Out of a lapis lazuli sky showers a gentle rain, more sprinkle than drizzle. A roar, like the crowd at a bullring, lures us down Fallsview Boulevard towards a Neil Gaiman-esque ocean at the end of the lane. Our terrestrial rainmaker is Horseshoe Falls, the largest of three waterfalls that constitute Niagara Falls, and it lies entirely in Canada (the much photographed American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls are in the United States).
Larger than Spain and France combined, Ontario — much of which lay under glaciers during the last Ice Age — is Canada’s second-largest province. The ‘fossil water’ in its 2,50,000 lakes is 20 per cent of the world’s freshwater. Much of it gushes from this mammoth waterfall that is neither the world’s tallest nor the widest. But tipping over the edge every minute are a million bathtubs of foaming turquoise, rushing in a deafening blur and leaping 50 metres into a plunge pool nearly as deep. So rapacious is Niagara’s erosive appetite that the falls have receded 11 km in 12,000 years.
The Falls Incline Railway (C$2.50 oneway) transports us briskly to Table Rock Welcome Centre. Wrapped in ponchos, we hustle indoors to Journey Behind The Falls, a halogen-lit catacomb of tunnels beneath the waterfall. Its colossal heartbeat thumps in unison with mine.
Barely dry, I board a Hornblower Cruise, Canada’s rival to the American Maid Of the Mist, which began operations in 2013. With a tuba-like honk, it makes for the plunge pool. We return to shore gasping hosannas to Niagara’s glory. At dusk we repeat the cruise, halting midway between the illuminated American and Horseshoe Falls for the denouement — a carnival of fireworks.
Cynosure of a city of attractions named after it, Niagara Falls invites me to enjoy it in ways aplenty. The 53-metre-high Niagara Skywheel on Clifton Hill offers the second-best view of the falls. The price of the best view is high, but worth every penny, as I discover next morning with Niagara Helicopters. The 12-minute sortie on a seven-seater Bell 407 is short, sweet and exhilarating.
A different high awaits at Inniskillin (www.inniskillin.com), Ontario’s oldest licensed winery, where, in 1975, Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser perfected the world renowned icewine. After a vineyard tour, we enjoy lunch in the Riedel Room, named after the Austrian stemware maker who designed a signature icewine glass.
American historian George R. Stewart contended that ‘Niagara’ comes from the Iroquois word ‘Ongniaahra’, meaning ‘point of land cut in two’ (the Iroquois were a powerful First Nations people, as Canada has addressed most Native Americans since the 1980s). In the 1780s, British loyalists fleeing the American Revolution settled here and, in 1792, established the first capital of Upper Canada (modern Ontario).
The community thrived until the War of 1812, when the British tried to restrict American trade with France. After hostilities ceased, the war thrived in history and lore.
Niagara-on-the-Lake, voted in 1996 as the ‘loveliest town in Canada’, is a pop-up book of vineyards and country homes of rich retirees. Among its attractions is the annual Shaw Theatre Festival, named after the Irish playwright. Over dinner at Charles Inn, a tastefully restored 1832 manor house, I watch a family of Mennonites in traditional garb say grace. When they leave, I notice they are carrying a ton of shopping bags. Now, I’m no mall rat, but the deals at Canada One Factory Outlet Mall and Outlet Collection weaken my will, and morning finds me in Toronto toting extra luggage.
Ontario’s provincial capital, which, during the war, answered to the name of York, exudes multiculturalism. Its modern name is derived from the Iroquois word tkaronto for ‘where trees grow in water’ — a reference to the once-swampy northern shores of Lake Ontario, where today’s city stands.
Running 56 km through ‘Trronno’, as Torontonians croon its name, is Yonge Street, which until 1999 held an erroneous Guinness Record for the world’s longest street. On this Sunday morning, music is playing in Yonge-Dundas (Toronto’s hat-tip to Times Square). From Tim Horton’s (Canada’s reply to Starbucks) waft aromas of coffee and pastry. Bars swell with early tipplers. Downtown Yonge is a parade of restaurants, bars, sex shops, strip bars and curio shops cheek by jowl with colonial buildings, which the city seems eager to replace.
With summer comes construction season. Pavements are torn up, old buildings are razed, and the face of the city is ritually transformed. An elderly lady, very English, wistfully points to a surviving period building and laments the “erosion of character.” She’s lived here for 65 years, she says, but this city never looked stranger.
Jason Kucherawy does not concur. Child of Ukrainian émigrés, his passion for Toronto embraces the waves of immigration that have shaped its cosmopolitan character. This he emphasises each time he leads a group on ‘urban adventures’ with The Tour Guys (www.tourguys.ca). With him, we discover a Toronto that’s close to his heart and far from the guidebooks.
