Toronto to New York, a cross-country road trip caught between skyscrapers

Rachel Cranshaw
Toronto: Canada's New York? - © 2009 Gail Shotlander

People call Toronto the New York of Canada. You can see why: there’s that high-rise skyline, a grid system of roads, a pleasant diversity of neighbourhoods and a thriving restaurant scene. Here, however, getting a table at the most desirable restaurants doesn’t involve queuing. Hipsters congregate on just one manageable road: Queen Street West (take that, Brooklyn).

But still. There is the pull of the Big Apple, the showcase city in New York State, the outer reaches of which on a clear day are visible from the top of Toronto’s CN Tower. New York City itself is 500 miles away, and a journey between the two cities offered the prospect of much to see, from the watery rush of Niagara Falls to the calm of the Catskills.

Toronto, Canada's largest city, at sunset Credit: Getty

Ideally I would have driven all the way, but hire-car restrictions mean that crossing the border is unfeasibly expensive. I decided instead to get the train from Toronto to Niagara, then cross into the US via an established transfer service to Buffalo airport, from where I could then pick up a rental car. It wasn’t exactly Route 66, but it would give me a sense of adventure and freedom. So I headed to Toronto’s Union Station to catch my train to Niagara Falls, swapping concrete grey for vineyard green in less than two hours.

My hotel was Sheraton on the Falls, in the town’s Vegas-style hyperactive centre. Niagara is a baffling place. Not only will you have your share of its eight million annual visitors to contend with, but those iconic views of one of the world’s most spectacular waterfalls are juxtaposed with casinos and a Hard Rock Cafe.

No matter: a short bus ride away is Niagara Glen, where one can escape the crowds almost completely and enjoy beautiful hiking. More recently, the MistRider Zipline to the Falls has opened (less scary than it sounds; you ride next to the falls, not over them, upright in a basket-like contraption).

The Hornblower boat ride takes you within drenching distance of the mouth of Horseshoe Falls at Niagara Credit: Getty

There were little flashes of authenticity: a craft brewery and restaurants certified by Feast On, an Ontario scheme to promote the use of locally sourced ingredients. At Queen Victoria Place Restaurant, I sat on a terrace (shaded, with occasional Falls spritz) and ate local trout, followed by crème brûlée flavoured with maple syrup. The wine list was completely Ontario-based too. I didn’t miss out on the classic attraction either, the Hornblower boat ride, which takes you within drenching distance of the mouth of Horseshoe Falls. No matter how many red poncho pictures you’ve seen, nothing quite prepares you for the sound or the soaking.

The morning of my border crossing began with an early start. When we reached border control, I regretted not applying for an ESTA visa waiver in advance as I had to get out and queue to have it put manually in my passport. Far better to do it online, as you would if you were arriving by plane.

But then, at last I was in New York State. At Buffalo airport, I collected my ride, a slate-grey automatic Jeep. My only concern before embarking on this expedition had been that for the majority of the trip I would be driving solo. No co-pilot would be available until I reached the Catskills town of Hudson, where my girlfriend was due to join me. Having never driven an automatic, nor indeed on the “wrong” side of the road before, I was apprehensive.

Us road trips

I soon realised, though, that driving on highways in North America is what makes road trips here so attractive: they’re wide, well maintained and well signposted. I headed for Buffalo harbour, once a run-down industrial space that has been regenerated for the community and now boasts food trucks to feast from and colourful lounge chairs to sit in. Fed and watered, I felt ready to face the road again, navigating my way successfully out of the city and on to the Interstate 90. This was to be the furthest I would drive in a single day, more than 300 miles in total.

About a third of the way there, I pulled into the Old Erie Canal Heritage Park. This unlikely roadside attraction offers a fascinating glimpse into life here in the mid-19th to early-20th centuries, when horses were used to carry heavy, bulky cargo between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Seaboard – as explained by charming volunteers whose passion is infectious.

I rolled up that evening at Hudson train station, where my girlfriend had been waiting for several hours. The romance of driving hundreds of miles to meet her was diminished by my tardiness; my smooth entrance dampened by mounting the kerb. However, the perfect tonic for the weary motorist came in the form of comfortable yet stylish Scribner’s Catskill Lodge, which has been given a Scandi-chic makeover and become a member of Design Hotels. That night, we watched the sun set over Hunter Mountain from the terrace, cocktails in hand.

The Catskills is like the Hamptons but for hipsters Credit: Getty

Wealthy Manhattanites escape the city to the Hamptons; Brooklyn hipsters head to the Catskills. This means gorgeous scenery (try nearby Kaaterskill Falls, where you can wind your way down through lush foliage and weathered rocks past small but mighty cascades) and a concentration of quirky little clapboard towns such as Hudson, filled with great coffee shops, delis, small galleries, bars and restaurants. Be sure to visit Maggie’s Krooked Cafe in Tannersville for banana oat pancakes, best enjoyed on the front porch in the morning sun.

We zigzagged between towns en route to New York City, stopping for coffee in Woodstock, which still feels very much alive with hippie spirit (an alternative route takes in Bethel Woods, site of the festival, which now has a popular arts centre).

Amazing things you probably didn't know about New York

This was it: quintessential road trip territory, exemplified by our stop at the Phoenicia Diner, with its grits, skillets and, of course, perfect fries and milkshakes. We lingered in the car park taking pictures before sauntering inside as though we did this sort of thing all the time, then sped on to Opus 40 sculpture park to marvel at some serious stonework.

Having decided that driving through Manhattan might be a hair-raising escapade too far, I bid farewell to the Jeep at unromantic Newark airport. I had envisaged this journey concluding with the bright lights of Manhattan coming into view, and it did – though I was safely in the back of a cab by this point, chauffeured by my first female Uber driver. She drove through Manhattan like the pro she was. That’s my mission for next time. And then I’ll take on Route 66.


The essentials

Getting there

Air Canada (00 800 6699 2222; aircanada.com) flies from Heathrow to Toronto from £401 return. Air Canada Rouge flies via Gatwick, Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow. AirTransat flies from Manchester and Glasgow.

Staying there

Double rooms at Sheraton on the Falls from £76; at Scribner’s Catskill Lodge from £120.

Getting around

One-way car hire from Buffalo to Newark costs around £400 in a four-wheeled drive with Alamo. GPS and toll pass add-ons
recommended.

Trains to Niagara Falls from Toronto cost from around £28 with Via Rail.

What to do

MistRider Zipline to the Falls (niagarafalls.wildplay.com) opens April-Oct; from £33. Hornblower Voyage to the Falls Boat Tours (niagaracruises.com) April-Nov; from £15. Old Erie Canal Heritage Park (newyorkcanals.org) May-Oct; free entry.  Phoenicia
Diner is at 5681 Route 28 (00 1 845 688 9957; phoeniciadiner.com).

More information at ontariotravel.net for Ontario; iloveny.com for New York State