Saturday, May 14, 2016

Niagara Falls and Toronto, Canada; A Road trip

As some of you may know, I graduated from Virginia Tech in December with my bachelor’s degree in Computer Science (along with minors in Math and Geography). In February, I began a full-time job working for a company in the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center here in Blacksburg as a software engineer.

I had a roughly two month long break between graduation and starting work, and, besides working on a list of things I needed to accomplish before I stepped into the working world, I decided I wanted to take some type of road trip. My original thought was that I would probably never have this much continuous time off after starting work, and should take advantage of it. Having never driven farther west than the middle of Kentucky, I was initially considering the center of the contiguous US (located in Kansas) as a destination, or perhaps beyond that to Pikes Peak, in Colorado. I also considered the Florida Keys, in order to visit the southernmost point in the contiguous US. However, due to a variety of reasons (including time quickly running out to plan and execute the trip), I settled on a four day trip to Niagara Falls with a visit to Toronto, Canada thrown in.

I left on a Friday morning and began the roughly nine hour drive to the American side of Niagara Falls. A couple of hours in, I made a pit stop at the New River Gorge Bridge. I hadn’t realized that my route would take me over the bridge, and I made a spur of the moment decision to stop and look around. After all, this was an adventure. I wasn’t in a hurry! I enjoyed reading about the engineering that went into the bridge, looking at their 3D map of the gorge, and watching a short film on the construction of the bridge (yes, I’m a nerd).

New River Gorge Bridge
Due to a few complications with the winter weather (another story for another time), the rest of the trip to New York took me longer than expected, and I ended up arriving at my hotel around midnight that night. That first night, I stayed in the Aashram Hotel by Niagara River, a few miles away from the falls in Niagara Falls, NY. It was a nice, clean hotel, although the strong smell of curry was a little overwhelming at first.

The next morning, I got up early and did my best to plan my day in Toronto. I then packed up and drove over the Rainbow Bridge border crossing into Canada. The Canadian border crossing guard seemed slightly suspicious that a guy from Virginia would be going to Toronto for one day, by himself, as a tourist. However, after looking at my passport, she let me through. Before driving the hour or so to Toronto, I stopped to see the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.

Horseshoe Falls

Double rainbow and Rainbow Bridge
Next, I had my first substantial driving experience outside of the United States, taking Queen Elizabeth Way from Niagara Falls to Toronto. The trip was (thankfully) uneventful. The only main difference with driving in Canada was adjusting to speed limits posted in kilometers per hour. On this drive, I also glimpsed Lake Ontario for the first time. It was the first time in my life that I had ever seen a body of water meet the horizon that wasn’t the ocean. I guess a sense of scale is hard to get until you see some things for yourself.

I arrived at the Kipling Toronto Rapid Transit station around lunchtime and ate a lunch I had packed before beginning my adventure in Toronto. When I went to purchase my day pass, however, I made an unfortunate discovery. Despite having called my card company and asking them to remove the international blocks on my card (which they had assured me had been done), something had gone wrong, because my card was repeatedly declined. At that point, despite all my preparations to avoid turning into a stereotype, I was the dumb American tourist paying for his TRT day pass with American dollars. However, the Canadian man helping me was not grumpy about it, so that was good. Lesson learned: check and double-check your payment options (and have multiple available).

My first stop was High Park, on the outskirts of Toronto. I again exposed my tourist sensibilities by exiting on the wrong side of the transit station into the middle of a (quaint) residential neighborhood, and then trying to go back through the (gated) entrance to get to the other side. Thankfully an elderly lady (who apparently didn’t speak English) pointed me around the station to my destination. Once in High Park, I watched people skate at a public ice skating rink before looking unsuccessfully for a few geocaches and falling in the mud going down a hill. I had considered walking to the zoo that was located on the far end of the park, but, taking into account the time of day, I decided to continue on towards the center of the city.

Old and New
My next stop was St. George Station, near the University of Toronto. I spent some time exploring the campus, including checking out the library (they had a floor dedicated to maps!) and finding a few geocaches - including a particularly cool one. It was kind of weird seeing a university stuck in the middle of a big city, and one thing I thought was really interesting was the way they had built some of the large, modern university buildings around some of the existing older structures. It was at this point that Google Offline Maps became particularly useful. I had saved the entire Toronto map area to my device before leaving the hotel that morning, which enabled me to see my current location, search for destinations, and get directions within the map area - all without internet.

My next destination was the CN Tower, so I jumped on the subway at Queen’s Park and rode to St. Andrew Station. From there I walked down to the base of the tower and the waterfront. Apparently there was a basketball game that night at the Air Canada Center, and I waded through swarms of people headed that direction and past many people scalping tickets. At this point, I also began to notice many people with an interesting looking patch on their coats. It had the words “Canada Goose, Arctic Program” around the edge of the patch. As I discovered after doing some Googling later, these jackets are made by a company called “Canada Goose” (go figure) and retail for between $600 and $1275 CAD. This gave new meaning to the phrase “Arctic luxury apparel.” Never fear, though. An enterprising college student started a Kickstarter campaign to launch a similar “America Duck” patch, costing $8 apiece.

