When I was very – very – young, my family emigrated to Canada. Dad lived in Toronto for a time, then moved to Hamilton and mum and I came out to join him. Things didn’t work out for various reasons, and after a couple of years we were back in Glasgow. Later he got a job in Grangemouth, and we lived there until I went off to university.
It had always been in my mind to visit this part of Canada. My wife and I had travelled over the Rockies, and visited Vancouver and Vancouver Island, but I wanted to see Toronto and Hamilton, and that whole area.
My dad passed away in 2017, shortly after his 96th birthday. Having spoken to him over the years about his life there, and as a sort of tribute to him, we decided to do that Canadian trip. Our only regret was that we couldn’t discuss it with him afterwards.
We flew from Edinburgh to Toronto’s Pearson airport. There we had an amazingly long drive from the plane to the terminal building, but then an easy transfer to the shuttle train into Union Station – one of those magnificent stations that the North Americans do so well. (It’s also being expanded and developed.)
The walk to our hotel was a little tricky, because we went the wrong way initially – my fault (probably) – but we got there without too much hassle. The place was lovely, and the room just fine. We were staying for four nights.
Our hotel was close to the University area, and a couple blocks away from Yonge Street, the longest street in Canada, which runs from Lake Ontario to Lake Huron. Originally it was a trading route: from Lake Ontario you can get to the Atlantic and hence Europe to sell your furs.
First activity was exploring the area. We were very central, with lots of student stuff nearby. There were restaurants, bars and street food places – a great buzz about the place.
The morning after an early night we found a nearby place for breakfast – a typical big North American breakfast that lasted all day. In fact, there were two different places close to each other and we alternated, depending on how busy they were.
The hop-on hop-off bus tour, of course, was our priority. This was doubly fascinating. We saw the city, of course, including the massive Chinatown, but also the area that used to be Toronto’s version of Greenwich Village, where Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Gordon Lightfoot had all honed their talents.
We explored the St Lawrence Market, where I could happily shop every day, and the Distillery District, where I could happily drink every day.
There is also an underground shopping centre – ideal in the winter. The only problem is that when you emerge at street level you’re totally disorientated.
The waterfront, on Lake Ontario, is beautiful – and it’s got a place with a collection of old steam engines and rolling stock. And a brewery. As we sat with a beer looking at the map, the waitress asked if we needed help. We’ve seen this a lot in Canada; people are friendly and helpful.
Down there, by the marinas, there was a café selling Beavertails. These are pastries that look like… well, beaver tails. With a choice of fillings and toppings, including chocolate sauce, banana and smarties.
One day was a boat trip out amongst the islands, where the houses are ultra-expensive and the waiting list – which costs a lot to just stay on – is literally a lifetime. We got our picture looking back at Toronto – you know the one that everyone has.
In the queue for that boat we recognised a Scottish voice and got chatting. He was in Rotary and knew one of our friends from Nairn. We also spoke to a local and told him I’d once lived in Hamilton. ‘Ah – Steeltown,’ he said. Not the most desirable location, it seems – Mississauga, between Hamilton and Toronto, is a better place to stay.
We wanted to go up the CN Tower, of course. We had been told that the clever way to do this is book lunch there. It’s quite expensive but covers the entry charge. And the restaurant revolves!
Up we went, and spent some time walking round and taking photographs until our table was ready. We stood on the glass floor looking down.
We were right at the outside. Overcome by the view we ordered a bottle of wine – low alcohol wine is quite a thing here (10%) and is probably sensible at lunchtime.
As we ate and drank, and the restaurant revolved, we took dozens of photographs. We saw the whole city, including the little airport just offshore. The main impression was how flat it is for miles and miles. There were the Lawrentian Mountains to the north, but looking west it seemed like it was flat all the way to the Rockies.
Nearby was the Blue Jays stadium where they were preparing for an Ed Sheerin concert, which had got the locals excited. I was more excited by the Toronto Book Festival – which we were going to miss. I had a dream that one day I’d be invited to speak there.
Our final impression of Toronto was that it was multi-cultural, laid-back, and lovely.
We picked up the hire car, with sat-nav, and negotiated our way onto the Gardiner Expressway. Once on it, and it mutated into Queen Elizabeth Way, the driving was easy.
We bypassed Hamilton, on a lake-side causeway, but we could see the steelworks, where my dad had worked all those years ago. It looked smoky and gloomy, I have to say, contrasting with the bright sunshine all around.
