- May 13 • 11 months ago
NetRefer’s Cultural Traveller – Jon & Erik Take Us to the Roads Less Travelled in Ontario, Canada
Jon and Erik Backman have teamed up for our ninth edition of the Cultural Traveller. The brothers are NetRefer veterans. Jon is the Videographer in the Marketing Department, while Erik is a member on the Solutions Consultant Team (even though he’s a very familiar face in Marketing as well). The two hail from Ontario, Canada, but they have Maltese roots as well. Now, they are back on the island to reacquaint themselves with these roots. And today, they’ve sat down with us and brought with them their fun-loving attitudes and humour to take us on a tour of Ontario, Canada.
Ontario is mainly known for Toronto and for Niagara Falls, but there’s certainly much more to discover here. Its cosmopolitan multicultural atmosphere attracts both visitors and immigrants from all over the world. And while areas like Toronto are highly urbanised, it pales in comparison to the pristine and rustic natural landscapes and wildlife. Travellers looking to bask in the international cultural atmosphere, while trying all the foods and flavours are in for a treat. The same goes for those with a love for winter sports or who want to experience a truly White Christmas. And those who want to get away from it all and experience natural scenery in its fullest form need look nowhere else. Join Jon and Erik this May as they take us on a trip to the Canadian region of Ontario!
1. What makes Ontario unique?
The people because it’s very diverse. Many immigrants coming to Canada come through Ontario. As a result, about 25 percent of people in Ontario were born outside of Canada and there’s a wide spectrum of languages spoken other than English.
Apart from being a multicultural cosmopolitan centre, it also has plenty of hidden natural retreats. So, on one hand, you have a large-scale city and on the other, several natural landscapes and conservation areas off the beaten track. This creates a very pleasant and comfortable balance. When you go out in the countryside – to the farms or what have you – you’ll get an authentic and more rustic Canadian experience.
Ontario tends to get labelled poorly by other Canadians – especially people from British Columbia. There’s this stigma that most people from Ontario are pretentious or pompous. But the truth is, British Columbia has many hippies, which are on the opposite end of the spectrum; this explains the extremely skewed opinion. A good comparison is to look at British Columbia as the Canadian equivalent of California while Toronto being the equivalent of New York.
2. What are must-visit cities and towns?
Toronto, simply because it’s the main city. That’s where you’ll find interesting architecture like the CN Tower and major events like sport ones, as well as many spots to hang out during the day or at night. The food culture is also extremely diverse here, so you can savour any of the types of ethnic cuisines representative of the diverse communities. Likewise, you can find a lot in the way of art galleries, live performances, and other places for cultural experiences.
Then, Niagara Falls, including the city on the lake, which has some beautiful landscapes such as vineyards. The Canadian side of Niagara Falls is generally considered the better side – it features more activities and has some great views. This part of Ontario attracts many travellers and caters for them with hotels, a varied culinary experience, play spots, music events, and a lot of nature walks to explore.
Muskoka is a popular destination for travellers who want to experience the rough beauty of Ontario’s natural landscapes in their full splendour. Its abundance of lakes and forests are home to a rich wildlife, something outdoor lovers flock there for. The towns add a very attractive touch, with their stylistic cottages.
Ottawa – the nation’s capital, which borders the French district, Montreal, as well – is one more destination to add to your itinerary when you’re in Ontario. It’s a cultural and political centre, offering visitors a slice of cosmopolitan life and culturally rich experiences thanks to museums, galleries, etc. It also features the largest skating rink in the world.
3. What are staple historical sites any visitor should see in Ontario? How about ones off the beaten track?
When visiting Ottawa, you can visit the parliament building, museums and other historical sites.
Since Canada hasn’t really been involved in any wars, there is no remnant heritage from any war. The closest thing to a war happened in 1812, when British troops in Canada prior to it being consolidated into a country burnt down The Whitehouse.
