Living The Dream: Toronto, Canada
There’s a reason certain aphorisms become tired-out clichés, and usually it’s through mere overuse or that they just don’t make any sense at all. ‘A friend in need is a friend indeed’? Well, actually, the friend indeed is me, if I choose to help the needy loser in question. Tsk. And please don’t get me started on the ‘bird in the hand being worth two in the bush’. I can just napalm the bush. Voila! Instant double rotisserie.
However, when said saying is also no longer aphoristic in any way, shape or form because it is no longer true, then truly, it is time to put it to bed. Most astute global travellers would consider Dr Johnson’s ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’ to be no longer truly applicable. In Fat Sam’s day, London was becoming the capital city of an empire – Charing Cross the very epicentre of the entire globe. Today, the world is considerably bigger.
Even New York, you will hear from jaded indigenous locals, is risking becoming past its sell-by date, too expensive now for anything unique or organic to take off.
We are now on the look out for emerging destinations to pique our interests and stimulate our senses. And thanks to emerging airline technology, getting to them has never been more untaxing – physically or environmentally. Air Canada started flying its sleek fleet of Boeing 787 Dreamliners direct from London to Toronto last year, as part of a wider European expansion programme that included direct flights to Milan and Lisbon. Having moved into an all-new Terminal 2 HQ and set up a sublime, arcing Maple Leaf Lounge – all (maple) wood panelling and curved glass, the carrier now flies four times a day, with AC849 at 3.10pm currently being the 787’s moment to shine. Flying is rarely as civilised as it used to be, but landing at Toronto Pearson at 5.30pm local time, having spent the afternoon in international business class on the healthiest, quietest airliner in the sky is pretty snazzy.
The airline’s excellent concierge service makes the job of negotiating ‘the Queen’s Terminal’ that much smoother – staffed as it is by the some of the most experienced and relaxed of Heathrow’s veteran groundstaff – some going back to the Trans World Airlines days of the 1970s.
Exclusive to the Dreamliner, IBC offers their ‘executive pod’ in a one-two-one seat configuration, so you can remain serenely isolated, while being massaged by your seat, watching the massive 18” touch-screen screen with hundreds of movies and TV shows or contemplating a rather refined dinner service. I usually keep it light on longer flights, but here I’m tempted to get stuck in. An excellent three-course lunch, which features a genuinely good roasted lamb rack and apple tart sets me up for a good run of movies, undisturbed by ambient noise or jet lag.
This is due to the 787’s much quieter engines and greater levels of cabin humidity and pressurisation. Taking out the central overhead luggage bins also creates a sense of space and airiness, as does the much-vaunted big windows and mood lighting, colours changing to fool your pineal gland across changing time zones. The plane’s refined premium economy configuration is being installed in their 777 fleet as well.
“Toronto projects a keen sense of possibilities, but with a relaxed confidence. Like Bill Murray on an MBA at a second tier Ivy League college”
Once there and met off the plane by another very friendly young Air Canada concierge, I’m whisked through Pearson’s ultra-clean glass utopia, or Terminal 1, as they like to call it. Now I head into the city. While not as established a cultural destination as New York or as ‘on the brink’ of a renaissance out of turmoil, like Detroit, Toronto is a city that projects a keen sense of possibilities and opportunities, but with a relaxed confidence and genteel air. Like Bill Murray on an MBA at a second-tier Ivy League college. Eating out, obviously, is a huge growth area around the world and none more so than here. A resident of some 40 years standing tells me that in the early 1970s there were about four acceptable eateries in the Downtown area. That’s all changed. Among the many Canadians of note who have been masquerading as American showbiz icons for years, including Joni Mitchell, Dan Aykroyd, Neil Young and Sesame Street’s Big Bird, Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman is a Torontonian local (by way of Komárno in Slovakia). He has partnered up with Jonathan Waxman, master of the Californian school of light French cuisine and ex-pupil of its doyenne, Alice Waters.
Their joint venture, Montecito, has the relaxed and casual feel of a members’ club, a double-height space defined by hanging pictures of film industry icons and giant video screens offering a constant moving vignette of the view from Reitman’s Californian window. With a menu that changes daily, it seeks to marry the signature styles of both Waxman and head chef Matt Robertson, while utilising the best of Canada’s continental produce. Seasonal Ontario fruits and veg, organic chicken from Mennonite co-operatives, cheeses direct from the nearby dairies, regional grass-fed beef and maritime shellfish are all on the menu. I get a heads up from an industry friend who helped with the launch and plump for delicious kale, the outrageous meatballs and the confit duck. Did I mention I was sharing everything with my host? On the other side of the venue, people are posing with a replica of Ghostbusters’ Stay Puft Marshmallow Monster. For a second, I consider it a critique of my appetite. I’m certainly not bored by life here yet.