Nearing Niagara we ran into heavy traffic. This was the end of a US holiday – Labor Day – and they were all heading home. There was gridlock on the approach to the bridge that led to the US. (This is no longer an open border.)
We got to our hotel though. On the way to our room we passed other rooms being cleaned, and we could see the Falls. Our room had the full Falls view that we’d requested. First thing we did was to turn the sofa round so that we could look at that view. (There are many hotels around. One or two say they are ‘Falls view hotels’. In other words, from the corner of one or two rooms you might glimpse the Falls.)
We sat for a while, captivated by the view, and then headed out for something to eat and a closer look. We walked all the way up to the Horseshoe Falls (the Canadian one). I had my picture taken sitting with my back to the railings and the American Falls. This matched the one taken when I’d been here last – some sixty-four years before. I put the two pictures, side by side, on FaceBook, with the intended punchline that the Falls hadn’t changed but I had every so slightly. But that wasn’t true; the American Falls had suffered a major rockfall in 1955, after my first picture was taken, and the difference is obvious. (It is expected that the American Falls will continue to degenerate over hundreds of years until it becomes a series of rapids.)
There is a huge funfair here, but it’s not really intrusive from the Canadian side.
That evening we did the sunset Falls boat trip, with fireworks. On board the Hornblower we chatted to a couple from Edmonton. This was their first visit here. We told them we were finishing our trip with a cruise, and they said they’d been planning for years to do that trip with another couple, but the husband had died so that wasn’t going to happen now. Do it while you can, people.
On the subject of the Falls boat trips, we had been confused and a little worried about the difference between the Hornblower (from the Canadian side) and the Maid of the Mist (from the US side). It turns out that they are identical, which is just as well because you don’t really have a choice of which to take these days.
The experience was unforgettable, riding right up close to where that water thundered down, spray everywhere, the crowd on the boat shrieking. It was all familiar from photographs and videos – not least one of the Superman films – but different in real life. We didn’t know about that huge hydro station built into the bank.
The next day we did the ride in daylight, and also the Behind the Falls tour, just to fully get the power of that awesome display. Two thousand four hundred cubic metres of water a second. Not the tallest waterfall in the world, but the biggest by volume. And loud!
I’d like to claim that I had residual memories of being here, but I haven’t.
My wife had met a Canadian couple on a train journey a few months before, and spoken to them about the planned trip. ‘You simply must visit Niagara-on-the-Lake.’
So we followed the course of the Niagara River to that town. On the way we stopped to take a journey on the Whirlpool Aero car, where the river takes a sharp right-turn and has carved out this churning circular area. Over thousands of years the Falls have retreated back up to where they are now, and you can understand the erosion: the bank with its steep sides.
Niagara-on-the-lake is simply a gorgeous place. We spoke to the woman in Tourist Information and noted her Scottish accent; she was from Tayport, just across the Tay from us. ‘What attracted you here?’ I joked, and then got the sad story of her marriage, emigration, and divorce. Ah well. For the rest of the time we just walked around, down to the shore, looking at the lake. I remembered my mother saying how we’d once tried to go for a swim on a very hot day and the lake was absolutely freezing cold!
On the way back to our hotel, we popped into a winery for a tasting. Well, you have to.
The border with the US runs down the middle of the Niagara river (and out into the lake). All the way down the river we kept getting messages ‘welcome to the US’ then ‘welcome to Canada’ and ‘welcome to the US’ and so on.
We had a deadline to get back to Toronto with the hire car, but we wanted to drive into Hamilton. This we did. I have no idea where my parents’ house had been, but I was struck how the houses came right down to the huge steel works, with the fumes and pollution. We paused at the waterfront, which was lovely.
Then it was back to Toronto, and a nightmare. The traffic ground to a halt, and the sat-nav packed in. We arrived a few minutes late, checked in the car – the woman said it was fine, no worries – and made our way to Union Station. It was only the following month that we found that Avis had charged us a half-day’s rental for returning the car late. How nice of them.
We’d originally thought of driving to Montreal, but then decided the train was a better bet so that’s what we did.
The train was very comfortable, roomy and relaxing, even though the scenery wasn’t the most amazing. On the way the announcements changed from English-then-French to French-then-English then French.
