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Published: February 17th 2019
Toronto – A Multicultural Treasure, Canada February 2019
Welcome to Toronto, the most multiculturally diverse city on the planet, where more than 180 languages are spoken on a daily basis. A popular adage describes the city as "New York City run by the Swiss," and it's true—you can find world-class theater, underground tunnels, shopping and restaurants, the sidewalks are clean and the people are friendly. It's estimated that over half of Toronto's residents were born outside Canada and despite its complex makeup, Torontonians generally get along extremely well. When the weather is fine, Toronto is a blast: a vibrant, big-time city abuzz with activity. Some of the world's finest restaurants are found here, alongside happening bars and clubs and eclectic festivals. Yes, winter in Toronto can be a real drag, with things getting messy on the congested highways and crowded public transit system. But come here with patience, an open mind and even during frigid days and bone-chilling nights, you're bound to have a great time. There is a fresh international buzz about this city. Perhaps it's the influx of flush new residents from across the globe; or was it the Pan-Am Games that
shone a spotlight on Toronto? Either way, this is a city that is waking up to its own greatness. A little bit of history:
When Europeans first arrived at the site of present-day Toronto, the vicinity was inhabited by the Iroquois, who had displaced the Wyandot (Huron) people, occupants of the region for centuries. The name Toronto
is likely derived from the Iroquoian word tkaronto
, meaning "place where trees stand in the water". This refers to the northern end of what is now Lake Simcoe, where the Huron had planted tree saplings to corral fish. In the 1660s, the Iroquois established two villages within what is today Toronto. By 1701, the Mississauga had displaced the Iroquois, who abandoned the Toronto area at the end of the Beaver Wars, with most returning to their base in present-day New York. In the 17th
century, the area was a crucial for travel, with the Humber and Rouge rivers providing a shortcut to the upper Great Lakes. These routes together were known as the Toronto Passage.
As a major destination for immigrants to Canada, the city grew rapidly through the remainder of the 19th
The first significant wave of immigrants were Irish, fleeing the Great Irish Famine -the vast majority were Catholic. By 1851, the Irish-born population had become the largest single ethnic group in the city. For brief periods, Toronto was twice the capital of the united Province of Canada: first from 1849 to 1852, following unrest in Montreal, and later 1856 to 1858. After this date, Quebec was designated as the capital until 1866 (one year before Canadian Confederation). Since then, the capital of Canada has remained Ottawa, Ontario. Toronto became the capital of the province of Ontario after its official creation in 1867.
Following WWII, refugees from war-torn Europe and Chinese job-seekers arrived. Toronto's population grew to more than one million in 1951, when large-scale suburbanization began and doubled to two million by 1971. Following the elimination of racially based immigration policies by the late 1960s, Toronto became a destination for immigrants from all parts of the world. By the 1980s, Toronto had surpassed Montreal as Canada's most populous city and chief economic hub.
As is my usual practice, I’m taking up “residence” in a Hilton property – this time it’s the Doubletree on Chestnut
Street in downtown. My red-eye flights via Detroit had me touching down at Pearson International by 10:30am, temperature was just 13f with a wind chill of -17f, heavy overcast skies and thick snowflakes beginning to float down to add to the existing accumulation on the runways. To say it was cold would be a vast understatement – my breath was a stream of white mist as I walked up the gangway from the plane into the terminal, shivering all the way. My arranged transfer to the hotel was via Jayride Shuttles, an excellent shuttle company I have used in the past. They are significantly cheaper than most transfer services to the city (I paid $35 USD for a one-way trip) and it can all be done online via their website. By noon I was checking into the Doubletree right in the heart of the entertainment center of Toronto – a 26-story building and my home-away-from-home for the next couple of weeks is on the 24th
floor, overlooking the city center ice skating rink. A small room by my usual standards but very cozy, with a bay window affording sweeping views of the streets far below. The Wifi signal is always
strong and stable and of course, numerous American/Canadian television channels to satisfy even me! After the redeye flights and having been awake for more than 39 hours, I was more than ready for a hot shower and a long afternoon nap – I can unpack and get settled in later.
