O Canada! The True North strong and free! It is July, and the temperature at home is hellish and accompanied by near-lethal humidity. I’m about as productive and motivated as a wrung-out wool sock. I’m as fresh as one, too. I need to get out of town, even though we only have a couple days to spare. Canada, with its pristine lakes and its chipper people, could not sound more enticing. Plus there’s always the chance I might run into Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister, whom I admire for his looks. And his very strong sock game. Ha! Just kidding! That would be shallow.
We arrive after a surprisingly short but monstrously expensive flight. My immediate impression is that Toronto is massive. As we descend, I see the the downtown skyline with the iconic CN tower looming above every other building. In addition to the main downtown, visible along the horizon are what appear to be several auxiliary downtowns— giant clumps of skyscrapers many miles away from one another with an endless stream of smaller building in between. This makes sense when you think about it; Canada is an enormous country in terms of land mass, but most of its population is clustered in the cities, and Toronto is the largest one. Six million people live in its metropolitan area.
We have no problem navigating from the airport to downtown Toronto on the pleasant Union-Pearson train, even though we are traveling with the children, who are zipping around like drunk fireflies. Our hotel room is lovely; it’s a big corner room with a view of Lake Ontario on one side and the cityscape on the other. We throw our stuff down and return to the lobby, asking the concierge for lunch recommendations.
“Lunch, lunch, hmm,” he says, apparently baffled by this odd request.
“Somewhere walkable and kid-friendly,” I suggest, gesturing toward the children, who are now gleefully beating one another with their iPods.
“Well,” he says, doubtful. “I could look it up on the internet. Do they like sushi? There’s a good one about twenty minutes away by cab.”
“Ah. No. How about a sandwich place?”
Triumphantly: “Aha! Here we go! A restaurant. This one is a pretty walk down the harbour, and you can even eat outside if you can stand the heat.”
It’s 80 degrees, so I tell him we will brave it.
We are a little puzzled when we reach the restaurant: it is, as promised, on the water. But the menu has twenty-some pages of drinks and about four food items, none of which are things the children will eat. Also the clientele in here are puzzling: everyone, men and women alike— it’s mostly men— stand in short shorts with their hips athrust, heads adorned with sweatbands and flashdance-style bandannas. Lots of sleeveless shirts and tats, too. After brushing against a gentleman sporting a large handlebar ‘stache, it dawns on me: the concierge has sent us to lunch at a gay bar, not a kid-friendly sandwich shop.
Of course we decide to stay. The children each get a large slab of “bacon,” which is not bacon, but something that looks like chicken patties and tastes like ham. I have a quinoa salad, which is fabulous, and my husband has several craft beers. I also have a drink called I Literally Can’t Even, which is crisp and delicious. Our waitress is delightful, the gay men are all happy, the air is cool, and the harbor is beautiful. The children are disdainful of the strange meat they’ve been served, but you can’t have everything.
A nearby island boasts a small airport, so we watch low-flying planes glide over the water for a few minutes. There’s plenty to do here: shops, restaurants, outdoor parks, sculptures. A large grassy area, dotted with white tents, teems with people: skaters, families, couples walking arm-in-arm. We meander after lunch, eating ice cream and snapping pictures of sailboats.
The plan for the rest of the trip is this: I have booked a private bicycle tour of Toronto for this afternoon. We’ll see all the neat parts of downtown, get our bearings of where things are, and then, with the recommendations of the tour people, we’ll schedule the remaining three days. I feel smug at devising such a clever plan, because although I love travel, I hate planning travel. I also hate commitment. I develop analysis paralysis at the infinite choices; it’s always better to get the scoop from a native.
My phone rings.
It’s the bicycle tour people. They are very sorry, but they have to cancel. They can reschedule for tomorrow; would that be okay? Quickly, I check the weather: it’s supposed to thunderstorm tomorrow. I say that will be fine as long as we can have a refund if it’s raining. The voice on the other end becomes hesitant: weather-related refunds are against their policy. I’m hugely disappointed: now we have no bicycle tour and no idea what to do. The bicycle tour lady is very nice, but unyielding on the weather thing, so I reluctantly say no.
My phone rings again: it’s the owner of the bike place. He keeps me on the phone for twenty minutes, explaining their weather policy in excruciating detail. He suggests a group tour tomorrow, as long as I am willing to tote my youngest child in a tent rather than letting her ride by herself. I have a quick vision of myself, my long curly hair plastered to my face by pelting rain, falling further and further behind as I struggle to haul my heavy six year-old behind me as she screeches at top volume that she can drive the bike herself. I say no, but thank you.
