Seven instructive (and sometimes relaxing) days touring the St. Lawrence, Montreal, the Laurentians and Muskoka with an expert guide to attend to details

ALAN EDMONDS March 19 1966


Seven instructive (and sometimes relaxing) days touring the St. Lawrence, Montreal, the Laurentians and Muskoka with an expert guide to attend to details

ALAN EDMONDS March 19 1966


Seven instructive (and sometimes relaxing) days touring the St. Lawrence, Montreal, the Laurentians and Muskoka with an expert guide to attend to details


HAVING BEEN AROUND the world unescorted a couple of times, and being somewhat proud of my seasoned-traveler status. I went on my first guided tour last September, determined it was to be nothing more than a clinical study to see why this form of instant, packaged holiday is catching on fast in Canada. I was one of six men (including the guide and the bus driver) with thirty-two women, over half of them elderly and widowed. And with the exception of one or two whose capacity for enjoyment seems to have been stunted, their enthusiasm w'as so hugely infectious and undemanding that — surprise, surprise! — I found the trip very enjoyable.

The guided tour has suffered from an unfortunate image; sophisticates tend to scorn it as something for spinster teachers “doing" Europe in three weeks flat. But the tour also happens to be the best way to see the most in the shortest possible time, and it's becoming big business in Canada now that more people have more time and money for holidays.

My tour was of Ontario and Quebec and it lasted seven days. It went something like this:

MONDAY: We assembled at 8.30 a.m. in what, after every noon, is a smart bar in Toronto's Park Plaza hotel. Gordon Fairbank, co-owner of Horizon Holidays, who was running the tour and who was the escort tor this trip, had told me that his company

in 1965 carried seventeen hundred people on tours in the Rockies and the w'est coast, the Maritimes, Ontario and Quebec, and occasional forays to Washington. New Orleans and New England. The cheapest tour was the one I was on. at around a hundred and fifty dollars, and the costliest was the western one. at an average price of four hundred and fifty dollars.

Fairbank, an engaging man of thirtythree w'ith a wife and a child he’d probably rather not have had to leave to nurse a coach party, scuttled around assembling his clients. My suitcase was whipped away and 1 was to never handle it again, except to unpack, until we returned to Toronto — one of the more obvious charms of traveling by guided tour. The others are that accommodation is organized and there are no agonizing decisions to make ("What are we going to do today?") because tour planners have already decided: and in a busload of people it’s hard to be lonely.

Two oi THE PARTY were seventeenyear-old girls, insurance clerks, and they wore their hair in a Madame Pompadour-Zulu warrior style which had obviously been painstakingly prepared for this, their first grown-up holiday away from home. You could almost see them thinking: "But everyone's so old."

Fairbank announced over the bus loudspeaker that the driver was Tom Child, and if we didn't like the driving

we should remember a child was at the wheel — ha. ha! (He later apologized for this; it seems he's always nervous at the start of a tour.)

The first lunch, at a Kingston. Ont., hotel, was uncomfortable because we were still making tentative stabs at getting to know one another. After lunch, the itinerary promised, we were to see the glory of Old Fort Henry at Kingston, a fortification built after the War of 1812 by an uneasy colonial government that feared attacks from U. S. plunderers across the St. Lawrence. The place has been gussied up and the only plunderers it has ever seen are the Canadian tourist caterers whose clients, appropriately, are mostly from the U. S. This day, however, the fort was closed: the students who dress in period uniforms and run the fort for tourists’ benefit during the summer had all gone back to school the day before.

We drove up to the gates anyway, and were able to see across the eastern extremities of Lake Ontario to the city of Kingston, swaddled in a late-summer mist that made the town look milkily unreal, like the mythical Brigadoon or Shangri-la.

The next stop, an hour later, provided the first taste of something that was to be an occasional irritant for the next week: the spiel of a professional guide — in this case the skipper of the boat that took us for a two-hour trip "of fascinating sights and scenic beauty" through the Thousand Islands.

Actually, the trip did live up to its publicity. The Thousand Islands (there are, in fact, 1,835 of them) have a natural magnificence which no cliché commentary could spoil. Indians used to call the islands Mana-to-ana. which apparently means Garden of the Great Spirit, but today the spirit and the substance is mostly that of the wealthy, and that of the Ú. S. wealthy at that.

I gathered from the skipper - spieler that nineteen of the islands are public parks; twelve in Canada and seven in the U. S. One of the seven in the U. S. was owned by a wealthy American who abandoned the island to the public when his baby daughter fell from the rocky shore and drowned on the family's first visit. Another is Boldt’s Island, named for George Boldt, a German immigrant who contributed to free-enterprise mythology in the 1890s by rising from bellhop to owner of a hotel chain and built a castle on the island as a gift for his wife. It is a replica of a Rhineland schloss. But his wife died in 1903 and, having spent five million dollars, he abandoned the project, and there the shell of the castle sits today in decaying Wagnerian splendor. It is said that Boldt's chefs devised Thousand Island salad dressing, and it’s one of life’s ironies that the salad cream should be remembered while Boldt is long forgotten.

AT DINNER Fairbank explained to me that this tour wasn't exactly typical because it was the last of the season and mostly consisted of elderly people. (In addition to the two teenagers, two other girls were in their twenties. ) The average age on tours is between thirty and forty, Fairbank said.

TUESDAY: If you like to linger abed, a bus tour is no way to spend a holiday. Sharp at 9 a.m. we left our motel for Upper Canada Village, near Cornwall, a cluster of forty restored buildings -—houses, barns, a sawmill, shops, hotels, a church — built mostly by the United Empire Loyalists, and moved to higher ground a few' years ago when their original sites were about to be flooded by the Seaway.

