Thursday, 1 December 2016

Montréal, Canada

This is my third blog post about our recent trip to Canada. You can read about our first week in Toronto here and our visit to Ottawa here

After a very long and delayed train journey the day before, which ended up being over seven hours total, the two hour train journey from Ottawa to Montréal seemed to fly by! After our fleeting visit to Ottawa, we had a little longer in Montréal, as a few people had said there was more to see there. We had two days to explore Montréal and we booked ourselves another AirBnb apartment there, for the two nights. 

via rail train canada
VIA Rail train from Ottawa to Montréal

The apartment was loft style and in a swanky apartment block, very close to Place des Festivals, in the centre of Montréal. The apartment was really lovely and the guy who owned it sent us lots of good tips for things to see and places to eat in Montréal. Once we'd dropped our bags and had a quick coffee, we headed out and it was just a 20-minute walk to the Notre Dame Basilica, in the heart of the city.

airbnb montreal
AirBnB loft style apartment in Montréal

This was the second replica of the Notre Dame Cathedral in France that Emily and I have visited. We've previously visited a replica of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, which I wrote about here. This replica was of course similar, and didn't look quite so out of place as it did in Vietnam! There was a statue of Paul de Chomedey, the founder of Montréal outside the Basilica, who of course we needed to have a selfie with. 

montreal notre dame
Emily, me and the guy who founded Montréal, outside the Notre Dame Basilica

After paying our $5 entry fee, the inside of the Basilica was a sight to behold, with the front of the Basilica and the ceiling being particularly impressive. We had a quick wander round and headed back out into the cold to check out the Montréal Old Town. The Old Town is made up of beautiful old buildings and cobble-stone streets. It's nice to wander round and there are loads of places to eat - including the nice restaurant we stopped at for dinner and wine.

basilica notre dame
Inside the Notre Dame Basilica

We walked back to our apartment via Place des Festivals, which is an arty precinct in the city, surrounding by galleries and other arty type stuff. I stopped to take the photo below, which is a very cool homage to jazz music, which Montréal is well known for.

montreal jazz
Art installation in Place des Festivals, Montréal

On good recommendation, we headed to the Montreal Olympic Park, where there is a Biodome, Planetarium and Botanical Gardens. You can get combined passes for one, two or three of the sites and we opted for two, as we decided we didn't have time for the Planetarium. The Biodome was a wonderful collection of wildlife, and it was great to explore. We were wearing our thermals as it was so cold outside, so we were absolutely boiling when we went in, as the Biodome is kept warm and humid for the animals and plants that live there.

The Biodome was similar in some ways to the Eden Project in Cornwall, UK and also Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, which I wrote about here. The highlight of the Biodome was this cute beaver building a dam, which we stopped to watch for ages! 

After lunch at the Biodome, it was a ten minute walk through the Olympic Park to the Botanical Gardens. We thought it was shut at first, but it was so quiet in the off-season that we practically had the place to ourselves. The are outdoor gardens which were mostly frosted over. There are also a series of giant greenhouses connected together which different types of plants in each. We are big fan of cacti and succulents, so the 'arid' greenhouse was a highlight for sure.

We briefly visited the Insectarium, which is a part of the Botanical Gardens, but I must admit that this was only a very brief visit as we didn't find it hugely interesting!

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Cacti greenhouse at the Montréal Botanical Gardens

biodome montreal
Inside the Montréal Botanical Garden

After a quick photo opportunity outside the Olympic Stadium, we headed back on the Metro to go back to Montréal's Old Town for more exploring. 

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Montréal Olympic Stadium

We had a quick walk along the Old Port, but it was pretty deserted. There was a huge ice rink there which was not open yet, but it looks like it will be very popular closer to Christmas. 

Montréal has a wonderful feel about it and it really does feel as if you are in France, with the general feel of the place and of course the language. Although most people speak English, I hadn't realised that all the signage would only be in French and that it would be so dominant. I had thought it might be a lot like Wales in the UK, where the signage is in Welsh and English, but the Welsh language is not the most used language there.

old port montreal
Montréal Old Town

We wanted a fancy dinner out, and researched good places to go. We had seen a nice looking sushi restaurant in the city when walking to the Basilica the day before and the menu looked good, with some nice looking vegetarian options. The restaurant was called Kyo and it fantastic. There was a really cool feel about the restaurant and the food, cocktails and beer were delicious and well presented.

sushi montreal
Kyo Sushi Restaurant in Montréal

After a lovely couple of days in Montréal, it was time for us to head back to Toronto on the train. I'll be writing about the last few days of our Canadian adventure in my next blog post.

