TORONTO — Ah, Toronto. The city the rest of the country loves to hate.
For most Westerners, it is but a mere blur as they race through Pearson International on a quick pit stop -- if they must and only if they must stop at all -- on the way to their next flight.
"World-class, world-class, world-class," you could swear you hear the locals chant if you listen closely as you dash. "Run, run faster, run like the wind," you think.
No need for such animosity. Toronto is a great city, a friendly city, with a terrific downtown. All you need to sample Toronto's neighbourhoods, restaurants and attractions is within easy walking distance or a hop on its efficient public transit system.
Give Toronto 48 hours, and you will fall in love.
From Pearson, grab a cab to the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, a city unto itself. We've always suspected you could spend a weekend, never leave the Royal York, and still experience the city's history, fine restaurants and shops and some very good people-watching to boot.
You can enjoy a facial at the spa, buy an umbrella at Raindrops, the rainwear boutique (Julie's favourite shop), have tea on the roof, then walk through the chef's herb gardens -- or if you time it right, as we did, watch apiarists gather honey from the hotel's bee hives. Executive chef David Garcelon, who oversees the largest commercial kitchen in Canada, says it's all part of the hotel's bid to be a good steward of the environment -- and weeding offers the chance to catch a little sun on a hectic day.
The Royal York opened in 1929, the grandest of the grand hotels. You can trace its 80 years of hosting dignitaries -- members of the Royal Family, world leaders and presidents, most recently Bill Clinton -- and A-list entertainers in its famed Imperial Room, in the historical photos on the walls of the mezzanine above the lobby.
You might even hear the hotel's ghost making a little music in what was once the silver room. Time was, the hotel had its own full-time silversmith, says Melanie Coates, the hotel's regional director of PR for Central Canada. Eventually, the silver was stored in a room in the basement where workers would sometimes hear flute music. The connection? A psychic called in to help mark the Royal York's 80th anniversary solved the mystery. Musicians playing the Imperial Room would warm up in the little silver room. It seems they still do.
While you're in the mood for exploring, you might as well go with the best, Toronto historian and tour guide extraordinaire Bruce Bell. He can show you what was the best table in the house at the Imperial Room, where the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Carol Channing and the Smothers Brothers performed. Moving along and heading east through the banking district, you'll learn all about the architects of the city's bank towers (right down to the significance of the bowls of yellow flowers at the tellers' wickets at one), where the Beatles stayed at the King Edward Hotel and the room where Richard Burton gave Liz Taylor the 33-carat Krupp Diamond (a waiter acquaintance of Bruce's saw the whole thing) and end up at the St. Lawrence Market, where tasting tours are Bruce's specialty.
You'll be getting a bit peckish by now, so have Bruce walk you down Queen Street West to Nota Bene, named best new restaurant in Canada by Toronto Life and enRoute magazines. Enjoy watching the mix of financial types and the artistic crowd as the restaurant sits where those two worlds collide. Highly recommended: the Nova Scotia Lobster Salad with avocado, maple bacon, blue cheese and buttermilk dressing.
After lunch, stroll Queen Street West, one of Toronto's It spots, and check out the little boutiques the street is known for. A favourite shoe shop is Groovy on the south side just west of John Street. Its walls are lined, floor to ceiling, with running shoes in every colour and the very back of the shop has a selection of the truly quirky shoes.
When you've had enough, head to the Royal Ontario Museum. Grab the subway at the University station, at Queen Street just west of University Avenue, going north. Get off at Museum station and walk north about a block.
Be sure to step back away from the museum's front entrance, now on Bloor Street, in order to properly admire the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal.
Whatever exhibit is on, make sure you leave enough time to see the natural history section on the second floor, particularly if you have kids with you. They will love the creatures of the sea swimming across the ceiling and the bat cave. Best of all might be the display of animals in their natural habitat, which includes raccoons going through a blue box on a typical Toronto back deck.
It's a short walk from the ROM to Sassafraz, corner of Bellair and Cumberland, for dinner. Yorkville's come a long way from its hippie roots to be home of some of Toronto's toniest shops, and it's a great place to watch for visiting movie stars, so window-shopping is de rigueur.
Teatro Verde, practically a shrine of retail uniqueness, is at 98 Yorkville. Cross Bloor Street at the corner of Avenue Road (logically it ought to be University Avenue, but it changes here) and walk north two blocks and turn right and walk about a block. It's on the left-hand side.
When you're finished with Teatro Verde, walk a block south to Cumberland and turn left. Among the terrific shops here is Kidding Awound, a toyshop for all ages, at 91 Cumberland St. Slogan: if it winds up, it winds up here.
Keep walking and you will wind up at the yellow Victorian row houses which is Sassafraz. The interior is all sleek and ivory, but most fascinating is the wall of water and indoor vertical garden.
Try the Malpec oysters and pay special attention to the fourth sauce -- after the routine seafood, lemon and Asian. Can't quite name those ingredients? Pear juice and vodka.
For after-dinner drinks and the best view of the city, it's off to the Rooftop Lounge at the Park Hyatt, about a four-minute walk back down Cumberland, to the corner of Bloor and Avenue and up to the 18th floor.
