After an long and arduous search, I found my pack!!! Woo!!!!!!!!
I didn't want to go with a suitcase option or those weird half-suitcase/half-backpack options, that seemed like a bad idea after my major overpacking schlep throughout Europe with a pack on my front, back, AND a small rolling suitcase. Insane. Adding to the craziness, I am going to Japan and South Korea in the winter, so it makes even less sense to be dragging something along the ground (esp if there is snow, ice, slush or rain... that's just asking for wet clothes!!)
So after all those thoughts I did some research into the North Face packs, and actually I wasn't all that impressed. 80% of them seemed to be top-load only, and in some cases with a small bottom zipper just for sleeping bag storage. One or two of them had a sort of partial side-zipper, which could give you access to a few medium-weight things, but didn't really seem like the best idea either. What I was really looking for was a full front-zip opening, giving you full access to the entire bag from the front, and some big, fat, monster zippers on there... and some waterproof zippers on the front for valuables or maps or lonely planet guides. :) And I found a bag with all of this sweet goodness at REI!!!!!!! This is GREAT. I went with the REI Mars 85, a big honkin' 85-litre bag. I thought I'd probably be fine with a 60 or 70/75, but this one is actually closer in size to my previous bag from Novack's in London, Ontario. This is going to be GREAT. The back padding is really excellent, and the internal frame seems light and incredibly strong. The hip belt is absurdly well padded, and so I think that'll transfer a lot more of the weight to my hips rather than my shoulders, which will be a nice improvement over my old bag.
I was really impressed with the service at REI too, they were very knowledgeable and helpful with sizing and giving me lots of details about what I might need and what features some bags had over others, it was great. It is also a "Co-op", and seems like basically the same deal as MEC in Toronto. Pretty sweet.
Very happy with the pack!!!!