My first morning in Toronto and I awoke to a fresh layer of snow blanketing the immediate area and glistening in the bright morning sunlight. Skaters are already zooming around the rink, wrapped up like Goodyear Tire Men from head to foot in thick coats, scarves, hats and gloves. Temperature was -9c with a wind chill of -13c…. that called for hot coffee and lots of it. After the standard hotel buffet breakfast (or “brekkie” as it’s known in Canada), I stopped by the front desk to collect a city street map and some sightseeing literature – now I’m ready to plan my 2-week stay. Thankfully I picked an ideal location to use as a base of operations – I’m in easy walking distance from just about everything and even though it means braving these crazy temps, I’m ready to take on the challenge of Toronto’s outdoors.
I have my winter coat (only one I own), gloves, umbrella and even a scarf – only missing the requisite fur hat…..you can now refer to me as Nannoka of the North, bring on the blizzard…. LOL.
Just as I was debating whether to go out for dinner or eat in, the fire alarm went off in my room – so loud, it startled me out of a half doze. Then came an announcement that the fire department was its way to check out the problem. This lasted for almost 25 minutes with the alarm shrieking constantly, only halted temporarily when an updated announcement was made by hotel staff. Finally it was determined to be a false alarm and things seemed to return to normal – yeah right. By this time, I had made the decision to eat in so made my way to the elevators. Turns out when the alarm was triggered the elevators automatically stopped, and until a serviceman arrived to release them, they were not moving. I had a choice: either go hungry or hike down 24 flights of back service stairs……no contest, I’m headed for the lobby on the ankle express (aka hiking).
If I hadn’t been hungry earlier, I had definitely worked up an appetite when I reached the ground floor. See how much fun can be had while traveling the globe…. certainly boggles the mind at times.
Hemispheres Restaurant and Bistro is the inhouse eatery on the lobby floor. Having opted to eat here this evening, I was pleasantly surprised at the menu options. I selected the pea soup puree with wasabi cream which, in spite of its name, tasted way better than it sounds. My entrée was a fantastic Bistro burger with smoked gouda cheese accompanied by sweet potato fries – a really fantastic dinner. Considering I was dining in a hotel restaurant the resulting $27 USD bill was reasonable, and the food was excellent. Thank all the gods on high the elevators had been released for service by this time, and I didn’t have to hike UP 24 flights – that was NOT on my list of things to do this evening!
In spite of my clothing preparations, my sightseeing plans went to hell in a hand basket when I opened the drapes the next morning to see light snow falling. That wouldn’t
normally have stopped me, but what I heard on the local weather newscast did. The City had issued a severe cold temperature warning, along with a major storm announcement moving into the area tomorrow morning, along with a prediction for heavy snowfall, ice pellets, freezing rain and mercury readings I don’t even want to think about. Sand trucks are being readied for the upcoming blizzard, so being outside and exploring is out of the question for a day or so…. I’ll use this time to finalize upcoming trips and watch the snow drifts get higher and higher outside my windows.
I’m looking at the blizzard right now – make that a “whiteout” – swirling outside my windows….I awoke a couple of hours ago to relative calm and low temps. Promptly at 7:30am the predicted winter storm rolled into Toronto and it has been hell on wheels ever since. The order to close all city schools went out very early; except for the subway, city transportation is at a standstill; the airport has cancelled multiple flights, government employees are working from home, and yet there are people on the street walking their dogs! The winds are howling, blowing
the snow in all directions building drifts against every available wall, and I have a front-row seat for all this excitement – how cool is that?
Unfortunately I missed one of the city’s most popular events by just one day…..Winterlicious, created by the city and held from January 25 to February 4. It featured delectable three-course prix fixe menus at nearly 200 participating restaurants and an eclectic culinary event series city-wide. Bad logistical planning on my part.
