Falling for Toronto
Aine O'Connor explores the cosmopolitan and friendly Canadian city
All hail the North Atlantic Drift. Irish weather can be a grey and stultifying thing but, given where we lurk in terms of latitude, we don't do too badly.
On the flight to Toronto there was a great view at one point of Newfoundland and Labrador. At 53 degrees, they're at the same latitude as Dublin, yet much of it is tundra.
Toronto, seven and a half hours away and a full 10 degrees further south, was warm when we arrived to a celebration. This was Aer Lingus's first direct flight from Dublin to Toronto.
Thousands of Irish people have emigrated to Canada in recent years, and another 10 thousand IEC visas are available throughout 2014. But up until April 14, there was no direct flight to Toronto. Now that there are – five a week until summer when the flights will be daily – it means, among other things, an end to Christmases stranded in transit airports between Ireland and Canada.
Canada did not suffer the recession the way the rest of the world did, which is, in part, why they can still welcome so many Irish, and other, workers. Toronto especially has a long and impressive history of immigration from an incredible range of countries. On the list of languages spoken in the country there were at least five I had never even heard of, like Tigrigna, Ilocano and Akan. The result is a remarkably mixed and cosmopolitan city. It also makes Toronto a lovely place to visit, without having to emigrate.
We were staying in the Eaton Chelsea Hotel, located right in the centre of Toronto within walking distance of most amenities, including the two-block long Eaton shopping centre. The shopping is very good in Toronto, and Yonge Street, which at a dinky 1896 kms long is the longest street in the world. With 1600 rooms the Eaton Chelsea is make-sure-you-pick-the-right-lift-big.
There are several restaurants – one of which serves stacks of pancakes with genuine, made just up the road maple syrup which it would be morally wrong not to eat for breakfast – and a swimming pool with slide. The maximum room size is for four people, and there are adjoining rooms too, so, for example, over the first weekend in June some rooms are available from CAN $160 (€106), excluding tax.
The obvious attraction in the area is Niagara Falls, something I have always wanted to see. The forecast had sounded unlikely, 20C on Monday, -1C with snow on Tuesday. But sure enough, as I woke at the skewed body clock hour of six, I could see fat white flakes falling. It had been a long and tough winter in Toronto, they'd had endless snow and weren't best pleased to see more. It doesn't faze them in terms of traffic, but much of Toronto is being rebuilt and upgraded in preparation for next year's Pan-American games and this does interfere with the traffic. But then more people live in Ontario than in all of Ireland.
There are bus tours to the Falls from many hotels, advisable because a taxi for the 90 minute journey costs approximately CAN $220 (€145) each way. The town of Niagara Falls is pretty built-up, there are hotels and touristy things, but it's easy to turn your back and look only over what is just amazing. The noise of the water – the equivalent of a million bathtubs a minute pouring over the edge – itself is quite something, but the sight of those two sets of falls, the smaller American Falls and the higher Canadian Horseshoe Falls, does not disappoint.
It was really cold, like wear-everything-you-packed cold, and the poor visibility meant there were no helicopter tours running. Neither was the Maid of the Mist boat because it can't run until the ice has all cleared. No souvenir plastic poncho for me this time. The Behind the Falls experience and the animated Fury experience – guess which dope was standing in the front row for the water effects – are open all year round and Behind the Falls, taking a lift down to the tunnels that run behind the waterfall, is well worth it.
If the town of Niagara Falls isn't pretty, the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake is. A CAN$40 (€26) taxi trip from the Falls, it's borderline twee but well-kept and has really interesting little shops. Business rents in Ontario are comparatively low, which means that speciality shops and businesses have a good chance of survival. It makes for a much more interesting environment than just chain stores.
Touristy restaurants aren't famed for their quality but even in Niagara Falls, like everywhere we ate, the food was simple, tasty and always really well prepared. In the city we ate in Bumpkins on Gloucester Street, where even the set menus had a good range of items for CAN$33 (€22). Beware though, like in the US, the prices exclude tax and that varies from state to state and on products. There's a separate alcohol tax too but most goods seem to face a sales tax of 13 per cent.
We also ate in the Marché restaurant, in Brookfield Place. It's a chain. You get a swipe card when you go in and then select what you'd like from a really impressive range of stalls. From sushi to cake, to pasta and paninis you select the ingredients, which they then prepare. It was very good and a great way to eat. The range is an accurate reflection of Toronto, a peacefully cosmopolitan city.
Even the architecture is incredibly varied, from the skyscraping city to the renovated Distillery area, via Chinatown and the Harbour, and it's all laid out from the viewing level of the CN Tower.
All round, including sports and wineries and just wandering, there's a lot to do in Toronto. It has to be said too that the people are really nice. They seem very earnest and are incredibly friendly and polite. I would absolutely go back.
Aer Lingus operate daily direct flights between Dublin and Toronto during the summer season and up to four flights weekly services during the winter.
Customers have the option to connect to eight key cities within Canada including Vancouver, Montreal and Calgary.
Fares start from €239 each way including taxes and charges.
For more information on fares and schedules visit aerlingus.com
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