We decide to take the ferry across the harbor to the islands for dinner. I highly recommend this. The ferry is ancient but it provides spectacular views of the city and the water. Bicycles cram its surface, because the Toronto Islands are the largest urban area in North America that doesn't permit cars. We’ve chosen Ward Island, one of the less-touristy spots, and indeed, when we arrive, most of the people we see seem to live here. I’m charmed: imagine dwelling in a park full of vivid flowers and tufty grass and bicycle paths, with a full-on view of a world-class city across a channel roiling with sailboats. We wander for a bit, unsure of how to locate The Rectory Cafe, where we’re dining.
Eventually we find it: it’s perched in a little courtyard facing the water. A wooden path rings the perimeter of the island, shaded by large trees, and the kids run along the waterfront as soon as they've finished eating. After the meal, the five of us join hands and walk to a playground, where the younger two kids cavort like berserk spider monkeys on a huge octagonal structure, their voices ringing in delight. My husband and I settle on a bench, feeling the rare sense of contentment that comes from being outdoors on a fine night, not having to be anywhere at any certain time. We watch our beautiful children romp, their little faces alight with joy and energy and the indescribable sense of pleasure you have when you’re young and healthy and loved and well-fed and free.
Except, as it turns out, we do have somewhere to be: we miss the ferry by five minutes and the next one is not for another two hours. Luckily, the guy at the next table over during dinner had flipped us a business card: the Otter Guy Water Taxi. We call him and he splashes up to the rescue, ferrying us back to the city in no time. Red-gold tendrils light up the harbor as we sail across, slanting out across the water as the sun sinks behind the jagged skyline. Photo op! Naturally we are compelled to rush to the prow of the boat to re-enact the Titanic King of the World scene.
The next day dawns gray and ominous, and sometime in the mid-morning, a booming storm rolls in. I’ve done a search on the interwebs for indoor activities that I can do with the kiddos while my husband is in a meeting, and narrowed it down to two: Ripley’s Aquarium and Casa Loma, which is a Gothic-style castle that boasts several excellent-sounding escape rooms. Because I am a masochist I trudge down to the concierge desk to get their recommendations.
At first, it goes well. After a long wait in line, the concierge—a woman this time—is pleased to book either attraction for us, and better yet, she can offer discounts. This is good, because both of these venues are insanely expensive. However, we run into an unforeseen problem when her card-swipe thingie fails to function properly. We wait an eternity for somebody from maintenance to come replace it, and another agonizing period of time after that for the thing to boot up. By the time it is online, I have grown old and died. Eventually, she gets it turned on, and we try again, and… nothing. It does not work.
“Sorry,” she says, shrugging. “You can still go and pay full price.”
I look at my watch: we’d have less than an hour at this point to spend in the aquarium or the castle before meeting my husband and we would spend approximately three trillion dollars doing it.
“I think we’re gonna go to the pool,” I say.
The hotel has a nice indoor pool. Even though it’s still spewing rain outside, the room is filled with plenty of light, and teak chaise lounges are scattered around. This is fine. My kids are stoked: they consider a hotel pool to be every bit as desirable as a world-class cultural venue, if not more so. They are preparing to cannonball in when they’re stopped by a woman in a skirted bathing suit.
“You can’t swim,” she says. “We are conducting a class.”
I peer at the pool. It’s filled with elderly people, who are bobbing from side to side with all the urgency of glaciers. “How long is the class?” I ask.
“Another half hour.”
The kids wait in the hot tub and I wait in a chaise, kicking myself for not having brought my book. Still, it’s a moment of peace. I close my eyes.
When I open them, the room has filled with strollers. My kids approach the pool, only to be stopped by the same woman in the skirt suit. “Infant exercise time!” she chirps.
Sure enough, the strollers disgorge about a hundred babies, who are then plopped into little floaty baby chairs and towed around the pool by their mothers. Everyone sings nursery rhymes. My kids are allowed to get in a small section of the pool, where they watch, fascinated, as the babies are extricated from their floaty things and held on their backs in the water as the woman blows bubbles above their heads. After a few minutes this loses some of its allure; the babies realize someone is trying to drown them and start to yell. My kids, dispirited at not getting to swim, deflate from hunger. I look at my watch; it’s almost 1:00.
