Canada

My New Favourite Holiday

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Of all the times to be stranded in Toronto, I was pretty lucky. It was the week of Halloween. And I was making the most of my very first experience of this North American tradition.

The festivities began on the weekend and continued all week long.

Early in the week, Lauren and I carved our very first jack-o-lanterns.

On the day of Halloween we were invited to have a few drinks with Anne-Sophie and her parents, who were visiting from France. They were staying out in the suburbs. So we made the trip out and lapped up the opportunity to see the elaborately decorated houses and hand out candy to all the little trick-or-treaters. It was so incredibly cute!

We then took Halloween to the subway and back to the apartment to celebrate Fanny’s birthday (another French exchange student) in true Halloween style.

Halloween is definitely my new favourite holiday.

Note: Photos by the wonderful and talented Lauren Waldhuter.

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One Rainy Day

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Niagara Falls is a mere hour and a half drive from Toronto. So on Sunday morning I jumped on a tour bus headed for this famous natural landmark. It was raining and windy (Hurricane Sandy was on its way), but I wasn’t going to let that ruin my day.

There are a number of tours that leave from Toronto all for similar prices ($50-$80), but I went with ISX, a Canadian-based tour group for students.

First stop was the Konzelmann Estate Winery, where a late morning wine tasting made for a good start to the day.

Next was the cute little town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Despite the awful weather, it was nice to walk around this very pretty, heritage-listed, colonial-style town.

Finally we made it to the Falls. They really are quite spectacular.

Unfortunately for me, the Maid of the Mist boat, which takes people right to the foot of the falls (and is supposedly an amazing experience), had closed for the season. I was still able to enjoy my time there, however, and spent most of the afternoon, out of the rain, sipping cocktails at a restaurant/bar overlooking the Falls. The restaurant/bar, called Elements on the Falls, has an extensive cocktail list that incorporates local elements like ice wine and maple syrup. A great way to gaze at the Falls on a rainy day.

The day was concluded with a venture up the Skylon Tower, which offers a great view of the Falls down below. I wish I had been there for just half an hour longer to see the Falls lit up after dark. It would have been a spectacular view from the Tower.

A day trip to Niagara Falls is a must-do when in Toronto. It would be much more pleasant on a nice, sunny day, and I would have liked to go when the Maid of the Mist boats are still running, but no matter what time of year, or what the weather is like, I would still recommend it to anyone.

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Stranded in Canada

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So I was stranded in Canada.

Over the course of the week my flight back to New York would be cancelled three times. I was not alone in this situation. Around 2500 flights had been cancelled thanks to Hurricane Sandy.

The destruction in both the Caribbean and north-eastern America was beyond awful. My heart goes out to all the families and friends of those that lost their lives and the many people who lost their homes and property during this time.

I was quite lucky to have been in Toronto when the hurricane hit. While Toronto experienced very high winds, rain and the occasional flash of green lightening, it was nothing like what had happened in the north-eastern states of the US.

And I was lucky to be staying with friends. I owe a massive thanks to Elspeth, who was kind enough to let me take up her entire floor space for the extra 5 nights I was there.

Being stranded for an extra 5 nights, I got to experience a lot more of Toronto than I had expected. My favourite times were spent simply wandering the streets of downtown taking it all in.

I took a tour of the Steam Whistle Brewery. At only $10, the tour includes two free beers and is a definite must for beer lovers when in Toronto. Somehow I ended up having an extra two beers for free and spending the night bar hopping with a group of people I’d met on the tour.

I went to the Art Gallery of Ontario, which is currently exhibiting an incredible collection of art by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The exhibition is on display until January 20 and if you are into art and happen to pass through Toronto before its over, I would highly recommend you check it out.

I unnecessarily gorged myself on all-you-can-eat pancakes with real Canadian maple syrup, I became a regular at Bull Dog Coffee, just off Church Street, that serves up some of the best coffee in Toronto, and I spent a lot of time sleeping in the middle of the day, just because I could.

Yes. The reality of going to class next week is going to hit me hard.

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Scary Outfits, Scary Weather

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One of the best things about Toronto is all its cute little neighbourhoods.

I spent Saturday afternoon wandering through one such neighbourhood, Kensington Market. Lauren, Elspeth, Anne-Sophie and Molly braved the rainy weather with me for an afternoon spent wandering around this hipster hangout.

Street art covers the walls, fruit and vegetable stalls are a-plenty, vintage and boutique clothing stores are dotted around the place and its the perfect place for a vegetarian to grab a bite to eat or the socially-conscious to find a cup of Fair Trade coffee.

It was a great afternoon, spent cafe hopping and boutique shopping. I got my vegetable fix with a sandwich and juice at Urban Herbivore, and had a decent, but not the best, coffee at the Grind House Cafe. My favourite shopping find was this great little shop, Model Citizen, offering a range of unique Toronto-inspired, Canadian-designed T-shirts.

Being the Saturday night before Halloween, it was then time to get our scary on. Halloween is my new favourite holiday and it wasn’t over yet…

Neither, it would seem, was my stay in Toronto. Hurricane Sandy was looming large off the eastern coast of America and the country was bracing for Sandy’s fury early in the week. My Monday morning flight back to New York was cancelled. I was stranded in Canada.

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Blind in Toronto

Blind in Toronto

Luck was on my side on Thursday night when I arrived in Toronto. Technology, however, was not.

After 3 months of use, my $30 mobile had officially died. This left me unable to text Lauren or Elspeth that I had arrived. Luckily, I had written their address down and saved it on my laptop before I left New York. So I hopped in a cab and opened up my laptop to get the address. But alas, my laptop was out of battery. Fail.

I apologised to the cab driver and jumped out into the cold Toronto air. And just as I thought my luck was running out, Lauren, Elspeth and their friend Anne-Sophie, appeared out of nowhere. I was saved. And thus my weekend in Toronto began.

On Friday I spent some time wandering the cobbled stone streets of the Distillery District, a super cute area of Toronto. I had lots of fun checking out the boutique shops and art galleries, finding myself some really cute and unique Toronto-designed earrings. I also indulged in some handmade truffles from SOMA and grabbed a pretty decent coffee at a place called Balzac’s Coffee Roasters, which is found all over Toronto and throughout Southern Ontario. It made for a good start to my time in Toronto.

I spent the afternoon with Lauren, Elspeth and some of their international friends also on exchange in Toronto. Anne-Sophie and Gregoire are from France, and Molly is a fellow Australian. We walked up and down the super hipster Queen Street West and had a lot of fun at the Black Market, a second-hand vintage store, looking for Halloween costumes. It was vintage, op-shopping heaven! The afternoon was complete with a coffee at the Dark Horse Espresso Bar, Lauren’s favourite in Toronto.

The best part of the day, however, was dinner. I would go as far as to say that this was the most incredible dining experience I have ever had. O.NOIR is a restaurant like no other. You sit at a table and chat with friends over some good food and drink. Except that it is all done in complete darkness. And all the waitstaff are blind. It is a great concept. The idea originates with Jorge Spielmann, a blind man from Zurich who would blindfold his dinner guests so they could share in his eating experience.

After placing our order we were then led inside by our waiter. Once inside the room, you can literally see nothing at all. When we first sat down we seemed to overcompensate the loss of our sight by talking unnecessarily loudly. After some hushing from a nearby table, we settled down to enjoy our meal. I don’t know if it was my heightened sense of smell and taste, but the food was delicious. And the experience was like no other I had ever had before. One that I highly recommend if you ever get the chance.

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