Toronto: Diverse and vibrant

Toronto is a world-class city – and there’s never been a better time to visit.  With SARS receding into the background, Toronto tourism is still recovering – and that means fewer crowds, and more discounts available.Author Frank Jones has written about why he likes his adopted city. Here’s are the reasons he finds Toronto his kind of town.

A story of people
The story of my city is people — and what a wonderful story it is! Since arriving here from Winnipeg 40 years ago, Toronto has gone from a stodgey, provincial backwater to a brilliant and vibrant city of the world.

I still can’t get over it: I stand at street corners gawking — at people from every corner of the earth (over 100 nationalities and languages), going about their business.  And getting along with each other.

It all started, I like to think, at Nathan Phillips Square which, when it was built in 1965 as the setting for our curvaceous City Hall, became the stage and meeting place for this great confluence.  And it’s here we’ll start, touching Henry Moore’s famous Archer sculpture for luck.

West on Dundas Street, at the Art Gallery of Ontario,ou will hear the story of Phil Givens, an incredibly courageous mayor who brought the Archer to Toronto — and lost his job for it.  And how Moore, as a result, left the city an incomparable collection of his works now housed at the AGO.

Feast for the senses
Footsteps away, we’re in Hong Kong! No one can keep tabs on the number of Chinatowns springing up around Toronto, but Dundas is the essence — a feast for the sense where signs and smells and sidewalks spill over with countless varieties of fruits and vegetables and dried fish.

Past Spadina Avenue, once the main street of Jewish Toronto and now mainly Chinese and Vietnamese, we’ll poke through the funky clothing stores of Kensington Ave., some of whose names — Asylum, Dementia, and my favourite, Courage My Love, suggest a state of mind as much as buying vintage clothing or jeans.

Kensington Market is scruffy, noisy, multicultural, and cheap. Across town, yuppies turn out early on Saturday morning to shop in the cathedral magnificence of the St. Lawrence Market. No one’s told them the real bargains are at Kensington.  If it’s a lunch hour, try a chicken curry wrapped in a roti — a tasty Indian bread — at the Roti Factory for around $6.

Next page: Avoid the overblown attractions

Using your Toronto Transit day pass ($7.75). take the refurbished Spadina streetcar – a lovely piece of urban design – north to Bloor, and hop the east-bound subway to Castle Frank station to visit tony Rosedale.  There are no complicated directions. Just wander north through Rosedale’s narrow streets to see where some of this country’s wealthiest folk dwell — not on vast estates behind high fences, but in elegant townhomes fronting right on the street.

Next take the subway two stations further to Chester where, any summer evening, Danforth Avenue is a fiesta.  The trick here is to stroll along, taking the maximum possible time while pondering which Greek restaurant to patronize.

Toronto’s hidden treasures
For a look at one of Toronto’s most unique neighbourhoods, head towards the waterfront at Queen’s Quay.  The Toronto Island ferry (return fare, $6 for adults, and $3.25 for seniors 65 and over) will take you over to the Toronto Islands, one of Toronto’s parks. Avoid the much-hyped Centre Island and take the ferry to Ward’s Island instead. You’ll find a time capsule 1920s cottage community where, if you’re nosy like me, you’ll wander the car-free lanes and look over the gardens and unusual homes.

Or, take the Queen streetcar east to the Beaches, walk down through Kew Gardens to the boardwalk, and walk between the bike path and the lake.  In the summer you can enjoy the tantalizing smells of ethnic picnics, and a few games of beach volleyball.

Avoid overblown attractions
Which attractions are overblow? Undoubtably the CN Tower — a lot of money and a long wait for a 5 minute stare.  And Casa Loma is a phony castle where no one ever lived.  The real thing is next door: Spadina House, a 19th century marvel still just the way it was when the historic Austin family lived there, and surrounded by Toronto’s loveliest garden.

After all this let me be a bit hypocritical and tell you how to avoid some of the crows. Try the Ontario Science Centre at 2:30 pm on weekdays (it closes at 5 pm) or opening time (10 am) on weekends. 

I also love the Toronto Zoo winter or summer. A trip to the tropical plant and animal life under its soaring glass roofs is as good as a trip south.