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Festivals

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Toronto in the summer is a totally different city to the one we found in January. Trees and flowers suddenly burst into life. Patios spring up outside bars and restaurants. And Toronto’s inhabitants, freed from underground walkways and down jackets, reclaim their city with a string of celebrations: parades along Yonge Street marking Pride and Indian independence, festivals by the waterfront for vegetarian food or Canadian literature, and parties in honour of Canada Day, the country’s birthday, with indigenous dance and fireworks.

The Toronto International Film Festival, or TIFF, has just come to an end – a ten-day cinematic extravaganza that’s taken over the Entertainment District and seen the arrival of the big screen’s biggest stars. (It’s not every day that you bump into Keira Knightley on the way home from work.) With theatres as well as cinemas overcome by film fans, we headed to the Princess of Wales for one of the first showings of Can you ever forgive me?, featuring Melissa McC…

Lyon on the Lawrence

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Montreal – home to European style, American scale and Canadian charm. Famed for fashion, jazz and bagels, it takes its name from its local landmark, Mont Royal – christened by the explorer Jacques Cartier who sailed here up the Saint Lawrence River in 1535. Despite being surrendered to the English in 1760, Montreal is the second largest French-speaking settlement in the world (a mere 3,419 miles from Paris) – and, although it’s no longer Canada’s most populous city (having lost that crown to Toronto in the 1970s), it remains a thriving hub of commerce and culture.


Another month brings another statutory holiday – this time for Labour Day – so we hopped in a tiny plane at Toronto City Airport and within an hour were gazing down at the skyscrapers of Montreal. The first stop for tourists is the old town, including the imposing Notre-Dame Basilica, the industrial Old Port, and bustling Bonsecours Market, all in the shadow of the city’s financial district and Mont Royal. Wandering the cobbl…

Dublin in the dominions

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St. John’s – Canada’s oldest city, the capital of its newest province, and North America’s most eastern settlement. Named when John Cabot first sailed into its harbour on the Feast of St John the Baptist in 1497, today St. John’s is associated with ‘jellybean row’, the brightly coloured hillside houses that can be seen for miles around. It’s the principal city of Newfoundland and Labrador, which has a rich history, its own time zone (three and a half hours behind GMT), and a unique reputation. Visitors know to expect a broad Cornish-Irish accent, rum-based initiation rituals, and a feeling that there is nowhere on earth quite like it.


Early August brings a Civic Holiday in most of Canada, so we flew almost halfway back to London to the country’s eastern tip. (It’s sea from there to Ireland.) Our only experience of Newfoundland previously had been the hit musical Come From Away, which recounts how plane-loads of travellers were stranded and accommodated in Gander immediately after 9/11.…

High dining

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We’ve talked about the food, and we’ve talked about the views, but how about food with a view? My family’s visit gave us the perfect excuse to visit the tourist sites of Toronto, with the city’s most famous landmark, the CN Tower, at the top of the list. And friends (visiting a few days earlier on their honeymoon) had highly recommended the Tower’s 360 Restaurant – not least because you can avoid the entrance fee by booking dinner there. So as the evening rush hour slowly dissipated 351 metres below us, we enjoyed breath-taking views of Toronto’s islands, skyscrapers, parks and thoroughfares all bathed in brilliant sunlight. The food was excellent too, with an all-Canadian menu from Newfoundland cod to Alberta beef, and local wines taken from the world’s highest cellar. This is the way to see the city!

A week later, as a belated birthday treat from my parents, we headed to floor 54 of the TD Bank Tower on Wellington Street, home of the restaurant Canoe. A favourite among Toronto’s fina…

Niagara Falls

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For its early settlers, the sheer size of the New World was daunting. Its lakes were wider, its mountains taller, its valleys deeper than anything they had seen at home. Few images conveyed this more powerfully than the awesome vista of Niagara Falls. One seventeenth-century explorer described it as “a vast and prodigious Cadence of Water which falls down after a surprizing and astonishing manner, insomuch that the Universe does not afford it's parallel”. Today it remains one of Ontario’s must-see sites, so with my family visiting Toronto and assisted by a hapless tour company, we made our way to one of Canada’s most famous spectacles.



First, a stop at Niagara-on-the-Lake, which is situated exactly where Niagara River flows into Lake Ontario. A picturesque town with a cultivated charm and colonial style buildings, it was briefly the capital of Upper Canada (Ontario’s predecessor) at the end of the eighteenth century, before witnessing multiple battles in 1812 when the Americans raz…

Paris in the provinces

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Québec is, in a word, charmant. One of the oldest cities in North America and the capital of Canada’s francophone province, it effortlessly embodies grace, elegance and Parisian style. Founded by Samuel de Champlain in 1608 on a promontory overlooking the Saint Lawrence River, the city is named from the Algonquin ‘Kebec’, meaning ‘where the river narrows’. As one walks on the cobbled streets up from the waterfront, past the bistros and boutiques of the Rue Sainte-Anne, with the Fleurdelisé flying alongside the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, it’s not hard to imagine that one has crossed the Atlantic, travelled back in time, and retreated to a European idyll.


