When planning your journey to leave the country, for the first time (ever) most usually thinks, “I’ll backpack Europe!” “Fly to Asia!” “Cabo here I come!” For me it was a little bit different.
I have never step foot outside of the United States. I’ve been to Hawaii, New York, Florida and currently reside in California; however taking the next step of actually becoming a “traveler” hadn’t happened.
I decided to break the cycle of staying close to home when I was generously invited to travel to Canada, along with my boyfriend, Chris, by some great friends who have now become family.
Talks of the trip began when our friend’s asked us to come to their annual fall party that is held at their home every year. From there the talking about it turned into reality and before I knew I was getting my passport rushed to me because I would be leaving the country in less than a month… for the first time. How did I get so lucky to be invited to Canada?
This trip would be a lot of firsts for me, and a lot of checking off on my “bucket list”. First time out of the country; first time flying private; first time not being afraid of flying. Just to name a few.
***I’ve always had a passion and love for travel. The outside “world” (outside of the United States) has always fascinated me. I love to explore, find new things, and experience new sites and different ways of life. The reasons I have always held back, which I am sure some of you could relate to was: money, time, taking time off work, not knowing exactly what I was doing, pushing it back, “Oh I’ll go sometime.” Well that sometime is now. I read a book given to me by my dear friend Alex, and in it they said death was the best teacher. If you were going to die tomorrow, would you do it? That is the question that constantly bobs around in my head now, and what a valid question that is.***
The flight arrangements were for a Tuesday, and me being part girly (I say part because I am a Tom Boy at heart), my only thoughts were, “What do I pack for Canada?” “Is it going to be cold?” “Do they drive on the “wrong” side of the road?” “How will I know what the temperature is there when everything is in Celsius?” Yup. True questions I asked myself.
A day before we were scheduled to leave, our trip was pushed to leave that evening. I was already stressing about what to pack, and now I had to pack it how fast?? I popped open a beer and got to work, sorting through my closet and packing a suitcase till it’s seams were bursting. Sometimes I don’t know how I manage to get things done, but hey, it all works out. Chris and I called an Uber and before we knew it we were on our way to John Wayne Airport. The best feeling is when you are the first people there, knowing even though you were rushing around like a crazy person, you aren’t making anybody else late or wait for you. As we watched the sun set over the horizon, the “wheels were up” and we were cruising at an altitude of 40,000 feet, heading to the Northern part of our continent.
The trip over was nothing but a party, eating Bandera’s, sharing tequila, laughing and telling stories, and each time we hit a bump, our friend would calmly walk up to the cockpit and tell the pilot, “Fly higher,” so we wouldn’t hit turbulence.
Four hours later we had landed in Toronto, it was a little after 2am Canada time, but for us Californians, we were just getting started. Or so we thought… customs came on board to check out our passports holding on to a friend of ours until the very end. “You are not permissible in Canada,” were the dreadful words spoken. What?! Turns out Canada has strict rules on flying into their country if you have had a DUI, and they will deport you without even blinking. Long story (and night) short, everyone made it to the final destination getting to the house a little after 4 am, kind of drunken and tired from traveling. At that point, bed sounded so good. We made way to our rooms and happily passed out.
We woke up to sunshine and steaming cups of coffee. It was a mere 21 degrees Celsius (70 degrees Fahrenheit), which was completely out of the norm for Canada in September. I guess the sunshine followed us Southern Californians North for the week, and neither we, nor the Canadians were complaining.
Our first full day in Canada, we decided to explore their small town outside of Toronto, Ontario. If you’ve read fairytales then you have an idea of what this place looks like. It has spaced out, storybook houses hidden in the forest, with rural roads, surrounded by large green lawns and trees on country abodes. In California, we can see our next-door neighbor showering; here you have all the privacy in the world.
Our friend took us to a quant neighboring town called Unionville so we could try out this adorable Italian joint, Il Postino, that she loves. Upon our arrival, the sun was shining; birds were singing; I mean, what could make this anymore like your perfect childhood storybook? We walked up and were welcomed by a white picket fence and magenta flours that flourished throughout the outdoor patio. You actually felt like you time traveled and landed in Italy with the restaurants “Mom and Pop” feel, cobblestone floors and immediate Italian charm.
The weather was perfect to sit outside and enjoy the scenery with good friends, with absolutely no plan, no schedule and what felt like all the time in the world. The owner came out and greeted us bringing champagne to toast; she spoke with an Italian accent, and filled our glasses with bubbles as we sat under the trees, surrounded by the (still) budding flowers. We would cheers and drink, ordering appetizers like, beef Carpaccio, grilled calamari, spicy salami pizza, and prosciutto wrapped dates, sharing everything family style, while the boys drank Hoegardens and the gals sipped on Vueve, letting time get away from us without a worry in the world.