However I am in time and in town for another spectacular event: the Toronto Light Festival, now in its third year. Approximately 750,000 lights are used to create a magical experience that sees the area’s 50+ Victorian-era buildings surrounded by light sculptures and dazzling canopies. Here I’m on a new visual journey and imaginative cerebral adventure, designed to entertain and inspire. The Festival transforms this neighborhood into one of the largest open-air galleries in the world, lighting up the long winter nights with distinctive works from both local and international light artists. Formerly the home of Gooderham and Worts, which was once the largest distiller in the world, it is now a designed National Historic
Site. A free event which runs thru March 2nd
is located in the Distillery Historic District. This entire complex is a romantic, creative and pedestrian-only village, lined with cobblestone streets and endless galleries, restaurants, cafes and shopping boutiques.
Winter here offers something else for free, ice skating at the Evergreen Brick Works. The Don Valley Brick Works (aka the Evergreen Brick Works) is a former quarry and industrial site which operated for nearly 100 years, providing bricks used to construct many well-known Toronto landmarks. Since the closure of the original factory, the quarry has been converted into a city park which includes a series of naturalized ponds, while the buildings have been restored and opened as an environmentally-focused community and cultural center by Evergreen, a national charity dedicated to restoring nature in urban environments. The outdoor rink weaves thru snow-covered gardens under exposed beams of the old brick factory roof and is considered one of the most picturesque skating rinks in Toronto. Bring your own skates or rent a pair for $5 (USD $3.74). Open 10am-5pm Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from December to March, with Winter Wednesdays from 5:30 to 9:30pm thru February 20th
. These hours are
always weather-dependent. My days on ice are long gone – I’m thankful to stand upright and walk without assistance these days - but it will be a great photo op and an interesting evening while I’m here, not to mention a chance to hoist a couple of hot buttered-rum toddies!
The most iconic (and definitely most visible) landmark in Toronto as to be the CN Tower measuring some 1,815’ high, making it the tallest structure in the western hemisphere. Located at 290 Bremner Boulevard, it provides numerous options for scoping out city views from three observation decks, with my favorite being the glass floor elevator watching the street get further and further away as you ride higher – certainly not for the faint hearted! The Skyped Observation Platform is the place to see Niagara and New York state on a clear day and for a really special meal, book a table at 360 Restaurant. This revolving eatery dishes up signature Canadian cuisine with a seasonally changing menu. Don’t even think of coming here without your camera – it’s the ultimate photo opportunity.
Known as the Castle on the Hill, Casa Loma took three years
and $3.5M ($2.6M USD) to build. It’s owner, Sir Henry Pellatt, filled Casa Loma with priceless artwork from Canada and around the world. It stood as a monument to its creator – it surpassed any private home in North America and was once the largest private residence in Canada. With soaring battlements and secret passageways, it paid homage to the castles and knights of days gone by, and to this day it remains one of the only true castles on the North American continent. This grand estate features secret tunnels and doors, as well as colorfully lush gardens and very ornate details, like the family coat of arms on the library ceiling. Case Loma is also home to a historic-themed series of theatrical escape rooms, where guests can choose from 4 different games. Located at 1 Austin Terrace, you can find times, tickets and more information at escapecasealoma.com.
For the foodies in the crowd, St. Lawrence Market should be on your “must see” list when in town. Named by National Geographic Magazine as one of the world’s top food markets, it dates back to 1845 and features more than 120 vendors selling all manner of fresh fruit,
vegetables, meat, fish, cheese and baked goods. No, you don’t have to be shopping for a rack of lamb to justify a visit: the market is also home to a variety of takeout food stalls. It is made up of three major markets: Farmer’s Market only open on Saturdays 5am to 3pm; Antiques Market only open on Sundays 5am to 5pm; and the main South Market open Tuesdays-Thursdays 8am to 6pm, Fridays 8am to 7pm, Saturdays 5am to 5pm and closed on Sundays. A big plus is the Market Gallery located on the second floor of the South Market. It’s home to rotating exhibits that chronicle Toronto’s unique history via photographs, maps, paintings and more. Located at 92-95 Front Street East, just a couple of blocks from the Distillery.
