Travel: Quebec and Toronto, Canada

The L'Eperon Trail in the Jacques Cartier National Park, Quebec. Picture: Contributed
The L'Eperon Trail in the Jacques Cartier National Park, Quebec. Picture: Contributed
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QUEBEC and Toronto offer ample opportunities for city exploration on foot, as well as roaming along countryside trails, writes Gilly Pickup

There we were in Quebec’s Jacques-Cartier National Park striding along the L’Éperon trail under a clear blue sky, the turbulent river – a coppery colour due to minerals in the water – flowing swiftly alongside. As we climbed steadily uphill through the forest, it seemed necessary every now and then to pause to take in an exceptional view, listen to the wind blowing through the fine pine tree needles and savour the crispest, cleanest air I’ve come across in a long time. After a couple of hours we arrived at the visitor centre where our ever-thoughtful guide Jean-Francois produced picnic lunches, which we hungrily devoured at a jaw-dropping location, right on the water’s edge. It couldn’t have been better.

I had flown to the Francophile metropolis of Montreal a couple of days earlier and joined a small group of hikers, all eager to explore what this superb part of Canada has to offer, including the cobwebbed walking trails of La Mauricie National Park. With its foreverness of gushing rapids, glassy lakes and dense forests, the park is home to black bears, wolves and the elusive moose.

Not that treks were limited to the rural variety. Quebec City was on the agenda too. This Unesco-listed treasure, the name a derivation of the Algonquin word “kebek”, meaning “where the river narrows”, has a French-speaking population of more than 80 per cent, though most are bilingual. Just as well if all you have to offer is limited GCSE French.

After a four-mile walking tour of this centuries-old city, which included walking along the ramparts of the Old Town (great views of the mighty St Lawrence River from there), taking in the parliament building and La Citadelle, North America’s largest fort, we visited the historic battlefield of the Plains of Abraham. Here, in 1759, French and English armies clashed in the pivotal battle that marked the beginning of the end of French rule in Quebec.

Then another day, another place, and after a two-hour flight we touched down in Toronto ready to explore this attention-grabbing, skyscraper-filled city on foot. The most famous sight here, of course, is the impressive towering eyeful that is the CN Tower, visible from almost anywhere in town. Until a few years ago it was the world’s tallest freestanding structure.

Not that Toronto is all about concrete and glass skyscrapers. Some older, look-at-me buildings survive, including the red brick “flat iron” building known for its narrow wedge shape and the trompe-l’oeil effect mural on its back wall which gives the appearance of having more windows than it actually does.

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We explored Chinatown – a colourful area bubbling with life, dumplings, dim sum, moon cakes and herbal teas – then it was on to the calm, almost traffic-free Queen’s Park area, home to the University of Toronto, and a visit to the bustling indoor St Lawrence Market, brimful of food stalls, banter and animated locals. We walked down Yonge Street too, mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s longest street. I cannot tell a lie and say that we walked all of it, because it actually ends up well over a thousand miles away at Rainy River on the American border.

The Roy Thomson Hall, home to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, is named after Lord Thomson of Fleet, a former owner of The Scotsman, whose family donated a rather hefty sum of money to complete fundraising efforts for the building. Right outside there is Canada’s Walk of Fame where around 140 stars embedded in the paving stones honour Canadian celebrities including William Shatner, Shania Twain and Bryan Adams.

But soon the appeal of wide open spaces called again and we were off to Ball’s Falls Conservation Area on the scenic Niagara Escarpment. Surrounded by walnut trees and marvellous shrubs, the site has been restored to its former 19th-century glory with an operating flour mill, lime kiln, reconstructed family home and blacksmith shop. And indeed, while Ball’s Falls itself is a spectacular waterfall, two-thirds the height of Niagara’s other, more famous Falls, there was nothing to prepare me for my first sight of the “real thing”.

It’s spectacular enough that almost three-quarters of a million gallons of water crash over the edge every second, but the 12,000-year-old Niagara Falls are even more amazing when illuminated at night and rainbow-coloured waters tumble into blackness. This is not just one waterfall, but three. The American and Bridal Veil Falls are on the American side and the Horseshoe, mightier than the other two combined, is in Canada. Of course, we did the tourist thing and took a boat ride to see this magnificent sight up close and personal. We were all handed a pink plastic hooded poncho to keep us dry before embarking aboard our boat Hornblower (the famous Maid of the Mist now only operates from the American side).

Dipping and rocking, we headed out past the American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls before reaching the thundering waters and clouds of mist of the mighty Horseshoe Falls. Within a few seconds, we were all spectacularly drenched. If you wear glasses, they’ll be misted up in seconds, and as for taking photos: forget it, your camera will get saturated.

And so, it was back on dry land and the last trek of the trip. This time we set out to discover part of the challenging Bruce Trail, Canada’s longest footpath at more than 500 miles long, named after Scotsman James Bruce, who was governor general of Canada in the mid 1800s. We were told that to complete the full length of the trail would mean hiking around eight hours a day for 30 days.

Certainly it was no humdrum amble this, with stocky roots to stumble over, wet leaves to skid on and super-steep wooden reinforced beams and steps to negotiate.

Thankfully the scenic sections, a chaos of rocks, fast-flowing streams, trees that almost tickled the clouds and wide-reaching views more than made up for the effort. Yes, there was no doubt that the going got tough here, but I am pleased to report our group kept going.

And so, all too soon it seemed, my trip to Canada came to an end. One thing that I’d noticed everywhere I’d been was the friendliness and hospitality of the Canadians. I’d walked many miles along trails, through forests, across cities and was so invigorated by all that healthy fresh air and exercise, I came home fizzing with energy. Certainly a trip to remember.

• Gilly Pickup travelled with HF Holidays (Tel: 0345 470 8558, www.hfholidays.co.uk) in association with the Quebec and Ontario tourist boards. An 11-night “Journey to Niagara” guided walking break starts from £2,899 per person inclusive of Air Canada flights, full-board four-star accommodation and a programme of guided walks and sightseeing.