Oh, Canada!

The downside to making friends who live Elsewhere is that you don’t get to see them as often. The upside: new travel destinations! My good friend Kristin, who I met through sheer serendipity in a Facebook group and traveled with to Salvation Mountain last year, lives about an hour outside of Toronto, Ontario, and had extended an open invitation for me to visit any time. There’s a narrow window between the harsh Canadian winters and sweltering summers, and that window seemed to be early June, so I hopped on a redeye for my very first visit to Canada in years (literally since I was a just a toddler at my aunt’s wedding in British Columbia.)

As luck would have it, it was raining as I touched down in Toronto, and when the free upgrade Enterprise offered turned out to be a boat of a sedan with an odometer that only clocked in kilometers, I’ll admit I was a little nervous about heading out on the road. Thankfully, the car’s built-in navigation made getting to my friend’s hometown of Barrie a breeze, and the rain eventually stopped and the sun came out to highlight all the little villages and quaint countryside I drove through on the way there.

There are literally lakes everywhere in Canada, meaning that most of my time in Barrie and surrounding areas was spent on the water: boating and inner-tubing, and winding up to the Muskoka region, “cottage country” to the locals. Up there, the water is crystal-clear, the towns darling, and Muskoka chairs (Adirondack chairs, to us Americans) abound. I’ll admit my planning for this particular excursion was rather lackadaisical, meaning we missed the water taxi that takes tourists out to the islands of Georgian Bay. However, we realized this probably would’ve been quite expensive anyway, and were instead able to have the truly unique experience of visiting a local cranberry bog/winery. As in, the wine was made from cranberries. And blueberries! It was a bit sweet for my taste, but I was living in the lap of luxury with a seven wine tasting an cheese splatter split between the two of us for about $13 US, and sitting back and sipping cranberry wine spritzer on a Muskoka chair, I felt myself slipping in to full-on vacation mode.

After a few days out in the country, soaking up the lakes and sunsets and clear night skies full of stars, we heading back into Toronto for a girls’ weekend in the city. I normally opt for Airbnbs when I travel, but after a headache of an experience far too long and annoying to recount here, we ended up at the Hilton Toronto, which offered what was basically our only requirement for the weekend: a rooftop pool. It ended up being quite hot that first day, and as I floated on my back, taking in a view of the CN Tower and Toronto skyline and acknowledging the irony of leaving California to suntan in Canada, I felt pretty content with our accommodations, all things considered.

Toronto is a walkable, but very sizeable, city, and the easiest way to get around, by far, is by bike. The city’s bike share program offers various rental lengths, and if you’re going to be in the city for more than a day, I’d recommend getting the three day pass (though keep in mind that, annoyingly, you still have to “dock” the bike every 30 minutes, or incur an overage fees. Hey, even Canada isn’t perfect!)

There are nearly countless little pockets of the city, including the bustling shopping stretch that is Queen Street West, and the Fashion and Entertainment Districts, where there are swanky bars and restaurants, fun murals, and boutiques galore.

A few of my recommendations for eating and drinking throughout the city: Dark Horse Espresso, La Carnita, El Catrin Destileria (who knew there was so much good Mexican food in Canada?), Le Petit Déjeuner for a Belgian brunch, and Blood Brothers Brewing, which boasts an impressive list of in-house sours. St. Lawrence Market is a massive food hall not to be missed, and Kensington Market is an eclectic little neighborhood full of cool galleries, boutiques and restaurants. Be sure to pay a visit to the Distillery District for breweries and whiskey, and a little trip back in time complete with cobblestone streets.

Strolling and biking through the pale blue, softly warm Toronto summer evenings, winding along Lake Ontario and through lush parks beneath the shadow of the CN Tower was pure bliss. It reminded me of a cleaner, greener, less hectic New York City, and by the end of my visit I was ready to up and relocate for the quality of life (not to mention free healthcare.)

Another thing I never would’ve guessed Toronto boasted: a white sand beach, complete with Muskoka chairs. Bike down to Sugar Beach for gorgeous views of Lake Ontario and even more interesting people watching. And maybe you’ll catch the ice cream man, too.

Easily one of my favorite experiences of the entire trip was one not on my original itinerary. In fact, it was something I decided I wanted to do a good 12 hours or so beforehand. On the last day of my trip, I woke up early, biked 30 minutes down to the Queen’s Quay Ferry Docks, and paid about $10 roundtrip to hitch a ride over to the Toronto Islands. They’re 15 interconnected islands situated just about a 10 minute’s boat ride from the city center, and are home to beaches, a theme park, and even residents.

You can rent a bike to get around the islands (which is recommended, as there’s quite a bit of ground to cover.) In my case, much of the island was flooded thanks to high waters from this year’s snowmelt, and getting around by bike would’ve been quite soggy. So I sprung for the slight more expensive but infinitely more practical option of renting a kayak for an hour. I haven’t been kayaking in years, but it was pretty simple to get the hang of, and I was able to just tool around the marinas and get a better view of the islands and the city from the water. It was an unexpected adventure, to be sure, but that’s the best kind.

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