MY FAMILY almost emigrated to Canada, just before I started high school. I could have been one of those people arriving at Manchester Airport with red maple leaves stitched onto my cap, back pack and forehead – looking proudly Canadian. Instead, I’m on the other end – arriving in Toronto, wondering just why they’re so smitten with that darn leaf.
For a loo with a view, the toilets in the executive lounge of the Sheraton Centre hotel on Queen Street West is worth making your bladder hold out for.
I would have been excited to arrive in Toronto all those years ago, because it looks a lot like the eighties MB Games board game Hotel, which my siblings and I used to play. Full of retro skyscrapers, red brick and mismatched 19th century industrial buildings, if you squint upon arrival, you can almost see life in sepia. As soon as you’ve got used to it looking like the city that time forgot, you start to see it for what it is. An understated city with charm.
The skyline for one is impressive without being too overwhelming so, of course, our first point of call was the tallest building on offer – the CN tower. Provided you don’t get wedged between two French Canadian school trips, as we did, it’s a view worth braving 147 floors for. In particularly, the glass floor you can stand on and look down to the Rogers Centre baseball field, is a sight to see.
Best view from a loo?Go all the way to the sky pod – the highest observation point and you’ll realise they weren’t lying when they said it was the top of the world. If you’re after a less obvious view of the city, I suggest a trip to Panorama, on the 51st floor of the Manulife Centre on Bay Street and Bloor Street. The views are stunning and you can enjoy food and cocktails on the balcony in peace. And for a loo with a view, the toilets in the executive lounge of the Sheraton Centre hotel on Queen Street West is worth making your bladder hold out for.
When you’re done with views and sick of the sight of the CN, Toronto is a city ready to explored via public transport. It’s clean, fast and reliable. In fact, Toronto is one of the most considerate and cleanly places I’ve visited. Tissue boxes are often next to toilet doors so you don’t have to touch the door to open it, recycling is encouraged in the subway and biscuits are left outside shops for passing dogs as standard. OCD to some maybe, but it beats dodging chewing gum blobs on our streets.
Back to getting around and both the TTC subway and the street cars (trams) are quick, cheap and a great way of embracing day to day Torontonian culture. “Ride the Rocket” as the locals would say of the subway. You can get a day pass for unlimited travel on the subway and street cars for $10 per adult and two-for-one at weekends.
Toronto can very easily be condensed down into a short city break due to the ease of movement around the city and evident lack of hustle and bustle.
We began by visiting St Lawrence Market in Toronto’s Old Town – a must see for foodies. An old fashioned indoor market smelling of fish and fresh fruit, there’s the usual meat and veg but celebrated with events such as the Strawberry Festival or chef show-and-tells. There was even one stall dedicated entirely to all the different types of cress grown. It was a shame I couldn’t do my weekly food shop there, but luckily for those visiting you can sample some of the market delights at a number of eateries inside. We stopped for seafood at Buster’s Sea Cove – big juicy Tiger shrimp and a shed load of salad for $13.55.
Yorkville ShopsUnderstandably the place was overrun with hungry shoppers. Never one to shop on an empty stomach, I’m glad we filled up there before making our way across town to Toronto’s trendy fashion district, Yorkville. Eating never has been very fashionable and restaurants in this area tend to be more pricy. Save your pennies for the shops. Yorkville is full of one-off boutiques. For some real fashion inspiration though, a trip to the Bata Shoe Museum on Bloor Street West is an eye-opener. For just $14 you will come out with a degree in shoe-ology.
Burger At By The Way CafeAlso on Bloor Street West (Brunswick Avenue) is the By The Way Cafe. It’s a cheap and cheerful place to get a bite. Much like cafes in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, this place has a particular charm. You’ll feel part of the furniture, rather than a visitor.
Much of the same vibe can be found on the western end of Queen Street West. In particular The Harlem Underground – a quaint jazz bar serving soul food by day – is worth a visit for their Southern fried chicken and waffle with syrup and gravy alone. It’s situated right in the heart of the Art and Design district with so much to take in, including tasteful graffiti on every street corner and music all around. It’s the heartbeat of the city.
The Harlem UndergroundToronto is full of quirky pockets such as this and both the Entertainment District (you’ll know you’re there when you accidentally walk through an on-street movie set) and Chinatown are both worth a wander through to see varying ends of the cultural spectrum in close proximity to each other.
Of course, what also makes Toronto extra special is the ability to go from city to countryside quickly. Central Park, New York, take note. High Park in Toronto is simplicity in the city. No horse and carriages, buskers or power walkers wired up to pedometers. It’s a park in its purest form and a huge one at that. A walk down by the side of Grenadier Pond is like therapy. The waterfront trail of Lake Ontario ( a little walk further) will leave you feeling bright and breezy too.
The Raging Niagara FallsOn the nature front, you should also make time for Niagara Falls while you’re in Toronto. It’s too close to ignore. I must admit, while in my fetching plastic blue cloak ready to board the Maid of the Mist boat ride, I felt disappointed with the way the falls themselves are cloaked in commercial opportunism. In an ideal world, I would have liked to be able to stumble across them in all their glory myself, but alas the tourist experience is more akin to a coach trip to Blackpool. What saves is of course the vast, powerful vision that is the falls.
Choose your tour guide wisely though, to avoid falling into the tourism trap. We went with the brilliant Chariot’s of Fire – the cheapest Niagara Falls tour on offer at $60 per person for your choice of either the Maid of the Mist boat ride or trip up the Skylon Tower, free time at Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake, a scenic drive with picture stops along the Niagara River and a well earned stop at Reif Estate winery with complimentary tasting. Their signature ice wine will make your hair stand on end.
Steak At The KegAfter an exhaustive day at the falls it was only fair we treated ourselves to Canadian steak. Despite being a chain, every local recommendation seemed to be The Keg Steakhouse and Bar. Wetherspoons it aint. Portions are huge and prices are reasonable. My kind of find.
Finally, Toronto Islands shouldn’t be missed as despite being an off shoot, they’re very much part of Torontonian living – car-free living at that. Rent bikes, have a BBQ, go for a walk and if you’ve got kids, take them to Centreville – an old fashioned amusement park. If you do happen to plan your trip on a public holiday, make sure you get to the ferry port early as every man, woman and child will be making a break for these tiny islands which in total only have 262 homes. I’ve never seen anything like it. When you get there, it’s like being in the Truman Show. Nothing seems real and that’s what makes it all the more fun, but unlike the movie you’ll never know what’s around the corner.
Toronto IslandsThe same can actually be said of the city of Toronto as a whole. A fusion of the old and new, you’ll never be short of an odd looking tower to climb, a new shop to peruse or a green space to relax in. As I heard one proud local saying to a foreigner he was showing the view to in Panorama, “Breathe deeply and take in that fresh Canadian air”. And for once, I didn’t cringe at the maple leaf he had sewn on to his backpack.
Lynda travelled to Toronto with Canadian Affair and stayed in the Shearton Centre on Queen Street West. Canadian Affair, the UK’s largest tour operator to Canada, fly direct from Manchester to Toronto daily.
Flights start at £318 return including taxes flying on Air Transat Airbus A330. Stay at the Sheraton Centre Hotel from £36pppn.
Book at www.canadianaffair.com or call 0161 832 4000. Flights and holidays also available to Vancouver and Calgary.
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