x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Toronto's self-absorbed splendour

Visit this least Canadian of cities for the hockey and the ongoing Toronto Film Festival, says Rob Mckenzie.

A view of the city's skyline from Centre Island. The Toronto Film Festival runs until September 19.
A view of the city's skyline from Centre Island. The Toronto Film Festival runs until September 19.

Why Toronto? Because if you don't go to Toronto, you'll hurt its feelings. Toronto wants you to like it, it wants to befriend you and hear you saying how wonderful and lovely and kind it is, and most of all how very world-class it is. Toronto is the most and least Canadian of cities. Most because it is the most populous, the most corporate, the most self-absorbed and the most polyglot, and least because, while it is the composite of the country (at least the anglophone part) it lacks the stand-alone character of an earthy Winnipeg or a boisterous St John's. If Canada is a Lebanese restaurant, then Toronto is the mezze, the mishmash of tastes - but the smaller bits are where individual flavour is preserved. For better or worse, Toronto has it all. Also, it's clean and safe and near Niagara Falls.

You'll want to stay downtown. The classic Toronto hotel is the Royal York (lately a Fairmont property), which at one time was the biggest inn in the Commonwealth. The hotel opened in January of 1929 - talk about timing - and has a whopping 1,365 rooms. So, bring the relatives. Despite a top-to-bottom renovation that ended in the early 1990s, the Royal York retains its feeling of age-old opulence. And it is right in the heart of the city. (Listed cost of a double room: $270 Canadian, or Dh950.) If you like modern, try the Delta Chelsea, four subway stops to the north. All the amenities, very popular (C$180; Dh635). And for budget, book the Holiday Inn on Bloor Street West near Yonge. Excellent location, comfy coffee shop, and you can spend the money you save on your room (C$165 [Dh582] for a double) at all the posh stores nearby.

Last things first: you can load up on maple syrup at the airport - the later you buy, the less time there is for the bottle to smash. Pearson airport is also the place to buy a box of Tim Hortons' Timbits to treat your Canadian friends back in the UAE. While the city's malls pathetically lack massive shark-filled aquaria, keep an eye out for a pair of chains you will not find in the Emirates: Lululemon, which makes immensely popular yoga gear, and Roots, a thoroughly Canadian retailer founded by two Americans; but to my mind their clothing borders on kitsch. You'll find both at Yorkdale Shopping Centre in the north end of town. I hate shopping but even I find Yorkdale bearable (airy, not too buzzy), and it is strong on fashion. If you have money to burn, it's Bloor Street West: Holt Renfrew, Prada, Hugo Boss, Tiffany, Cartier, etc.

Nobody in the history of history has ever gone to Toronto to meet the locals.

Toronto is almost as safe as Abu Dhabi. You can walk almost anywhere and feel secure. When I lived in Toronto I liked to run the trails in the Don Valley, just east of the city centre. All of a sudden you're in a forest and the city seems far away. Do not try this at night. The Running Room, a shoe store, lists local routes from eight points in the city, and for distances from three to 32 kilometres, at www.runningroom.com.

You won't need to book a table to eat at the aforementioned Tim Hortons coffee shops, but if you want to lunch like a Canadian, Timmy's is the place to go. The coffee is always fresh and the soup-in-a-bowl-made-of-bread is a big favourite. The chilli too. The clientele crosses all the social strata, from judges to crazy homeless people. Cost: loose change. Otherwise, aim for areas rather than restaurants, and pick what grabs your eye. The Danforth (Greek), Queen Street West (yuppie), Little Italy (little) - these are all thick with good places to chow down. I used to live by the Danforth and recommend the Omonia (humble, authentic, good simple food) at 426 Danforth over the more landmarkish Pappas Grill. And to finish, dip into a little brown bag full of sweet loukoumades (honey balls) from Athens Pastries down the road at Danforth and Carlaw. Total cost: about C$25 (Dh88). For a kick, have a meal at the 360 Restaurant atop the CN Tower (www.cntower.ca), which used to be the tallest free-standing building in the world, and would now be the second-tallest building in Dubai. It rotates. Cost: $55 (Dh212) for a prix-fixe dinner.

I'll tell you what to avoid. Avoid the Taste of the Danforth street festival, held in mid-August. What a calamity: a zillion hungry people packed onto one street to buy overpriced food samples from stalls erected by local restaurants. Also, if you go to Niagara Falls, make it a day trip rather than an overnighter. The Falls' attractions all come with a heavy side order of cheese.

A Maple Leafs hockey game. Canadians can be a tad flat-line but their passions awaken at a hockey game. The sport can be confusing for first-time fans - the puck is about the size of a Twinkie - but the sensation of speed is unmistakable and thrilling. It's worth the money to buy an expensive seat.

The Maple Leafs play in the National Hockey League, which luckily for them does not work on the relegation system. The league's regular season extends from early October to early April (the playoffs drag on for another two months, but the Leafs are a conscientious employer and do not subject their charges to the extra workload; better to keep them fresh for next year). Hockey is not just a game, it is a channel through which immigrant children integrate into Canadian society. And when the Maple Leafs break camp this autumn, they are expected to have an Arab as one of their rookie players. His name is Nazem Kadri, he plays forward and his ancestry is Lebanese.

Culturally, the Toronto International Film Festival is a cinephiles' fantasy and runs for about 10 days each September (www.tiff.net). This year's offerings, showing until September 19, range from Score: A Hockey Musical and Machete Maidens Unleashed! to documentaries by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog. rmckenzie@thenational.ae