Another destination ticked off from a travel list many of us have in our buckets. Although, Canada was there, and yet not there on mine. A cold distant country that sits on top of the mighty US of A, and a magnet for immigrants with an eye on the social security provided by the government... that's what it was to me. All very staid. Why it was there at all was because of relatives, those ubiquitous blood connections we Indians have in all corners of the globe. The invitation to visit was long-standing and sincere, but the time was never right. And then it happened — the call came.
What's striking about Canada are the wide open spaces and the greenery: It is lush and verdant, and spotlessly clean. The infrastructure is geared to everybody, with particular care for the elderly and those with disabilities. For a first-timer from India, it appears sparsely denizened, a huge landmass with facilities made with utter care for so few people. Tim Horton's is the ubiquitous coffee chain found in virtually every corner in this country. Its ice cafe is a version of a frappe, and most welcome in the heat. Summer here is nothing like what many Indians imagine: Acres of snow blanketing everything, from roads to tree-tops to roofs. It's a surprise then to have to dress in summer clothing like shorts and tees. Toronto is so cosmopolitan that you won't feel as if you are in North America. With snatches of dialects and languages from around the globe to deal with, you could be mistaken for thinking it's a united nations, a true melting pot of nationalities with costumes to match, and perhaps a glimpse into the future given the mass movement of people from all corners of the earth.
Also read: From Russia with love
The only thing I wanted to do was to visit the Niagara Falls about 70km from Toronto. A boring ambition, no doubt, given that the falls are as ubiquitous as our Taj Mahal, and imagine someone coming to India for the first time and not going to Agra to see the dream in marble. As any natural wonder, the falls are spectacular, the watery horseshoe a riveting spectacle that changes colour every few feet.
The sound of the water is almost like a loud musical accompaniment. The rainbow that encircles it is more vivid and seems thicker than any you would ever have seen. Once you've had your fill of the water, hop into The Maid of the Mist, a boat service operating at Niagara Falls since 1848: It will take you to the heart of the falls and right up to the thundering gush of water.
Downtown Toronto, the main business centre in the heart of the city, is where you feel the pulse of this country that spans half the continent of North America. If you want to visit downtown for shopping, the Eaton Center is a good option and where you get a sense of the Canadian way. Soon after, head to the aquarium which is about twenty minutes away. Dubai Mall in Dubai gives you an entire wall with all sorts of fish, even sharks. But here at Ripley's Aquarium, ten galleries show you the habitat of various species.
Also read: The world's most exotic beach getaways
Built in 1976, CN Tower vies for space in the tallest category. And it was for some years before the Burj Khalifa in Dubai edged it down. Zooming up the elevator of the CN Tower and then hanging over the edge on the Edge Walk, harnessed of course, is the stuff of tourist must-dos. This is where you can grab a bite or just while away the time.
Right under Eaton, there's PATH, almost an entire city that stretches up to 30km. Less touristy than most other places, residents dash about getting in salon appointments, shopping, getting their groceries and essentials. It's a huge relief when the snow sits on the ground overhead for months on end.
After the long walk underground, The Elephant and Castle is the choice for its quirky name. It's a cheerful pub that serves a variety of beer and where portions are huge (as they are everywhere in Canada).
If you are in the mood for some time travel, head to the Medieval Times Entertainment, housed in the CNE Government Building. Dress up as a Lord and Lady for dinner and drinks — a four-course meal, no less — as you watch knights in medieval armour and on horseback jousting and sword-fighting.
The vibe everywhere leans towards the casual, even around the office complexes. Fine-dining is also not formal. After mostly eating at food courts, when it's time for a treat, we pick Spoon and Fork for its famous pan-Asian menu. Paired with Japan's Sapporo beer, which is light on the palate, and is the perfect accompaniment to the Korean platter of ribs that are a new taste. The restaurant is packed. We are a huge table, and the service is slow. There'd be frayed tempers elsewhere, but diners here are tolerant of this. The food is great and that's all that matters. For something different, try a walk-about at Distillery District, a quirky place. As the name suggests, it was once a distillery and is now dotted with restaurants, art galleries and quaint curio shops. Pop-up art installations and musicians belting out music on a summer evening are big tourist magnets.
For that mandatory touristy itinerary The Parliament buildings can't be missed. They are architecturally beautiful, and on Canada Day (July 1), the premier Justin Trudeau, known to be accessible and friendly, steps out to exchange greetings with his country(wo)men. What better way to celebrate than with fireworks at Pickering Nuclear Station that are a sight to behold.
Also read: Japan beyond Tokyo
If you have half a day, checking out all things science might be a good idea. The Ontario Science Center is an interactive experience with adults trying their hand at the various activities along with the kids. Segments are added as theories change and ideas and innovations develop and are brought into the mainstream.
It's summer and there's a lot to pack in. Food festivals, music outdoors, art, it's all there waiting to be experienced. In a bid to try something different everyday, this time it's a Mexican meal of quesidillas and fajitas washed down with sangria at Pancho Villa in Byward Market, which is where a lot of restaurants offer cuisines from various parts of the globe.
Time to get in a church visit. The Notre Dame Basilica has beautiful stained glass windows, and a gold-leaf covered wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, sculpted by Spanish artist Carbona that looms large over an ornate altar.
The National Art Gallery across the road has a vast collection of artworks ranging from the new artists to the masters of the Renaissance, and a special capsule of Paul Gauguin.
A meal at Nate's on Sparks Street which is in the area, has the best pulled pork poutine. Poutine is what could go for Canada cuisine, it is certainly popular and comes in various options. The classic has cheese curds over fries, with vegetables and meat variations. There's even a butter chicken one.
It's a good idea to spend a few hours on the lawns of this British legacy. The Governor General's House is an imposing structure that sits on an impressive acreage of green with a cluster of cedars and other trees that are thick enough to provide a forest-like feel in the heart of the city. And that's one of the striking features in Canada. The country abounds in greenery in small neighbourhoods and long drives along the highways.
Still want to explore more of Canada? Check out the Marina. There are a fleet of boats in all sizes and types anchored at Ashbridge's Bay Park, many of them privately owned. It's possible to rent a yacht for a day or days, whatever one's schedule allows. To cool off, it's ice-cream at Murphy's on Streetsville which has a huge selection of flavours. Benches outside are full of friends and families along with pets indulging a sweet tooth. A variety of cuisines is easily available at the numerous food courts. Jimmy the Greek turns out to be a winner — the roasted lamb is tender and succulent. There's Bourbon St Grill, too (among so many others. But there's only so much you can eat!) that does the best pork ribs.
Also read: Top 10 must-dos in Gothenburg
To shake hands with yesterday, a boat ride is all it takes. A leisurely cruise on the 1000 Islands in Gananoque on the St Lawrence River is like being in a time warp. UNESCO protects the old way of life and this is where some native Canadians continue to live. Some houses remain as they were, while others are palatial second homes for weekend getaways.
Going for lunches or birthdays to neighbouring islands on boats is quaint in a city that has the latest luxury cars parked in many a driveway. A picnic on benches overlooking the water is idyllic where time doesn't matter, the sort of thing one does on a holiday.