Travel TV: The Irish website set to change the way we travel
Forget hotels - an Irish start-up can help you live like a local on a city break. Thomas Breathnach tests it out in Toronto.
Brush teeth, empty trash, release an invader raccoon from the garage…
It's just your typical morning routine. Around the breakfast table, our domestic party of five is bantering, email-checking and Tinder-swiping while blind-shovelling spoons of blueberry granola into our mouths. I've parachuted into this quintessential Canadian scene thanks to Homestay.com; an online accommodation platform which checks guests in with a global community of over 50,000 welcoming locals.
And Toronto is already feeling just like home.
Homestay.com is in fact an Irish start-up. While still a lesser-known entity to Airbnb, it differentiates itself by only offering properties with a live-in host - tapping into the growing trend of authentic travel experiences.
In Toronto, my own affable hosts are Tim Gardiner and Nick Flores, a Homestay.com power-couple who've been welcoming strangers into their abode for almost a year. Joining both them and me were fellow guests Rana, a Persian-Swedish writer, and Iben - a PhD student from Denmark. After a few days, we're already feeling very modern family.
Along with my merry housemates, the abode itself is stacked with curb appeal. Tim and Nick live in a three-storey brownstone (townhouse) in the ever-gentrifying downtown district of Queen Street East. The air here is Elle Décor slick, with bedroom themes flitting from lumberjack-chic to Lake Ontario-cool. I'm upstairs in the quasi-penthouse suite, which comes complete with living area, mini-bar and a psychedelic, paint-splashed balcony.
It's the perfect urban habitat in which to wake up, smell the maples and enjoy a brew from my personal Nespresso machine. Forget hotels: with living conditions like these, I can live with having to rustle up my own pancakes!
Out and about in Toronto, I was keen to get an experience beyond the CN Tower and the Hockey Hall of Fame - and equipped with local tips from Tim and Nick, I was getting just that. My morning caffeine fix and people-watching session at Dark Horse coffee house could be followed by anything from a swim on Toronto Island, some pooch mingling at the next-door dog shelter or a community workout at the nearby Crossfit gym.
Having the option to cook back at base also opens up the glorious world of food shopping. From fresh produce at St Lawrence Market to staples at FreschCo's, it didn't take long to feel like a Torontonian.
Toronto is a sports-crazed town, so a spot on the home side grandstands is also on my list. With 2015's bumper calendar, my options range from a major league Blue Jays fixture to cheering "Go Canada" at the Pan Am Games. When the 2015 Roger's Cup rolls into town, however, I join the local tennis tifosi in support of Canada's WTA ice-queen, Genie Bouchard. Located at the Aviva Centre at York University the tournament brings an electric ante-Wimbledon atmosphere; every changeover earning an interlude of Taylor Swift and free pizza.
Come the weekend, going native in TO actually means joining the great summer exodus out of the city. With my hosts jetting to a wedding in Newfoundland and the girls hitting the beer festival circuit, I up sticks for Ontario's wilderness playground: Algonquin Park.
My check-list is simple: a tent from Walmart ($50) a motor from Hotwire ($80) and just a few hours north of the city, camping paradise awaits. Hiking, canoeing and moose-spotting are capped by a dream screensaver sunset at my lakeside plot. And once my neighbour's fireside ukulele rendition of Wagon Wheel peters out, I'm treated to a midnight full-moon chorus from a nearby pack of timber wolves.
Back in the city, I'm tipped off to Toronto's latest social craze: Beyography (beyography.com; $15). The brainchild of local dancer Nicky Nanshallah, Beyography (that's right, Beyoncé choreography classes) works on the simple but tangible shtick of learning a different dance routine every session.
"Bring your sunscreen, because today's class is gonna be hot!" read the Facebook call to action. Fortunately, all diva attitude was checked at the door and Nasrallah (who struts in diamante stilettos) directs myself and my merry fellow dancers through a craic-filled dance routine.
On my last night, my hosts and I gather on Queen Street East for baseball, buffalo wings and a bar crawl. The girls soon join the mix, completing the pop-up social network. Partying on, I wrap up by requesting Going Home by Drake; Canada's hottest hip-hop star.
"I'm not playing that," the DJ retorts. "It's two-years-old and a wedding song."
Oh well. Ten days in a homestay may have made me feel like a Torontonian, but I guess I still have some local nuances to learn.
How to do it
Homestay.com hosts offer stays from one night up to a year. Tim and Nick's downtown Toronto home has rates from €29 per night, based on a 10-night minimum. One interesting feature of Homestay is their video chat option, which allows guests and hosts to introduce themselves during the booking process. Beyond Toronto, campsites at Algonquin Park cost from €22 per night (ontarioparks.com).
Get me there
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies to Toronto daily from €440 return, making it one of the airline's cheapest North American fares at present. Though often over-shadowed by its American neighbours for transatlantic city breaks, a weaker Canadian Dollar should make Toronto a strong winter alternative for the NYC and Boston jet-set this year.
NB: All prices subject to availability/change.