Canada: Two sides to every story

By Frances Grant

Frances Grant travels from the historic French city of Quebec to Anglo Toronto, and heads for a fall...

The Chateau Frontenac dominates the skyline of the historic walled city of Quebec. Photo / Quebec Tourism
The Chateau Frontenac dominates the skyline of the historic walled city of Quebec. Photo / Quebec Tourism

In the Place Royale, centre of the Old Lower Town in Quebec City, people are stepping in and out of time. We're smiling for snapshots in front of a trompe l'oeil mural, which pulls us into the pictorial story of Canada's French-speaking province.

The historical pose is appropriate in one of North America's earliest settlements and its only walled city. Quebec City, a split-level city built on the flats and atop the cliffs of the St Lawrence River, is spilling with history.

Here the French and English slugged it out for possession of Canada, loading their cannon with the grudges of war in the Old World and firing them with lust and rivalry for the New.

The English won but you wouldn't pick it here on the cobblestone square on a Sunday afternoon in this very French-looking city.

The air is filled with the eccentric tones of a busker playing on dozens of crystal wine glasses, an act with the unmistakable ring of Gallic whimsy.

Tourists press along the narrow Rue du Petit Champlain, dipping in and out of the galleries and shops displaying typical French flair for window-dressing.

In the Upper Town above, the Terrasse Dufferin, a wide boardwalk offering spectacular views of the St Lawrence, is packed with strollers. There's a definite touch of Parisian-style indulgence. "My, what big, fluffy ears your baby has," I think as a woman passes by, cradling her poodle in a front-pack.

Above the scene looms the extraordinary Chateau Frontenac, a real Rapunzel castle which dominates the skyline and claims to be the most-photographed hotel in the world.

Our group has an afternoon to ramble round the compact city. The sun is shining and I choose simply to follow the walls around the upper town, a walk which goes through the citadel, with the city's best views of the river. On the waterfront, the farmers' market beckons me down from the heights. It is packed with apples, berries, pumpkins and, of course, cheeses and plaits of garlic.

Dinner that night, in the Cafe de la Paix, is as French as snails in garlic butter. But there is a distinct North American touch - an atmosphere politely lacking cigarette smoke.

After the quaint buildings of Quebec City, the province's biggest city, Montreal, is decidedly New World. It sprawls along the St Lawrence, its flatness punctuated by the gentle mound of Mont Royale and the tower of the 1976 Olympic stadium.

The city scores a perfect 10 for its vibrant street life. With two universities smack in downtown, the inner-city streets throng with students. The lively Rue Saint Denis in the Latin Quarter, traditionally the students' part of town, is a wonderful mix of cafes, bistros and bars.

We head east to lunch at a typical Montreal cafe, Chez Clo: the food is working-man's tucker - meatballs, gravy, meat pies - all accompanied by lashings of salad and vinaigrette. The Australians in the tour are taken with the Quebec version of a shandy, a lemonade-beer mix called "Boomerang" which returns to hit you in the head with its 6.1 per cent alcohol content when you try to stand up.

Our city tour takes in Old Montreal, a historic district by the river rediscovered by fashion and the arty set, and the Basilica Notre Dame, renowned for its ornate, carved and painted wooden interior.

As I lose count of the hundreds of gold-leaf stars on the ceiling, I see why pop stars Celine Dion decked herself out in elaborate crown and train for her wedding here. It would be hard to pull the limelight in this sumptuous interior.

The Basilica is in hot demand for weddings. Our guide Carol notes the waiting time is such that "there is plenty of time for a rethink or to change grooms".

French Canada is of course devoutly Catholic, although younger generations are more secular. The Oratoire de Saint Joseph is a standout on the Montreal skyline. It's the world's largest shrine to the saint, pilgrims who come in search of a miracle kneel and pray on each of its 100 steps. What are the supplicants hoping for? "They pray for a new pair of pants," Carol suggests.

Heading from Montreal to the Canadian capital of Ottawa, the French-English linguistic mix gets more delightful. "Wayne Woodruff - Denturologiste" says a sign in a small town in the Outaouias region on the Quebec-Ontario Border.

