I planned this trip mainly to see Jorge, who had moved to Toronto 5 years ago and I still hadn't gone across the pond to see him. I managed to persuade Craig and Alicja to join me and also arranged for a few days on a bike.
Well Air Transat came through and actually departed and arrived on time. It is apparently Canada's leading charter carrier and it flies Airbus A310 which are quite old. On the whole though the service isn't too bad, although typically for a charter airline the food is not very good and the seating is quite cramped.
On the flight out the pilot asked 4 people to move from the front of the aircraft to the rear of the aircraft so that we could take off as the load was not evenly distributed, which is something that hasn't happened to me before! The flight back however was very uncomfortable, I had a fat sweaty guy sitting next to me who used up his whole seat and half of mine and worse he snored like crazy keeping all of us in the area awake all night. I don't see why fat people shouldn't be forced to buy two seats or why I should have to pay the same price as him for half a seat.
Virgin Music Festival
We all went to the music festival on Sunday on Toronto Island, which required taking a ferry to the island from Toronto. It was a very strange experience going to a festival where no one seemed to be drunk as alcohol was only sold and consumed within designated areas. We even saw a bloke turned away from the festival because security decided that he was too drunk. This is in complete contrast from festivals in the UK where getting drunk is almost a requirement! The lack of alcohol suited me though as I was suffering from a hangover from the previous night and I wanted to be as sober as possible for the bike the next day. For me the highlight of the day was the Stereophonics, we only saw half of Oasis's set as we had decided to leave the festival before the mad queuing for the ferry home started. I was quite disappointed by Oasis's set, they have some great songs but they seemed to spend most of the time playing fillers and showing video special effects on the big screens rather than just rocking the place! We also missed a stage invasion by a Toronto nut who injured one of Oasis's brothers, maybe it was the lack of booze that made him mad!
Trying to get into Festival mode, note ice-cream substitute for beer!
While in Toronto Craig, Alicja and I had organized a four day tour on bikes around south western Ontario. We (Alicja, Craig and I) picked up the bikes, Suzuki 800 Boulevard, from GTA Exotics on Monday 8 September morning.
Bikes are loaded and ready to go (Alicja)!
It took quite a while to get through all of the paper work to hire the bike signing away our entire life (responsibility for all damage etc) and so it was quite late by the time we set off for Niagara Falls. Unfortunately we also had to return the bikes by 9:00 on Thursday 11 September so it ended up a three day tour.
Our route around South Western Ontario
The plan for the first day was to ride down Lakeshore road, then down Route 81 and Route 34 to Niagara on the lake and then onto Niagara or thereabouts for the night. The day went mostly to plan, although we did get lost a few times especially in Hamilton where we found ourselves in the industrial sector for a few hours followed by a trip on the QEW, a very busy motorway, and when we got lost in St Catherines ending up in a bar to ask for directions and talking bikes with the locals. The bar was a hangout for ship / dock workers and we were told at various points that we should be riding Harleys (by a guy who was riding an 1970's Honda custom), should not be riding Harleys and should just enjoy the trip and that we don't know how to ride as we use brakes to slow down rather than gearing down to stop. I think they were trying to get a rise out of us tourist types but on the whole it was good natured. The ride down was quite scenic especially along Route 81 and on the approach to Niagara on the Lake through the vineyards of the Niagara Peninsula winelands, however as per 90% of the riding over the three days most of it was in a straight line with numerous stops at traffic lights.
Stop on Route 81 for a drink, it was hot, and to allow Alicja to rest those aching arms!
Niagara on the Lake is a very quaint town that specializes in small art and curio shops, some would say a little too quaint but I really liked it. I especially liked the Miss Fudge store, where I bought a maple and walnut slice that lasted for days giving me a real sugar hit each time I ate a bit.
Craig's sweet tooth meets its match!
After spending a few hours walking around and having dinner at Niagara on the Lake we headed up to Niagara Falls itself, including a few sections of motorway riding along the way which did not go down too well with Alicja as she found it scary but by this point I was tired and wanted to get to a bar! Alicja did a great job of finding a good rate on a family room (two double beds side by side) for the night. This was followed by a walk down to the falls which took longer than expected as I managed to get us lost on the way by following a path around the tower that led to a dead end, my excuse was that this provided us with a unique view of the falls. I think by this point Craig and Alicja were starting to question my navigation skills or at least luck! The falls are not as spectacular or as large as Victoria Falls but lit up they provided a good end to a day of sightseeing.
