EVERYTHING'S UP-TO-DATE IN '66
The Yanks are coming! Once we welcomed tourists with lean-to lodgings and crankcase coffee. But now . . .
ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN
TEN YEARS AGO when I lived in Florida and spent my summers in my native Ontario, I used to come up from one of the glossiest tourist areas in the world to a motorist's land of apathy, catsupstained waitresses, coffee like mine tailings and tourist cabins that hadn't changed since the days when we used to start our cars with cranks.
While I was coping with Canadian food and accommodation, people confused my citizenship with my licence plates and took me for an American. It made me realize that I was seeing Canada through the eyes of an American tourist and 1 blushed for my fellow Canadians. I made a report in Maclean’s on my impressions of the tourist's Canada. It was not surprising to me that in 1954, for instance, 15 million Canadians spent $33 million a year more on tourism in the United States than 150 million Americans spent in Canada.
Last year. U. S. visitors spent about $650 million in Canada, which was not only $367 million more than they spent 12 years ago. but $119 million more than Canadians spent last year in the States. To find out what, if anything. Canada had done to deserve this increased income, 1 decided, early this summer, to take another look at the old territory 1 used to visit._ One morning my wife and I started out on Highway 401 from Toronto with a few egg-salad sandwiches and some instant coffee, in case things hadn't improved, and just outside Toronto I looked in at the Constellation, one of the new buildings in the area that I'd seen but hadn't paid much attention
to. I was escorted by the manager through a 16-story tower with sound-proof hexagonal windows, patterned vinyl wall coverings, $100,000 worth of carpeting; shown the Burgundy Room, the Banyan Terrace, the Maharaja Suite, the Mount Kilimanjaro Room, a Bridal Suite with a round bed 10 feet in diameter, the Mount Olympus Room, the Magic Carpet Cocktail Lounge and a $65a-night suite that had been occupied by John Diefenbaker, Lester Pearson and the Archbishop of Canterbury (at different times). I asked the manager why they called a place like this a motel. He said they didn't: they called it a hotel. Looking out the window at an inaudible DC8 taking off from the airport, I felt that I’d been out of touch, like someone who had just wandered in from the airfield in beaver mitts and leather flying helmet.
The changes I saw during the next five days as I followed a 2,000-mile meandering route around the province weren’t all as spectacular as in this area, where within a three-mile radius, the number of rooms has increased from 450 to 1,250 in just over three years. But there was a big improvement in off-highway accommodation. Where ten years ago I used to find isolated barracklike insul-brick emergency shelters called the Whispering Pines or the Lamp Lighter, which were usually closed for the night when I reached them, now around nearly every town there are clusters of motels, strips of motels, good, bad, excellent and awful. But the big thing is you now have a choice, which usually includes double deckers with rooms entered from hotel-like corridors, a restaurant, often a swimming pool, coffee makers in the rooms, TV and Magic Fingers (4 device that, if you drop two bits in a slot, jiggles your bed so delightfully that you lie there and forget it’s costing you $14 for a night’s sleep).
There are motels so big that the desk clerk hands you a map with your key, showing how to get to your room.
At the Ramada Inn on Côte de Liesse, Montreal, which has a red-carpeted lobby and curving staircases like a set from Gone With The Wind, I paced off a corridor an eighth of a mile long. I could hardly see the chambermaid at the other end. These larger motels are becoming social centres, including some that are located close to herds of Holsteins and waving wheat fields. I drove through a quiet and particularly beautiful part of rural Ontario along Highway No. 2 between Tilbury and Chatham and came to a Holiday Inn with rooms in Spanish oak and such an enormous women’s tea going on in the dining room, I stood there fascinated at how high the right kind of people can get just looking at green fields. This particular Holiday Inn is a testing ground for the opening of other Holiday Inns in towns of under 50,000, and already it’s turning down around 35 reservations a night.
But American tourists might still have a hard time finding motels. Ontario laws prohibit free-standing signs within highway-controlled areas, and on highways where the laws are strictly enforced, such as the 400 series of four-lane highways, this puts signs back a quarter of a mile from the road, and they have to be enormous to be seen. The Holiday Inn sign for people coming east from Detroit on Highway 401 is 100 feet long with letters 10 feet high. A lot of small motels can’t afford to let you know they’re there. I've traveled enough on cluttered U. S. roads to be all in favor of keeping billboards off the highways, but even on the older King's Highways, where enforcement of the laws is relaxed, Canadians are as shy as meadow mice about letting you know where they are, and seem reluctant to announce themselves
along (he road so that you can plot your drive. Even when the\ do, they have a had habit of leading you on so far, then abandoning you up some street that ends in a kid's marble game.
1 circled around Windsor red-faced and cursing that 1 was going to find a certain motel if.it took me all summer. I didn't even want to stay there, as it was only noon. I just wanted to prove to myself that 1 could find it. 1 could see the sign in the distance but couldn’t figure how to get to it. and I slalomed around clovcrleafs trying to get turned the right way for half an hour before 1 found it.
