Monday, 9 July 2018

Waterfall Chasers: Toronto

One of my concerns about this road trip was travelling over the fourth of July. My solution? Escaping to Canada! After all, if we're going to Niagara Falls anyway, why not drive that little bit further north and enjoy Toronto?

We left our friends bright and early on Wednesday morning and crossed the border via Rainbow Bridge so the children could get their first glimpse of Niagara Falls and make all the suitable "ooh" and "aah" noises.

It was my first time in Canada since 2001, and my first time driving in another country since my ill-fated driving lessons in the UK. After the initial shock of switching from mph to km/h (and double-checking to confirm that my speedometer does actually provide for both), this proved to be unproblematic, though we got bogged down in traffic closer to Toronto. We needed to refuel soon after we crossed the border, so I used this as an excuse to introduce the kids to Tim Hortons.

For Toronto, I had found another AirBnB. I had gone for one just north of downtown, which proved to be a really nice location: quiet, safe and subway accessible (with onsite parking). What I wasn't expecting was for Google to route me through downtown to get to it... This proved quick and easy when we left town before 8am, but not so much on our entry just before midday. The kids enjoyed driving through Chinatown at least.

I was even less successful with the subway... this was easy to navigate, but I never did figure out the fare system. I had planned to get a day pass, which was allegedly sold at subway stations—except our subway station only had presto cards available which you loaded with the money for your fare, but I had no idea what amount I needed. In retrospect, we really didn't need a day pass, as Union Station was sufficient for our explorations. The kids rode free, so all I needed was the fare to and from the one stop.

But Toronto itself was fantastic. Again, we only had a day and a half... For a first trip to Toronto, the CN Tower is a must, and my son had put in a request to go up it. Otherwise, we didn't have enough time to do the city justice, so we just explored the bits that took our fancy and enjoyed the discoveries we made there.

Getting to the CN Tower at lunch time isn't ideal, and we waited over an hour for the elevator (the in-line entertainment is pretty good, at least), but we had no regrets about our choice. The elevator with its glass front and glass panels in the floor was an experience in itself, and the view of the city and Lake Ontario is amazing. (The children were dumbfounded when I explained to them it was a great lake and not the sea.)

In these days of perfect instagram photos, the outside walk was far and away the most lightly trafficked part of the observation area, and also the coolest, thanks to the breeze.

Obviously, the big draw was the glass floor, on the lower level of the observatory. I'm not especially afraid of heights, but there's something a little unnerving about watching the ground so far beneath you as you walk. The children were obsessed with the floor, and the mirror above you, and they spent about twenty minutes laying there looking down below or up at themselves lying across nothing. I was less enthralled by the view, but spent a long time watching the people: there were a dozen simultaneous stories from those who were nervous, as they either psyched themselves up to take that first step onto the glass or let a trusted friend draw them out for a picture.

Having a spiritual experience.

Afterwards, we headed down to the harbour where we would be meeting one of my net-friends and her son. We got distracted as soon as we crossed the road and found ourselves in Roundhouse Park which combined a brewery with a train museum and had old carriages just laying around to be explored.

This fountain at Bobbie Rosenfeld Park became our waterfall of the day.

Walking the miniature lines at Roundhouse Park.

However, it was still wretchedly hot (if not as hot as Philadelphia) so we moved onto the harbour, where we waded in Natrel Pond (at other times of year, an ice rink). My friend took us to Swiss Chalet, a chicken and gravy fastfood place, and a Canadian staple, followed by dessert at Beaver Tails (yet another medium for fried dough). We were amenable to Swiss Chalet, but we were immediate Beaver Tails converts.

Normally, we'd go home in the evening, but Ripley's Aquarium did a "Sharks After Dark" ticket rate that let us go around for slightly cheaper. As my daughter adores aquariums and animals in general, we were staying up late for this.

We have a very good local aquarium in Virginia Beach, so aquariums aren't normally high on my list of things to see, but this was fantastic and I do recommend it. The moving walkway through the lagoon tunnel was our personal highlight (especially since it meant I could order everybody to stay in one place), but the crawl through shark tunnel and the giant ray touch tank were also stand-outs, as was the kids playground at a little more than halfway through the exhibits.

Sharks swimming above the moving walkway.

A bonnethead in the ray tank.

