One of Dianne’s favorite childhood memories is when her grandparent took her and her sister on vacation to eastern Pennsylvania. And now, as two of our own grandchildren have matured the time seemed right to create a similar experience with them.
Some time ago I asked Eden, if she could to anywhere on vacation, where would she choose? She said Paris. Well, that wasn’t going to happen, but it did start the wheels turning. In 1967, yes, centuries ago, Dianne and I attended the Expo ’67 in Montreal. This was our first adventure in another country and, while we didn’t know each other then, we came away very favorably impressed. So, we began kicking around the idea of taking the girls to Montreal, where they would hear plenty of French and see a city with sections as close the European experience as you could get. We ran the idea past both Eden and Aubrey and they were fully on board. And that’s how our great Canadian adventure began.
About the time we began planning, we received an invitation to my cousin, Bill Lafe’s 80th birthday party in Pittsburgh, to be held July 22nd. Since both of our daughters were invited as well, it seemed a perfect opportunity to meet the girls there and then head north. So, that became the plan. Our daughters would then spend a sister’s weekend in Pittsburgh as well. It all came together very nicely.
Seemingly, in no time were were at the Hotel Indigo in downtown Pittsburgh:
Here is Emily taking pictures of two very excited girls.
And, of course, we greeted Cousin BIll:
The party ended mid-afternoon. The plan was to drive to Toronto and then take a train to Montreal since the girls had never ridden a passenger train and we wanted to make the experience more European. We didn’t want to go all the way to Toronto from Pittsburgh, so we decided a good stopping place would be Niagara Falls. We arrived in time to catch one of the last voyages of The Maid of the Mist for that day.
We were careful to only let the girls know the basics. They knew we were going to Niagara Falls, but not that we were riding The Maid of the Mist, something we had done with their mothers many years ago. There were lots of questions as we got closer, but we let the details unfold slowly.
We descended the big elevator, put on our rain gear and headed for the falls:
Was it fun?
Because we had gotten there late we still had to cross the border and get to our hotel which was on the Canadian side. Fortunately, the lines at the crossing weren’t too long. However, when it was our turn, it quickly became apparent that the girl’s shiny new passports were not going to be enough. The customs officer made sure our windows were rolled down, so they could see the girls, who, of course, have different last names from ours. Then he wanted to see permission letters written by their parents. We did not have both of them, but in its place we had a medical form of some kind. With that we were admitted grudgingly. The girls got what, unfortunately, was a good lesson that border crossings are no longer the casual events they used to be. We assured them that since we were now in Canada there would be no further questions. Which there were not.
It was now about nine at night and we were all hungry. Fortunately, the hotel had several restaurants at the ground level, including a pizza place. That was a huge hit.
Here is what we learned from Eden on the ride to Niagara Falls:
Girls go to collegeTo get more knowledge Boys go to JupiterTo get more stupider!
Long Train Runnin’
Our train to Montreal was scheduled to leave Toronto at 11:30 am. I takes a little over an hour to drive from Niagara Falls to Toronto, so we were able to have a leisurely breakfast and then head into town.
I didn’t really want to drive into Toronto, even on a Sunday morning. I had hoped we could park in the suburbs and take the metro into Union Station to catch our train. But the metro system only allows 48 hour parking and there were no other parking options available, so we decided to drive into the city and park at one of the “Green P” garages near the train station.
You drive into Toronto on an eight lane highway called the QEW (Queen Elizabeth Way) and then, as you get closer to downtown you split off from the QEW onto the Gardiner Expressway. Everything was going smoothly and we expected to arrive at the train station with over an hour to spare, when suddenly we saw the signs: “Gardiner Expressway Closed”! Apparently, this Sunday was the day of some huge triathlon, so they closed the whole thing! Instead we were re-routed onto side streets with lots of stoplights and heavy traffic. We plodded along at a snail’s pace and now the clock was becoming a factor. In what seemed like forever, we finally found the garage we were looking for. We unloaded our luggage and headed for the station at as high a rate of speed as we could.
