I have trusted a certain blue-spined travel guide to get me across intimidating parts of Africa. I must confess I’ve also relied on Internet searches to go holidaying in Europe. But while guide-books and Google have a lot to offer the traveller, few can match the flavour brought in by the locals themselves. So, on a recent trip to Ontario, native voices called the shots, and led me to discover a side of this Canadian province that’s rarely found in print.
You need: 1 day to replicate my itinerary. But three days to cover the many other attractions "Try the bacon strips with maple syrup,” suggested the waitress at the Hotel Le Germain, as I made my way around the breakfast buffet table. I tried the combination warily. Surprisingly, the sweet and the salty paired deliciously. That was my first cue of what this city was about - seeming oddities that blend perfectly. In Toronto you can find museums located not far from distilleries; modern architectural marvels that overlook nature; vintage clothing stores alongside trendy malls. With so much on offer, I couldn’t decide where to begin. Providentially, the weather gods made my choice. Due to the rains, the receptionist suggested museums. “But I am not museum person”, I protested. “Do you like shoes?” she asked with a knowing smile.
The bata shoe museum
I entered a building shaped like a giant shoe-box (Entry: CAD14/5 per adult/child). I expected something out of Carrie Bradshaw’s fantasy, minus the men. But I was pleasantly surprised to find more depth than aesthetics alone can offer. Sonja Bata, wife of shoe-maker Thomas Bata, travelled the world with her husband, and with every trip, her interest in shoe-making grew. She studied the cultural differences in footwear, and collected thousands of shoes. When her collection outgrew the storage space, the museum was born, and Sonja shared her knowledge with the world. I found here every type of footwear - padukas traced to ancient India; moccasins of the indigenous people of North America, the rise of the sneaker culture in the last century and so on. I admired the footwear of icons such as Madonna and Marilyn Monroe and got a kick out of Napoleon’s shoes. Not quite done with the unusual, I asked the receptionist to recommend a quirky place for lunch.
History and hedonism mix at the distillery district. Studded with industrial Victorian buildings, it’s got the charm of yore, yet a youthful vibrancy. The old structures are converted to hip restaurants, boutiques and so on. I enjoyed a delicious seafood meal at the Pure Spirits Oyster House and Grill, a former distillery from where the whiskey barrels first began their clandestine journey across the late, during the infamous prohibition. Post lunch, I headed to the Soma Chocolatemaker for a shot of liquid chilli chocolate (CAD 3.50). A trip here wouldn’t be complete without alcohol, so I downed some coffee porter (CAD 2.2O) at the Mill Street Brew Pub.My next stop needed no recommendations, other than glimpsing the skyline of the city.
You can spot this structure from anywhere in downtown Toronto. As a gabby local put it, “When lost, look to the tower and find your bearings.” It was the tallest tower and free-standing structure for 34 years straight, till 2010. I took the speedy elevator to the Sky Pod, 1,465 feet above ground, to take in the sight. (Entry fee: CAD 12). Here I met Mohammed, an Arab immigrant who assured me that, “The UAE may have a taller Burj Khalifa. But this is a better view.” It was like looking out of an airplane, the surreal imagery of the clouds, the miniature life below, snaking roadways and imposing buildings. I was intrigued by the patches of green in the concrete jungle. With that one observation, Mohammed decided my next stop - the largest urban, car free zone in North America
A short ferry ride from the Toronto Ferry Docks took me to Centre Island (Return fare: CAD 7/3.50 per child/adult). While there are many islands to explore, this is the main one. I hired a bike and rode across muddy pathways surrounded by greens; chased butterflies, and performed other natural feats. As I lounged on the grass, I struck up a conversation with a bunch of teenagers who suggested a particular strip of sand, with what in hindsight appeared to be a mischievous glint in their eyes. I followed their directions and found myself on a sliver of sand, part of the clothing mandatory beach, but only a see-through fence away from the clothing optional side. On the other side were a few men working on an even tan. A new entrant appeared fully clothed. He began to undress in the open, but seemed bashful when he spotted the others eyeing him. So, he made his way to the rest room to confidently stride out in his birthday suit. With that I’d seen it all.
You need: 1 day
This is one destination that every traveller has on their list, so much so that it attracts 14 million visitors a year. Two hours by road from Toronto city got me to this natural wonder. Crafted by nature during the Ice Age, the falls are a rare combination of awe-inspiring beauty and passionate fury, with forceful bands of water plummeting into the gorge, and creating a delicate mist in the air. Little wonder that it has earned the title of the ‘Honeymoon capital of the world’. I admired the falls from various vantage points. I signed up for a helicopter ride which had me flying through rainbows. I got even closer to the falls onboard the iconic Maid of the Mist, a ferry that teases the falls and will have you drenched to the bone. I took the journey behind the falls where I entered tunnels that opened up behind the falls. By night, the falls were lit up with multicoloured lights, a mesmerising sight that I admired from my hotel, Sheraton on the Falls that stands opposite the falls. I stepped out of the hotel and stumbled upon yet another side of the falls. I walked the surrounding Clifton Hill area and spotted casinos, budget motels, andsex shops. I understood what the locals meant by the nickname, Viagra falls.
You need: 1 day
The Blue Mountains are situated just outside the town of Collingwood, on the Niagara escarpment, which is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. The region is known for its ski activities, but even in the summer I found adventure here. I signed up for a three-hour guided eco adventure tour with Scenic Caves Nature Adventures (CAD 95 per adult), which had me crossing a suspension bridge that spans a ravine. I stood on shaky ground to take in the dramatic view, all the way to the bay beyond. I tried my hand at a 300-foot zip line with a 45 foot drop. What makes this zip-line unique is that you control the speed. I forgot the instructions and somewhere along those 300 feet, I came to a standstill, a gorgeous mistake that had me staring at the treetops. I entered the caves and explored a labyrinth of tunnels and crevices, filled with fascinating legends of the ancient tribesmen who dwelled here. I walked through forests that sheltered the Petun people from enemies. A member of my tour-group, a historian had studied the ancient tribes of the region. He shared with me a legend that considers these caves a pathway to the spirit world. He piqued my interest and I wanted to delve deeper into the region, but my time here was coming to a close. I realised that to capture a region through local eyes is to really see it, yet as I write this I know there’s more to Ontario than can be expressed in black and white.
Make it happen
Getting there: Fly Mumbai to Toronto on Jet Airways, via London Heathrow.
Other attractions in Toronto: The Royal Ontario Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Gardiner Museum, Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, Casa Loma, the St Lawrence food market and the Eaton shopping centre.