CANADA

Two mil­lion bot­tles of beer on the wall? Driv­ing the Trans-Canada High­way with three kids on board.

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY CHRISTO­PHER EL­LIOTT

The Trans-Canada High­way stretches nearly 5,000 miles and crosses six time zones. If you’re in a rush, you can prob­a­bly drive it in a week. But add a tem­per­a­men­tal SUV, two work­ing par­ents and three school-age kids, and it turns into a month-long ad­ven­ture.

Mo­tor­ing from one end of Canada to the other is a once-in-al­ife­time jour­ney, but see­ing it through the eyes of three chil­dren, ages 9, 11 and 14, makes it all the more won­drous — and worth­while.

Our TCH trip took place in two stages. Part one, from Mon­treal to Van­cou­ver in early fall; part two from Ot­tawa to Char­lot­te­town, on Prince Ed­ward Is­land, in late spring. Grant me a small lit­er­ary li­cense to tell the story from east to west.

Amer­i­cans are born with an al­most DNA-level de­sire to take big road trips: The TCH beck­oned us, her kilo­me­ters of open road wait­ing to be ex­plored. I had high hopes of shar­ing the di­verse cul­tures and must-see land­marks north of the bor­der with my kids, and while I did, I’m pretty sure they’ll re­mem­ber the trip as a culi­nary tour.

Our jour­ney be­gan in Char­lot­te­town, on Canada’s At­lantic coast. Dur­ing the sum­mer of 1884, this sea­side vil­lage was the site of a meet­ing that led to the Cana­dian con­fed­er­a­tion. Prince Ed­ward Is­land — or PEI, as the lo­cals call it — is also home to one of Canada’s most fa­mous beaches, the Singing Sands in Basin Head Pro­vin­cial Park. The beach hums when you drag your feet along its pow­dery quartz sand.

But when we vis­ited, the only sound we could hear was the rain beat­ing re­lent­lessly against our um­brel­las. Cu­ri­ously, the PEI an­swer to cold weather is ice cream. The place to go is Cows, which has lo­ca­tions through­out the is­land and bovine-themed fla­vors like Wowie Cowie and Gooey Mooey. What’s in them? Rib­bons of caramel, choco­late and in­gre­di­ents most adults should only eat spar­ingly — such as bub­ble gum, cake frost­ing and rain­bow sprin­kles. Years from now, the kids will have long for­got­ten our week-long visit to the birth­place of the Cana­dian con­fed­er­a­tion and the rainy beach. But we’ll al­ways have Cows.

The baguettes of Mon­treal

It’s a full day’s drive from Char­lot­te­town to Mon­treal along roads that in­vite you to ex­plore New Brunswick and Que­bec. The kids, nor­mally ei­ther trans­fixed by a Roblox ses­sion or tak­ing swings at each other in the back seat, seemed dis­tracted by the French road signs, but in a kind of ed­u­ca­tional way. Yes, Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! is a funny name for a town, chil­dren. There’s prob­a­bly more where that came from. We should re­ally take that French im­mer­sion class next sum­mer.

It takes a lot of dis­ci­pline to re­sist the de­tour, but your re­ward is Mon­treal, and it’s quite the trophy. It can seem more French than France, yet is also thor­oughly Cana­dian. There was only one way to see this place: by bi­cy­cle.

Hun­dreds of miles of bike paths criss­cross the city. We took a spin around town in un­sea­son­ably balmy weather, ped­al­ing past the port through the is­lands of Mon­treal to the site of the 1967 World’s Fair. High­lights in­cluded run­ning the Cir­cuit Gilles Vil­leneuve, Mon­treal’s For­mula One track and a close en­counter with the rag­ing St. Lawrence River, which en­gulfs the is­lands on both sides. Watch­ing the fer­ries push against the rapids us­ing the power of the cur­rent to move down­stream, with a grand view of the city, was one of the most mem­o­rable parts of our jour­ney.