Thanks for reading :)

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Ottawa, Canada

After our first week in Toronto [which you can read about here] and a trip to Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake [which you can read about here], Emily and I headed for a what felt like a holiday within a holiday, to Ottawa and Montreal. 

I visited Canada on a work trip in September and drove from Toronto to Ottawa and back. I discovered then that this journey is very long journey [around five hours each way] and not very scenic, so we decided to travel by train for this November trip. We booked the train tickets online with VIA Rail, which worked out at about £200 in total for the two of us to travel from Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal-Toronto. We think this is a great price, especially given the very expensive price of train travel in the UK!

ottawa canal walk
Walking to the city via the University of Ottawa

The train was spacious and clean, and unlike UK trains, it was great that all seats are designated [with no one having to stand or sit on the floor!] and that there was a good regular trolley service with decent food. Unfortunately our rail trip didn't get off to a great start, with a two hour wait on the train, on the platform, due to a mechanical fault. We were later able to get some money back for the delay, although they didn't make this easy. Other than that, and the fact that our train was also delayed by nearly an hour on the way back, the VIA Rail experience was good overall.

On arrival in Ottawa, we jumped straight into an Uber to our AirBnB apartment, located on Mann Avenue, near the University of Ottawa. The apartment was in a fancy apartment block, which turned out to be upmarket student housing. The room was nice enough and good value compared to lots of quite pricey and boring looking hotel rooms when I was researching places to stay.

ottawa parliament building
Canada Parliament building

After a week of very unseasonably warm and sunny weather, it had gotten very cold, with sub-zero temperatures and a chilly wind. It felt like we had finally been smashed in the face by the cold Canada winter we had been expecting! We are told the temperature drops as low as minus 40 degrees celsius or even colder in the winter, which is unimaginably cold.

We wanted to check out the Parliament of Canada in the centre of the city, which took us on a nice walk via the historic Rideau Canal, which was especially breezy! After some nice lunch and coffee in the Rideau Shopping Centre, we headed back out into the cold to check out the Canada Parliament building. The building and clock tower looks strikingly similar to the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben in London.

canada parliament fire
Canada Parliament building by night

We thought we may have been too late for a tour of the Parliament buildings, as we arrived quite late in the day and the ticket counter for the free tour was shut. After chatting to someone at the tourist information centre, they suggested we head straight to the visitor entrance for a chance to sit in on Parliament. We went through two rounds of airport style security and weaved our way around the building, before finding ourself sitting in the public gallery of Canada's Parliament, which was in session. There were small phone style speakers next to each chair, to be able to listen to proceedings in English or French. It was a very surreal and interesting experience! 

ottawa brunch
Brunch at Wilf and Ada in Ottawa

After having a drink in a nice bar in the lovely Byward Market area of the city, we headed back to our apartment for a takeaway curry. The height of fancy local cuisine! 

The following morning, we wanted to have a nice brunch and had scoured the web to find a good spot. We found Wilf and Ada's, which was a short Uber rider from our apartment. Web reviews said it gets very busy at the weekends, but as it was a Wednesday morning, we had no trouble getting a table. The service and food were amazing; the photo above is of Emily's french toast with cider and berry compot. 

ottawa rail journey
Snowy, scenic train journey to Ottawa

After our short and sweet visit to Ottawa, it was time to head to Montreal for a couple of days, again by train with VIA Rail. I'll be writing about Montreal in my next blog post :)

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Niagara Falls

After an awesome few days in Toronto [which you can read about here], Emily and I set off for a trip to Niagara Falls with our friends Alyssia and Jon. It was 17th November, exactly one year before Emily and me will get married in 2017! It was around an hour and a half drive from our friends' home in Bloor West, Toronto to Niagara Falls, with some great views of lakes on the way. 

niagara falls photo
Seeing Niagara Falls for the first time :)

We checked into the Ramada Inn, which Alyssia and Jon had kindly booked for us as an engagement present. The hotel room came as a package with some restaurant vouchers and winery tours, which I'll mention later. The Ramada was a few minutes walk down to the Falls, which we were super excited to see! As we walked towards the Falls, you could start to feel the mist in the air, being blown far and wide. As we were visiting in mid November in the off-season, the area was very quiet and it felt like we practically had the place and the view to ourselves!

niagara mist
The American Falls, The Rainbow Bridge ...and a rainbow!

