OUR chirpy tour guide understandably fell silent at the sudden interruption of her history lesson.

“Lies, it’s all lies!” a seemingly inebriated native yelled out as he whizzed by on a BMX, calling into question everything we bus passengers had heard about the city of Toronto.

Bemusement reigned on the open top, doubling when it was noticed that the pedalling meddler was darting between traffic with a vacuum cleaner strapped to his back.

Welcome to Canada: not a day, in fact nary an hour, went by without a colourful encounter in the capital, and when it comes to the country, the tipsy, hoover-toting cyclist wasn’t completely off the mark – don’t believe the marketing material. Expect the unexpected.

After packing for The Great White North and landing in the nation’s beautiful south – 26 degrees Celsius in September – feeling remarkably fresh after just over seven hours flying direct from Glasgow to Toronto Pearson, a 25-minute train whisked us downtown.

It would be the first of many train journeys – we were embarking on a week’s voyage of Ontario by rail, an ideal way to take in multiple destinations around the vast expanse of the province without missing out on any of the breath-taking scenery. Niagara, Ottawa and Kingston awaited but first, Toronto (or Toron’o if you’re a local, who’d explain that the second ‘T’ belongs to the tourists). More specifically the Chelsea Hotel, where a room high in the 25-storey building gave us an awesome view of the city’s skyline and a feel for the size of the place.  

A buzzing and vibrant city centre holds its own against anything its louder cousins over the border have to offer, and more when you take into account it’s the second most diverse city on the planet, with 49 per cent of residents born outside of Canada. Portuguese chicken shacks shoulder Japanese poke vendors, orthodox Jews shuffle their way to temple past posters of Cameroonian basketball players in Koreatown.  

More than once, we heard it said that rather than a melting pot, Torontonians prefer the term ‘cultural mosaic’. Rather than stirring everyone into one big amorphous stew, every ingredient is present in Toronto and adds colour and flavour – in other words, it’s a salad, not a soup.

It’s not just everywhere you look – it’s in everything you taste. You can run the gut gamut from authentic street cuisine on Kensington Avenue or Assembly Chef’s Hall to the more tourist-friendly offerings of the famous Lawrence St Market, where every other stall proclaims to sell the best peameal bacon sandwiches in the city.

After a calorie-loaded breakfast at Tim Horton’s, a Canadian institution, and lunch at the markets, we waddled down to the subway and got off at Dunlop, a ramshackle but charming neighbourhood on the west side of the city.

Killing some time watching the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team lose their post-season play-off (not for the first time, judging by the beleaguered fans propping up the bar), we then headed for dinner at Fat Pasha, a cosy eatery specialising in a tantalising combo of Middle Eastern and European Jewish dishes. What followed employed a hitherto unused notch in my belt as shawarma, brisket and the most amazing fried crushed potatoes took up every visible inch of the table. And the labneh – dear God, the labneh. The Blue Jays could have brought the full roster in and they wouldn’t have made a dent. If I’d taken the dish home to Glasgow, it would have qualified as a small munro.    

If you’re more hungry for culture than you are for hummus, the city has plenty to get your teeth into. Take a stroll through Toronto University’s leafy campus and you can’t miss the emerald-shaped ROM (the Royal Ontario Museum) jutting into the sky. Once named ‘Canada’s Most Hated Building’, its crystalline angles are certainly a sight to behold, and what’s inside is all the more impressive, with world-leading collections of ancient Chinese artifacts and Egyptian art set out elegantly in a sprawling premises.

A visit to Casa Loma may conjure some deja vu for Scots. A huge Gothic Revival mansion built in the fashion of a Highland castle by Sir Henry Pellatt, whose father hailed from Glasgow, its gardens remain a stunning viewpoint for the Toronto skyline. It may also be familiar to film lovers, having played a part in X-Men, Scott Pilgrim vs The World and the live-action Beauty and The Beast remake in recent times.

