It’s been a pretty amazing summer so far. The weather has been pretty good since as far back as April. Occasionally, we’ve had rain showers and thunderstorms, but much of the rain has actually fallen over night. The weather on the weekends has been great for the most part, perfect conditions to enjoy all the activities and festivals that the city has to offer. I decided earlier this year that I would be spending this summer in Toronto without any major travel assignments overseas. So this is my chance to focus on local explorations.
And the offerings are amazing: I already wrote detailed articles from my explorations at Toronto’s Doors Open architectural festival, my exciting day at the Dragonboat Festival on Toronto’s Islands, the Taste of Little Italy, Summerlicious – Toronto’s restaurant festival, the Celebrate Toronto Street Festival and Afrofest. There are simply not enough hours in the week to cover all my explorations since I have decided to head out and discover as many places and activities as possible right here in Toronto. Here is a little summary of some of the other activities I have participated in that I haven’t had a chance yet to talk about in detail.
On June 25, 2006 I headed out to Toronto’s Pride Parade, one of the biggest parades in Toronto, and one of the largest of its kind in the world. This year’s parade theme was “Fearless!” to indicate how far Toronto’s queer community has come and how far they still have to go. From its original roots as a protest event, Toronto’s Pride Parade today has become a real family affair with special events for families and children. The city has embraced this event and it has great support from the mayor, the police, various corporate sponsors and politicians from all political parties. The big events of Pride Week included the Flag Raising Ceremony at City Hall, Pride Awards and a Gala Dinner, the Dyke March as well as the dazzling Pride Parade. Seven entertainment stages provided entertainment with about 650 artists, the Community Fair included participants from a large variety of community groups, and the Marketplace enticed the crowd with merchandise, clothing, and various accessories and treats.
Then on July 14 and 15 not only did I attend a street festival, together with my team we actually participated in the Salsa on St. Clair Festival. This festival was held for the first time last year and attracted more than 200,000 participants in its first year. Telelatino, Canada’s Latin broadcasting network, developed the idea for this festival and organized a huge street party. This year the crowd was even bigger than in the first year.
We had a table together with Skills for Change, a local immigrant settlement agency with whom we collaborate frequently. To jointly promote our two organizations we were holding a draw to give away a one-week adventure trip along the Inca Trail in Peru. The trip itself will be provided by G.A.P Adventures, the flagship sponsor of our Travel Story Contest, and a leader in environmentally sustainable and socially conscious travel. Over two days we spent almost 20 hours in the sweltering sun, interacting with the crowd, and many hundreds of people wanted to get to get a chance to explore the mysteries of Peru.
In between these special events I have also had a chance to explore the city by bike and on inline skates. A couple of weeks ago I cycled out to the Scarborough Bluffs and spent some time in one of my favourite Toronto spots: the Rosetta McClain Gardens. This is a beautiful public garden with gorgeous flower beds and serene sitting areas, perched high above Lake Ontario with great vistas of this peaceful expanse of water.
From there I cycled east through a variety of parks abutting the Scarborough Bluffs which are essentially cliffs formed from eroded packed clay soil. They stretch for about 14 km along Lake Ontario in the east end of Toronto, and at their highest point they rise 65 meters above the water. The most interesting formations can be found around Bluffer’s Park, a large waterfront park featuring a sandy beach, picnic areas, walks, lookouts, and berths for over 500 boats.
Toronto, with its location right on Lake Ontario, is a haven for cyclists and water sports enthusiasts, and the waterfront has numerous extensive parks right on the shoreline that are ideal for picnics, sunbathing and relaxing by the water. The Martin Goodman Trail is a multi-purpose recreational trail with a length of about 22 km along Toronto’s Waterfront and gives inline skaters and bicyclists a chance to exercise and soak up the sun right next to the water. Last weekend I strapped on my rollerblades and explored the Waterfront Trail along Toronto’s West end in Etobicoke, and the nicely paved trail continues into Toronto’s neighbouring cities Mississauga, Oakville and Burlington.
But serene nature experiences not only await at the waterfront, the City has several other spots that allow you to get away from the hustle and bustle of urban life. Last week I spent a couple of hours exploring Riverdale Farm, Toronto’s Necropolis and the surrounding Cabbagetown Neighbourhood. Riverdale Farm is actually an early 20th century farm that has been turned into a learning opportunity for urban dwellers that exposes them to farm animals and a rural environment. The peaceful park outside Riverdale Farm is a favourite destination for school groups and adults who relax under the shady trees and cool off in the public fountains.
Right next to Riverdale Farm is the Toronto Necropolis, one of Toronto’s oldest and most historic cemeteries. Dating back to the 1850s, it houses a collection of Victorian buildings and sculptures and is one of the most picturesque locations in the city. The recently restored cemetery entrance, chapel and office are fine examples of High Victorian Gothic architecture and the Necropolis is a favourite destination for photographers year-round.
Both Riverdale Farm and the Toronto Necropolis are surrounded by Cabbagetown, a historic neighbourhood with a very interesting history. The name “Cabbagetown” dates back to the mid 19th century, when Irish immigrants decided to plant unusually large cabbage patches on their front lawn. Cabbagetown has one of the largest and most impressive concentrations of Victorian architecture in all of North America. Local residents take great pride in their properties and embellish their homes with well-tended front and back gardens and the area is a magnificent location for a relaxing stroll.
