Friday, May 29, 2009

Trip to Canada: Day 3 - Quebec City

Quebec City's parallels with Iceland's capital, Reykjavik, are endless. Both cities are located fairly northward: while Reykjavik is the world's most northern capital, Quebec City is one of Canada's most northern provincial capitals. The populations of both cities are nearly identical: only 170,000. Likewise, their size is similar, too: despite the small population, both are fairly spread out, with hilly parts interspersed with flat ones. The only big difference aside from language is the fact that Quebec City is enclosed by a wall. In fact, it is the only walled city in North America north of Mexico City.

It does, in all aspects, provide for a laid-back and relaxing atmosphere.

To walk its hilly streets and see street entertainers in full swing is one of its big moments. To sit in an outdoor cafe provides for a similar experience, as does visiting the narrowest streets in North America.

The smell of Europe in the air is even more undeniable than in Montreal, which, in just a few areas, still has a whiff of the U.S.A. in the air. The funicular cable car and Upper and Lower Cities provide a stark contrast to the city, but a contrast that tends to make it even more memorable and affable--and also one that makes it appear even larger.

Indeed, at times it is hard to fathom that Quebec's population is less than one-fifth of a million people.

That, of course, doesn't mean it is any less interesting than Montreal or Toronto. It is, though, a completely different story, which is perhaps another reason why this city felt so refreshing after discovering it.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Trip to Canada: Day 2 - Montreal

As the second largest predominantly French-speaking city in the world, Montreal, unsurprisingly, has many parallels with France itself: the architecture, certain types of food (such as crepes), and overall atmosphere are undoubtedly French in character.

Truly, Montreal feels like a world away from the city that doesn't sleep to its southwest, Toronto. Located in Quebec province, Montreal feels almost entirely European in myriad ways, yet they are difficult to explain.

Quite simply, it is just one of those cities that has to be seen to be understood.

Its contrasts are amazing: the new downtown area full of skyscrapers and the financial district, while literally next door spans the Old Town, filled with its small, narrow streets and alleys. The promenade stretches across one side of the city, while the Latin Quarter is just a kilometer away from the Old Town itself. Quite a compact city for a city its size (some 3.6 million people live in the greater metropolitan area).

Hence, particularly such a city is hard not to fall in love with. Montreal epitomises the part of Canada (Quebec province) that has the least amount of things in common with the country's southern neighbor, the United States of America.

And that is probably another reason why this city captivated me for the day and night I was there. After all, the fact that such a European outlook in both food and architecture exists so close to the U.S. is a refreshing welcome, indeed.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Trip to Canada: Day 1 - Toronto & Niagara Falls

After crossing the U.S.A.-Canada border just after 5 a.m. on Friday, May 22, Canada didn't feel all that much different from the U.S.

Indeed, after spending a day in Toronto, a city that I last visited a decade ago, it felt like Ontario province in Canada was, at first sight, just like America -- with the ubiquitous Walgreen's, obese people, and decrepit roads excluded.

It is hard to fathom that such a large country has a population of just over 30 million. The U.S.A., though slightly smaller in land area than Canada, has a population that is 10 times greater. Canada didn't seem so sparsely populated when looking at the U.S. over the Niagara Falls, but that is because most of the population lives in cities and towns near the border -- the world's longest undefended border, which lies along the 49th parallel and stretches over 3,000 miles.

In any case, Toronto didn't seem like a small city by any means. As Canada's financial capital and most populated city (with a population of some 6 million if including the greater metropolitan area), it felt almost like Chicago on steroids (read: neon). OK, maybe not so much neon as advertisements, but the city did pleasantly surprise me by its architecture: whereas in Chicago our districts are largely distinct by both their ethnic makeup and architecture, in Toronto it was only the former that, perhaps, is similar to Chicago. Walking around central Toronto, one immediately gets the feeling that skyscrapers, three-story houses, and companies' financial headquarters are oftentimes located side-by-side (on the same street), separated by a shop or two. Not exactly gaudy, but it takes getting used to for an American.

However, this is not to say that I didn't enjoy Toronto. In fact, quite the opposite is true: it is an interesting city that is replete with immigrants and cultures. Within six hours, I saw the fringes of Chinatown, various Lebanese eateries, and a march in honor of the dead in Sri Lanka's war with the Tamil Tigers (or vice-versa, depending on your interpretation of history and current events). It's like the Canadian city that doesn't sleep, seemingly a Canadian version of New York, which it is. And it also happens to be a lot cleaner than the Big Apple, too.

Overall, it is a great start on a warm, sunny day to a trip that will take me further north to Montreal, lying some 300 miles northeast of Toronto in Canada's French-speaking Quebec province, and then to Quebec City, which itself is 160 miles northeast of Montreal, or nearly 500 miles away from Toronto.

P.S. Niagara Falls was an amazing site, too. Having last visited Canada in 1999, I forgot just how intense such a waterfall is. It is also quaint how the U.S. and the Niagara Falls from the U.S. side are literally meters away at places. Indeed, Niagara Falls may not be one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but it surely comes close. Rarely have I seen waterfalls this large or intense in other countries (perhaps what comes closest is the Gullfoss Waterfall in Iceland). The sheer adrenaline rush that one unmistakably feels the closer one approaches the water has to be experienced to be believed, almost comparable to walking on the Shibuya crossing in downtown Tokyo in concert with thousands of other people.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Best Hostels Worldwide

When traveling around the world last year, I kept a list of the hostels, guesthouses, and other forms of accommodation that I was most fondest of.

I took into consideration several factors: location, price, customer service/hospitality, amenities, breakfast or other options, etc. Overall, there are 15 hostels or guesthouses that did a terrific job.

I ranked them in order, with 1 being the best. A special mention goes out to the West Lake Youth House in Hangzhou, China, which I have kept separate from the others due to the staff's determination to make my stay comfortable. It was quite an experience when calling Dandong, a city in China's northeast Liaoning province, and not having a Chinese translator here in Chicago; luckily, the staff at the West Lake Youth House called Dandong for me and refused to take any remuneration for it. (The call, in case you are wondering, was to book a spot on a ferry from Dandong to Incheon, South Korea.) And their location, prices, and early morning breakfast (which comes for an extra fee) are unbeatable!

The top 15 are listed below. If planning a trip to any of these cities, I suggest these places with the utmost assurance that you won't regret them.

1. IchiEnSou – Kyoto, Japan
2. Wombat’s City “The Base” – Vienna, Austria
3. Bogeda Hotel – Hanoi, Vietnam
4. Golden Pond Guesthouse – Seoul, South Korea
5. K’s House – Kyoto, Japan
6. Leo’s Hostel – Beijing, China
7. Hotel Raizan South – Osaka, Japan
8. The 3 Ducks – Paris, France
9. Oak Hotel – Tokyo, Japan
10. Zimmer Nice Hostel – St. Petersburg, Russia
11. Friendly Fun Franks Backpackers Hostel – Riga, Latvia
12. Rory’s Pub and Guesthouse – Phnom Penh, Cambodia
13. City Lodge – Stockholm, Sweden
14. Royal Mile Backpackers – Edinburgh, Scotland
15. People’s Square Youth Hostel – Shanghai, China