They say that grass is always greener on the other side. Earlier this month, I set out to find out exactly how. The other side being Canada (since Swine Flu had ruled out Mexico!) and the city visited – Toronto – in the state of Ontario, abbreviated as T.O., and referred to locally by a much cooler name – the Tee Dot!
The French influence, I’m told, wears thin as you drive away from the state of Quebec but that didn’t seem to deter Toronto’s Pearson International Airport from having signs in French! That’s probably the first thing that hits you as you step of the plane. The second, and more impressive thing, is a snag free passage through immigration. There are no separate lines for Canadians – therefore your not likely to find signs marked ‘aliens’; the wait time is minimal; you’re greeted with a smile; the questions asked are not in the least bit offensive and before you know it your already at Baggage Claim!!
They also say that comparisons are odious and I couldn’t agree more. Prior to my departure for Canada, a handful of sources insisted that Toronto was nothing but ‘a smaller version of NYC’ or worse still, ‘a poor wannabe cousin of the Big Apple’. Trying to keep these biases at bay, I decided that a weekend in the Tee Dot should be enough for me to arrive at my own verdict.
First stop on a heavily overcast Saturday morning was St.Lawrence Market, where we managed to duck for cover seconds before a Bombay style rain shower pelted the street outside!
A mid 19th century building which once housed the City Hall and Jail House, St.Lawrence Market is today home to over 100 vendors spread across 2 levels, specialising in everything from fine cheeses to exotic meats, from coffee beans sourced across the globe to varieties of mustard that you never even dreamt of!!!
As we waited for another friend to join us, we made a second meal out of all the free samplings on offer – salsas, pickles, preserves et al. In many ways for me, St.Lawrence Market was reminiscent of Bombay’s very own Crawford Market – a large shed enclosing hundreds of vendors, thousands of people and that buzz that emanates only from large city markets.
After a hectic hour of food window shopping and a lot of sampling, we emerged to some picture perfect weather outside.
About a km east of the St.Lawrence neighbourhood is the Distillery District. Dating back to the early 19th century, the district today houses the largest collection of Victorian era industrial buildings in North America. The oldest of these was set up in 1832 by Gooderham & Worts, which 3 decades later went on to become the largest distillery in the world!
The buildings themselves have been beautifully restored and repurposed to house chic boutiques, stylish cafes, upscale restaurants and even a micro brewery! Not only is the district a big draw for locals and tourists but it also seems to be the destination of choice for marriage parties – 3 of which we saw on that occasion!!
Getting around in the Tee Dot is fairly easy. The downtown area is compact and walkable for the most part and for longer hauls the city’s transit system comprising subways, streetcars and buses is highly efficient. Better still, on weekends, a day pass can be used by 2 people making it all the more attractive! While the subway system shuts down each night, some street car lines and bus routes operate 24 hrs! Now, very few cities in the world can stake claim to that 😉
Montreal is reputed to be the premier biking city in Canada. I haven’t been there yet but I can say this about Toronto – it has more bike racks per capita than any other city I have seen till date! A remarkable feat that.
But the big ‘transit’ draw for me in the Tee Dot was quite easily its street car system – the 2nd largest in the world after Melbourne (which I’ve also had the pleasure of riding)! And Spadina Avenue is streetcar lovers paradise – they come single, they come articulated, they come in all colours and hues, and, they come frequently!!!
Just west of Spadina is Kensington Market and like St.Lawrence, is a destination in itself. The big difference being that this one isn’t enclosed in a shed and its vendors sell everything from fine foods to the kitschy, attracting everyone from the casual shopper to the eclectic to the hipster! I don’t fit into any of those categories unfortunately but I enjoyed it nevertheless!
Kensington Market is best explored on foot and should ideally be visited with no time constraints! Its row houses are charming, colourful flea markets dot the sidewalks, its murals are intriguing to say the least, and the dozens of shops, cafes and pubs that line its streets are begging to be explored! If there’s one place I had to chose to go back to in Toronto, it would be this.
