For this year’s family vacation my parents took us to Niagara Falls and Toronto over Easter break. The idea was to drive through Canada to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and spend a couple days there, head up to Toronto and spend a couple days there then head back home. As in any family vacation, things didn’t go exactly as planned, but all in all it was a success.
Day 1: The Big Climb
Monday morning came and somehow I managed to get all the cobwebs out of the luggage carrier and wrangle it onto the roof rack myself. My parents arrived soon after and we loaded up the car. It took maybe five minutes to get all the luggage packed and everyone comfortably in their seats. This was a stark contrast to packing for our Northern Michigan vacation a few summers ago. Although it was for the same number of people and duration, the former vacation required other things like camping gear, (e.g. three tents, sleeping bags, cooking utensils), etc. That time it took close to an hour to figure out how to get everything loaded in the car and still have (barely) enough room for everyone. (Plus every time you opened the lift gate pans would come sliding out and clatter on the ground if you forgot to catch them.) I suppose this year I didn’t need to bother with the luggage carrier, but hey, we might as well use it now that we had it and make the interior not feel like we’re sardines packed in a tin.
We head off to Port Huron and crossed over into Canada pretty easily. The last time I went to Canada I just needed a driver’s license for myself, but this time we needed passports and/or birth certificates for all, plus a letter of consent from the kid’s mother. I guess it’s been quite a while since I’ve been to Canada. Anyway, there was no trouble.
We made it to Niagara Falls and checked in at the Skyline. Our hotel is attached to an indoor water park and we have passes for that day and tomorrow, but we decide to walk down to the falls a couple blocks away. I remember seeing the falls several years ago, but it’s just stunning. Although it’s chilly out—being only early April—the sun is shining creating rainbows playfully moving around in the mist from the water. The kids stop every few feet to take pictures and Ann makes video diaries as we walk. Soon we make it from one side of the falls to the other and decide it’s time for dinner.
My parents had asked people in the hotel lobby where to eat and they said that Victoria Street a block up from the hotel had pretty much anything we’d want. We figure that if we head up a few blocks from where we were, we’d find that street and follow it back to the hotel. But after climbing up a huge hill, we don’t find the expected street. We do fine a Macaroni Grill, though, and decide that’s a good a place as any.
A good two hours later, dinner is over and the sun has long since set. It wasn’t because the place was crowded or that we were taking our time—service was just really slow! We ask the bartender how to get back to the hotel and he says the best way is to go back down the hill and take the same way that we had come. “Besides,” he said, “you get to see the falls at night.”
It’s pretty chilly at this point, but luckily I had packed hats, gloves, and some extra layers. So we bundle up and head back down the huge hill. The bartender was right about both: it was the shortest way back and the falls do look pretty as they’re lit with big, colored spotlights. About 20 minutes later we’re back at the hotel—cold, exhausted and slightly damp from spray or misty rain.
Outside out hotel room is a “common area” and every night they show a family movie. We get back to the tail end of “Twisted” blaring into our room. The kids can’t sleep at first, but finally settle down after the movie ends. I turn on my computer planning to check email only to find a few of the keys have stopped working and I can’t even get past the password to boot the thing. Oh, well, I take that as a sign that I should just go to bed too.
Day 2: Gem in the Rough
The next morning we head to Perkin’s for breakfast; only because it’s the restaurant attached to the hotel. The portions are huge and the kids and I basically share a single breakfast and still have food left over! We then head back down to the falls to see if we could get tickets to go in the tunnels behind the falls. We weren’t sure at this point as yesterday when looking into tickets to take the boat ride around the falls we found that the “season” doesn’t start for two more days—at which point we plan to be in Toronto! This caused a slight schedule adjustment as we didn’t want to miss the boat ride. Instead of spending half the next day at Niagara and heading to Toronto for dinner, we’d leave in the morning and get to the Ontario Science Museum around lunchtime and explore there. Then instead of spending half of Friday in Toronto and heading home, we’d head back to Niagara in the morning, do the boat ride and anything else missed, and then drive back in the evening.
Luckily, the tunnels were open so we did that. Then we went to the “strip” and visited one of the wax museums there. A quick bite at a Chinese place then the kids and I headed to the water park while my parents wandered around more. (They actually made it all the way to “Downtown” Niagara, which is a bit of a walk, then took a bus back.)
The water park was fun with several slides, although at one point someone used the bathroom in the wave pool which closed that and half the slides, (same water source I guess), for a while. Being off-season, the place wasn’t that crowded and you didn’t have to wait in line long for things or fight to find some chairs. The kids sustained a couple minor injuries and decide they’re ready to head back to the room to change for dinner.
Ann wants Italian so we pack in the car to find a place. (The strip with all the restaurants is only a block away, but it’s cold and slightly rainy at this point and venturing out in that on foot is not appealing.) We spot a couple places and parking spaces nearby, but venture on a little past the strip just to see what we find. There at the tail end of things is a little Italian place that looks promising, so we decide to try it out. Good thing we did as the food was really good and obviously made from scratch. The owner was running the front of the house and took time to chat with us a few times about things like how tourism has changed in the last twelve years there, how the casinos indirectly help his business, about the music playing in his restaurant, (from his own collection), and food. It was an excellent meal and atmosphere.