We begin at the Church of the Holy Trinity, which maintains a roster of the homeless, and circle the Old City Hall, where the renowned architect EJ Lennox, on being denied a plaque, got his back by lampooning councillors with gargoyles, and slyly snuck in his own signature on the façade. In Chinatown, we learn to tell art from vandalism by comparing wall murals and graffiti. As the afternoon warms, we find ourselves in colourful Kensington Market, built by early Jewish immigrants and shaped by wave after wave of immigrant tenants who chipped in to fashion the vibrant mosaic it is today. Here, Jason shows us to a couple of quaint watering holes. A tournament is on at The Handlebar (www.thehandlebar.ca), a hangout of cycling enthusiasts, while the practically undercover Cold Tea (the name is a throwback to Prohibition years when beer was surreptitiously served in teacups) is packed to the rafters.
A different walk awaits us at the Bloor Street Culture Corridor (www.bloorstculturecorridor.com), the city’s refurbished arts and culture precinct. Beginning at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, one of few in the world that shows only documentaries, we work our way up the 2-kilometre stretch, taking in a mélange of structures and experiences including the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, the Alliance Française de Toronto, and the Istituto Italiana di Cultura. Up the street are the absorbing Bata Shoe Museum, Royal Ontario Museum, and Gardiner Museum. Abutting the Royal Conservatory, which breathes music in every grain of its fragrant cedar interiors, is the Philosopher’s Walk, a scenic and inspiring footpath that winds past the University of Toronto and nearby colleges.
No visit to Toronto is complete without sighing at the view from the landmark 550-metre CN Tower, built in 1976, not out of megalomania, but to broadcast signals over the vertiginous skyline. The high-speed elevator beams me up in 58 seconds to 360, the revolving restaurant at the summit, where I observe the world through a robust glass floor. Doing the EdgeWalk — walking the circumference of the tower’s curved roof — is a coveted adventure. To my dismay, it is sold out. I grieve by strolling about the open-air Railway Museum and the incredible Ripley’s Aquarium.
Eating options abound in Toronto, and two restaurants stand out. At Richmond Station (www.richmondstation.ca) we lunch in the pantry, feeling at home among jars of condiments. The charcuterie, with house-cured meats, is delicious beyond belief. Carl Heinrich, the reticent co-owner and executive chef who shows us around, finished first in season two of Top Chef Canada. For dinner and a movie, it’s hard to beat Luma (www.oliverbonacini.com/luma.aspx) at TIFF Bell Lightbox, home of the Toronto International Film Festival. The cocktails are as delectable as their names — Vesper’s Rose and Paloma Thyme — and the mains (mine is Roasted St-Canut Piglet, with Kozlik’s triple crunch mustard spaetzle, apple and leeks) are pure manna. There’s choice for vegetarians too.
On a rainswept morning, we leave Toronto Union Station by VIA Rail for Kingston, hoping against hope to explore this lakeside city by cruise. We arrive to a squall sweeping the Kingston Yacht Club and boats hurrying back to shore. So we bus around and make the most of a lull in the storm to climb the Thousand Islands Sky Deck in Gananoque for what, in fair weather, would have been a spectacular view of some of the 1,864 riverine islands (distributed between the United States and Canada). The vast St Lawrence River runs for 1,197 kilometres, linking the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean. It was named by the French explorer Jacques Cartier who, in 1535, identified the territory north of the river as The Country of the Canadas, from the Saint-Lawrence Iroquoian word for village.
Kingston played a key role in the 1812 War, and was briefly Canada’s capital in 1841. Military history buffs will be enthused by the four Martello towers, with their cannonball-repelling masonry walls, near Fort Henry on the shores of the lake.
In Canada’s capital, once known as Bytown (www.bytownmuseum.com), we check in at the majestic Lord Elgin Hotel, where I stay up to hear from Fred, the famous resident ghost. Only, my snoring spooks him. Rain keeps me from enjoying Mosaika, the much-talked-about soundand- light show relating the story of Canada against the backdrop of Parliament Hill. Morning, we make up for lost time with a guided tour of the Canadian Parliament’s Centre Block, outside which the Centennial Flame blazes in pouring rain. Skies clear in time for the Changing of the Guard, performed true to Buckingham Palace tradition. We have front-row seats, courtesy of Ottawa Tourism.
Canada’s bilingual character is pronounced in Ottawa, which borders Gatineau in French-speaking Quebec: the cities comprise the National Capital Region. It is thoughtfully designed with museums of every description and public buildings steeped in history, but what steals my heart is the lush, sprawling Greenbelt — a 205-square-kilometre crescent of forest, farm and field in the heart of the city.
A busker performing beside an immense totem pole lures me to Byward Market (www.byward-market.com), where Ottawa’s largest farmers’ market has made room for boutiques, bistros, hot-dog stands and BeaverTails kiosks selling whole-wheat pastries that look like bhaturas sprinkled with maple sugar (a Canadian staple as ubiquitous as the national symbol). We work off our postlunch daze at the Royal Canadian Mint, seizing the chance to hold in our hands a million bucks’ worth of pure gold.
I wind down by cruising along the Rideau Canal, the part-natural, part manmade superhighway linking the immensity of the Great Lakes and the populace of Niagara, Toronto, Kingston and Ottawa with the mighty Atlantic Ocean. Along its banks, Ottawans jog and cycle, fish and walk, and push babies in strollers. These waters, holding thousands of years of life and time for thousands more to come, ripple quietly in the boat’s wake.
