We The North, Canada: What You Need to Know Before you Go

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After falling off the blogging wagon for the months of August and September (all I did during that time was party, acquire two kittens, and binge watch Narcos), I am back on and am fully committed. For the time being, anyway. However, the thought of penning a blog about one of my most recent trips brings me feelings of hesitation and embarrassment, because this one is about my homeland; The Great White North, Canad-eh. I am not embarrassed because Canada is my homeland, no no, it’s actually quite the opposite. What does make me scarlet is the fact that I can sit here, typing about all these other countries and adventures from around the world, but when it comes to the place where I actually hail from, I really haven’t seen or done a lot. 

I fully admit I have taken Canada for granted. Fully. But, in my defense, when it comes to traveling within Canada, it is not exactly cheap or quick. You can drive for 24hrs and not even be out of my province (state) yet. It’s THAT big. You can also fork out $500 to fly from Toronto to Vancouver, or you can spend the same and head to Europe or South (Mexico, Dominican, Jamaica, etc). In the past it was a no-brainer for me – my money was going to be spent on international excursions, not ones to different places within my own country. Because that is so fucking boring, right?

Well, now that I live internationally, I am starting to really miss that big snowy ice box that will forever be my ‘home’. I travel back to Ontario roughly 2-3 times a year, and every time I go back now I am more and more in awe of everything it has to offer. Have you ever flown over Ontario? It’s inexcusably beautiful; lakes as far as the eye can see, vast forests, and that reliable Toronto smog :P). Living overseas really does makes you MORE patriotic though. It’s a strange concept, but makes total sense when you sit down and think about it. When I lived in Canada, I spoke about my desire to leave, but now that I’ve left, it has become that ex-boyfriend you all of a sudden want back. I am so proud to be from Canada, of our new ride of a Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and particularly of the accepting nature of my people as a whole.

Two weeks ago I purchased a ‘Repeal the 8th’ jumper, which, for those Non-Irish reading, is in support of repealing the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution. That little bugger gives equal right to the life of the unborn fetus as it does to the mother; basically, it makes abortion illegal. Being a very liberal Canadian, this is fucking absurd to me. It is also absurd that just LAST YEAR Ireland had a referendum to legalise Gay Marriage. It’s effed up. I appreciate the Catholic Church still has a death grip on this country, but c’mon guys, it’s 2016, like. <- My attempt at typing a Dub accent.

Despite this, I do have a massive love affair with Ireland, but as cliché as it sounds, there really is no place like home. When I go home, I still don’t constitute it as a holiday, though. Often most of the time my mates and family are working, so I just sit there, trying to find someone to go drinking with. This is a much harder task in Canada than in Ireland, especially during the week. The Irish may be stricter about women’s reproductive rights and health, but when it comes to the mid-week session, they put Canadians to shame I’m afraid.

My jaunts at home are typically for holidays (Christmas), and important occasions (weddings). My two best friends, Kris and Denise, got hitched this summer and last (to boys, not to each other), so I flew home to fulfill bridesmaid duties. Living in Ireland I was admittedly the WORST bridesmaid ever, in both occasions, but I tried to make up for my MIA-ness in the lead up to the wedding by at least being there for their important days.

This July saw me fly back to Belleville (or BelleVegas as us in the know like to call it), for Kris’ super humanist and boho-inspired, Jenny and Forest Gump-esque, nuptials to one of my oldest pals, Jonny. Jonny and I grew up on the same street, so have known each other since we were still shitting our pants. I met Kris around the age of 8, but our dad’s were friends long before that, and her Uncle Neil also knocked my dad’s front teeth out with a hockey puck back in the day (not sure how much more Canadian you can get…). Belleville is small-ish (50,000 population, located between Toronto and Montreal), so our parents grew up together, as did theirs, and it’s a place where your weekly trip to the grocery store turns into a two hour excursion, as you will no doubt bump into at least five people you know there. It’s a social outing more than anything else.

Belleville is where I grew up, but I am also very lucky to have a family cottage (lake house/cabin) in Ontario and I spend the majority of my time in Canada between these two places. When I visit, I always make a concerted effort to get up there; it’s the epitome of heaven. When I was younger I hated spending weekends/summers there – I would have rather been in Belleville, where we had an Internet connection, more than one TV station, and friends who I could talk to on MSN Messenger. God, that sounds so depressing as I type it…what a dweeb I was!! Now, I embrace it’s remoteness. To be fair, it’s the 21st century so we do have WiFi, TV, Netflix, and easy access to copious amounts of wine (my mother routinely purchases 16L boxes of white wine from Costco which we did ‘wine stands’ from the last time I was home), so it’s hard to not like it there.