So many other neighbourhoods beckon to be explored: I have spent some time at Harbourfront and recently took a walk through Toronto’s main Chinatown and the adjoining Kensington Market where exotic fruits and unusual foods can be purchased at reasonable prices. The sheer variety of Toronto’s neighbourhoods is mind-boggling and it feels like you are doing a virtual trip around the world by just walking a few blocks or hopping on the subway. I have made several forays into the Victorian serenity of Riverdale and the adjoining hustle and bustle of the Danforth, one of my favourite neighbourhood hangouts.
These past few days have been busy too. On Friday, my entire crew at the office and I went to a local Pakistani restaurant in Toronto’s Thorncliffe Park Neighbourhood. The entire neighbourhood is perched on a hill overlooking the Don Valley and was developed with numerous high-rise buildings in the 1950s and 1960s. Today Thorncliffe Park is one of the most densely populated and most multicultural neighbourhoods of Toronto with a large proportion of recent immigrants from Muslim countries. We had an absolutely delicious dinner with a selection of Pakistani dishes at Iqbal Restaurant. Several of my co-workers are from Pakistan and we have had a great introduction to Muslim foods and traditions. Toronto offers so many great opportunities for cross-cultural connections. We shared six different delicacies including chicken, lamb, beef and chick pea dishes and had a wonderful time sampling this varied cuisine.
After our truly delicious dinner all of us headed down to Queen Street East where the Beaches International Jazz Festival was being held. This festival is now in its 18th year, and has become a crowd favourite since its 1989 inception. We started at Woodbine and right away ran into our favourite: Dr. Draw, a highly energetic Moscow-born electric violinist surrounded by a team of dedicated musicians. This band produced a highly eclectic, unusual type of music with a diverse mixture of beats with modern and classical elements thrown in. In addition, Dr. Draw has a highly physical performance style and it makes you wonder how he plays the violin so well while jumping up and down. We saw several other rock and reggae bands, and a 3-person group named Johannes Linstead entertained us with virtuoso flamenco rhythms. Incidentally, this group won the Best World Album in 2004 and has top ten charting albums. In total the Beaches Jazz Festival featured over 30 performers in its StreetFest and ten headliners on the Main Stage.
I dropped by at the Beaches Jazz Festival again with two friends yesterday, and at the north end of Kew Gardens we saw Toronto’s Mayor David Miller being photographed with members of the crowd. Mayor Miller makes appearances at many community events and is very approachable. So we decided that we too would get our picture taken with Toronto’s mayor.
We then strolled over to the Main Stage and checked out some of the ecclectic clothing, jewellery and art on sale in the various booths that were located throughout Kew Gardens. People were getting henna tattoos, others were getting readings by psychics, and the majority of people were relaxing on the grass, enjoying the music. Some folks were also getting their surprisingly accurate portraits done…
On the Boardwalk we enjoyed the hot Spanish rhythms of Puente del Diablo before we checked out the action at the beach volleyball courts. One of my friends is a visitor from Austria, so this was her first introduction to Toronto while my other friend is a fairly recent immigrant who doesn’t yet know the city very well either. I quite enjoy taking new arrivals around the city, introducing them to all my favourite spots. As a city on a lake that looks like an ocean, the waterfront is a great attraction, and it’s a really cool place to hang out.
To explore more we then hopped into the car and decided to pay a visit to the Distillery District, a former distillery dating back to 1832. This complex encompasses more than 40 historic buildings that make up the largest and best preserved collection of Victorian Industrial Architecture in all of North America. The Distillery District has been restored recently and has become one of Toronto’s hottest entertainment areas with its restaurants, cafes, galleries and artists’ studios, a brewery, theatres and retail outlets. Every Sunday the Distillery features a farmers market and numerous festivals draw huge crowds throughout the year.
Our “Introduction to Toronto” driving tour continued and I took my friends downtown on Front Street and showed them the Gooderham Building – Toronto’s own triangular Flatiron Building. Then we admired Old and New City Hall, the classical splendour of Osgoode Hall, the imposing Richardson Romanesque structure of Queens Park – seat of Ontario’s provincial government, and the Neo-Gothic splendour of the University of Toronto campus. After a brief tour through Chinatown we had a sneak peak at Little Italy and ended up for dinner in the picturesque Annex neighbourhood on Bloor Street West, just west of Spadina. Along the way we drove through Portuguese, Ethiopian and Korean neighbourhoods.
Finally we had a lovely dinner at the Country Style Hungarian Restaurant, a neighbourhood institution for decades, which impresses with its tasty authentic European meals, reasonable prices and huge portion sizes. All three of us enjoyed a Wiener Schnitzel and to top off a delicious meal we enjoyed “Palatschinken”, a mouth-watering dessert featuring a crepe filled with apricot jam.
Each one of these experiences deserves its own article, but there are just so many things to see and do in Toronto, I just can’t keep up with the stories. But I am hoping this little medley of stories will give you an idea of Toronto’s diverse neighbourhoods, culinary offerings, exciting festivals and things to do during a great long hot summer.