In fine weather, sit outside and marvel at the twinkling lights of the city. We saw falling stars all around the CN Tower. In cold weather -- what passes for cold weather in Toronto -- sit inside by the fire, amid all that rich suede and leather and dark panelling. Donato's caricatures of famous Canadian writers and journalists -- among them Peter Gzowski, Adrienne Clarkson, June Callwood and Mordecai Richler -- make you feel like you're in an old-fashioned press club.
There's a new caricature up now, Joe Gomes. Who's Joe Gomes, we ask our waiter. He's the bartender who just marked 50 years working here.
When you're ready to call it a night, pop back on the subway at the Museum stop just south of the Park Hyatt, and head south on the university line. Get off at Union Station, follow the signs under Front Street and come up right inside the Royal York lobby.
Breakfast at the hotel can go upmarket at Epic just off the hotel's lobby, where $20 buys an elegant nosh in luxurious surroundings (splurge and have the buffet), or quick and easy at York's Deli & Bakery downstairs from the lobby, where about $6 buys you a breakfast sandwich.
It's off to the Bata Shoe Museum this morning. Retrace last night's steps on the subway to the Museum station and walk west along Bloor Street about four blocks.
The museum offers the history of the shoe through many cultures -- we're talking more than 13,000 shoes, spanning 4,500 years. But the Walk of Fame is the highlight. Where else are you going to learn Shaquille O'Neal's feet hadn't stopped growing by his rookie year? Thus the Size 20 EEE high-tops from that year, the ones that look like you could paddle them across Lake Ontario, would never have fit him when the lad topped out at seven-foot-one and 325 pounds and took a Size 23 shoe.
Don't skip the gift shop. It's terrific.
Restaurants abound in Toronto, but for something a little different, order a picnic basket from the Cheese Boutique and Delicatessen, cheese supplier to many of Toronto's ritziest restaurants. (The truffles are flown in on Wednesdays so plan accordingly.) Have it delivered to the Royal York and if it's nice out, head out to a little patch of green. There are more of those spots than you'd expect, tucked into corners of downtown. We recommend the park beside Toronto's famous flatiron building, about five blocks east of the hotel on the north side of Front.
After lunch, the Art Gallery of Ontario's new incarnation, designed by Frank Gehry and just opened this year, is worth a visit. The new building alone will leave you agog, but the King Tut exhibit coming soon is the only Canadian stop on his tour. And the gallery's permanent collection is always impressive.
But if you're all museumed out, go shopping on Bloor Street, just the blocks west of Yonge. The strip, Canada's answer to Rodeo Drive, is known as the Mink Mile for its posh stores, among them Holt Renfrew, Hermès, Tiffany, Cartier and Chanel. Expect to pay big bucks. This isn't outlet territory.
Time for a before-dinner drink and maybe a nibble and also a good time to check out King Street West, well on its way to becoming Toronto's next hot spot. Brassaii is just west of Spadina Avenue on King Street. We cabbed, although it's not that difficult to get there by co-ordinating subway and streetcar. Sit on the amazing patio and try the baked goat cheese, panko encrusted, served with a little greenery, fresh honeycomb and a lavender vinaigrette.
Your stay in Toronto is coming to a close, so we're going to end it with a look up and a look down at the city.
The look down is from 223 metres, from Canoe restaurant at the top of the TD Bank Tower on Wellington Street West, an easy walk from the Royal York. Canoe is widely proclaimed as one of the country's best restaurants. Its menu reads like a trip across Canada: Yukon caribou; wild B.C. salmon; Ontario peaches and cream corn chowder; Alberta lamb loin. The menu is so extensive, so fascinating, it's paralyzing. We liked it so much we can't make a recommendation and wish you much luck in trying to make up your mind.
The look up at the city is the best deal in town. The ferry to Toronto Island costs $6.50, and we recommend you don't even get off the boat. It's still a steal. When you leave Canoe, walk east on Wellington Street to Bay, turn right and walk south to the waterfront. The ferry links the mainland with Hanlan's Point, Centre Island and Wards Island. (Lovely spots to visit on another day.)
The crossing is no more than 15 minutes, but with the wind whipping your hair around, it's exhilarating. Look up at the lights of the city, twinkling and reflecting off the water, and reflect on the foolishness of silly people who would still dart through the airport and give Toronto a miss.
Didn't we say you'd fall in love?
IF YOU GO
WestJet has five direct flights a day from Winnipeg to Toronto. www.westjet.ca
Air Canada offers eight. www.aircanada.com
Sign up for emails from both airlines and watch for seat sales. They offer great deals; sometimes you can save as much as 65 per cent.
Limo/taxi, expect to pay about $50.
You can save a bundle by taking the TTC -- adult fare is $2.75, seniors/ students $1.85, and kids 12 and under 70 cents. But study the routes on the website, www.ttc.ca, before you leave home and expect to take up to 90 minutes to get downtown. The subway is a no-hassle way of getting around downtown, but the route from the airport is a bit trickier. We'd take the cab.
