Toronto or Vancouver?

The Marriott City Centre is right next to the CN Tower and in an ideal spot for a first time visit to Toronto, particularly if you’re not there for a long stay. The hotel is connected to the Rogers Centre, the home of the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team and the bar and restaurant overlook the field. It’s quite impressive. 

As we were tired from travelling, we unpacked and decided to go down to the restaurant for dinner and had two massive salads before an early night. It’s usually better to try and adjust to your new time zone as quickly as possible, but I can never stay up past 9/10pm on that first night after flying west! I barely stay up last 10pm at home!

After our early night, we had a slap up Canadian breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast and potatoes. The other half had granola with berries and a bagel slathered with cream cheese. It was a good start to a busy day exploring Toronto. 

I’d pre-booked tickets for the CN Tower which you can book 10 days in advance, C$55 (£34). There were still capacity limits on attractions when we visited so I thought it best to book ahead to guarantee space, not that it was very busy when we were there. 

The 1960s structure is quite brutalist, all beige concrete towering above you. The lifts, which shoot up the side of the building in about a minute, terrify you with views of the streets below disappearing. But if that didn’t take our breath away, the spectacular view of a bright, blue, cloud free winter’s morning overlooking Lake Ontario as we stepped out of the lift certainly did. Besides the awesome 360 views over the lake and city, another cool feature of the observation deck is the glass floor. Now, you know it’s meant to be safe, but watching people jump up and down on it is nauseating! I barely managed a skip across it but that was more than the other half achieved! If you’re a real adrenaline junkie, you can walk around the outside perimeter of the building in summer time, which looks fine on pictures, but is a definite “No!” from me now I’ve actually been up there!

Wanting to get the full CN Tower experience, we caught the lift up to the Skypod, a further 34 stories above the main viewing platform and revolving restaurant. The plumb bob hanging from the ceiling confirms that, yes, the building is gently swaying in the breeze, as we gripped on to the metal banister and hurriedly made our way around the circumference of the pod. 

After coming back down to earth, we headed off for a wonder around downtown Toronto, bypassing the huge line to get in to the Toronto Aquarium, which is obviously a very popular attraction. We tried to figure out PATH, a network of subterranean walkways linking areas of downtown, but just seemed to feel more disoriented each time! We did a bit of shopping at the Eaton Centre and briefly contemplated breaking a bone ice skating at Nathan Phillips Square. Wondering why we could smell weed wherever we went, I’d forgotten that Canada had legalised cannabis in 2018. 

Everyone knows we love an afternoon tea and as a treat, I’d booked us in to the opulent Omni King Edward Hotel in celebration of the other half’s 40th birthday holiday. Slightly disappointing that the tea was held in a conference room and not the restaurant. The room was very grand but felt cavernous and not very atmospheric, especially as we arrived early and not all of the tables were in use when we got there. This is where afternoon tea is a victim of its own success, especially on weekends. There were far too many diners to use the restaurant. 

I thought it was strange that the savoury items were brought out separate to the cakes but I’ve got an open mind so won’t judge too hard! The food was good quality and tasty and by not having a tier taken up by sandwiches meant even more cakes! The maple scone was excellent and a nice nod to Canada. 

After filling our faces at afternoon tea, we decided to have a light dinner in the hotel restaurant of grilled salmon and soy glazed haddock which we were very impressed with. We had an early start the next day for a highlight and a bucket list item for many, visiting Niagara Falls. 

We were picked up by our driver before 0800 and driven the 70 minutes or so to the falls. It was still fairly early in the morning and it’s still winter, but there was hardly anyone around. The visitor centre was deserted and we almost had the place to ourselves. It got slightly busier as the morning went on but our guide told us that we were only his third booking this year as covid continued to ruin his business and the travel industry. 

Our tour included tickets for “behind the falls”, an underground corridor with viewing platforms behind the Horseshoe Falls. It was fantastic to hear the roar of the water from within the tunnels, especially as there were only about 10 of us down there. Seeing how covid has decimated travel is heartbreaking but one positive that might come out of it is the reset on over-tourism. The famous Maid of the Mist boat ride doesn’t run in winter so we would have missed that anyway. 

Back on ground level, it was awesome to feel the mist from the water, cold and frozen on our faces and see the rainbows created as the sun shone through it. I loved the sparkle of the thick ice and snow blanketing the trees and railings surrounding the falls. 

