A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about nature

Heading South to Explore North Carolina

Visiting the (Actual) Cubs

sunny 25 °C

Sample Itinerary
- Day 1: Biltmore, sunset dinner in Asheville
- Day 2: Great Smoky Mountains hiking, dinner in Waynesville
 --> Clingmans Dome (loved these views): 1 mile starting from the parking area at the end of Clingmans Dome Road, fully paved, but extremely steep (well worth it for the views) – there are restrooms available, but no water
 --> Laurel Falls: 2.6 miles roundtrip starting between the Sugarlands Visitor Center and Elkmont Campground, very popular since you can swim at the base of the falls – no restrooms or water available aside from at the visitor center
 --> Cataract Falls: starts near the Sugarlands Visitor Center, mainly flat
- Day 3: Blue Ridge Parkway hiking, dinner in Marshall
 --> Craggy Gardens and Craggy Pinnacle (loved these views): Roughly 2 miles roundtrip and 1.4 miles roundtrip respectively, both are fairly steep, forested, and lead to beautiful views (watch out for roots, and bugs) – we parked in the picnic area and hiked up then returned to our car and drove to the Craggy Pinnacle designated parking lot. The Craggy Gardens visitor center and picnic center both have restrooms.
 --> Mt. Mitchell Summit: 1 mile roundtrip starting from the highest parking lot which takes you to the highest peak east of the Mississippi; it’s very steep but paved the whole way and there are porta potties and water fountains for public use
 --> Crabtree Falls (my favourite waterfalls): about 3 miles roundtrip; you can either go back the way you came, or take a different, slightly longer more scenic route back following the river; it starts off easy but becomes increasingly difficult with uneven paths and the need to hold on to a railing to find your footing on a crumbled staircase on the return; no facilities along the trail, but there is a campground about a mile from the parking lot, en route to the trailhead
- Day 4: Asheville (try Urban Trails self-guided tour), including the North Carolina (NC) Arboretum
Optional: Drive from Asheville to Chicago through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois

Where to Stay
- Best Western Smoky Mountain Inn, Waynesville ($100 USD)
- Marshall House Inn (B&B), Marshall ($150 USD)
- Wingate by Wyndham Fletcher at Asheville Airport ($80 USD)

Where to Eat
- Asheville: Tupelo Honey Café, The Chocolate Fetish, Well-Bred Bakery and Café
- Marshall: Zuma Coffee, Star Diner
- Waynesville: Los Amigos Mexican Restaurant, Kanini’s Restaurant, Third Bay – Filling Station
- Louisville, Kentucky: Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint

My Travel Diary
North Carolina clearly hasn’t had the same publicists as Florida or California because growing up it wasn’t really on people's radar where I lived. There was no Disneyworld or Disneyland to dream of, and I’d never heard of the Great Smoky Mountains – only Smoky the Bear! But over the last few years Asheville has increasingly been the topic of travel talk; I’ve heard a lot about it being an open-minded oasis full of delicious local fare and surrounded by incredible mountain ranges. So, when deciding where to go on a five-day July getaway, my partner and I agreed on North Carolina. Full disclosure: it helped that the plane ticket prices were about $125 USD each roundtrip.

Before traveling anywhere, I always make sure to check the forecast. Once I’ve arrived, I always remember that meteorologists are fallible human beings. We were expecting three straight days of rain, including thunderstorms, so we planned accordingly; however, we only got sporadic showers. Regardless, we planned to spend our first day at Biltmore Estate because we could have a few hours indoors exploring the largest private residence in the U.S. We approached the house from the Diana Fountain at the top of a hill, such that we saw it increasing in size in contrast to the fading mountains behind it. The home, with its French Renaissance style, covers roughly four acres with 35 bedrooms, 43 washrooms, a bowling alley, and library with its own secret passageways.


We spent roughly an hour and a half exploring the house, feeling more and more thankful by the minute that I’d never have the means to live in such a preposterously imposing house: there was a four-storey chandelier, a 90-foot room devoted entirely to tapestries (including one from the 1500s), and a 70 000-gallon indoor pool in the basement complete with underwater lighting at a time when many homes didn’t even have electricity yet. It’s well worth a visit not only to examine the architectural features (thanks to Richard Morris Hunt) and the landscape architecture (thanks to Frederick Law Olmsted), but also to reflect on the vast wealth disparity in the U.S. On the self-guided audio tour they made sure to emphasize that the estate was opened up to the public in the 1930s to try to increase tourism in the region and boost the local economy, while also being a major source of ongoing employment for locals.


Although you could spend multiple days exploring the grounds at Biltmore, we booked our tickets for just one day and reserved a 3pm entry to the house. We started off by walking through the outdoor Library and South Terraces, savouring the shade and soaking up the stunning views of the mountains. We also happened to overhear an engagement proposal, although we were both so groggy from our flight that it didn’t register at first. The woman kept looking down at her hand and making an astonished face, so it finally clicked and I bluntly asked: “Did you just get engaged?” She shyly said yes, huge smile creeping across her face. I gushed over her ring and wished them all the best in their life ahead and then gave them some privacy.


We strolled through the Shrub Garden, the Walled Garden, and the Rose Garden on our way to the Conservatory. I appreciated the diversity of plant life: from a bamboo forest to azalea gardens; and was incredibly impressed with the botanical model train display, fully functioning trains composed entirely of plant matter! We kept walking behind the conservatory, continuing on to the Bass Pond and Boat House with its own hidden waterfall – another prime proposal spot.


Completed in 1895, the property included thousands of acres so it’s no surprise that the Vanderbilt family ultimately decided to start a dairy farm, winery, and now also own multiple hotels in the Antler Hill Village area. We didn't have time to hike or bike the many acres, but we did drive by the sunflower field and take in the art displays along with the educational exhibits. There’s also the adjacent Biltmore Village, which has historic cottages full of restaurants, cafes, and event spaces. We stopped there to fuel up at the Well-Bred Bakery and Café.


We should have been more cognizant of our potential hanger when we packed for our hiking trips in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. We also hadn’t realized that it may be difficult to refuel, even with water, along the way. Driving to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I also regretted not budgeting time to explore Cherokee – a town governed by the Cherokee Nation with a nice river, cute restaurants, and the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. Instead, we ventured on to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center to get hiking early. While there, I was able to purchase water from a vending machine and use their restroom, while also picking up two paper guides: one devoted to day hikes and a Great Smoky Mountains trail map. It was only $2 for 2 of them! I’d highly recommend coming in with paper maps and guides because the internet was unsurprisingly unreliable. From there we stopped at a few of the overlooks like Morton and Carlos Campbell before doing our first hike at the Clingman’s Dome (steep but stunning!).


I’d recommend wearing a hat, taking sunscreen, and going at your own pace – we saw a few people overheating on the way up, so it’s always important to stop when needed. We ended up spending roughly an hour there, really taking in the sights. We also had a strange delay in that we had to step in and distract some bees that were terrorizing a young girl whose mother was clearly also afraid and keeping her distance. Once the bees had buzzed off and the family had fled, we were able to continue on our way. Our eyes loved every twist and turnoff the drive (although my motion sickness definitely didn’t) and it’s clear why they’re called the Great Smoky Mountains given the clouds so stoically seated atop the summits. Our next stop was at the Newfound Gap where we learned more about the history of the national park, the region, and got to officially stand half in Tennessee and half in North Carolina.



We couldn’t find water anywhere and the washroom had signage indicating its water wasn’t potable, so we stopped at the Sugarlands Visitor Center where they had water fountains as well as vending machines, but no food unfortunately. So that my belly growls didn’t get confused with bear growls, we diverted into Gatlinburg and grabbed lunch from Five Guys - mainly because it was cheap and easy protein. Gatlinburg itself is a tourist trap, overpriced with far too many neon signs, and I’m glad we didn’t stay there. We quickly headed back to the hills to hike more. We rounded off our day by hiking Laurel Falls, which took us roughly 90 minutes – my partner actually climbed down into the pool at the bottom for a quick dip. We found out that we had bearly missed a cub who had been spotted on the path; probably for the best because I’m sure a mama bear wouldn’t be too welcoming to tourists like us. Before leaving the park, we decided to walk the Cataract Falls trail from the Sugarlands Visitor Center, quick and easy but really pretty. If we were to do it all again, I’m not sure that I’d hike Laurel Falls – I’d consider trying Chimney Tops Trail instead, which is also popular but likely has better vantage points.



