Quebec – Canada.
I still vividly remember the first time I took off down a runway. I was fifteen and had somehow managed to convince my cash strapped parents to send me on a school ski trip in Quebec, Canada. As the plane turned onto the runway the pilot immediately opened up the engines and we hurled down the tarmac at a speed I had never experienced before. To this day I still love taking off, albeit I’m asleep the majority of the time. Bar a few lessons at home I had never skied and the closest I had got to going abroad was The Isle of White. The irony now is that my parents were worried I wouldn’t enjoy the whole experience and it would have been a frightful waste of money. Move along a decade-and-eight years and I find myself in a position where jumping on a plane to another continent for a few days is pretty much standard practice. Throw in a bit of skiing as well and I’m a happy chappy.
The problem with regular travelling is that I tend to meet a lot of people, and people I like, people that I enjoy sharing a beer and a few yarns with. The problem being many of these people live in various countries around the world and when I struggle at the best of times to see my old faithful mates in the UK it all becomes quite hectic trying to keep in touch with people. Although I consider this to be as far from a complaint as one can get. When a past travelling mate invites me to town for the weekend to watch an NHL hockey match it’s kinda hard to ignore and so, because I can, I took up the invite and flew over to Montreal for just that. Admittedly it was also the perfect excuse to catch up with an old work mate from my previous visit to Canada. And so I made a plan, booked the flights and headed over for a long weekend.
My first stop was the small country town of Sainte Claire, around a fifty minute drive south east of Quebec city. My host was Pierre who I hadn’t seen for nine years but as soon as we met at the ice cold snow covered airport it was as though it was only last week I had last saw him. A good feed and some beers took care of the jet lag and the next day after a wee farm tour we suited up and jumped on some snow mobiles. I first rode a snow mobile a year earlier on tour in Finland and was unsure of the experience yet no less excited about it this time around. I was given a 180hp snow mobile, Pierre’s was over 200hp. I think the average hire car is only 80hp! Anyway, we took off down a snowy road before turning off onto one of many snow mobile tracks that cross Quebec, literally 1000’s of kilometres passing through woods, fields and small towns. I’m not the most confident on small, fast machines but I will give it my best shot and I managed to keep up without making a fool of myself. At one point, cruising along a field I hit 138kph (85mph) before I chickened out. After a few hours we pulled up at a random wooden shack, surrounded by snow mobiles and only open during the winter months. It was lunch time and the French Canadians have the perfect dish for a cold day on the trails, poutine. Sounds posh doesn’t it? Poutine is simply fries and chunks of cheese covered in gravy and, if you really want all in you can add chunks of meat. Job done. We spent a few more hours on the trails after lunch finally rocking up at the home farm before nightfall, on fumes, after covering a good 160km.
Before I knew it we were heading back to Quebec city, catching a ferry across the frozen St Lawrence river and walking up through the simply stunning old town Quebec. It was picture perfect with snow falling, plenty of snow on the ground and the old colonial streets lit up with Christmas lights. Ice hockey was being played on a rink in the park, the streets were full of people even with the ice cold air. We pulled up at a busy traditional Quebec restaurant and managed to bag a couple of seats at the bar where I was talked into trying the foie gras. Animal cruelty aside it has never been something that has appealed to me, it’s a gooses fatty liver, I am neither a big fan of fat, liver or, inducing animals with disease. However, it is considered a bit of a delicacy and when out with a local it would be rude not to at least try. The verdict – fatty, jelly like liver is not for me.
The following morning I woke up from a sleep so deep, a hibernating bear would be proud yet there was no time to hang around as we had a full day of skiing ahead of us. The roads were awful, the skies were grey and the snow was falling but a consequence of that was it wasn’t too cold and the skiing was awesome. I’m currently managing to ski for about one day every year which is annoying because by the time I’ve found my legs, it’s time to go home. Or in this case, the train station. The night before, I was booking my train ticket from Quebec city to Montreal and I got a little angry because during the process of choosing the right ticket the price went up from $50 to $80 for an economy saver ticket. Little did I realise that economy class on a train in Canada is a bit like first class on a train in the UK. As I stretched out in my own single aisle seat, I dozed off in a sweaty post ski sleep until I reached my next destination.
Montreal is a relatively unexciting city but I had another friend to catch up with who was treating me to an exciting NHL match. My first morning started with a numb pain in my head after several delicious brewskis from the local micro brewery on my arrival the night before. A coffee, muffin and a chilly walk around old town Montreal soon put me right. One of the great things about Canada, in my opinion, is their attitude to coffee. You can simply ask for coffee and that’s what you will get. Coffee. Fresh(ish), filtered coffee. No bullshit latte, cappuccino, americano and the likes. They are available but if you ask for coffee, the standard go to is a mug of coffee. This is wonderful. Less wonderful is everyones ability in Quebec to switch from speaking English to French in an instant. I try to speak French to be polite, I can hardly speak English clearly and so speaking a language I don’t know never works so I resort back to English. The person I’m trying to talk to just speaks to me in perfect English and leaves me feeling ashamed of not knowing a second language.
It’s rare for me to have a proper Saturday but this was most definitely that. Syl had been raving about a wee place that served plates of smoked meat. Literally, the special was a plate of tender smoked beef, a side of bread and a can of cherry cola. The significance of the cola I have no idea but the cafe was small, it was rammed at midday and people were queuing (lining up for all our Canadian readers) outside in the cold waiting for a seat. Again, it was simple, delicious, no messing Canadian loveliness. Schwartz’s Deli, apparently the oldest in Canada and so good I actually made a note of the place. Suffering meat sweats we walked on to a sports bar and saw away a few beers while I tried to understand American Football.
You wouldn’t know it’s there but tucked away down a central Montreal street is a 21,000 capacity ice rink, home to the Montreal Candiens. I had seen a ice hockey game before in Alberta many years ago but not a big NHL game like this one, Montreal Candiens v. Nashville Predators. North American sport events are pretty different to the UK. The match is the centre piece but surrounding that is a heap of advertising, showmanship and as much food and drink you can possibly eat. I loved it. The Predators had played a match the night before in the States (the hockey season is rammed) and had flown up over night. This didn’t seem to bother their players as they ended up winning 4-1 and to be honest it didn’t bother me as I drank beer, stuffed my beer with pizza and soaked up the occasion.
I’d go to Canada again for a weekend to watch a ice hockey match. I always rave about New Zealand, Australia and little old Dorset but I had forgotten about Canada, a place I’ve now visited three times. Incredibly vast, amazing skiing, stunning scenery, a wonderful attitude and absolutely sublime people. Canada is such a warm and comforting place, a country I hope to have an excuse to visit again soon. New Zealand has a challenger!