The rain, luckily, has tapered off. Slow learner that I am, I head back to the concierge desk and ask where to have lunch, a request that once again is met with confusion. Lunch? Children’s menu? After some discussion of the terms of the request, the concierge finds a place only three blocks away and we set out.
We stagger through a construction zone and a homeless encampment under an overpass, reaching the corner three blocks away where the concierge directed us to go. No restaurant. My husband looks it up on his phone. “There’s a restaurant with the same name thirteen blocks from here,” he says.
Sighing, we walk thirteen blocks and find the restaurant, which is full. “We don't have a children’s menu,” begins the hostess—aargh!—“but we have some kid-friendly items if you’d like to wait.”
We do wait, and the food is delicious. They have gourmet pizzas and fancy mac-n-cheese, so all is well. My apologies to anyone still reading this little rant, but the key thing is that I have unburdened myself by venting. Onward!
CHINATOWN AND KENSINGTON MARKET:
We walk to these places. A random Canadian on the street notes me staring at the GPS on my phone, comes over, asks where I am going, and proceeds to take full charge of the rest of the day. He provides explicit instructions on how to get everywhere, where to stop, what to see, what he thinks of North Carolina, etc. He’s the sweetest.
We go through Chinatown first. Ten percent of Chinatown is dead animals in windows and discount clothing shops, and the other ninety percent is people selling fidget spinners on the street. Or that’s my first impression anyway; upon closer inspection, there are lots of restaurants and fresh vegetable stands and quirky little shops. I’d like to explore further but we have to bolt through to escape the pressure from the fidget dealers.
Kensington Market is the funky area of town. Here is where you’ll find elaborate graffiti art and weed shops and used bookstores and tattoo parlors. Everyone is flying their freak flag and I love it. People are friendly and the shops are interesting. We take a million artsy pictures. We also have some killer gelato here, and someone lets my son try his hand at playing Zeppelin on a cool electric guitar. (The verdict: Jimmy Page has nothing to worry about.) On the way back, we stop in Chinatown to purchase an eighteen dollar bejeweled fidget spinner. Yep. We are suckers.
ST LAWRENCE MARKET:
This is a ginormous public farmer’s market; it reminds me of the markets in Charleston, only bigger. They also have an antiques market, beaucoup restaurants, cooking demonstrations, and a summer concert series featuring food, local merchants, art and music. Great way to find dinner and end an evening.
CULTURE. Also: CANADA’S WONDERLAND:
For ideas on how to spend our last full day, I consult with my most sophisticated friend in New York. She’s American, but one of those people who is steeped in the history, culture, art, and avant-garde happenings in every fashionable city. She immediately texts me a list:
The Monkey’s Paw: Rare and forgotten 20th-century books, organized by four categories: the beautiful, the arcane, the macabre and the absurd.
The Bamboo Forest: An indoor garden of bamboo hidden in the concert jungle, this forest is sustained by a microclimate within UofT’s Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Bimolecular research. According to the website Narcity, the architects of the gardens “used a blend of daylight and artificial light to create a dreamlike ambience. Colourful glass curtain walls also provides a stunning backdrop for the forest.”
After a thoughtful perusal of this list, my children, intrigued by the idea of a curated literary collection of beautiful, arcane, macabre and absurd books, select The Monkey’s Paw. Ha! Gotcha! I select The Monkey’s Paw and my children, aghast at the idea of experiencing anything with a shred of culture, stage a revolt. So we wind up visiting… Canada’s Wonderland.
What is Canada’s Wonderland, you ask? If you’ve been to Carowinds or King’s Island or Six Flags, then read no further, as it’s basically the same. Instead of portly Americans in inadequate clothing standing in long lines for short rides, there are portly Canadians in inadequate clothing standing in long lines for short rides. A bottle of water costs $4.50 and you’ll pay $35.00 for three children’s sandwiches. You get the drift: it’s an amusement park. It feels cool and fresh to me—sunny, maybe 82 degrees with a brisk wind—but all around us the Canadians are frantically fanning themselves, then keeling over and dying from the heat.
