Canadian contrasts – from Toronto to Calgary
Laura French travels from the cosmopolitan, eastern city of Toronto to cowboy-loving Calgary
The water crashes down in immense, thunderous bursts – so loud, it’s almost deafening. I watch as it rolls over the edge in huge, bluish barrels like a never-ending conveyor belt, white puffs of mist and foam surrounding it, a brightly coloured rainbow arching its way over so that it looks distinctly magical.
I’m standing in front of Niagara Falls. Half an hour later, I’m walking under them via a series of underground tunnels built in the 1800s, later cruising around them on a Hornblower catamaran, then soaring over them in a helicopter.
Niagara clearly isn’t short of commercial attractions, but nothing can detract from the sheer power of this natural phenomenon left over from the Ice Age 12,000 years ago, and a tourist attraction since the 19th century.
Later on, I venture over to Niagara-on-the-Lake, a quaint, peaceful village where elegant boutiques border flower-lined streets, and vineyards produce honey-sweet, award-winning ice wines prolifically.
I quickly discover this is a place of contrasts, and it’s an appropriate sign of the diversity I see across Canada as a whole in the two weeks that follow, as I travel from the cosmopolitan, eastern city of Toronto to cowboy-loving Calgary, located way out west.
Modern skyscrapers and shiny facades characterise the heart of Toronto, set on the shores of Lake Ontario and first established by British colonials as the Town of York in 1793.
Art and culture can be found en masse in the city, especially around the Bloor St Culture Corridor, where the ornate, imposing Royal Ontario Museum offers a comprehensive glimpse into the history of the region, with more than 40 galleries spanning everything
from dinosaurs to Art Deco.
But most iconic here is the imposing CN Tower, a soaring, UFO-like structure that punctuates the skyline like a needle, and offers 360-degree views over the surrounds. The world’s tallest tower until 2009, it stands 553.3m high, and now houses the highest revolving restaurant, where gourmet dishes are served against a backdrop of city lights twinkling like stars out of a sea of black.
For a glimpse into the Toronto of yesteryear, I wander through the Distillery District, a cluster of Victorian industrial buildings once home to a whisky distillery, since turned into an artsy, creative neighbourhood filled with cobblestone streets, independent galleries and coffee shops.
Elsewhere, I stumble upon Kensington Market, a slice of bohemia where dreadlocked hippies sell handicrafts, exotic cuisine and vintage clothes from 60s-inspired shops.
My highlight here, though, is a romantic cruise around the harbour, complete with panoramic views of the city skyline, as we sail along a mirror-flat, rippling stretch of blue, speckled with tiny islands.
Later, I hop on a three-hour flight west to Calgary. The city might be best known as the ‘Gateway to the Rockies’ – and the home of the annual 10-day Stampede – but, as I discover,
it’s worthy of some time in itself at any time of year.
Farm-to-fork gastronomy is the order of the day here, with restaurants serving local Alberta beef and freshly grown produce in generously sized mounds, and there’s a host of cultural attractions to visit.
Among them I discover Studio Bell, a contemporary music museum housing costumes worn by the likes of KD Lang, and the piano on which Elton John composed Your Song as well as his first five albums.
Beyond the city, we venture into the badlands, where arid mountain slopes and hoodoos coloured amber, yellow and burgundy in autumn provide the backdrop for the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology. This intriguing, sprawling museum and research centre is home to 70-million-year-old dinosaur bones, as well as the largest collection of fossils in the world, all excavated from the surrounding Jurassic Park-like Drumheller Valley.
But, for me, the most memorable experience in the region comes after a three-hour drive north, when we visit Elk Island National Park. In 1906, after hunting by Europeans had led to near-extinction, 400 bison were brought here from Montana, and today 600 of the giant, hairy beasts roam its vast, verdant plains in the company of black bears, moose, coyotes, deer, lynx and plenty more. Ambling through in the car, we spot one of the elusive bison grazing by the side of the road – a shaggy, dark-brown mass of fur, its colossal head bowing to us in front of a shimmering, frozen lake framed by deep-green pines.
Despite being advised to keep a distance of 10 buslengths, we’re less than a few metres away, but I don’t feel threatened. The giant beast with sizeable horns looks somehow docile, as if it’s waiting for a pat on the head.
It seems a fitting scene in one of the friendliest, most welcoming countries I’ve visited. I struggle to believe anything could harm me here – and, 10 minutes later, we drive away unscathed.
bathtubs of water The equivalent of 6,000,000
Falls each minute come pouring down Niagara
– Horseshoe, from three sections combined
Falls – making them Bridal Veil and American
by volume. the world’s largest falls
Banff, with its Rocky Mountains
For lovers of nature and
of wildlife, the quaint town
Set Banff is an ideal resort.
– in the heart of the Rockies home to elk and grizzly bears – it’s an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Calgary.
Stampede Every July for 10 days, the
of Calgary, descends on the streets
food, carnival bringing rodeo, music,
Chuckwagon performances, a nightly
of Derby and more, in a celebration all things cowboy.
Bison roam Elk Island National Park