Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

My Kind of Place: Toronto, Canada

It’s difficult to think of another major world city such as Toronto, Canada that’s so safe, unthreatening and generally agreeable.
The Toronto skyline, including, on the right of the picture, the CN Tower, formerly the world's tallest free-standing structure. Calle Montes / Photononstop / Corbis
The Toronto skyline, including, on the right of the picture, the CN Tower, formerly the world's tallest free-standing structure. Calle Montes / Photononstop / Corbis

Why Toronto?

“Nice” can all too often be used as a backhanded compliment. The same applies to “pleasant” and “liveable”. All three apply in spades to Toronto. It’s difficult to think of another major world city that’s so safe, unthreatening and generally agreeable. This, perversely, is often used as a stick to beat Toronto with – yet it’s the city’s strength. Once all thrill-seeking thoughts of looking for something edgy are abandoned, Canada’s largest metropolis starts to get under your skin.

A few hours among the Victorian homes of Cabbagetown or strolling around the Distillery District’s redbrick artist studio blitz or globe-hopping between cafes in Kensington Market, and something important strikes home. Venture east or west out of the centre, and there are very few areas of Toronto that aren’t thoroughly enjoyable.

It’s a place where restaurateurs can hone in on what fascinates them and have space to make it work; where it’s perfectly OK to turn a grand old home into a ludicrous shop selling Tibetan shawls; where a multitude of small-scale whims are indulged as part of a much bigger whole.

A comfortable bed

Rooms at the Strathcona (www.thestrathconahotel.com; 001 416 363 3321) are on the small side, but there’s enough design flair to elevate it above generic chain properties. For its handy downtown location, it’s arguably the best value digs in Toronto. Doubles cost from 162 Canadian dollars (Dh541).

For something flashier, the Hotel Le Germain Maple Leaf Square (www.germainmapleleafsquare.com; 001 416 649 7575) goes for swagger, with futuristic lighting and an open-to-the-room shower cubicle. More importantly, the beds are top quality. Doubles from 279 dollars (Dh933).

In the monied Yorkville area, The Hazelton Hotel (www.thehazeltonhotel.com; 001 416 963 6300) oozes exclusivity and wealth. The masculine black-and-gold colour scheme comes with a huge art collection, a private movie-screening room and a sense of dazzling superiority. Rooms from 448 dollars (Dh1,496).

Find your feet

Kick things off at the CN Tower (www.cntower.ca; 001 416 868 6937), which was the tallest free-standing structure in the world until it was surpassed by the Burj Khalifa. Much of it is antenna spire, but there’s a glass-floored observation terrace at 342 metres, access to which costs 34 dollars (Dh114). If that’s not scary enough, try the EdgeWalk (www.edgewalkcntower.ca; 001 416 601 3833), where you’re harnessed in and walk round the restaurant roof, 356 metres above ground, frequently leaning over the edge for stunt photos. The experience costs 198 dollars (Dh661) – and possibly a lifetime of therapy for shredded nerves.

Many are put off walking in Toronto by distances, but few strolls are grimly traffic-snarled. Spend a day meandering north through the Downtown and Uptown areas, and you can intersperse it with the cultural big hitters. The Art Gallery of Ontario (www.ago.net; 001 416 979 6648) has an excellent collection of European and Canadian art – plus a startling Frank Gehry facade. Another starchitect, Daniel Libeskind, has added a series of jarring glass cubes to the front of the 100-year-old Royal Ontario Museum (www.rom.on.ca; 001 416 586 8000). Thematically, it veers from indigenous culture to natural history and much in between.

Meet the locals

A short ferry ride from the waterfront, the Toronto Islands (www.torontoislands.org) are the city’s favourite blissed-out escape. The Lake Ontario beaches and old-school kids’ amusement park are popular, but hiring a bike or walking along the trails is the best way of escaping on a sunny day.

Book a table

Downtown, Richmond Station (www.richmondstation.ca; 001 647 748 1444) has a subway theme, but its executive chef Carl Heinrich’s handiwork holds the real appeal. A winner of Top Chef Canada, Heinrich’s dishes – such as the 24-dollar (Dh80) braised chicken with roasted rutabaga, gremolata and watercress – pack in unexpected, fascinating flavours.

But Toronto’s culinary strength comes from its diversity – Iberian immigrants have lent a particularly strong influence. Chiado (www.chiadorestaurant.com; 001 416 538 1910) is the classiest of the many Portuguese joints, with strong seafood leanings. Expect great things from the likes of the 40-dollar (Dh133) pan-seared monkfish loin in a piri piri, honey and mustard glaze.

Shopper’s paradise

For fashion, take a stroll down Queen Street West. Just about every style – from vintage to modern streetwear – is catered for, interspersed by excellent cafes.

For gifts and souvenirs, try the Distillery District (www.thedistillerydistrict.com). The gigantic former distillery has been converted into a series of artist workshops and design stores.

What to avoid

Tim Hortons is Canada’s ubiquitous and bizarrely loved equivalent of Starbucks. It serves deeply mediocre coffee, sandwiches and snacks.

Don’t miss

One of North America’s biggest attractions is just a couple of hours’ drive away, and while Niagara Falls (the town) may have turned into a tacky, Las Vegas-lite resort area, the falls themselves are extraordinary. The boat trip that takes you right up next to the thundering spray is the best of the exploration options. BG Tours (www.bgniagaratours.com; 001 416 270 5000) is one of many operators offering day trips to Niagara from Toronto, with prices from 59 dollars (Dh197).

Getting there

Direct flights with Etihad (www.etihad.com; 02 599 0000) from Abu Dhabi to Toronto cost from Dh6,755.