If you’ve got half an hour for something different, it’s also worth popping into The Monkey’s Paw bookshop. This unassuming wee store specialises in rare titles – I spotted ‘Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance’, a racy page-turner called ‘Weekday Widows: A Sensational Novel About Promiscuous Parents’ and a huge red tome with block capitals across the front ominously titled ‘SUICIDE’. Possibly not one for leafing through by the pool.   

Our evening meal took place a few miles back into the city centre – or rather 1,136ft above it, in the CN Tower restaurant. Once the tallest building on earth, the fearsome needle boasts unparalleled views of the city, and sitting down for an all-Canadian dinner in a restaurant spinning over the nation’s one-time capital (one full revolution every 72 minutes) makes for a novel experience – for example, watching an unsuspecting customer’s hat drift by on the windowsill or wondering where that restroom has rotated off to.

A day trip to Niagara Falls is unmissable. The train takes two and a half hours – which whizzed by as we curved around Lake Ontario. The Falls themselves need no introduction although the town itself surprised me – less a tranquil nature reserve and more a mini-Vegas of casinos and chain restaurants. The Niagara cruise is the centrepiece of the experience, with the boat taking you right up to – and for a short while, under – the 2.8 million litres per second that tumble over the cliff edge. It goes without saying, but the dress code is amphibious-casual.

And on to Ottawa. Travelling business class with ViaRail meant the five hours flew by in complete comfort with plenty opportunity for some shut-eye and decent fare available aboard the carriage. The capital is home to Parliament Hill, just a short walk from our plush hotel, the Lord Elgin. The majority of downtown Ottawa’s population are civil servants and would have their fingers crossed for the temperature to dip enough over the next fortnight for the river that cuts the city in half to freeze over so they could pour out in their thousands and skate to work.

Canada’s Scottish connections were on full display in Ottawa. Check the map and you’ll see some familiar names, with Abingdon, Crieff and Hamilton a stone’s throw away, while kilted military pipers playing to signal the end of their watch everyday outside the parliament. On a late-night run to a local diner I even found deep-fried mars bar on the menu.

We spent much of our time roaming the Kensington Market, an eclectic community of vintage shops, hole-in-the-wall boutiques and homely pubs. The Caesar cocktail is a speciality – basically a Bloody Mary with clam and tomato juice –a hangover cure, a full lunch and the first drink of your next night out all in one.

After a couple of nights in Ottawa, our trip ended in sleepy Kingston, just two hours away. A charming wee spot, it was the perfect place to relax after the pedometer-busting we’d done over the week. The stormy weather and Canadian Thanksgiving threw a spanner in our schedule, with our planned tour of the Thousand Islands (an archipelago where many of Canada’s wealthy have second homes… and yes, the place where the dressing was invented) cancelled. Luckily, the Prince George Hotel, perched on the northeast edge of Lake Ontario, was the most luxurious of the lot and we had no problem lounging, venturing out only for lantern-lit ghost tour of the town, taking in grisly tales of long-lost sailors, grave robbers and mass burial sites for nuns.     

It turns out ignorance wasn’t bliss at all – I’d always written off Canada as a colder USA with less glamour. Toronto proved me wrong on both fronts, Niagara provided majestic sightseeing, Ottawa covered off the history and culture of the place and Kingston gave us a chance to catch our breath in style – and doing it by rail made a hectic itinerary somehow relaxing. All aboard…    

Travel facts

A seven night rail tour through Canada is priced from £1,995pp with Tropical Sky or Canadian Sky based on two adults sharing a double room on a mixed board basis. This includes three nights at Chelsea Toronto; two nights at Lord Elgin Ottawa and two nights at Delta Hotels By Marriott Kingston Waterfront, international flights from Glasgow with Air Trasat, VIA Rail train journeys in standard class from Toronto to Ottawa, Ottawa to Kingston and Kingston to Toronto, a Toronto Hop-on Hop-Off excursion, a day trip to Niagara Falls and a lunch cruise around the Thousand Islands from Kingston.