In contrast, I’d love to revisit everything we did in the Blue Ridge Parkway. To begin with, we had the good fortune of seeing two bear cubs cross our path within about ten minutes of each other. We were in our car both times, otherwise I would have felt more like a not-so-happy meal and less like a happy observer. Fortunately, when we arrived at the Craggy Gardens Picnic Parking Lot no one was eating – bears or humans – so it was nice and quiet. We started our hike there so that we could get the ascent out of the way and have a breezier finish. The Craggy Gardens hike wasn’t overly challenging because the path was generally clear, but because it was steep at times, I took it slow. There was enough space to step to the side at times, but unfortunately, we still encountered some rude individuals. Maybe their attitude was a result of their hanger, we’ll never know. The hike itself was mainly through the forest without vantage points, but we did enjoy the rhododendrons and rock formations along the way. Once you arrive at the visitor center, the views are spectacular. Even more incredible are the views from the Craggy Pinnacle; however, I wouldn’t recommend walking to the trailhead from the visitor center – it’s much better to drive down the road, through the tunnel, and park in the Craggy Pinnacle hike parking lot.


The highest peak we reached was Mt. Mitchell. Although it’d be more impressive to say that we hiked the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi, the truth is that we drove as far as we could in our rental car before begrudgingly huffing and puffing our way up to the 6684 ft. summit. It was a short climb, but a very, very steep one – more so than Clingmans Dome, and that’s saying something!


A last-minute addition to our hiking agenda was Crabtree Falls. I hadn’t read about it in my research for the trip, but because I befriended a man on a motorcycle who recommended we visit Little Switzerland (long story) we changed our route and hiking plans. It turned out to be a blessing and a curse: Crabtree Falls were the most beautiful waterfalls on our trip by far, but Little Switzerland was about as authentic as Swiss Miss.


In booking our accommodation, I chose to stay only in small towns rather than in Asheville proper. After two nights in Waynesville, about half an hour west of Asheville, we moved half an hour north of Asheville to Marshall. Between the two, I preferred Waynesville. It helped that there were more restaurants, cafes, and impressive views of the mountains. As with most small towns, we had to work around limited hours of service, which were greatly exacerbated by a labour shortage due to Covid-19. We felt that more acutely in Marshall, which only had two restaurants open for dinner when we stayed. The views from our incredible B&B (cannot recommend it highly enough) were far more appealing to us than sitting on a busy patio so we ordered take-out. We made the right decision because another guest at the B&B performed a live concert for us while we dined at dusk on the vast veranda.


Surrounded by thriving small town life, we expected Asheville to be a more booming metropolis. In fact, it was bustling with tourists but had a fairly small, very walkable downtown. If you’re not in the mood to take a formal tour, then I highly recommend Asheville Urban Trail (https://www.exploreasheville.com/urban-trail/) because it outlines options for exploring Asheville with resources like a printable map, audio guide and even a scavenger hunt. I didn’t follow my own advice (typical teacher), so we ended up haphazardly wandering the town enjoying the architecture of the St. Lawrence Basilica and the Grove Arcade, chocolates at Chocolate Fetish, books at Malaprop Bookstore, vibe of Wall St. (couldn’t be more different to New York), and finally the Center for Craft on Broadway where we learned about women’s furniture and Asian-American artists (while basking in the glory of air conditioning).


The highlight of our time in Asheville was actually meeting some of the incredible artists in the River Arts District like Andrea Kulish who makes Ukrainian pysanky eggs and Nadine Charlsen who shares my fascination with trains. There was something inspiring about not only seeing the artists at work, but also being able to safely interact with them (and Nadine’s adorable dog) at a time when connection can be harder to come by due to the pandemic. Sadly, we weren’t able to meet some of the other incredible artists whose work spoke to me like Kris Morgan for their light-hearted faraway scenes from Paris, Portugal and many other locales; and Angela Alexander, with her colourful portraits of animal life.


Likely the safest social activity we engaged in was the socially-distant outdoor concert at the North Carolina Arboretum featuring Laura Thurston and Steve Newbrough. There was no additional cost for the live music, beyond the $16 entry fee to the arboretum. Sadly, we arrived too late to really hike the extensive grounds. But we had plenty of room to enjoy the acoustic guitar and unique vocals, and because the sound traveled so well, we were even able to walk through multiple gardens while still enjoying the sound. The Quilt Garden was an homage to the handiwork of the people in Appalachia, incorporating designs and bold colours into a patchwork garden. Nearby, a statue of the famous Frederick Law Olmsted stands approvingly.


By the time we left Asheville we felt like we’d packed as much as possible into a very short time; we were satiated, but also excited to return in a different season for new perspectives and to learn more about the regional cultures: Appalachian and Indigenous. It turned out that it would be harder than we thought to go home. We arrived at the airport in advance of our 7 am flight only to learn that our flight was departing from Gate A12, yet the airport only held gates 1-7. Once we solved the mystery of translating North Carolina gates into Midwestern ones, we safely boarded the flight. Soon after, there was a ruckus beside us because Allegiant had overbooked and multiple people were assigned to the exact same seat. Next step? Mechanical failure. So, as quickly as we had boarded, we were told to disembark. I was drugged by this point, partially to lessen my motion sickness and partially to help my newfound anxiety, so I barely understood what was happening. All I knew was that I had taken medication to help with movement and I was suddenly shockingly still and stranded. My partner had set off to find reliable internet and search for new flights, while I tried to decipher what the airport attendant’s announcements actually meant. She had, at first, indicated that the next flight wasn’t until Monday (this was Friday) and had then listed the nearest airports in case we could find (1) private transit there; and (2) flights from there back to the Midwest. She then changed course and clarified that there was a slight possibility that the mechanical failure could be resolved by a system reset, in which case we may be able to fly out within a few hours. Unwilling to wait, I started looking for rental cars. There were none. Given that my partner had work the next day, we didn’t have much room for failure so I proposed that we go back in person to the rental car agency we had just returned a car to and see if they’d take pity on us and let us re-rent our beloved Kia. It worked.


And thus began our unexpected thirteen-hour drive from Asheville to Chicago. Well, to be honest, our first stop was returning to our hotel for our complimentary continental breakfast. Fueled up (on multiple counts), we then set off. The mountain drives were stunning, including the Daniel Boone Forest. My favourite stops were: Berea, Kentucky which has a booming folk art culture including a visitor center right near the highway (buy the bourbon balls!) and Martin’s Bar-B-Que in Louisville, Kentucky (highly recommend the brisket tacos!). Driving through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and then Illinois was not how we planned to end our “relaxing” getaway, but it was worthwhile. I learned about Kentucky’s art and that for just $50 you can board a five-storey replica of Noah’s Ark. Personally, I’d rather spend the money on chocolate-covered bourbon, but to each their own. While driving through the region, we also saw plenty of ads for Jesus and guns (sometimes on the same billboard), but one really stood out: “gun control: buying one when you want two”. We couldn’t very well leave the South without at least a couple of stereotypes being reinforced, could we? On that note, I’ll mention too that we passed by Colonel Sander’s original Kentucky Fried Chicken Restaurant in North Corbin, Kentucky. It turns out that he was a real man, not just a cartoon conspiracy!


We traveled with ease through the region and really enjoyed the solid infrastructure, well-maintained roads, and friendly faces we encountered along the way. Even our unexpected thirteen-hour drive home ended up being a welcome opportunity to see more of the South – especially the bumpy landscape and delicious food!


Posted by madrugada 00:26 Archived in USA Tagged mountains churches art buildings animals chocolate rain architecture cities nature hiking vacation scenery summer rural usa tennessee forest beauty bbq eating cafes gatlinburg botanical_gardens kentucky blue_ridge_parkway american_history indiana arboretum north_carolina asheville marshall safe_travel waynesville scenic_road_trip coronavirus lush_greenery social_distance great_smoky_mountains illinoiswaterfalls Comments (0)

Back to Beautiful B.C.

Wandering Western Canada

sunny 28 °C

Sample Itinerary (Vancouver and Vancouver Island)
- Day 1: Vancouver
- Day 2: Vancouver Island: Sidney, Island View Beach, Victoria (downtown and Cook St. Village/Beacon Hill Park)
- Day 3: Vancouver Island: Juan de Fuca Beach Trail (French Beach, China Beach, and Sombrio Beach)
- Day 4: Vancouver Island: Sooke Potholes, Victoria (Dallas Rd. circuit including Cadboro Bay)
- Day 5: Vancouver: Granville Island, picnic dinner at Kitsilano Beach
- Day 6: Vancouver: English Bay Beach, Stanley Park, Downtown dinner
- Day 7: Vancouver: Van Dusen Botanical Gardens and Queen Elizabeth Park, picnic dinner at Spanish Banks
- Day 8: Pacific Spirit Park and UBC campus
Optional: daytrip to Whistler or Squamish from Vancouver; visit other islands, e.g., Salt Spring or Quadra; travel further north up Vancouver Island to Cathedral Grove and Tofino/Ucluelet (surfing and storm-watching capital)

Where to Stay
- East Sooke, Vancouver Island: SookePoint Ocean Cottage Resort Rentals (~$400 CAD)
- Victoria, Vancouver Island: Helm’s Inn (~$150 CAD)
- Vancouver: Hotel or Airbnb in Gastown, Yaletown, or Kitsilano

