Part I: The Border
Canada and America share 5,524 miles of border, five great lakes, and one natural wonder of the world.
This neighborly relationship is one that the people, for the most part, also share. There’s no huge rivalry amongst sports teams save for hockey (if you’re into that sort of thing). We’ve never been at war. We largely speak the same language, though many of their cities are more inclined to French. That’s okay for us, too, as they’ve found a dazzling and gluttonous way to amplify the splendor of french fries (more on that in a minute…)
It seems almost a travesty never to visit them when you live so close. It took me 27 years to make the trek north, and I’m here to report to all Americans who haven’t gone knocking next door that it’s worth it.
What knowledge is also important to share is that this friendship is not without regulations. The border we share is heavily patrolled and crossing it requires a great deal of cross-examination. This is especially true if you’re from an even more remote country than the USA.
The date of my crossing was September 30, 2019. Rich was set to turn 30 on the 2nd of October, and we had decided to move across the world shortly after. There were plenty of things in our own backyard that we had never explored while living in America, one of them being Niagara Falls. With a ticking clock and a free schedule, we organized a road trip up north.
After settling on driving as opposed to flying (and graciously being provided my mom’s car to make the trip), we were northbound from Pennsylvania’s Pocono mountains to Niagara Falls. The trip was smooth requiring very little navigation. We spent hours at a time on single interstates, first north on I-81 then west on 290, before the skyline started to reveal the crest of a foreign land.
We share the falls, America and Canada. They can be seen and experienced from both sides, but even Americans will admit that the best view is from the north. To get there, you have to cross the border.
It’s hard to imagine a time when natural wonders could be happened upon by complete accident and simply existed without any one group of people laying claim to them. What’s even more strange is that, in these modern times, two countries could actually come to an agreement to share something so rare and spectacular. Here, between America, the land of the free, and Canada, the land of the nice and snow, that accord was struck.
Even before we could witness it in its full glory, we could see the mist rising from the valley below; a true example of just how immense the water that flowed into it is. It was exciting, and as the driver with limits to how much I could gawk, I couldn’t wait to cross the border to be in the midst (and mist) of a true world wonder.
The excitement and eagerness between the two of us was palpable. We sat in both driver and passenger seat grinning and brimming with anticipation as we approached the border patrol booth. We handed over our multi-cultural passports to an agent who shared neither our nationalities nor our current demeanors.
“What’s the purpose of your visit,” he asked, as is customary any time you enter a different country.
“Vacation,” I replied. There’s always some element of nerves when you’re being interrogated by a government, even if you don’t have kilos of coke or an illegal immigrant stashed in the trunk. Since we were on the straight and narrow, the nerves were in short supply and the excitement was what made us jittery.
His next question came as a bit of a surprise, but was still easy enough to answer.
“Whose car is this?”
“Why are you driving your moms car?”
Now I was taken aback. Is this something that’s that suspicious?
“Because…” I tried to explain entirely but succinctly, “I don’t have one…”
The questions continued to flow this time past me and to the passenger.
“What kind of visa do you have?”
He answered without even the slightest inclination of discomfort.
“I’m on an E3 visa,” Rich began, “it’s a special type of visa for Australians where your employer sponsors you and you have the opportunity to stay in residence in the States for two years at a time.”
We both looked at each other agreeably and seemed to telepathically say, “nice.”
“And when does it expire?”
Our shared telepathy in that moment seem to barrel down onto us as we both widened our eyes simultaneously communicating, SHIT. He was on E3, but since we recently opted to leave America for Australia and he left said sponsoring-employer, it changed. Toeing the line between the US and Canada as we were then, his status has shifted to that of a tourist until we arranged to leave the country. The information he first presented was wrong.
“Oh, sorry,” he corrected, “as of now I’m on a tourist visa.” luckily, he was prepared. “I have the reference number here,” he said, quickly pulling up the information on his phone and handing it into the booth for inspection.
