When we were invited to visit Toronto, our initial reaction was to recall actor Peter Ustinov’s famous comment that “Toronto was New York as run by the Swiss.” It’s reputation is as a great financial center of 4.5 million without the standard grime and crime of a large American city. But exciting? No. Yet after five days there, we became convinced that it is the most underrated leisure destination in North America. But on the way there we had a fascinating detour.

We had assumed that the Toronto International Film Festival was over when we booked our flight to arrive the morning after its official closing. In fact, so many meetings continued that we were unable to get any good hotel room downtown for the first three days (Toronto has become the hottest film fest city this side of Cannes). We ended up at the superb Waterside Inn www.watersideinn.ca in the Port Credit section of the suburb of Mississauga (“missih-saw-guh,” named after the local First Nation, as Indian tribes are called in Canada). We planned to go downtown after we recovered from jet lag the first day.

Wooden sculpture of a shaman changing into an animal from the Gallery of Inuit Art

Wooden sculpture of a shaman changing into an animal from the Gallery of Inuit Art

Knowing the first day would be rainy, we had agreed to a tour by car with Matthew Wilkinson of Heritage Mississauga, figuring the worst that happened would be we would fall asleep. Instead, his passion kept us wide awake for four hours! He got our attention with the story of Mayor “Hurricane Hazel” McCallion, now 97, a former pro hockey player who, as mayor 1978-2014, has drove the amazingly enlightened development of nine villages (the first founded in 1836), united into the sixth-largest city in Canada, with a population of 750,000. Spread across 111 square miles, much of it is parkland, while 270 historic buildings are designated for preservation, and there are more than 1,000 sites for cultural events.

University of Toronto in downtown

University of Toronto in downtown 

The second day we had planned to go into downtown, but were so taken by Mississauga’s success that we stayed another day. We toured the Living Arts Centre, a beehive of artistic and performance activity, and the newly-inaugurated Celebration Square for outdoor events, astounded that there is such vigorous support for the arts by the business community, which believes in having a cultured workforce. They’re doing something right because the local economy is booming. Mississauga is worth visiting to see what intelligent planning and citizen activism can achieve.

View of Niagara Falls from helicopter
View of Niagara Falls from helicopter

The third day we went to Niagara Falls, a four-hour round-trip by VIA rail for $45 (the U.S. dollar is worth about the same as the Canadian these days). There are various packages to see the falls up close, from as little as $16 to walk behind the falls at Table Rock to Niagara Helicopters’ overfly ($139). Like witnessing a launch at Cape Canaveral, being this close is an unforgettable powerful experience.

Downtown Toronto

Finally, we were able to get into the elegant Sutton Place Hotel www.suttonplace.com downtown, known for its great service, security, and location (we used Diamond Taxis and Francisco’s Limos to be able to get everywhere fast in our mad last two days, but mass transit is easy to use, and there are various passes to keep transportation and entertainment costs down).

We did our homework using “DK Eyewitness Travel: Top 10 Toronto,” supplemented by www.SeeTorontoNow.com. Anyone could be entertained for weeks, whether the interest is food, shopping, theater, or music.

We started with the aim of boiling down the metropolis with a walk of the neighborhoods guided by the super-informed Bruce Bell www.brucebelltours.ca (there are five Chinatowns, more Italians than anywhere outside Italy, and a Little Portugal). Particularly fascinating was the 27-mile PATH, effectively an underground city for Torontonians who want to avoid winter.

These are what we liked best:

*World-class special interest museums: We thought we couldn’t possibly be interested in the Gallery of Inuit Art (featuring the work of contemporary Eskimos) or the Bata Shoe Museum, but we could hardly pull ourselves away (Toronto has others covering topics such as hockey and the history of textiles).

*Royal Ontario Museum: Terrifically-presented displays on subjects from dinosaurs to First Nations.

*Art Gallery of Ontario: A museum strong on Canadian impressionists and Henry Moore sculpture; we loved the microscopic carvings on prayer beads.

*Fort York: Where Americans had their first bloody victory in the War of 1812, which resulted in the retaliatory burning of Washington, D.C. The bicentennial next year will feature many special events to highlight a war that should be better-remembered.

*The Distillery: The largest section of Victorian industrial buildings anywhere has been turned into a charming and educational outdoor mall for art galleries, specialty shops, and restaurants.

*CN Tower: At 1,815 feet one of the tallest structures in the world, from the top you realize how green Toronto is (the 360 Restaurant turns and has a wine selection that is award-winning).

Next time, we’ll take our time and give Toronto the attention it deserves.

By Scott S. Smith

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