As a young child, I took great pleasure in mushing oatmeal on Ottawa’s Parliament Buildings, spilling juice over Niagara Falls and smearing strawberry jam across Prairie wheat fields.
The plastic-covered placemats of quintessential Canadian scenes that my mother spread across our kitchen table in our 1960s suburban rancher in Nanaimo, B.C. were meant to speed post-meal cleanups. But they accomplished more than that – they inspired me to visit these icons of my home and native land.
Slowly but surely, over four decades, I’ve visited every scene but one, getting to know Canada along the way. While friends jetted off to see the exotic clichés of foreign lands — the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Taj Mahal in Agra, the Parthenon in Athens – I visited the oh-so-Canadian edifices and landscapes that we too often overlook in our travel plans because, well, perhaps because they are our own.
I learned how vast, and vastly appealing, Canada can be and I learned that a quest, even one inspired by something as mundane as a set of placemats, is not easily abandoned. So it was last summer that I gathered up my family and flew clear across the country, from West Coast to East, to see my final – and favourite — placemat pictorial in full-size, living colour. Here, then, are all six of the landmarks I visited (in chronological order):
The Empress Hotel, Victoria
I barely remember my first trip to Victoria and my first sighting of a placemat scene. Except for the part where I thought I was going to die.
“Mommy, he’s eating me,” I’d screamed when a feisty goat at Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park petting zoo began chewing on the hem of my summer dress. Instead of rushing to save me (as any truly responsible parent of a four-year-old would), my mother pulled out her Instamatic camera. And so I have a fading photo to remind me of the most uncivilized moment of my visit.
Thankfully, my mother also recorded the most civilized moment — afternoon tea at the Empress Hotel. I don’t think I realized this hotel was the same ivy-cloaked grand dame of Victoria Harbour that appeared on one of the placemats. But I do remember being thrilled with the visit, perhaps because my mother let me put heaps of sugar in my milky tea. No doubt she was feeling guilty about the goat.
In 2004, I took my two then-pre-teen sons to the Fairmont Empress Hotel for tea. It was a genteel affair, made more so by my 10-year-old’s “royal” accent and his insistence on holding his china cup with pinky extended. We spent a civilized hour scarfing down every morsel on the three-tiered serving plates – berries topped with Chantilly cream, raisin scones, tea sandwiches filled with peanut butter and jam for the children, cucumber, smoked salmon and such for the adults, bite-size pastries and chocolates — then wandered over to Beacon Hill Park to check on the goats.
For more information, visit fairmont.com.
“Remember,” said the Greyhound driver as we pulled into town, “you’ve got just two hours until the last bus leaves.”
I gave him a mittened thumbs-up and stepped into the frigid night air.
Hours before, I’d flown in to Toronto on my very first business trip. I was all of 21 years old and, though expected in Hamilton later that night, determined to make a detour. From the bus stop, I could see streaks of coloured lights glancing off ice and water. I jogged toward this super-sized beacon, down a hill, through a snowy park and across a roadway. And just like that, I was standing at the brink of Niagara Falls.
Blue-white ice and water thundered over frosty Horseshoe Falls and I marvelled at this wintry variation on the summery placemat scene. I strode downriver to get a better look at American and Bridal Veil Falls and the massive ice floes that covered most of the river. Walking back to the brink, crystals of semi-frozen spray stung my face like so many needles.
Hungry and cold, I slipped inside the near-deserted Table Rock Restaurant and ordered the least expensive item on the menu — a bowl of soup. I sat for 30 minutes, just sipping and staring at the Falls. Too soon, it was time to go.
For more information, visit http://www.niagara-parks.com.
Prairie Wheat Fields
The flight attendant was flummoxed. “You want to get off the plane here, in Regina?” she asked as our plane began its descent. “But you’re going to Vancouver, aren’t you?”
“Well yes,” I explained, “but I’ve never been to the Prairies and I’m trying to make the most of being stuck on this milk run. And if I step off the plane I can say I’ve been to Saskatchewan.”
Despite (or perhaps because of) how pathetic that sounded, she said I could go, but warned me that we were on the ground for only 20 minutes picking up a few new passengers. I turned my attention back to the patchwork of multihued yellow, green and brown fields that lay far below the plane’s windows. I marvelled at the impossibly straight roads and, where the roads intersected, the perfect right angles. The landscape was so foreign to me, a child of the mountains and ocean, that I felt like I was flying over the Nazca lines of Peru, trying to decipher figures etched by some ancient culture.
On our final approach, the fields began to shift and undulate in the September sunshine and it dawned on me that these were the same golden fields of my childhood placemats. Okay, maybe not the same fields, but they were definitely related.
