The magnetic north of Toronto

 

Toronto Skyline at Night

ARTICLE ORIGINALLY FEATURED IN GAFENCU MAGAZINE, June 2015

The late Peter Ustinov, renowned raconteur and wit, reportedly described Toronto as “a sort of New York City run by the Swiss.” That doesn’t quite cut it. These days the Swiss only get a brief look in – and there are now more than 140 different languages and dialects in the city – a reflection of a vast international influx over recent years. A modern day Babel? No. One of the most multicultural cities in the world? Quite possibly.

The whole world, it seems, is now beating a path to Toronto. In truth, it always has done. Over half of its 2.7 million residents weren’t born there or anywhere else in Canada, but still they come. So what exactly is the attraction?

It’s a question that’s as valid for the traveller as for someone looking to put down more permanent roots. There’s no doubt that, as a holiday destination, it’s got far more going for it than most people could ever imagine.

Toronto is not only the largest city in Canada – it’s also the fourth largest metropolis in North America, lagging behind only Mexico City, New York and Los Angeles. It’s a business, cultural and industrial powerhouse and comes with the added advantage of a low crime rate. Just how, though, do all those different ethnic groups rub along quite so well? Well, for a start, they seem to feel genuinely accepted, valuing their new home’s diversity and opportunity. A great big melting pot, big enough to take the world and all it’s got.

When and where to start for the first time visitor, however? Well, winter is freezing and snow can lie on the ground until early April, so opt for the scorching summer, where a truly outdoor lifestyle is de rigueur. It can be humid though, so you may have to dodge the odd shower or two. As an alternative, opt for Autumn – or Fall – when heading out of the city will reward you with dramatic and ever-changing leaf colours.

Toronto has always been a centre for commerce, going back as far as 1750 when the French built Fort Rouille, a trading post focussed on dealing with the first nation Iroquois, Seneca, Mohawk and Cayuga tribes. In the late 18th century, the British then established the York settlement on the north-western shore of Lake Ontario. As with many a “purchase” deal sponsored by colonialists, the vendors – in this case the Mississaugas – were still claiming to be out of pocket some 200 years later. In 1834, York was renamed Toronto, a derivation of the Mohawk word tkaronto, meaning “where there are trees standing in the water.”

One definite location for gaining a sense of all this local history is Fort York in central Toronto and the beating heart of the British Colony of the time. In 1813, the Americans took advantage of the British preoccupation with fighting Napoleon in Europe by raiding and burning Fort York. The British rebuilt it bigger and better. As well as looking at the rebuilt Fort and the associated exhibits, and taking in a battle re-enactment or two, visitors can don the military uniforms of the day. It’s up to you whether you opt to be a bluecoat, a redcoat or even a greencoat.

 

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Another historic “must-visit” is Campbell House. Built in 1822 for Chief Justice William Campbell, this is the oldest surviving residence from the town of York. The Georgian style house was due to be demolished in 1972 to make way for a car park, but was preserved following a campaign to save it. This saw the building relocated over a mile away, a remarkable engineering feat. Campbell House also hosts a number of musical and theatrical events throughout the year.

If it’s drama that you’re interested in, Toronto’s theatre district is only beaten in terms of size by London’s West End or Broadway. It is home to more than 20 theatres, ranging from the 1907 beaux-arts style Royal Alexandra to the modernistic circular glass dome of the Roy Thompson Hall auditorium. You can see many of the productions found in London and New York, as well as new plays, fringe and national works. If it’s live music that floats your boat – classical, rock or pop – few artistes’ world tours miss out a Toronto date.

Indoor entertainment aside, the locals actually like nothing more than outdoors living in those hot summer months. Typically, most eating and drinking is done alfresco, while a short trip out from the city centre to Toronto Island Park, a series of small islands located just offshore, offers an impressive choice of swimming beaches, as well as the Centreville Amusement Park and the annual Toronto International Dragon Boat Race Festival.

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Without doubt the best way to get your bearings is to take a trip up to the top of the iconic CN Tower. At over 550 metres, it was the world’s tallest tower following its completion in 1976, up until Dubai’s Burj Khalifa stole its thunder in 2008. While most visitors seem content to take in the views from within the observatory deck – or even through the glass floor that looks directly down to the ground below – the tower has recently added a vertigo-inducing EdgeWalk, where thrill-seekers can clip on and walk around the edge of the tower’s main pod.

