Travel: Toronto - city of contrasts
PUBLISHED: 09:39 25 April 2016
Listed in the top 10 must-visit places for 2016 by The New York Times, Toronto looks set to take centre stage this year - and with a new Air Canada route from London Gatwick starting soon, there's never been a better time to visit. Surrey Life editor Caroline Harrap discovers the highlights - in every sense of the word…
For someone who has a crippling fear of heights, I’m doing pretty darn well, I think to myself, as the helicopter banks sharply to the left, leaving my heart in my mouth and my stomach some two miles behind us. Still, when the panorama unfolding below us is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful in the world, it’s enough of a distraction even for a scaredy-cat like me.
Certainly, nothing could have prepared me for the sheer, awe-inspiring wonder of Niagara Falls, with six million cubic feet (168,000 cubic metres) of water tumbling over the crestline of this dramatic escarpment every minute. As I gaze down, through the glass floor panels of the $2m aircraft (the safest in the world, the recorded commentary tells me reassuringly, as I try not to think about that), the scene below me feels almost mythological – more Middle-earth than real earth – as the water crashes down against a backdrop of snow-laden skies.
City of contrasts
Located some 80 miles south-west of Toronto, Niagara Falls is just one of a number of highlights (‘high’ being the operative word, as it turns out) during our three-day stay in Canada’s largest city.
If neighbouring New York state, just across the water, is home to the city that never sleeps, Toronto must be the city of contrasts – offering all the best things about urban life, with its rich cultural diversity, spectacular skyline and famous film festival, but also surrounded by great natural beauty, sitting as it does on the northern shore of Lake Ontario, the eastern-most of the Great Lakes.
And, what is more, Toronto is increasingly being marketed as a weekend destination in its own right – not least because Air Canada will also be introducing a new route from London Gatwick on its sister airline, Rouge, from May of this year.
Plus, if you’re going for just a long weekend, you can perhaps push the boat out and stay somewhere a little bit special as we did – home for us being the unforgettable Ritz-Carlton, straddling the arts, sports and entertainment districts, with views of the famous CN Tower. Opened just four years ago, this contemporary, five-star hotel has all the mod-cons that you’d expect, complete with very cool bar, much-hyped restaurant and
swanky lounge, but equally all the glamour of the golden age of travel – with a doorman who will even whistle for a taxi for you outside.
A guided tour
The next day, we wake bright and early to join a street tour of the city with one of the experts from Tour Guys Toronto. Our man for the morning, Jason, who we meet at the historic Union Station (the busiest in Canada, incidentally, though cleaner than any I have seen in England), certainly seems to know his stuff, giving us the ‘ultra-tour’, as we wend our way through secret short-cuts, sparkling skyscrapers and state-of-the-art shopping malls.
It’s a great way to familiarise yourself with this diverse city, with its broad mix of architectural styles ranging from 19th century red brick to the minimalist designs of the 20th century to the striking results of its latest architectural renaissance, while also getting an insider view on the best places to go.
Our own tour takes in everything from the 200-year-old St Lawrence Market (rated by National Geographic as the best food market in the world in 2012), where we buy tasty Canadian mustard, through to the super-modern glass galleria designed by world-renowned architect Calatrava (the man behind the new station at the World Trade Center site in New York).
My favourite story though concerns the Old City Hall, built by EJ Lennox when he won a competition to design the building in 1886. After going hugely over budget (and time), when it was eventually completed 11 years later, he was banned by the council from naming the building after himself. He had the last laugh though by caricaturing the councillors in the stone gargoyles over the arches – where he also included a rather more complimentary carving of his own face.
In contrast to those grumpy councillors, however, wherever we go in the city, the people are consistently some of the friendliest of anywhere I’ve travelled to in the world. While Canada is a very different place from the US (and proudly so), one thing they do share in common is knowing how to make people feel welcome.
Having covered a fair old distance by now, we break for a well-earned lunch at Kasa Moto, in Yorkville, a hip new Japanese restaurant in a district that is a magnet for stars visiting the annual Toronto International Film Festival each September. We don’t spot any famous faces but we do eat like royalty, tucking into a wide range of mouth-watering dishes fit for an emperor.
