In deciding what to do for summer vacation last year, friends Mark, Karen and their daughter, decided on a Canadian Bus Trip where they could relax, and let Starr, a local bus tour company, do the planning and driving. This post is a result of an interview with them that discusses the 6-day trip, and its pros and cons.
Selecting the Canadian Bus Trip – Quebec City and Montreal
Mark’s friend had recently used Starr, and Mark liked the idea of having someone else do the driving (sounds good to me!). Mark hadn’t been to Montreal and Quebec City so it sounded like a good choice. The Canadian Bus Trip description sounded inviting – “Explore the rich culture and
heritage of the historic architecture, ancient churches, beautiful parklands, and picturesque villages on this vacation that brings together the new world with old world charm.” On the surface, it sounds like a nice combination of city and country, and you don’t need to think – just enjoy the ride. Mark and Karen decided solely on this information.
This is quite different from the way Tom and I travel. I would have called the company and asked for a very specific itinerary to know the route, what sights were planned, and where I might have free time.
Mark assumed they could ditch the bus for some of the tours to visit the sights they preferred. The only way to do that is to ditch the bus for the whole day, and miss everything on the itinerary, which they did not want to miss. They stuck with the itinerary for the whole trip.
Sites, Stops and Highlights on The Canadian Bus Trip
The bus travels north from the Philadelphia to overnight in Montreal on the first night. A sightseeing tour of Christ Church, the underground Mall, a Protestant Church, Mount Royal – a mountain in the city of Montreal, Old City Montreal, and a visit to the Notre-Dame Basilica ensued. “The interior of the Basilica Notre Dame is gorgeous in every direction you looked, with art carvings throughout, and murals that including both religious scenes and local industrial scenes of mining and forestry.” The guide spoke of the religious and community history of the Catholic Church and its meaning to the citizens of Montreal.
They visited the Christ Church Cathedral, an Anglican Gothic Revival cathedral, and it is considered a historical monument, and Canadian National Historic Site. What seems unique in Canada is the cultural openness; notice the rainbow flag bunting, celebrating gay parishioners.
There was some free time after the tours, but not much. This is great time to visit Montreal’s famous underground mall, dug under the 100+ year old Christ Church. It is a 3-story mall built with the ceiling skylight in the Church courtyard. It is an interesting construction feat to view. Shopping in another country when the dollar strong is always a nice bonus, too.
On the second night in Montreal, the bus took everyone to the Casino de Montreal. While the casino is a modern structure and pleasant in design, it is not as extravagant as a Las Vega casino, but certainly much nicer than the New Jersey casinos. Mark says the only things to do there is gamble or eat, as they found no shows or musical entertainment that fit between the bus drop off and pickup times.
Day 4 – Off to Quebec City, which is filled with quaint shopping in local boutiques. You can buy things from maple everything, jewelry, crystal, food, and more. The tour provided a little free time to shop and walk the city. Quebec, the French Capitol City, was created as a fortified area for fur trading, so the city started out as a fur trading post.
Two days in Quebec City included several sightseeing tours in and outside of the City. Visits included:
- Shrine of St. Anne de Beaupre set on the St. Lawrence River, where you can view masterpieces from many artists in paintings, mosaics, stained glass, stone and wood carvings. In St. Anne’s, the art displayed everyday life with few biblical stories.
- Montmorency Falls at the mouth of the Montmorency River where the water drops into the St. Lawrence is a gorgeous photo-op stop on the way back to Quebec City. These Falls are higher than Niagara Falls, although not as wide as Niagara.
- Two nights in Quebec City. Mark and family spent quite a bit of time across the street from their Hilton hotel at the Chateau Frontenac. Previously the Flagship hotel of the Canadian Railways, Le Chateau Frontenac is the most often photographed hotel due to its beauty and elegance. Mark says, “It is phenomenally gorgeous.”
After Quebec City, the Canadian Bus trip headed to Lake George on day 5 with a visit to Albany on day 6.
