The Mysterious Land of Toronto, Canada


There’s always that awkward impulse to include as much detail as possible when someone asks how your holiday was. They trick you into a false sense of free-reigned ramble, with their enthusiastic tones and inquisitive little eyes. Start telling them, though, and watch them glaze over; the smile becomes more of a straight line. The anticipation of this turns my rehearsed descriptions, eloquent in my head, into monosyllabic drivel, mainly involving the repetition of the word ‘great’. “How was your trip? I can’t wait to hear about it” (they don’t mean this). “Yes, it was great. Really lovely place. So friendly. Such a great place to explore.” I’ve lost them. They’ve already turned away, probably pointing at their non-existent watch in faux apology. Emanuel Herrmann, the inventor of the postcard, had the right idea. Get it out of the way before you return. Well, reader, you must have some time to kill, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. So let me take advantage of your vulnerable situation to elaborate on a trip I recently took, to, in the words of Scott Pilgrim vs The World, ‘the mysterious land of Toronto, Canada’.

The vertiginous skyline is enough to give one a crick in the neck; the threat of that and pending lamp posts were the only things dissuading me from walking around, gaze permanently fixed on the skyscrapers above. Like a wasp to a picnic, I found myself transfixed by the way the sun blasted off the pavement to cloud walls of glass. This, coupled with the eclectic mix of cultures and the abundance of randomly placed art installations, makes Toronto a city to be explored on foot, eyes open, camera at hand. There’s so much to distract, more hidden gems than Hatton Garden, and a variety that ranks it above other metropolises.

I’d been warned of a city that was tricky to navigate, which is not what one who relies on Google Maps to get around wants to hear as they’re about to embark on a solo trip almost 4,000 miles away from home. I can’t vouch for the city’s transport system, but the good ol’ map method and clear signage proved enough to keep me on track. The CN Tower, looming from virtually every angle, also helped; as long as I headed for that, I’d be able to find my way back to the Hotel Le Germain on Maple Leaf Square, where I laid my head in boutique luxury every evening and kept my vitamin C levels up from the edible apple art they had dotted around each floor. So as long as you know where your abode, or anywhere you’re heading to in the city for that matter, is in relation to that – the tallest tower in the world before Dubai trumped it with the Burj Khalifa in 2010 – you shouldn’t get lost.

The city’s history with Britain shows in the Victorian architecture, its status as a 21st century North American metropolis reflected in the skyscrapers. It’s this mix of very old and new, partly a result of the reconstruction following the great fire of 1904, which lends Toronto its unique character. The Royal Ontario Museum, or ROM, is a fine example of this, with the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal jutting out of the side; the glass, aluminium and steel structure combining brilliantly with the original early 20th century stone building.

Walking around, I couldn’t fail to notice the extensive development going on. While the rest of the world suffers from recession, Toronto doesn’t appear to be feeling the effects. Among the constructions, the athletes’ village for the 2015 Pan American Games is already lined up become apartments afterwards, adding to the city’s portfolio of pricey condos. With such promise and opportunity, it’s no surprise that Toronto has attracted so many outsiders over the years, with around 50% of the current population made up of non-Canadians. As a result, the city boasts an abundance of ethnic neighbourhoods: five Chinatowns, two Little Italys, Greektown, Koreatown and Little India, to name a few, bringing an endless supply of culinary, shopping and exploring opportunities.

From restaurants to dainty gourmet shops, Toronto’s food offering alone could keep one occupied for a few days (pretty much what this little person did with her four-day visit). West of Queen Street West, aka ‘the foodies’ quarter’, 80 of the 400-odd businesses are eateries and food shops. The best way to tackle it is to start at Trinity Bellwoods Park – where locals enjoy picnics, and art and all-night festivals pop up over the summer – and work your way east. The Spice Trader and Olive Pit: for every herb you can think of packaged in covetable green tins, high grade oils and balsamic vinegars, and Nadege, a modern Parisian patisserie displaying a rainbow of macarons and marshmallows in rose water and gin & tonic, are both worthy of your time. As is Tealish, one of my favourite Toronto discoveries. Giant tins of loose tea, blended into quirkily named flavours, spanning green, black, oolong, white, rooibos, flowering, chai and herbal tea.