Emily and I went on a boat trip to the foot of the falls with Hornblower Cruises, although we still like to think of it as the famous "Maid of the Mist"! Our friends' had been on it before so gave it a miss. There were very few people on the boat, so we had unhindered views, but also no one to protect us from the mist - we got very wet very quickly! We were given ponchos to wear by the boat company, but this only goes a small way to keeping you dry.

The Rainbow Bridge, pictured above, connects Canada and the US, aptly named due to the beautiful rainbow that can be regularly seen here at the foot of the American Falls. I hadn't really understood the layout of the Falls until seeing them myself, with the American Falls adjacent to the main sidewalk and harbour, and the much larger [Canadian] Horseshoe Falls curving around further down the river. It's still hard to explain even now I've seen it myself! 

maid of the mist
Getting soaked on 'Maid of the Mist'!

Many people say that seeing Niagara Falls from the Canadian side is better than the US, and due to the layout, I can understand why, despite not having time to go over to the US side myself. I am also told that the Canadian side/town is much better kept than the other.

This lovely little video below, made by Emily, depicts the Falls better; however there isn't much footage of the Horseshoe Falls, as the mist was so vast that it was getting the camera very wet!

niagara falls
The American Falls

After a brilliant couple of hours of enjoying the Falls, Emily and I headed to Niagara-on-the-Lake with Alyssia and Jon. Firstly, we stopped off at the Oast Brewery, where we tried some tasty beer and had a mini ping pong tournament! We then popped into a nice farm shop supermarket and had salad and fresh baked bread for lunch outside in the sun. The weather has been very unseasonably warm for the whole week we had been in Canada so far, and it was lovely to sit outside in the sunshine to eat our lunch.

niagara brewery
Oast Brewery

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Oast Brewery bar

As part of the hotel package, we were able to visit some wineries in the Niagara-on-the-Lake area. We first went to a shop, the name of which escapes me and tried three fancy wines each. Niagara on the Lake is a very quaint and very well kept village, with vintage shops and houses, making it a lovely place to wander around.

niagara house
Guest house in Niagara on the Lake

Our next stop was the Trius Winery in Niagara on the Lake. This is a very fancy winery, which included a 'farm to table' brasserie, wine shop and hospitality/tasting rooms. The four of us had a private tour with host Steve, who was very lovely and knowledgable. He clearly had a passion for what he does and this showed in his engaging tour of the winery. We tried several wines at the end of the tour and bought a fancy bottle of red for a gift for someone at the end of the tour. I'd have bought a lot more if it would have fit in my suitcase!

canada brewery tour
Trius Winery tour

trius winery
Trius Winery vineyards

After a very lovely day out, we went back to our hotel to rest before an evening of food and drink in a slightly less refined area of Niagara Falls than earlier in the day! We had been told that Niagara Falls was popular with stag and hen [bachelor and bachelorette] parties and couldn't really understand why, until we walked down a large strip filled with bars, clubs, casinos, fast food and all sorts of random amusement attractions. We had some epic burgers at The Works and some drinks in the town. 

Whilst walking between bars, we popped back to the Falls to sneak a quick look at night. The Falls are lit up at night, glowing in lots of different bright colors. They have fireworks displays there three times a week in the peak season, which would look amazing I'm sure.

Niagara Falls, lit up at night

The next morning, Emily and I indulged in an IHOP breakfast, which are typically found all over the US. If you're not familiar with IHOP, it's a budget restaurant, specialising in huge stacks of pancakes and Emily and I love to go whenever we visit the States. What better way to end a brilliant trip to Niagara and to start the day, then a plate full of sugar and a million calories!

