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ISSUE OF MAY 2003  
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Toronto - Canada’s Big Apple

Bageshree Vaze discovers a vibrant cauldron of cultures amidst the highrises of ‘New York Junior’

Before my flight touched down at Toronto Pearson International Airport, I reminded myself to expect chaos in the airport terminal. "I’ve been flying in and out of Toronto for the past 11 years, and there’s always been some sort of construction going on," a friend from Mumbai who visited the Canadian metropolis every summer told me before my trip. Toronto’s airport has been under renovation for a number of years, and Air Canada, the country’s major aircraft carrier, recently filed for bankruptcy. Four years ago, the collapse of Canada’s other major airline company led to cancelled flights, massive line-ups and disgruntled passengers. With flight cancellations, airport construction, and a late Canadian winter ahead of me, I expected the worst. But luckily, the business traveller doesn’t have to face long check-in line-ups. If you arrive at one of Toronto’s three terminals where there is little construction, and if your flight is one of the few international flights arriving at the time, you can make it quickly through immigration and customs clearance and collect your bags within 20 minutes. Business travellers arriving at Toronto’s airport might first wonder if they’re in Mumbai or Toronto. If you’ve slept most of the flight, and are still bleary-eyed as you exit with your baggage, you might recognise the carpeted lounge and ‘Great Canadian Newsstands’ as the only major differences between the airports. If you are on a flight with mostly fellow Indian passengers, a large crowd of Indian-Canadians will greet you as you enter the arrivals lounge. Many of the airport workers are of Indian origin, and chances are the cab driver who takes you to your hotel will also be an Indian, and most likely, Punjabi. The main reason for this is that Mississauga, the suburb in which the airport is situated, has a significant Indian population. Of course, the time of year you arrive in Toronto could distinguish it from any Indian city: if it’s any month between October and May, the biting cold air will welcome you when you step outside, like a hard slap on the face. As Canada’s busiest airport, Toronto Pearson International Airport employs more than 128,000 people, and more than 1,100 aircraft arrive and depart every day from its runways. In 1996, a 10-year airport development programme (ADP) was launched. Under this plan, terminals one and two will be combined into one super terminal, and while an estimated 28 million passengers currently pass through Pearson, the new airport will handle more than 50 million passengers a year. If you don’t have a hotel booking for your stay in Toronto, inquiry counters in the arrivals lounge can help you out, and there are car rental services available for the truly ambitious business traveller. Otherwise, taxi stands and an Airport Express Bus Service are the best ways to reach any downtown hotel.

Once you’ve escaped the airport, the drive into downtown Toronto should be quite pleasant, depending on what time of day you arrive. If it is between 7 am and 8 pm on a weekday, you might find yourself in a sea of traffic, and wonder again if you’re in Toronto or Mumbai. "The only good time to take the highway into town is at 4 or 5 am," jokes one resident, music producer Meiro Stamm. "You can be stuck for half an hour just trying to get off at an exit." The freeway taking you into the city should get you there within 30 minutes at off-peak hours. But when you enter the heart of downtown, the breathtaking skyline will make up for any hassle you might have endured getting there. The majestic CN Tower, the world’s tallest free-standing structure, looms like a giant overlooking the city, and the SkyDome, the massive multipurpose domed entertainment complex next to it provides a striking contrast.

The Toronto Harbourfront, lined with vessels and ships coming in through Lake Ontario, and gleaming skyscrapers add to the heart of downtown Toronto. ‘Toronto’ is the Huron native word for ‘meeting place,’ and the metropolis is also the provincial capital of Ontario, Canada’s most populous province. There is a population of 2.4 million in the downtown core, while the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), which includes five surrounding suburbs, has a population of more than four million. Its close proximity to natural resources, agricultural land, and the neighbouring American market (New York City is only seven hours away by car, and Detroit four hours) makes Toronto an ideal Canadian business ‘meeting place.’ Its largest industry is that of banking and financial services, and the city is home to the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSE), the second largest stock exchange in North America. It is the headquarters for three of the six major Canadian banks, and after Detroit, Toronto is the second-largest automotive centre. People from across Canada migrate to the city for better job opportunities, whether they’re in business, law or the entertainment industry. Chances are at any given time of the year, you will find film trucks block off a downtown street for a shooting, and later on, you may see a movie such as ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ and recognise some of the Toronto backdrop in it. Because of cheaper costs and its American ‘look,’ Toronto is a popular shooting location for Hollywood films, and more and more Bollywood films are shot there these days. Because of this, Toronto often dubs itself ‘North Hollywood’, and it is also the capital for the music, media and publishing industries.

