Norris McDonald drove from one end of our great nation to the other, all in the comfort of eight different Mercedes-Benz vehicles.
Happy Birthday, Canada. You’re 150 years old and still going strong.
To celebrate the Sesquicentennial (say that fast, five times), Mercedes-Benz Canada took me and five other automotive journalists on a cross-country adventure in which we went from Mile Zero in St. John’s, Nfld., to Mile Zero in Victoria, B.C., in five days. The trip actually took six days because we had to gather in St. John’s the day before launch — but who’s counting, eh?
The goal was to touch down in all 10 Canadian provincial capitals plus Ottawa and to drive a car in every province. The cars, of course, were all Mercedes-Benz products.
The kicker is that they were all Cabriolets, and the Mercedes-Benz program was called “CabriOCanada 150” (if you eliminate the space between Canada and 150, you have the Twitter hashtag we all used and our Tweets are still all there, if you’re interested) and the plan was to drive with the tops down at all times — something we managed to do with one exception, which I will tell you about later.
Now, the best way to see this country is by car. Yes, the train has its advantages — you can sit back and admire the scenery, particularly when passing through the Rockies, and not have to worry about keeping the thing on the rails — but you can only go from Point A to Point B. You can’t deviate. Same with the bus. The plane is great if you’re going somewhere for a vacation and you don’t have a lot of time. You can be there in a matter of hours, but you miss so much when you’re at 35,000 feet and looking down.
But a car can take you anywhere and everywhere. Although we were given routes to follow, most of us would see something off on the horizon and peel away to both take a look and a photograph.
Once, in Saskatchewan, our route map directed us to a little Prairie town called Fleming, where there allegedly was a historic grain elevator. Figuring it would be a great backdrop for a photograph, we drove in and around that place (not much more than an intersection, really) for 10 minutes, looking for it — which is not something you can do on a train or a bus with a schedule to keep.
The topography around Fleming can be described with one word — “flat” — so, I said to my co-driver, Mark Richardson, a former editor of Toronto Star Wheels: “You’d think a grain elevator around here would be sticking up pretty much like a sore thumb, wouldn’t you?” And he said, “Let’s go ask somebody where it is,” and pulled over.
I stayed in the car — tweeting — and off he went to chat up a woman and a couple of young girls walking beside the road. He came back a short while later, laughing.
“What’s so funny?” I asked him.
“You know that grain elevator we’ve been looking for? Well, it burned down in 2010.”
So I said: “Gee, I guess that’s why we couldn’t find it.”
The distance between Mile Zero in St. John’s and Mile Zero in Victoria is 7,510 kilometres (4,666 miles), give or take 100 km one way or the other. We drove about 2,500 km — a third of the way; the rest of the time we were either sleeping or — because of time constraints — on Air Canada.
But in our five days, we went from chilly St. John’s (which is being kind; it was overcast and there was snow in the air) to shirt sleeves sunny-and-warm Vancouver Island, a.k.a. California Canada.
We drove some beautiful cars — eight, in total — on a wonderful highway, the Trans-Canada. We went from hilly, treed terrain in the Maritimes and central Canada, to the sometimes rolling but mostly flat Prairies, to the take-your-breath-away mountains of Alberta and B.C.
We kissed the cod and drank the Screech in St. John’s (one of us downed a shot of cherry juice), ate P.E.I. potatoes at a Chip Shack in Charlottetown and poutine in Joliette, Que., enjoyed bacon and eggs in the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa, hamburgers in — where else? — Alberta, and mouth-watering pastries at Shirley Delicious Café in Sooke, B.C.
We stayed in fine hotels and enjoyed wonderful sit-down dinners. My three favourite places to stay were the Delta in St. John’s — it has a magnificent view of the harbour — the Hotel Saskatchewan in Regina (the Roughriders had a reception scheduled there for the following evening), and the Rosewood Hotel Georgia, right in downtown Vancouver.
I particularly liked the latter. Years ago, the Georgia was not a place where you would book a room for your mother when she came for a visit. It sure is now.
On Monday, May 22, we left St. John’s aboard an Air Canada flight to Halifax. The day before, we’d received a briefing about the cars available for us to drive and, in order to make the Newfoundland leg legal, we’d all taken turns driving the one car at our disposal, a Mercedes-Benz C300 Cabriolet, around a parking lot.
(An aside: when it comes to pricing for these cars, it can get confusing, what with options and so on. Let’s just say C-class cabriolets start at $57,100, S-class convertibles start at $164,300, SLC roadsters have a base of $58,800 and SL roadsters start at $104,900. The SmartFortwo Cabrio starts at $21,800.)
