Falling for Toronto 

Easy, breezy, and effortlessly outdoorsy… Toronto is the metro break minus the city stress, says local girl Ellen Himelfarb. Even with the kids in tow…

 

What a sensible city Toronto is, with its wide, American grid, its Scandinavian orderliness, its European street life. How cleverly it has cherry-picked the best from its Benetton-coloured public – food, fashion, community – and built on it. You couldn’t do better if you started from scratch with a focus group.

Yet how modest. When I was growing up, the best nickname the city could muster was ‘Toronto the Good’. Only we Torontonians knew there was greatness here. We kept all those Cape Cod beaches to ourselves, along with the Caribbean markets, dim-sum diners and weird Japanese boutiques. All distributed in orderly fashion, in neighbourhoods we could walk between easily.

I left it all a decade ago for London, met my future husband and had two kids. But I’ve never stopped spreading the word about Toronto. Then, last summer, having grown into obliging young tourists, the girls came with us to see the city, with me as their nostalgic guide.

It’s just as much fun as I remember – particularly in summer. All that dependable sunshine and reliable heat give the easy streets a playground quality. You could nickname it the city vacation for families who shy away from city vacations. A sensible choice, yes; but a great one, too.

Staring down at a two-metre hamburger splayed on the floor of the Art Gallery of Ontario, I am eight years old again. Claes Oldenburg’s massive, foam-filled Floor Burger is the first work of art I properly clocked as a child, one of the first anyone saw when entering this sprawling concrete mass at the edge of Chinatown. After climbing through the Henry Moore sculpture outside, we’d crouch low to inspect its ‘toasty’ canvas bun. I loved it. And today, seeing it through the eyes of my own eight-year-old daughter and her six-year-old sister, that love is rekindled.

The gallery’s even more breathtaking now. Earlier, we’d climbed the spiralling new staircase by Frank Gehry to a galleria ribbed with wood like the inside of a whale. Then we followed shafts of sunlight down into the atrium, collapsing onto Bauhaus benches.

Burgers. Toast. Hunger. It’s been hours since we set off, taking the scenic route through Kensington Market for cardamom-spiced lattes at a townhouse called Fika (fika.ca). It’s not your typical city street market, but a humble district of fishmongers, cheese-makers, burrito stands and vintage-clothing purveyors operating out of painted Victorian cottages. As students, we’d collect here like stray cats at now-lost record stores, or cycle in for cheap groceries.

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Toronto Blue Jays in play at the Rogers Centre

‘Even if you know nothing about baseball, you’ve got to see it at Rogers’

My friend Deanna, a one-time stray cat herself, is meeting us for Spanish tapas at Bar Raval (thisisbarraval.com), on a corner of Little Italy, 20 minutes away by foot. It’s a good thing she arrived early: at noon, the interior is as crammed as a speakeasy.

This end of Little Italy is on the up again. A century after Italian immigrants populated these Edwardian shopfronts, the lofty standards of Italian cooking began to slip; cocktail clubs, then bouncers, then hen nights took over. Raval and its ilk have brought back the homely vibe.

The girls hoist themselves up on stools and we lean on the brass rail. Soon the food flows, tender cubes of beef glazed with nuts and chilli. Hand-cut crisps tumble over morcilla-and-egg toasties. Charred radicchio and green shishito peppers with crackling grilled skin balance out the grease. We have to raise our voices over the indie-rock playlist, layered with drink-fuelled laughter.

Navigating Toronto is like spinning a globe. Yesterday we travelled from Greektown to Little India to red-brick Cabbagetown, where Irish Protestants settled in the 1800s. And now we carry on through Little Portugal to Trinity Bellwoods Park, a meeting place for pensioners in white vests and children slurping snacks. Bidding Deanna adieu, the kids scatter into a valley popping with old-growth trees, and Jason and I meander to the south gate to count the new restaurants opened in the modest storefronts of Queen Street West.

When I was growing up, worthy chefs set up shop in the stretch towards Osgoode Station, among dark taverns where angry musicians played late sets. But that end got ‘too commercial’, according to those ageing punks. Today the Queen Street worth discovering spreads west into tributaries such as Ossington and Dovercourt. We spend the afternoon poking into shops dedicated to Japanese stationery and kitsch furniture made from old canoes.

Resisting the latest joint (riffing on the Québécois staple of chips with gravy and cheese curd), we think bigger. Edulis (edulisrestaurant.com), in a clapboard bungalow, is getting rave reviews. And the patrons, savouring their wild sorrel and truffles, don’t seem to mind us ensconced in the window. Servers are happy to bring a pair of sides for the kids, while we dive into gourmet set menus.

I sigh over wagyu-beef shoulder that bleeds into stewed aubergine; a convoy of freshwater fish; and a pool of cool, herb-infused soup. The girls waste themselves on warm, cakey bread and salty butter, then scoop into our berry fool, puddled on a warm croissant. No judge would have convicted me for batting them away.

