Gillian Thornton visited four diverse Canadian cities with Newmarket Holidays.
With both our husbands away on business over my birthday weekend, my best friend and I began thinking about options for a man-free short break – a country cottage perhaps or maybe a spa weekend. But then we saw an advert for an 8-day trip along Canada’s Maple Leaf Trail with Newmarket Holidays and decided we couldn’t afford not to sign up.
Newmarket Holidays's package included three nights each in Toronto and Montreal, with visits to Ottawa and Niagara Falls included. Half-day city tours of Toronto and Montreal were optional, as was a full day excursion to Quebec City. Yes, we would only scratch the surface of the cities we visited, but even had we been willing to drive ourselves, there was no way we would have been to see so much on our own in just one week, nor for the price. So we booked up for mid-May and started reading up on our destinations.
Neither of us had done an escorted tour before and weren’t sure what to expect, so we laid down a few private ground rules before we left. As no meals were included, we agreed to be sociable at lunch time, but indulge our independent streak by striking out alone in the evenings – a strategy that turned out well.
The coach filled to capacity when we arrived in Toronto, travellers coming in on flights from all over Britain. In the main, they were retired couples, but we met several single travellers – many holidaying alone for the first time after losing a partner – and a few pairs of women friends like us, as well as a young woman holidaying with her dad before her wedding. Some holidaymakers were gregarious; others barely noticeable. But there was always someone new to have a chat with if you wanted.
The coach may have clocked up a lot of miles, but this is a holiday with minimal walking for those who prefer to experience Canada’s city culture with minimum effort. The optional half-day tours of Toronto and Montreal were the hop-on, hop-off variety with short walks at sites along the way. At Niagara Falls, we simply walked from the coach to the top of the Falls and nearby shops and restaurants. Most of us opted to ride The Maid of the Mist to the foot of the Falls and feel the spray, but again, there were no great distances to walk.
We particularly loved the fact that each city was very different – Toronto, sleek and modern, beside Lake Ontario (do take yourselves on the ferry to Toronto Islands and up the CN Tower); Ottawa, elegant and diplomatic with its government buildings and the impressive locks on the Rideaux Canal; and buzzing Montreal with its waterfront quarter and strong French atmosphere.
Favourite for me was Quebec City, a long day trip included in the tour package but worth every hour on the coach to absorb its Anglo-French history for a few hours and stand on The Heights of Abraham above the St Lawrence. And coach travel is as interesting or boring as you choose to make it. Whilst some passengers slept or read books, we preferred to look out of the window and soak up the vastness of this beautiful country.
If there was one tedious bit, it was the last day and the prospect of driving from Montreal to Toronto for our flight home. But with coffee and comfort stops en route, followed by an hour at The Thousand Islands near Kingston where the St Lawrence meets Lake Ontario, the day turned out to be more fun than anticipated. And I now know where the salad dressing comes from!
Our hotel accommodation in both cities was excellent. A big tower block hotel in Toronto; a smaller version in Montreal, but both with two large beds – clearly single people aren’t supposed to be small here – and large bathrooms. As with most North American hotels, no food is included so you need to add that to your holiday budget, but with tea and coffee making facilities as standard issue, we bought cereal bars and fruit at the corner shop and breakfasted in our rooms.
Our young tour manager stayed with us throughout the trip and as a native Canadian with a Scottish wife, was able to give us all kinds of fascinating insights into life in this Brit-friendly country. And whenever we came up with a question – which we did often – he was always nearby to give us the answer.
Newmarket Holidays operate this holiday in April, May and June, September and October, and whilst the price has risen since I did it in 2010, it still represents extraordinary value for money.
Gillian Thornton has been a freelance journalist for more than 30 years, writing everything from parenting features to celebrity interviews, corporate copy to heritage articles. A member of the British Guild of Travel Writers, she has been concentrating on travel writing since 1998 and is a widely-acclaimed specialist on France, writing for all the Francophile newsstand titles as well as for ferry magazines, airline publications and tourist boards. Gillian also contributes travel features to The People's Friend, My Weekly, Woman's Weekly, and Go Holiday, on destinations as far apart as Finland and Oman, Florida and Poland, but she also loves travelling round Britain. 'I never mind where I go,' she says. 'There's always something new to discover.'