Where to Eat
- Victoria, Vancouver Island: Rebar (vegetarian cuisine), Red Fish Blue Fish (seafood take-out), Pagliacci’s (upscale Italian), Blue Fox Café (brunch), Moka House Coffee in Cook St. Village (snacks and coffee), Little June in Fernwood (snacks and coffee), Fernwood Inn (casual pub fare), and the Empress Hotel for high tea
- Shirley, Vancouver Island: Stoked Wood Fired Pizzeria and Market (delicious pizza near French Beach)
- Vancouver: Arbutus Coffee (Kitsilano), Siegel’s Bagels on Granville Island (rosemary rocksalt with lox and cream cheese!), Petit Ami (great caffeinated drinks on Granville Island), Bella Gelateria (award-winning flavours located near Canada Place), Japadog (chain of gourmet Japanese hot dogs), Terra Breads (chain of tasty baked goods – especially the scones!), Aphrodite’s Organic Pie Shop (surprisingly tasty focaccia too!), Maria’s Taverna (affordable, delicious Greek food in Kitsilano)

Covid-19 Policies
- As a Canadian, I didn’t have to take a test or quarantine since I was flying from another Canadian province and am double vaccinated but I did have to pay $100 for a rapid viral antigen test to fly back into the U.S.
- As of August 9, 2021, fully-vaccinated U.S. citizens and permanent residents are able to fly into Canada as long as they’ve had a negative test within 72 hours of entering the country, and take one more test upon entry
- Be mindful of changing travel policies at both the federal and provincial level in Canada, and then your local pandemic travel policies too

My Travel Diary


There was a reflective feeling to this trip, partially because I was journeying to the past by visiting a city I had lived in years ago but mainly because I arrived in Vancouver, B.C. shortly after the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves near former residential schools across Canada. There was nothing surprising about the announcement because it’s well known that a number of children died or were killed at these sites, but it was horrific nevertheless. There is so much work that Canada, the church, and individuals still need to do not only to address the past, but also to improve the present. There’s a lot of talk about “allyship” nowadays, but it misses the mark if we’re not looking at our own lives, workplaces, and social interactions to make positive changes. In Vancouver, this took the form of protests in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery to “Cancel Canada Day”, which also included placing hundreds of children’s shoes on the steps, and showcasing a plethora of signs encouraging people to take a moment of silence amid other concrete actions. It was a strange Canada Day all around because there were so many competing (and very visible, vocal) viewpoints: people wanting to celebrate Canada Day, others advocating for its cancelation, and others still fixated on rallying against Covid-19 vaccinations. We stayed publicly-apolitical in our celebrations because we wanted to maintain distance and chose to reflect amongst ourselves instead. I visited the protest in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery days later where any bystander could still feel the raw pain palpating through the air.


Vancouver isn’t a large city, mainly because of its topographical constraints. For that reason, it’s easier to find a few neighbourhoods of interest and explore them in-depth. On this trip, I made Kitsilano my base, so I spent a good deal of time at Granville Island: trying to eat my food in between aggressive, coordinated seagull attacks. Obviously this is where Hitchcock found his inspiration for "The Birds".


If you’re an old soul and fear that Kitsilano will be too loud and hip with its ironically named boutiques (looking at you, Spank) and Instagrammable bars, restaurants, and cafes, I can safely say you’ll be fine. Although it has a few bustling strips, its overall vibe is more like an island beach town. Ultimately, in most place, nobody notices you since they’re so caught up in their own worlds anyway. Mostly I appreciated Kitsilano’s proximity to beaches, which, I should admit, isn’t hard to accomplish anywhere in Vancouver. As a tourist in Vancouver, there’s almost no need to eat in a restaurant when you can just order take-out and sit on the beach instead. This lends itself well to a safer pandemic social outing too. So, wearing our uniform of bathing suits and flip flops we enjoyed sunset picnics at Kitsilano Beach and also nature’s even more stunning angles from Spanish Banks and Jericho Beach. A definite highlight was when my sister and I ventured out in low tide at Spanish Banks one morning. There was an illusion of so much exposed sand to the point where it felt like we’d be able to walk out to the tankers (we definitely couldn’t!).


Any visit to Vancouver will likely include a trip to Stanley Park. Unwilling to buck the trend, my sister and I spent a few hours wandering the paths, admiring the Totem poles, and smelling the flowers. Although the views are beautiful in Stanley Park, I was more surprised by the biodiversity at Van Dusen Botanical Gardens and the sights at Queen Elizabeth Park. The Botanical Gardens were reasonably priced at just under $12 (CAD) each, and we spent two hours wandering through the grounds following the map and creating our own self-guided tour. The redwoods were a treasure, and a reminder of our responsibility to protect the planet in the face of human destruction, pollution, wildfires and deforestation. In fact, even flying into Vancouver, the air was hazy as a result of all of the smoke. I also happened to arrive at the tail-end of the worst heatwave they’ve ever experienced: hundreds of people died, and a town literally burned to the ground. Climate change is very real, and devastatingly efficient.


Queen Elizabeth Park is just over 50 hectares and is actually the highest point in the city of Vancouver, so from the elegant Seasons in the Park restaurant you can take in the city skyline against the many mountains. It just so happened that while I was in Vancouver, a number of friends from across Canada were also visiting B.C. So, I was fortunate enough to have really fun group outings with friends. At Seasons, two friends from grad school and I reunited for the first time in about seven years: one visiting from the east coast, and the other living in Vancouver permanently. On another occasion, I met two friends from Toronto who both happened to be visiting this western paradise too. One brought his young son to our adventure outing, so we bore witness to the realness of a sugar high and its subsequent crash. Another friend has temporarily created an island escape for himself, so we also spent time lazily soaking up the sun with him. It was really rejuvenating seeing so many people from such disparate points in my life. It just so happened that I had arrived shortly after the pandemic policies had loosened, so I was legally able to enjoy the company of others. My cousin also hosted us in her beautiful backyard, so I got to hear about her kids’ pandemic education experiences and how she and her husband had been coping work-wise. As an epidemiologist, I suppose society finally understands the value in what she does! Had I visited a month before even these outdoor encounters may have been trickier, but as it stood, I had the chance to see familiar faces and also work on my own anxieties transitioning away from being a recluse hiding out under my mask like Zorro or the Phantom.


Although visiting a university campus may not be a top priority for a tourist, I highly recommend visiting the University of British Columbia (UBC). On the way there, you pass through Pacific Spirit Regional Park where you can spend hours hiking the 750 hectares of forest. The smells and sounds of the cedars, maples, and other gentle giants were so reassuring. It felt like one of the calmest points on my trip. It helped that my sister and I were hiking with our mom’s best friend who is like a walking meditation app – she’s got the most peaceful presence, and reminded us to just take deep breaths while setting a tone that feels good for everyone. Afterwards, the three of us took the chance to explore the UBC campus with my sister playing tour guide. The most important features were likely the water fountains and washrooms since it was a hot day, and fortunately they were plentiful. The most scenic spot was definitely the rose garden. From right above the gardens, you can look out at the ocean and overlapping mountains. If I hadn’t injured my knee, we likely would have also climbed down the 500 steps to clothing-optional Wreck Beach on campus but alas we had to forgo the naked beachgoers and just head back to the crop tops of Kits instead.




Throughout my time in Vancouver, I noticed a lot of charming community initiatives. The Arbutus Greenway in Kitsilano stands out: it provided a green walkway, full of community gardens, back to my accommodation from my frequent visits to Granville Island. Even the island felt like its own inclusive community with its friendly shop owners like at Granville Island Treasures. The more I enjoyed Vancouver the more I wondered why I’d ever left B.C. But a visit to Vancouver or Vancouver Island in June or July is very different than time spent there in October or November – I enjoyed the colourful landscape without the gray filter. There are countless other questions of fit (apart from probability of precipitation) when determining where to move, so for now a visitation will definitely suffice.

Vancouver Island

Driving to Vancouver Island was a first for me. Not that we literally drove on water (although I’m sure that’ll be viable in a few years thanks to Mr. Musk), but I don’t think I’ve ever boarded the ferry by car before. It definitely saved us time because we didn’t have to coordinate our public transit from Vancouver to Tsawwassen or from Schwarz Bay to Victoria (which takes hours, cumulatively). Although I haven’t really felt increased anxiety on buses, it has worsened on planes so I half-expected to feel a pounding heart on the ferry but to my delight that never happened. My sea legs were shaky at times, but my motion sickness never materialized either. It really helped that we were able to sit outside and observe spectacular scenery, and that the whole trip was only about an hour and a half.




Arriving on the island, we stopped by Sidney to take in all of its book shops. Even if you’re not a Belle (i.e., a bookworm), you can still enjoy the views and dining options. Views were clearly better from Island View Beach though, which we walked along en route to Victoria. On a clear day, you have some incredible vistas, although I don’t think anything compares to the views from Victoria’s Dallas Rd.