For a more authentic and traditional experience, travelling up north in Ontario, you can experience native heritage in various forms at native reserves, lodges, and more.
There are a lot of forts as well. One of the most famous ones is Dundurn Castle in Hamilton, known humorously as ‘The Dirty Hammer’. Hamilton also features Stratford – a theatre town, famous for its Stratford Shakespeare Festival, among others.
4. If you were an outdoors/trekking type of person, where would you go?
The ratio of natural landscape versus built land is massively disproportionate in favour of natural scenery. Due to this, Ontario is brimming with conservation areas, long hiking trails, camping areas, fresh water lakes, and many more natural landscapes, providing the perfect getaways for outdoor lovers.
Apart from Niagara Falls offering some of the most breathtaking sites in all of Canada, hiking trails such as The Elora Cataract are popular. For some more natural variety, there are Agate Island Beach, Scarborough Bluffs, Bon Echo Provincial Park, Oimet Canyon, Bruce Peninsula National Park, Long Point Beach, Algonquin Provincial Park, and many more.
Wildlife is fully regulated in Canada. So, for instance, you’ll know when it’s bear season and therefore, you should avoid going trekking or camping at that time of the year.
5. If someone’s a foodie, any particular types of food or drink you’d recommend and spots to try them out? How about if you’re a sweet tooth?
The most famous cocktail to come out of Ontario is the Caeser – a Bloody Mary that uses clamato instead of normal tomato juice. It’s an upgrade from the conventional Bloody Mary.
Poutine is a typical snack. It’s basically French fries with beef gravy and cheese curds. Nowadays, you’ll also find several variations. Two of the most popular franchises known for the poutine are Pierre’s Poutine and the slightly more up street Smoke’s Poutinerie (note that poutine is not exclusive nor was it invented in Ontario; it’s Canadian and was invented in Quebec).
A favourite dessert is beaver tail. It’s a whole wheat fried dough (similar to a doughnut) and stretched into the shape of a beaver’s tail. It can be topped with anything from the classic combination of sugar and cinnamon to whipped cream, Nutella, strawberry cheesecake, among others.
Butter tarts are another tasty sweet, this time, made of a flaky pastry shaped like a wide cup and filled with a butter and sugar-based custard filling – similar to egg tarts.
Dairy Queen is a famous fast food chain store that serves burgers, chicken baskets, and more. However, it’s mostly famous for its desserts, especially their selection of ‘Blizzard’ ice cream treats.
Harvey’s is a popular burger joint, which also originated in Canada. The great thing about this place is that you can custom-build your own burger.
Tim Hortons is the most famous franchise for donuts. They serve a wide assortment of them. And this means that it’s not just the topping that’s different; the donuts themselves come in different shapes, sizes, and flavours, and they’re cooked differently, using different ingredients.
While being very widespread, ketchup chips are a Canadian invention, and it remains to date, a Canadian favourite snack. Originating in the 70s, thanks to the brand Hostess (now Lays), several snack brands have put out on the market their take on this comfort food classic since.
You can go to a cabin up north for a maple syrup experience. They pull bark off the tree and sap trickles out. Then, they take this and process it into maple syrup. If you go there in the cold season, you can also try maple syrup-sicles. They pour maple syrup into holes the snow and put popsicle sticks in them. After they freeze, they’re ready to be consumed.
Due to the ethnic diversity in the region, you can find all sorts of traditional cuisines all in one area. There are quite a few Jamaican and Indian restaurants serving tasty dishes.
6. What are the best places for winter sports?
Almost anywhere. There are skating rinks in almost any park and homemade hockey rinks in people’s backyards. Many kids grow up with ice hockey from a young age.
If you’re looking to go skiing and snowboarding, then, places like Caledon and Blue Mountain are great choices. The latter is famous for its lodge town.
Curling is also a popular winter sport. You can look around for clubs as they’re quite common.