We spent a few hours enjoying the falls, before our guide drove us to the picture postcard town of Niagara on the Lake. The other couple on the tour didn’t seem interested in stopping for a walk around so I’d like to revisit one day and soak up the old timey atmosphere. We did, however, make a stop to taste the syrupy sweet ice wine the region is famous for. Made from the juice of frozen grapes – they get 1 drop of juice per grape – the dessert wine is very decedent and expensive. I only bought 2 bottles! 

Returning to Toronto, we went out for an incredible meal at Scaddabush, a small chain Italian restaurant just a block away from our hotel. We had the most amazing 3 cheese garlic bread and lasagna with homemade pasta. The fennel sausage and ricotta cheese were delicious and it was great fun playing with the pizza scissors. Why have I never seen pizza scissors before? The cheesecake with amaretto berries and whipped cream was next level and I’m glad we shared it, before waddling back to the hotel. 

After a good sleep with full bellies, we were up way before dawn for an early flight to Edmonton and then on to Whitehorse. Whitehorse being the main draw for our trip, I’ve covered our incredible 4 days there in a separate piece

After a short 2 hour flight from Whitehorse, we arrived in Vancouver and easily caught a taxi to our hotel. Taxi fares from the airport are fixed based on which part of the city you’re going to, so our trip was C$32+tip. It was C$50 on the way back. 

We’d been upgraded at the Sheraton Wall Centre and had a room on the 30th floor with incredible views across the city and bay. The hotel is just a few minutes walk from Davie Village, the LGBT heart of Vancouver, which we could see from our bedroom window. We obviously headed there to check out the bars and restaurants. 

There’s plenty of choice and after a pre-dinner drink at Junction, we settled on Malaysian for dinner at Banana Leaf, a small chain with excellent food and service. The ribs were beautiful and the meat just melted off the bone. 

We woke to a gorgeous, sunny spring day and set out for breakfast at Mary’s in Davie Village. It was a full on, typically North American breakfast of waffles and French toast. We were stuffed as we made our way to the False Creek Ferries terminal (if you could call it that) next to the Aquatic Centre. It’s not a terminal at all, just a pier for the most adorable little ferries you’ll ever see in your life, to pick up and drop off passengers. 

When thinking about a passenger ferry, I didn’t have these cute little tug boats bopping about the creek in mind. Seating a max of about 15 people for the short hops, the little boats are a lot of fun. There’s 9 stops around the creek and you can buy one way, return or full day tickets. We bought a day ticket for $16 each so we could do a little tour of the creek. In the end, we only did 2 stops so could have bought a return (you don’t need to go back to the point of origin with a return ticket, so calling it a return is a bit of a misnomer). 

Our first stop was Granville Island, the main draw for visitors to the creek. Although it’s not technically an island and you can drive there, getting the ferry is way more fun! 

An old industrial space, Granville Island has been repurposed as a marketplace for independent and artisanal retailers. There’s some great options for buying art and clothes as well as foods. The food hall is a brilliant spot for grabbing a bite to eat and the adjoining market is great for fresh produce, from fruit to meat and fish. Shame we’d had such a massive breakfast, we weren’t hungry to try anything! 

We hopped back on a ferry and bobbed along to Yaletown, a gentrified district of independent retailers in converted warehouses. The sun was shining and the pavement cafes were busy, we were starting to feel the chilled out vibe that Vancouver has whilst walking back toward Robson Square, the heart of downtown shopping and the Vancouver Art Gallery. There was a moving tribute to honour the young lives lost in the First Nations residential school scandal that came to light in 2021, interspersed with vendors selling cannabis edibles. 

We explored the main shopping area, took in the sights and smells (mostly of weed) and meandered our way back towards our hotel. 

We went back to Davie Village for dinner at the Fountainhead Pub which was buzzing from not long reopening properly after covid. Nearly all of the places along Davie Street were nicely busy which was great to see. 

We had planned to go to Grouse Mountain the following day, but some of the attractions were closed and the weather was cloudy, obscuring the awesome views of the city, so we decided to explore Stanley Park instead. I definitely want to visit Grouse in the future though, there’s tons of activities up there in summer and winter, plus cafes and restaurants. It’s a bit easier to visit in summer too, as there’s a shuttle bus that runs from downtown whereas in winter, you need to catch the Seabus (ferry) to North Vancouver and get the Grouse bus from there. 

