. Then we rode a funicular back up the hill to the Fallsview Casino (we put the “fun” in “funicular”). The next 90 minutes were spent in the casino spending . . . and winning, for both of us. I walked away with $75, mostly from Tailgate Party and Texas Tea. We did lose sight of each other, but fortunately, we had our cell phones. Speaking of which, they were indicating that we were roaming while in Canada, but to date we haven’t seen any roaming charges on our bill.

After exchanging most of what was left of our Canadian currency (I still have over a dollar in change), we headed back across Rainbow Bridge. We got a little sterner talking to from the U.S. customs official, and LC originally answered “Baltimore” when he asked us where we were going. Technically, that wasn’t wrong since we were landing at BWI Airport. He waved us through, and we were back in the Land Of The (Melo-) Free.

We took a slightly longer way back to the airport through downtown Buffalo, but fortunately we didn’t hit any rush hour traffic. We returned the car to the same perky Enterprise lady, then flew to BWI without incident. Removing my arm brace made things at Security a lot easier. For a change, we did not have to sit and meditate until our baggage got back to us, and we got a quick ride back to the parking lot as we were the only riders on the shuttle. Finally, before heading home, we stopped for dinner at Rocky Run in Columbia, which I paid for from my winnings.

Oh, one last thing I noticed about Canada: The melting pot thing seems to work better there than it seems to be here of late. I saw in downtown Toronto how many people of Chinese and Indian extraction there were, but they spoke perfect English (or Canadian).

So that was our first taste of the Great White North, and I hope it’s not our last; the quick, inexpensive flight makes doing a vacation like this appealing. Had I more time, I would have wanted to venture into the countryside or to explore Hamilton a little more. Toronto isn’t bad at all, but it’s HUGE. Still, it was great to see a few of the sights and meet some cool peeps while at it.

And thanks to Thom and Colleen for giving us the excuse to do so, and a long and happy marriage to you both.

Pictures to follow.


Seana said...

Holy heck. I didn't know you'd had so much trouble with the Visa. Horton's only takes cash. Well, there's something called a "pay pass" (?) that they *will* take now. All I have is Visa. I don't get it. Zut alors.

Anyway. It was great meeting you both. Hope all is well.

Mom2BJM(Amy) said...

They don't take Visa?? Why... that's just un-American!

Very cool on your peep meet with Seana & BYoffer!