The Canadian Side

December 23, 2014

I visited Niagara Falls (the attraction, not the city) back in 2010 when I was touring the country working as a marketing rep for one of the most despicable people to ever walk the planet. Fortunately, escaping the stress of this job was simple, as I had a lot of travel under my belt and was able to stay with Couchsurfers and visit sights I had never seen on the road from Los Angeles to Boston.

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Though my hosts were more than hospitable in Buffalo, they didn’t exactly sell the city or the falls as a big attraction. After seeing the cold war-esque atmosphere of Niagara and the lack of perspective on the massive waterfall, I can’t say I blame them; the American side on this stretch of the border is boring and depressing.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I heard a flight attendant friend would be visiting Toronto at the same time friends living just west of there were open to having guests. Buying a flight was out of the question this close to Christmas: unless it’s the end of the world or an emergency, I will NEVER pay more than $300 for a roundtrip domestic ticket (includes Vancouver and Toronto). United was asking around $800, American a little over a grand.

Although I hate using frequent flier miles domestically as well – United charges a $75 fee to book within three weeks, regardless of the destination – my recent Alaska Airlines points courtesy of their visa card were added to my account, and I was able to find a flight coming in precisely when my friend’s flight landed, and leaving just in time to get home for the holidays. Neat, huh?

It doesn’t surprise me that so many are amazed I’m able to travel the way I do despite being very cash poor most of the time. When I did join my friends and their family members in Kitchener, one of them asked me as much. For the first time in years, I felt confident describing myself as a travel hacker: that is, not a hacker who travels, but one who hacks travel.

However, even travel hackers have to experience discomfort from time to time. Even AA Priority Boarding (partnered with Alaska Airlines) couldn’t stop my flight from Dallas from waiting at the gate for two hours while excuse after excuse poured through the intercom.

On a more positive note, one of the flight attendants noticed the Sprinkles cupcake box I was bringing along:

“How many do you have in there?”
“Enough for an upgrade.”

Good for a quick chuckle. To make a long story short, the flight was uneventful, and we did eventually land at Pearson where I took the #192 bus to Kipling Station and rode the subway all the way to downtown for $3. Strangely enough, the woman at the information desk looked at me like I was crazy when I wanted her to confirm the public transportation route. I too was once a traveler who thought taxis were the only way to get to and from a major airport outside of catching a ride, but I expect less judgement from people working in the terminal; unless I’m carrying an unmanageable amount of luggage, in a ridiculous hurry, or in a country that’s not particularly safe to bus from the airport to town, I won’t be calling a cab.

Anyway, Toronto isn’t having a particularly cold winter, so my layers of Texan attire were plenty for a few days in hotels and friends’ apartments. First on the agenda was mac and cheese with Canadian bacon and an Okanagan beer to ease the jet lag and make it easier to settle in for the evening.

Readers may know I’m still a little burnt out on solo travel when it comes to popular destinations. I’m sure I’m capable of enjoying the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty on my own, but having a companion can make all the difference in the world. On this trip, I was able to share in her joy of fulfilling a dream, visiting Niagara Falls for the first time. Instead of it just being me booking a last minute overpriced tour, I arranged for us to bus into the old town, walk along the border to the falls itself, and relax with Tim Horton’s while we waited for the return bus to Toronto. For your reference, there are tour groups, trains, Greyhound buses, Megabuses, and GO buses to the falls; I found a Megabus/Coach Canada for a reasonable price heading underneath the Fallsview Casino Resort.

The Canadian side of Niagara Falls is a very sharp contrast to the American one. They have the better view, so it’s only natural there should be more development surrounding it, but the American side is downright bleak when compared with everything surrounded by maple leaf flags.

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Casinos, cafes, souvenir stands, restaurants, hotels, major public transportation hubs… all within walking distance. If I remember correctly, the American town of Niagara has one 1960s-era casino and a few shops (there are hotels, but they don’t look nearly as ordinate as the ones in Canada).

Some things about Canada that still surprise me:

– The squirrels are black. Maybe they’re in New York as well, but coming from Texas, that’s just weird to see.
– Toronto seems to be in a perpetual state of construction, more so than your average metropolis. The major highways and train stations were torn up.
– Milk comes in plastic bags. What hellish nightmare is this?
– Some fences are erected not to keep animals out, but to prevent snow from drifting onto the roads.
– Sled crossing signs… can there be anything more Canadian?

On a final note, and in the spirit of my quest to find the perfect cupcake, Toronto has provided an excellent contender in the form of Dlish on Queen Street. I must confess I think the owner has seen Sprinkles and is trying to rip off their style, but I can’t complain when their frosting is soft, their cake moist, and their flavors bountiful.

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So long, Canada. Let’s talk soon, eh?

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