The next morning during a sturdy walk through the Downtown area, I descend into PATH. Like a highly impressive mall in Dr Strangelove’s post-Apocalyptic city underground, PATH is the largest underground shopping complex in the world with 371,600 sq m (4m sq ft) of retail space. Most visitors assume this self-sufficient subterranean ‘other’ was constructed to combat ferocious winters. Well, Torontonians, like all Canadians, are made of stern stuff and -14 C winds and 5 metre snow drifts for four months barely register as ‘nippy’. The PATH was built in anticipation of projected overcrowding on the city’s 19th-century grid pavements. Nigel Farage would fume, if he realised that immigration had been incorporated into Toronto’s capital building programme back in the 1960s.
I flaneur across Dundas West to the Art Gallery of Toronto, a collision of the old and new – a 1900s gallery that was synthesised to a Frank Gehry glass-and-wood cocoon in 2004. Although Gehry was born in Toronto, and as a child had lived in the same neighbourhood as the AGO, the expansion of the gallery actually represented his first work in Canada. Inside, one finds the statement personal collection of Canada’s wealthiest family, the Thompsons, including the mesmerising ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ by Rubens – in 2002, the most expensive painting ever at £50m. A vibrant space that hosts everything from Bowie to Al Weiwei to Michaelangelo, it is a cultural guardian of Canadian culture. Much pleasure is gleaned from the Group of Seven landscape group of the 1920s, who immersed themselves into the colours of their indigenous wilderness. Emily Carr, a contemporary, went to live on reservations and became somewhat of an animist, her forest trees and totem poles incorporating the kinetic flow of Van Goch with an almost shamanic sense of vibration.
Alex Colville is a giant of Canadian art. An ex-war painter, his granular, almost pointillist realism by its very physical nature is utterly cinematic. Surreal, yet quotidian, they are masterpieces in quietly screaming hidden stories. No surprise that Wes Anderson steals from him in every film and Stanley Kubrick hung his works in the rooms of the Overlook Hotel.
Canadian life might be quiet, but they do style as well. A brief sojourn around some of the city’s interesting gentlemen’s boutiques reveals options for the dapper – a renaissance in made-to-measure tailoring and one-off pieces means unique spots such as Gotstyle, Gerhard Supplies and Uncle Otis are a pleasure to browse and, for a country famous for the Lumberjack shirt, quietly inspirational. At no point do I wish I’d been a girlie (just like ma dear Papa).
A fine dinner at downtown favourite, Nota Bene, includes a dreamy black cod, brilliantly acidic/sweet squid and exemplary cote de boeuf carved off the bone. This sets me up to leave the city and head down to the south of Lake Ontario – Niagra Falls and environs.
The falls themselves are just one of those things you have to do. Sadly, on my day there, the safety conscious Canucks won’t take the chopper up for an eagle’s eye view (a bit of low-hanging cloud. Really) – but against steel-grey flume and brilliant white foam, the unsettling roar of nature in full effect is offset by a thousand Japanese tourists in their pink, diaphanous ponchos. Spawning Koi carp against raging water.
Divert east and you get to Niagra-On-The-Lake (population 15,400), a stunningly picturesque preserved town, gentrified and organic, cultured and aspirational. Canada’s own Hamptons boasts a George Bernard Shaw festival and the highly desirable residences of some serious maple money. And they live well. This is, after all, the heart of the country’s icewine revival.
The micro-climate and efficacious sediment structure of the lake’s shoreline makes this perfect vineyard country. Inniskillen is probably the most famous, their winemaker Bruce Nicholson is frequently invited around the world to attend grand prize givings.
He prefers to stay and tend his Reisling, Cab Franc and Pinot Noirs, among other varieties. Waiting and watching weather reports like a hawk, when it reaches -14C, he bursts into action. The fruit at this stage is dessicated almost like those covered in noble rot. Quickly harvested, it makes for a sweet, yet refined and expanding end product – full of citrus and tropical fruit favours. Truly the good life is to found all around the world. I leave Toronto with one final aphorism in mind. Coco Chanel might have been a bisexual, treacherous, Nazi-shagging collaborator. But she wasn’t stupid, saying: ‘There are people who have money and people who are rich.’ Those lucky Canucks are both.
Visit the Inniskillin website www.inniskillin.com for details about the winery and stockists.
Shopping in Toronto: The Refinery www.therefinery.ca offers personal style coaching for the ladies, menswear store Gotstyle makes any man a sartorial star www.gotstyle.ca and Gerhard www.gerhardsupply.com offers a carefully curated range of locally made menswear.
All About Toronto www.allabouttoronto.com provides customized Guided Tours for Toronto and the Niagara Falls area.
Montecito Restaurant is at 299 Adelaide Street West, Toronto www.montecitorestaurant.ca.