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The cherry on top of my last trip was that we also had the luxury of chilling on a sauna boat out on our lake. An absolute hero of a human, Jason Lake, who also is a member of Harcourt Park and a contractor/host for a tv show called ‘Decks, Docks & Gazebos’ on Cottage Life TV, built a ‘floating sauna’ for one of the episodes and it now resides on Big Straggle. It’s not just a floating sauna – the raft it is on has bench seating, sun loungers, a BBQ, a ridiculous sound system, fairy lights, and a ladder to climb back onboard after you go for a dip out of the sauna. It’s party central, essentialy. Instead of me trying, and failing, to describe it’s bomb-diggidy-ness, you can check out a snippet of the episode here if you want to know how the hell Jason made this masterpiece: https://youtu.be/7vpjQpAdHm8

My Scottish friend Laura was also visiting for Kris’ wedding in July (the three of us + our Aussie friend Chloe lived together in Queenstown, New Zealand), so I naturally brought her up to the cottage for a week. When I am showing someone else my stomping grounds for the first time, it’s then that I too start to ‘re-realise’ how amazing those places are. Sometimes you forget, but all it takes is a pair of fresh eyes (and a floating sauna) to reignite that love.

Our cottage is located in Harcourt Park, which is roughly a 2.5 hour drive directly north from Belleville, or 3.5 hours North East from Toronto. It is a private, members-only park, which means who run the world? We do. You cannot enter the park without an invitation from a member, not even if you are the po-lice. It’s a sanctuary of 18 lakes over 6,900 acres, and is a real gem. I would say visit, but you’re not really allowed. But I’ll be there over Christmas holidays and am currently accepting gifts/and or money in exchange for invitations.

Harcourt Park is right smack next to Algonquin Provnicial Park though, which you definitely can and should visit if in Ontario. 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation, and in celebration, all (I repeat, all) National Parks will have free admission for the year. Dream result! Get booking those flights people.

If you’re in the area you can also visit ‘High Falls’, which is pretty much on the border of Algonquin and Harcourt Park. It’s a waterfall (duh), but the rocks have been smoothed out by the flow of water so a natural waterslide has been formed. We never actually managed to find the slide though, and for a while were trying to egg each other on to ‘slide’ down the fucking waterfall itself, which would have ended in tears, but the little walk and veg there was pretty pretty. The hiking trail to High Falls is only about 5 minutes from the edge of Harcourt Park, and you can find ALL the details on how to get there on this lad’s site: http://www.mcelroy.ca/notes/high_falls_barron_canyon_how-to.html

So besides taunting you with places you cannot necessarily go to, I’ve tried to rack my little brain about ‘The Tips’ you should know if you are lucky enough to visit my homeland:

  1. There are two things we Canadians take very seriously: Hockey and Tim Hortons. Most Canadians will have played hockey at some stage in their lives (I played for eight years), and most will consume at least one item from Tim Hortons on a daily basis. Tim Horton was actually a hockey player, so it’s the circle of life, really.

    A lot of European or Asia-Pacific people think Tim Horton’s coffee is disgusting (it’s basically just instant, black coffee that you add milk, cream or sugar to), but us Canadians swear by it. Tim Hortons also has donuts, Timbits (small round donut holes. The ‘birthday cake’ flavour is dangerous), bagels (Sun-dried Tomato, Asiago is my fave), sandwiches, chilli, soup, etc. And it is all dirt cheap. Canada is NOT cheap…not by any means…so embrace the odd Timmy Ho’s meal, even if it may not be your literal cup of tea/coffee.

  2. If visiting Ontario you will also need to embrace how fucking annoying it is to purchase alcohol. You can only buy hard liquor from the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) stores, and head to the ‘Beer Store’ (yes, it is actually called that) for beer. You can buy beer from the LCBO as well, but the Beer Stores will have more options and in larger cases (2-4s = 24 case of beer). There are *some* grocery stores in Ontario which you now can purchase beer, wine, and cider from, but this is not widespread yet so you may get lucky or may not. You will need to be 19 in Ontario to purchase Jesus Juice (18 in Alberta and Quebec), and make sure you have some form of ID on you. If you look like you’re under 40-ish they will ask for ID, and will deny you if you don’t have it. Massive pain in the hole. These shops also close around 9 usually (6pm in some places), so makes it that much more of an inconvenience. Just let the people get drunk!!
  3. Save your cans/bottles when you are done getting pissed! You can return them for dolla bills. We drink so much alcohol at my cottage over the summers that the one year I returned the empties to the Beer Store (after having to sort, squash, count and bag a garage full of cans), and got enough money to buy a fucking laptop. It wasn’t the most posh laptop, but still it was about $400 that I definitely didn’t have before.
  4. If you’re driving to the LCBO, or wherever else you may be going, be mindful of our 4-Way Stops. We haven’t really introduced roundabouts yet, so have these awkward 4-Way Stops in places where two roads intersect, and the car to the right always has the right-of-way.
  5. Our main highway in Ontario, the 401, has a speed limit of 100km/h, but you can usually get away with 120km before the OPP will stop you for speeding.
  6. If you can, I obviously recommend getting away from the big cities and hit the road north to ‘Cottage Country’, or the wilderness. That is what I think epitomizes Canada. When I was home last, my boyfriend Andy and I drove directly alongside a baby moose for awhile while heading to my cottage. We’ve also had instances where we have had black bears climb on our car (while we were in it), have fed raccoons out of our hands, have heard wolves howling with a fresh kill at night, seen the Northern Lights, and have witnessed moose swimming across our lake during a thunderstorm. It sounds like things out of a book. If you want to keep going super duper far north, you can visit my sister, Madi, who is currently living in Nunavut (aka the North Pole) teaching there. You think moose sound cool…she saw polar bears the other week. She does have to put up with 6 months of complete darkness, and has to ship a year worth of alcohol and food up before she starts the school year, but arguably not many people in their lives will ever witness what she got to with those bears. Not even me!!