But at least there’s something there now if you can find it, ineluding, oftener than not, good food. 1 don't know hov\ it happened, but when you travel in Canada now, you get good food. 1 was told it's because there arc now more places that serve drinks. One motel man told me that he couldn't make a cent on a $3.50 meal, radding, without even blushing, "But if 1 can serve just one drink 1 can make 50 cents” — something that would ha\e made me mad if Ed been drinking instead of enjoying one of his $3.50 meals. You don't get good food everywhere. There are plenty of roadside restaurants that specialize in Ookpiks and key chains and where the only condiment is fly tox. But it's easy to avoid them. The people in the food business on Ontario's highways have at last got serious about their work. 1 stopped at a place on the outskirts of Sudbury late on Sunday night, figuring I'd be lucky if I got a beanie burger for a late snack, and found a restaurant in the Mandarin Motor Hotel set with alternating white and red-and-whitecheck tablecloths, candles on the tables, and fresh-cut flowers, and got a hot roast-beef sandwich that tasted like my wife’s roast beef instead of the slice of Formica served up by the sadist that Canadian restaurants used to hide in the kitchen.
You get good food in odd places and at odd hours and it does often seem to be connected with the serving of drinks. In Le Diplomate Motor Hotel in Hull, Quebec. I had the best chicken sandwich I've ever tasted, at three in the afternoon, and watched a blond girl with her skirt slit up to her thigh, who kept disappearing down a dark stairway and coming up with trays of drinks for some gents at the back of the room. There was evidently a real cook somewhere down there at the foot of the stairs.
Another thing: there are now appearing on the highways the kind of places Canada needs — big, clean, roomy stopping places where you can get a quick snack, such as Horne's, and the chain of restaurants called 1 he 1867. I'm not suggesting them for gourmet food, which 1 wouldn't know if I got it. I eat in restaurants where you order by number: "I'll have Number 8,” 1 say, which takes care of everything from tomato juice to rice pudding. But I'm recommending them as civilized, clean and polished stopping places for the stiff-legged and peckish motor traveler. You can even stop at some gas-station restaurants now, something 1 avoided for years on the grounds that a talent for fixing shock absorbers and making soup were rarely combined in the same person. 1 he restaurants connected to the Fina stations near Kitchener, Ontario, lor instance, know, among other things, how to make good coffee.
Canada now makes better coffee than the States, something I never thought I'd live long enough to see. In five days I never got one really bad cup of coffee: at worst it tasted like cot tee. and usually it was as good as you d get in any good /
usually was as good continued on pape 28
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downtown restaurant. You see a lot of those Cory coffee makers now in roadside places, some that grind the beans as the coffee is needed. One woman I talked to in a northern Ontario restaurant, and whom I complimented on her coffee, took the lid off and patted her beans affectionately, as if she'd finally fourni the key to happiness.
T his new pride in serving good food was one of the things that struck me most on my trip. One of the first stops I made was a roadside placecalled the Pizza Patio near Goderich, Ontario, an area where mashed potatoes used to be called “exquisite cuisine for discriminating people," and I wasn’t too confident at first. I got steak and little crisp rolls of potatoes and delicious salad served by a smiling, neatly uniformed waitress. Fired by a new faith in my country, I ordered a piece of apple pie, something I’d never do ordinarily in any Canadian centre under a million population, and rarely then. I got pie with a flaky crust that was delectable in its own right. I was so moved I asked to speak to the cook. He was unshaven and fierce looking from working over a hot stove, with the slightly haunted look of somebody who’s trying to do a good job. instead of somebody who just thought there was more money in food than making cement blocks. He had learned his trade in West Palm Beach, Florida, and he’d wanted to learn to cook so badly that he worked in a good restaurant for a while for nothing. Even then the head cook threw a whole bowl of pizza mix over him one day. “He said, ‘You can’t cook pizza. You can't cook western sandwiches. You can't cook anything,’ and threw it at me. It went all over my shirt. I went home and told my wife, ‘I don’t have to take that.' But I went back. I wanted to learn how to cook pizza.”
The kind of American tourist who wants to bring the U. S. with him w'hercver he goes will be able to travel in Canada as if he’d never crossed the border. He'll find familiar names such as Holiday Inns, Horne's highway restaurants, Colonel Sanders' Kentucky Fried Chicken. A & W Root Beer stands. Quality Courts, and will probably before long find Howard Johnson's restaurants and motor courts and Congress Inns. Right now there are 19 Holiday Inns in Canada from Gander. Newfoundland, to Calgary, and 30 more are planned for within the next three years. Americans will see a few signs that say FAT and one that says Finger Lickin’ Good and a few car-wrecker's lots. But, in general, driving along Canada's clean, tidy highways is like driving through another world from that of the old main U. S. routes, which present some of the worst bits of human landscaping on earth. It's something that will be appreciated by American tourists who. according to the Ontario Department of Tourism, give as their number-one motive for visiting Canada “the scenery.”