And of course you can’t visit Canada and not visit the Hockey Hall of Fame (Canadians LIVE for this game). Located at Brookfield Place, 30 Yonge Street in downtown, it’s Toronto’s tribute to the national obsession featuring memorabilia, displays and interactive games. Fans are invited to do their own play-by-play commentary on classic games in the TSN/RDS broadcast zone, tour a replica of the Canadiens dressing room, or
test their skill and block shots from some of the game’s greatest shooters. Visitors can also have a photo op with the game’s ultimate hardware: the Stanley Cup. There’s a new permanent exhibit here - The Mask - which chronicles the evolution of goalie masks as a means of protection and self-expression. Currently there are 90 masks on display.
Toronto boasts some of the best museums, including The Royal Ontario, Museum of Illusions, Gardiner Museum, Gibson House, Aga Khan, Museum of Contemporary Art and others. It also has numerous shopping centers and malls, the best known being the CF Toronto Easton Centre located downtown at 20 Yonge Street. One of the busiest malls in North America, it offers more than 250 shops, services and restaurants under its roof. An elevated pedestrian bridge over Queen Street connects to the flagship Hudson’s Bay department store and Saks Fifth Avenue across the street. Not being a shopaholic in even the vaguest sense of the word, you won’t find me anywhere near a mall 99% of the time, but this place is worth a visit if only to gawp with stunned reactions, at the price tags on the haute couture at
design houses such as Balmain, Dior, Givenchy, Rodarte and Jason Wu (a favorite of Michelle Obama). Do people really buy stuff with that many numbers after the dollar sign? Evidently they do – enough to give both me and my credit card heart attacks.
Just 90 miles south of Toronto across Lake Ontario is a natural wonder of the world - Niagara Falls. I have visited it previously in summer and winter seasons many years ago – I think the most dramatic of all is right now, slap in the middle of February and during one of the coldest winters we have experienced in decades. During my sightseeing planning session on day one, I found a fantastic combo deal online via City Sightseeing Tours which, for a grand total of just under $80 USD, gets me not only my favorite HOHO 2-day unlimited-use bus ticket to explore Toronto, but also a full day tour to the Falls. I’m booked for Valentine’s Day and expecting it to be a frozen winter wonderland from start to finish.
The tour coach arrived some 20 minutes late, due to rush hour traffic and the ever-present construction sites, but
finally around 10am all 35 tourists were onboard, and we made our way out of the city. It’s about an hour and a half drive to reach the Falls, paralleling Lake Ontario and passing thru the towns of Mississauga and Hamilton. The weather was holding well, and the sun actually made an appearance just before we reached Niagara. Yes, it was a winter wonderland with the thundering Falls throwing mist hundreds of feet into the air, much of which falls as frozen rain on surrounding rocks and embankments. This frozen mist builds up layer upon layer on virtually any available surface, until the entire area becomes a surreal landscape of sparkling snow, blue/white ice, and when accompanied by the most brilliant turquoise green water of the rushing Niagara River…..well, this place is simply stunning. The verdant green color of the water is a byproduct of the estimated 60 tons every minute of dissolved salts and "rock flour" (very finely ground rock) generated by the erosive force of the river itself. It’s something to see in summer time, but nothing compares with being here in the dead of winter. Niagara Falls is the collective name for three waterfalls (Horseshoe Falls, American
Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls) that straddle the international border between the Canadian province of Ontario and the US state of New York, forming the southern end of the Niagara Gorge. The American Falls usually appear to be more “frozen” than the Horseshoe Falls because they only receive about 7% of the Niagara River flow. With less water cascading over these Falls, there is a greater opportunity for ice buildup. Superlatives are not in short supply here: the cumulative output of the falls is the highest of any falls in the world, with Horseshoe Falls being the most powerful on the North American continent. In the dawn of the automotive age, Niagara Falls was the top honeymoon and summer vacation destination and even though it no longer has that claim to fame, it still attracts millions of tourists every year.
