Thundering through Toronto
By Neeta Lal
Friday, May 04, 2012

Walking through Canada’s largest city is the best way to drink in the sights and sounds — but nearby Niagara Falls is far more likely to take your breath away

“Toronto is like New York as run by the Swiss.” Actor Peter Ustinov’s summation of Toronto is indeed an apt one — for, from a backwater in the 60s, this thriving metropolis has today morphed into a pulsating cultural and commercial hub and Canada’s wining and dining playground.

As a frequent visitor to the city (considering half my family is based here), Toronto enchants me as much for its vibrant mix of people as for its pluralistic ethos, rich history and breathtaking architecture. I’m told over a hundred languages and dialects are spoken in the Greater Toronto area itself!

A cache of tourist attractions — from the Harbourfront and the Toronto Islands, the cavernous Rogers Centre, the Air Canada Centre, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, the Royal Ontario Museum to natural history galleries — delights visitors. 

I soak in an orange marmalade sky from the spunky spindle of the CN Tower. As iconic as the Sydney Opera House or Eiffel Tower, ‘La Tour CN’ is the world’s second-tallest free-standing structure (553.3m). The views from the top are indeed gobsmacking. So what if it takes forever to queue up for entrance tickets and get to the tower’s innards?

Interestingly, despite its spiffy, worldly attractions, Toronto’s soul lies in its multiculturalism. The city’s culture — an osmosis between American and Canadian — is what helps the Torontonians shift between both worlds with tolerance and an openness rarely witnessed elsewhere.

This amazing diversity also powers the metropolitan’s gastronomic landscape where food tweaks and tantalises taste buds endlessly.

Indeed, if London and New York had hitherto qualified as the twin culinary Meccas in my scheme of things, well then, Toronto is a lip-smacking mulligatawny stew!

The city’s demography — and, of course, cuisine — is shaped by over 70 ethnic groups that crossed borders from the Pacific Rim, Asia, the Middle East, Britain and the Mediterranean over the last two centuries. So on any given day, you could be working your way through some fine German schnitzel, the Greek souvlaki, the West Indian spicy beef roti, Polish kielbasa, Hungarian goulash, Japanese sushi, Italian pasta, Spanish paella, Thai satay, face-melting Indian vindaloo, the Canadian national dish of roast beef and potatoes and more!

I’ve waded into Chinatown for dumpling suppers — especially the heavenly Xiaolongbao or soup-filled dumplings from eastern China — that cost next to nothing. The Baldwin Village showcases Italian sidewalk cafés with their scrumptious thin-crust pizzas and gelatos. Kensington Market has grungy bars, European fromageries and Caribbean jerk joints. In other words, unpretentious Toronto will leave you both stimulated and satiated.

Walking, as I discovered, is the best way to familiarise yourself with this sizeable city. One nippy evening, just as Toronto’s skyscrapers were turning neon, I walked along the city’s most famous stretch of tarmac — Yonge Street.

The 1,178-mile long street, which ribbons its way from Lake Ontario all the way to Minnesota, features in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s longest road. All manners of cafés, pubs, restaurants and bars light up Yonge’s streetscape, adding to its brilliant nocturnal mosaic. The cafés here open pretty early for breakfast, making for a charming sight as they spill onto cobblestoned streets with their colourful umbrellas.

But as much as Toronto delights, a 50-km bus ride out of the city to Niagara Falls makes for a splendid family excursion. Firstly, because the bus will weave its way through the lush fruit basket of Ontario, a region laden with juicy plums, apricots, apples, grapes, avocadoes and all manner of Mediterranean fruits. Plus, the famed Chateau des Charmes, a winery that produces world-class wines, also lies en route.

Niagara Falls is basically a cacophonous white maelstrom — some 34 million tonnes of gushing, foaming water — crashing down Lake Erie into the Niagara Gorge below. We savour the awesome visual theatrics, juggling the magical with the mundane (read: trying to retain our shoe-hold in the packed-to-capacity Maid of the Mist cruise boat, minding our bags and sussing out good photo ops all the while slicked up in raincoats to prevent the spritz from drenching us).

Not that the covers help. Our cruise boat takes us right into the heart of the pounding waters of the 12,000-year-old Falls which were formed, we’re told, at the end of the last Ice Age and the ensuing glacial retreat. There’s tonnes of atmosphere at the Falls — happy honeymooners rubbing shoulders with the camera-obsessed Japanese, large Chinese families and, of course, Indian groups chatting excitedly.

However, it’s simply not true that the Niagara Falls are just one monolithic curtain of water. If you look carefully, they comprise of the American falls and the Canadian Falls. The former (on the New York side) are a thousand feet wide and come cascading down into the Niagara Gorge — a spectacle which pales in comparison to the Horseshoe Falls (or the Canadian Falls) just a little way down, which are a 2,600-feet semi-circle of awesome rushing power.

Excursions abound in the Niagara region. American-style options enable you to explore the Falls — from over, under and behind. The ‘Journey Behind The Falls’ or the ‘Scenic Tunnels’ excursion, for instance, takes you (through a network of gargantuan elevators) to right behind Horseshoe Falls from where you can savour tonnes of white surf plummeting down.

Our cruise boats chug valiantly against the current of the Niagara Gorge, rocking past the American Falls, to wade right into cascading waters of the Horseshoe Falls. The boats, we’re told, were christened after the Indian legend of the tribal maiden who was sacrificed as a bride to appease the god of the river. The trip, which begins at the base of Clifton Hill, leaves every 15 minutes. Fascinatingly, rainbows followed us through the trip until the boat, seemingly pooped, did a slo-mo turn to head back to the docks. 

At the docks, you get a first-hand experience of Niagara’s turbo-charged tourism machinery that attracts millions of tourists. Once known as the ‘honeymoon capital of the world’, the region continues to attract droves of newly married couples.

In fact, the first known celebrity honeymooners to visit the Falls were Napolean’s brother Jerome Bonaparte and his spouse Elizabeth. They travelled in a specially designed stagecoach all the way from New Orleans to check out the Falls. Nobody knows exactly how long the journey took but it’s safe to assume it must have been the longest known honeymoon on record!

If you aren’t scrunched for time, there are plenty of other interesting sights as well in the region — the Niagara Casinos, for instance. Or the Marineland, the history-seeped Fort Erie, Fort Niagara, Fort George and the many splendorous parks and gardens on the Niagara Parkway. If you’d like an aerial view of it all, then jet helicopters can even be booked online.

Niagara — once a somnambulant town — morphed into a fashionable theatre centre in the 1960s with the arrival of the Shaw Festival. The festival, which presents famous plays of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries, has both Hollywood and Broadway luminaries performing here every summer to capacity crowds. 

The pretty town of Niagara-on-the-Lake is also worth a dekko. Overnight stays are also possible here though accommodation is at a premium with the town’s few thousand residents receiving five million-odd tourists a year. With such brazen commercialisation, it’s hardly surprising the place has been re-monikered Niagara-on-the-Take!



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