My priority every time I’ve been back to Victoria has been to retrace my past: eat at my favourite restaurant (Rebar), spot the peacocks in my favourite park (Beacon Hill), grab a drink at my favourite café (Moka House in Cook St. Village), and visit my old neighbourhoods. This time I donned my tourist guide cap so that my sister’s boyfriend could soak in more of the Victorian vibe. We wandered Fan Tan Alley, which is actually the narrowest street in Canada’s oldest Chinatown, so that they could get an idea of the invaluable impact that Chinese-Canadians have had on B.C.’s culture. We also strolled past the Empress Hotel, which is over 100 years old, a popular site for tourists to take photos, have high tea, or use the restrooms (the latter being especially important if you opt-in to tea time). I showed them the museums from the outside, but none of us were interested in entering buildings unnecessarily in spite of the island having low case counts.




This was my first time visiting, let alone staying in, East Sooke, so it really felt like an adventure for all of us. The rustic location of our resort meant that we truly felt isolated from the world but wholly one with nature. It helped that our main source of entertainment was watching the ocean’s waves and finding new incredible vantage points for watching the sunset. On one sunset stroll, we interrupted a romantic embrace atop a hill, a.k.a., a new construction mound. As it happens, my sister had competed against one of the lovers in Ontario-wide sporting events years ago. We all cheerfully reminisced about the olden days when everyone knew someone on Degrassi and MuchMusic actually played music videos.


We took in plenty of incredible views while hiking (or “walking” according to my sister’s boyfriend) around the west side of the island: from Sombrio to China to French Beach – listed in order of ease. We spent the most time at Sombrio Beach, which makes sense because it’s the most challenging to reach! My sister and her boyfriend took a quasi-hidden path to beautiful waterfalls in a cave, but I opted to relax on the beach instead. Along the way I met a nice German tourist who gave me toilet tips (avoid the outhouse by the waterfall path, if possible) – it still feels unnatural engaging in casual conversation, and I prefer it to be outdoors. I could never have imagined that meeting strangers would be nerve-wracking, but a full pandemic later here we are. On this trip, I actually ended up talking to a few people about newfound social anxieties. In a boutique shop, a salesperson and I commiserated about how hard it can be to get out of our heads. Closing time passed and we kept chatting. Maybe the key to vanquishing pandemic-induced anxieties is forgetting they exist.




Overall, aside from more deforestation and newer developments (neither ideal), the areas of the island that were familiar to me in the past still felt recognizable to me now. There’s something comforting about stepping into your old grocery store and still seeing the same specialty items available, or walking through your favourite park and stopping at the cutest turtle pond to throw stones. No matter where you move, you can’t escape the past you’ve created. Not that I’d ever want to forget the beauty of B.C., even if the sun has set on that chapter of my life.


Posted by madrugada 21:06 Archived in Canada Tagged waterfalls sunsets_and_sunrises beaches people food victoria ocean wildlife nature hiking restaurants ferries scenery summer paradise wilderness canada vancouver british_columbia vancouver_island protest forests roses cafes indigenous environment picnics granville_island safe_travel western_canada island_time scenic_road_trip sand_and_sea return_to_canada reentry social_distance east_sooke sooke u_b_c Comments (0)

Weird, Wacky Wisconsin

semi-overcast 15 °C

Sample Itinerary (from Chicago)
- Day 1: Rockford (Illinois), Madison, Baraboo
- Day 2: Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin Dells, Baraboo
- Day 3: House on the Rock, Mt. Horeb, Madison
- Day 4: Madison, Milwaukee
Optional: Pewits Nest Gorge, Parfrey’s Glen, Cave of the Mounds, Lake Geneva, Mars Cheese Castle

Where to Stay
- Ringling House B&B in Baraboo ($115 USD)
- Hotel Indigo in Madison ($170 USD)

Where to Eat
- Baraboo: Tumbled Rock Brewery (perfect place to visit after hiking Devil’s Lake), Baraboo Burger Company (open late serving up tasty burgers and salads), Coffee Bean Connection (cute place with flavourful lattes, mochas, and bagels), Driftless Glen Distillery (fancier dining)
- Madison: Chocolate Shoppe, Madison Sourdough, Glass Nickel Pizza Company

My Travel Diary
As an “alien” – yes, that’s the actual term used – there’s still a lot that I don’t know, and am curious to learn about the U.S. Enter Wisconsin. One of my closest friends had told me that while living in Chicago I had to visit Wisconsin, especially the Devil’s Lake hiking area, House on the Rock, and Madison. His spouse had lived in Madison temporarily and the two of them had explored the area to the fullest extent possible, so I trusted their judgment. Due to scheduling conflicts, I had to delay the trip until April, 2021. As it happens, spring is an excellent time to visit Wisconsin. Leaving Chicago, my travel partner (i.e., real life partner) and I decided to stop at Rockford, Illinois to check out the arboretum and Anderson Japanese Gardens. I found the Japanese garden really well-manicured and very peaceful, particularly appreciating the waterfalls and traditional Japanese zigzag bridge. We spent so long at the Anderson Japanese Gardens that we never saw the nearby botanical gardens or arboretum.


The whole area was fairly residential, which made the search for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Laurent House a bit tricky. This house has the distinction of being the only Wright house designed for a client with a physical disability. Built in the 1950s, this house was referred to as Ken and Phyllis Laurent’s “little gem” although its grounds are surprisingly large. We parked on a side street and just wandered the exterior as it was officially closed and undergoing maintenance when we came; normally, it would cost $5 for students to enter and $25 for others. It may have been Wright, but we were probably wrong to just snoop around without paying – the consolation is that we never entered the building, or even the backyard. In a similarly creepy manner, we drove by Taliesin (also by Wright) but didn’t enter. It spans 800 acres, including the 37 000 square foot home, and is actually a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are a number of tours available, including a two-hour highlights tour that is $65. Hopefully next time I’m in the area I’ll actually explore it in greater depth, not just do a drive-by.


On the theme of architecture, I would be remiss not to devote time to the House on the Rock. The question is: how do you begin to describe the strangest place you’ve ever visited (excluding a robot café in Japan, naturally)? Here goes. Once upon a time there was a man, a very strange man, named Alex Jordan. With the heart of a dreamer and the mind of an engineer, he bought land in the 1940s overlooking a valley and began building a home into the huge rocks that dotted the landscape. The house grew and by the 1960s he was charging admission to tourists who flocked to the site to see the stained glass, low ceilings, and music machines. As time passed, his interests expanded: he assembled the largest indoor carousel in the world, he built a 218-foot scenic overhang (which shakes with the wind), and he curated wings of his house devoted to topics as divergent as aviation, doll houses, and musical organs (for starters). Nowadays, it takes hours to tour the house in its entirety. We opted for the “ultimate experience” and spent four hours exploring all three sections. It was musty, I had to duck at times, I felt watched by all the dolls and strange animatronics, but I can safely say that I never saw terrifying twins. Or Jack Nicholson, for that matter. Although I wouldn’t even be surprised if someone told me he’d made a cameo at one of Alex Jordan’s wild 1960s parties.


Mt. Horeb, Baraboo, and Wisconsin Dells were also strange but combined they still wouldn’t even register on a scale measured against House on the Rock. To begin with, Baraboo is a circus city in every sense: from the Circus World Museum to all the businesses named after the Ringling brothers to the statues of elephants all over town. We spent two nights there, but in retrospect I would have rather stayed there one night and spent two nights in Madison instead. Briefly, our bright yellow B&B in Baraboo was actually built in 1901 by one of the famous Ringling brothers – hence the name, “Ringling House B&B”. I had been hoping for a tour of the home, but it never came. Regardless, it served as a good enough base for our regional exploring because it was well-located, clean, and fairly private. Surprisingly, our “modern” Indigo Hotel in Madison was actually a highly-renovated building from the early 1900s as well. Due to its former identity as a paint headquarters and manufacturing plant, the hotel has splashes of colour all over, which really added to its charm.


Baraboo also has its own charm, but unfortunately it was fairly deserted while we were there which meant that a number of the businesses and attractions were closed. For entertainment, we walked the Riverwalk and watched a local baseball game. It felt wholesome, yet incomplete – mainly because I had no hot dog or peanuts in hand. In fact, the restaurants in Baraboo closed really early, so we faced a quandary after becoming so invested in the baseball game that we missed closing time for almost all of the local eateries! We strolled restaurant to restaurant hoping that one would still be open. We entered one and promptly left after receiving an intimidating stare down from the server and other patrons; the next one we entered, Baraboo Burger Company, was a much more welcoming environment (with delicious results!). It was eerie walking around at night, but at least there were no Galena-styled sirens.


