Poker is another hobby of mine and similar to football it is gives me the opportunity to travel. Normally I would go to Las Vegas, sometimes Macau, but this time fancying a change, and a chance to visit a new country, I decided on Canada. A Canadian friend had just moved to Montreal and as a keen poker player himself was raving about a place called Playground Poker Club just outside the city. Of course we couldn’t spend our whole time in a dedicated poker room (could we?!) so I formulated a plan to see a bit of more of this huge country for a 8 day trip.
We flew Air Transat solely for the fact they were the only direct carrier from Manchester to Toronto. We managed to secure an upgrade thanks to knowing the flight dispatcher at Manchester Airport so flew in relative comfort on this more budget of airlines. Customs were very thorough especially for our Iraqi born friend but once we were through and collected our hire car we were quickly en route to Niagara Falls, our first stop of the trip.
Niagara Falls city on the Canadian side of the eponymous falls has a population of about 90000. The majority of the industry today is based around tourism created by this world famous attraction, partly due to the better views from the Canadian side. In the mid-1990s the Ontario government legalised gambling bringing a boom of casinos and accompanying hotels, this meant our gambling was not to be limited to just Montreal.
Niagara Falls is actually the collective name for 3 waterfalls that straddle the international border between Canada and USA. Bridal Falls and American Falls are however just a prelude to the main event, Horseshoe Falls. Of course the closer you are the louder it sounds but what we weren’t prepared for was the huge amount of spray that you hits you even when 200 metres away! We were not adequately dressed for this soaking so only took a quick initial look at the falls. Not to worry though as after an evening of poker and roulette at the Fallsview Casino the following day we took one of the frequent boat trips out to the falls. From the Canadian side the boat tour is with Hornblower Cruises, whilst if you visit from the USA side it is on the Maid Of The Mist. Both trips are essentially the same, a short 30 minute cruise where you get far closer to Horseshoe Falls than you might expect and where you will get DRENCHED! You do get given a free poncho but with the strong wind created by the cascading water and the heavy spray you will still get wet, very wet! (see the video below if you don’t believe me!) It is only once you are on the cruise and up close to falls that you really appreciate the astonishing power the cascading water creates. Fortunately for us it was a sunny day and we were able to soon dry off once off the boat.
Back in the town we explored Clifton Hill. This overly touristy street was like walking through the set of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory minus the chocolate, although there is a Hershey’s World there. There are 2 crazy golf courses, 2 arcades, a Laserquest, a bowling alley, countless tacky shops, and other entertainment options. It was amazingly kitsch, like Blackpool with better weather and less chance of getting bottled.
By now though we had done all we wanted to do in our short 2 nights stay in Niagara so were happily back on the road to Toronto. We had 2 nights here and being one of Canada’s premier cities there was of course lots to see and do. There would be no gambling however as there are no casinos within the city limits, the nearest one in North York, 20 kilometres away which was not a good venue for playing poker anyway.
We found the city centre fairly compact and its grid-iron streets easy to navigate. The people, as they were in Niagara, were super friendly too. Being in mid-June the weather was hot (28 degrees celsius) so our first stop was the beach, strangely named Woodbine Beach, despite it being completely non-smoking. Here we had a nice walk along the promenade surprised at the number of beach volleyball courts (we counted over 100!) before we caught an Uber to the Downtown for a visit to the CN Tower. ‘The Needle’ was once the the tallest building in the world before the Asian and Arabian superpowers started their vanity projects to build higher and higher. Great views of course were offered and like the Macau Tower you have the chance to walk around the windy perimeter whilst attached to a safety rope.
The following day we visited Graffiti Alley, Chinatown area and the entertainment district. Toronto is a great place to just meander around and explore the various neighbourhoods. It had everything I expected from a Canadian city, friendly people, clean, safe streets and easy to navigate. That evening we finished off by going for some craft beers in the Distillery District, a regenerated area of restaurants and bars similar to Manchester’s Northern Quarter.
Our final stop of the holiday was Monteal in the province of Quebec. We caught the Via Rail train 5 hours direct from Toronto Union Station. We had booked our tickets in advance as prices can fluctuate like airlines do the more seats they sell. We had a very comfortable journey through the lake strewn landscape as we moved from Ontario into French Canada. The differences between here and Ontario were immediately apparent when we got a taxi from the station. Here the taxi driver only spoke to us in French, he was also the most French man I have ever seen with a striped t-shirt, beret and Gallic nose, all he was missing was a roll of onions around his neck and a baguette under his arm. Anyway we quickly recalled our GCSE French and were able to direct him to our AirBnB accommodation in Chinatown.
85% of French Canadians reside in the province of Quebec. The majority trace their ancestry to the French Colonists who settled in Canada in the 17th century. Their language and traditions have remained and it makes for an interesting cultural change to any visit to this part of Canada. You can get by with English but the locals do appreciate f you can speak a little French. A simple bonjour and ca va? can go a long way here.
We had 4 nights in here and the main plan was to play poker and do some sightseeing in between. 4 million people live in the metropolitan area of Montreal although the centre felt a lot smaller than Toronto that has a population of 6 million. The first thing we did was to have a brief look around the regenerated Vieux Port area that houses exhibitions, food and market stalls selling quirky home made wares (think Manchester Christmas Markets).
You cannot actually gamble within the city limits of Montreal. The Playground Poker Club (PPC) is on Kahnawake Indian reservation land about 15 kilometres outside. The 3 of us on this trip are all keen poker players and it is actually how we all met, across the felt in Manchester Grosvenor Casino. We signed up at the front desk and were told that all food and all drink is free so long as you are playing poker. In this respect the PPC is actually better than Las Vegas, the idea of course is to keep people in the building for as long as possible. The free drinks offer is actually not as amazing as it sounds if you want to play good poker, but who cares about that when you can have a sirloin steak washed down with a Chateauneuf Du-Pape for free! We stayed for about 8 hours with mixed results between us. We returned over the course of the next 3 days and were not disappointed with the decision to base our holiday around this place. The service was exemplary and puts many English casinos I have visited in the shade.
So aside from the poker there is lots to do in Montreal during the summer. You can climb up to Mont Royal (Mont Real) from where the city gets its name, to get views across the conurbation and beyond, there is Notre Dame Cathedral and the cobbled streets of the old town. Away from the centre the islands of Sainte Helene and Notre Dame can be reached by car, ferry or underground. Here is where the Canadian Grand Prix takes place every June and where the remnants of the 1967 Expo are. It is also where the main casino closest to the city centre is situated.
There are loads of festivals that take place every summer in Montreal, from free open air music gigs, with renowned French Canadian artists (no Celine Dion fortunately) to Beer festivals at a number of sites across the city. We had timed our visit to be in Montreal at the weekend as the city has a reputation for being the party capital of Canada. We were not disappointed. There are several districts you can go out in but the majority of the guides suggested Rue St Catherine be the place to go. There are bars all along here and some of the side streets are pedestrianised, such as Crescent Street. Here you can sit outside, people watch and sup on a nice local beer. We had a great final night out on the Saturday, there was a exciting atmosphere that although loud and lairy never felt threatening.
The hangover the next day was less fun and the flight home in economy on an old Airbus A310 awful, thankfully there was a good tailwind and we got back in just over 6 hours.
1. Bring waterproof clothing for the Niagara Boat cruises.
2. Consider doing a day trip to the
falls from Toronto if you aren’t bothered about seeing anything else of Niagara.
3. Book Via Rail trains early as prices and seat availability will get worse.
4. Take the tough walk up to Mont Royal in Montreal and be rewarded with great views.