Niagara Falls at night, all lit up with coloured lights quite spectacular (Alicja)
We couldn't find any sign of a bar that overlooked the falls, it seems that Toronto's approach to alcohol extends down to the Falls as well, so we had to take a long walk before we found a Hardrock Cafe in town before we got our well deserved beers. After one round we decided to walk on back through the town to the hotel. The town of Niagara is very tacky, its almost as if they have decided the falls itself is not good enough and that other forms of entertainment from haunted houses, themed rides, wax museums are needed to keep people entertained. The town felt abandoned as it was Monday night and after the end of the season and we could not find a bar that was open after 22h30 to have a drink at.
The plan for the second day was to see the falls by day, then ride via Fort Erie and the coast of Lake Erie then up through the Grand River Valley staying somewhere in the Cambridge area. After a breakfast that turned out to be more expensive than we thought, apparently $7.95 'All you can eat buffet' does not include coffee or the numerous refills they offer you, we rode down to the Falls again to take a look at them in the light of day. We could not find anywhere suitable to park the bikes, the car park wanted $18 per bike, so we had to be satisfied with a couple of rides passed the falls but we got a good view of them anyway. We then headed out of town, unfortunately I picked the wrong road out of town and we ended up heading towards Welland after passing through an area of down market strip joints proving yet again how bad my navigation can be and how tacky Niagara is. On one of the many roads to Welland, more of that later, I managed to get us completely lost on some back roads so we stopped to consult the GPS that Jorge had loaned us for the trip.
Troll's sense of direction fails again, help GPS (Alicja).
Even with the GPS we still had to ask directions from two telecommunication workers at the side of the road. They told us head down the 406 to Port Colerene and then take Route 3 along the coast, well we got as far as Welland where every direction I took seemed to have a sign saying 'Welcome to Welland'. I was getting quite annoyed before I realised that it was pointless: I wasn't riding anywhere in particular I was just riding so why should I get frustrated? Eventually we stopped at a Tim Horton's (a coffee chain in the mould of Starbucks) and bought some maps from the garage across the street. We gave Alicja the job of navigating from that point on which proved to be a great idea as she could read the map on the go and it gave her a role in the trip. Jorge had advised us that the GPS was adequate and that maps aren't much use. My feeling was the exactly the opposite, the GPS is useful if you have an exact destination in mind and want to get there quickly (the GPS still can't find interesting routes) or if you want to find a hotel for the night but it is no good at orienteering you in the landscape or for allowing you to select a decent route. Even with all the riding through Welland we still didn't get to see Welland's tourist attraction of the ship locks which was disappointing! We finally got onto Route 3 along the coast and then headed up Route 17 and Route 54 along the Grand River valley through the Six Nations community. This was probably the highlight of the bike tour for me as the riding alongside the river was fantastic. You could tell when you hit the Six Nations community as all of a sudden every house sold tax free cigarettes or rollups, since the Six Nations determine their own tax systems cigarettes are much cheaper than the rest of Ontario. After a great ride we arrived in Brantford where we had dinner at a small diner called Sherwood complete with murals depicting Robin Hood and his merry men! Craig ordered a root beer to go with lunch and I couldn't stop laughing when he discovered that it was not ginger as he expected but tasted like bubble gum! We also made a fatal mistake of asking someone if there was something to see in Brantford, it turned out that he was very proud of Brantford and the local town crier and boy he lived up to the required skills of the trade. He bent our ear for quite a while about all of the local attractions including: a military museum but that's closed after 14:00, a PC museum that was holding a world record attempt at simultaneous tetris playing the following weekend, the first protestant church in North America which he corrected to the first Indian protestant church in North America and finally 'The Woodland Cultural Center' which documents the history of the Six Nations. We chose the last option and it proved to be a small but very interesting museum of the Six Nation people, but the highlight of the Museum was some art. She paints acrillic onto wood using the wood's grain and shape as part of the painting, the paint merely highlights the shapes of what is almost there, I really liked the art work.
Woodland Cultural Center, actually its too the left but this is a prettier building!
We should have stayed in Brantford overnight but we decided to head onto Cambridge as we still had a few hours of daylight left, maybe this decision was influenced by Cambridge in the UK. Aside from the old town centre of Cambridge where unfortunately there were no hotels most of it is urban sprawl and strip malls. We found a Super 8 motel to stay for the night right next to said strip malls and a noisy garage and after walking for a while found a pool hall that sold beer and which had some comfy leather couches to sit our sore backsides on.