Where to stay
Royal York:100 Front St., www.fairmont.com/RoyalYork
Watch for special offers. Sign up for a complimentary membership to the Fairmont's President's Club and receive free in-room, high-speed Internet.
Where to eat
Canoe Restaurant: on the 54th Floor of the TD Bank Tower at 66 Wellington St., West, www.oliverbonacini.com/canoemovie.html
Canoe is renowned as one of the best restaurants in the country, and the place reeks of Canada right down to the curling rocks used as doorstops. The menu boasts regional fare from coast to coast, and the view is priceless.
Nota Bene: 180 Queen St., West, http://notabenerestaurant.com
Named best new restaurant in Canada by Toronto Life and enRoute magazine.
The chilled summer gazpacho with its avocado chutney and Parmigiano croutons is a very special dish. The sticky toffee pudding and spotted dick ice cream may change your life forever.
Sassafraz: 100 Cumberland St., www.sassafraz.ca
Watch for celebs, as it's a great place to be seen. Again, be sure to make it to dessert.
Park Hyatt: 4 Avenue Rd., www.parktorontohyatt.com
The Roof Lounge for drinks and nibbles. The salmon club sandwich is off the menu now, but if you ask nicely, the kitchen will make it. Note how the bar nuts are slightly warmed up. Just imagine what Brangelina's private party here during TIFF a couple of years ago was like.
Brassaii: 461 King St., West, www.brassaii.com
Great food and a magnificent patio. King West is on the brink of being Toronto's new 'It' place.
Where to go
Bruce Bell's Walking Tours: Official historian to several downtown hotels and the St. Lawrence Market, Bruce doesn't just live and breathe the city's history, he acts out all the parts. At once, he is the suffragist being arrested and tossed into the woman's gaol underneath the sidewalk at the old city hall, now St. Lawrence Hall, he is the cop, the imprisoned insane women and the disgruntled husband. A must-do on any visit to Toronto, best $25 you will ever spend -- www.brucebelltours.ca, cellphone (647) 393-8687.
Bata Shoe Museum: 327 Bloor St., West, www.batashoemuseum.ca
Don't miss the Walk of Fame shoe display, especially Sir Elton John's monogrammed silver-and-red platform boots. Terry Fox's running shoe is here.
Royal Ontario Museum: ROM to the locals, 100 Queen's Park, www.rom.on.ca
Various exhibitions, so check when you're planning your itinerary. Currently, it's the Dead Sea Scrolls. Coming up is Vanity Fair Portraits 1913- 2008. Don't miss the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, which hovers over Bloor Street on the museum's north end before you go into the museum.
Art Gallery of Ontario: 317 Dundas St., West, 1-877-225-4246 or 416-979-6648. www.ago.net
Various exhibits, but the main attraction now is Frank Gehry's new design of the building, well worth a visit. Upcoming is the King Tut display.
Elmwood Spa: 18 Elm St., 1-877-284-6348 or 416-977-6751. www.elmwoodspa.com. A deluxe manicure runs $65 and takes 50 minutes (a rather nice touch, the menu lists how long each service takes.) The water therapy area is a particularly beautiful part of the spa. Where else can you find a chandelier over a whirlpool?
Other things to know
TTC is the way to get around. A day pass costs $9, takes you pretty much everywhere and up to two adults and four children can travel on it on weekends and statutory holidays. There are maps up in all the subway stations, and it really is quite straightforward. Besides, if you look lost enough, one of the locals will offer to help you.
Speaking of getting lost, buy a Rough Guide Map to Toronto, even if the $13.99 price tag makes you blanch. How good can a map be? Rip-proof, waterproof, this one shows shopping areas and major attractions and must be specially treated as its blue-lined streets seem to glow under yellow streetlights. Available here and there, but especially at subway newsstands.
If all else fails, you can always hail a cab on the street.
An easy way around the city in cold or wet weather is the PATH, www.toronto.ca/path, 27 kilometres of underground walkway featuring shopping, services and entertainment in waterproof comfort.
Toronto Ferry Docks at the foot of Bay Street and Queen's Quay, www.toronto.ca/parks/island
Phone 416-392-8193 Adults $6.50 return to Toronto Island. Explore on bicycles by day. Or take the boat at night (don't get off) just for the view of the Toronto skyline. Best deal in the city.
If you happen to get a powerful thirst and need to buy a libation for the hotel room, there's a liquor store at 87 Front St. Just walk east from the hotel, about five blocks and it's on the right. This will give you an excuse to see up close Toronto's famous flatiron building, otherwise known as the Goodham Building, on the left. Be sure also to admire the windy-people art installation between the Royal York and the Royal Bank Plaza.
You've always been able to grab a hotdog at a street vendor in Toronto and sometimes in cold weather, roasted chestnuts, but keep an eye out for special vendors selling souvlaki, jerk chicken and pad Thai and other multicultural dishes. The city's new a la Carte program is, in part, a bid to showcase the city's many cultures. Toronto is often cited as one of the most multicultural cities in the world with about half its population foreign-born.
-- Jane Carl and Julie Carl