To be fair, we had just spent an awesome 4 days in the mountains and Stanley Park is massive, over 400 hectares and a great place to spend a dry weather day. It was only about 8c when we were there but glorious blue sky and an absolute joy to walk around. 

There’s loads to do in the park and for the adventurous, you can rent bikes, e-bikes, e-scooters and even roller blades from as little as C$7 (about £5) an hour. Most people would bike, skate or walk around the 10k perimeter of the park, along the famous sea wall, and marvel at the sea views and huge container ships in the bay. It’s stunning! 

There’s also about 15 miles of trails within the park itself, as well as several lakes and lagoons to explore. We did a short walk around Beaver Lake but didn’t see any beavers. Although we did see black squirrels and teeny tiny birds being fed by an old couple on a bridge which was just precious!

One of the archetypal images of Vancouver can be found in the park, the famous totem poles. Whilst one of British Columbia’s most visited attractions, most are replicas of the originals, which were moved to museums in the 1980’s for preservation. They’re nonetheless spectacular.

There’s a cafe, gift shop and toilets right by the totems too, which is handy if you’re out all day. One thing I did notice is the number of gender neutral toilets in and around Vancouver. This is a very diverse and accommodating city and we felt incredibly comfortable as a same sex couple. The Pride flag is everywhere, gender neutral toilets are very common and same sex couples walk hand in hand throughout the city. There’s very few places we’ve been that have felt so inclusive. 

Before exploring the park on foot, we spent a good few hours, well, nearly 3 in fact, at the Vancouver Aquarium. 

Split in to 6 zones, from BC’s own coastline to the Amazon rain forest, it was fascinating to learn about the biodiversity of those areas and, soberingly, how humans are ruining it. 

If you think this aquarium is all about fish, then think again! Seeing the fish was cool, I especially wanted to stick my hand in the red bellied piranha tank after the sign said they’re not really man eaters, and who doesn’t love to say “hi!” to Nemo and Dori?! But there’s so much more going on!

We got to see various types of birds, turtles, frogs and even a sloth! The highlight has to be the sea otters, who were just having their lunch when we stopped by, swimming on their backs whilst nibbling their starter and stashing their main course on their bellies. 

The aquarium is also home to some larger mammals; sea lions and seals, who had been found injured along the BC coast and wouldn’t be able to survive if released back in to the wild. It was heartbreaking to see the sea lions, blinded in 1 eye after being shot in the face then left to die. I’m not a fan of large animals being kept in captivity but at least they have a safe place to call home with regular meals and no fear of being hunted or maimed again. 

The 4D theatre showing a short film made by the BBC’s Blue Planet and narrated by David Attenborough himself, about an octopus, was a welcome rest for the feet and a lot of fun! And it’s included in the C$42 (£25) entry fee. 

Walking back to the hotel took almost an hour, but we enjoy walking and the route down Robson Street gave us a great glimpse of a different side of Vancouver, with a myriad of Asian restaurants and shops. I loved the feel of this part of town and would consider staying here on a future visit. 

For our last full day in Van (that’s what the cool kids call it, apparently), we signed up for a walking tour of Gastown, the birth place of modern Vancouver. 

Like most of North America, these cities are babies compared to what we’re used to in Europe, but it actually makes them more interesting. The history feels fresh enough to touch and I really like that. 

Before meeting our guide, we took a walk to Canada Place which is home to an exhibition centre after Van hosted the World Expo in 1986. It’s also the cruise terminal, or will be, when cruising resumes this summer after covid. Vancouver is the jumping off point for cruises up to Alaska. 

The digital orca was pretty cool and the sail structure of the building is an impressive representation of the city’s maritime history. The main reason for our visit though was to try out the Fly Over Canada 4D experience, which had been recommended to me by a friend.

If you’ve been to Disney and been on Soarin’ or Avatar’s Flight of Passage, you’ll get the gist of how you fly over the Canadian landscape. 

There’s actually 2 experiences – fly over Canada and fly over Iceland. You save 30% if you do both and can save even more if you book ahead on the website. The further ahead you book, the better the discount so don’t be like us and rock up on the day and pay gate prices of C$45 (£27), it’s not really worth it.