I came to Toronto to go to the Apple store.
Finally, I went to the Toronto Eaton Centre to visit the Apple Store. Yes, I know I’m a nerd. See many of the previous paragraphs. The area I walked through on the way to the mall was definitely much higher class than any of the places in the city I had been in previously. It was filled with fancy restaurants and shops - a much different life than what I’m used to. At one point, I watched a lady leave a hairdresser and walk a block or two back to her high-rise apartment building. I had the realization that, depending on where her workplace is, that lady may live the large majority of her life inside of a couple of city blocks. Everything she needs is probably accessible right there. Definitely a completely different life.

After leaving the Eaton Centre, I walked through a small part of the PATH system, and looked for a few other places that I had considered visiting (the international market and the Toronto Public Library), but eventually decided to call it a night. I jumped on the subway at Dundas, transferred at Bloor-Yonge, and rode back out to where I was parked at Kipling Station. From there, I drove back to my hotel for the night, which was on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. This hotel (Glengate Hotel and Suites) was a little sketchier than the one the night before, but I was exhausted from walking all around Toronto and was just thankful to have a bed.

The next morning, I got up early in order to cross the border back into the United States and go to church in Buffalo, NY. Again, the border guards had lots of questions (apparently it’s unusual for a person to drive by themselves to Canada from Virginia for only a day), but eventually let me through. My only regret in leaving Canada early that morning was not having the opportunity to purchase any souvenirs with the Canadian flag on them. That’s not really something that’s sold on the American side of the falls, and I do like the design of the Canadian flag.

The church I chose to attend that morning was called The Chapel at CrossPoint. I have volunteered as an audio/video/lighting technician at churches I have attended for a little over ten years, so I always enjoy the opportunity to see how other churches are using technology as part of their worship services. This church was quite big, and, although they had many production elements in their service, I thought they did a good job of showing restraint and using those elements to add to the service and avoiding distraction. I also appreciated that the message was clearly focused on Jesus Christ as the only thing worth placing our hope in (Luke 14:15-34).

The Chapel
The Chapel is a multisite church that broadcasts their services live to several other campuses around Buffalo. One really interesting element of their production was the fact that the live band was split across both the main auditorium and the overflow room on the main campus. Video shots were mixed from both rooms for IMAG, and the audio from both rooms was combined. They also had a camera crane on stage, which may have been a bit much, but I enjoyed it.

After church, I stopped at Chipotle for lunch and then went to Trader Joe’s to do some shopping. While I was living in NoVA during the summer of 2014, the couple I was staying with bought me some delicious cinnamon raisin bread from Trader Joe’s. Since the closest Trader Joe’s from where I live is normally a couple hours away in North Carolina, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get another loaf of this bread. I also picked up some delicious chocolate covered raisins as well.

Next, I drove back to the American side of the falls, and went ahead and checked into my hotel for that evening (Quality Hotel and Suites at the Falls, which included free parking - critical anywhere within walking distance of the falls). I spent the next couple of hours walking the several miles of shoreline on the American side of the falls, checking out the different views. I can confirm that, in general, the views from the Canadian side are better than the ones on the American side (especially of Horseshoe Falls) However, because it was the offseason, there were very few people jockeying for the best viewing positions, and I got to spend as much time as I wanted looking around. I also got to go out on the observation tower for free (which there is usually a fee for). One downside, though, was that there were several overlooks closed because they were snowed and iced over.

I had several other things on the American side of the falls that I had considered doing, but, by that time, I was exhausted from all of my walking - combining the miles from that afternoon and the day before, in Toronto. So I went back to my hotel room to relax, and eventually decided to go to Denny’s for dinner. The waiter was overly friendly (I think he felt bad for me sitting by myself), but I still enjoyed my meal. After dinner, I took a dip in the hotel pool and hot tub, which I had entirely to myself for the hour or so I was there. Again, there are advantages to visiting in the off-season.

Finally, I decided to go see a movie at the local Regal cinema. As I drove to the theater, I noticed again how dead everything was. This is definitely a tourist town, built for a huge influx of summer visitors. It was one of the weirdest experiences I’ve had watching a movie. I picked Kung Fu Panda 3, and was literally the only person in my theater. When I came out, they had roped off the main hallway, guiding me towards one of the side exits. Everything was dark, and my car was one of only a few in the huge parking lot when I came out. I didn’t see another human being from the time I entered my theater until I passed someone on the way back to my hotel. An apocalypse could have happened and I would have never have known the difference. In fact, driving through the deserted, industrial streets on the way back, it wasn’t hard to imagine that it had happened!

I slept late the next morning and then began my long drive home to Virginia. The trip home was much less eventful than the trip to New York, but I did make a stop in Pennsylvania to pick up my first geocache in that state. This one was behind a restaurant called The Dutch Pantry.

All in all, it was a good trip and I enjoyed it quite a bit.