IHOP breakfast pancakes of dreams

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Toronto, Canada [part 1]

toronto sign

We met the lovely Alyssia and Jon in New Zealand two years ago [on the Kiwi Experience bus tour] and have kept in touch ever since. We have been talking about visiting them in their hometown of Toronto for a long time and it was so exciting to finally arrive! We had a welcome committee at the airport and so began two weeks of awesome adventures in Canada! 

airport welcome sign
Our airport welcome committee, Alyssia and Jon

Despite being absolutely shattered from our flight, the four of us headed out to a great pizza restaurant in the neighbourhood called Queen Margherita Pizza before an early night. 

On Sunday morning we all headed out for brunch. We started queuing at one popular spot, before deciding to queue at Bonjour Brioche, a french style bakery instead, thinking the queue might be smaller. This place is just as crazy popular and we waited nearly an hour for a table. The wait was worth it, as the food was delicious and the coffee was served in massive bowls!

toronto brunch
Brunch at Brioche Bakery

After brunch we headed to Downtown Toronto to explore. I've never seen such a collectively great selection of shops in one place; I could have spent a fortune! Realising that there was a Vans store and that the Toy Story Vans shoes I've wanted for ages may be available here [not released in the UK until the end of November], we headed there and I was not disappointed. They may be the single most geeky thing I will ever buy in my life, but I love them! 

toy story vans woody
Woody Toy Story Vans

Sidewalk art, a homage to the Toronto Blue Jays Baseball team

We walked through the city towards the City Hall, where we embraced the photo opportunity offered by the giant Toronto sign on display next to an ice rink. We were a little too early into the winter to skate on the ice rink, but you can tell that it is an amazing spot and apparently they regularly have DJs perform there at weekends. 

toronto city hall sign
Ice rink outside Toronto City Hall

toronto giant sign

On Monday morning, Alyssia and Jon had a day at work to squeeze in before taking the rest of the week off. Emily and I took the opportunity to go and do some of the particularly touristy stuff, and nothing gets more touristy than a trip to the CN Tower! The entry fee for the CN Tower is very high, but as we knew the views would be great and because the tower is so iconic, we decided it was a must-do. We paid a bit extra to go to the very top of the tower, several storeys higher than the main viewing platform and it was well worth it. 

cn tower views
View from the top of the CN Tower

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CN Tower glass floor

There is a glass floor section of the tower which was really quite terrifying to stand on. I stood on a glass floor at the Sears Tower in Chicago earlier in the year, which I was fine with, but the CN Tower one was much higher and for some reason, much scarier. Squeaky bum time!

giant canadian bear
At the bottom of the tower, I couldn't resist a photo opportunity with Yogi. 
He's smarter than your average bear!

Near the CN Tower is on old train yard, which is home to the Steam Whistle Brewery. We stopped for lunch, which was a tasty pretzel bun, with pear and brie. The Pilsner lager was great; the only beer they do. Their motto is to do one thing really, really well. We went on a brewery tour, which was good value and included a bottle of beer each. The tour was informative and fun and lasted about 45 minutes. They've put a lot of effort into making the brewery functional, but also great for visitors, including a large event room which they say is popular for corporate dos and weddings.

steam whistle brewery tour
Steam Whistle Brewery lunch 

We continued our touristy tour of Toronto, wandering fairly aimlessly, except on the look out for a Tim Horton's, so that Emily could enjoy her first visit! I don't know what it is that I like so much about Tim Horton's, as I have to admit that the coffee isn't particularly great. The whole experience is good though and I can't wait for them to open up in the UK soon!

tim hortons coffee
Mission accomplished: Emily's first Tim Horton's!

toronto theater

downtown toronto
Emily Street!

We stumbled across a Fire Station in the middle of Downtown, which was a great photo opportunity for a very geeky collection I'm gathering. I find it interesting seeing fire stations in different locations and countries and how different they all are. Click here to view the #firestationgeek hashtag on Instagram, where you can check out my extremely geeky collection of these photos!

canada fire truck
Another photo for my Fire Station photo collection

On Tuesday the four of us headed out together, as Alyssia and Jon now had the rest of the week off work. We drove to a car park on Toronto's Lakeshore, and walked alongside the lake, taking in the incredible views of the city. We decided to walk to Downtown, for lunch at the Amsterdam Brewhouse. The walk ended up being much longer than we anticipated [around two hours!] but the views were amazing the the weather was lovely and very unseasonably warm. After lunch, we got an Uber back to the car to avoid another two hour walk!

lakeshore walk toronto
Toronto Lakeshore and skyline views

toronto park
Toronto Lakeshore Park

toronto lakeshore park
Toronto Lakeshore Park

toronto waterfront
A Marine Fire Station. A great day for my geeky photo collection!

