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Jul. 20 2010 - 12:50 am | 240 views | 0 recommendations | 16 comments

20 Fun Things To Bring Home From A Canadian Vacation

Mountain Equipment Co-op in Vancouver, Canada.

The MEC Vancouver store. Image via Wikipedia

I’m finishing up a two-week vacation in Canada, two days in my native Toronto and the rest in British Columbia: Vancouver, Victoria and Kamloops. In June I spent five days in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, just south of Montreal.

From this trip, I’m carrying home a new strategy for gin rummy (thanks, Mom!), some new clothes and shoes, two Olympics hats. Nothing fancy. But I know where to shop and what I can’t (yes, really) find in New York City.

I grew up in Canada and go back several times a year, stocking up on favorite items, some of which we natives know all about, but visitors might not.

Some you might find fun or useful:

222s. It sounds like ammunition, and in sense, it is — a powerful headache pill that contains codeine. They are not sold on the drugstore shelf but you have to ask the pharmacist for them. They really do the trick.

Beer. While you can find some Canadian beers in the U.S., there are many great microbreweries. We love the apricot-flavored beer we find in Quebec. Sleeman’s is another favorite. After you’ve tried some of our best, weak dreck like Coors or Budweiser will never cross your lips again.

MEC. It stands for Mountain Equipment Co-Op, and there is one in every major Canadian city; similar to an REI or EMS, offering everything you might need for outdoor adventures. Their duffel bags and backpacks are well made, good-looking and affordable. I always know someone’s from Canada if I see them in NY or Europe with an MEC pack. It’s a co-operative, which keeps prices low, and you can join it too. They also have a full-time executive charged with ethical sourcing.

Something Mountie-related. They’re everywhere…T-shirts, mugs, caps. They are a 137-year-old mythical part of Canada’s history and unique in this respect — Americans don’t wear FBI T-shirts or buy FBI bears or drink from FBI mugs, but Mounties are well-loved. I especially like them because they saved my Mom’s life, busting in her door when she lived alone in a small town and needed rescue. (This is part of what they do, filling in for local or provincial police.)

Voltaren. I took it as an oral steroid for my arthritic hip but in Canada (not the U.S.) it comes in a tube as a topical cream, also something you have to ask a pharmacist for.

Algemarin. My favorite product, ever — a German-made, dark blue, sea-smelling bath gel that turns your bath into a grotto. I’ve never found it in the States.

Canadian candy. Crunchie, Aero, Big Turk, Crispy Crunch, Macintosh Toffee. All are amazing. The chocolate is much smoother and sweeter than anything made by Hershey. Try it once and you’ll be hooked for life.

Miss Vickie’s chips. The best potato chips ever.

Butter tarts. Not made of butter. A sort of molasses/raisin filling, so gooey they can’t be eaten tidily. So good!

Tuques. A simple wool pull-on hat, the type you can tuck into your purse or pocket. I snagged two Vancouver 2010 Olympic ones on sale at a rest stop.

Peameal bacon. Americans call it Canadian bacon; we call it back bacon or peameal bacon. If you get to Toronto, go to the St. Lawrence Market and have a peameal bacon sandwich.

Aboriginal art, sculpture or jewelry. It might be Indian or Eskimo (the correct word is Inuit, pronounced In-weet), but there are many lovely examples to be found, whether lithographs, silkscreen prints, soapstone or bone sculptures, scarves, silver jewelry. I grew up surrounded by Inuit prints and sculpture and love it; a small soapstone bear, so tiny he fits into my palm, sits on my bedside table, a gift when I was a child.

A U of T T-shirt or cap. OK, it’s my alma mater — but Malcolm Gladwell went there too. It’s Canada’s Harvard. Americans have only heard of McGill, but U of T kicks its butt. (That’s U of Toronto.)

A maple leaf sticker, badge, luggage tag or decal. If you plan to travel in parts of the world where Americans are unwelcome, this is a standard trick — look like a Canadian.

A newfound taste for Canadian media. Pick up The Globe and Mail or The National Post, or magazines Macleans (newsweekly) or The Walrus or Maisonneuve (sort of Harper’s-ish) or Adbusters or Azure, the shelter magazine. Listen to CBC Radio, especially and see how differently (or not) stories are conceptualized and reported. You’ll never find Canadian magazines in the U.S. (except for a few libraries) and if you like the radio you hear, you can keep up with it on-line.

A loonie and a toonie. Our $1 and $2 coins, good souvenirs.

Appreciation of a nation with cradle-to-grave government-supplied and run healthcare for everyone and $5,000 a year tuition at the nation’s best universities. That’s where the new, dreaded HST (Harmonized Sales Tax) and all those taxes on liquor and gas and stamps goes. Payback!

A Roots or M0851 bag. Both are made of gorgeous leather in a small but simple/cool array of styles. Both have their own stores in many Canadian cities, selling everything from a tiny change or makeup purse to weekend duffels and dopp kits. Tough to resist. (They sell leather jackets, too.)

A Holt’s bag. They’re now bright fuchsia. Holt Renfrew is Canada’s (only) answer to Saks/Neiman-Marcus/Barney’s/Bergdorf. Even if you just buy a pair of socks or a lipstick, it’s worth a visit to their elegant stores. The Toronto one has a lovely quiet cafe on the top floor. The Montreal store has terrific period Art Deco doors. (Their accessories department is small but offers excellent, European options — I saw Keira Knightley there a few years back, and admired her Chanel sandals.) Holt’s is in several Canadian cities.


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  1. collapse expand

    Excuse me, but weak dreck like Coors and Budweiser will always cross my lips.