And what will the kids re­mem­ber from this bike tour? “The baguettes,” ex­claimed my youngest daugh­ter. Fresh out of the oven from one of the city’s many boulan­geries. We paired it with soft cheese and a fruit plate, bought from At­wa­ter Marche, one of Mon­treal’s fa­mous pub­lic mar­kets. Sigh.

The mousse of Ot­tawa

About two hours down the road, we pulled into Canada’s cap­i­tal.

We dragged the kids to all the req­ui­site tourist at­trac­tions, which in­cluded the Par­lia­ment and the Rideau Canal, with its im­pres­sive stair-step locks that lead to the Ot­tawa River. The kids com­plied with­out mak­ing a fuss. Our fourth “child” — our finicky Honda Pi­lot — wasn’t as well be­haved. As we nav­i­gated Ot­tawa’s nar­row streets, a blink­ing light started to nag us about low pres­sure in our front right tire. I thought it was a faulty sen­sor, as all of the tires on our SUV ap­peared to be in­flated.

We spent the af­ter­noon in the Cana­dian Avi­a­tion and Space Mu­seum, hop­ing our technology-en­am­ored teenage son would con­nect with some of the ex­hibits. The dis­plays are sep­a­rated the­mat­i­cally into is­lands within the large, hangar-like build­ing. One ex­hibit in par­tic­u­lar drew his at­ten­tion. It was ded­i­cated to the Cana­dian avi­a­tion pioneers who flew into the re­motest parts of the coun­try in air­craft such as the de Hav­il­land Canada DHC-2 Beaver, first placed in ser­vice in 1947. He’s into that kind of thing.

But not as much as the By Ward Mar­ket, a dis­trict filled with shops, bak­eries and bou­tiques. Our visit co­in­cided with the an­nual week­end dur­ing which we cel­e­brate three fam­ily birth­days. A cake needed to be bought. The kids bounced from one patis­serie to the next, search­ing for the per­fect baked goods, and fi­nally con­sulted the great or­a­cle — Yelp — be­fore de­cid­ing on a hazel­nut mousse cake from a small French bak­ery on Bank Street. Long af­ter they’ve for­got­ten the locks of the Rideau, we’ll all be re­mind­ing each other of the hazel­nut mousse.

The meat of Toronto

By the time we reached Toronto, a four-hour drive away, we de­cided to try re­verse psy­chol­ogy. In­stead of mak­ing the food an af­ter­thought, why not think of it as the main course? No sooner had we landed in Canada’s most pop­u­lous city than we headed to the St. Lawrence Mar­ket, where we had promised the kids a visit to the leg­endary Carousel Bak­ery. Our young food­ies had heard about the peameal ham sand­wich — we Amer­i­cans re­fer to it as Cana­dian ba­con — and des­per­ately wanted to try it. Try it they did. We scarfed down seven sand­wiches. The adults ap­plied hot mus­tard for a lit­tle ex­tra zing.

I ad­mit, the ham sand­wich is a great ex­cuse to visit Toronto. The meat is del­i­cate and fla­vor­ful with­out be­ing over­pow­er­ingly salty or sweet. But once we fin­ished, I said, “Okay, kids, can we see Toronto now?” When they agreed, I thought that our par­ent mind tricks had fi­nally worked.

But kids are clever. Even as we walked past the Leg­isla­tive Assem­bly, through Queen’s Park and around the Univer­sity of Toronto, with post­card views of the iconic CN Tower, I could al­most feel the grav­i­ta­tional pull to­ward ev­ery cafe. Be­fore we could fin­ish our hike through town, we had been sucked into one, where the chil­dren per­suaded us to try the cof­fee cake. Their ex­cuse? They wanted to see if it tasted like Amer­i­can cof­fee cake. It kind of did.