Staying at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel on Front Street, just across the street from Union Station, the hub of Toronto’s subway and train system, I felt like I was at the ‘bottom’ of the city, and had to travel far to experience any real action. But it’s accessible enough; an underground pathway links the hotel with the major financial complexes, such as BCE Place and the Royal Bank Plaza. The hotel itself is often the site for numerous conferences, and has even hosted the Canadian television awards (Gemini) ceremonies. If you’re visiting in the summer, or brave enough to walk outside in the winter, there is no end of dynamic activity. Lined with businesses and stores, including the most popular mall, the Toronto Eaton’s Centre, this street has a culture of its own. There is everything from tattoo shops to herbal health stores, and you can spot everyone from well-groomed business folks to street musicians (yes, even in the winter) to the odd panhandler asking you for spare change. Like any major city, finding parking downtown is little less than hellish, and travelling by car is more of a hassle, and often takes longer. The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) operates an efficient subway, streetcar and bus system, and tickets are transferable for all modes. While there are instances in which a streetcar may spend a good 15 minutes trying to get through an intersection, traffic on downtown streets is manageable enough; drivers stick to their lanes, and you’ll see few angry drivers shouting at one another. If you walk west along Front Street, you’ll get to Bay Street, a street lined with office buildings housing financial and legal firms, and further along, there’s the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, the site for the biggest conferences, surrounded by several five-star hotels. Even further west on Front Street, you’ll glimpse the gleaming headquarters for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), the country’s partially government-funded radio and television service, and further along you’ll find the entrances to the SkyDome and the CN Tower. The area between Front Street and Bloor Street is considered the core downtown region, but if you travel a bit north, you’ll find the yuppie Yonge-Eglinton area which has several eateries, shopping centres and office complexes. Further west on Bloor Street, there’s the hip Annex area, where there are shops, cafes, watering holes and the historic Lee’s Palace rock club. Queen Street West has another culture of its own: it’s the home of MuchMusic, the nation’s music television station.

Many like to think of Toronto as a mini Big Apple. The financial skyscrapers, American business culture, and film trucks make one see the parallels with New York City, but some could argue Torontonians suffer from a complex as a result. As Homer Simpson says, Canada is America Junior, so perhaps that makes Toronto, New York Junior. In 1997, Toronto Life magazine ran an article comparing the two cities, even comparing the size of their sidewalks. The major difference between Toronto and New York is that of sheer population, but some may also say Toronto lacks the ocean air of New York (Lake Ontario is only a mild substitute to the Atlantic Ocean), while others claim Toronto is a cleaner city. Toronto’s eccentric mayor Mel Lastman constantly boasts of making the city more of a world capital, despite his failure to acquire the 2008 Olympics; in July 2001, thousands of people crowded on Front Street to witness the announcement of which world city would be the site of the 2008 Olympic games, only to be dismayed that Beijing won the Olympic bid.

But while Toronto may crave international attention, the city should be proud of its uniqueness and vibrancy. As you walk along any street, you will be struck by the multicultural demographics; like Canada itself, Toronto has a history of immigration, and besides its heavy European makeup, it has had a steady influx of people from India, China, the Caribbean and Africa. While many Indians and Chinese live in suburbs such as Mississauga and Scarborough, you can take the subway and often hear four or five different languages being spoken, and it is refreshing to see friendly interaction between people of different cultures. Lowell Lybarger, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, arrived from the United States four years ago and was immediately struck by the city’s ethnic diversity. "I think the level of racial harmony shows how proud people are of their cultural backgrounds, and it is a unifying force for people to share their traditions and create new traditions based on these interchanges," says Lybarger. "There are not many places in the United States where this level of advanced cultural and political thought exists." Few will flinch at the sight of a sari or any type of cultural attire, and a samosa is as well-known a snack as a hot dog. As Lybarger points out, it’s this type of understanding that "makes us realise we are all not that different after all." Outside the downtown financial district, there are a number of areas based on ethnic origin: four Chinatowns (the major one is located on Spadina Ave.), Little India (Gerrard Street East), Greektown (Danforth Ave.), Koreatown (Bloor Street West), and Little Italy (College Street), to name just a few. Other than being populated by people of this origin, these areas have the best restaurants and shopping for their particular cultures. All are accessible by the TTC if you wish to take a stroll into these mini countries.

