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We’ve been in Canada for a month. A whole month. Already! I figured it was about time I updated you about what we’ve been up to in our first month and what’s coming next.
(This acts more as a reminder for me about what we’ve done – but I thought some of you may find it interesting too!)
Oh, and if you’re interested to know how much it costs to spend a month travelling Eastern Canada then make sure you check back in a few days for an update on what we’ve spent and where.
Spending our first week in Toronto
We spent our first week in Toronto staying at an Airbnb in the Parkdale area with another couple. Parkdale is an area slightly out of downtown Toronto near the water front. We had the best view of the lake from the front room and we were only about 20 minutes on the tram from downtown so it was pretty perfectly located.
Despite being told it was the warmest winter in decades, we both found it extremely cold in Toronto. The wind was icy and our coats just weren’t up to the job! We’d set aside some money to buy new clothes once we’d reached Canada and ended up both getting new boots and coats. I’m so glad we did!
We made the most of our attractions passports kindly given to us by Toronto Tourism and visited plenty of museums. We took a trip to the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Royal Ontario Museum and even a Shoe Museum!
Besides the museums and shopping we also explored other districts of the city. Kensington Market turned out to be a really cool area full of independent shops and cafes and tonnes of street art. St Lawrence is worth visiting for the market alone and the Distillery District had a very cool light festival going on.
On the more boring end of things was admin. We had to get hold of a Canadian SIM Card, open a bank account so that we could buy a car later on, and get hold of our SIN numbers (a bit like National Insurance Numbers that allow you to work).
In terms of SIM Cards we went with Virgin on a data only sim: 5GB for $50. That sounds a fortune and compared to the UK it is, but for Canada that’s a pretty good deal. Thom successfully opened a bank account and he also managed to get his SIN number. Mine however was blocked meaning I’ve got to wait for a few more weeks – typical!
Off to Ottawa
Our first week in Toronto flew by then it was off to Ottawa! We booked a Greyhound bus and 4.5 hours later we’d arrived in a very snowy Ottawa.
For a capital city, Ottawa is pretty small. There aren’t really any big skyscrapers, and it seemed very calm and quiet when we first arrived.
Ottawa was also our first experience of couch surfing. If you’ve never tried couch surfing before, it’s basically the original Airbnb AND it’s free. You sign up, message some people in the town’s you’re going to and either arrange to stay on their couch or in some places they have a spare room. We stayed with a lovely Australian couple who’ve been in Ottawa for almost two decades and had a great first experience of couch surfing – we’re definitely looking to do it again at some point!
In Ottawa we visited Canada’s Houses of Parliament, explore the ice sculptures as part of the city’s Winterlude, and ice skated (badly) on the world’s longest ice skating rink: The Rideau Canal. We also picked up some pretty cheap tickets to see the local ice hockey team, Ottawa Senators, play. They lost badly but we still had a great time which is all that matters, right?
Ottawa Tourism hooked us up with dinner at some lovely restaurants too. We ate dinner at Sidedoor, a funky restaurant combining Mexican and Asian food, and Social a restaurant serving up some Canadian classics.
A skiing weekend via two nights in Montreal
Montreal isn’t far from Ottawa at all so it was just a quick Greyhound until we arrive. We’d booked a couple of nights in a hostel, and then a cheaper hotel, to tide us over before our skiing weekend near Quebec City.
After almost stacking it on the very icy streets of Montreal several times, we left our bags and went out in search of poutine. Not sure what poutine is? I’ve explained it all here.
I’ve been dragging my skis and boots with me everywhere. I bought the skis for just €70 when I was living in France and as I have then I can’t bear to part with money to rent skis. We weren’t sure whether we’d get any skiing in this season but, just before we left Toronto, we found somewhere to go. The resort we’d chosen was Stoneham, which is just north of Quebec City. It’s pretty small but has plenty to ski for a weekend and isn’t too expensive either.
We (accidentally) timed our skiing weekend with the Jamboree. The Jamboree is a skiing competition normally held in Montreal but this year it was back in Quebec City. From what I understand, it was a pretty big deal.
The Jamboree featured the world cup finals in the Big Air and Freestyle skiing and snowboarding. The finals in the Big Air Event were held in Quebec City itself where a massive jump had been set up over one of the junctions. This was then followed by Igloo Fest which is an outdoor music festival. They have versions of Igloo Fest in several Canadian cities during winter and the one in Quebec City was completely free!
Despite the freezing cold (-20 degrees Celsius is no joke!) during Igloo Fest and the Big Air Event, we had a fantastic time. Keeping warm meant wearing three pairs of trousers, two pairs of gloves, 6 layers up top a hat and scarf. Fortunately, Time Horton’s were there handing out a much appreciated free hot chocolates and there were a few open wood fires to warm ourselves back up on. We even out lasted our Quebecois Airbnb hosts who had gone to a pub nearby due to the cold!