I know what you’re think­ing: This sounds like a great va­ca­tion. And it was great — mostly — if not al­ways a va­ca­tion in the tra­di­tional sense. Be­tween driv­ing, par­ent­ing from be­hind the wheel and plan­ning daily ex­cur­sions, there was work, and lots of it. The al­most-con­stant search for a re­li­able WiFi sig­nal de­fined al­most ev­ery day on the road. I was knee-deep in dead­lines and cop­ing with the un­ex­pected death of a close friend. My bet­ter half, Kari, was wrestling with dead­lines of her own, on top of mak­ing sure our home-schooled kids fin­ished their as­sign­ments.

Even our SUV was feel­ing the strain. It didn’t have a faulty sen­sor af­ter all. In­stead, a nail had bur­rowed it­self into a tire, set­ting off the alarms.

In Toronto, things started to come apart at the seams. We’d lined up ren­tals at our pre­vi­ous des­ti­na­tions through VRBO, but be­cause of a sched­ul­ing er­ror, found our­selves sud­denly home­less there. We scraped to­gether a few ho­tel points and found a Stay­bridge Suites in Markham with room for us.

It was nei­ther the first nor the last time we asked our­selves, “What are we do­ing here?”

The fish of Win­nipeg

A few days later, we stopped in Thun­der Bay, which will for­ever be known as A Good Place for Fin­nish Pan­cakes. (Check out the Hoito Restau­rant, known across Canada for its lettu, or thin, plate-size pan­cakes.) Fi­nally, af­ter two un­in­ter­rupted days in the car, we de­cided to make our last stand for ex­panded cul­tural hori­zons in Win­nipeg. The chil­dren needed en­light­en­ment, so we took them to the Cana­dian Mu­seum for Hu­man Rights, with its thought-pro­vok­ing dis­plays that climb to­ward a glass spire over­look­ing the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal.

We ex­am­ined a rare copy of the Magna Carta. We strolled through ex­hibits that ex­plored ev­ery kind of hu­man rights vi­o­la­tion. And then, just as I thought the kids un­der­stood what this road trip was all about, and as I be­gan to be­lieve they were mak­ing con­tact with the real Canada, they asked about din­ner.

As it turned out, they had a place in mind — the nearby Forks Mar­ket, an­other one of those Cana­dian food courts where you can find al­most any­thing. The kids de­cided that, as they were thou­sands of miles from the ocean, they re­quired fish and chips — which they found at a place called Fergie’s. I think it was the long line that made them ask for it; they never eat fish at home. Win­nipeg may not have deep­ened their so­cial con­science, but it cer­tainly ex­panded their ap­pre­ci­a­tion of seafood. I’ll take it.

The pou­tine of ev­ery­where

A day’s drive west, across the flat prairie of Man­i­toba, we ar­rived in Regina. Un­til now, this road trip had been a se­ries of “oohs” and “aahs” and “let’s-sto­phere’s” but the Cana­dian prairie is a dif­fer­ent kind of ex­pe­ri­ence, with vast stretches of flat­ness, farm­land and open fields with noth­ing to do ex­cept count down the kilo­me­ters. It tests your pa­tience and your en­durance. You do not hear the words, “Are we there yet?” com­ing from the back seat. Those words do not ex­ist, be­cause you want to ar­rive at your des­ti­na­tion sane.

Of all of our the planned ac­tiv­i­ties, I most looked for­ward to vis­it­ing the train­ing head­quar­ters for the Royal Cana­dian Mounted Po­lice (RCMP) and its Her­itage Cen­ter, which has ex­hibits and mul­ti­me­dia dis­plays that ex­plain the law en­force­ment agency’s ori­gins.

Noth­ing could be more Cana­dian than the RCMP, with its trade­mark red uni­forms and Stetson hats. The mu­seum was ev­ery­thing I had hoped for, and be­cause we were there in the early af­ter­noon, we had a chance to see a prac­tice parade at the RCMP Academy.

