Summer Vacation in Canada

Jul 25, 2013 • alan


The girls are out of school for their summer break, and so we spent a week in Canada.

Normally, the thought of driving 800 miles (12-16 hours) does not appeal to me, so we decided to break up the drive into shorter sprints.  On the way up, stopped overnight in Pittsburgh, and on the way down, Hershey.

The drive up was nice.  We passed by Pilot Mountain, and later by the Boy Scout Jamboree near Beckley WV, then the New River Gorge Bridge, and we finally stopped in Pittsburgh.  We took the funicular (inclined) train to the overlook at Mount Washington.

The next morning, we headed north to Erie PA.  At first, we looked across the water and mistook the Presque Isle State Park peninsula for Canada… but that can’t be… Lake Erie had to be bigger than that.  So we drove out onto the peninsula and determined that no, you can not see Canada from Erie.  It’s 24 miles from Presque Isle to Long Point (Ontario), and you can typically only see about 3 miles from the shore.  You’d have to be about 120 above the water level to see 24 miles across the lake.  (If you’re interested, here is a good article explaining why).  Finally, we headed northeast to Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

The two shores of Niagara Falls are very different from each other.  Most of the New York side is a beautiful state park.  But once you venture off of park land, the neighboring property is low-rent commercial.  So we hopped back in the car and went across “Rainbow Bridge” to Canada.

Here, we discovered two things.  First, our car GPS does not know about Canadian roads.  Second, our AT&T mobile data service does not work in Canada (it WILL still work within sight of New York).

We spent two days in Niagara Falls.  We bought a ticket package the include the Maid of the Mist boat tour, a behind-the-falls tour, the butterfly house and a cable car ride across the whirlpool.

One thing that is very interesting, but that we did not see, is the power generation on both sides of the river.  I learned from the Ontario Power Generation web site (and from Wikipedia) that there are a bunch of massive tunnels that divert up to two thirds of the water away from the falls and into power generating stations.  All of this water diversion is done in a way that maintains the beauty of the falls for visitors, while also reducing erosion and generating very cheap electricity.  This is worth a deep dive on the web, if you’re interested.

From Niagara, we headed north into “no cellular data coverage area” and on to Toronto. Without maps on our GPS or our phones, we had to navigate “old school”.  (By the way, we found that Foong’s Virgin Mobile phone continued to work deep into Canada, and only stopped when she closed the navigation app and restarted it, so I am guessing that it only does “authentication” when that particular data session starts).  We drove up to Toronto and met our niece, who just graduated from the University of Toronto.  She showed us around the UT campus.

Since we had good luck with the Niagara Falls multi-pass, we did the same thing in Toronto with their City Pass.  This gave us admission to Casa Loma, the Ontario Science Centre, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), the Toronto Zoo and the CN tower.

Casa Loma was interesting, sort of Toronto’s version of the Biltmore House, I suppose. To me, the most fascinating part was learning about the rise and fall of Sir Henry Pellatt, who got very rich by having the right idea at the right time, but who then mismanaged his fortune until his unfinished estate was broke.

The Ontario Science Centre was fantastic, and totally impossible to fully absorb in a single day. The exhibits had enough depth that they needed some study to appreciate. We spent a good deal of time in the display of video game history; I enjoyed showing the girls all of the games that I grew up with, from the (1972) Magnavox Odyssey to the Atari 2600 and console games that I played at the local Putt Putt arcade.  Later, we explored exhibits on everything from friction to resonance, along with stations for craft-building and some really cool interactive kinetic art. Note to self — next time, allocate AT LEAST a complete day for the Ontario Science Centre. There was so much great stuff to see, we left with a curious mixture of excitement and disappointment.

The CN Tower was about what you’d expect… a nice view. But we discovered that there’s not much to eat in that area, outside of the CN Tower café.

The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) contained miles and miles of historical artifacts, seemingly arranged in random order.  If I could have, I would have exchanged my time at the ROM for more time at the Science Centre.

We completed our stay in Toronto with a visit to the zoo, a sprawling park filled with all types of animals. This was definitely a first class zoo. The highlight, of course, was the panda exhibit. Between the ROM and the zoo, I think I wore through an entire pair of sneakers.

There were other side trips along the way that left impressions on us. One of them was dinner at the Gourmet Malaysia, a meal intended to please momma. The service was lousy (they forgot my order entirely), and Pad Thai was probably the worst I’ve had, but the real redeeming quality was the host, Yummy Tan, and his karaoke show. The girls each performed a song (“Skyscraper” and “Fireflies”) in front of a mostly disinterested audience of old Asian folks. It was thrilling.

Our trip home was broken up just like the trip up, with a stop about halfway, this time in Hershey PA. We took the so-called “factory tour”. But this was no factory… there is no factory here… sugar costs too much in the US to produce candy here. The candy is made in Mexico. But Hershey still has a presence in that town, and their animatronics ride and expansive gift shop made a good enough excuse to stop there for the night. Just don’t go expecting to see a factory.

We also stopped at Skyline Caverns in Front Royal VA. It was pretty typical of caverns, which is to say, it’s pretty cool to see.

We thoroughly enjoyed our week-long vacation in Canada, including the trips up and back.