Mt. Horeb may have a few thousand less human residents than Baraboo, but it makes up for that with its outsized troll population. In fact, Mt. Horeb is known as “the troll capital of the world” and I took it upon myself to meet as many of the trolls as I could. I started by picking up my “trollway” map at the visitor center, heartily announcing myself with a vibrato “velkommen”. It turns out you don’t need to speak Norwegian to go troll hunting, which is helpful since in reality I don’t speak Norwegian. It turns out the area has had a strong Norwegian presence since the late 1800s, and Scandinavian culture has helped shape Wisconsin in ways that I hadn’t realized. Although I learned more than I’ll ever need to know about trolls, it was harder to find information about the Indigenous people who had lived there prior to the European settlers. Instead, I had to fall back on my old friend the internet. Search results told me that the area was part of the Ho-Chunk territory, which was “ceded” to the U.S. government over the course of a number of treaties signed in the early 19th century. So far wherever I’ve traveled in the U.S., I’ve seen little to no offerings for tourists (or locals) that incorporate or highlight the history and contemporary cultures of Indigenous people. It’s erasure and it’s disappointing, to say the least.



While looking for more information about Indigenous cultures around what’s now known as Wisconsin, I learned that “Today, the Ho-Chunk Nation is the largest employer in Sauk and Jackson counties” (https://wisconsinfirstnations.org/ho-chunk-nation/). Part of the Wisconsin Dells is in Sauk county, so that was a helpful fact to keep in mind while visiting. That being said, I stayed as short a time as possible because it felt like it was trying to be Niagara Falls trying to be Las Vegas: funnel cakes, old timey photo studios, overpriced wax museums and all. After a quick drive through town, we felt in need of the purifying power of nature so we hiked the Chapel Gorge Trail. It’s fine if you’re looking for a simple stroll in the woods, but if you’re craving more excitement then Devil’s Lake is the place for you.


We drove to the Devil’s Lake State Park fairly early by our standards, but nowhere near its opening time of 6 am. It was straightforward to pay the $16 admission fee, park, and then set off on our hike. The helpful attendant advised that we try the East Bluff Trail for the best views, as well as the chance to see Elephant Rock and Devil’s Doorway. Truthfully, Elephant Rock looked more like a giant brain to me; at least House on the Rock was clearly a house… on a rock.


In any case, I found the hike challenging. It’s steep at times, but the real issue was the fact that you’re walking on stone steps that are significantly spaced at times and I actually cut my knee trying to scramble from one to another. It’s officially labeled as “moderate”, but for me it was difficult, and I doubt it would be easy for anyone aside from maybe mountain goats.




On our way back to the car we followed the Tumbled Rock Path, which was a walk in the park (literally and figuratively). Tumbled Rock is a very easy and fairly quick walk whereas East Bluff Trail is far from accessible and would require at least two hours (at least).


The views are spectacular though – especially from the Devil’s Doorway. Looking down you’ll see the green trees jutting out from purple rocks above the turquoise lake and under the cerulean sky, and wonder how you could be so lucky as to stand surrounded by such beauty. And yes, I said purple rocks. It turns out that Devil’s Lake State Park is the most commonly visited park in Wisconsin partially because of its Baraboo Quartzite: pink and purple exposed rocks that date back 1.5 billion years. I may not be a geologist (or a dad), but I can officially say that this place rocks.



Now let’s talk Madison, the progressive gem of Wisconsin. Apart from it being a wonderful place to visit, I kept reflecting on how much I’d like to live there: from its multiple lakes (sunrise picnic at one, sunset picnic at another!) to its seemingly endless biking/walking trails (including an arboretum in the middle of the city with yet another lake inside of it!) coupled with its emphasis on respecting nature and humanity, I just felt so enamoured with everything I experienced. Maybe instead of just admiring the imposing Wisconsin State Capitol building from the outside, I should have been networking inside of it!


As Madison is the capital of Wisconsin, it’s inherently political. The writing was on the walls all over the city, so to speak: protest slogans and inspirational images like a collage from May 30, 2020. We didn’t see any protests while we were there, but there was plenty of proof that it’s a civically-active city. It gives me hope when I see people actively engaging in democratic processes, and even more so when they’re creating those processes themselves. Policy changes culture, and policy needs to be responsive to local culture too.



I’ll finish this blog post by focusing on my one true love: food. And the food all over Wisconsin, but especially in Madison, was phenomenal. We tried multiple restaurants, but our favourite had to be a pizza joint. It was so good that we ate Glass Nickel pizza at Olbrich Beach one day and then at Marshall Park the next (I highly recommend their chicken alfredo pizza!). Thankfully neither of us is lactose-intolerant, so we completed our first meal with tasty treats from Madison Chocolate Shoppe. Milkshake in hand, gloves on hand (it got chilly at night), we walked through the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus at sunset enjoying the reflections on the lake. Well, one of the many lakes.


Upon leaving Madison, we decided to make one more stop in Milwaukee so that my partner could visit a friend and I could eat more dairy. The Milwaukee Public Market was the perfect pit stop: you can find anything from spices to smoothies. Now that I’ve had a taste of Wisconsin, I’m definitely craving more – as cheesy as that may sound.


Posted by madrugada 20:19 Archived in USA Tagged lakes food architecture nature hiking elephants rocks university circus forests pizza geology arboretum weird picnics frank_lloyd_wright dairy illinois milwaukee madison wisconsin house_on_the_rock carousels baraboo rockford devil's_lake wisconsin_dells mt.horeb trolls wacky quartzite milwaukee_public_market laurent_house taliesin milkshakes japanese_gardens Comments (0)

Safe Summer Travels in Southeastern Ontario

Pandemic Daytrips

sunny 25 °C

Usually delayed blog posts don't really impact the content that much, but all bets are off during a pandemic. The information may be less relevant as the restrictions around COVID-19 constantly evolve - from whether restaurants are open, to which companies no longer exist. That being said, I still think there's value in sharing my suggestions, and detailing my memories! Given that I couldn't eat indoors anywhere over the summer, and was thus unsure where public restrooms would be available, I tried to limit my exploration of Ontario to more rural areas - mainly public parks. In spite of the pandemic and all of the fear and anxiety it brought, I really enjoyed seeing sites I wouldn't normally have been drawn to like a small town northeast of Kingston, or cruising the 1000 Islands (on the St. Lawrence). Last fall, I set off on a solo road trip around northern Ontario and was amazed by what I experienced, so should I really have been surprised by the beauty down south?

Frontenac Provincial Park
Where the paths diverge...

There are many trails to choose from here - 1.5km loops to over 20km treks. We just did the Arab Lake Gorge Trail because it's the shortest and easiest, and we needed a trail that would be most accessible. We chose a very serpentine trail... Make sure to keep your eyes open for snakes - we spotted one under the boardwalk, and another while we were just strolling in the forest! Note that under normal circumstances, the park office and washrooms would be open and barrier-free but they weren't when we visited. There was hardly a soul in sight so social distancing wasn't a problem in the slightest.

Parrott's Bay Conservation Area
Easy strollin'

Just about twenty minutes west of Kingston you'll find Parrott's Bay Conservation Area, which is a great place to go on a leisurely stroll in nature. Again, I didn't run into anyone so social distancing was no problem whatsoever. I found the paths really stable, there was lots of shade, and there was no charge for parking; however, I didn't see many areas for resting/sitting or water fountains (or outhouses). There are always pros and cons of any site, I suppose! A distinct advantage of visiting this conservation area is that Bath, a lovely little town, is just west of here. I didn't enter any of the restaurants or shops, but post-pandemic I'd happily eat at the Lodge Coffee House or any other cute eatery in town and then stroll by the lake.

A small town + a big hill = beautiful vistas

Fortunately, shops were open for take-out so I was able to pick up some sustenance and minimally interact with others at Vanilla Beans. I can't say it's enjoyable visiting towns without interacting with locals, but I would also feel an incredible sense of shame were I to act recklessly and accidentally infect someone (knowing now that many people are asymptomatic carriers of the virus). Post-pandemic, I'd love to come back to this town and stay for a night in one of the accommodations - the Cove Country Inn seemed particularly pleasant. Regardless, Foley Mountain Conservation Area was a great place to go visit during the pandemic because there was no one in sight, and there were lovely views. It felt meditative, almost. I'll note that I didn't see anywhere to fill up water bottles, but there was ample parking (for $7) and a fair amount of shade. I wouldn't recommend the trails if you use a mobility device as there are loads of stairs and uneven ground.

1000 Islands
Cruising into serenity

Gananoque Boat Line reopened just in time for Canada Day, so I bought my parents and I tickets for a 2.5 hour afternoon cruise: Lost Ships of the 1000 Islands. It was 37$ for a regular adult ticket and $31.50 for a senior ticket, which I found very reasonable considering how enchanting the cruise was and the safety precautions they took! Not only were there far fewer people on board the ship (1/5th capacity), but staff were constantly sanitizing all surfaces and also ensuring that people wore masks at all times. I also found a great vantage point from inside the ship on the second floor, at least 6 feet away from the closest person (they had masterfully arranged the seating to enforce social distancing). As always, I was nervous about motion sickness, but the boat ride was smooth sailing!


