Toronto: Boring Hogtown has become one of North America's hippest cities
North American city breaks
Once known as boring old Hogtown,Toronto is now a sparkling, bustling metropolis, says Donal Lynch.
Is Canada having a moment?
While Australia currently looks like an expensive, anti-immigrant nightmare and America convulses with news of travel bans and rabid nationalism, 'America junior' (as The Simpsons once condescendingly dubbed it) suddenly seems like a reliably sane alternative - it was recently reported that almost a third of British travellers say they'd prefer it to the US.
Canada has all of the things that really make its southern ally great - spectacular natural scenery, buzzing multi-cultural cities and an English-speaking population - but without the seething culture wars that define its neighbour. Canadian pop culture is all the rage, too, thanks to hip acts such as Drake, the Weeknd, Grimes and the still-huge-but-now-slightly credible Justin Bieber.
As the lumbersexual slowly replaces the hipster, the country that is synonymous with lumberjacks has new cachet. The recent visit to the White House by Canada's premier highlighted other unflattering (for America) comparisons between these two great North American nations.
While America has a ranting orange reality TV star at the helm, Canada is ruled by a baby-kissing, puppy-hugging, equal-opportunity-loving liberal piece of beefcake called Justin Trudeau. And to paraphrase Joni Mitchell in her song about Canada, we could drink a case of him and still be on our feet.
If Canada is suddenly in vogue, then Toronto - or "Trawno" as the locals pronounce it - has quietly been coming into its own for about a decade now.
Once known as boring old Hogtown, the city is now a sparkling, bustling metropolis of 2.8m people that feels more like Dubai or Shanghai, but without the corporate sterility of either of those places.
For the past few years the skyline of Toronto has been dark with cranes, looming over a city which has become the fourth biggest in all of North America, eclipsing Chicago. If you approach from the water, almost every building you see will have been constructed in the past two decades, and they've done a lot with the waterfront too. The city has been booming for so long and so consistently that few can remember what Toronto was like when it wasn't booming.
There were 13 skyscrapers in 2005; there are now close to 70, with 130 more under major buildings construction. Like LA, Toronto sprawls in all directions and seems to be almost permanently booming.
As many of the Irish who have made their homes in the city have also found, it's a city built on contradictions. Toronto boasts of how clean and energy efficient it is but Torontonians spend most of their brutal winters living and moving beneath their city, in an ever-growing labyrinth of well heated corridors (which, be warned, are also very confusing to navigate if you've never been in them before).
It's a place renowned for its safety - even to the point of being dull - but its most famous politician was undoubtedly its crack-smoking mayor Rob Ford, who died last year. And it's a place which has managed the magical feat of becoming interesting through being so predictable.
The city's reputation for reliable inclusiveness has made it by many metrics the most diverse city in the world, beating out opposition from obvious contenders. It is a melting pot like no other and everywhere you walk in the city you see it. While Montreal, where I landed before connecting onward, is unabashedly French-Canadian, Toronto is a global city. And in an era when public discourse never seemed so shrill and rude, the sheer politeness of Toronto is suddenly chic.
Of course one of Toronto's biggest selling points for international visitors is Niagara Falls, which is a day trip out of town. Canada wins here again over America - the best views are from the Canadian side of the border - but it's important to arrive with an open mind about nature and commerce co-existing.
The falls themselves are spectacular, but the town itself is certainly a little kitsch, full of T-shirt shops, fast-food joints and amusement fairs. Still, nothing can detract from the awe-inspiring power of the falls, and the sight of millions of gallons of water cascading just feet away from an ordinary road and pavement.
A trip on the Maid of the Mist is essential, to experience the force and beauty of the water. The cloud of spray throws spectacular double rainbows. There is also a new zip-line experience over part of the Falls. It isn't as scary as it sounds, though you need a head for heights. The gorge is about 60m below the launch platform and you can control your descent, up to a point, and it's certainly a great selfie-ready update on the standard activities here.
On dry land, the IMAX cinema tells the stories of some of the people who have gone over the falls, and survived, and the various vessels in which they did so are on show in the museum there. Avoid both the American and Canadian cities of Niagara Falls, both are full of tacky casinos. Instead, if your legs are up to it, take a hike into the Niagara Gorge at Devil's Hole State Park, to see the whirlpools and rapids in a more natural setting. The town of Niagara Falls plays host to five restaurants owned by Niagara Parks and all are certified by Feast On, an Ontario scheme under which at least half of ingredients used have to be sourced locally.
As I waited for my ride back to the city I logged into my email and looked at the news and social media websites for a few hours. This was a vacation mistake that I think we should all strive not to make, despite the understandable temptation to make everyone at home jealous with some well chosen shots. There is something gloriously freeing about being unplugged from the digital world for a few days. Rather than looking on oppressive North American roaming charges as an outrage, we should embrace them as an opportunity to liberate ourselves from our devices. Our phones might seem like comforts, but they are hidden sources of stress.
