The start of a long-anticipated and carefully planned trip to the land of Linda’s birth; from Toronto in the east to the foot of the Rockies, then along the Trans-Canada highway through the mountain range, down the Okanagen Valley wine-country and finally west to Vancouver, to see our eldest son Ryan and his girl, Cheryl.
Our first stop, Toronto, we liked from the start. We felt welcomed and appreciated throughout our stay. Pearson international airport is connected to Union rail station by the efficient and accessible UP shuttle (named after the two destinations). Once downtown we dived into the maze of city transport services and found that the TTC subway system could get us closer to our hotel. The Osgoode stop has an elevator but, like many older networks, some don’t.
We spent the rest of Day One orientating ourselves around the hotel, taking photos at the nearby big-letter Toronto sign and working out the details of our Sunday pilgrimage to Oakville.
The next day was spare. Between research visits to the bars and restaurants along the waterfront, we watched water taxis plying for trade out to the hugely popular offshore island chain. God, but Canadians are active. If they’re not skiing or snow-shoeing by winter they are rafting, kayaking or (in this case) cycling everywhere. It’s exhausting. Unprepared for this, we strolled past tall ships and critiqued the approach techniques of smaller planes, on finals to Billy Bishop Airport.
I also experienced a Eureka moment. At the Amsterdam Brew House I consumed possibly the finest alcoholic drink of my entire life. A Caesar is the Canadian version of the Bloody Mary, but made with Clamato juice rather than TJ. Mine was garnished with a wedge of lime and a delicious pickled bean pod, and rimmed with celery salt. Not just a ‘lunch in a glass’; on that hot day, in that bar, with that cool sea-breeze and with ma best girl ba ma side, it was perfect.
The next day we caught the GO (Government of Ontario!) train to Oakville. The carriages are double-deckers and wheelchair users will find a raised platform ramp to the door of a passenger car, where a helpful guard will admit you via a level bridge. On our way back, by the time we’d gone down and up in the lifts to the platform, the Toronto train was ready to pull out and the doors had shut. The engineer saw us rolling madly towards the ramp and reset his brake, radioing his colleague to open the door for us. I can’t see that hapenning on Southwest Trains, or whatever they’re called this week.
There is no blue plaque at Linda’s birthplace, on Bridge Road in Oakville. Now more of a dormitory town to Toronto, the timber houses have little in common apart from automatic garage doors (for the winters) and cellars. The Failey family spent two years there until Alan, an aerospace engineer, lost his job overnight in what became known as the Avro Arrow scandal. He had to quickly leave his growing brood to seek work in the US, before returning home to join the British Aircraft Corporation. At the time he lost on the resale of their home but, with its proximity to Tornto and the rail ink, it is worth a bit more now.
We couldn’t not do Niagara Falls. I initially blanched at the idea. First weekend in August? In a coach? Are you mad? But I dutifully followed Linda onto one of several buses collecting from our hotel alone. Our only hope was that the low grey cloud would put off the thousands of fellow travellers.
A coach trip there has its advantages though, I have to say. Primarily, your booked slot in one of the boats means you don’t have to queue for hours. It’s also a flog from the rail station. Side trips are usually included; we visited the manicured lawns and spotless streets of Niagara-by-the-Lake, and the enthusiastic staff of the nascent Ontario wine industry. (They make a passable Riesling and a concentrated ice-syrup that works well as a topping or Balsamic-type dressing.)
And you get a courier. Ours was Alex, a giant Canuck with an accent straight out of Just for Laughs (Juste pour rire). He taught us how to say ‘Toronno’, ‘Kebeck’ and ‘Hawkey’, pointed out the queues we were about to jump and the (other operator) attractions that were best avoided. He kept up the patter all the way there and concentrated on the driving all the way back.
You have to do the boat ride. It’s a life experience. It is indeed an awe-inspiring sight from the cliff-top but you only get the full thunderous roar of the falls from being set practically alongside in a boat. Not the Maid of the Mist any more, by the way. Its operator lost the Canadian contract and now services the US side. The only real downside is struggling with a plastic kagoule. But you will otherwise get soaked. And it is free.
Being at the bottom of a sheer drop, wheelchair access involves taking an alternative route to that used by the hoi-polloi. It involves several lifts and some steep slopes. It is do-able but perhaps not solo. You need someone like Alex.
It was hard to imagine Toronto in the winter; it gets some horrific snow-dumps off the Great Lakes. On days like these the denizens take to the PATH; a mostly underground pedestrian walkway network ithat connects more than 371,600 square metres (4 million sq ft) of restaurants, shopping, services and entertainment. That must make a great difference to wheelchair users’ mobility.
On our last night we visited the Senator, this year marking its 70th anniversary as a diner and the oldest one in town. The Thai Red Curry Bowl certainly packs a punch, but after an initial coughing fit I took to the task. The server told that, before me, no one had ever finished it.
I bet she says that to all the boys. Roll on the Rockies.