There has only been one occurrence where the flow of Niagara Falls has been stopped due to a freeze-up which actually happened on March 29, 1848. After an extremely cold winter, the thick ice of Lake Erie began to break up during a duration of warm weather. Followed by a strong eastward wind, this caused the ice
to form in the mouth of the Niagara River which then caused a blockage of water from flowing down towards the Horseshoe Falls. When water comes crashing down over the Falls into the rocks below, it causes it to turn solid and form what is known as “The Ice Bridge” connecting the American side to the Canadian Side. Many years ago, the Ice Bridge was a popular tourist attraction as visitors would gather on the bridge and admire the beauty that the cold winter weather had created. Both Canadian and American visitors would gather to walk on the bridge, where they could enjoy fresh food and beverages as some entrepreneurs set up concession stands during these cold times. That was all until an unfortunate disaster occurred on February 4, 1912 when the bridge broke off and caused three people to drift down the river to their death. Ever since this incident occurred, walking on the Ice Bridge is forbidden. For the majority of winters the Falls are known to partially freeze, although the Falls never entirely freeze-up on the waterfall or in the Niagara River. Notable years for the Falls displaying this icing up are 1885, 1902, 1906, 1911, 1932,
1936, 2014, and 2017. The illusion of the falls freezing completely is due to the outer part of the falls creating a buildup of ice, but underneath that outer shell, the water is continuously flowing down the Falls at a constant rate.
I had a couple of hours to explore, take photographs and grab a bowl of hot spicy chili for lunch at a nearby restaurant. It was too cold to spend a lot of time out of doors, but I had a great viewing spot from the second floor of the restaurant building and was able to take some stunning pictures. From here it’s a short drive to our next stop, Niagara-on-the-Lake, and there’s something about this town that makes you want to linger. The heritage district here is made for walking, with its boutique shops, cast-iron planters and horse-drawn carriages transporting riders to another time and place. It’s Victorian-era 19th
century is charm personified, and you could easily transplant the entire town and set it down anywhere in New England, where it would blend in perfectly. Located at the point where the Niagara River flows into Lake Ontario, it is the only town in Canada
with a Lord Mayor. The permanent population is about 18,000 residents.
Besides the obvious attraction of Niagara Falls, there are many other distinct historic sites in the area that educate tourists about the significance that the region served in shaping Canada to what it is today. The War of 1812 was a turning point in Niagara Falls history, when the fledgling United States army fought British Loyalists for the new lands that would become Canada. From Fort Erie to Niagara-on-the-Lake, it’s possible to visit the past, carefully restored and recreated. At Old Fort Erie, authentically dressed guides in 1812 period costume, recreate life in this former British garrison, including daily musket demonstrations and the annual Siege of Old Fort Erie Re-enactment. Fort Erie was also an entry point for freedom-seeking black slaves escaping persecution in the U.S. The point of entry into Canada from Buffalo, was known as “The Crossing” and is the start of the Freedom Trail - part of the Underground Railroad. There are innumerable stops for those interested in the history of the area, including Brock’s Monument, a tribute to the British General who lost his life at the Battle of Queenston in 1812.The
Daredevil Exhibit at the IMAX theatre showcases real artifacts from daredevils that survived the plunge, and along with the all the stories to go with how each daredevil attempted the treacherous stunt of plummeting down the Falls. The Museum is where visitors can explore the history that changed a nation with real artifacts, images, videos and interactive experiences designed to deliver full exposure to historic events in the region. The Niagara Falls Gallery provides visitors with an opportunity to experience the history of the iconic Falls from the geological creation of the Falls to the daredevils that tested the ferocious capability of nature.
Our final stop before heading back to Toronto, was at the Niagara College Teaching Distillery located in the heart of Niagara’s wine country - its claim to fame is producing ice wine. It takes 4 times as many frozen grapes to produce it compared to regular wines and is sweet enough to make you gag…..not my idea of wine drinking at all, but it is an acquired taste. 40 students each year are selected for the college course and are taught everything from A to Z about making wine. Graduation from this college gives
students multiple employment opportunities, especially in the hospitality industries.
During my stay in Toronto, the weather pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other. I have seen sunlight, snow blizzards, ice storms and ferocious winds, sometimes all in one day! Temperatures have rarely risen above freezing and are usually well below that but surprisingly, I have enjoyed the craziness of it all. This is a great town to explore, even if I’ve had to negotiate snow drifts on the sidewalks, handle ice pellets bouncing off my umbrella, and figure out where I am when caught in a “whiteout” …..such is life for a road warrior.
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