Getting there: Ottawa and Toronto are connected to major airports in India via hubs in Europe. Roundtrip fares from Delhi start at about Rs 70,000.
NIAGARA FALLS: Niagara Airbus has a shuttle service from Toronto Airport (2 hours; from C$89; www.niagaraairbus.com).
KINGSTON: Take the VIA Rail from Toronto (261 km; from C$44; www.viarail.ca) en route to Ottawa.
OTTAWA: Take the VIA Rail from Kingston (195 km; from C$44; www.viarail.ca).
Visa: Apply for a Temporary Resident Visa at VFS centres (www.vfs-canada.co.in).
Currency: 1 Canadian dollar (C$) = Rs 50
Where to stay:
NIAGARA FALLS: Four Points by Sheraton (from C$175; 905-357-5200, www.fourpoints.com/NiagaraFalls).
TORONTO: Eaton Chelsea Toronto (from C$185; 416-595-1975, www.chelsea.eatonhotels.com).
KINGSTON: Residence Inn By Marriott Kingston Water’s Edge Hotel (from C$149; 613-544-4888, www.marriott.com).
OTTAWA: Lord Elgin Hotel (from C$185; 613-235-3333, www.lordelginhotel.ca).
Where to eat:
NIAGARA FALLS: For fine-dining and buffets, there’s Hilton Niagara Falls Watermark Restaurant (6361 Fallsview Blvd, 905-354-7887), and Fallsview Buffet (Sheraton on the Falls, 5875 Falls Avenue, 905-374-445). Nosh a lazy lunch at Edgewaters Restaurant (6345 Niagara Parkway, 905-356-2217).
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE: Reserve the ‘Rustic Luncheon’ with icewine at Inniskillin Winery (Line 3 & Niagara Parkway, 905-468-3554, www.inniskillin.com). Despite its period sophistication, The Charles Inn (209 Queen Street, 905-468-4588, www.niagarasfinestinns.com) is anything but snobbish.
TORONTO: Chew to the view at the revolving 360 (CN Tower, 416-868-6937, www.cntower.ca). Richmond Station (1 Richmond St West, 647-748-1444, www.richmondstation.ca) is elegantly themed after a subway. At Luma (350 King St West, 647-288-4715, www.oliverbonacini.com/luma.aspx) artistically presented food and drink set the mood for a movie night.
OTTAWA: Courtyard Restaurant (21 George Street, 613-241-1516, www.courtyardrestaurant.com) serves contemporary cuisine made with seasonal farmers’ produce. Moulin de Provence Bakery (55 Byward Market Square, 613-241-9152, www.moulindeprovence.com) grew in fame in 2009 when Barack Obama stopped here for a Maple Leaf cookie.
What to see & do:
Note: Many Ontario attractions are closed in winter.
NIAGARA FALLS: Journey Behind the Falls (C$11.25; Table Rock Welcome Centre, 905-371-0919, www.niagaraparks.com) is an unusual adventure. Hornblower Niagara Cruises (Voyage to the Falls: C$19.95, Fireworks cruises: C$35; 905-642-6272, www.niagaracruises.com) take you screamingly close to the plungepool. At Clifton Hill Resorts (fun pass: C$25.95; 905-357-5911, www.cliftonhill.com) ride the Niagara Skywheel (C$10.99). Click selfies with The Joker and Captain Jack Sparrow at Movieland Wax Museum of the Stars (C$10.99). Fly Niagara Helicopters (C$137; 905-357-5672; www.niagarahelicopters.com) for an unbeatable view.
TORONTO: The Tour Guys / Toronto Urban Adventures (647-230-7891, www.tourguys.ca, www.torontourbanadventures.com) are exceptional guides who lead free walks and custom tours. Check out the Bloor Street Cultural Corridor (www.bloorstculturecorridor.com) for a more mainstream immersion. At CN Tower reserve an EdgeWalk (C$195; 416-360- 8500, www.cntower.ca) or visit Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada (C$29.98; 647-351-3474, www.ripleyaquariums.com/canada).
KINGSTON: Enjoy a Discovery Cruise with Kingston 1000 Islands Cruises (C$27.50; 613-549-5544, www.1000islandscruises.ca) and gasp at the view from 1000 Islands Skydeck (C$9.99; 613-659-2335, www.1000islandstower.com).
OTTAWA: Gray Line Tours offers Discover the Capital ‘hop-on, hop-off’ city tours (from C$36; 613-562-9090; www.grayline.com). Relive Canada’s history at Mosaika (entry free; www.mosaika-cl.ca). Reserve a free guided tour of Parliament Hill (613-996-0896, www.res.parl.gc.ca/prs). Let Royal Canadian Mint (613-993-8990, www.mint.ca) show you the money. Sail the Rideau Canal (www.rideauheritageroute.ca) by cruise (613-225-6781, www.paulsboatcruises.com).
Shopping: NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE Shopaholics, run amok at Canada One Factory Outlet (500 Lundy’s Lane, 905-356-8989, www.canadaoneoutlets.com), and Outlet Collection At Niagara (300 Taylor Road, www.outletcollectionatniagara.com)