I really enjoyed listening to the commentary about how people navigate these waters (the St. Lawrence), and thought it was particularly interesting hearing about how houses were built and also how alcohol was smuggled into the U.S. from Canada during prohibition. They also talked about shipwrecks, but unfortunately I couldn't hear much of their narration on that subject. So, here are a few fun facts that stood out to me (which I was able to hear!): (1) there are over 1800 "Thousand" islands; (2) there used to be pirates here, and some claim that there's still buried treasure (maybe rainy day cruises are better, so you can use the rainbow as your guide?); and, (3) the bridge between Canada and the U.S. was opened in 1938 and tens of thousands of people showed up to watch the prime minister and president conduct the official opening ceremonies.


For me, the highlight was just being able to sit calmly while cruising through the many islands and enjoying its ecosystem. From the beautiful birds and radiant rocks, to the amazing architecture. In fact, Boldt Castle was an imposing presence in the waters. Because it's U.S. territory, we were unable to disembark but even from the boat I could tell it's an impressive structure. Its history is sad though; the castle was built by George C. Boldt as a summer house (on Heart Island) in honour of his wife, Louise. Sadly, she passed away months before it was finished so it sat empty for decades. The Thousand Islands Bridge Authority is now responsible for its stewardship.


Taking the cruise on Canada Day, it surprised me how little discussion or acknowledgement there was of Indigenous culture and history here. It's bizarre to me because there have been Indigenous peoples living on and navigating through these lands for thousands of years, and it seemed like an important day to recognize that given the weight that Canada Day can carry (for better or worse). For me, I feel eternally appreciative of how I've been able to move to and through this country but the older I get the more conscious I am of the need to appreciate its triumphs and also critique its flaws so that it can be better for everyone.


Posted by madrugada 03:31 Archived in Canada Tagged nature hiking ontario cruise canada pandemic safe_travel social_distance Comments (0)

Know Northern Ontario

Driving from Toronto to the Agawa Canyon Tour Train

all seasons in one day

Sample Itinerary
- Day 1: Drive from Toronto to Sudbury (with stops in Barrie and Parry Sound for stretching and petrol)
--> In Sudbury see: the Big Nickel, Dynamic Earth, Lake Ramsay, and Lake Laurentian Conservation Area


- Day 2: Drive from Sudbury to Sault Ste. Marie (a.k.a. "The Soo")
--> Stop at: Webbwood where Canada elected its first female mayor; Chutes Provincial Park for hiking; Blind River for petrol; St. Joseph Island to explore the shops and marina in Richards Landing; Echo Bay to see the world's largest loonie; and then drive onward to the Soo where you can watch sunset from the boardwalk


- Day 3: Agawa Canyon Tour Train
--> Depart from and return to Sault Ste. Marie

- Day 4: Explore the Soo then drive to Manitoulin Island
--> Visit the Sault Ste. Marie Locks and wander nearby Whitefish, North and South St. Mary's Islands then walk back to the Mill Market Wednesday and Saturday Farmer's Market; drive to the Ermatinger Clergue National Historic Site or the Bushplane Museum in the Soo; drive south to Bruce Mines to see their art, copper mining museum, or take a rest stop in Espanola en route to Manitoulin Island


- Day 5: Explore Manitoulin Island
--> See Macleans Mountain Lookout then go west toward Kagawong stopping for a hike at the Cup and Saucer Hiking Trail before continuing to the Bridal Veil Falls, and Gore Bay (you can detour to two lookouts just east of town: Hindman Park Lookout and Harold Noble Memorial Park East Bluff Lookout), or continue to Mudge Bay for a serene sunset


- Day 6: Drive from Manitoulin Island to Toronto
--> Stop at Ten Mile Point for a scenic view, have breakfast in Manitowaning and check out their harbour, then head to South Baymouth to catch the ferry (book well in advance) to Tobermory, drive back through Wiarton, Flesherton, Mono, and Orangeville before hitting the 410 in Brampton and switching to the 427 in Etobicoke to return to Toronto


Where to Stay
- Day's Inn in Sault Ste. Marie for a budget hotel
(full disclosure: if I went back I'd try to stay at the Delta waterfront hotel, as it's also walking distance to the Agawa Canyon train but seemed nicer)
- Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Center in Little Current on Manitoulin Island

Where to Eat
- Gloria's Restaurant in Sudbury
- Solo Trattoria fine Italian dining in Sault Ste. Marie
- Shabby Motley in Sault Ste. Marie for tea and pastries (e.g. maple bacon vegan cupcake)
- North 46 Restaurant in Little Current, Manitoulin Island
- Trufood Cafe near Lion's Head (south of Tobermory) for a sandwich, but not their cookies

What to Bring
- Hiking: whistle and/or bell, water bottle (and snacks), season-appropriate outerwear (e.g. hiking boots, rain jacket, etc.), bug spray, sunscreen, phone (and consider a portable charger for longer hikes), ID, keys
- Road tripping: extra windshield washer fluid, spare tire (if possible), towels and blankets, flashlight, water (and snacks), hard copy maps, reflective road signs/gear, GPS, car manual, license/insurance/car ownership papers, toilet paper/tissues, sunglasses

Agawa Canyon Tour Train Description and Tips
Northern Ontario is a hidden gem, not only for its culture, but also for its nature. A highlight from my trip was definitely the train ride I took to the Agawa Canyon. Although I didn't enjoy waking up at 6:30 am while on vacation, I was thrilled to travel 228 miles (round trip) through pristine forests, past clear waterfalls, and directly into a colourful canyon. As someone who gets motion sick, I was a bit nervous about the trip but because I made it there for 7:15 am I had some choice in where I sat. I faced forward on car 5, and had an empty seat beside me while I sat opposite two lovely American sisters from Indiana. Our car seemed to be the most comfortable with its cushy red-velvet seats, so I'd request it if possible.


The dining car was #9, and walking there was a slight challenge as the ride could be bumpy at times. You'll want to walk over at some point though because you get a refreshment/food voucher when you purchase your ticket. There isn't much selection so it's a good idea to take your own food, if you're a picky eater. Anyway, we arrived at Mile 114 (the canyon) just before noon and were allotted 1.5 hours to explore. One of the sisters and I promptly set off to explore the waterfalls: Bridal Veil Falls (quite different to the Bridal Veil Falls on Manitoulin Island), and Black Beaver Falls. We also climbed over 350 stairs to get to the lookout. It was a spectacular view, and also an amazing opportunity to realize how out of shape I am. The view was breathtaking though, so maybe that was a factor.


The train ride is narrated, and they also provide you with a supplementary guidebook/pamphlet. It was interesting learning about how the Soo is the 3rd largest steel producer in the world, and also the geology of the region like how it was created through faulting 1.2 billion years ago and then later ice ages affected the canyon's width. It was even more important to hear about the history of the Ojibwe people in the area, and some context about the different cultures still living here. Learning about local cultures from people who lived there and knew the history of the land was probably the most valuable part of the trip.

For anyone who's curious, here are the mile markers of my favourite spots on the train ride: Bellevue Valley (miles 19-20); Achigan Lake (miles 43-45); Ogidaki Lake (mile 48); Trout Lake (mile 57); Mekatina Lake (mile 62); Mongoose Lake (mile 75.5); Regent Lake (mile 89); and, the Montreal River Trestle standing at 130 ft above a dam providing the Soo with energy (mile 92). On the trip, you'll also learn more about the Group of Seven who sometimes painted there between 1918 and 1923. Make sure to visit their paintings set up near the train station at mile 114.


Reaching the precipice of the climb was incredible, but for people who aren't able to hike, it's still a nice trip to take because the views on the train trip are stunning and at mile 114 you can happily picnic beside the river/waterfalls for the 1.5 hour stop. It's a long day though because you leave early in the morning and only return back to the Soo around 5:30 pm. If you're sitting with great conversationalists (which fortunately I was), it goes by quickly. In addition, you can also take a few quick strolls on the train so that your knees and back don't feel too stiff after all the sitting sandwiching the quick burst of hiking. In spite of my achy body, the trip was well-worth the $123 (CAD) cost. It was also worth paying the extra money to go during peak time, i.e. fall.


My Travel Diary
Whenever people find out I'm from Canada, their assumption is that I live in Toronto. This is a massive assumption, given the sheer size of the country. In fact, Canada is the second largest country (by landmass) in the world - second only to Russia. It always pains me to confirm their assumption - yes, I live in Toronto. The reason why I get frustrated is because there's so much more to Canada than Toronto. Having traveled to eight provinces to visit tiny towns and larger cities, I can assert that there is considerable cultural and topographical difference even though we all identify as "Canadian". In spite of my awareness of the misplaced assumption about Toronto representing Canada, it's taken me a long time to realize my implicit bias that Toronto represented the province of Ontario. The first step to overcoming a bias is to recognize its existence. The next step is to take action. To conquer my assumptions about Ontario, to learn more about Indigenous cultures within this land from Indigenous peoples, and to enjoy the fall colours (especially in the Agawa Canyon) in the process, I chose to partake in a solo journey northbound from Toronto.