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If you are visiting the CN Tower, then consider buying the Toronto City Pass, giving you admittance to four other major attractions in the city. As well as saving money you’ll be able to skip the queues. The Royal Ontario Museum, for instance, attracts more than one million visitors a year, all keen to view its vast collection of art, world culture and natural history exhibits. By contrast, the Ontario Science Centre offers a dazzling array of family-friendly interactive delights. Both museums are worth visiting just to view their exterior designs, the former dominated by Daniel Libeskind’s The Crystal, while the latter features the world’s largest outdoor hydraulophone which – as every reader will doubtless know – is a hydraulic-action pipe organ played by stepping in between the fountain spaces. Perfect for a Bach Toccata or Fugue.

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The final attraction on the pass, Casa Loma, though, definitely should not be missed.  Canada’s equivalent of Hearst Castle (one of California’s most historic landmarks), Casa Loma – Hill House in Spanish – is a Gothic revival 98-room chateau originally commissioned by Sir Henry Mill Pellatt, a renowned early 20th century financier and entrepreneur. His story is as remarkable as the house and surrounding gardens. Having made his money in railways and hydro-electricity, his luck turned when the Province expropriated, without compensation, his electricity generation business. Then, a string of poor investments, and the strain of funding his Casa Loma folly, saw him forced into bankruptcy. Sadly, he died virtually penniless.

Pellatt’s hydro-electricity business, the one taken into public ownership without him receiving a loonie (Canadian slang for a dollar), harnessed the might of the Niagara River to bring the first street lighting to Toronto. Niagara Falls is actually within easy reach of Toronto – a two-hour drive – so hire a car or opt for an organised excursion.

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Is the trip worth the effort? Certainly. The falls are spectacular and awesome in their power and you’ll have the advantage of seeing them from the Canadian side (much better than from the American side). If you don’t mind getting a bit wet, take a Maid of the Mists boat trip into the basin under the Horseshoe Fall or get up close and personal with the crashing torrent from one of the viewing decks, notably the Journey Behind The Falls.

Be prepared, though, to turn a blind eye to the actual town of Niagara Falls – it’s like a discarded 1960s seaside resort, one of a silent and grey variety.

If you do want to stay overnight in the area then it’s best to take the short drive down the river to Niagara-on-the-Lake, a well-preserved 19th century village where the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario. Stroll around, hire a bike, take a boat ride – it’s tranquil and quaint. If you have the time, take in a wine tour. The area is rightly famous for its Ice Wines, a variety of dessert wine produced from grapes frozen while still on the vine. It’s particularly good with cheese so they say. If confectionery is more your thing, check out Chocolate FX – slogan: “We’ll coat anything in chocolate.” Now there’s a challenge for you.

A day – or two at the most – is all you need in Niagara before you head back to Toronto, where there’s still loads more to discover. If it’s fresh sightseeing you’re after, then the new Aquarium, just under the CN Tower, is impressive. If you’re not too foot weary stroll to the Bata Shoe Museum and look at their 1,000 pairs of shoes.

By then you’ll be in need of a little nightlife, so check out the Distillery District, a bustling pedestrian neighbourhood, and the prosaically titled Entertainment District for pubs, restaurants, clubs and other fun. Torontonians – and they’re all proud to be called that – love a good time and know how to relax. Fittingly, then, these locations positively buzz with energy.

Cuisinewise, you won’t be left disappointed. As well as a Chinatown, a Portugal Village and a Little Italy to tempt your taste buds you’ll also be able to enjoy your favourite recipes from virtually anywhere in the world. The one local meal you will have to try is Poutine, a Canadian fast-food staple. French for “mess,” this is a mixture of French fries, cheese curds and brown gravy.

As well as food, Toronto is also fanatical about sport. Depending on the time of the year, you’ll have the option of taking in a game of Ice Hockey (Toronto Maple Leafs), Basketball (Raptors) or Major League Soccer (Toronto FC). Perhaps the most famous local team is The Toronto Blue Jays, the baseball giants who play at the Rogers Centre (formerly known as the Skydome), the first stadium to have a fully retractable roof.

Finally, while Canada is officially bilingual – all street and information signs are written in both English and French – Toronto, like most of the country outside of Quebec, is predominantly English speaking (give or take another 139 tongues). Despite that, and to be totally impartial, Toronto can be summarised in three words: divertissante, historique and doit-visiter.