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Oh Canada indeed

I just returned from eight days of vacation in Canada. I visited Toronto for two days, Montreal for four days and Quebec City for two days. I had been to all three of those cities more than 20 years ago (I was 8 at the time), but barely remember anything. So it was great to visit this part of Canada again.

Toronto isn’t that exciting for an American tourist, or at least not me. It doesn’t have the historic buildings that Quebec City does, nor does it quite have the vibrancy and exoticness that Montreal, as a French-speaking city, brings to the table. But I got to see a friend from college and saw a Red Sox game against the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre, formerly known as Sky Dome. The last time I was in Toronto, the stadium was barely a year old and was still considered revolutionary. The Blue Jays were also contenders and packed that stadium on a regular basis. Now, in 2010, the stadium is behind the times, and the Blue Jays are forever mired behind the Yankees and Red Sox (and now even the Tampa Bay Rays) in the AL East.

I really liked Montreal. It has plenty of history in Vieux Montreal, fabulous dining and nightlife for those interested in such things, and great parks for people who like the outdoors (one of the better ones, Parc Jean Drapeau on Ille St. Helene, was the site of the picture at the top of this post). If you go in mid-July, as I did, you can also partake in Montreal’s version of the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival, which features shows (both in English and French) all over the city.

One place I recommend that you eat at is Schwartz’s, at 3895 Rue St. Laurent. Smoked meat (beef) is one of Montreal’s culinary specialties, and Schwartz’s, founded 80 years ago by a Russian Jewish immigrant, is considered among the best. Get the “Regular” variety (not the “lean,” which is really nothing more than glorified corned beef) and, if you must go during lunch hour, go to the take out room one door further up the street. It has the same menu, is less crowded and there is seating available.

I’m something of a history buff, so I expected to enjoy Quebec City. And I did. You can spend hours and hours just walking through the streets of the old city – both the part up on the bluffs (Upper City) and the part down by the riverfront (Lower City). Also make sure you take a walk along the city’s original wall (the only one still remaining in North America) and take a tour of the Citadel. It is still an active military installation, and is home to Canadian Army’s 22nd Battallion. If you really want to, you can go there at 10 a.m. daily during the summer for the Changing of the Guard ceremony. But having seen the Buckingham Palace version in London, I found it to be rather dull.

My only major complaint from the trip was the costs. The Canadian dollar’s exchange rate against the U.S. dollar has improved dramatically in recent years, to the point where it’s almost 1-to-1 now. Plus Canada has a national sales tax, in addition to the individual province’s sales taxes. So you end up paying a 13-15% sales tax on everything, and costs add up quickly. The old city in Quebec City was particularly costly, probably since much of everything there is oriented towards tourists.