Canada, rather touchingly, offers a national holiday to commemorate Queen Victoria’s birthday on the Monday nearest 24 May, so with cheap flights from Air Canada there seemed no better place than Québec for our second foray out of Toronto. But even this offers an insight into the city’s complex history: Victoria Day is considered too roya…

Church

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Going to church in Canada is challenging not just because the sermons are far too long (though often they make English homilies seem pithy). It’s because nowhere better exemplifies the tension at the heart of our Canadian experience: how we’ve travelled thousands of miles to be here and find it – almost – an exact replica of home. The buildings are very familiar: except for the ferocious central heating, they could have been taken from the Victorian streets of London. The liturgy too is recognisable, and has been faithfully handed down from the Book of Common Prayer. Even the quintessentially Anglican atmosphere – a genial befuddlement that largely avoids controversy – has somehow made its way across the Atlantic.


Take, for instance, a recent Evensong at Trinity, the Anglican College at the University of Toronto, where canticles by Herbert Howells and organ voluntaries by Marcel Dupré were performed confidently by the college choir. The music was originally written for King’s College C…

Spring

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Be careful what you wish for. Within two days a long winter turned into summer, bringing humidity, gale-force winds and hordes of tourists. The change happened so quickly that there was still ice on the streets as Toronto’s restaurants opened their outdoor patios and scantily-clad drinkers supped their lagers in the sunshine. So, in an effort to reclaim the spring that never was, we’ve enjoyed our trips back to the Islands – now busier with families and cyclists, even if it’s not yet warm enough to swim – and to the beautiful cherry blossoms at High Park. A gift from the citizens of Tokyo in 1959, their ten-day bloom is eagerly anticipated by large crowds every year.


For the last few weeks it’s been difficult to walk around Toronto without seeing polka dots, on everything from subway billboards to the sides of streetcars. Their source is the Art Gallery of Ontario, which is hosting an exhibition by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama entitled ‘Infinity Mirrors’. The campaign has been so s…

Canadian coffee culture

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Let’s take a trip across Toronto through six flat whites! Of all the coffee places we’ve explored so far, these six seem to epitomise Canadian coffee culture, illustrating the variety in price, style and taste.


1. Second Cup Coffee Co. – $3.65 I’d be lying if I said I always managed to hunt down an independent coffeehouse for my daily caffeine fix, so for a true survey of Canadian coffee culture, we have to begin with chain coffee stores.  In Toronto Tim Horton’s and Starbucks compete for most popular, but my favourite of the chains is Second Cup. Established in 1975, they offer a flat white with a mellow espresso and tonnes of creamy milk. This is my go-to comforting afternoon pick-me-up that can be found on almost every corner of downtown Toronto, for a moderate $3.65. And if it’s been a really long day I love to pair my creamy coffee with a traditional Canadian delight – maybe a butter tart or a Nanaimo bar. Whatever gets you through the long winter, ey?!

2. Sorry Coffee – Bloor Stree…

Partying and puppets

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Another birthday and another week of fine dining: Canadian on Monday, Spanish on Wednesday, Mexican on Friday, and Italian on Saturday. The diet starts next week! Highlights included Barcelona-inspired cocktails, fresh guacamole (smashed right in front of our eyes with an Aztec pestle and mortar) and caramel-covered churros. Plus, my colleagues treated me to a delicious chocolate cake. Clearly it didn’t take them long to discover the way to my heart!


For our cultural feast, we headed to The Nightingale and Other Short Fables with the Canadian Opera Company. What an experience! The brainchild of Quebecois director Robert Lepage, it blends an array of song cycles and instrumental works by the twentieth-century Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. The orchestra sit on stage, their pit now a pool of water. First, mesmerising shadow hand puppets depict folktales and nonsense songs: kittens catching mice, peasants gathering riches, a dove in flight. Then, acrobats and their silhouettes illustra…

Escaping

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With the skyscrapers, crowds and government-mandated ignorance of red lights, Toronto can be exhausting. The city’s boundaries are non-existent – it doesn’t seem to stop before it merges into other towns to the north, east and west – so unless we have a cottage far north of the city (more on that another time), escaping for the weekend isn’t really an option. But there are several small islands of calm – hidden beauty spots dotted around the city where we can flee the busyness of urban life and rediscover a sense of perspective!


Perhaps the most famous of these tranquil retreats is the Toronto Islands (formerly the Island of Hiawatha), a short ferry ride from the waterfront downtown. A five-mile sandbar that stretches from Woodbine Beach in the east to Billy Bishop Airport in the west, it’s home to just over 600 hardy residents and provides a natural shelter for Toronto Harbour from Lake Ontario. In the depths of winter the ice can be too thick for ferries to cross, but on Easter Monda…