Some Canadians will forget to give Americans their exchange. When I was in Hull, a waiter carefully counted
out the change from a U. S. $10 bill, with no premium, and looked me steadily in the eye in the forlorn hope that he might get away with it. When 1 asked him if he didn’t pay the exchange, he said he’d find out, as if it was something he'd just heard of, and came back with 70 cents. Most places will pay a flat rate roughly in the neighborhood of the right one but a bit below it ( I got six and seven percent), and if the customer complains they'll invite him to ankle off to a bank and buy his own Canadian money. A lot of motel owners, if told their rates are too high, will explain that it's because of the shortness of the season, a story I think they should drop. Visitors aren't interested in the financing of a motel, and, anyway, it implies that we have to make as much in five months as an American motel owner does in 12 which just sounds greedy, because if any motel owner just stays open for five months what he docs in the remaining seven is go to Florida.
Some Canadian customs are as inscrutable as the nesting habits of the Arctic owl. In one elaborate fishing resort I visited in northern Ontario, where the rent on a cabin for a week costs more than I make in a week. I asked the owner what if any complaints he got from Americans. He said they didn't get many; in fact, they were mostly about him charging 25 cents for ice cubes. It reminded me of that irritating Cana-
dian custom of charging a penny for matches with advertising on them.
I found another annoying habit: closing motel coffee shops at eightthirty. which is just the time a tired motorist wants a cup of coffee. Twice when this happened, the girl who closed the door looked out at me through the closed door with an air of triumph, as if saying, “We've come a long way in the tourist business but don't start taking things for granted.”
And I still noticed a dangerous tendency to take a project just so far, then stop just short of dressing it up. One really good-looking restaurant on Highway 400 had spent a good deal of money on improvements, then left two rusty oil drums on either side of the main entrance. In a motel in Niagara Falls, three youths in wrinkled uniforms lounged in the lobby and one lethargically handed me a key and told me to take a look at a room. I found unpainted railings, rusted iron work, a mosaic of fingerprints on the door, and if I had really been looking for a place to stay the night, I would have left. But because I just wanted to take a look, I opened the door and found one of the best - looking rooms I’d seen on the trip, spic and span, polished, and attractively decorated. This is probably preferable to having the polish on the outside and the fingerprints on the inside, but a lot of people are not going to stop long enough to realize it.
The drinking situation in Ontario
is probably still going to baffle him. He can now buy liquor without having to buy a permit but he'll be liable for arrest if he and his wife have a bottle of beer with a picnic lunch beside a lake, although he can have one in town if he sits in a beverage room like a scene from The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, and drink all he wants, providing he doesn’t go near the ladies' beverage room. I was told that the prairie provinces are making the fastest progress at bringing these places up to the standards of the cocktail lounge, but some I saw in Ontario towns haven’t changed since I last drove past them, except to get worse for 10 years. The longest blank spots for accommodation that I found, and the worst area for restaurants with broken windows and service-station washrooms out of a Freudian nightmare, were in northern Ontario. Yet in the northern bush are some of the most opulent fishing lodges in the land. At Killarney Mountain Lodge north of the French River, which, if you don’t go there by boat or seaplane, you reach by an hour’s drive through some of the most primitive and exciting scenery on the continent, an American visitor can wind up a day’s fishing with a swim in a heated pool, a Finnish bath or just sit knocking them back in the Carousel Room. It's the kind of place Americans like to come to in Canada.
But Canada as a tourists’ land has become something a great deal more in the past few years than bush and fishing camps. I talked to one big, relaxed, six-and-a-half-foot American, who wore a kind of Sherlock Holmes fishing hat, a mustard-colored houndstooth jacket, and who asked me with pleased curiosity how I knew he was an American. Apart from the hat, I’d seen his license plates. He got the idea from something I said when I asked him what he thought of Canada from an American tourist’s point of view, that / was an American and that I was beefing about something.
“You really want the truth?” he said, hesitating, as if he hated to double-cross a fellow countryman. “I love Canada.”
His wife called out to me from the car, “We've been up here three times this year.”
One of the things the man said he liked was Canada’s beautiful highways. “You don’t see any junk around them.”
“They can't make highways in the States the way they do here," his wife shouted. “They’re all peeling in New York.”
The man told me that one time in the winter he was up to Canada and got caught in a heavy snowstorm, but the road-clearing crews were on the job and he drove to Fort Erie on cleared roads, crossed at Buffalo and found the New York Thruway still plugged. He got into an argument with one of the attendants at the Thruway entrance, he said. “I told them they should go up to Canada to see howto handle things. ‘All you guys are interested in is collecting your buck forty,' 1 told them. ‘You should be ashamed of yourselves.' I said."
By this time I w-as getting a bit ashamed of myself for ever saying anything against Canada as a tourist land. ★