That afternoon, suitably replenished, we enjoy a visit to the quirky Bata Shoe Museum, just a short stroll away. Essential viewing for any self-respecting Imelda Marcos, we look longingly at classic Christian Laboutins, admire the ostentation of Elton John’s footwear and even spot a pair of flip-flops once belonging to the Dalai Lama. The well-stocked shop of shoe paraphernalia is also a must for anyone with even the mildest footwear fetish.
Afterwards, we head over to the famous Distillery District, once the largest producer of whisky in the world, where the red-brick industrial buildings have been restored to their Victorian heyday. Now a centre for arts, culture and entertainment, the cobbled streets are lined with artisan shops, contemporary galleries and a plethora of great eateries. Our restaurant of choice that evening is the lively Mexican, El Catrin, which has won multiple awards for its fare. Gorging on buckets of tasty tacos dunked into sweet avocado, and burritos bursting with fresh vegetables, we can understand why.
Voyage of discovery
It’s an early start again the next day for our memorable trip to Niagara Falls, about a 90-minute drive from downtown Toronto.
For us, the day begins with a trip on board one of the Hornblower Cruisers, which voyage valiantly right into the eye of the storm. Clad in fetching plastic ponchos, we wonder if the attire is a little excessive – until the boat gets close and the light spray on our skin takes on biblical proportions. Thankfully, our vessel comes complete with an undercover area, which suddenly becomes very popular.
As well as the aforementioned helicopter ride, it’s another fantastic way to experience this extraordinary spectacle of nature as the clouds of spray blast the boat, the tourists stick out their plastic-clad selfie sticks and the birds duck and dive into the choppy waves, scavenging for the rich pickings.
Whilst the region is of course best-known for its spectacular water feature, it’s worth taking the time to explore further too. Also famous
for its excellent wines (sharing the same latitude as Bordeaux in France), we enjoy a lavish lunch at the fabulous Two Sisters Vineyard and emerge replete with bottles of their first-class Chardonnay to take home.
On route back, we swing past the charming old town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, where we pick up local delicacies such as the area’s ‘icewine’, produced from grapes that have been frozen while still on the vine. Nearby, there’s also the chance for some more modern retail therapy at shopping destination The Outlet Collection at Niagara, home to brands including Michael Kors, Calvin Klein and New Balance at ‘outlet’ prices. Factor in the strong exchange rate and there are some real bargains to be had.
Talking of shopping, there’s a host of great places to go in the city too. The following day, several of our party head off to Queen Street West, named by Vogue as the “second hippest district in the world”, while others seek out vintage bargains in the bohemian Kensington Market and designer-ware in Ossington Avenue.
For my part, I decide to take a stroll down to Lake Ontario to see the newly-revitalised Queens Quay waterfront (one of the reasons that The New York Times has the city on its list of ‘must-visits’ for 2016). After three years of construction, the pedestrianised promenade now takes pride of place, making the most of the stunning vista across the lake. I also stop off at the Harbourfront arts centre – home to a wide range of artists working from open studios, a packed programme of exhibitions and a gorgeous shop selling gifts made on-site.
Ending on a high
Of course, no trip to Toronto would be complete without a visit to the iconic CN Tower, the city’s most famous landmark. Built in 1976, at a vertigo-inducing 553 metres high, it held the record for the world’s tallest building for over 30 years. Today, it’s still a must-visit for the ride in the glass-fronted elevator alone, as guests rocket to the top in just 58 seconds. And then there’s those views (though I resist walking over the viewing gallery’s glass floor…).
We finish our stay with a magnificent dinner in the tower’s revolving restaurant, 360, tucking into Toronto’s finest fare, enjoying the panorama over the lake and watching the sun set on this beautiful city. It’s yet another high point, in every sense of the word, on a trip that has been filled with highlights. I think I might just be learning to live with my fear of heights.
• Caroline travelled to Toronto as a guest of Air Canada UK (aircanada.com) and Ontario Tourism (ontariotravel.net)
Air Canada offers more daily flights from the Uk to Canada than any other airline, with over 60 non-stop flights per week travelling to seven major Canadian cities.
From London Heathrow, the airline operates four non-stop services each day to Toronto (with return flights starting from £674.44 including taxes).
From London Gatwick, Air Canada’s new leisure airline, Air Canada Rouge, has also announced new seasonal non-stop routes from May of this year (with return flights starting from £799.56 including taxes).
Find out more at aircanada.com or call 0871 220 1111