A Trip Up Canada’s East Coast— Grand Chateaus, Picturesque Cities, Great Theatre
Story By Larry Taylor Photos By Gail Taylor
We had long wanted to visit Canada’s East Coast provinces of Ontario and Quebec. In previous years, my wife and I had been to Canada’s West Coast and to the middle of the country.
Part of our motivation for this year’s trip was to attend the two world famous theater festivals in Southern Ontario – the Shaw Festival and the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare Festival.
Another goal of our trip was to stay in historic hotels, some of which are famous and themselves tourist destinations.
After flying to Toronto, we decided to drive south to the festivals and then travel north, staying in each city two to three nights. Altogether we would be on the road two weeks. In the cities we would visit, Fairmont operates vintage hotels. These beautiful establishments are located almost equidistant from each other, placed like a string of pearls along the St. Lawrence River.
Upon arriving, we stayed the first night at Fairmont’s Royal York. Built by Canadian Pacific Railway in 1929, it lies in the heart of the city, close to major attractions. Before driving south next day, we visited the CN Tower, the area’s major landmark, the third tallest standing tower in the world. Riding the elevator to the top brings spectacular views of the city and Lake Ontario.
On the way over, we passed the Hockey Hall of Fame, located just around the corner of the hotel. Though we’re not hockey fans and didn’t go, it brought to mind the scores who would like to take a pilgrimage here. Reportedly, it has the finest collection of hockey artifacts at all levels of play from around the world.
Another must-see is Art Gallery of Canada (AGO), which we visited two-weeks later at the end of the trip. In 2008, the gallery got a big do-over by the eminent Frank Gehry. A stunning new design includes the Galeria Italia, a gleaming showcase made of wood and glass running the length of two football fields along the Gallery’s facade, and the iconic staircase, spiraling up through the roof of Walker Court and into the new Contemporary Galleries above.
There was a Picasso exhibit there but we were interested in the great Canadian art assembled. Especially impressive were the depictions of life in the 19th Century when the nation was being settled. It gives a vivid sense of what it was like in those days.
Then we had a tour through the famous Group of Seven collection. These were painters in the early 20th Century who believed a distinct Canadian art could be developed through direct contact with nature, producing paintings inspired by the Canadian landscape. We were very moved.
Back to the first day, we left that afternoon in our rental car and we traveled the 90-minutes south to Niagara-on-the-Lake for the Shaw Festival. We stayed at the fine old Prince of Wales hotel in this quaint town, on the shores of Lake Ontario.
The festival was started 51 years ago, inspired by playwright-philosopher George Bernard Shaw’s extensive works during his long life, 1856 to 1950. At first, the festival exclusively presented works by Shaw and his 20th Century contemporaries. In 2000, though, the repertory expanded to include the work of contemporary playwrights.
This year, 2012, 11 plays were slated in four theaters. We saw a fine revival of the stage version of E. L Doctorow’s novel “Ragtime” on the new Festival Stage. It was first produced on Broadway in 2001. In critics’ opinion, this version, directed by Jackie Maxwell, was far superior. Lavish, with a large ensemble, the production put action spectacularly on three levels as it dealt with a disparate group of immigrant, black and establishment leaders in the turbulent early 20th Century.
We also saw another revival, Terence Ratigan’s 1936 play, “French Without Tears.” This popular comedy deals with the adventures of a group of upper class English who go to France for a crash course in French and learn more about life and love than they do language.
Our hotel, Prince of Wales, was located in the heart of town. It was within easy walking distance to popular places – just a couple blocks from Lake Ontario. Built in 1864, it has been brought up to date but still retains its old-world charm. Enhancing its image, a Victorian-style horse carriage is tethered out front, providing scenic excursions around town.
As well, over the years, the area has become a center for wine production. The road to the falls is a pleasure to take – stately old homes from another era and lush, green wine vineyards grouped (55 in all) around working wineries, with sampling rooms and many with fine-dining restaurants.
Just outside the city, historic Fort George gives an authentic look at the War of 1812 between the U. S. and the British Empire with Canada on the battle lines. The slightly restored fort contains its original walls, patrolled nowadays by soldiers in authentic gear. At various times, shooting exhibitions are given.
Two days in Niagara, and it was on the road again, two hours to Stratford and the Shakespeare Festival. Opened in October 1952, under the leadership of renowned Minneapolis director Tyrone Guthrie, it is located in parklands adjacent to Stratford’s Avon River. Its inaugural performance was Guthrie’s production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” starring prominent stage and screen star Alec Guiness. Since that time it has flourished, and now presents works by international artists, in addition to a usual helping of Shakespeare.
The highlight during our stay was a revival of “42nd Street” in one of the best productions of this musical comedy that we’d ever seen. It starred a large cast of prominent Canadian singers and dancers on the festival’s new thrust stage.
At Stratford, we stayed at a boutique hotel, The Parlour Historic Inn & Suites, built in the 1870s. It was within walking distance to the five festival venues. During our two days, we particularly enjoyed walking along the beautiful Avon River, with its graceful swans gilding by.
Also worth an hour of time is the festival museum with its collection of Shakespeare memorabilia from previous Stratford productions, particularly the diorama boxes with graphic detail of previous stage sets.
For antique lovers this area has great attraction. The nearby small town of St. Jacobs with its Mennonite culture and antique stores is a haven for browsers and collectors.
Ending our Stratford stay, we headed north and then west on a half-day’s drive to Ottawa, the nation’s capital. We were glad that we had two days to explore this lovely city. We stayed in the impressive Fairmont Chateau Laurier Hotel which opened in 1912 and is now celebrating its 100th anniversary.