One word of caution: DO NOT BUY THE FASTLANE PASS. It cost me more than $230 but having been to Disney World, I figured $230 was a small price to pay to skip the lines. Wrong. It’s advertised as excluding the four biggest roller coasters, but the online description fails to mention that it excludes a ton of other rides as well. I look at the website description again as we’re here and still can’t find a complete list of what is and isn't covered, and the resort maps do not mark which rides are eligible. Even if I could have located the list of which rides counted, I wouldn’t know what they were. I ask at least ten park employees what’s included but none of them know either. In the end, I realize we aren't going to be able to use the passes at all and wait in a forty-five minute line in customer service to beg them to be able to return them. It’s against their policy, naturally, so they refuse. I ask if at least I can give them to some teenagers or someone and they refuse this as well. All in all, we are able to use the pass on exactly ONE ride to skip a line: the bumper cars. The rest either didn’t qualify for the FASTLANE, didn’t have any lines to begin with because they were lame—this was most of them—or were inappropriate for my kids. Don't make my mistake.
However, there’s a fun waterpark—my kids love it—and a nice variety of roller coasters. Just like everywhere else in Canada, the people are lovely. The children are effusive in their gratitude for being allowed to come here instead of the bookshop/shoe museum, which compensates for the FASTLANE financial crisis, and we all leave happy.
THE CN TOWER:
The tower is touristy as all get-out and totally worth it. Even if you haven't been to Toronto you’ll recognize the tower, because it looks like the Space Needle in Seattle, or the buildings on The Jetsons: a flared, phallic-looking column with a bulbous circle at the top. Originally designed as a telecommunication tower, somebody had the foresight to recognize that this thing would make a hell of a tourist attraction. For a time, it was the tallest structure in the world, topping out at an astounding 1815 ft.
In my opinion, the best way to experience the tower is to make a reservation at the restaurant. It’s pricey but if you have reservations there you aren't charged the $48 fee to visit the tower, and it is one of those circular revolving rooms with glass walls so you can see pretty much all of Ontario as you dine. Plus, you can skip the longer lines for the elevators to the observation decks.
The food is fine. Our waiter pours an entire glass of ice water onto my son’s crotch, but we otherwise have a great time. When we’re finished eating, we stroll a couple floors down to one of the observation decks, where a bunch of fools in flight suits are tethered to the outside of the building for an attraction known as the Edgewalk. Standing on a 1.5 meter ledge, they lean backwards over empty space—116 stories up—and circle the tower. In case the rest of us aren’t suitably petrified, there’s a section of floor inside made of glass, so you can look straight down to see exactly where you’d splat if the glass doesn't hold up. (Onto the roof of the Ripley Aquarium, it turns out.)
I’m not normally afraid of heights but this is so freaky I can’t make myself walk on it. After a minute of coaxing, I cautiously drop to my hands and knees and crawl out, flipping over onto my back so my husband can snap a photo of my terrified head levitating above the abyss. (Which, looking at it later, turns out to be a closeup of my contorted face above a completely blurred background.) Someone with no fear thunders out right next to me, and I begin to moan, so my husband gallantly hauls me by my feet to safety and we head for the elevator.
The CN Tower is located in a fetching courtyard across from a small outdoor park. As we approach the train tracks running through the park, the lights flash and the barrier rails come down. “Back, kids,” barks my husband, as we all narrowly jump to safety. The wail of the train sounds shockingly close, like it is just around the corner. And in fact it is: just then, a train appears. Hilariously, instead of the full-size locomotive I expect to come barreling down on us, the train consists of a couple of tiny boxes a foot off the ground, into which, even more hilariously, a bunch of adults are stuffed. A couple of them are wearing conductor’s caps. I have absolutely no idea what is going on here. We appear to have wandered into some kind of outdoor locomotive museum.
As we walk by one of the statues in the park, it moves. I recognize it’s a mime, but my kids are oblivious until the mime reaches out, lightning-quick, and snags my daughter’s hair. We laugh and give him some money. Now that we’ve escaped the mime and cleared the train park, I’m thinking it should be smooth sailing until we reach the hotel. However, the most bizarre thing happens as we are crossing the street: an ordinary-looking manhole cover belches. And when I say ‘belches,’ what I mean is ‘barfs,’ because all of a sudden filthy water is shooting up at high velocity from the holes in the manhole cover. It lasts about three seconds, and just as suddenly, the water is gone. It seems like a practical joke or something; since when do manhole covers in the middle of busy roads vomit on people? Was there some sort of incredibly brief underground flash flood? We never do figure it out.
All in all, we enjoy our short trip to Toronto and I would love to come back.
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