Due to the amount of snow that covers the land during winter (and even longer), it’s also very common for people to have snowmobiles, and going for a ride is a really fun activity, especially when done in company.
7. If you want to go on an art/cultural tour, what are some good spots to visit?
The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) is Toronto’s largest museum. They house a collection of around 13 million cultural artefacts, artworks, as well as historical and natural specimens in their building consisting of 40 galleries. You’ll find pieces on display from most countries and regions as well as from different historical periods.
The Art Gallery of Ontario, also located in Toronto, is very different from the ROM in that it holds exhibitions for contemporary artists specialised in different forms of expression to showcase their work to the public.
Stratford is known for its theatre festival, previously named Stratford Shakespearean Festival. This is held from April through October every year. During this time, you can watch any of a long list of stage performances.
8. Is there a good public transport infrastructure? What is the best way to get around town?
While city buses and cabs seem reliable at first glance, there’s always a problem with traffic. So, going on foot or taking a subway are smarter choices if you’re travelling within the city.
If you’re outside the city, you’ll need a car to get around. Accessing the city from outside is troublesome on public holidays or during rush hour due to the high volume of traffic, especially on the main highways.
Public transport is only regional in Canada. This means that transport only functions within specifically designated areas. There’s no real infrastructure for trans-regional public transport; and instead, you’d need to get on a coach bus or a train. Alternatively, you can rent a cab or take a car.
9. What are the best seasons to visit Ontario? And does it change a lot from one season to another?
The best seasons are highly subjective. If you’re going there purely for the weather, summer is a good season. But if you’re going there for a particular flavour, then any other season is good, depending on what you’re looking for.
For instance, if you want to see the leaves turning, you need to visit in autumn/fall. Also, fall is great for specific activities like picking apples and pumpkins from pumpkin patches.
If you want to see snow, you want a white Christmas or you’re into winter sports, then winter is a no-brainer. But it’s good to bear in mind that it gets extremely cold, so as idyllic as a White Christmas may sound, it’s really not for everyone.
Spring is probably the least popular season because it rains frequently, and the ground is always covered in muck. And, flowers really start blooming closer to summer.
11. Is it acceptable to haggle or is it considered rude?
It’s not in the culture to haggle at stores and major shopping points, but you could get away with cutting down the price at unofficial places and events like garage sales or markets, such as flea markets, trunk markets, etc.
12. What kind of nightlife can visitors enjoy? Any locales you’d recommend for that?
Toronto is the cosmopolitan centre of Ontario, with a young population always on the lookout for the best and most vibrant hangouts to enjoy nightlife. There’s an overwhelming choice of pubs, bars, nightclubs and discotheques to choose from, gathered in specific neighbourhoods. And, if you prefer quieter nights out, you can choose from an equally impressive list of restaurants with particular décor serving all sorts of international dishes. Some of the most prominent locations include King West, Queen West, Parkdale, The Annex, and Dundas Street West, among several others.
Once again, Niagara Falls is a top destination for nightlife revellers to flock to and have fun. It caters for night revellers since there’s a wealth of nightlife spots like clubs, casinos, bars, etc.
13. What activities do you recommend for people travelling with kids?
There are several amusement parks. Canada’s Wonderland is the biggest one. There’s also the Great Wolf Lodge – an indoor waterpark at Niagara Falls. Another way to keep children entertained is by taking them to arcades and toy stores in the area.
14. How easy is it to make friends with the locals?
The consensus that Canadians tend to be friendly is not a mere cliché – according to many people travelling there, it’s true. The general friendliness of the country and its progressive openness to different cultures and lifestyles is a contributing factor to such a high influx of immigrants from all over the globe choosing to make it their new home. And, people on the street are willing to give you a hand when they see you in difficulty.
If you want to get to know people, the best way is to take a shotgun approach and have some knowledge about the most popular topics. In this case, if you know your beer and hockey, you can start a chat with almost anybody instantly. And by beer, you should really know what the good kinds are. So, doing a little research prior to going there will take you a long way.