We’d made it half a day with­out stum­bling into an­other culi­nary trap, but just as I was get­ting hope­ful, our mid­dle son asked one of the of­fi­cers a great travel-jour­nal­ist ques­tion: “Where do the lo­cals eat?”

“The cadets go to Coney Is­land Cafe,” he said, mat­ter-of-factly. “They have the best pou­tine in Canada.”

Well, you can prob­a­bly guess what hap­pened next, right? A few min­utes later, the chil­dren were or­der­ing pou­tine — french fries with gravy — topped with pierogi and bar­be­cued pork. I ad­mit, it doesn’t sound ap­pe­tiz­ing, but the cadets are cor­rect. I’m no fan of french fries or gravy, but put the two to­gether and I will hap­pily join you for lunch.

The In­dian food of Calgary

Maybe I should have given up then, scrapped ev­ery planned stopover and let Gor­don Ram­say adopt my chil­dren. But I’m a fighter. Af­ter an­other day’s drive west to Drumheller, I pushed them into the Royal Tyrrell Mu­seum. (“Hey kids, who wants to see di­nosaurs?”) The fol­low­ing day, in Calgary, we plunged down the Olympic ski jump on a zip line. It’s not that they didn’t en­joy any of those ac­tiv­i­ties. I’m sure they did. But for them, the main event re­mained the meal.

Our kids weren’t the only ones act­ing up. Our em­pa­thetic SUV be­gan to flash in­ter­mit­tent warn­ing lights. A look at our well-thumbed owner’s man­ual sug­gested the left rear tire had a slow leak but we could find no ev­i­dence of one. Dur­ing the af­ter­noon, I set up camp in our ho­tel room to file a story while they prowled around Calgary in search of ever more ex­otic food. They re­turned with shop­ping bags filled with spicy Thai noo­dle soup and but­ter curry and naan. In Canada? Yes — and they in­sist that it was the best In­dian food they’d ever had.

By the time we’d crossed the Cana­dian Rock­ies and ar­rived in Van­cou­ver, the par­ents ad­mit­ted de­feat. Yes, I could have taken them to Stan­ley Park or the Van­cou­ver Aquar­ium or driven up to Whistler, my fa­vorite Cana­dian ski re­sort. But al­most 1 in 5 peo­ple here are eth­nic Chi­nese, and if there’s one thing we could agree on, it was that we all loved Chi­nese food. I mean, Cana­dian Chi­nese food.

Our search for Chi­nese fare led us down Broad­way, on the perime­ter of Van­cou­ver’s Chi­na­town. We found a small ta­ble dur­ing the lunch hour at Peace­ful Restau­rant where we or­dered tasty egg drop soup, beef rolls and sweet and sour pork. Even our car seemed to have righted it­self. The flash­ing lights went dark af­ter we crossed the moun­tains.

We’d set out to dis­cover Canada by car, but I think our mis­take was want­ing to ex­pe­ri­ence it as adults. You know — mu­se­ums, mon­u­ments, and cul­tur­ally sig­nif­i­cant build­ings. Our chil­dren had other plans. For them, it was about the food.

Maybe they’re right about Canada. Maybe it’s the kind of place you have to sa­vor, one meal at a time.

We’d set out to dis­cover Canada by car, but I think our mis­take was want­ing to ex­pe­ri­ence it as adults.

PAVEL CHEIKO/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

CHRISTO­PHER EL­LIOTT

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP: The Trans-Canada High­way, seen near the shore of Lake Su­pe­rior, runs the length of the coun­try; lob­ster bis­cuits at Lob­ster on the Wharf in Char­lot­te­town on Prince Ed­ward Is­land; the Mar­ket on Macleod in Calgary, Al­berta.

CHRISTO­PHER EL­LIOTT

CHRISTO­PHER EL­LIOTT

Iden El­liott, left, and Erysse El­liot, the au­thor’s chil­dren, ride bikes past the Bio­sphere, an en­vi­ron­men­tal mu­seum in Mon­treal.

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