    That’s a helpful list, though. I’ll be on the lookout for those products if I get that far north again. Which is to say, if the cops don’t turn around at the Washington border like they did last time.

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    doug, I am shocked. Truly. Have you not heard the (Canadian) joke…why is American beer like having sex in a canoe? Because it’s f—–g close to water. Yes, jingoistic and crude.

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    Down here we usually specify a brand. I like to think that’s sophisticated of us.

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    Slightly more seriously, I drink so little that it doesn’t really matter what’s in the can. I think I have beer in my fridge from the case I bought for my house-warming party in 2002. Really, I only drink enough so as not to abstain.

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    My clan used to attend the Indy 500 annually with seats next to a Canadian family. One of the northern fellows explained to me (quite diplomatically) that Canadian beer is better than the US stuff, but that US whiskey is better than Canadian. Sounds reasonable!
    My wife, college kid, son, and I are leaving on 7/29 for a 9 day trip to Banff/Jasper. Any advice?

  6. collapse expand

    You’ve convinced me! I’m going to print out this list and take it with me to Canada, as soon as I have a chance to go. I have been once, and I was knee-high to a moose’s ankles, so I remember jack squat other than it was pretty.

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    I have a serious sweet tooh for a brownie-like concoction that can only be frosted with Bird’s Custard Powder. (Be careful bringing those 222s back across the border.)

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    You had me at Beer, but MEC took the cake. I’m always on the look out for well made outdoor stuff at a reasonable price. As you might imagine, I’m burned out on REI, which is local to me, so this boy is like a kid in a new candy store with MEC.

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    Doug, I envy you your indifference to beer. I am a huge fan of many brands of beer — had a Kokanee last night (BC brand.) If I was not, I would be much smaller.

    leon, this is great! I have not been to Banff/Jasper, but they are spectacular. You might consider googling them and seeing what articles or tips have been offered by Canadians; there is a terrific Canadian outdoors magazine called Explore and they might have done something on it. If you have never seen glacial water before, the color is amazing, Are you going to stay at the Fairmont there? I know you’ll have a great time.

    suzanna, go!!! Not sure where you live (whether you would fly or drive) but there are many cool places, whether Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City — or somewhere really rugged like Newfoundland. We had a trip planned but rethought it when we realized how enormous that province is (several domestic flights involved.) Gros Morne National Park is on my bucket list.

    John, cool. MEC really is fun and, even if it’s not totally different stuff, might have some new options. I love that MEC is a co-op and I mention them in my retail book as they clearly do really pay attention to issues of ethical sourcing.

    ncfrommke — I was going to include Nanaimo bars (which sounds a little like your description) in this list. Nanaimo is a city on Vancouver Island (birthplace of jazz singer Diana Krall), and they are essentially a brownie with a very thick buttery icing on top. 100000000 calories but so good.

    I am always thrilled to get anyone up to my country.

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    Last summer in a week, my family and I saw three plays at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, visited Amish country near Elmira, tubed down beautiful black cliffs near Elora, and visited the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Mary’s. A great, spontaneous trip.

    If anybody is up in that area, PLEASE visit the guide at the HOF. He’s really nice, but he seems very lonely.

    When I grew up, we needed to take a trip across the Ambassador Bridge from Detroit to Windsor (The Sun Parlor of Ontario) to get good beer. Now it’s way too expensive to bring back.

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    Caitlyn, I’m jealous. I walk around with a Canadian shopping list in my head … including several of the items on your list.

    Having lived near the Quebec border, Brador beer runs were a monthly event. Canadian beer is up there with Czech beers in my humble opinion. A fresh Labatts or Molson is hard to beat.

    222’s? Magic. They’ll make you forget you had too many Bradors the night before.

    And Canadian chocolates … oh my. Laura Secord and the Canadian version of the Coffee Crisp. Yum. The kinds of treats I like to eat in my pajamas when no one’s watching.

    But my heart belongs to Roots. Particularly, Roots Boots. I’m on my 6th pair and they are my shoes of choice 95% of the time, regardless of the weather, time of year or occasion. They are simply the most comfortable, well constructed shoes I’ve ever worn. I walked around in ankle-deep mud at the Roskilde music festival for 3 days in those boots and my feet were dry and happy the entire time.

    Thank you for a great post … and for reminding me I’m way overdue for a trip across the border to our northern neighbors.

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    James, sounds like a great trip, I tend to spend most of my time in Toronto or the Eastern Townships or BC (family or a resort we love.) I am dying to get to Newfoundland and would like to see the Yukon.

    joan, good to know how much you enjoy all this stuff. Roots is very good quality and I’ve been wearing and using their stuff for years. Did you ever see the Laura Secord box of lollipops in all colors? A real memory from my childhood. I keep a stash of Crunchie bars in my fridge for days I really need a good cheer-up.

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    Excuuuuuuuse me, but if you google “Canada’s Harvard” the U. of T. does not appear on the first page, but McGill (coincidentally, my Alma Mater) does, several times.

    I won’t hold it against you. Much.

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    But Pauline:

    1) it’s the internet, and rarely as accurate as we’d all like 2) who wrote that page? I’m guessing a McGill grad 3) OK, so McGill is Yale, or we are 4) In the Maclean’s rankings U of T consistently hits No.1.

    But that’s OK. Because in my 22 years in the U.S. everyone’s heard of McGill and no one has a clue about U of T. Whatever…

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    Former reporter and feature writer for the Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News. Winner of a Canadian National Magazine Award (humor) about -- what else -- my divorce. I've been writing frequently for The New York Times since 1990 on almost any subject you can think of -- yup, I'm a generalist. Author of "Blown Away: American Women and Guns" (Pocket Books 2004). Canadian born, raised and formally educated, I've lived in New York since 1989.

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