At the terminal, I hustled up to the windows hoping to see more waving wheat. Instead, I saw asphalt and scrub stretching to the horizon. Never mind, I was standing on Prairie soil.
For more information, visit sasktourism.com.
The Parliament Buildings
My children pegged the highlight of our visit to Ottawa’s Parliament Buildings as the Changing of the Guard Ceremony – not because the pageantry stirred their patriotic blood, but because a member of the marching band fainted dead away in the August morning heat.
This was not my first visit to Parliament Hill, but it was the first time I’d seen this scene through the eyes of my children. It was educational for us all. “Don’t they have bathrooms?” asked my then-ten-year-old son as he stared, nose against glass, into the House of Commons.
“Do you think there’s a Quasimodo kind of guy pulling the ropes?” asked the older brother when he learned there were bells in the Peace Tower.
Both sons thought it would be “so sweet” to slide down the Parliament Buildings’ stone banisters. Thankfully, they resisted the urge.
A historical vignette performed outdoors by actors dressed in period costumes kept the children interested (sort of), as did a visit to the cat sanctuary (yes, for stray felines) on the edge of the parliament grounds. Since the 1970s, volunteers have fed cats — as well as free-loading raccoons, groundhogs, squirrels, pigeons, chickadees and sparrows — that frequent the doll-house sized shelters and leafy bushes that surrounds them. We checked out the one shiny shoe on the Lester B. Pearson monument — the boys thought it “so lame” that people rubbed it for good luck — and umpteen other statues sprinkled around the grounds.
Overall, our morning visit to the Parliament Hill was pleasant, but not blockbuster stuff. Oh well, at least they know where the prime minister works.
For more information, visit http://www.ottawatourism.ca.
Signal Hill National Historic Site, St. John’s
It was not so much the invitation to sign the guest book in St. John’s that had me gob-smacked. It was who was doing the asking.
“I get meeting so many different people,” explained taxi driver Mike Rodgers as he pulled the fat, ledger-like book from between the front seats of his baby-blue Bugden’s cab. “This way I find out what they got to say, learn about things in the world.”
Certainly there was much for me to learn and to see on my first visit to Canada’s Far East. I began at Signal Hill National Historic Site, a weather-battered promontory that sits high above the entrance to St. John’s punch-bowl harbour.
It was February, surely the most insane time of the year to visit Newfoundland (I was attending a conference), and to explore this exposed-to-the-elements place. But this was where British and French troops battled for centuries, where Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless signal and where the 105-year-old Cabot Tower – the same tower that graced one of my placemats – still stands.
I made a quick tour of the site, and then jumped back in the car to defrost. I didn’t confess my pilgrimage to Rodgers, though being a man with a guestbook, he’d probably have understood.
For more information, visit http://www.newfoundlandlabrador.com
Percé Rock, Quebec
I’m minutes away from my final, favourite placemat scene and feeling anxious. What if Percé Rock, the dusty-red monolith with a hole in it, is actually unimpressive? What if it’s like seeing Tom Cruise in person and discovering he’s much shorter than I imagined?
It’s a brilliant summer morning and my family and I are midway through a grand driving tour of Quebec. We’re headed for the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula along the southern highway because I’ve read this affords the most dramatic views of the rock. It’s a tickle-and-tease route that reveals just a smidge more of the coastline for each curve we negotiate. Around one bend Bonaventure Island appears – like its famous pierced neighbour, the island is a prolongation of the Appalachian Mountains that now sits in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
And then Percé Rock bursts into view. No question, it’s magnificent. I insist on stopping to have my photo taken with the rock in the distance.
In the touristy town of Percé, we buy boat-tour tickets so we can sail around Percé Rock to marvel at its dramatic 85-metre-high rock faces and 10-metre-wide hole. Then it’s on to Bonaventure Island, home to over a quarter-million seabirds and the largest northern gannet colony in North America. We hike across the island to visit the sprawling colony of these noisy, nose-diving beauties with their brilliant white plumage, jet-black wing tips and icy blue eyes. Later, at low tide and in fading light, we walk across a gravel bar to the base of Percé Rock. I’m thrilled to be able to touch this childhood memory, but feel almost sad that this marks the end of my quest.
The next day we drive farther north and hike the last few kilometres of the International Appalachian Trail. I tell my sons that Canada has its own Trans Canada Trail that winds its way across the entire country.
“Hey mom,” says my older son, “why don’t we go to every province and hike a bit of that trail?”
Out of the mouths of babes.
For more information, visit http://www.bonjourquebec.com.
Originally published on Canada Day 2005 in Canada’s national newspaper The Globe and Mail