Back in the city I took a walking tour of Toronto, which took in some of the homes of some of the city's most famous entertainers - Mike Myers, Jim Carrey and Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels among them.
We swung by the Eaton Centre, which, depressingly, is still one of the biggest tourist attractions - it's just a huge generic mall, the likes of which you have seen many times. For serious shoppers and fashionistas the place to begin is West Queen West. Recently dubbed "the second hippest neighbourhood in the world" by Vogue, this very cool enclave is home to independently-owned art galleries and boutiques.
Quentin Crisp, when he visited Toronto, found it's inhabitants to be, in the main, in "very self-indulgent physical shape" - but when you see what's on offer food wise you can understand why.
These days many Toronto chefs treat the country's iconic French fries-based dish, poutine, in a less than deferential manner. Instead of the traditional cheese curds and gravy, more creative toppings are being used, from brie to jerk chicken, reflecting the city's multi-cultural dining scene.
For an even deeper dive into this scene it's of course worth scouting the ethnic areas of the city. Toronto has five Chinatowns, but you might want to head for the speciality shops and traditional Oriental stores in the "newer" Chinatown, in particular, around the busy intersection of Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street. Nearby, Kensington Market is a veritable United Nations of stalls, shops and restaurants with Middle Eastern, Thai, Cajun, Vietnamese, African, Caribbean, Portuguese and Jewish traders. Toronto is also home to the biggest Italian population outside Italy and much of Little Italy (College Street west of Bathurst) seems to be painted in sepia tones, with many specialist stores and plenty of mom and pop cafes with good coffee and luxurious gelati.
Alternatively, stroll along Gerrard Street and you'll find a small enclave with Indian shops and food stalls in Little India. The Distillery District is a pedestrianised, cobble-stoned heritage area with galleries, cafes and breweries, where the movie Chicago was shot (Toronto doubles as a lot of American cities in the movies, because of generous tax breaks for filming). The district was home to the British Empire's largest whisky distillery in the 1860s, although it must be said that modern Canada's connection to its British heritage seems tenuous (less than a fifth of the population now have British ancestry).
Like Niagara Falls, the famous CN Tower - the signature building of Toronto's skyline - has been given an update. Once the world's tallest tower, the 553m landmark offers panoramic views over the city and Lake Ontario and the views from the glass floor would be more than scary enough for most of us. But real thrill-seekers can now sign up for the EdgeWalk (edgewalkcntower.ca). Harnessed and tethered, you move around the ledge, 356m up: lean out, look down, wave to the camera. Or, at sunset, just enjoy a drink and dinner in the 360 restaurant, from which you can appreciate the gargantuan scale of Toronto.
The one criticism I would make of Canada is that, despite recent appearances to the contrary, it is not necessarily an easy place to get in to. They may be fine with refugees, but on the day I travelled, the customs and immigration queues at the airport were like something from the launch of a new iPhone. I waited for four-and-a-half-hours in Montreal before being allowed to travel on to Toronto, and the processing took longer than it has for any country I've visited.
Yet I'd return to Toronto more quickly than I would to almost anywhere else. When you return from a trip people often ask you about the weather or what you did, but they don't ask the real question: whether, despite the inherent hassles of travel, you felt at least for a short time really free. By this metric Toronto was a success.
The leisurely lie-ins, the casually discovered treasures of a strange city, the reconnection with old friends all added immeasurably to the holiday vibe. And the amiable nature of Canadians, the intuitive user-friendly nature of their de facto capital and the memorable beauty of a blazing Canadian fall made this a holiday that burns brightly in the memory.
There are several daily direct flights from Dublin to Toronto, with a few cheaper options if you are willing to fly via Montreal. As with the US the return flights are usually red-eye — overnight.
Air Transat (airtransat.ie / 00 800 872 672 83) offers return flights direct from Dublin to Toronto for €502.60pp, based on travel in April 2017.
Toronto is nothing like New York or Paris in terms of getting bang for the buck: you can get a decent-sized room for a reasonable price. For room rates and information for the Chelsea Hotel, where I stayed, visit chelseatoronto.com.
For further information on Toronto and the surrounding province of Ontario, visit SeeTorontoNow.com and ontariotravel.net.
TAKE TWO: Top attractions
On cruise control
A cruise with Toronto Harbour Tours lets you enjoy the scenic Toronto skyline, and gives you a close up look at the beautiful Toronto Islands (toronto.ca/parks/island)
Living the high life
Experience Niagara Falls as you glide along a 67m high line at speeds of 40mph, along the edge of the vast Niagara river gorge to the Falls observation landing. Visit: wildplay.com/niagarafalls.
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