The lightest, fluffiest cupcakes to beat all cupcakes can be found at D’lish. A daily changing menu includes seasonal specials, such as the pumpkin spice one I practically inhaled. Delight, for its delicious homemade organic blue cheese ice cream (yes, really), handmade chocolates in original flavours and downstairs ‘Le Caveau’ of Canadian cheeses is also one to visit, if only to witness the fantastic artisanal products from Quebec, Winnepeg and Salt Spring Island on offer. Budding mixologists should pay a visit to BYOB, a brilliant little shop selling an impressive array of cocktail paraphernalia – from glasses, bitters and maraschino cherries, to customised bars and Absinthe servers. There’s a Camden feel to west Queen Street West, or ‘bohemian-chic’ in estate agent speak, just off the beaten track. Not the people-heavy element, just a slightly lived-in sense to some of the buildings, adding to its arty air and melding well with the vintage clothing shops, cafes and galleries lining either side of the strip.

For fewer quirks and more in the way of Chloe, Gucci, Michael Kors and Jil Sander, the ‘Golden Mile’ of Bloor-Yorkville offers balance-busting temptations. Head to Hazelton Avenue where the cars are flash and the people are polished, and peruse the galleries and fine jewellers, before strolling back to Yorkville Avenue for more fashion boutiques and pavement restaurants. I suggest you save your appetite, and head over to the nearby Royal Ontario Museum for a culture fix (leave your bags at the downstairs cloakroom free of charge), and then lunch with a view at C5, housed inside the Crystal. They serve a delicious Cave Spring Dolomite Riesling, perfect for lunchtime. In fact, the handful of Niagara Rieslings I tried were all a joy to drink: crisp, complex, buttery whites. Toronto chefs are big on eating by the seasons, aiming to source fresh produce from nearby farms. Because of this, beetroot was everywhere on the menus while I was there. Beetroot salad, tossed with different coloured variants of the root, creamy blue cheese, walnuts, seeds and leaves, was so good I ordered it in three places. That, the black cod, and the chocolate mousse cake dessert are all dishes I’d highly recommend at C5. The latter especially, on excitement and aesthetics alone; the sort of plate that induces a laugh when it’s placed before you, boasting an original display of chocolate methods: olive oil, aerated, foam, tuille and sponge. One for the memory bank.

Ultra, over in the Fashion District area of Queen Street West, is also worth a reservation, on its impressive ornate entrance way and décor alone. A moody night time spot attracting a youngish trendy crowd, serving dangerously good lychee martinis and a level of food joy worthy of its dedicated following. My duck dish looked so good that my neighbours struck up a conversation to admit their food envy, before wishing me a great trip in the typical warming Torontonian way. Scarpetta over on the otherwise unassuming Wellington Street West won me over initially by playing one of my favourite Kruder & Dorfmeister mixes (Lamb’s Trans Fatty Acid, for those interested), and then again with a big bowl of rich, lobster-heavy pasta and perfectly matched creamy Pinot. To give an example of its vast drinks menu, there are 17 lines dedicated to Scotch alone.

For the ultimate bird’s eye view of Toronto, book a window seat in the CN Tower’s 360 restaurant which, as the name suggests, offers 360-degree rotational views of the city and Lake Ontario, moving slowly over a course of 72 minutes, while you feast on massive portions of Canadian dishes such as my delicious maple-glazed salmon main. Extremely popular, so book ahead, and request a window seat. Among its many accolades, 360 boasts a Guinness World Record for ‘World’s Highest’ wine cellar, stocking over 550 worldly bins at 1151 feet.

An afternoon stroll east of the city on my last day took me to the historic Distillery District, former home to the world’s largest whiskey distillery Gooderham and Worts, now housing jewellery, gift and curios shops, a brewery, chocolatier and mini craft market. A bus goes straight from the main Union Station to there, but I managed to walk it comfortably in around 40 minutes. The contrast between old and new, a recurring theme in the city, is even more prevalent here. The 19th century former distillery buildings, formed of small red bricks, like scenes from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, are set to a background of contemporary glass tower blocks. If I really did have a book in me, I’d settle in one of the coffee shops here to write it.

They say the British are self deprecating. I lost count of the compliments I made to a shopkeeper or waiter on their wares which received the response “I bet you have this, only better, in London, right?” Er well, no, actually. Toronto has rather a lot of its own to offer. I focused on food and covering as much as I could on foot, but the real beauty of the city is the wide variety of things to do while you’re there. The islands on Lake Ontario, a mere 20 minutes away by boat, provide some respite from the city in the form of generous parks, picnic opportunities, beaches and nearby fishing. Back in the city, there’s theatre, farmers’ markets, museums, and a tight calendar of annual festivals championing pretty much everything. If that’s not enough, approximately 90 minutes away there is of course one of the Wonders of the World, Niagara Falls, as well as various wine tasting opportunities nearby. So, all in all, Toronto’s really rather great.

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