At last we found Union Station, but it is a big place that serves not only the rail system, but also the metro and the bus system. We had a fair amount of trouble finding the right entrance, but with the help of many people we finally found it. We arrived at the line for our train with fifteen minutes to spare.
All of our bags were carry-ons and we had hoped to store them overhead, but we were greeted by a guy with a cart who collected them and told us where we could find them when we got to Montreal.
I had pre-printed all of our tickets at home so we quickly found the right car and the right seats. It was a perfect set-up for us: four seats facing each other and a table in between.
The car showed some age, but was comfortable and the best part was that we could all get up and walk around if we wanted to.
The girls were very excited to be on the train and there were lots of giggles as we settled in. VIA rail is much like Amtrack. Rather than have dedicated passenger rails like they do in Europe, VIA shares the same tracks with freight trains. So, not only does this make for a bumpy ride, it also results in numerous delays. The trip to Montreal was supposed to last four hours. Instead it lasted five. But, it was still fun. The food was sold from carts, like on airplanes, but it was good and not hugely expensive. Just being able to get up and move around made it a far better way to travel than a car or a plane. And, it didn’t really cost that much.
At last, the Montreal skyline came into view. It appeared that they have added a few buildings since 1967.
Soon we pulled into Central Station. We re-united with our bags and headed for our hotel, which was only about four blocks away. We were soon checked in and ready for action.
The main shopping street in Montreal is Rue Sainte-Catherine, which is only a block away from our hotel. I had hoped to spend some time there on our first night and then go to the top of Au Sommet Place for one of the panoramic views of the city, but it was becoming overcast and we had arrived too late to do much, so we scrapped that plan. Here is what the girls wanted to do first:
So, after a nice swim we decided that we wanted to try the main delicacy of Montreal cuisine, called poutine. The concierge directed us to a restaurant in Old Town that he said served it. So, off we went. We did not take any pictures on this trip, since we knew we would be coming back. You will see some pictures from Old Town a little later.
We did find some excellent poutine, however, and the girls agreed that it lived up to the hype. By the time dinner was over, it was time to hit the hay.
There were some nice views out of our window:
The next morning it was raining. We talked over the many things we could do in this city, and we told the girls we had one big event planned for each of the next two days we would be here. Aubrey said the main thing she wanted to do was shop. Eden was on board with that also, but the main thing she wanted to do was go to the Olympic Park. She is a huge fan of the Olympics.
Since is was raining we decided that our shopping adventures would best be experienced underground. Like Toronto, Montreal has a vast network of underground shops, suitable for the coldest winters. This is what we would do. But first, it was time for breakfast. The concierge recommended a restaurant called Universel, up on Rue Sainte-Catherine. It was only a short walk away.
Art is everywhere in this city:
The floor had a 3-D effect:
Even the chocolate milk was classy:
The best eggs Benedict ever!
After a fabulous breakfast, it was time to shop till we dropped. But the first order of business was to hit the money exchange:
The banks would only exchange currency for customers, so we were sent to a nearby exchange house. The rates were reasonable, so each of the girls ponied up their cash. It was a great experience for them.
Now, with their very pretty currency burning a hole in their pockets, it was time to finally get some shopping in. We headed up Rue Sainte-Catherine looking for an access to the underground:
The first major department store we found had an access point, so down we went:
Well, the whole place was store after endless store. Surprisingly, the girls proved to be quite thrifty with their new currency. Primarily they shopped for things to bring back to their sisters and their parents. While the girls shopped I was able to get Metro passes for us all for the next two days.
After a fun day of shopping we went back to the hotel to get ready for the first surprise in Montreal.
To get to their first surprise, we had to get on the Metro to go to the section of the city called Griffintown. The map showed about a six block walk from the Metro to the location we were going, plus we needed to find a place for dinner. Fortunately, Yelp made the decision easy. We settled on the Lord William Pub, which was right next to our destination!