We collected our luggage, found the Metro station, and routed ourselves to the Longeuil area south of the river where our hotel was. Some of the Metro stations are old, without escalators. Not easy! But the hotel was beside the destination station. The room was fairly basic, but clean and comfortable.
We reversed our journey into the city centre to find food and drink. Drink in bars and restaurants was quite pricy, but a bottle-shop was settling local beers incredibly cheaply. I bought all we could carry.
Unsurprisingly we had the hop-on hop-off bus tour the next day. Equally unsurprisingly, the highlight was the repeated references to Leonard Cohen, from McGill University to the murals of him, and a sighting of the statue of the Madonna by the harbour (‘And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbour’ from Suzanne, © Leonard Cohen).
They too have an underground shopping centre, and there are small parks with bars and entertainers.
Montreal – ‘Mount Royal’ – is undoubtedly French, but despite our fears people speak English. Signs are in French, which I can read, but health and safety notices are also in English. One of my wife’s cousins was once married to a French-Canadian, and at the wedding I asked a group of her friends if the French could understand their French. They said it was a bit like American English and UK English. I also noted that some of the older relatives at that wedding spoke very little English.
We walked up the actual Mount Royal bit. We had beers in an outside open area near the harbour, with a band playing.
It’s a very cosmopolitan city with its China-town and its gay quarter. Everyone is laid-back – very Canadian – and the city is beautiful. Most of the city is on an island, with the St Lawrence River to the south and a narrower river to the north. These cities on the St Lawrence were the first to be founded, allowing access to the hunting grounds and trading routes.
For the final part of the trip we’d booked a Holland-America cruise from Montreal to Boston. It was a relatively small ship; bigger ones have to start at Quebec because of a low bridge at Montreal on the way out.
There was the usual getting on board routine, including the sail-away cocktails on deck. As we sailed away we settled into cruising life and watched the gorgeous sunset.
The St Lawrence River is relatively narrow all the way to Quebec. Then it widens.
Quebec – pronounced with a hard K at the start rather than the Qu sound – was first stop, and a tour of the city with time for a walk around at the end of the day.
Where Montreal was French, Quebec is France. From the names of all the streets and places to the language – it’s like you’re in France.
We went up to the iconic Frontenac hotel which dominates the city and caught a glimpse of luxury living.
Nearby is the big field that is the Heights of Abraham. I knew my history; brave Scottish – and English – soldiers storming the Heights to conquer the place for queen and country. The Quebecois tell it rather differently; skulduggery and cheating by unwanted invaders. (Too many people in England are nowadays referring to the glory days of the British Empire and wishing we could get back to those days. To them I say a) we shouldn’t really, and b) how?)
The Heights of Abraham became a golf course – 14 holes – for time, until somebody pointed out that this really was inappropriate.
After the tour we walked around, just drinking in the atmosphere, then back to the ship.
Prince Edward Island
The next day was a relaxing sea day, and the St Lawrence widened until we couldn’t see either side, although there were several big and small islands around, and boats. Sea days on cruises are relaxing; time to use the gym and/or the pool, walk round the deck, eat food. Then eat more food, and perhaps drink. Life pauses.
The next stop was Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province, and a tour of the island.
It’s tempting to think that people who live on islands far away from anywhere – wherever that is – feel and act isolated, but it’s not true. It’s not true of Orcadians, it’s not true of folk on Jura, and it’s not true here. They’re nice and funny – (best joke: ‘Tim Horton is merging with Starbuck’s and Second Cup to form a new coffee chain called Timbucktoo’. Oh, please yourselves.) and keen to show off their island.
This place was unspoilt, with big farmhouses almost everywhere and strange geology – red sandstone. It’s also home to Anne of Green Gables, where they have a farmhouse similar to the one where the author would have lived. You can try on a red pigtail wig and sit in a Surrey. I didn’t, but my wife did and I’ve sworn never to share the photographs.
To get to PEI (as everyone calls it) there is a very long bridge and a ferry. The bridge charges, the ferry doesn’t.
After the tour we wandered round the tiny main town and then got back on the ship for dinner. (This is one of the main – and valid – criticisms of cruising; relatively little money is spent in the towns the ships visit, because people get back on board for all their food, and usually all their drink too.)
Cape Breton Island
OK, so Quebec is France. Nova Scotia is Scotland. There’s a huge fiddle on the quayside at Sydney, and a piper standing near it. My wife wore her Runrig T-shirt (from their farewell concert of the month before) because this is where Bruce Guthro comes from.