We met our guide, Dan, at Waterfront Station, outside the first Starbucks to be opened outside the USA, opened for Canada hosting the Winter Olympics in 1988. It wasn’t actually legal for Starbucks to sell their coffee in Canada at the time so they had to drive it across the border in their car! Or so I am told!

Next door to the station was our first stop on the tour, the Steamworks Brewpub, an original warehouse from the gold rush era. The brewery started in 1995 in the basement of the warehouse, before they eventually took over first floor as well. Ed the dramatic spiral staircase down to the basement, which still houses the brewery. I’m not a beer drinker at all but I enjoyed the radler and would actually order one in a pub if I was feeling masc. 

In the same warehouse building was stop 2, Guu with Otokoma, where we sampled boneless Japanese fried chicken. The restaurant is really unassuming from the outside but the chicken thigh was delicious. 

We walked past another one of Van’s famous sites, the Gastown Steam clock. We didn’t stop long as it was already surrounded by tourists, but despite its Victorian design, the clock was actually made in 1977. It’s still a pretty cool thing to see, partially powered by steam and plays a tune on the quarter hour. 

Continuing our way down Water Street, our next stop was Brioche, a wonderful little Italian restaurant known for its homemade tortellini with spicy sausage. The sample of a local BC Domain D’or wine was also welcome! 

Across the street was stop 4, the Flying Pig. As you might guess, it’s a speciality pork restaurant and the pulled pork croquette was one of the nicest things we tried on the tour. We had slightly longer here so there was time to grab a drink and rest for a few minutes before heading for the next stop, Meet. 

Set up with a street food concept, Meet is in the old abattoir district which you might think is an odd place to have a vegan restaurant, but the sheltered courtyard is a lovely spot. The cauliflower wing in sweet and sour was amazing, crispy on the outside and firm to bite. Vegan food really has come a long way!

Almost at the end of the tour, we stopped at Maple Tree Square which is where Gastown, and modern day Vancouver, started. Gastown was so named after the guy who opened a bar in this area is 1867, Jack Deighton. Fondly named Gassy Jack because he talked a lot, we were feeling pretty proud of him being from Yorkshire and founding this great city, until we learnt that he had a 12 year old, First Nation wife. The statue of him had been regularly vandalised and had actually been removed when we were there, particularly in response to the residential school scandal. 

Our penultimate stop was just across the street at Soft Peaks ice cream. Whilst the ice cream was lovely and made with just farm fresh milk, I wasn’t really feeling ice cream in this climate, and plain ice cream is plain ice cream. 

Lastly, we popped in to Trees, an organic coffee and cheesecake cafe. With a focus on sustainability and equality, Trees ensures that women within its own business as well as its suppliers have equal opportunity and receive equal pay to men. Why this still needs to be a thing in 2022 is beyond me, but this is the world we live in. We didn’t have coffee, but the blueberry cheesecake was excellent. 

After the tour, we spent a bit of time exploring the shops around Gastown before making our way up Burrard Street and back to the hotel to pack. 

After an incredible 10 days exploring Canada, the day to fly home had, unfortunately, arrived. We spent the morning walking around Gastown and then caught a False Creek Ferry from Yaletown to Granville Island, just because we loved those little ferries. 

We managed to arrange late checkout until 1400, so after that, we headed to Mary’s on Davie for a big lunch and to pass the time, chatting to the locals. It turns out, Vancouver pride is the second Saturday in August and my 40th birthday will fall on the second Saturday in August so I don’t think Vancouver has seen the last of us. 

Date of trip; February/March 2022

Price paid; Toronto Marriott Centre C$560 for 3 nights inc breakfast booked through hotels.com. Sheraton Vancouver Wall Centre C$360 for 3 nights room only booked direct. 

Points earned; none, but earned 10% cash back for booking the Toronto hotel via Topcashback. Also earned 0.5% cash back by paying for everything on our MBNA Horizon cash back credit card (no longer open for applications). 

2 thoughts on “Toronto or Vancouver?

  1. Loved your post, guys, you spent tine in some of my own favourite home-country places: Toronto, Yukon and Vancouver. (With that side-nod to Niagara Falls in winter, definitely the most dramatic time to visit, esp. in behind the Falls.) So glad you enjoyed yourselves, and felt welcome and at ease.

    Like

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