Unfortunately, by now it was pouring rain and even though it was a relatively short walk, it was no fun. The staff of Lord Williams made us feel welcome. The pub is famous for two things. Mac and cheese AND poutine.
The french fries were nice and crisp, the gravy was rich and flavorful and the cheddar cheese curds were soft and creamy. We thought the poutine of the night before was tops, but this was even better!
After stuffing ourselves at Lord Williams we headed next door to Escape Masters!
Dianne had heard about the popularity of escape rooms while we were planning this trip. We decided it was something the girls would really enjoy. So we looked over TripAdvisor reviews to find one that could both be solved by children and at which they spoke English. This led us to Escape Masters! We had our choice of three mysteries to solve: one involved spies, one involved zombies, and the third was hidden mafia treasure. I called the lady who runs the place and she recommended the Italian restaurant with Mafia treasure as the easiest to solve. We booked it.
On the way down we had to explain to the girls, and not too graphically, who the mafia is and what they do. Now it was time to solve a mafia mystery.
The lady in charge told us that two mafia families had used the Italian restaurant as a hang-out and trouble had developed between the families. Not wanting to risk their loot, they hid it somewhere inside. We were given an envelope with the starting clues and told we had an hour to escape from the room. We were shown inside the door where the timer had just started clicking. We were told that we could knock on the door three times if we got stuck and they would give us additional clues.
Inside, the room was made up like a restaurant with four tables awaiting guests. There were four hats hung from hooks on one of the walls. There was a bar with four beer taps and other items stored underneath, including a padlocked briefcase. Behind the bar was a wall with an opening concealed by two small sliding doors. The opening would typically be used to pass food from a kitchen to the restaurant. Around the corner from this wall was a padlocked door that led to the the room on the other side of the wall. There was another door perpendicular to that one, also locked.
The first clue had to do with the numbered taps. I started on that one. The girls went after the hats and quickly found that they contained numbered tags, which they pulled out and began to arrange to find the sequence for a pad lock. Dianne found numbered bottle corks. All these discoveries led us to the combination for the brief case which contained a large flexible dentist mirror with and extension on the shaft, another chromed extender which looked like a broken off radio antenna, and a few other items.
We called for our first set of clues about ten minutes in. Eventually we were able to open the sliding doors in the wall, which revealed a kitchen on the other side. Some utensils hanging on the wall of the kitchen were tagged with three numbers. We needed four for the lock to the room. I took the dentist mirror and looked at parts of the kitchen that might have the fourth number. I could not find anything. We asked for our second clue. It turned out that I had not been looking at the right place with the mirror. The staff showed me where to aim it and sure enough, there was the fourth number.
These numbers unlocked a lock box. Dianne remembered instructions in the brief case about the lock. We soon had the door opened to the kitchen. But inside we couldn’t find any clue. So we contacted the staff for our third and final time. Turned out there was a key at the bottom the the drain. The thing from the briefcase that looked like an antenna was actually a magnet. Eden was able to extend the magnet to the bottom of the drain and pull out the key.
The key opened the other door which contained three lock boxes. By now we were out of time and out of helpful assists. But they let us continue and gave us more clues. The first lock box contained the severed arm of one of the mobsters who had tried to steal the loot. The other boxes contained diamonds and similar treasure.
Throughout the game we accumulated masks that the gang wore over their faces while doing “jobs”. As we collected these masks we found that each was numbered and the numbers were in several colors. Eventually the combination of numbers and colors led to the combination of the lock to get our out of the escape room. We took almost an extra hour and a bazillion additional clues but we got it. The girls absolutely loved it! The staff of Escape Masters saved the day. Both Aubrey and Eden solved some pretty difficult puzzles and made major contributions to the solution. What a great time.!
Since it was still pouring outside, I asked the staff to call a cab. That was plenty for one day!