Ottawa sits tall and stately in its regal position on the confluence of the Ottawa and Rideau rivers."They've copied this from somewhere," says one of the Aussies, spying the Westminster-style parliamentary buildings.

Gatineau (formerly known as Hull), the city on the Quebec side of the river, boasts the glittering Casino du Lac-Leamy and the stunning Canadian Museum of Civilisation, with its must-see great hall of Indian totem poles.

But the more serious capital city also has flair, in the gleaming glass tower of the National Gallery, and warmth in the colourful Byward Market, the place to pick up a bottle of Canada's most famous product, maple syrup.

Our next destination is in the middle of the river, to Victoria or Turtle Island, home to the fledgling First Nation tourism industry. Here we learn about the Indian tribes of the area, get the inside running on teepee and birchbark canoe building and, as a chill wind blows up from the river, gratefully join in a "friendship dance".

The next day we head west again, by train, to Canada's largest city, Toronto, a trip which takes four hours and hits the shores of Lake Ontario about halfway.

In Toronto we're firmly in anglophone Canada, but the city, once regarded as hopelessly waspish and provincial, has been glammed up with skyscrapers and enlivened by immigration.

A trip up the CN Tower reveals the city's flat sprawl along the shores of the lake - Toronto boasts the longest street in the world, Yonge St which runs 1800km from Lake Ontario to Minnesota.

Down at ground level, the city, with its variety of ethnic districts and lively cultural life, belies its straight character.

At Kensington Market, on the edge of Chinatown, it's only the giant snowball effect which helps me to resist an ice-blue coat with fake fur and polar bears stalking round the hem.

In the evening we sample a morsel of Toronto's busy cultural life: a performance of film director Neil LaBute's cutting-edge play, The Shape of Things, starring Amy Redford, daughter of Robert, earning stage cred in the theatre-mad Canadian city.

Toronto has been described as "New York, if the Swiss were running it". And indeed, while there are people on the streets here asking for money, they appear scrupulously polite, formally wishing donors a happy Thanksgiving weekend.

From Toronto, the southwest line of our journey comes to an abrupt end where the Niagara River takes an almighty nosedive. The Niagara Falls are a two-hour drive around Lake Ontario from Toronto. On a clear day the mist from the falls can be spied from the top of the CN Tower.

At the falls, it is remarkable how close to the action it is possible to get. The public path along the river feels like it almost delivers you into the raging torrent at the top of the falls. For the non-claustrophobic, there is a tunnel which brings you right to the edge and behind one of the world's most impressive rinse cycles.

The must-do is a ride on the boat, the Maid of the Mist, which ventures past the smaller falls on the American side, right up into the horseshoe bend of the Canadian falls. Passengers are blinded by the spray and deafened by the roar. It's a thunderous finish-line to the world's second-largest country.

CHECKLIST

Getting around: Train is a low-stress way to travel between cities. Hire car prices vary greatly according to season. Canada drives on the right.

Where to go: It's well worth hiring a car to explore the countryside. Day trips from the major cities include: the scenic Charlevoix region east from Quebec City along the Saint Laurence and Mont Tremblant, a major ski resort and wilderness park and a busy outdoor activities area in summer.

The Parc Omega in the Outaouais region is a safari-style animal park with raccoons, moose, bears, wolves, deer and bison.

The Niagara wine district (Canada's burgeoning wine region) grows a large variety of grapes but ice wine is a speciality.

The Mennonite country, west of Toronto, particularly the pretty, peaceful villages of Elora and St Jacobs.

The Algonquin Provincial Park, three hours north of Toronto offering hiking, canoe trips and wildlife.

Advisory: Quebec City is French-speaking but staff in restaurants and shops are happy to speak English. Montreal is predominantly French but has an English-speaking minority. The border region of Gatineau and Ottawa is strongly bilingual.

Frances Grant travelled to Canada courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission, Air Canada and Air New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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