With its opening, the regal Chateau changed the face of downtown Ottawa, adding elegance and sophistication to the city. Furnished with antiques, it features an attention-grabbing travertine marble staircase with brass railing.
For all its beauty, its stunning location is the piece de resistance, located as it is at the confluence of the Ottawa and Rideau rivers, joined by the historic Gatineau locks. Constructed in 1832, its eight hand-operated locks still work today, lifting pleasure boats instead of commercial ships.
Stretching our legs upon arrival, we walked down to the Gatineau and continued on the pedestrian and bike pathway along its banks. In winter people skate to work on the frozen river. Across the locks-bridge, the impressive Parliament Buildings, built in the manner of London’s, are set on a dramatic hill overlooking the Ottawa River. We went on a guided tour through public galleries, to the Senate and House of Commons and to the top of the building’s Peace Tower, where an observation deck provides dramatic 360-degree views.
Afterward, we strolled through the Bywind Market with its food vendors and many restaurants. Whether one wants Indian, Mediterranean or just pub dining, the variety is endless as are the stalls selling everything from Canadian maple candies and syrup to produce and fresh flowers. As well, shops offered fresh fish and meats and just around the corner, stores featured couture fashions for men and women.
Since we stayed at least two nights in each of the hotels, we always dined at least once in the hotel’s dining room. With rivers and lakes nearby, there was always a supply of fresh fish which we thoroughly enjoyed. We dined on fresh trout and salmon almost nightly at the hotels. One of our favorite meals, however, was at Grill on King in Niagara on the Lake, where we had superb mushroom risotto.
Two days in Ottawa and it was on the road for three hours to Quebec province and Montreal where we stayed in the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel.
Since it first opened in 1958, this stately hotel has been the place to stay for dignitaries and celebrities from Queen Elizabeth II to John Lennon and Yoko Ono. (They held their famous 1969 “’bed-in,” giving birth to the classic “Give Peace A Chance.”)
Montreal is a large city and there is much to see. It was a 20 minute downhill walk from the hotel to the lovely old city and the celebrated Basilique Notre Dame-de-Montreal. This is surely one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world with its stunning high-vaulted blue ceiling, studded with thousands of 24-carat stars. Built in 1829, it is filled with exquisite stained glass windows.
A couple blocks away, Pointe-à-Callière Archaeology and History Museum is a national historic site rising above the actual remains of the city’s birth place. Guides take visitors on an authentic archaeological tour to 14th century excavation sites where aboriginals camped, and on to diggings which reveal life up to the present – to native artifacts, the city’s first Catholic cemetery and its first marketplace. Fascinating, it brought Montreal’s past to life.
From here, we traveled up the St. Lawrence for a major highlight of the trip – our three-day stay in Quebec City, among the world’s most beautiful cities. This provincial capital rises above the river’s narrowing. In fact, it translates in Algonquin to “where the river narrows.” Founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain, it is one of the oldest cities in North America. The ramparts surrounding Old Quebec are the only remaining fortified city walls that still exist in the Americas north of Mexico.
We stayed in the city’s most famous landmark, Fairmont’s Chateau Frontenac. Located on a bluff, it dominates the skyline with its fine old 17th and 18th Century architecture.
It is one of the most walkable cities in the world, charming as well as historic. On our first full day, we took a stroll through the old village area to the wall, walked up the steps to the top and followed the wall back towards the river. . Later, we returned to the river and took the funicular down to the banks and the quaint area with shops, restaurants and galleries.
With its castle-like architecture and turrets, Le Château Frontenac is truly every child’s dream castle and has been designated a United Nations World Heritage Site.
We had one more day and took a suggestion to drive a short ways out of town and see two highly recommended places.
First stop – Montmorency Falls on the Montmorency River about eight miles from Quebec City. It was a spectacular sight. Over 275 feet high and 150 feet wide, it is the highest in the province and, in fact, 98 feet higher than Niagara Falls.
The water shoots down in staircases, allowing visitors to view the falls from several different perspectives. A suspension bridge over the crest provides access to both sides, as well as providing a great view. Even more, there is an aerial tram that carries passengers between the base and the top of the falls.
After an hour, we went another 14 miles to world famous St-Anne-de-Beaupre, a basilica set along the Saint Lawrence, 19 miles east of Quebec City. It has been credited by the Roman Catholic Church with many miracles in curing the sick and disabled. It has become an important Catholic sanctuary, receiving about a half-million pilgrims each year. The peak of pilgrimage is July 26, the feast of Saint Anne. In June, however, we saw a large group in attendance. The gigantic structure is in the shape of a cross and has two imposing steeples. Numerous crutches and braces are posted on the back pillars left by those who say they have been helped by the saint’s blessing.
All too soon it was time to fly home. Our short trip had left a taste for more of this lovely country. As we boarded the plane, we halfway decided to return soon – this time traveling to the Northern provinces – to the bracing climes and ruggedly beautiful scenery of New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador. We would need another week or so, but we could manage that.
For information and reservations — Shaw Festival: www, shawfest.com; (800) 511-SHAW. Stratford Shakespeare Festival: www.stratfordshakespearefestival.com; (800)567-1600. Prince of Wales Hotel: www.vintage-hotels.com; (888)669-5566.The Parlour Historic Inn & Sites: www.theparlour.ca; (877) 728-4036. Fairmont Hotels: www.fairmont.com; (800)257-7544.