Too much to choose from? Shandelle Battersby offers 10 stellar options
Canada is big, eh? Really big. It is possible though, to see quite a lot of its eastern side — the most populated part — in just a few days. Here are some highlights from the Canadian portion of Insight Vacations' Eastern Canada and USA coach tour, which takes in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City, before entering the US at Maine and making its way south.
1. Niagara Falls is one of three
You can view the natural powerhouse of Niagara Falls from either Canada or the United States because the Niagara River straddles the two countries, but the Canadian side has better views, not to mention the best waterfall.
The thundering falls — American, Bridal Veil and the big daddy, Horseshoe — are so powerful and impressive they'll take your breath away, and when you're swirling around at their feet on a Hornblower "Voyage to the Falls" cruise, decked out in your red rain poncho as the residual mist and spray gives you a good soaking, you'll find yourself grinning from ear to ear at the exhilaration of it all. It's like being caught in the middle of a big ocean storm with wild winds and water flying everywhere, and it's brilliant.
For an even bigger thrill, Niagara Helicopters offer an affordable 12-minute scenic flight with commentary over the falls, river, gorge and rapids, as well as the surrounding parklands.
The Niagara Falls are a 90-minute drive from Toronto.
2. Everybody gets along
Toronto is one of the most diverse cities in the world, our tour director Todd Geist tells us, attracting "everyone from everywhere". This has resulted in a multicultural population that remarkably coexists with very little tension. There's also a low crime rate.
Add this to Canada's general reputation for politeness and habit of perpetually apologising, and you've probably got one of the nicest, safest cities in the world.
3. Drake's from there
R&B star Drake is a proud Torontonian and his 2016 Views album cover featured the city's premiere attraction, the 553.33m-tall CN Tower. Don't ask the staff about it, though — they're reportedly sick of telling people he was actually Photoshopped on to the observation decks. Anyway, the views from the top — of the enormous Lake Ontario, the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, and the city's mix of parkland, glass and steel skyscrapers and historical buildings — are sensational, if you can handle the lightning quick ride up in the elevator.
As at Auckland's Sky Tower, there's a section of clear glass at the top, upon which people gingerly stand for selfies or just to scare themselves silly — although a sign on the wall reassures you the glass can take the weight of 14 hippos.
We wonder how they can be sure of that.
The CN Tower is at 301 Front St West, Toronto.
4. There are huge underground cities
Toronto and Montreal have labyrinths of pedestrian tunnels underneath them connecting the excellent train systems to downtown buildings so residents can limit their exposure to the elements during the long, intense winters and super-hot summers.
Toronto's Path system has 30km of shopping arcades containing 1200 shops and services, and Montreal's underground city — Reso or La Ville Souterraine, in French — has 32km of tunnels and more than 3000 stores.
5. The scenery is next level
We quickly forgot about Toronto's skyscrapers as the Insight coach headed northeast along Lake Ontario towards Ottawa, Canada's capital city.
It's a pretty drive through farmland, maple tree forests, and over and around the waterways, but the highlight comes when we enter the picturesque Thousand Islands district. Technically, this archipelago that lies across the borders of both the United States and Canada in the St Lawrence River is made up of more than 1800 islands, but you get the idea.
Some seem to be completely taken up by one house — or mansion. This area was a fashionable destination for the wealthy in the late-19th century, such as George Boldt, the owner of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel who built Boldt Castle on Heart Island between 1900 and 1904.
6. You can see dioramas and dinosaurs
Housed in a historic Beaux Arts-style building dated from 1912, the excellent Canadian Nature Museum — the country's first such institution — is best known for its large collection of dinosaur fossils and amazing life-size mammal dioramas — beavers, bison, wolves, moose, polar bears — set against dramatic backdrops painted by Clarence Tillenius.
Many other treasures are throughout its four storeys, including a 19m blue whale skeleton and the country's largest display of mounted birds. For structural reasons part of the historic facade was replaced in 2010 with a glass structure called the Queen's Lantern, honouring Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II. During renovations in the 90s a moose mosaic was found under a carpet, hidden for 40 years after aspects of its, er, anatomy offended a visiting nun.
The Canadian Nature Museum is at 240 rue McLeod St, Ottawa.
7. It has a really old market
One of the largest and most historic public markets in Canada, ByWard Market has been in operation since 1826. One of Ottawa's top tourist attractions, the market covers about four square blocks and offers shopping, dining, arts, entertainment and professional services.
You'll also find a farmers' market and artisan producers, more than 100 restaurants and the city's oldest pub, the Chateau Lafayette, which dates back to 1849. One of its most famous eateries, Le Moulin de Provence, has traded for years on the fact Barack Obama dropped in for a cookie — a shortbread in the shape of a maple leaf with red icing and the word Canada emblazoned across it — back in 2009.
A TV plays the clip of the event on repeat and queues are out the door. Sales of the biscuit total about 5000 a month.
8. Famous trees! And cute squirrels!
The Governor-General's impressive dwelling, Rideau Hall, is in the lovely Canadian Heritage Gardens. Sleek black squirrels romp as you stroll, and check out trees planted by dignitaries including Nelson Mandela, several members of the British royal family and Jacqueline Onassis. It's like the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but far more pleasant. Dotted throughout are distinctly Canadian artefacts including totem poles and inukshuks — human-made stone landmarks used by indigenous peoples. Rideau Hall is at 1 Sussex Dr, Ottawa.
9. There are some gorgeous buildings
A couple of must-sees in Montreal are the stunning Notre-Dame Basilica and the Big O Olympic Stadium, built for the 1976 Olympics — still a point of pride in Montreal.
Local expert Christina di Matteo took us into the nearly 190-year-old basilica, where Celine Dion married Rene Angelil in 1994 and held his memorial service last year; and where the state funeral was held for former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 2000.
The doughnut-shaped Big O — or "Big Owe", thanks to its long burden on the Canadian taxpayer — is hard to miss on the Montreal landscape with its Montreal Tower, the world's tallest inclined tower at 175m, which houses the mechanism for the now-broken retractable orange Kevlar roof.
These days the enormous stadium is only used for special events and is a reminder of the first time a host nation failed to win any gold medals at a summer Olympic Games, and — for visiting New Zealanders — the shame of 29 countries, mostly African, boycotting the event after the International Olympic Committee refused to ban New Zealand. This followed the All Blacks tour of South Africa in defiance of the United Nations' call for a sporting embargo. Today, you can tour the stadium, or travel to the top of the Montreal Tower via a glass-walled funicular.
10. The French culture is really strong
Brush up on your Francais because you'll need at least a little in charming Quebec City, which has the look and feel — and attitude — of France.
If you stay inside the historic walls it's not far to wander down to the Breakneck Stairs, the city's oldest stairway, to the charming Petit Champlain neighbourhood, which has a couple of amazing trompe-l'oeil — or 3D — murals telling the area's history, which should not be missed. The hotel is also close to the very grand Chateau Frontenac, one of the world's most photographed hotels and the second oldest in Canada, which opened in 1893 and is still in operation today.
Details: Insight Vacations' 16-day Best of Eastern Canada and USA tour goes from Toronto to New York City during May to October. Prices start at $7295pp twin-share.
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