***September is also their Bee season, and I wish I could describe how hilarious it was swatting the bees away, while we tried to push through it, refusing to sit inside because of the gorgeous weather. We had menus flying, the girls jumping up every 5 minutes to get away from them; it should have been recorded.***
A few hours later, the restaurant was closing, as they do to take a break mid-day, however the owner wanted us to stay, inviting us to join her inside at the bar. She told us about her restaurant, about how her sons do the cooking, and it’s family ownership. While we are enjoying our final bites of our meal and listening to her story, a couple walked in asking for lunch. Very politely the owner turns them away, explaining that they close mid-day to prepare for dinner. The couple did not look enthused but the owner told us that in Europe, this is what they do. Everything closes in the middle of the day for a few hours. “You want to go spend $30,000 in Armani? They will still tell you to leave.”
We ended our lunch with a sip of grappa and thanked the owner for her stories and hospitality. It was a delight to meet her, experience her sons amazing dishes, and experience a little bit of Europe while on our travels.
We were picked up and taken back to the house that evening where we got to meet some new people and enjoy the company of those we had already met. The BBQ was fired up, and as the temperature began to drop, the outdoor fire was turned on high as the wine was poured. One thing I realized is that, in Canada, where it is typically very cold for most of the year, when they get a kiss of nice weather, they enjoy it to its fullest. No matter how cold it got at night, you could find us all lounging around the fire, wrapped up in blankets, talking about everything and anything until we finally went to sleep.
During the day, it was calm and there wasn’t too much to worry about other than enjoying the sunshine while it was out. That evening the ladies got ready, hopped in the car and were driven to Toronto while sipping wine in the back and doing what girls do best, chatting away. We were on our way to Earl’s Kitchen and Bar on King’s Street in downtown Toronto to meet the boys for happy hour before we made our way to dinner with the group. Earl’s is full of business people and we were even able to meet Michael Wekerle from Canada’s version of Shark Tank, Dragon’s Den. Earl’s is a picturesque place of big city life, it is filled with those who want to grab a drink after spending all day, hard at work, in the office.
That evening, we had reservations at the legendary restaurant, Barberian’s on Elm Street in Toronto. Barberian’s opened in 1959 by the Harry Barberian whose passion was good food, a stimulating ambiance and delicious wine and beverages to consume with your loved ones. It is a famous steakhouse that still stands in its original skin, decorated in“Canadiana”, ancient artifacts, antiques and one of a kind art pieces.
Upon entering it is dark, with narrow hallways and steep steps that lead you to the rooftop terrace; you’ve suddenly time traveled back to the 50s and can’t help but feel like you were just let into a secret place. The terrace upstairs is set in between tall buildings, and with the clouds looming overhead, the temperature dropped and the only thing on your mind is how much fun you are having. The couches provide a comfortable setting where you can sit and chat with friends, with enough legroom and no crowding to offset your evening out.
Down in the basement you will find a dining room in the middle of a wine cellar with the tallest ceilings in the entire building. It holds wood wine racks that begin at your feet and covers the entire walls to the top of the room. It’s lit by candle like lighting, and you can’t help but start reading the labels of the precious wine resting in its specific holder. This is a wine lovers dream. Here you can hold dinners, wine tastings, parties and more, and experience the full effect of Barberian’s and what his intention was for his special venue.
Thanks to our good friends we were introduced the general manager who was told about my infatuation with Fernet Branca, an “Italian digestivo made from a secret mix of herbs including myrrh, saffron, chamomile and gentian.” Surprisingly, he loved the spirit as well, and invited me over to do a “welcome” shot with him and his comrades’, and chat about intoxicants and other things.
Making our way to the table specially set up for us, we sat with friends enjoying some of the best wine you could drink and some of the best food you could eat. We laughed, had shots of Fernet Branca and Grey Goose and were simply just being; enjoying every moment. Without a care in the world time flew by, and before we knew it we were saying good by to the general manager and gracious staff. I couldn’t help but think this is exactly how Mr. Barberian would want us to experience his dining atmosphere.
Following our shenanigans at Barberian’s we thought it was a great idea to head out for the evening. Who doesn’t think it’s a great idea to go out after already being out and consuming a number of drinks (insert sarcasm here)?