There is a huge warehouse thing on the quay too, and inside was a craft fare. One of the stalls had an author selling her books – Beatrice MacNeil. I quickly Googled her and found out that she is a famous local author – she’s been at the Toronto Book Festival. I approached her and told her I was an author too and lived in Dundee.
‘Ah, you’ll know AL Kennedy then.’
Not quite. AL Kennedy had written a complimentary quote for the cover of Beatrice’s novel, and appeared with her at said book festival.
We chatted to some of the other stallholders. Many divided their time between here and Toronto.
We didn’t take a trip here, but just walked round the town. The record store had Bruce Guthro CDs for sale.
This was our most important stop (though I had tried to find a cruise that visited Newfoundland, but nothing worked).
Halifax was, in the days when immigrants mainly arrived by ship, the gateway to Canada. They were processed at Pier 21. Some were sent back to the ship to go home, while others went out the other side of the building and onto a train bound for Toronto.
In November 1951 one of these people was my dad. He’d sailed from Liverpool via Le Havre to Halifax. He had cousins already living in Toronto, and with his skills he easily found work. After a time he moved to Hamilton, and my mum came out with me.
My wife had been in touch with the people at Pier 21, the Canadian Museum of Immigration, and they found his details. When we got there they handed us an envelope with a copy of the sheet of paper that registered his arrival, along with other information about the ships that came here, and the life on board those ships, all crammed with hopeful immigrants.
It was all quite emotional and thought-provoking.
We explored the museum at Pier 21, and also the ship museum nearby. Old London buses took us on the hop-on hop-off tour of the city, past the graveyard where many of the victims of the Titanic are buried (taking cruise ship passengers to see that is considered hugely ironic).
We were told about the Halifax Explosion of 1917. There was a low-speed collision in the narrows off Halifax that started a fire on one of the ships involved. Hundreds of people came down to watch this spectacle, and then the ship – which had been packed with high explosives, en route to France – blew up. The shock wave obliterated large parts of the town, and killed around two thousand people, including those who had come to watch, snapped trees, and caused a tsunami that grounded ships. It was the largest man-made explosion ever, at that time.
Back on board our ship, we watched Halifax recede, and thought about my dad arriving there all those years ago, one of thousands of immigrants hoping for a better life than post-war Britain. (As far as I can gather, we returned to Glasgow because of the post-war NHS which could deal with my and my mother’s health problems.)
Bar Harbor, Maine USA
We’d been in Bar Harbor before, and all we wanted to do was walk round and eat some lobster.
We were officially arriving in the US. Border guards came aboard and checked all our documentation. Canadians were easily treated, but some others were questioned: why are you here? Why did you choose this holiday? One guy had, for some reason, not brought his passport; he couldn’t go ashore.
We were given our landing card and told to surrender it when we left Boston. There were no smiles, no welcomes.
Once ashore from the tender, we did a big circuit of the town, past big houses and bigger houses, until we reached the top of the town and had our lobster roll with local beers. It was a beautiful day, and it’s a beautiful part of the world. The people are friendly – almost Canadian-grade friendly, but not quite.
We arrived early in the morning at Boston and had to get off the ship; it was heading back the way we’d come, and many passengers were returning with it.
Our flight wasn’t until late afternoon, so we had a lot of time to kill, and it seemed the only way to do it was to take the bus tour of the city. We’d been here before too, and heard the history, but we went with it.
In our previous visit we’d gone to a local Rotary meeting, and chatted to a couple of people from Germany who were working at MIT.
‘Are you enjoying your visit?’
‘Yes,’ we said.
‘And you have heard all about the history.’
And there was a laugh. ‘History! Pah! Three hundred years. That’s not history. We are European – we have real history!’
It is a lovely city, though.
Then it was the airport and home.
We love Canada, and it’s sobering to reflect that I might have grown up there. When I was a teenager my dad had another offer to move there but declined. (My younger sister is furious that she isn’t Canadian.)
Canadians are lovely people. We’ve explored parts of the west and the east, though I still would like to see Newfoundland and more of the north-east – those fog banks I’ve heard so much about. Maybe one day.
As I said earlier, I’d spoken to my dad a lot over the years about his life in Canada. Our only regret is that we didn’t do this trip sooner; it would have been so good to have told him about it all when we got home.