BY JOSEPH P. BLAKE
Toronto is the capital of the province of Ontario and sits along Lake Ontario’s northwestern shore like a gleaming beacon of prosperity and growth. The free-standing CN Tower commands any view from the lake and most of the sprawling city. With a population of about three million, Toronto has numerous diverse neighborhoods and ethnic restaurants that cater to everyone from Pakistanis, Iranians, and Palestinians to a plethora of folks from countries in Africa and the Caribbean.
Though the country is known for its tolerance and friendliness in general, Canadians in Toronto take it to another level — regular folks asked (more than once) if I needed help while I searched on my phone for directions to the next stop outside a restaurant or museum. It was mid-June, but the weather was a bit crisp at night (into the mid-to-low ’60s) and daytime highs barely cracked 80 degrees over several days. (I despise hot and humid weather, so it was all perfect for me.)
Though often compared to New York City, the amount and quality of “things to do” is limited. It does, however, very much resemble the Big Apple in regard to its high cost of living. From food to clothing, to housing and entertainment, folks in Toronto pay a premium price to live here.
The closest and most popular destination near Toronto is Niagara Falls, which is less than a two-hour drive and well worth a day trip. I zip-lined, took the tourist boat under the falls, and allowed the beauty, sheer power, and majesty of the falls itself to soothe me as water poured magnificently over the Crestline dropping close to 200 feet into the Niagara River below.
Toronto is also a city of “people” being “people” in an honest and open way that allows the culture to become the experience. One day, for example, I decided to take a double-decker bus tour starting in downtown Toronto that weaved through several neighborhoods, shopping, and historic areas. Less than a half-mile from the start the bus stopped two different times to accommodate protests.
One consisted of about 100 people railing against using masks, and a few blocks later an eye-opening display of about 75 or so naked men and women riding their bikes in support of Gay Pride Month. They all seemed to be having a grand time and nary a horn honked as traffic was blocked temporarily to allow them through. No catcalls. No anger from anyone that I could see from my perch atop the bus. Frankly, my only question was how long could the bikers sit before it became unbearable.
The City Sightseeing Tours is a hop-on, hop-off continuous loop and tickets were $60 for adults and $37 for children under 18. The buses run about every 20 minutes until nightfall and you could hop on and hop off as much as you wish. It only took me about three hours to complete the loop and most of that time was spent in the harbor area.
Later that day during a stroll through the beautiful and spacious Nathan Phillips Square outside Toronto’s City Hall, the nudity continued as one unclothed man stood beside his bike holding an otherwise benign conversation with several “clothed” individuals and no one seemed to notice what, or if anything was wrong with this picture.
The square also featured an expansive water fountain that showcased Styrofoam blocks of “ice” floating on the water on one side, and a crumbling society on the other to emphasize the dangers of climate change. There was also an informational protest near the fountain about child trafficking as women in bright orange t-shirts handed out pamphlets.
I also ran into young Nathan Whitaker and his parents Willette and Derrick who were escorting him around Toronto. It was part family vacation and completion of a Young Ambassador’s Program at his school in the U.S. that required him to get a passport AND stamp from another country before he was recognized with a pin and the official title of Young Ambassador.
There is definitely a “feel” to Toronto that is palpable in daily routines and simply walking around. It’s consistently rated as one of the safest places to live in North America and such feelings of security adds to the overall culture of acceptance and peace.
Toronto also boasts a bustling waterfront anchored by the nearby St. Lawrence Market and Distillery District where you can sip some local spirits as well as enjoy the local spirits (there have been many reports of ghosts) in a laid-back area that is easy to navigate by foot. The heavy automobile traffic is managed with pedestrians in mind as witnessed by several signs imploring drivers to be aware of elderly people crossing the street. The district got its name during the early 1830s when a factory was built there to distill and distribute whiskey and other spirits including rum, and eventually became the largest distillery in the world. Today you can still get a sip of whiskey from a small distillery on site, but people now flock to the cobblestoned streets mostly for its special events and restaurants.
I had a couple of conversations with some local folks, who were polite but tended to shrink at the first hint of conflict or controversy. We talked a little about politics, for example, and I expressed my very deep dislike for the people and organizations working hard to undermine Democracy. Though they agreed the former president was responsible for many of the current problems, they couldn’t understand my passion and raising voice level even while condemning the reason(s) for it. For Canadians, it’s like bad manners to be so animated during any discussion—political or otherwise.
Still, and like other places I’ve visited where American politics were viewed harshly, they seemed to genuinely like Americans as people, not a country. I even got into a couple of conversations about racism in America and though not foreign to the concept, they were genuinely perplexed about why it’s so deeply embedded in our culture. Though formally known as “Torontonians”, I didn’t see that phrase written anywhere, and no one I met referred to themselves in that way. Instead, they always used “Canadian” to describe themselves.
The Distillery District is also Literally next door to St. Lawrence Market which, though small in size, is big on specialty shops and crafts, as well as a local farmers’ market and market kitchen. Here, you can pick up any and everything from a fancy, straw fedora, to a signature Toronto-style Po Boy with fried fish and Canadian Bacon.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have an “outstanding’ meal in Canada. Folks here are heavy into bacon and pork and most of what I saw was mostly a spin on something else (like the Po Boy with bacon). Outside of a couple of dishes like Poutine—a mixture of fries, cheese curd and brown gravy—that was on every menu I came across, I couldn’t wrap my head around what exactly is “Canadian cuisine”. To be fair, I didn’t get a chance to do any “fine” dining in downtown Toronto because the city rolls up the carpet early and by the time I was done sightseeing most places were closing for the day.
There are, however, a plethora of restaurants specializing in everything from Egyptian, Indian and Caribbean foods, a reflection of the deep diversity of the city. Also, the Caesar (a Canadian-style Bloody Mary) is pretty much the cocktail of choice while Moosehead Beer is everywhere. I didn’t try the former because I’m not a big fan of Clamato juice (a major ingredient) and the latter was a bit watery for me.
Toronto is also the cleanest city I’ve ever visited. The sight of trash anywhere is surprising and out of place. Locals take pride in their surroundings and it’s not uncommon to see random people stop for the rare piece of trash on the ground and put it in a receptacle. It’s worth noting again that by midnight most of the city is as quiet as a church on Tuesday.
Still, Toronto is a charming and accommodating city that seduces you with its laid-back style and genuinely kind people and before you know it you are making plans to return before getting to the airport.
Among the touristy things you “must” do is catch a dinner cruise on one of the ships on the lake to get a view of Toronto from the water at sunset. I promise you won’t be disappointed and bring a jacket because it gets chilly on the lake…or not. I’m sure a local will offer their sweater or wrap to keep you warm. Yes, they are just that polite.
Niagara Falls is the most popular destination for Americans heading into Toronto.
Toronto is the capital of the province of Ontario and sits along Lake Ontario’s northwestern shore like a gleaming beacon of prosperity and growth. The free-standing CN Tower commands a view from the lake and most of the sprawling city.
Poutine—a mixture of fries, cheese curd, and brown gravy—was on every menu.
Protest, like the one where about 100 people railed against using masks, and an eye-opening display of about 75 or so naked men and women riding their bikes in support of Gay Pride Month, seemed to take in stride. Credit Blake
An amusing sign directing motor vehicles to yield for senior citizens.