“I don’t know why you wouldn’t have been explicit about that the first time,” bald border man said with a hot sear to his words.
Rich offered his apology as the agent looked at the phone and both of our passports for whatever information these officials hope to gather. Without another word, he handed us back our documents, the phone and with a strange coy sort of grimace said, “bye.”
It took a moment to sink, but when it did I put the car in drive and we entered Canada. The excitement of arrival and the residual nerves of the anticipation bubbled up into a giddy laughter. We were in. Next stop: bed and breakfast.
Part II: Niagara Falls
There really is no truer travel experience than staying in an AirBnB. We do it everywhere we go–Colorado, Mexico, and even Morocco. Going to Canada was no different. Though we booked through AirBnB (not an #ad), what we got was a true, full-fledged bed and breakfast. In fact, pretty much the entire neighborhood was populated by bed and breakfasts. We drove up the street with the river on our right and house after house of b-n-b’s on our left. Since it was clearly an area dominated by tourists, most of the houses had a sign denoting which BnB they were. This made it all the easier.
My mom always quips that we find the best AirBnBs and that’s cause, well, we do the research.
The time of year we decided to go was certainly the off-season. As a result, we enjoyed one of these big beautiful country-style homes to ourselves. We had access to only one bedroom, of course, but the beauty of this style of stay was that the main floor–inclusive of the kitchen, sitting room, and all the board games they had to play–which were reserved solely for us. We only booked one night’s stay, and we had wished that it had been more.
Still, we were there for a reason, and that was to see the Falls.
It was a slightly rainy day. We drove to get a beer and something to eat at a nearby brewpub. When in Canada, there’s one thing you absolutely can’t pass up, and that’s the poutine. That was the end-goal. So we had it. Crispy shoestring fries slathered in gravy and topped with fresh cheese curds.
The first time I every heard that word, “cheese curds,” I was absolutely grossed out. Then, I educated myself. First of all, when milk curdles in your fridge, it’s disgusting. When milk curdles in the right elements (and under the right supervision), it’s cheese. And it’s delicious.
It was a long day of travel, but refueling with food was necessary. After a long talk with the bartender, eager to compare our leaders and their respective incompetencies, we went back to the BnB. It was nighttime now, and in the distance we could hear the perpetual crashing of water from the falls.
When in Rome, right? We took a walk.
The walk was about 20 minutes. It was kind of chilly, kind of damp, but the sight was nothing short of spectacular.
Niagara Falls, for those who haven’t been there, isn’t just one waterfall. It’s several. It starts with a couple of outliers. These individual falls were once connected to the greater one, but time had changed that. Still, I sat and gawked at these “lesser” falls, including what’s deemed the American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls. They all get the same treatment.
Like any true tourist attraction, it’s dressed up. The wall of water and the resulting mist were illuminated by multi-colored spotlights. Looking out at the American Falls, I was mesmerized. It was premature.
Rich had to peel me away from these to discover the main attraction. Most of the immensity of Niagara comes from Horseshoe Falls. Shaped as its namesake, its hundreds of millions of tons of water falling 167 feet over the crest every day. Almost all of the Niagara River’s water takes this spill. Like the smaller falls that surround it, it also gets the show-biz treatment at night.
We stuck around long enough to see it turn every color of the rainbow several times over. We felt the mist from fall and let it mix with the mist form the air, turning my hair to a matted coat. On top of being wet, we were tired, but I couldn’t pull myself from its true and genuine splendor. On this rainy night, it was like we had it all to ourselves.
When we finally decided that we’d have to say goodnight, it was just before midnight. Perfect timing, we found, because that’s when the lightship ends. Also, at the stroke of midnight, Rich turned 30. What a way to celebrate.
The next day, the rain persisted, but so did we. We had seen it at night and now it was time to witness it in the light of day.