The plan for the third day was to ride up to Wasaga Beach via Route 124 through Erin and Route 24 through Orangeville and Route 25 through Collingwood, with Alicja's fine navigation we pretty much rode that plan. The roads in this area are dead straight, when we did see the odd long gentle corner it was a cause for celebration and for much comment afterwards, also the roads are also on a grid pattern so if you make a mistake its realtively easy to get back on track with only the occasional dirt road proving an obstruction. On route to Collingwood we rode through the Blue Moutains in search of the afore mentioned elusive bends, however these 'mountains' are not really proper mountains more like 'Blue Hills'. Collingwood looked like a really nice small town although we only stopped at a Starbucks briefly for toilet break, as you know Starbucks is on my 'evil list' so I didn't bother going in! Wasaga Beach is a typical beach comunity which would be familar to those of you who have been to South Africa or Australia, the only difference is that there are virtually no waves and the 'sea' is fresh water (which I checked just to be sure).
Wasaga Beach, consulting GPS to find food! Great arty pic by Alicja.
The beach front really reminded me of the beach front in Port Elizabeth with a few pubs, ice cream stores and beach clothing stores however it was deserted as it was the end of the season and mid week at that. I met a couple from England who drove up from Toronto and who were planning to head down to Niagara the next day, I think like most car drivers they stuck to the main highways which are really boring. It reminded me of the differences between bike riders and car drivers, car drivers are so destination focused.
Wasaga Beach Front, completely deserted!
After a few hours in Wasaga including a really great lunch at a small Italian resturant we headed down Route 10 and Route 27 into Toronto, we arrived back at the GTA Exotics just after 18:30 but managed to hand over the keys to the last remaining employees therefore saving us from having to ride back the next day. I rode a total of 709km in three days, and Craig was happy to point out that he rode further at 712km which we couldn't work out why as we rode the same route.
As usual I was quite sad handing back my Suzuki Boulevard as I had just begin to gell with the bike, although it was very flat and had a really soft power delivery (more like a big scooter than a bike) I really started enjoying riding it. It took a while to get used to the laid back cruiser seating position, the heal-toe gear change, the extra soft suspension that dived on breaking and the lack of ground clearence (although I never dragged the foot boards, Craig did) but it proved to be very comfortable, economical and ideal for the type of riding we were doing. Maybe in a few years I will have to add a cruiser to my stable. I also learnt that you must take along your own helmet, a flip front lid is best, as I ended up with a blister on my forehead that didn't look too pretty and make sure you have a map before you start.
Since we had a few days remaining in Toronto we had to include some sightseeing amoung all the drinking and pub crawling. Toronto does not have many places of cultural or historical interest as it is a young city but I really enjoyed just strolling around the streets especially the areas around the Kensington Market and China Town.
We started off on Thursday by heading for the Art Gallery of Ontario as in Craig's words 'we may as well get it over with first', it turned out that it wasn't finished yet so we headed for the CN Tower. The CN Tower is variously described as 'the tallest building in the world' (it's not), 'the highest man-made observation deck in the world', 'the roundest observation deck in the world' and so on, the lift has some glass panels in the floor and a glass wall and shoots up the side of the tower in a few seconds which some people found scary. After observing (well that's what you do in the 'highest man-made observation deck in the world') we headed down to the glass floor. I wasn't too worried about standing on it but a lot of people were, the only panel I wasn't willing to stand on made horrible creaking and cracking noises when you walked across it. From the tower you get an impression of how large Toronto is, it sprawls on for mile after mile even though the centre of the town is relatively small, you can walk the entire center easily.
As close as we got to a Moose, well at least I can pick this one's nose (Alicja)
After the tower we headed up to the Kensington Market where we bemused by the Chinese produce on sale, especially a fruit that looked like a plastic moustache. I suggested asking how we eat it, but Alicja rather quickly joked 'he'd probably say: you can't eat that, it's a plastic moustache', I went back a few days later and discovered that the market also had a number of shops selling second hand clothing, coffee, food, military surplus etc. in the back streets. Anyone for a 1980's shell suit?
Following that we headed up to Toronto University, Queen's Park and the Ontario Parliament Building. The University was quite impressive and it didn't take Craig or Alicja long to get back into student mode as they lay around enjoying the sun on the lawn with most of the other students.