15. How safe is Ontario? And are there any specific areas to look for hotels and ones to avoid?
By comparison, most of Canada is very safe. Perhaps, if you’re a woman walking alone late at night, you might want to carry pepper spray, but that’s just about it. That said, you should be taking general safety precautions no matter where you’re visiting. For instance, don’t walk through back alleyways late at night.
There are some areas such as intersections where there’s gang activity (such as Keel and Finch), especially in the larger cities. All in all, there is some crime activity, but then, you can go to quite a few towns where it’s so safe that people leave their front doors unlocked. And you’ll never hear of people being mugged at gun point at the mall or in other such public areas.
16. Where can tourists go for shopping? And what kind of things can they shop for?
Outlet centres are very popular. Old stock and rejects tend to find their way there eventually. So, for instance, all Nike stores will send their old stock there and have their prices slashed.
Then, just as you’d expect to find in North America, there are several giant shopping malls spread out over multiple levels. Most of these are one-stop-shops since you can get anything from groceries to furniture, clothes, electronics, baby supplies, and more. Shopping is convenient and easy.
It got even easier and more convenient due to Amazon warehouses being located in Canada. Many locals use Amazon for online shopping because they can expect to get next-day shipping most of the time, and even same-day shipping sometimes.
17. What are some less mainstream souvenirs travellers should look for?
If you’re a sweet tooth looking for souvenirs to take back home with you, you can get things like maple candies and fudge, or even just authentic maple syrup itself.
Dreamcatchers, aboriginal art and other artefacts such as wood carvings and sculptures from the native side as well as other native-specific artefacts are great traditional gifts.
And for anyone who like dessert wines, Ontario has some of the best ice wines in the country.
18. What would you recommend to tourists who want to take boat rides/tours around the city?
Maiden of the Mist is a boat ride that takes you the closest you can get to the Niagara Falls – so close that you’ll feel the spray of the waterfall on yourself. Before departing, you’ll be given a raincoat to wear during the ride. Meanwhile, Toronto Harbour and Toronto Island also have their share of cruises.
19. What extreme sports can you try in Ontario?
Skateboarding, snowboarding, parkour, and ultimate frisbee are some of the most practiced extreme sports in Ontario, as well as in the rest of Canada. There are many more, and you can easily find places that cater for all sorts of activities, even more so if you’re into extreme winter sports.
20. What is the national sport? And when and where can visitors go to watch pro level matches?
Ice hockey is the national sport but lacrosse is specific to Ontario. Hockey is so widespread that you can find casual and amateur-level games anywhere you go. Then, if you want to watch professional level games, you’ll need to go to the arena and get tickets. Scotiabank Arena is a multipurpose arena and also the biggest in the area. Toronto’s official ice hockey team is called the Toronto Maple Leafs.
21. Canada has just introduced new regulatory laws for iGaming. What are some ways you believe this will impact Ontario (new business opportunities, new initiatives in sports, etc.)?
One change that has come into place is that regulations have gone from being federal and applied across the country to a more regional approach, where each area has their own iGaming rules and regulations.
22. What are some festivals or concerts to look out for? How about local feasts?
Major festivals like Boots and Hearts are all-weekend country music festivals. Then, around the same time, there’s Veld – a massive rave party featuring several famous DJs. It’s held outside.
Then, on a more traditional note, you can witness the Chinese New Year, Swedish Christmas, Eid, and more, yet another vivid portrayal of the ethnic communities which contribute to the cultural variety of Ontario. Every religion and ethnic groups is strongly represented. Caribana is one to look out for – a Jamaican street festival, where people dress up in their traditional costumes and celebrate by dancing and drinking. Then, there’s also Pride, which is also a big celebration.
Join the colourful, diverse team that is NetRefer. Meet other Cultural Travellers, share your experiences and make many more memorable ones. You belong here!
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