Toronto’s diversity is reflected in many manifestations, including its architecture: whether it’s the neo-classic style of Union Station or the neo-Gothic flavour of the University of Toronto, there is no end to the creativity of buildings. Summertime festivals celebrate the city’s cultural makeup: Caribana attracts thousands of people and visitors from the States who wish to experience Caribbean foods, entertainment and culture, and the Harbourfront Centre, located on the waterfront, hosts ‘Masala! Mehndi! Masti!’, a festival of South Asian culture, and ‘Rhythms of the World,’ a panorama of world music. The multi-ethnicity is also reflected in the club scene. There are Indian theme nights held in various clubs, such as the monthly ‘Funkasia,’ where popular DJ Zahra spins Bollywood and bhangra beats. The website www.mybindi.com has a listing of such events, and even hosts its own monthly club night. If you want more of a world music ambience, there’s Fez Batik on Peter and Richmond Street which features live acts such as African drummers and Arabic singers. For the Latin music lover, there’s El Convento Rico on College Street, which has a popular drag queen show every Saturday night. As North America’s second largest centre for live theatre (after New York), Toronto has hosted popular musicals such as The Phantom of the Opera and Mamma Mia.

Summertime is the best time to visit Toronto, as sidewalk cafes and patio bars open their doors, but the city truly comes alive with the Toronto International Film Festival. There is glamour in the air, and you may spot movie stars such as Denzel Washington attending premieres of their films. But the business traveller isn’t encouraged to visit Toronto during the film festival, no matter how strong the incentive to spot Hollywood stars, as it’s next to impossible to find hotel accommodations at that time. There are parks around the city, but if you want to get off dry land and away from the hustle and bustle of the city, you can take a cruise from the Toronto docks to Centre Island, where there are gardens, roller-blading and bicycle trails, and an amusement park. Or if you want to get out of the city altogether, the majestic Niagara Falls is an hour and a half away by car or bus. Ottawa, the nation’s capital, is four hours away, and Montreal is a six-hour drive away.

Toronto may not have the mountainous landscape of Vancouver or the Parisian flavour of Montreal, but business travellers might find themselves wanting to stay longer than they’ve scheduled. With its financial opportunities, ethnic diversity and street culture, Toronto is truly a world within a city. As Lybarger puts it, "Toronto is a city of the future, or at least the type of future that ought to be."

Getting there

Gulf Air, Air-India and Lufthansa connect the Indian traveller with an Air Canada flight by a code-share agreement. Each leg is 7-9 hours, depending on the route, and the business traveller should budget an entire day for travel. For example, a flight from Mumbai to London is 8 hours. If you have a 4-hour wait, and then take another 7-hour flight, you’ll spend approximately 20 hours in travel, allowing time for customs clearance and baggage claim.

Accommodation

Five-star:
Crowne Plaza Toronto Centre
E-mail: reservations@torontocentre.crowneplaza.com
Le Royal Meridien King Edward
Email: reservations@lemeridien-kingedward.com

Four-star:
Delta Chelsea
Website: www.deltahotels.com/reservations

Fairmont Royal York Hotel
Email: royalyorkhotel@fairmont.com

Three-star:
Days Inn-Downtown

Fact file

Climate: The average temperature in July is 25 degrees celsius, while in January it’s 0 degrees celsius

Currency: The Canadian dollar

Languages: Canada’s two official languages are English and French, but in Toronto, commonly-found languages include Cantonese, Italian, Portuguese, Punjabi, Polish, Spanish, German, Greek and Ukrainian.

www.toronto.com is a useful site to learn more about Toronto

Nightlife

Toronto’s nightlife is spread out around the city, so there can be any number of happening joints on a Saturday night. Popular dance clubs include the Docks, the Guvernment, Berlin, Whiskey Saigon, and Shark City. Live music pubs include the Horseshoe Tavern, the Rivoli, El Mocambo and C’est What. Other popular watering holes are Sneaky Dee’s, ZooM Caffe & Bar, Montana and Insomnia. You’ll find a nice selection of wines at Le Select Bistro and Bar Italia.

The subway system connects the downtown core, running north-south along Yonge Street and University Ave., and east-west along Bloor Street. Streetcars and buses run along the other streets, and a one-way TTC fare is $2.25. There is also a new Sheppard Ave. subway line connecting the North York suburb, and GO trains that connect outer cities such as Burlington and Whitby to downtown Toronto. The average cab fare from the south end to the north end of downtown is roughly $10.

Getting Around

The subway system connects the downtown core, running north-south along Yonge Street and University Ave., and east-west along Bloor Street. Streetcars and buses run along the other streets, and a one-way TTC fare is $2.25. There is also a new Sheppard Ave. subway line connecting the North York suburb, and GO trains that connect outer cities such as Burlington and Whitby to downtown Toronto. The average cab fare from the south end to the north end of downtown is roughly $10.

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