After our weekend of skiing we had Monday morning to explore Quebec City and what a winter wonderland it was! Everything was blanketed in snow and Christmas decorations were left up too.
Side note. This was probably one of the strangest Airbnb experiences we’ve had so far. And we’ve used Airbnb a lot.
It started off great, our host picked us up from the bus station in Quebec City and drove us out to her place in Stoneham. The apartment was small but just a few minutes walk from the slopes. We could see the slopes from their window!
Our hosts gave us their season passes so we could go night skiing for free, and got Thom a discount on renting his skis too. They offered us beers and then all piled into the car and headed to the supermarket to cook a group dinner – a meaty fondue which they prepared while we skied. All good so far!
We then had the Saturday to ourselves for skiing while they went off to another resort in hunt of powder. In the evening they returned and we all drove back in to Quebec City for the Big Air finals and Igloo Fest as mentioned above. At the end of the evening we met them in a pub where our hosts boyfriend was clearly very drunk. She’d convinced him it was time to go and we went with her to get the car while he and their housemate got some poutine (drunk food!).
The evening ended with us driving back to Stoneham without her boyfriend and a broken passenger seat window. He hadn’t meant to do it (not that we were 100% sure of that at the time), but the heat of the inside of the car, and the cold outside, had weaken the window so that when he thumped it to be like “Hey! I’m here!” as we pulled up outside of the poutine place, the window had smashed everywhere.
Needless to say the next day was pretty awkward and he was nursing quite the hangover…
Heading back to Montreal
My second visit to Montreal (after having studied there for three weeks back in 2010) was very different to my fist. My first was in the middle of a heatwave and this time around it was below -10 most days and the city was covered in snow and ice.
After several weeks of sightseeing we’d got to that point where we were feeling pretty tired so our few days in Montreal were pretty chilled. We still headed out in the snow, but spent long periods of time in cafes relaxing too.
If you’re staying in Montreal, make sure to check out the Airbnb we stayed in. We basically had the place to ourselves as the host worked nights so wasn’t around in the evening and it was SO cheap.
House sitting in Toronto
And that brings us on to the last week of our first month. This week we’ve been house sitting in an area of Toronto that I really, really like. It’s about 20 minutes outside of the centre of Toronto but definitely still IN Toronto.
There are parks, lots of little independent places and nice houses. If we stayed in Toronto this is where I’d probably want to be.
We’re looking after a black Labrador called Chico while his owners are away on holiday and we’ve had a great time. Their apartment has been the perfect base and what’s better still is that we’ve not had to pay to stay here.
This is something we organised through Trusted Housesitters before we came here and we’re planning to do a lot more in the coming months. It lets us get our dog fix and saves us money at the same time.
We’ve ticked off a few more touristy things during our second week in Toronto including the aquarium and the CN Tower. Both of which are free with a Toronto City Pass.
What else have we done? Well, I’ve been nursing a cold that Thom so kindly shared with me, I watched A LOT of Grey’s Anatomy after having missed it for the past 3-4 years, FINALLY got my hair chopped off (my annual hair cut) and WE’VE BOUGHT A VAN.
The first day we arrived back in Toronto we went and saw an old RV which I loved. The interior was very 70s (strange flowery wallpaper and an old carpet with dark wood everywhere), but it was cosy, had tonnes of space and lots of quirks. We both thought about it for a few days and decided that it wasn’t the one.
As much as I love how much space it had it probably would end up being more hassle than its worth and isn’t exactly stealthy for when we’re trying to travel on a budget and sleep for free.
We’ve gone back and forth so many times about what van to buy. It needs to be big enough for all our stuff and for us to sleep in. It needs to be reliable to get us through the US and to western Canada, and we’d like to be able to sell it on for a similar price to what we bought it for.
We finally opted for a Ford E-150 cargo van which I haven’t actually seen yet (Thom has though!) although we should be bringing it home today.
Thom has spent days calling insurers, while I’ve been online trying to get quotes. We knew car insurance in Canada was expensive (at least $2,500 a year) but we had massive issues trying to get anyone to do it at all. It seemed the main problem was that we were getting a cargo van but not using it for business. For some reason that meant a lot of insurers couldn’t insure us.
Oh, and don’t get me started on how complicated the process itself is. You have to deal with brokers, there’s SO much paperwork and everything changes from province to province. I miss the ease of small countries like England where everything can be done online and it’s the same wherever you go in the UK.
BUT we think we’ve finally found someone to do it – fingers crossed!
The second (less annoying) issue with this van is that we need to convert it ourselves. That means doing some DIY, trying to work out how best to insulate it and building ourselves a bed.
What’s next? We’ll be in Toronto until Tuesday at least, probably in a Home Depot carpark, trying to figure out how to build this thing and make it liveable.
Wish us luck!