Toronto’s subway is laughably unambitious. Expansion sputtered to a stop in the ’70s, refusing to follow the city’s outward growth. It’s good for one thing: getting you to the

big-ticket attractions. And husband Jason, tackling city vacation like a safari ‘big five’, has made a list. Within 15 minutes of agreeing our strategy, we’ve emerged from the courtyard of the revamped Union Station.

Shoot an arrow in any direction and you’ll hit a quintessential Toronto attraction: the Hockey Hall of Fame, the hangar-like St Lawrence market. But the sky-prodding CN Tower beckons the loudest. Once the world’s tallest ‘freestanding structure’, the concrete megalith is now a distant ninth and sinking. But it still gives a good view. Not to be caught in the queues, we’ve gone online to nab early, discounted tickets to the top.

I’ve given this postcard cliché a wide berth since my teenage years, when the revolving restaurant was a prestige location for awkward first dates. On a summer morning, though, and with the girls to entertain, the CN Tower’s lift seems more uplifting than I remember, the misty morning views more moving. It helps that I’m able to point out key bits: the road to their grandparents’ house, the island we ferried to, the US border where

I once got nabbed driving back purchases from American chain stores. Beyond a scrum of teens, a glass floor cantilevers almost 350m over the piazza. Only my youngest makes it. No fear, that one.

The tower is the gateway to the Entertainment District, where nightclubs and theatres compete with Broadway shows. Up the road is TIFF Bell Lightbox, the HQ for Toronto’s September film festival. To fill seats year-round, organisers run a series of mini-festivals, and during school holidays kids over-stimulate themselves on heat-sensored screens and robots. We pop in and watch ours submit to the video game world. Big mistake. With only an hour to spare, getting them to leave requires Matrix levels of manipulation.

Jason has pimped our day. In his pocket are tickets to watch the Blue Jays play baseball at the Rogers Centre, Counting down to the first pitch, we drag the girls up into the bleachers. The Jays were one of the major league’s top teams a couple of years back, so tickets, even up here in the nosebleeds, were coveted. But the fantasy was fleeting; now they’d almost pay you to see them lose.

Even if you know nothing about baseball, you’ve got to see it at Rogers, where, on a white-hot day, the roof is open and the CN Tower photobombs the view to the sky. The big-headed jay mascot rouses the crowd to chants and Mexican waves. 

The Jumbotron flashes trivia. And our team, on fire, knocks balls into the far wall with underdog energy. The game is a buzz. The girls teeter in their seats. Balancing our hot dogs, drinks, and mountains of popcorn, we risk spillage with every jump-out-of-our-seats play. And Jason, never merrier than when spouting statistics, is in ecstasy. To top it off, the Jays won.

It’s easy to overlook the fact that Toronto sits by a lake the size of a small country. So one day, thirsty for a bit of blue, we head for it, jumping into our car and rolling onto the Gardiner Expressway. Skirting the western beaches, we merge onto Queen Elizabeth Way and, less than 90 minutes later, pull into Niagara Parkway. The road narrows as it cuts through Queen Victoria Park. It’s all very civilised, as you might expect of a layout named after our beloved sovereigns.

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Niagara Falls

‘Few Canadians relish entering into a gloat-off with an American, but there’s little dispute we have the edge at Niagara’

Few Canadians relish entering into a gloat-off with an American, but there’s little dispute we have the edge at Niagara. Out the back of the banal welcome centre, we’re hit with spit and roar. The Falls come as a shock. Their bellowing water is relentless, the spray rousing. We rush to an iron balustrade and stare down at the unfathomable chutes of water, immense clouds of mist and seemingly suicidal boats that give you the soaking of your life. Sidling along the railing, we discover there is no bad view, and that rainbows are commonplace.

On a map, Lake Ontario is dwarfed by the other Great Lakes: Superior, Michigan, Huron and Erie. And here, their relative power manifests itself. Together they contribute quadrillions of litres of water to the Niagara river, eventually tumbling down 99m to keep Ontario flush. The Niagara Parkway follows the run-off along the river and out to Lake Ontario. Some 15 minutes along, the landscape flattens and vineyards appear, the calm after the storm. 

Up the road is the twee Victorian town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. It’s worth a look for its preserved-in-aspic homes with frilly iron porches, turrets and show gardens. This is B&B Land: tea and chintz on streets named after British war heroes. The Americans lost this territory in the war of 1812 and it has carried on as a sort of living museum ever since.

But actually we’re here for pies, for which Niagara-on- the-Lake is famous. At the Pie Plate (thepieplate.com), I buy four: two for our dinner tonight and two for the freezer — as one does.

Driving back to the city, we pull off by Kew Gardens. The Beach, as this neighbourhood is called, was once used by Victorians as a summer retreat. But its Cape Cod-style houses were too desirable to abandon for nine months of the year. The Beach is the only place in Toronto where you can get a straight view from your porch to the water, punctuated only by dog-walkers and the lifeguard’s chair.

And so, after gossip and burgers on the grill, we settle into the porch with plates of pie and gaze out at the scene. This is the Toronto I remember — as uncomplicated as the pie we’re eating, with an inevitable breeze reminding us that winter isn’t far off.

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Pumpkin pie

Credit: Ellen Himelfarb / The Sunday Times Travel Magazine / News Licensing