Because it was such a bitter day (we’d gone to the top of Signal Hill where Marconi received the first trans-Atlantic radio signal in 1901 — an “S” in Morse code — and froze), none of us was particularly keen on going for a Sunday afternoon drive, opting instead for the screech-in ceremony at Christian’s Bar on George St., where we all warmed up by becoming Honorary Newfoundlanders.
Following the plane ride on Monday, we picked up our first car, an SLC 300, and headed out on the Trans-Canada toward the town of Pictou, which is not far from Caribou and the Northumberland ferry terminal.
Now, we were driving in convertibles. I’d brought along a jacket with a lining, because I expected some parts of the journey, particularly in eastern Canada, to be cold. I hadn’t counted on Mercedes-Benz anticipating this and preparing for it.
“AirScarf,” for instance, is a feature in which warm air comes out of the head restraints and “wraps” itself around the neck of the driver and his or her companion. There are three settings, and they adjust automatically, depending on the speed of the car. Couple this with the heated seats that are standard (heated steering wheels and armrests are options on some of the cabriolets), and you can soon be quite warm and cosy.
As well, behind the headrests on all these cabriolets, you will find a mesh screen (some are plastic) that protects necks and backs of heads against drafts.
In addition to the screen behind, there is a louvre that pops out above the windshield. Mercedes-Benz calls this an “AirCap,” and the idea is to reduce noise from the wind by deflecting the turbulence over and away from the cabin.
Two things: I’m still glad I brought that jacket. By the time we got out West, I really didn’t need it but east of Quebec, it came in handy. Second, because you’re in a convertible, you can never entirely get rid of outside noise. But there’s no doubt that “AirScarf” and “AirCap” go a long way toward making the convertible experience pleasant.
And I was most impressed with the handling and stability of the SLC 300. We were bombing along between Truro and New Glasgow, and I was telling Richardson all about world-famous Mount Thom, which is to the north of the highway about halfway between the two cities, when he turned his eyes back to the road and had to change direction abruptly before we hit a young deer that was lying dead in the middle of our lane.
The car performed flawlessly — but Richardson never took his eyes off the road again.
When they talk about Maritime hospitality, nobody exaggerates. We were among the first in line when we got to the ferry terminal, so asked if we could drive the four cars on board and line them up for a photo before other vehicles were allowed on for the trip across the Northumberland Strait to “the island.”
“You’ll have to ask the Mate,” the terminal employee said, “but I’m sure it’ll be OK.” And the Mate, as predicted, said “be my guest,” or words to that effect, and so the Mercedes-Benz cabriolets received preferential treatment in order for pictures to be taken. Everybody, it seems, likes super good-looking automobiles.
After lunch at the Chip Shack (I had a P.E.I. pork sausage sandwich and a side of P.E.I. French-fried potatoes), we said farewell to the SLC 300 and slid into a Mercedes-AMG C 43 4MATIC. It’s a looker and boasts five Dynamic Select transmission modes, starting with fuel efficiency and going all the way up to a setting you can use for track days.
We stuck with fuel efficiency because when we left P.E.I., and drove back to the mainland in New Brunswick over the Confederation Bridge, the speed limit was 80 km/h. Even when we were meandering along to Saint Martins for dinner at the Caves Restaurant right on the Bay of Fundy, we didn’t need much more power because the road was not exactly in best-of-shape.
And after we ate — if you’re ever there, the Digy scallop dinner is delish — the sun was going down and we didn’t want to fiddle. We had to make time (although not too much time …) in order to get to Fredericton before bed check. Day 2 would come early.
We flew from Fredericton to Ottawa and drove downtown to the Fairmont Chateau Laurier for breakfast. We had a Mercedes-Benz SL 550, and I was very pleased. If you’re going to drive a Mercedes in Ottawa, the SL 550 is the perfect choice because an SL was the recreational vehicle of choice of the first Prime Minister Trudeau, Pierre.
However, an incident in Ottawa marked the only time I had a nitpick about any of the cars we drove.
Now, I can back my truck out of our suburban Toronto driveway and bells start ringing — dingdingdingdingding etc. — if another vehicle or, indeed, anything at all is moving in the vicinity. This can sometimes scare you: you look in your mirrors and over both shoulders and start to exit and all of a sudden dingdingdingdingding. It’s enough to give you a heart attack.
In any event, we were instructed to go to the Chateau Laurier and to park in the garage underneath the hotel. Richardson was driving again — we really did split that chore, trust me — and when he went to turn in, he went too far and had to back up. As he shifted into reverse, I happened to glance behind us and saw three cyclists approaching (there are hundreds, if not thousands of cyclists in Ottawa — many more than I’ve seen anywhere else in Canada) and they weren’t giving any indication they were planning to stop, even though we were rolling into their path. “Stop,” I yelled at Mark, who did what he was told (for once). And the cyclists swept past us, in formation and safe.