My first step was renting my favourite car: the Nissan Qashqai. Fortunately, Enterprise Rent-A-Car put one aside for me and I was able to pick it up seamlessly. The only hiccup was that my father accompanied me, which meant a 45 minute delay to examine every inch and crevice of the vehicle. He came equipped with an endless barrage of questions: "Is there sufficient windshield washer fluid? Is there an extra tire? Can I get fries with that?" Finally I'd had enough and I thanked him for his concerns (some of which were genuinely helpful), and told him that I didn't want my solo roadtrip to be around a rental car parking lot. I finally set off, but I actually stopped about an hour and a half after leaving Toronto because I needed a stretch and a break from all the traffic. After some back bends in the Barrie OnRoute parking lot, I continued to Parry Sound where I filled up the car. It was just under two hours from there to Sudbury. Along the way, I had the pleasure of seeing the changing colours of the forests' leaves, being passed by a Cadillac going around 180 km/hr, passing a trailer with a helicopter on it, and spotting ads for a company that advertised its bug and bear removal services - two-for-one deal!

In Sudbury, I stayed with a friend from Toronto, his wife, and their newborn. They, like many young couples, had decided to leave Toronto for greener and more affordable pastures. One of their favourite spots is Lake Ramsay, which I enjoyed walking around. In the summer, Sudbury would be a great city for canoeing or kayaking, but when it drops below 25 degrees Celsius water sports basically turn into winter sports (in my opinion). My friends also suggested I explore the Lake Laurentian Conservation Area, which seemed gorgeous, but which I was too nervous to explore enough of alone. To be honest, one of the challenges of a solo road trip is determining your own limits. In my case, I get nervous hiking alone sometimes because I start worrying about aggressive wildlife encounters, including dangerous humans lurking in the woods. This trip helped me realize that that's OK - it's my choice to hike further into the woods in some places, and not others. I also have to be more understanding of my own anxieties: sometimes a thought can be altered before it turns into a scary feeling, but other times that scary feeling should not be ignored. Although I've traveled alone all over the world, I still felt nervous at times driving and hiking alone in rural Northern Ontario because there were such long stretches without human contact.

I realized that an important step is feeling prepared: keeping my phone and ID on me really calmed me. Another tip for anyone with chronic illness, like me, is writing down your conditions, prescriptions and doctor's contact information on a piece of paper. In my case, I did experience some health concerns on the road, but it never progressed, and knowing that my information was on me at all times made me feel better in spite of the scares.


In my opinion, the most immersive experience in Sudbury is Dynamic Earth. I happened to visit during the annual Vale Open House, which meant that entrance was free and there was a special mining tour involving mine rescue demonstrations. Before entering the site, I stopped for an obligatory picture beside the Big Nickel - a 30 ft replica of a nickel from 1951 that happens to be the world's biggest coin. I can add this to my "world's largest" site visits across Canada: the dinosaur in Drumheller, Alberta; the hockey stick in Duncan, British Columbia; the big apple in Colborne, Ontario; the big loonie in Echo Bay, Ontario (which I also saw on this road trip); and the large lobster in Shediac, New Brunswick. I guess my motto should be: go big, then go home.


After taking my picture with the Big Nickel, I explored Dynamic Earth to learn more about mining in the Sudbury region. Westerners started mining the area in the 1800s; however, the nickel, silver and other minerals were being used by Indigenous people in the area for thousands of years before that. There is still a large Indigenous population in the Sudbury area. In fact, according to a 2016 census by Statistics Canada, 9.5% of the population in Greater Sudbury self-identified as Indigenous, while Manitoulin District came in at 40.6%; compare those numbers to the percentage in Ontario overall - 3%. As an immigrant to Canada who's grown up mainly in the suburban Toronto area, I never knew any Indigenous people (or at least anyone who disclosed their identity), and I knew very little about Indigenous cultures. This is not something I'm proud of. In fact, one of my hopes for this trip was to listen and learn from the people I met up north because I should know more; I think everyone in Canada has an obligation to better understand the history and the current realities Indigenous communities face here. Particularly in this current climate, where many of the mainstream media mentions of Indigenous cultures are tied to pipeline politics, it's important to not only inform yourself of those issues but also understand how much more those communities and cultures experience and stand for too. I tried to make a concerted effort on this trip to be open, but not overstep. For example, I never showed up unannounced on a reserve, but I did choose to stay in a hotel on Manitoulin Island owned and operated by six First Nations: Sheshegwaning, M’Chigeeng, Aundeck Omni Kaning, Wikwemikong, Whitefish River First Nation, and Sagamok. Travel is an opportunity to learn, and it's also a chance to choose to support specific causes or communities.


Back to mining... Although I had visited East Coulee, Alberta where I learned about coal mining and also saw Canada's last standing wooden tipple (built in 1937), I'm still fairly ignorant to the process and its intricate ties to local communities' economies. Dynamic Earth was the best place to go digging for more information. I set off on a journey to the center of the earth - or at least 70 ft. below ground. I was very underdressed - not in a black tie formal way, but moreso in that I should have been wearing a jersey and jacket. It turned out that it was freezing underground, and the humidity was over 95%. We were informed that the world's deepest mine is 4km underground at which point the temperature is more like 70 degrees Celsius. I'm not sure which is better: a pervasive damp cold, or a boiling heat? I had no choice in the matter, so I danced my way through the tour trying to avoid turning into an ice sculpture. I learned that labour laws weren't so great in the 1880s (who would have thought?) which meant that boys as young as 12 were working underground, and earning far less than their adult counterparts who walked away with 2$/day (and worked 7 days a week). In the 1950s the mining technology was revolutionized, but still very dangerous; although apparently nothing was as scary as seeing a woman underground. I suppose not much has really changed though - many men are still afraid of female gold diggers. Bad puns aside, we were told that women were just generally considered bad luck, so it took a lot of change management for women to finally be accepted as miners starting in the 1970s. Nowadays there are numerous female miners in Sudbury's 600+ km of mining tunnels. There are also some very brave women who volunteer to do mine rescues. Although there are very few incidents each year, considering there are over 4000 miners, there have been fires underground. One of the underground fires was so intense that it's been raging for 30 years and all the rescue folks could do was contain the fire and evacuate the miners. The volunteers performed a demonstration for us where they used fake smoke to show us how useless flashlights are, and how important infrared/night googles are instead. I also had the honour of putting out a fake fire using a laser fire extinguisher. I think the volunteer was embarrassed on my behalf when I confidently held the fire extinguisher backwards. You live and you learn; or maybe, you live because you learn? Either way, if I took nothing else from this trip it's that I now know how to use a fire extinguisher.


As you drive north of Sudbury, things change. I started seeing more anti-sex trafficking signs, hotlines for malnourished mothers to call, and also ice-fishing ads. Although there are serious social issues in Toronto, I have a feeling that northern communities are affected in different ways given that they're smaller, and more isolated. I passed through some small towns that were comprised mainly of: abandoned buildings, methadone clinics, and junkyards. I also stopped in some thriving towns like Richards Landing on St. Joseph Island, which had a beautiful marina and lots of people milling about. Note: there was also an exceptionally clean and free public washroom in Richards Landing right across from their touching memorial to fallen soldiers from the area.


One of the joys of a road trip by yourself is that you can do whatever you want. I took full advantage of this, and did a lot of detouring. The most beautiful and surprising stop was definitely Chutes Provincial Park, which I hadn't even heard of before this trip. It turns out to have stunning waterfalls and a long, empty beach. I felt really brave wandering through there by myself. I stood alone near the top of the waterfalls, feeling like the most powerful woman in the world just because I had made it that far on my journey. It may sound corny, but I think it's helpful to acknowledge your little milestones particularly when life may make you lean more into your limitations more often than not.


My sense of empowerment quickly turned to a feeling of bemusement when I detoured off highway 17 to 17B in search of the world's biggest loonie. This huge loonie proudly stood there, off the side of the highway, straddled by a bakery named "Lucy Loo's" and a very long explanatory plaque throwing shade at Sudbury's Big Nickel. I found Northern Ontario to be very quirky - particularly in its street names, e.g. Seldom Seen rd. and Boozeneck rd. I also found it tricky to navigate at times because Google Maps lost reception multiple times, and in other instances it just flat out misdirected me. Before leaving for my destinations, I would always eyeball the map to have an idea of where I was going but it may be helpful to also have a hardcopy map on the seat beside you (if you're alone) so that you can pull over and reference that in times of need. Fortunately I wasn't in a hurry, and had flexible plans, so I was never too inconvenienced by the subpar virtual assistance but it's something to be aware of when you're planning a trip like this.


