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Toronto Knows the PATH to Christmas

12/23/2014 05:38 EST | Updated 02/22/2015 05:59 EST
Franz Marc Frei via Getty Images

TORONTO, ONTARIO -- The temperatures dipped.

It's below freezing, there's no end to the falling white powder and, to boot, slogging through slush isn't your idea of a dream holiday shopping romp.

Enter Toronto's acclaimed PATH -- the subterranean shopping mall with its warren of interconnecting paths that lets busy shoppers stay underground the second they step off the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) from select downtown stations and head into a haven of shops, bars and cafes.

Billed as one of the largest continuous underground path systems in North America (Montreal RÉSO takes kudos as number one), the PATH is Toronto's answer to "we don't like the cold." While the CN Tower and the Toronto International Film Festival tend to get the attention of most visitors -- and most Torontonians see it as nothing more than a warm route to work -- the PATH is one of those not-so-hidden gems that is actually a major tourist draw. I had one friend who told me about his cousin from England who wanted to see the PATH, this wondrous labyrinth of commerce -- a city below a city -- that he had read about in the travel section of a local newspaper. There was nothing like this in the United Kingdom, he declared, and it was the first thing he wanted to explore when he arrived in the city.

Located in Toronto's financial district, the main artery lies west of Yonge Street and east of University Avenue, between Queen Street West by the Eaton Centre and Union Station on Front Street. Here, the cluster of skyscrapers you see outside have a hidden underground city. The major commercial hubs that all interconnect in this secret Willy Wonka world of the underground include Commerce Court, the Royal Bank Plaza, TD Centre, Brookfield Place, the Richmond Adelaide Centre and the big daddy, First Canadian Place, which boasts the largest retail in the PATH.

My favourite time to visit is when the shops open at 10 a.m. and I prefer a light jacket, nothing heavy because I don't want to overheat. I pack extra big collapsible fold-out bags to store my shopping bags too.

Have a Plan B When Exploring the PATH

Now for the logistics, my fave start point is at St. Andrew transit station where I head east to the TD Centre. I stock up on cash by one of the ATMs at this Mies van der Rohe-designed beauty and spot some popular "street" sales where vendors display discounted items on the gleaming floors outside of their PATH stores.

There are plenty of Canadian-made shops like Danier for leather, Reitmans for women's apparel, or the Running Room for jogging gear so I go inside for a look-see. Find cute colourful stationery and Christmas cards by Papyrus.

Now with a few bobbles already purchased I head north through those drafty doors catching the minimal sunlight streaming off King Street onto the concourse. It's the only semblance of what's happening outside and it looks nasty with the piling snowdrifts. I smile knowing it's toasty inside and continue into to the mother bastion of underground shops: First Canadian Place.

The pinnacle of Corporate Canada with its white-marbled facade, home to the BMO headquarters, has maintained a chi-chi-ness since first opening in the 1970s. So don't expect anything else. There are prized bespoke shops for the guys, boutiques for the gals, and fine jewellery shops catering to the moneyed set.

With over 80 tenants, this pinnacle of consumerism combined with corporate toil is indeed the heart of Toronto's PATH. It's time to grab the handy "Holiday IT List," a gift guide distributed throughout FCP's common area. Check the little sign holders by the corridor and tick off the places of interest.

By now it's mid-morning. I check out the number of bags I'm carrying and realize I need more kiddie gifts. Over at Birks, Winnie the Pooh, Canada's beloved bear, sports a matching red stocking cap and sweater in a delightful Swarovski pendant necklace. The Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer book, beautifully illustrated by Erwin Madrid in its 50th anniversary edition this year, is seasonally jolly so I purchase a few copies at Indigo Spirit, another Canadian brand.

In between the store visits, I enjoy people watching. The common area is brilliantly dressed in holiday decor. As the office workers mill around during their lunch breaks, there is also some great free concerts by the building's Waterfall Stage.

Story by Ilona Kauremszky, Vacay.ca Senior Writer. To read the full story on Vacay.ca, click here.