Now, perhaps we had something turned off, or whatever. But I said at the time, and I’m saying it again today: I was surprised my pickup in Mississauga could warn me about movement around me to the rear when the SL 550 wouldn’t, or couldn’t. To repeat, however: this was the only fault I could find with any of those cars and, in the end, it was maybe just one of those things.
We drove around Ottawa for a while — 24 Sussex Dr., the PM’s residence, is undergoing renovations and you can’t get near the place (I thought it would be swell to take a photo of the SL in front of the house, but no such luck) so we went to Government House, home of the Governor General, and took pictures there. Then we were off down the Ottawa Valley to Hawksbury and over to Quebec where we traded the SL 550 for a — wait for it — SmartFortwo Cabriolet. Sort of a Palace to Pits trade, but the racing analogy fits for what was coming next.
As we set sail for Joliette, Que., and Restaurant Henri, where a plate of poutine awaited each of us, a sign along Autoroute 40 indicated we would be passing through Berthierville, Que., the town where the legendary Canadian F1 racer Gilles Villeneuve was born and where he grew up. “There’s a museum there,” I said. “We should go in.”
Which we did. There’s a small statue of the great Canadian on a “racing podium” near the entrance where we each took photos of the other standing beside it. And we took photos of the Smart in front of the museum, which has a picture of a Formula One Ferrari covering the picture window. We had a giggle over that.
The SmartFortwo is as nimble as a cat. We were driving on the highway — it acquitted itself very well, thank you — but it is meant more for the city where traffic is heavy and parking spots have shrunk. It is perfect for that environment. I am not sure I would be happy in the Smart where we were going next — the Canadian Prairie.
We’d dropped off the SmartFortwo at a Mercedes-Benz dealer in Quebec City the night before and were shuttled to the airport for a flight to Toronto, where we’d spent the night. Up early (and we were up and at ’em early every day of this trip), we were quickly on another jet and heading for Winnipeg, where Mark and I stepped into yet another new ride, a Mercedes-Benz S 550, a full-size cabriolet.
A few paragraphs ago, I made reference to the Prairie and a Smart and suggested the two wouldn’t mix. Even before we got out of Winnipeg in the S 550, and hit the open road heading for Brandon, I knew I was right in my assessment.
When in the land of wheat and short grass, with a sky going on forever, you need a car in which to stretch your legs. And in a convertible, with the sun shining, you are soon convinced you’ve died and gone to Heaven. You even feel like breaking out in song: “Sunshine, on my shoulder, makes me …” This being a luxury car, we turned on the massages and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves as we barrelled across the flatland.
The Prairie is where Mercedes-Benz’s Intelligent Drive Package really comes in handy because — well — you can lose your concentration. There’s not a lot to see out there. It’s far from monotonous, but your mind can wander (just as it can on the 401 down in southwestern Ontario) and that’s where things like Mercedes-Benz’s Active Lane Keeping Assist can be a big help. Pre-Safe Brake, which keeps you from running into something or someone ahead of you, can come in handy as well.
As we moved closer to the centre of Saskatchewan, the sun went away and it started to rain. But — and this was a real “Hey, Martha” moment (an old newspaper expression signifying something truly new and exciting) — the rain was not coming into the car. We had the windshield wipers going but we remained dry. This was because of the AirCap function described earlier, that not only deflects cold air from coming in but rain, too. Within reason.
If we’d stopped for a rest, it might have been a different story, but we were gung-ho by this time to get to Regina. When we got to the city, and had to slow down to in-town speed limits, the precipitation had stopped. Our record of driving without having to put up (or on) any of the car tops remained intact.
Once again, we were on a plane and off bright and early to Calgary, where a Mercedes-Benz SLC 43 awaited us. This car would take us toward Canmore and the Rocky Mountains.
I’ve been to Alberta a number of times and the weather there can be very unpredictable. I remember in the early 1990s, there was a blizzard in late August that dumped a serious amount of snow. I was flying back to Toronto from Vancouver just after Labour Day, and I can recall looking out the plane’s window and down on the Rockies and seeing snow all the way down the mountains and into the valleys, not just on the tops of the mountains, as is considered normal. When I went to Edmonton in July 2005, for the first Indy car race there, it was freezing the first day and people were in the grandstands wearing their parkas. Two days later, on race day, it was sunny and warm.