Day 3: A City Under Construction
The next day we head to Toronto. This is really a city under construction as there are cranes and pits everywhere. My heart is in Detroit, but I’ll say that these guys and gals have a notch or more over us. Made in Detroit is an admirable slogan, but it’s beyond time to cut the politics and let Detroit reach its potential. We head first to the Ontario Science Museum and hang out there until closing. Then it’s off to our hotel in the heart of a very ritzy district. The kids and I decide to visit the (top) 33rd floor and get greeted with an amazing view. I think we weren’t supposed to be up there as later attempts to take my parents up there didn’t work…
Day 4: Conquering Heights, Roaming Depths, and Burgers at Starbucks
This day was to be a whirlwind of activity. The main things people wanted to see were: the CN tower, the Hockey Hall of Fame, an Inuit Museum, Kensington Market, the islands, China Town, and maybe the Royal Ontario Museum. Plus I wanted to make sure the kids rode on the subway and walked around PATH (the underground walkways around downtown). I came up with a plan that covered the main points of interest first allowing us to shed some things at the end if time ran out, plus split my parents and me and the kids to let us see some things more important to our respective groups. But that ended up to be a bit costly on the subway, so we adjusted.
First stop was the CN tower. Unfortunately the PATH / Skywalk to the tower was under construction, so we had to improvise. Luckily, the CN tower is pretty easy to spot.
Ann refused to go up, so she stayed with grandpa while Liam, my mom and I ascended to visit the various observation decks. I think Ann could have handled the first stop if it wasn’t for the glass elevator with see-through panels in the floor. We then descended a level to where the “glass” floor was located. This was my first memorable taste of a real physical reaction to heights.
The “glass floor” is twelve or so panels of transparent material set in the floor giving you a view down the side of the tower to the ground over a quarter of a mile below. It is designed to hold the weight of three rhinoceroses and I don’t doubt that it will give way. However, looking down and stepping out onto one of those panels took a massive amount of willpower. I kept telling myself that it was fine, but my body just froze taking that first step. Finally I did and thought that would help, but every additional step was another fight. However, I knew that my son was watching, so I somehow made it halfway out onto the panels and then back a row. I was able to keep my hands from trembling too much, but they did start to get sweaty. I asked Liam to lie down on the panels so I could get a picture. I’m not sure what was going through his mind, but he lay down while I tried to frame a shot, deal with the sunlight, and not have the camera slip from my hands. In the end, I couldn’t get the exposures right, but figured it was good enough as I was ready to get off of those panels!
We then walked around the outside part of that level passing a young man singing to himself that this was neat but he’s afraid of heights, then adding a comment about the kids walking by him on the outside without any fear. We then headed up an additional 33 stories to the top-most observation deck. This was the best spot and a really great view.
Back down to pick up Ann and Grandpa, then a quick walk to the waterfront for lunch. Then we split up with the kids and me heading off to the Hockey Hall of Fame. We spent a while there then wandered around the underground pathways a little before heading back to Union Station at the start of rush hour to catch the crowded subway back to the hotel for a little R&R before dinner.
My parents had gotten several restaurant recommendations from acquaintances who lived in Toronto before leaving. We had ideas ranging from “the best” Italian, “the best” Indian, a place that served things like horse and musk ox, and “the best” burgers. The kids chose burgers at a place called Burger’s Priest.
We had no idea what to expect from this place other than it was recommended multiple times and was somewhere on Queens Street. We rescued the car from valet parking and headed down the road. The ride took us first by some very urban scenery followed by a seemingly never-ending stream of storefronts of all types: Inuit healing, chain stores, pet clothing, lawyers, ethnic markets, bakeries, and restaurants. We finally arrived at Burger’s Priest to find a packed place the size of Ann’s bedroom with only a few stools and a sign saying no eating in the store, (although a couple people were on the stools eating). A young man waiting outside filled us in a little on how things worked and gave us his phone to see the actual menu online adding that you can pretty much tell them what you’d like and they’d make it for you, (the menu in the store basically said things like “hamburger” and “fries”. They also had gluten-free buns and fries for my mom, (not that fries tend to have gluten, but are often cooked in the same oil as other things that could contaminate them). Ann picked the “Pope” with bacon, lettuce and tomato, Liam a double burger with the same fixings, and the rest of us the “Priest”.
The next shock was that this place was cash-only and at this point cash reserves were low. But my parents managed to cover the bill. Now for the big question: where to eat? We were expecting a sit-down place and didn’t have a plan for that. But we figured there had to be a Starbucks nearby, (there seems to be one every few blocks here), so set out. Sure enough, the friendly green sign appeared a short ways away and we all piled in with our bags of burgers and fries to order a couple coffees.
Day 5: Squeezing the Last Out
First stop: Kensington Market. I put 1:30 in the meter and could have spent at least twice that there and neighboring Chinatown. But time was ticking. We got in the car a little late, but with no ticket, and headed back to Niagara to take the boat around the falls and visit the chocolate museum. Both were a success. Then back to the US with a late lunch at a Subway outside of Niagara. We planned to have dinner at Mexican town in Detroit, but the border crossing took longer than expected, so settled for Panera somewhere around Gratiot Ave. and a gas fill-up at much friendlier US prices at a nearby Meijer. It’s good to be home…