I spend as much of the morning as I see wandering around the Mont Royal Park in the snow and ice. And by now the paths are mostly ice. It's pretty dicey walking around, but I succeed in putting off the inevitable until I'm back on concrete. Ouch.

I hobble back into town and from there out to the mostly deserted 1976 Olympic Stadium. It's a splendid view out over Montreal from the tower, but the whole thing feels woefully underutilised. And let's be honest, it's a concrete nightmare.

Montreal itself feels wonderfully liveable. For a start, everywhere I've stayed in this country believes that "coffee-making facilities" means ground coffee and a cafetiere. (They also believe in free wifi where most equivalent places in other countries tend to charge outrageous prices). Coffee culture in general is pervasive here, and it's particularly welcome in the snowy weather. That cold may be what I came here for - and the city wears the snowfall well - but it is nice to get out of sometimes.

Toronto was a pretty nice place, but compared with Montreal, it's a little bland. Montreal has richer architecture (glossing over the Olympic Park there) and just feels more arty and eclectic.

Posted Fri Nov 26 00:00:00 2010 Tags: Canada

I have a flight this morning from Toronto's crazy Island airport, with its 40 metre ferry service. The airport itself is slick and efficient. I was expecting something much more tinpot, but it's very posh and comfortable in the terminal, and the planes are the same.

Montreal airport, by contrast, is miles from anywhere. Happily, there's an airport bus; at the end of which (completely by chance) lies my hotel. My check in conversation goes something like

YT: J'ai reservé une chambre au nom de Georgeson.
FCSR: Vous habitez à l'Arabie Saoudite?
YT: Oui, c'est vrai.
FCSR: بتتكلّم عربي
YT: شوي شوي wait, no-one told me that language was on the exam.

On my first exploration of the city, I stumble upon another venue offering me KT Tunstall, and this time TicketMaster is nowhere to be seen. I happily buy my entertainment for the evening from the box office in the salubrious end of town, nestled between two establishments promising dancers à gogo.

A swift half in the Old Town later, and it's time for the gig, during which we learn that the Auld Alliance between Scotland and the French is not as strong as it once was.

Posted Thu Nov 25 00:00:00 2010 Tags: Canada

Day two in Toronto and there are two items on my agenda - the art gallery and the CN Tower. I stop at a hippy fairtrade cafe for a liquid breakfast before popping into the gallery at opening time.

I only intended to spend a couple of hours there, but the collection is excellent, stretching from the usual overstrained metaphors of contemporary art to an engrossing timeline of Canadian art, a great collection of Henry Moores and a striking exhibition of wonderfully dark sculpture from Toronto artist Shary Boyle. It's gone 3 by the time I leave dragging aching feet and containing some nice curry soup.

I don't take the underground route to the CN Tower, mostly because it doesn't go that far. It's city streets all the way.

The lift up to the top is another one of those horrifying glass fronted jobs. This time I'm prepared, by standing as far away as possible from the front. Or at the back as it's also known.

After some gawping from the observation deck, I head on up to the skypod, which is apparently the highest building observation deck in the world. But since the info here omits the Burj Khalifa completely, we can't be entirely sure that's still true.

Still, the view over the city is splendid, even more as the sun sets and lights come on all over the city. The downtown area is lit up spectacularly from our vantage point. I decide to get my money's worth by having my dinner up there as well. My Ultimate Burger comes piled up high enough that even the steak knife skewering it is hidden from view by a stack of onion rings. And despite the knife and cocktail sticks holding it together, it's still toppling and I'm forced to carefully dismantle it for eating.

I head to the nearest bit of underground on leaving the tower, which turns out not to be that near, and get cheerfully lost below the ground before finding my way back to the hotel.

Posted Wed Nov 24 00:00:00 2010 Tags: Canada

I lose my morning due to having different time-keeping devices set to different timezones. Niagara Falls' downtown area, where the people actually live, is a couple of miles from the tourist centre and turns out to be quite nice. The bus terminal on the other hand is a little past its sell-by date and doesn't have the coffee shops I was hoping for.

My bus to Toronto turns out to be from the future, promising power sockets and wireless internets. If I'd been paying attention I wouldn't have just thrown my laptop in the hold. I use my iPhone to alert the rest of the world to the arrival of the future. However I discover the bus is only from next Tuesday when the wifi conks out a few miles outside Niagara Falls.

The bus offers a swift slice of small-town Canadian scenery before giving me my third Great Lake of the week, Lake Ontario. Toronto slowly approaches. As we grind up the lake shore the buildings gradually embiggen until we find ourselves in the familiar territory of crawling through city centre traffic. I've deliberately picked a hotel a short walk from the coach terminal, a walk which takes me across what appears to be Piccadilly Circus done Canadian style - an increased density of neon signs surrounding a small square, and very very cold.

The hotel is cramped, but also clean, warm, comfortable and central. I'm not intending to spend much time awake here anyway. I head out again for a somewhat undirected wander around the downtown, and it only takes a few paces for a brewpub to catch my eye as a suitable lunching place...

I'm just getting nicely frozen when I notice an entire Toronto under the city streets and take advantage of it to leave the cold behind. It's not always easy to navigate though. I pop up again after a while and discover I've ended up at the lake front. After after taking time to admire the view, I disappear back down and find my way back to the hotel. The route - or at least my route - takes me past the local enormodome, which is offering a KT Tunstall concert. And having tempted me with that, reveals that it's a Ticketmaster affair and hence there's no chance of tickets other than by post. Grr.

Posted Tue Nov 23 00:00:00 2010 Tags: Canada

Up at an uncivilised hour in order to get a lift to O'Hare on my host's way into work. I use my 2 ½ hours at O'Hare productively by losing my boarding pass. Best guess is that it got scooped out of the tray by the X-ray machine. The drama is fairly anticlimactic as the gate staff replace it the moment they finish their conversation.

As my waiting approaches its end, the skies darken and the lightning starts up. Operations close the gate down and we wait out the rain. We're about an hour late when the storm passes and we get to depart.

It's a short flight, and we've pulled back 20 minutes by the time we land in Buffalo. The best way of getting to Niagara Falls from here appears to be a $45 taxi. Half a hour and $50 later, I'm standing happily by the side of the Niagara River in cheerful anticipation of seeing one of the iconic places of the world.

The waters from the US side are, as promised, less spectacular. It isn't long before I walk across the bridge, out of the US and into Canada.

My first experience in Canada is a Canadian grill which allows me to breakfast on Proper Bacon overlooking the Falls. My second experience is getting my cash card rejected and having to exist on plastic.

The Falls are indeed spectacular from this angle, and I gradually walk the length of the Parkway to the Horseshoe Falls in the deteriorating weather. It's hard to say whether the water in the air is spray or rain. Whichever it is, it's definitely wet. It's also obscuring the view - the middle of the Falls is a white out from all directions.

I'm trying not to be too BTDT about the whole experience, but particularly here in the off season, there isn't that much to entertain you once you've gazed upon the water. I come back for a fresh look when it gets dark and complete my visit by getting the experience of the Falls all lit up. It's pretty funky picked out in the multicoloured lighting, but it's also properly raining now so I finish my tourism for the evening and go to warm up in a coffee shop.

After almost a full day in Canada, I feel I'm experienced enough to share some observations on Canadians. Most importantly, they really do say 'eh'. They also do put cinnamon on everything. And finally... It's odd - the moment I step off the bridge, it all just feels more relaxed and easy-going. Canada, eh?

Posted Mon Nov 22 00:00:00 2010 Tags: Canada