So, that’s the environment we were heading into. When we left Calgary, it was sunny but hazy and the temperature was warm. Several hours later, we were caught in a hailstorm and — recall my crack back in the Day Three report about keeping our top-down record intact — had to put up the roof.
All of the Mercedes-Benz cabriolets take around 20 seconds to either tuck the tops away in the trunk or get them out of the trunk and over you and the vehicle’s interior — and you can usually do this while the automobiles are moving (up to 40 km/h).
However, in our case, we’d pulled off to the side of the road to take some pictures when the weather changed and so we were sitting still when we had to put the top up. But then the storm passed and the sun came out and off came the roof again. Once you get used to driving them, cabriolets really are the only way to go.
The rest of the day was spent making our way up to Edmonton, where we had to catch a flight to Vancouver. The SLC 43 was a pleasure to drive as we zigzagged our way east away from the Rockies and north to the capital. While driving our roadster along a couple of back roads as well as the main highway (it’s a luxury car but very sporty), we found that not all the oil in Alberta is north in the oilfields — there were plenty of small derricks pumping the black gold out of the ground in the central part of the province. And the cattle industry is healthy, if not booming.
After awakening in my new favourite hotel in the world, the new Georgia I talked about earlier, Richardson and I took possession of our final car, the 505 hp AMG C 63 and went to line up for the second ferry ride of our cross-Canada odyssey aboard the Spirit of British Columbia, which would wend its way through and past the Gulf Islands en route to Vancouver Island and Victoria.
OK, once on the island, I was driving and I must admit to speeding. I got behind the wheel of this car and I felt like Lewis Hamilton. I was stuck behind a line of slow-moving vehicles (they were undoubtedly obeying the speed limit) and I just pulled out and passed them all. Just like that. The feeling of power is incredible and can be intoxicating.
If I could afford one of these cars, this would be the one. It hugs the road, can carry its speed through tight turns and can stop on a dime.
Richardson says there’s no such thing as perfection, except when it comes to his beloved Aston Martins. I disagree.
The Mercedes-Benz AMG C 63 is the closest thing to perfect you’re ever going to find in a road car. I drove one. I know.
Late on Friday afternoon, May 26, we pulled up to the Mile Zero sign in a park in Victoria, and then retired to the Fairmont Empress hotel to unwind. As I sat on the veranda and watched the sun go down and the nearby Legislature light up (attention Ontario: if “green” B.C. can illuminate its provincial parliament building, so can you light up Queen’s Park. It’s OK. Really …) I realized this five-day, cross-country celebration had just whetted my appetite.
I vowed to somehow find the time to take a month or more and do the whole thing — to dip the wheels of my vehicle in the Atlantic at Cape Spear, the easternmost point of Canada out in Newfoundland, and to drive all the way across this wonderful dominion, where I would dip them again in the Pacific on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
About the only debate I would have with myself would be which way to go through northern Ontario — the truly northern route past Timmins, Kapuskasing and Hearst to get to Thunder Bay or the southern route through Sudbury, Sault Ste Marie and along the shore of Gichi-Gami (the Ojibwe name for Lake Superior).
Perhaps I would make the great Canadian compromise and take one way going and the other way coming.
My oldest son, Cameron, did it once — nearly. In 1997, 20 years ago, he drove a little 3-cylinder Geo Metro from Vancouver (the mainland) to Halifax (no Newfoundland) and had one of the most wonderful experiences imaginable during that trip.
He was on the Trans-Canada, somewhere between Kenora and Thunder Bay, and it was dusk. There was no other traffic. The highway was only two-lanes wide at that time, and way ahead, he saw something out in the middle of the road just in front of a bridge that went over either a stream or a small river.
“My first thought was that a horse had somehow gotten out on the road,” he told me later. “As I got closer, I saw it was a moose. A big, bull moose that must have been driven out of the bush by the insects. He was facing east. I was in a little car — he was big enough that he could have crushed it — so I stopped about half a football field away rather than try to sneak past him.”
Cameron said the moose turned its head to look back, but didn’t seem to be too interested in this thing behind it.
“I didn’t know what to do at first,” Cameron said. “Then I decided to honk at him, and if he turned to charge at me, I was ready to do a U-turn and get out of there. So, I started to honk my horn.”
The moose — this grand, majestic beast — turned its head to look again, snorted, tossed its head, and then, ever so slowly, moseyed on over to the side of the road. My son gunned his motor and zipped past the huge animal.
As Cameron drove away, he glanced in his rear-view mirror and watched as the moose walked slowly back out onto the Trans-Canada Highway and took up his position in the middle of the road again. He looked just like a statue, with the sun setting in the west behind him.