The village is on the site of John Crysler’s farm where, in November 1813. some six hundred British soldiers and a handful of Canadian militiamen and Indians defeated four thousand U. S. invaders. On the battlefield today stands a small museum, which features, on one wall a thirtyseven-foot-long painting of the battle. We sat before /

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Montreal’s secret: it knows itself

it as, with flickering lights, booming cannon, the crackle of musketry and the recorded voices of actors, the battle was recreated in a twenty-fiveminute “sound and light” taped show performed every hour on the hour during last year's tourist season. It was impressive, if a little noisy, for 10 a.m. and an empty stomach, but it lends a lively extra dimension to history, although many American tourists are not likely to enjoy being jubilantly told in mid-holiday that they didn’t win all their battles.

At Cornwall, after lunch, we inspected the international hydro-electric power station built jointly by Ontario and New York State. It’s an unlikely place to be fascinated, but I was, and it was there the teenage girls actually began to talk to the rest of us. Their hair was still pristine, and they explained they had been preserving it at night by wrapping it in toilet tissue when they went to sleep. They wore their hair as other women wear mink coats — not as part of them, but as demonstrable alter egos. “It helps us look older,” one explained. “What’s the drinking age in Montreal — it's eighteen, isn’t it? D’you think we look old enough to get a drink?” I didn’t, but later that day, in Montreal, a good-natured barkeep apparently did (drinking age is twenty), because they said they’d had a sherry apiece.

WEDNESDAY: Montreal, wicked elder sister of all Canadian cities, can be enormous fun — but not when seen, as we saw it, from a coach on a seventy-five-degree day. Otherwise, a coach tour is the best way for a newcomer to get some idea of the lie of the land. But even when it’s over, Montreal’s atmosphere remains ineffable. Montreal is big, like most cities. It’s dirty, like most cities. Its sidewalks swarm with glazed-faced pedestrians, and the roads are rivers of traffic with rapids at every stoplight. But somehow Montreal manages to live up to its advance publicity as the Paris of North America. Maybe part of its charm is that it’s been a big city of two million or so people for a long time, and has the savoir faire of a place that has been around long enough to know itself. Beside it, Vancouver, Calgary and Winnipeg are Johnny-come-latelys, and Toronto is a carpetbagger city.

At Notre Dame Church, as I stood awed by the magnificence of the altar, I was panhandled twice by beggars modestly seeking just a nickel apiece, and later I was a little surprised to see a kiosk at the rear of the altar doing a bargain-basement trade in postcards and religious souvenirs. We also saw St. Joseph's Oratory, which has been a healing shrine since 1904. Pilgrims used to crawl up the ninety steps to the oratory, stopping on each one to pray. You can still do so. but if you think it too hard on the knees, there’s a bus to take you up and an escalator to bring you down.

Since Montreal is supposed to be the Paris of North America, a tour of the nightclubs seems a must. The tour we went on consisted essentially of dinner and a visit to the Casa Loma, where one old lady said she couldn’t

see the show was that wicked, because even nice girls nowadays show as much and sometimes more, what with the short skirts and bikinis.

THURSDAY: “Mountain” to me conjures images of the Rockies or the Alps, but the Laurentians, perhaps the oldest rock formation in North America, have been gentled by eons of time and a mantle of trees and grass and are not unlike the loftier but equally kindly Sierra Madre Oriental in Mexico. However Mont Tremblant, one of the biggest of the Laurentians, is still high enough for the ride to its summit on a ski chairlift to be, for me at least, an exhilaratingly alarming experience. The old ladies loved it, and, indeed, from the mountain top the fall colors made the height-flattened panorama of the Laurentians look like a delicately woven Axminster carpet.

By now the teenagers had become the focus of concern for every member of the party; we were all anxious, eager even, for them to enjoy themselves. And under such a concentration of goodwill, the girls blossomed and talked. It seemed they were having a fine time, a “gas” one of them called it. What we had forgotten was that to the very young all new experience — sometimes even the unpleasant — is preciously poignant. “I wish,” said one after dinner at the Gray Rocks Inn at St. Jovite, “that Mike were here.” Mike was her boyfriend. She’d known him for a whole eighty-seven days — or was it eightysix? She said she hadn’t liked him at first and only went out with him to “mark him in” — which means, in the argot of last year’s teenagers, that she only went out with him to save paying for herself. “But I got to like him, and now . . . ooh, I wish he was here.”

FRIDAY: By noon we'd reached Ottawa, settled into the Château Laurier hotel, and were ready for more sightseeing: the House of Commons (the Mounties on guard all looked surprisingly young), the Mint, the Canadian War Museum. Most of those on the tour took a boat ride on the Rideau Canal, but I opted out in favor of seeing friends: on tour, you can do this.

SATURDAY AND SUNDAY: At midday we set out for Toronto, by way of Algonquin Park, where even foxes are so tamed through living in a conservation area they’ll sometimes eat from the hand. For the night we stopped at the Bigwin Inn on the Lake of Bays and there the girls got to dance for the first time that week, and most of us looked benevolently on while they taught Gordon Fairbank how to frug, feeling strangely proud they had. after all, enjoyed themselves.

When we arrived back in Toronto on Sunday afternoon the girls shyly went around and shook our hands, and even kissed some of the older ladies. As the rest of us dispersed, pretty well everyone promised to keep in touch with everyone else. No one did. of course, but we meant it at the time: we'd been thrown together for a week on a guided tour — and most were prepared to repeat the experiment. ★