More tourists were out that day, all in ponchos they had either bought to protect the rain or had been given as part of entry to get up close and personal with the falls. There’s a few options of doing this: take the pink poncho offered to you as you board the Maid of the Mist, or sport a yellow poncho to go on the Journey Behind the Falls under cover of rock.
We took the yellow ticket, in part because it sounded more interesting to go into the belly of the beast, but also because it was already raining. A shower wasn’t really needed.
Oh, and I hate boats.
An elevator takes you down below to the caves and caverns behind the falls. History and information about this great wonder is plastered every couple of paces making for a perfectly self-guided tour. We learned how they made the caves, how much water flows from above, and who had been killed, injured, or even survived by taking a trip over the edge. We also learned that, because of the power of it, the depth beneath the surface of the water is equivalent to the height of the drop.
There were openings, too, so you could watch as the water falls in unrelenting curtains into the river below. You could also go out onto a deck to watch the entirety of the Falls crash and the Maid of the Midst thrash.
We were wowed once more, but the sight of it at night is the image that sticks with me.
Though there was so much to see, there really wasn’t that much. Like any true tour, it ended with a green-screen picture I was tempted to purchase for $36 (but didn’t) and we left through the gift shop (again, having escaped without losing any additional dimes.)
Trudging home, we were soaked to our socks, but dry in the middle thanks to our new poncho. We returned to our Niagara homestead only momentarily. The next plan of action was to change into something dry and head to our next destination.
Part III: Toronto
Back in the car with dry socks, jeans, and a sweatshirt, we said goodbye to the BnB, stopped for a last round of local poutine and got on the road, heading 75 miles north to Toronto.
A little tired and water-logged, I could have done with an extra day at the cozy BnB. This, however, was a 30th birthday trip. We had more sights to see, and more poutine to eat.
In fact, on our relatively smooth drive north, we decided that while in Canada, we’d make it our mission to have poutine at least once a day. With another three nights ahead of us, it sounded not only doable, but exciting.
Driving along the highway, nothing looked much different than what we were already accustomed to, save for the impressive amounts of highway-side wineries. It seemed nice enough until you considered the fact that the crops would be getting the air of freshly-combusted motor oil.
When the skyline began to come into view, I was excited at the idea of having arrived. It was a false alarm. The true skyline we were looking for was one that was pricked with CN Tower-the infamous Toronto Needle.
This sight wasn’t far off from the moment of false alarm. We had made it. To my astonishment, it seemed a eerily familiar. The city was large, with huge monochromatic buildings set against the grey backdrop of a rainy day. This is Canada, mind you, so it was also pretty cold. It wasn’t alien though; it was just like New York.
Our next BnB was a true “AirBnB”-somebody’s apartment which was rented out. We were the first guest to pay to stay, which is always somewhat risky business. There were no people to prove the pictures were truthful; no reviews to reveal any rancid details of the place.
The place had free garage parking, two bedrooms, two baths, a full kitchen, and a view. The price and location was right, plus they offered access to the building’s pool and gym, which was the ultimate push to book. Even if it sucked, there would be things to do. In the end, it was a good decision.
Another tip for AirBnB novices: unless you’re truly a backpacker just looking for a bed, your first filter should be for “entire apartment” or “entire house,” depending on where you’re looking. In our case, it was the “entire condominium.”
We met the owners outside the building and they assured us that they could be contacted with any questions (great start). The building was one of two residential towers set in the heart of Toronto’s downtown district. We took the elevator to the 35th floor, just shy of the penthouse, but still felt like we were getting the luxury experience.
I had brought my laptop along to get some work done, and I was able to in a windows “solarium” looking over Lake Ontario. It was so high that my knees turned to jello when I looked down from the small adjoining balcony. I relished the fear, for the place was lavish.
Since it was his birthday, after all, we decided to book someplace nice for dinner. I did a bit of searching for local steakhouses, and, oddly enough, landed on a chain. Normally I’d avoid this at all costs, but the reviews assured me it was good, if not a fan-favorite, but also that it was a unique experience.