The presence of both eclectic and hipster crowds at Kensington Market is somewhat explained by its proximity to the University of Toronto’s sprawling campus, which lies a few blocks to its northeast. Spread over a generous 168 acres of city land and dotted with some stunning Gothic Revival buildings, the campus is, without doubt, one of the prettiest city campus’s I have ever seen! You would be forgiven for believing that you were suddenly in the UK!
In Toronto, it literally takes only a few blocks of walking – east or west of the built up downtown area – to emerge onto a completely flat cityscape. Sleek corporate towers and shiny condo high-rises give way to row houses with back yards and leafy streets. While Toronto’s downtown area has its own unique buzz, its residential neighbourhoods have their own distinct charm.
Probably one of the most charming of the city’s neighbourhoods is aptly named ‘The Beaches‘. Originally developed as a summer resort in the mid 19th century, the area today boasts a very sandy stretch of beach along Lake Ontario, a winding boardwalk, a large dog run by the water, several parks and a multi use path for biking and running.
A 20 minute ride from downtown on the Queen St. trolley and you are literally transported into a sleepy village with one main drag full of quaint little shops and tree lined side streets sporting Edwardian style homes, complete with Tulip gardens! Simply put, this is as tranquil as it gets, minutes from a city centre!
At the other extreme – literally speaking – lies the iconic CN tower. Smack in the heart of downtown frenzy, with tourists jostling for every bit of space! There is one spot they tread warily on though – the glass bottomed floor of the tower’s main viewing deck – which is the equivalent of a 114 storey high building!
The CN Tower recently relinquished its top spot as the world’s tallest free standing structure to the Burj Dubai Tower. For me, however, the fact that the CN Tower was built by a railroad company (Canadian National) instantly gives it more character than one built with oil money! As our elevator attendant joked on our way down, ‘at least the CN Tower will continue to hold the record for the highest wine cellar in the world’ 😉
The Tee Dot abounds in parks – every walk I took, whatever the length, whatever the area, I would invariably run into a park – Allen Gardens, St.James Park, Kew Gardens, Queens Park to name a few. So outdoor recreation options are plenty. But nothing quite beats the Toronto Islands as the perfect city getaway.
The Toronto Islands consist of a chain of islands spanning 230 hectares in all, a small part of which are inhabited and the rest all recreational. Biking and walking are not just the preferred means here but the only way of getting around – the islands comprise the largest urban car free community in North America!!
The islands are a getaway all right, but also, barely a 10 minute ferry ride from the city, offering the most stunning views of the iconic downtown skyline!
The one preconceived notion I had about Toronto was to expect a mini Punjab on arrival – Sikhs at the airport, Sikhs driving cabs, Sikhs everywhere! No such luck though – turns out, I saw none! On my cab ride back to the airport I got chatting with a young Paki driver who confirmed that none of them would be found downtown – instead I’d have to hit up the burbs of Brampton (11% Sikh) and the like, which are communities centred around the airport, primarily serving its transport and logistic needs. Go figure!
To overcome that initial bit of disappointment, my friends took me to Gerard St. or mini India! The very reputed Lahore Tikka House was the spot of choice and while we waited for our table, an impromptu ‘naach-gaana‘ (song & dance) in true Punjabi style broke out in the narrow passage. I could well have been attending a Sangeet (music function held during weddings) back home!
The food that followed was, without doubt, the best North Indian food I have eaten in North America and the closest thing to what one would get in a dhaba (truckers food haunt) back home!
And finally, the verdict you’ve all been waiting for, or have you? Well, I have to say, Toronto was not my city of choice when it came to visiting Canada for the first time. Montreal or Vancouver would have been top of my list. But the fact that I had most of my friends (in Canada) there, it made my decision that much easier.
That said, the Tee Dot impressed me enough to make me want to visit there again someday.. Plenty of good food & drink options, much cheaper, transit’s great, cool neighbourhoods all around, plenty to do and best part is, everything’s metric!
Actually, I take that back – that’s the 2nd best part! The best part is, NYC’s only an hours flight away 😉
A full set of pictures can be seen here.