Toronto was the first city in North America to legalize gay marriage (and it is just two hours from Niagara Falls). But 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.” Was that praise for a great art center without American grime and crime or was he saying it was a dull as a Swiss watch?
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 and TIFF has its own year-round center for movie buffs). 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).
Knowing the first day would be rainy, we had agreed to a tour by car with Matthew Wilkinson of Heritage Mississauga (www.heritagemississauga.org), 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 “Hurricane Hazel” McCallion, a 91-year-old former pro hockey player who has been mayor since 1978 and has driven 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 and growing. 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 (such as www.livingarts.on.ca). And all this smart development is fully supported by business in a thriving economy. Canadians could teach us a thing or two, it seems.
Niagara Falls is 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’ 12-minute thrill ride ($118 www.niagarahelicopters.com). Like witnessing a launch at Cape Canaveral, being this close is an unforgettably powerful experience. There is a lot to do in the region, from top wineries to historic sites, if you have another day or two.
Finally, we were able to get into the elegant Sutton Place Hotel www.suttonplace.com in 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 few 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” and “Fodor’s Toronto” supplemented by www.SeeTorontoNow.com (which has a section for gays and lesbians). We don’t have much interest when we travel in food, shopping, music-theater, or outdoor recreation, since Los Angeles has more than enough of all of those. But Toronto has lots of everything anyone would want, like 9,000 restaurants and a dozen major performance centers. And there’s a bonus: every Torontonian we met was nice and well-informed (imagine: there are four thriving newspapers).
Toronto, which has one of the world’s biggest Pride festivals each June, has lots to do in any season for gays and lesbians. Gay specialty shops, restaurants, and dance clubs are centered around the intersection of Wellesley and Church Streets. Among the most celebrated are the Glad Day Bookshop, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Tallulah’s Cabaret, Woody’s bar, and the Fly dance club (which was “Babylon” in the TV’s “Queer as Folk,” Toronto standing in for Pittsburgh).
We began with the aim of boiling down the metropolis of 4.5 million 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, for starters). Particularly fascinating was the 27-mile PATH, effectively an underground city for Torontonians who want to avoid winter.
These are what we liked best:
*Incredible 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 (from its six million objects) 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 in North America 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 (and the 360 Restaurant is, well, tops).
Toronto is a great place to visit and you will want to live there.
By Scott Smith and Sandra Wells