My wife, Sandra Wells, had a conference to attend in Toronto and suggested I go with her five days earlier for a much-needed vacation. I reluctantly agreed, assuming the city was a boring financial center. I returned 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 a 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 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.
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 "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. 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. All of this smart development is supported by the booming local economy.
Afterwards, the rain had stopped, so we walked around the charming Port Credit neighbourhood, full of specialty shops, art galleries, and restaurants (we had dinner at the appropriately named TEN).
The next day we toured The Living Arts Centre, said to be the first building in the world to encompass all the arts and be run in a way that isn't deeply dependent on government. The business community believes so strongly that its employees should be cultured that it paid for the 225,000 sq. ft. building, opened in 1997, while the city foots the utility bills and the Centre is expected to at least break even in its operations. It does so by hosting corporate events, filling up its two auditoriums with fundraisers for local organizations and fans of international stars (Punjabi and Tagalog are spoken by more locals than French), holding classes, renting studios to artists and selling their work. Articulate curator Cole Swanson blew us away when he showed us not only the talent that has been cultivated, but the advanced technologies being used for safety in working glass and wood. New CEO Ron Lenyk explained why he was excited by the challenges over lunch in the (profitable) restaurant.
Then manager Paul Damaso showed us the just-opened Celebration Square, which can hold an audience of 30,000 for outdoor concerts with directional speakers so neighbors aren't disturbed (the space is completely wi-fi-enabled and the neighbors include the stunningly-designed civic center and a state-of-the-art library which gets a million visits a year).
Mississauga is worth visiting to experience the fruits of citizen activism. That the locals appreciate what they have is shown by 5,000 turning out for a walking tour -- in the rain. We arrived in the middle of provincial election campaigns and were surprised by the number of lawn signs declaring their partisan allegiance in affluent, middle class, and poorer neighborhoods. But Canadian politics is pretty pragmatic compared with that south of the border and everyone from cab drivers to waiters in the Greater Toronto area seemed well- informed. The banking system did not fail and the economy was prudently managed, although it is threatened by the greed and gridlock of American institutions and the public debt in Europe.
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 (where you really sense the meaning of hydropower) to Niagara Helicopters' overfly ($139). No matter how you look at it, you realize the Canadians have the much more impressive falls.
Finally, we were able to get into the Sutton Place Hotel downtown (where Sandra's conference was being held), known for its service, security, and protection of privacy (which is why celebrities often stay there). What we were after is what guidebooks don't bother to rate: ultra-comfortable beds and pillows and quiet that comes from good building and management policies. It was also close to most of what we wanted to see in our hectic final two days (taxis are expensive, but mass transit is easy to use, and there are various passes to keep transportation 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 of 4.5 million with a walk of the neighborhoods guided by the super-informed Bruce Bell (there are five Chinatowns and a Little Portugal). Particularly fascinating was the 27-mile PATH, 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.