In Lake George, an afternoon was planned at the lake with free time, but unfortunately it rained heavily. Bus trip guests chose to go to the Tangier Outlets, a good back-up plan.
The next stop was Albany, NY, the Capitol building, which seemed like an odd addition, and a lovely architectural surprise. In the 1800’s, the NY State government approved a $4 million budget for the building, and fired the architect after he spent $29 million. The building is a juxtaposition of incredible design, craftsmanship, and art included in the $29 million construction next to the basic uninteresting construction completed after the architect was fired. The marble work was as nice as any marble in Florence, according to Mark. The staircase, walls, and banisters are an integrated piece of art; although the staircase is being used, part of the Senate Chamber is unfinished due to firing the architect. All facts were learned from the terrific docent leading their tour. Go to see the Albany Capitol building to learn the interested and fun story about the ceilings in the State Senate and the State House of Representatives.
Montreal – Best Western Ville-Mari which is in downtown Montreal near McGill University, a good location. It is a 3-star hotel with 4-star TripAdvisor ratings. Mark and Karen liked the hotel, and if they drive in the future they would not a hotel with parking instead.
Quebec hotel – This Hilton has great views of the Old City. Mark and Karen liked this hotel the best on the Canadian Bus Trip.
Lake George accommodations were a Clarion Hotel, which is generally a 3-star accommodation. TripAdvisor’s rating is 4.5 stars. Mark’s opinion – “it’s a lower level quality of hotel than where we usually stay.”
Cost of a Canadian Bus Trip
For the group of 3, this trip to Montreal, Quebec City, and Lake George cost $2500 that included all transportation in a deluxe coach, overnight hotel accommodations, venue entry fees, a tour guide on the bus and docents at various sites.
Could I have done it for less on my own? Yes, and it would have taken some work to decide on accommodations, stops, and sites and to organize and book it. Likely we would not have had the tour guides.
Pros of The Canadian Bus Trip
Mark says, “The bus trip meant I could read a book instead of driving. Navigating customs, parking, and city driving is easier on a bus than in my own car. The bus driver had to deal with city traffic and crowds.”
Starr took care of all of the luggage. Everything was left on the bus and safely locked when they got off. (It’s nice to be able to leave your stuff and not have to think about it being safe.)
The Canadian Bus tour guide was extremely knowledgeable, and passengers were able to sit back and listen to stories about everything they passed. The Canadian Bus Trip guide talked about geology, architecture, science, history, religion, Canadian healthcare, art, and more. The guide offered trivia and the back story for each place.
The US Dollar is strong against the Canadian dollar (Loony) right now, a definite plus.
Cons of the Canadian Bus Trip
Passengers received a 4 page itinerary after booking the trip, yet, it was still too difficult to figure out when free time would be available to visit sights of personal interest. The Starr webpage was not any help either.
They were restricted to the schedule of the group.
There was much more to see than the time allotted. Both Montreal and Quebec have great museums worth seeing. The bus went to mostly to churches, and no museums.
Each passenger is allowed one bag and one carry on.
Create your criteria for making a decision on such a trip – consider things like convenience, ease, cost, and being in control or allowing Starr to dictate the schedule.
Be sure you know the detailed itinerary before you make your decision on a trip, so you are not disappointed.
Customs in both directions is much more serious about inspecting your belongings. Keep it simple and pack less. For example, the bus passenger’s watched as border control agents took apart the car in front, and even brought in the drug sniffing dogs, although nothing was found.
Taking food over the border is a hassle. Eat / drink it all on one side of the border; then buy more food after crossing the border.
Is a Canadian Bus Trip Worthwhile?
Mark and Karen liked the Canadian Bus Trip, and would have preferred fewer churches and more museums. Mark says, “Yes I would go on another Starr tour. If I go to Montreal again I would drive, stay at a hotel that had parking, and spend more time at museums.”
On our own trips, I plan all of the details, while Tom does most of the driving. Our way is a lot more work, and likely less expensive. Perhaps it is not worth the savings when you consider the ease of travel on a fully planned bus trip.