We were taken to a local dive bar, The Underground Garage Saloon. When it appears along the hustle of Kings Street West, you see a black door with white light coming through. You walk in the door and up the small set of stairs and see the room open up with a bar on the right, dance floor in the back and ceiling covered in women’s bras of all colors, shapes and sizes. Where did we go? At that point I’m sure I was asking myself if I should take my bra off, too. Turns out this is a famous bar in the downtown area that gets busy late night and stays packed till the city forces you to make last call. Our friends new the bartender so we ordered a few more (unnecessary) drinks and chatted with him for a bit before realizing the time and that we still had an hour drive.
Ps: Don’t show up at 10pm like we did. Things don’t get going until 11:30-Midnight
With the power of the city, you don’t realize the time of day, only the people surrounding you and the energy they hold. Making the more wise decision we said our thank yous’ and good-bye’s, hopped in the car and headed home for some much needed sleep.
Our “exploring Toronto” day. We did it right with a driver, who knew the city like the back of his hand, and who we got to know pretty well. At first, he was very proper and knew he was working, but by the end we got him to loosen up a bit and laugh along with us.
We started in The Distillery Historic District, which is rich in history, going back to 1837 when The Gooderham and Worts Distillery began operation by European Immigrants.
Fun Fact: The Distillery District has the best-preserved Victorian Industrial Architecture in North America
***The story behind The Distillery Historic District began in 1831 when James Worts immigrated to Canada, followed by fifty-four others from his family including his brother-in-law, William Gooderham–who later would partner with Worts and start the Distillery–their two families, servants and eleven orphans. Together, Mr. Worts and Gooderham invested their money into starting a milling business, creating the Gooderham and Worts partnership. Tragedy struck when Worts’ wife died during childbirth two years later, leaving James Worts so full of grief, that he took his own life that same day, by throwing himself into the company well.
His business partner, Gooderham continued to build their business, and eventually partnered with James Worts eldest son, Junior, creating the Distillery. Their business thrived throughout the next 30 years, and allowed them to redesign their Distillery investing $200,000 into the building, which is said to be the most important contribution to Toronto’s Manufacturing interests. In 1869, a fire destroyed the interior of the building, however left the exterior intact, allowing them to reconstruct the building costing them an additional $100,000. Although this setback did not hinder their output, by 1871 their whiskey and spirits production was up to 2.1 million gallons, almost half of the total spirits production in all of Ontario!
The two business partners died within a year of each other leaving Gooderham’s son, George, to inherit the distillery. However with World War I and Prohibition not helping the manufacturing of The Distillery, Gooderham did not get to see the business profit while in his hands. As the business declined, Gooderham sold the business to new ownership in 1923, and more than sixty years later, after 153 years in operation, The Distillery closed for good. After it’s closing, because of its Victorian charm, it became the number 1 film location in Canada and the second largest area for filming outside of Hollywowod.***
Fun Fact: Over 1,700 films have used the site.
Now, as you walk down the brick roads of The Distillery District you feel a little bit of the history move through you. As one of Canada’s top tourist attractions you can find some of the best designer boutiques, antique shops, great coffee and ice cream joints, and a great tourist picture attraction, the love lock wall similar to the love lock bridge in Paris. After wandering around this area, taking pictures, drinking espresso and learning a little bit of Canada’s history, we made our way to Queens Street West were we stopped at the Drake Hotel for some cocktails on the rooftop and celebrity siting’s.
Before coming to Toronto, I didn’t know what to expect. Would it be like all of the other big cities I have lived in or visited? How do Canadians dress? Do they really say, “eh?” after every sentence? Something fun I found out is that Toronto is also considered, Old York- the original York in North America. They were the original Wall Street, the original hustle and bustle, and the original concrete jungle. When I arrived, it all made sense. Their fashion is big city fashion, with their own Canadian details. A lot of them speak French as their second language; just like us American’s speak Spanish as our second. Their road signs are in French and English and they do things in Kilometers; they drive on the same side of the car and same side of the road as us, and yes, they do say “eh” quite often and you can’t help but love their charm.
After a day of driving all over Toronto, seeing where the Maple Leaf’s and Blue Jay’s play, learning that their liquor pours are half the size of American’s liquor pours (we were ordering doubles), seeing the Artsy part of town known as Queens Street West, and learning a little history from The Distillery District, we finally headed back to home base.
The day of the Annual Fall Party had arrived! The boys lifted kegs and of course drank beer while the girls decorated and carved pumpkins. The huge white tent was assembled the day before to get ready for the famous Canadian rock band from the 80’s, Platinum Blonde, who were going to be performing that evening at the house.
