Toronto makes an impression
If there was any question of whether our recent jaunt to Toronto made an impression, the answer came in my daughter’s homework the first week back at school. The assignment: write about “the best moment” of her holiday. She chose not the plethora of sites we saw in my old hometown New York City but an experience from our Toronto visit: walking, jumping and laying on the glass floor at the CN Tower, the world 2nd tallest building. “I wasn’t even scared,” she wrote…twice.
Previously I’d had a New Yorker’s arrogance about Canada’s biggest city, with 2.7 million people. Yeah, yeah, I thought. I’m sure it’s nice but it’s Not New York, is it? The truth is yes, it’s not, thank goodness. It’s a big friendly city, with walkable districts, low-slung buildings and — as homework demonstrates — kid-appeal. While there are run-down areas and derelict buildings, the attitude in the city is one of fresh optimism.
Exploring the Four Seasons flagship hotel
We were there to see the new Four Seasons Toronto. The city is the home for the worldwide luxury chain and in October 2012 this flagship hotel opened, in the Yorkville section of town, a former bohemian hangout in the Sixties. Now the area is a district that has a Seattle feel, with high-end shopping, cafes and restaurants. The hotel itself is next to a heritage firehouse and a short walk from revitalised Bloor Street and the Village of Yorkville Park. It’s light filled and stunning, with restaurants by Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud and a pool with cityviews. (Look for my review of the hotel soon.)
We arrived at the hotel, got a quick tour, which you can see from pictures is gorgeous and modern without being severe, then walked 5 minutes to the Royal Ontario Museum.
Royal Ontario Museum: a don’t miss sight
Everyone kept going on and on about the dinosaur exhibit at the ROM. Oh right, dinosaurs, kids love those, right? Well, the ROM’s version is a don’t-miss. It’s an impressive collection set in airy galleries. The entire museum is full of striking and original exhibits. We also loved the “bat cave”, a fascinating walk-through exhibit with models and the sounds of bats, and a video of scientists in an actual bat cave that I could have watched for ages.
After that a Four Seasons driver whisked us to the CN Tower. Depending on your vertigo quotient, you can go up to the observation deck and step out onto the glass floor to see the world below your feet. We love to look down on others, so we went up to the Skypod, a further 33 storeys above the observation level (it costs an additional $12 Canadian per person). If that’s not thrilling enough, you can also take a an Edge Walk — walking around the outside of the tower, clipped on only by a harness. Just looking at the pictures makes my stomach flip. We instead had lunch at the 360 Restaurant.
CN Tower: Better than London’s version
If you’ve been to the BT Tower or similar places, you know the drill: a revolving restaurant in front of large windows looking out in every direction. Typically that means steep prices, mediocre food and an experience as exciting as dining on a lazy susan. Yet on the clear day we were there, we ate tasty prix fixe lunches ($55 adults, $30 children) overlooking Lake Ontario, squinting to see if we could pick out Niagara Falls, trying to see our hotel. I enjoyed my caesar salad starter, Atlantic salmon, and warm apple and cherry crumble; the children had penne pasta and either a big chocolate chip cookie and chocolate sundae. That is, when they sat down. My 14-year-old and 9-year-old only left the windows to eat their meals. Entry to the observation and glass floor levels are included with the prix fixe after your meal, plus you skip any queues and go straight up the tower.
An easy day trip to Niagara Falls
That evening we saw a production of Wizard of Oz with impressive production values, then the next day we did the hour and a half drive to Niagara Falls. I’d visited the falls as a child. The Horseshoe Falls, on the Canadian side, are an awe-inspiring site as water plummets 188 feet down and sends up a plume of mist. Going in the off season meant it was a chilly day (we had to buy a hat and some leggings for my daughter who wasn’t quite warm enough) but there were no crowds and we were able to get right next to the railing. The mist hit our faces and the roar filled our ears. Standing there was almost like meditating.
We went on the walk behind the falls (a short stint through tunnels actually behind the falls) and then drove down the road to Niagara Helicopters for a 10-minute flight over the Whirlpool, up the Niagara river and over both the American and Canadian falls. It was short but gives you a perspective of the falls overall. The kids were impressed. We were less enthused. We’d gone on a similar flight on our honeymoon, over the Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon, with a charismatic pilot, lots of great commentary and Ride of the Valkyries playing as we swooped over the edge of the canyon. The Niagara Helicopters website says these flights include commentary but we didn’t have any. For $137 per adult and $85 per child, you’d need to decide whether it was a once in a lifetime splurge or an indulgent frill.
A side trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake
At that point, we opted to drive 20 minutes to Niagara-on-the-Lake for lunch. We passed winery after winery on the way there (if only the children could really appreciate a good sauvignon) and found ourselves on quaint Queen Street lined with restaurants, hotels and boutiques. We sat on a heated glassed-in patio and had a civilized lunch (fish and chips, macaroni cheese, glass of wine — that was me). Then we walked down the street and bought ice cream for the kids followed by marmalade for my father-in-law at Greaves, a local jam and marmalade business running since 1927 with a mind-boggling assortment of preservative-free jams. (If you want ice cream or sweets, this is the place to get it; I counted 5 in a three-block span.) There were also the most baroque versions of apples on a stick imaginable: candy-dipped, toffee-coated, studded with marshmallows or gummy sweets, gilded with Oreos. Get one if you dare.
That evening we were back at the Four Seasons, eating at DB Bistro, Boulud’s restaurant with interior design by Rosalie Wise Sharp, the wife of Four Seasons founder Isadore Sharp. The kitchen adapted an on-menu risotto to suit our 9-year-old and wooed the 14-year-old with his first ever steak with green peppercorn sauce. Breakfast in the restaurant the next morning was a rich eggs benedict, the “perfect” scrambled eggs and smoked salmon as defined by my husband, and pancakes which the children ordered three days in a row.
How I’d always like to fly
Then it was back to Billy Bishop City aeroport for the quick hour and a half flight back to New York City with Porter Airlines. The aeroport is right in the middle of the town (we watched planes land from the CN Tower).
You can fly direct to Toronto from Heathrow and Gatwick on British Airways, Air Canada and Air Transat. But it’s almost worth flying to Newark, New Jersey aeroport just to make the connection with Porter. I love these guys. At the aeroport they provide free wifi, tea, coffee, soda, water and biscuits. The prop planes are comfortable and clean. And you fly directly into a city-centre aeroport. If only every trip were like this.
In all, I had expected Toronto to be…perfectly nice. I underestimated it. It’s a cosmopolitan city with world-class attractions to satisfy denizens of London and New York like us. It’s also one of friendliness and warmth, even if you visit, like we did, in winter.
Resources for traveling with family to Toronto and Niagara Falls
Four Seasons Toronto, Toronto
Niagara Helicopters, Niagara Falls
We travelled as a guest of Four Seasons Toronto, Visit Ontario, and Porter Airlines. All opinions are my own. Photos by Jennifer Howze and Ben Wood.