On Tuesday afternoon we had a wander around the quirky Kensington Market area of Toronto and stopped for coffee at a really lovely cafe called The Eative Film Cafe. 

Emily and I are big fans of pub quiz nights back home, despite rarely doing very well in them. They're a great way to get friends together in the week and we even normally go on a Tuesday! On Tuesday evening, Jon and Alyssia took us to a 'Trivia Night' in Cabbagetown [great name] at a pub called Stout. They did nice food and the quiz was free to enter. The quiz was really well run by a great host, with a variety of rounds and two music rounds, which I always enjoy. Despite having a great time, our team 'Harry Potter and the Quizinors of Azkaban' came 17th out of 19 teams. It's the taking part that counts!

trivia night
Trivia Night at the Stout Irish Pub

On Wednesday we went for lunch at Sanremo Bakery, which is apparently regularly voted as Toronto's best Italian bakery. It was bustling with people buying fresh food, coffee and deli foods and we enjoyed delicious fresh baguettes whilst chatting to Jon and Alyssia's friends Marion and Chris, who are also getting married next year. 

On Wednesday night we had dinner and drinks with Jon and Alyssia's friend Ashley, and were later joined by her husband Darren. Ashley plays in a Hockey team called West Ends Girls and we headed to an ice arena to go and see her and her team play! Ashley scored a goal and after several more, her team won!

ice hockey canada
West Ends Girls Hockey match

After an awesome and action packed first few days in Toronto, on Thursday we headed to Niagara Falls, which I will write about in my next blog post. I'll be writing a second blog post about Toronto soon too. 

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Treehouse Proposal

With just over a year to go until the big day, I wanted to write a quick post about my treehouse engagement proposal to Emily. We had looked at the amazing Uplands Treehouse on Canopy and Stars a long time ago and we've always wanted to stay in a treehouse! I secretly booked this a few months before and had been planning the perfect proposal, along with finding the time to go ring shopping, which was one of the most daunting things I've had to ever do! I never knew there were so many styles and options of engagement rings until I was thrown in at the deep end.

treehouse hotel photo

My lovely friend Annie, who had also helped my friend Stefan set up his proposal, drove down to near Bristol to the treehouse with me in the daytime. I had printed a hundred polaroid photos of fun times from the five years Emily and I have spent together, which Annie and I pegged up on twine, strung up around the treehouse. Add in some flowers, food and Prosecco, and the scene was set!

proposal photos

I picked Emily up from work and had carefully planned a cover story. I had already said were going to stay with our good friends Stefan and Jemma for the weekend, who live in Bristol. They were in on the story; that we were going to see Jemma's work friends band, that I wasn't sure of the venue and that we had to get here as soon as possible after work. Having gone to the treehouse in the day, I could see that it would be obvious that where we were going was quite a detour, so I said that Stefan had asked me to go to a farm shop en route to pick up some real ale! This sounds ridiculous but kind of plausible if you know Stefan!

alpaca photo

On arrival at the farm that the treehouse is located at, where we were greeted by the family of Alpacas that live in the field next to the treehouse. Emily was still blissfully unaware of what was happening, wondering whereabouts we were to buy the real ale. We drove a little way up and I told Emily we needed to walk up the steps at the back of the treehouse, at which point things must have started to click for her.

I am delighted to say that Emily said YES and we are now planning the perfect wedding, which will be in November 2017 :)

treehouse engagement

Uplands Treehouse was a wonderful place to stay for the weekend and the perfect place to celebrate our engagement. It was cosy and well equipped, with a mezzanine bed, log burner and an outdoor shower! The views were amazing and it was a relatively short drive into beautiful Wells, which was a lovely place to browse for the day. We are planning to return to Uplands Treehouse at some point, perhaps for our first wedding anniversary.