People started arriving, and Platinum Blonde took the stage. The backyard was filled from fence to fence with people, laughing, mingling, drinking and enjoying themselves. One thing is for sure, Canadians know how to have a good time, and they are some of the most relaxed and welcoming kind of people around.
Of course, the party wouldn’t be a party without at least one person streaking, which definitely happened and I happen to know him pretty well. Needless to say it was one of those hilarious moments that will be talked about for years at every gathering we have.
The night ended with taking shots with the band, which totally made you feel like a rock star for a split second, and people conversing around the fire. No matter how low the temperature got, the party did not want to stop. I snuck downstairs around 2 am, and put myself to bed while the majority of stragglers stayed awake until the early hours of the morning.
Saturday was a day to sleep in, drink lots of water, and remain sedentary. We obviously had a lot of fun at the party. Green juices and laziness were all that consumed us. Oh, and I got to drive a Bentley. No Big Deal.
One of our friends flew back to California early, but the rest of us were just not ready to call it quits. We decided to be ultra tourist-y and headed to Niagra Falls to see what the hype was all about. When we got there, we understood. It was about a 2 hour drive out, and along the way there are plenty of wineries and vineyards if you wanted to make a pit stop. If you do have the time to do some wine tasting, I suggest you try some of the famous Canadian ice wine, which is used a lot for not only drinking but cooking as well. After driving the couple hours to get there, it probably took us 15 minutes to take in Niagra Falls from the Canadian side, which is the side to be on if you really want to experience the falls. You can see all 3 waterfalls and have a perfect view of the tourist toting boats going into the mist as the falls crash down above them; it’s a gorgeous site. Waving “bye” to America we got into our car and drove to Downtown Niagra to grab a bite to eat before we headed back.
Our friends took us to the gorgeous private Magna Golf Club for dinner in their quiet clubhouse. The interior of the clubhouse was made of shining wood, with dim lighting and white table clothes. The manager and staff were dressed to the nines in their perfectly pressed suits and uniforms. The walls seem to sparkle with glass and barware as we grabbed a drink and headed to the outside terrace to watch the sunset.
It was a perfect picture; multi colored leaves were floating to the ground, there was a sharp chill in the air that reminded us how lucky we were to have the sunshine with us that entire week. The sunset that evening was remarkable, looking more like an oil painting rather than the actual beauty that it was. While sitting at dinner, Chris asked our friend if he had ever had foie gras. With a smirk and a bit of sarcasm in his voice he replied, “Have I ever had foie gras?” What unfolded from that question I still can’t believe happened.
The following day we were on a flight to Montreal. A quick hour hop over, the champagne was poured and I couldn’t wait to see what this magic, European-like city was all about. We landed and were picked up in a Rolls-Royce, the first one I had ever been that close to let alone been driven in. It was much colder in Montreal than in Toronto, as soon as you stepped outside your nose turned red and the wind was like ice.
We were dropped off at a boutique hotel called Hotel Nelligan, running in the doors to get warm. “Bonjour Madame,” the concierge called out to me and without even thinking I respond, “Bonjour!” with a little too much excitement in my voice. I didn’t even know I knew that word in French.
We went upstairs to change for the evening and came back down to walk along the cobblestone sidewalks and make way to a charming French hipster bar for pre dinner cocktails. It was a Monday, so a lot wasn’t open, nor were many places busy- but it was perfect for us to enjoy our last night with our amazing friends who generously took their time to show us what Canada was all about.
On our way to dinner we made a short stop for fresh oysters and white wine, and to take a quick break from the frigid air. The waiters spoke in French and before I knew it was saying things like “Merci Beaucoup”, trying to understand them and learn a little bit of their culture.
We made it to dinner at a restaurant called Bremner and were joined by a few additions to enjoy this amazing meal in this underground restaurant. Walking along the streets, places are not marked by signs and you would walk right past an amazing “hidden” treasure if you weren’t looking out for it. That was how our dining venue was; you had to walk down a flight of stairs from the street to get in.
Once again, we had an amazing dinner with some of the most amazing people we will ever meet. Following our meal we walked back to the hotel, looking through the windows of the galleries admiring the art that was being showcased to the streets.
Although Montreal happened in a whirlwind, the experience was something I will never be able to forget.
Flying home on Canada Air was a bit of a sad farewell. Saying good bye to our friends and Canada was bitter-sweet knowing we would be seeing them soon, but leaving this amazing place they call home. For my first time out of the country, this trip felt like a dream, and I’m not even sure my next trip out of the country would be able to top how much fun we had and the one of a kind experience I will forever be thankful for.
Flying home, I leaned over to Chris and asked, “Can we ask the pilot to fly higher?”