The tour ends at the top of this tank, where we got to meet this guy again for a stroke and a pat goodbye.

The following day, we took ourselves to Centre Island. I had previously googled "Things to do in Toronto with Kids" and showed my son the top ten list that was one of the results. From that, he picked the Centreville Amusement Park.

Centre Island itself is essentially a park (a la New York's Central Park) on an island just off-shore—technically a group of islands. There's a lot to explore: you can rent bikes or kayaks to do it, plus they have picnic tables, playground, fountains and beaches (including one where clothing is optional!) for you to spend your time in. Centreville Amusement Park is something of a time-sink, and you should decide in advance whether you want to do the islands in general or just that specific part of it.

The Petting Farm as seen from the skyride.

As Centreville is geared at kids under 12, my 7 and 9 year olds were the perfect age for it, so we did spend most of our time there. You pay per ride, but I bought all-day passes for the kids and a sheet of 25 tickets for myself which got me on five rides with them. They went on countless rides, repeating their favourites several times, while I caught up on some email correspondence—and sampled the quintessential Canadian dish of poutine (I'm sure theme park poutine is just as good as anywhere else... right?) It wasn't really what I wanted in the middle of a heatwave, but I could see that poutine in winter would be a truly spiritual experience.

Cheese curds, gravy and fries. Oh, Canada!

I did drag the children away eventually to get a little taste of the rest of the island. My son and I did the hedge maze, and I wanted to dip my toes in a Great Lake, while my daughter was eager to play in a fountain.

That last nearly ended in disaster. Not from my daughter drowning or getting hypothermia or catching some terrible disease... No, just the simple act of another family accidentally picking up her shoes. It's so easy to do. 90% of girls' sandals are hot pink and practically identical. None of us were paying attention to where she'd cast her shoes off, until it was time to go and we realised they were nowhere around the pool.

One thing Centre Island does not have is anywhere to buy shoes. Not so much as a flip flop. And this was a hot, sunny day... all the pavement was scalding to the touch. I had absolutely no idea how I was going to get her to the ferry, no idea whether the ferry would let her on without shoes and no idea where to buy shoes or how to get there once we got back to Toronto's mainland.

It looks beautiful, but you don't want to cross this bridge barefoot.
We waited at the fountain as long as we dared, hoping that the unknown family would notice their mistake and return. However, we knew it was also very possible that they might not realise it until they got home, so eventually we started walking back towards the ferry terminal. Thankfully, we'd only gone a few yards before my daughter spotted her shoes in front of a bench halfway down the path. Evidently the family had realised their mistake, but instead of returning to the fountain or finding a lost and found, they had dumped the shoes. It would have been so easy for us to miss them altogether that I was privately furious. But no harm was done, and the children were glowing with relief that my daughter wasn't going to burn the soles off her feet trying to get home.

We enjoyed the ferry ride back—that view of Toronto's skyline can't be rivalled... I don't know how late the ferry runs, but taking it at dusk must be incredible.

For dinner we walked up Yonge St to find the Old Spaghetti Factory, which had been recommended somewhere online for eating with kids. I will gladly second that recommendation. The kids were vastly impressed by the decor, which included tables built into a tram and a carousel (neither functional). It's a great location for a game of I Spy while waiting for the food.

A carousel horse jumping over a telephone booth. Because why not?

It also put them in a good enough mood to be open to what they were eating—what I liked was that grown ups and kids meals alike came with a healthy starter and a dessert. So my daughter ate veggie sticks and my son minestrone soup while I had my salad, and then we were all served ice cream afterwards.

Children know a place is fancy when the ice cream comes in silver bowls.

We wrapped up the day by walking up to Front St and Berczy Park to see the dog fountain. There, my outgoing daughter promptly made a friend with somebody watching a pomeranian. My daughter's new friend told us that Berczy Park had been renovated in the past couple of years, going from virtually nothing to a bona fide tourist attraction. Striking up a conversation with strangers is something my introvert-self is virtually incapable of doing, and I'm always grateful for my daughter's ease in doing it. This lady proved to be a good source of local history, filling us in on the background for the things we had seen and many we hadn't. I had to tear the kids away to get back to our BnB. Our time in Toronto was over!

Fun fact: the pugs are anatomically correct. (Or at least the male ones are...)

One lone disapproving kitty.

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