The city of Sault Ste. Marie seemed poorly planned: why build a half-empty mall on the waterfront blocking the views of the water, but not offering views to it? Why not encourage more businesses to stay downtown, rather than the current hodgepodge of abandoned buildings, methadone clinic, dance studio and restaurants? It's definitely possible to take a nice short stroll along the boardwalk from the Roberta Bondar Pavilion, but it seemed like a missed opportunity not to have more parkland beside the water. The most beautiful area to wander had to be the small islands across from the Sault Ste. Marie Locks: Whitefish, North and South St. Mary's Islands. Apparently the Batchewana First Nations is working with Métis populations and the Canadian government to revitalize Whitefish Island National Historic Site so visitors gain a better understanding of its historical and geographical importance. After chatting with some locals downtown, I realized that the city itself is undergoing a revitalization. I was told that there's been a push to retain young people in the city, and try to make the downtown streets attractive to residents and tourists alike. One of the women explained to me that it's also important to consider the economic context there: the now-closed pulp mill used to be a significant source of revenue, as did the steel mill which has suffered from random closures (although it's supposedly open and fully-functioning now). I think more and more communities across Canada will be faced with the reality of economic/labour transitions, and two key strategies will need to be investments in other industries, and securing local advocates who want to back reform. These conversations were a good reality-check for me: ask and listen more before forming your opinion. Beyond that, it's even more helpful to observe rather than judge.


On the theme of business initiatives, one of the locals I chatted with suggested I visit the Mill Market farmer's market on Saturday morning where I enjoyed a voipulla Finnish sweet butter bun. For reference, it's very close to the Sault Ste. Marie Locks, which were completed in 1895. At the time, it was the world's largest lock and the first to use electric power. It now runs mid-May to mid-October, and is a useful channel for the many boaters who want to visit northern Ontario and Michigan and Lake Superior or Lake Huron. I didn't spend much time in that area, as I was interested in visiting the sites around town participating in the Fall Rendezvous, like the Ermatinger Clergue National Historic Site. The event included historic reenactments, candy cannons, and Indigenous craft tables. I started my time there chatting with a man who was pretending to be an army engineer. He clarified how tense the ambiance there would have been during the War of 1812 given the proximity to the US (and he also explained that's why there was a fort on St. Joseph Island). It was kind of amazing hearing his perspectives on the war given that it ties back into what I learned in New Orleans when we visited Chalmette Battlefield. At the time, I found out that the Battle of 1815 only happened because news of the War of 1812 peace treaty hadn't traveled fast enough.


Speaking of battle, I chatted next with a mid 1800s surgeon who talked about blood letting (they used to slit patients' wrists to draw pints of blood to cure them), amputations and how the steel industry developed so that barbers and surgeons could have the tools they needed for their trades. In this case, my experiences at the Surgeons' Hall Museums in Edinburgh came in handy because I already had some background on early surgical techniques. The volunteer was curious to hear about the exhibits there, and told me he would consider visiting (if possible). I moved on quickly to learn more about voyageurs and coureurs des bois - the people who came from Europe with supplies, and the middlemen who worked with those Europeans to trade with Indigenous peoples. I then left those volunteers to chat with a Métis woman and her friend who was a local historian. They talked to me about how different the land looked as settlement patterns changed, like how Métis people had ribbon lots of land which the government appropriated and then forced them to buy back (even though many couldn't afford it) so that they could redraw the city into a European grid design. They also talked a lot about identity, and how challenging it is to find your community. The Métis woman told me how proud she is to live in the Soo, an historic Métis community. At that point a French-speaking woman joined the conversation and told me she feels like there are still major challenges there in terms of "othering". In her case, she's been yelled at (to speak in English) while having conversations with her husband in French. This paralleled a conversation I had with an Indigenous woman there the day prior who told me that she had faced discrimination just for being Indigenous. It's frustrating when people look for an excuse to exclude others, rather than create a sense of community comprised of unique voices.


I appreciated the conversations, but I also enjoyed the opportunity to work with my hands and just listen. I was fortunate to be able to make a moose hide braided bracelet, and also some porcupine quill crafts while there. The people teaching me were Ojibwe from Manitoulin Island. One of the people was a college lecturer who had a clear and kind voice. She talked to me about how they would traditionally use moose brains to soften the hide and make it more flexible when weaving bracelets. She also talked to me about how proud she is to share her culture with her students. She said it's encouraging when people come to places like Sault Ste. Marie and interact with contemporary First Nations communities, and hear their stories. I appreciated our conversations, and their humility. I feel it's a stark contrast to the arrogance I often see (and sometimes embody) in Toronto where you're rewarded for speaking loudly and brashly, rather than listening. One of the women I spoke with pointed out how much some people love to categorize and label everything, which can lead to dangerous questions of blood quantum rather than an emphasis on compassion and community. We need to become better at turning strangers into friends.

Driving through different neighbourhoods was insightful. For example, as I drove through the Garden River First Nation en route to the Soo, I paid attention to their signs: campaigning for a local election, honouring the missing and murdered Indigenous women across Canada, and asserting their right to their lands through graffiti on a train track stating in bold font: "This is Indian Land". It's not surprising given that the Sault Ste. Marie area has been inhabited by First Nations people, specifically Ojibwe, for millennia (and still is). I found it interesting driving through the small towns like Bruce Mines too. I wish I had had more time to explore the different places, and get to know more residents.

On my trip back down south, I decided to stay on Manitoulin Island. The Island is home to six different Anishinaabe First Nations, and I wish I had been able to see more cultural sites - from theater, to art galleries. There just wasn't enough time to see what the island has to offer given how large it is: it's the largest freshwater island in the world, to the point where it even has 100 lakes of its own! I managed to explore its scenic sides by visiting lookouts like Macleans Mountain Lookout, Ten Mile Point, Hindman Park Lookout and Harold Noble Memorial Park (East Bluff Lookout). I also appreciated watching the second set of Bridal Veil Falls on this trip. It was an easy walk from the parking lot to the waterfalls, and I enjoyed witnessing their soft unified fall to the waters below. I found more still waters when I sat on a dock in Mudge Bay watching the sunset gracefully fall into the lake.


Although there's a lot of natural beauty, I'd imagine there's a serious need for resilience in the north given the harsher terrain, climate and isolation. It can be hard at times not to romanticize regions like the north, but that can serve to undermine the gravity of their problems - especially when it comes to access to education, jobs, medicine, and safe standards of living. When you're alone on a trip like this you can't help but get lost in your thoughts, so I decided that I should listen to local radio stations to better inform those thoughts. On Manitoulin Island, I appreciated that a local radio station announced birthdays on the island and I listened carefully to the DJ's commentaries about religion and culture. The only people that I actually chatted with on the island were at the Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Center. They suggested places for me to explore, and told me about some of the local cultural events. Unfortunately, almost everywhere I went was closed: from galleries to restaurants, my timing was off. Fortunately, I was on time for my ferry from South Baymouth to Tobermory. The journey was awful because of the harsh winds and strong rain, but we made it to land in just under two hours and I magically managed to avoid sea sickness. Tip for other people with motion sickness like me: try Gravol (dimenhydrinate), but limit your intake so it doesn't make you too drowsy to drive.


I absolutely adore the area surrounding Tobermory, from Bruce Peninsula National Park to the Flowerpot Island. The hiking is incredible, and the wildlife is diverse (though I could do without another rattlesnake sighting). However, I didn't have time to explore more of this area on this short trip, so instead I stretched out my drive back to Toronto from Tobermory by visiting places like Wiarton (where the groundhog that predicts spring comes from), Flesherton, Mono, and Orangeville. Who wouldn't want to experience Mono, right? Maybe one day the town will go viral.

Anyway, I really did fall for Northern Ontario on this autumnal road trip. Fall is a beautiful time to wind your way through rural Ontario because many towns are hosting their fall fairs - so if you're into pie and apple cider, it's basically Christmas. And staring down into a canyon bursting with orange, red, yellow and green genuinely lifts your spirit. You forget the stress, congestion and pollution that looms over a place like Toronto, and remember what it means to breathe in life. This journey was emotional for me: I explored an unknown area on my own, and I struggled at times with my fears and health issues. I felt a certain amount of pride knowing that I set this goal of exploring the north as a solo female traveler with chronic health conditions, and managed to keep an open heart and mind while up there. I'm glad to have seen a different side of Ontario, and gained more context politically for what people are advocating for in terms of anti-racism, education, environmental protection, healthcare and social justice in northern areas. What struck me when I returned to Toronto was actually how hard it was to return the rental car - a sign that the trip was truly finished. I've realized since then that the trip isn't finished. When people ask me why I went up north by myself, I reopen those experiences and tap back into those memories letting them come rushing out like the beautiful waterfalls that I visited.


Posted by madrugada 20:58 Archived in Canada Tagged waterfalls trains road_trip nature hiking fall ferries fall_colors tugboat sudbury island_time agawa_canyon agawa_canyon_tour_train northern_ontario sault_ste_marie the_soo dynamic_earth mining_towns manitoulin_island little_current scenic_road_trip indigenous_culture canyon_climb bridal_veil_falls Comments (2)

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