Ontario Parliament Building, statue strategically hiding cops!
On Friday we went shopping, perhaps I should have gone off on my own instead of tagging along with Alicja and Craig (as a 'third wheel according to photgrapher's at the CN Tower') as I am not any good at shopping. While we were waiting to cross the road into the Eaton Centre shopping centre I saw an example of the agressive driving Jorge had warned us about: a woman decided to cross on the 'red man' as the traffic was stationary, she got hooted and yelled at for her trouble by a guy who wasn't even affected by her walking across the road in front of him! We headed to the Beer Bistro for lunch as I had read that they had a 100 beers on their menu and that their food wasn't bad either, I'm not sure if they did have a 100 beers but they did have a lot including one 330ml bottle for $50. No I didn't by that one, I settled for a nice pint of Durham Hop Addict a really nice IPA. After another few beers we staggered out into the light and made our way down to the St Lawrence market, which is mostly a food market (looks very good) and also some shops that sell curios etc.
Funny shorts at the St Lawrence Market.
Then onto the distillery section where we wandered around a few of the art galleries and visited the Mill St Brewery for some more hand crafted beers. After a visit to the LCBO for more real beer, all alcohol sales in Canada are strictly controlled by the state so no buying beer in a corner store like the UK, we went to Laura's for a great braai especially the sweet pastries we had for desert afterwards.
Mill Street Brewery, Distillery District, six pack later became a three pack when Craig dropped it
On Saturday I headed off on my own as Alicja and Craig weren't moving too fast after too much beer the previous night, I headed off for Kensington Market again where I saw a really great use for old cars... as flower beds, and then headed up to the Royal Ontario Museum known by the locals as the ROM.
Where old cars go to die, Kensington Market
On the way to the Museum I watched a bit of the Toronto Varsity Blues American Football game for free through the fence. This confirmed my predudices about the American game: its just too slow, most of the time seems to be spent standing about doing nothing, unfortunately I was also too far away to be 'entertained' by the chear leaders! At the ROM I focused on the First Peoples gallery where they had artifacts from the native tribes from Canada, the highlights of this gallery for me was the birch bark canoes (including a massive cargo version), seal skin kayaks and Sitting Bull's war dress (he of General Custer's last stand fame). Finally it was off to an italian resturant, Kitt Kat, for a final meal as a group before heading home.
As Jorge is now a qualified private pilot he offered to take us up for a joy ride around downtown Toronto and around Niagara Falls. I was a little scared at the thought, mainly because I was worried I would get horribly air sick, so I abstained from booze for the day so I'd be in the best posible shape (for a corpse). It was also a bit of a worry when the charter company that hired Jorge the plane pointed out that it was 9/11 and we were in a light plane heading for the US border!
Preparing for lift off with super serious senior and only pilot Jorge. DO I look aprehensive? (Craig)
We took off in a Cesna 172 around six in the evening and did a few circuts around the CN Tower in downtown Toronto and then headed off down the coast to Niagara where we did a few circuits over the falls.
Do I look scared, not a bit of it, smooth and easy flight with Jorge. (Alicja)
The falls actually look better from the air, and you can't really see any of the tackiness at Niagara as well! Unfortunately Jorge would not fly along the gorge and under the bridge, something about loosing his licence and going to jail! So now I can say I have seen the Falls at night, during the day and from the air, I think that just about covers it (been there done that tick) so no need for me to go back to Niagara again.
Falls from the air, better view than from the ground and can't see the tacky amusements (Alicja)
The landing around seven thirty was the most exciting bit as Jorge was practicing his power-on landings, I thought it was quite a good landing (well we walked away from it) but Jorge said he could improve further!
Jorge claimed he made a few mistakes during the flight but I couldn't spot them, he took it very seriously as well making sure that we were well briefed in case of an emergency (partially opening the door before we touch down, getting out of the plane etc) and also included instructions on how to operate the seat belts. As we joked later he makes a very good pilot but a very bad air hostess, there was also no in-flight entertainment or any meals included in the price (free, as Jorge paid for the plane). I can see why he got his licence although I'm not sure whether I would like to learn how to fly as it is very expensive and very regulated (even worse in the UK) so there is not much freedom involved, maybe paragliding would be more fun! It does make sense in Canada being able to fly though as the distances are so huge, while riding along the Grand River we spotted a number of small float planes which seem to be privately owned.
So big thanks to Jorge for the joy ride!