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    Madi’s photo from the boat (Igloolik, Nunavut)

  7. Speaking of cold, dark weather…if you are vising Canada in the winter (which you definitely should and I will blog about in January!) bring warm clothes, please!! My mom always preaches (usually after my sisters and I have gone down the ‘fashion over function’ route): ‘There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing’. Why do mom’s always have to be right?? Come prepared, anyway. Sorel boots are great for both fashion + function, as are the Canada Goose down-filled jackets. Neither are cheap (especially those coats), but they will keep you warm.
  8. If you want to purchase a token Canadian article of clothing, I recommend locating a Native Reserve and investing in a pair of true moccasins. Honestly. They run at about $120/pair, but are the warmest slippers you will own in your life. My dad bought us all a pair for Christmas a few years back and I still own mine. Once they bite the bullet, I will be asking for more shipped over. Just trust me and get some. They also have drive through cigarette shops that sell fags by the bag on the Reserves, so another reason to get your but out there (and they don’t add tax!!!).ladies-sheepskin-rabbit-fur-slippers
  9. Taxes are NOT included in prices in Canada. So, if you go into a shop and a shirt says ‘$19.99’, it will likely work out to be around $23.00 in reality as the sales tax will be added once you reach the till.
  10. If you want to go down a more ‘boring’ route while shopping for token Canadian clothing, pick yourself something up from Roots. It’s overpriced, but has nice sweatpants/sweatshirts, and typically has our national animal (the beaver, and their logo) plastered on it. Hudson’s Bay Company is another shop you can pick up Canadiana items; their striped blankets are practically a national symbol, but again, outrageously priced.
  11. You will be needing extra coin for tipping. Living in Europe I am now used to not tipping, or only slightly tipping for certain things (ie – rounding up to the dollar for taxis, etc), but in Canada, you are expected to tip everyone. See that person waiting for the bus? They need a 20% tip. Joking aside, you really do need to get in the mindset of tipping – the taxi man, the waitress, bartender, hairdresser, everyone. 15-20% is standard. I have to admit I do find it annoying now when I go home, but having worked in bars and restaurants all throughout uni, you should know that servers get paid less than minimum wage, so rely on tips for a living. If you cannot afford a tip, the argument is you shouldn’t be going out to eat in the first place.
  12. If you decide not to eat out ,and get fast food, I highly recommend A&W. It’s my hangover go-to, and has ‘special sauce’ on the burgers à la In-N-Out Burger.
  13. If you’re having issues reading signage in Canada, don’t worry, you’re not going crazy. All of our signs are in both English AND French, as we have two national languages.
  14. While planning your trip to Canada, just keep in mind my point about how big it really is – ie, land mass. I’ve said the same thing about the States, but it is even truer for Canada. Unless you have a lot of time available, you will have to restrict your adventures to one or two provinces, or plan on hopping on planes that could be 3+ hours long in journey time. The Via Rail train across Canada is meant to be *spectacular*, so perhaps look into this option if you want to see a lot, sans the driving.
  15. Not all Canadians will like Justin Bieber, but you will notice we will say ‘Sorry’ a lot (along with ‘Eh’, which I don’t say anymore but everyone I know does). If you push a Canadian, they will apologise to you. It’s how we roll. A few years ago I was home in Belleville, was at the mall, and a junkie assaulted me in the bathroom – she elbowed me in the neck/nearly the face, and I apologised to her initially. We’re fucked. Nice, but fucked.

So I will end this entry by saying ‘sorry’ for not having more specific tips on things to do , see, etc, but should you be planning a trip to my homeland, please please message me and I will give you all the advice I can and more on specific activities/areas within Ontario, and a bit of Quebec.

And at the end of the day, I hope you love it as much as me.

Au revoir mes amis.

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