There was a location within walking distance from our stay, but we chose the one a short drive away for the sake of dining in an old mansion. Reviews said it was beautiful with a great ambience, albeit potentially haunted. Ultimately, though, they said the steak was great.
We squeezed our way into a tight parking lot, and arrived right on time for our reservation at the Keg Mansion.
I got the filet mignon wrapped in bacon with a glass vino tinto. He got the NY strip with a beer. Service was friendly, speedy, and most of all accommodating. They brought out a slice of their infamous Miner’s Pie, on the house and with a candle, since I mentioned it was a birthday dinner.
It was lovely, but after having pumped our stomach full of protein, the idea of going out to a bar to celebrate further seemed pretty uncomfortable. Lucky for us, this was Canada. Weed is legal.
We located a nearby dispensary and paid them a visit. It was the Copacabana, and it felt like going into a club. There was a man outside checking IDs who then opened the rope for us to proceed in. Unlike a club, inside was well-lit, covered in glass, and sparkling clean. This was one of the few places that was open after dinner, so lots of people with the same idea were also lined up. Still, plenty of bud tenders were eager to help.
That night, we enjoyed a legal smoke on our junior-penthouse balcony and laughed the night away with Sebastian Manascalco standup. It wasn’t my birthday, but it seemed like a perfect one anyway.
The next day, I spent the afternoon working in the solarium while Rich lounged in the lap of luxury. When we decided to venture out, we didn’t go much further than across the street. They had poutine on the menu, so there was really no need to look elsewhere.
After that, we walked to the other side of the residential towers stopped at the Steamwhistle Brewery. Tonight, we were ready for some beers. We arrived in time for one before the announced that the brewery was closing. As a last resort, we bought a sixpack and decided to bring it back to the place.
We had a taco dinner at a place that was trying to be equal parts Mexican and trendy. It was loud, overcrowded, and lit almost entirely by neon signs. To even get into the place, we had to settle for the only readily available seats at the bar. From there we had a quick drink, some tacos, and were soon making our way back to spend our final night in our Canadian Condo.
But first, poutine.
We actually opted for another chain restaurant, Smoke’s Poutinerie. As the name suggests, this place has all poutine, all the time. It was fast-food poutine, a place that made all manner of potato-based abominations. I’m talking bacon, pulled pork, kimchi; you name it. We controlled ourselves and kept it classic with just the gravy and cheese curds. It could have gotten much farther out of hand.
We took it home and returned to the couch, warm, well-fed, and dry. We truly got our money’s worth of this BnB.
On our final day, we faced the longest leg of our trip yet. Eight hours, all up, all the way back to the cradle of the Pocono Mountains. Our way out of Canada was arguably more nerve wracking than our way in. The border patrol agent was sweet as pie, but not without any lack of inquisition. Again, it was this Aussie visa that was stirring up plenty of questions that needed a firm answer.
They asked us to pull over and park in a designated area–this, being a fully concerning request for no reason other than we were flagged. We went inside together, where we waited in a holding zone before a man in a booth called out Rich’s name. We approached the desk together, where they asked what his purpose was in the US, how we knew each other, etc.
“I’m going back to Australia as soon as I book a ticket.”
“And are you going with him,” the agent asked me.
“That remains to be seen…” I told him, honestly.
“I guess that’s not really a question to ask, huh.” He said. Finally, a touch of humanity.
With that he gave us whatever stamp of approval we needed and let us go.
On our way out we caught our last glimpse of the mist rising from the Falls. There were, without a shadow of a doubt, boatloads of new visitors from all over the world getting to witness its magnificence. As for us, the visit had ended. We left behind weed, poutine, and water, unimaginable amounts of water, that would flow indefinitely, whether or not any Americans, Australians, Canadians, or otherwise were there to watch.