Toronto's famous CN Tower now stands amid a sea of new high rises. (Chris McGinnis)
Over the last decade, Toronto has come of age. No longer the quiet Canadian town it once was, the city is now a sparkling, bustling metropolis of 2.8 million people that feels more like Dubai or Shanghai.
ust like these two rapidly expanding cities where the skylines are often peppered with cranes, high rises are being built here at a rapid rate. In January 2011, there were 97 high-rise buildings under construction in Toronto and by June 2012 that number nearly doubled to 189.
In the last two years, four luxury high-rise hotels have also opened, welcoming the increasing number of upscale business travellers that are drawn to Toronto’s — and Canada’s — impressive economic expansion and stability in recent years.
International arrivals at the city’s Pearson International Airport were up 6% in the first half of 2012 compared to a year earlier. Currently, there is no rail connection between the airport and the city, and taxi fares are high – 50 to 60 Canadian dollars each way. However, a new Air Rail Link should be operational by 2015.
Toronto (pronounced “Traw-no” by locals) is located on the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario. The city’s central business district generally runs along an east-west axis, and the commercial core – including much of the new high-rise development and Bay Street, the heart of Canada’s financial industry, is located along the southern edge of the city. On the northern edge of downtown is the upscale Yorkville district, home to many of the city’s high-end hotels and restaurants. To the west of downtown is the massive suburb of Mississauga, with its own central core of skyscrapers and a population approaching 800,000.
But even with the massive development and in spite of its position as an emerging global capital of commerce, Toronto still feels comfortable, courteous and convenient for both visitors and locals.
Elegant Since the 267-room Ritz-Carlton, Toronto opened in the city’s central business district near the famous CN Tower in 2011, a parade of other luxury hotels have rushed in to capitalise on the surge of upscale visitors from across Canada and around the world. At the Ritz, every room offers dramatic city or lake views through floor-to-ceiling windows; from south-facing rooms, the CN Tower seems close enough to touch. Busy travellers who lack the time to soak up Toronto’s dynamic dining scene can instead enjoy the generous hospitality of its club level rooms, which come with access to a complimentary buffet of food and beverages throughout the day, as well as free wi-fi.
It is Manhattan-meets-Toronto at the chic, spire-capped, 261-room Trump International Hotel and Tower which opened in February 2012 on Bay Street near the head offices of Canada’s largest banks such as the Bank of Montreal and the Royal Bank of Canada. There is a small reception area and a bar on the ground level, but the action takes place on the higher floors; its Quartz Crystal spa on the 31st and 32nd floors sports a 20m saltwater lap pool and a big, bright fully-equipped fitness centre with expansive skyline views. Thoughtfully, when accessing the hotel’s fast and free in-room wi-fi, the connection is good for a week, even if the stay is for only a few days, which eliminates the irritating exercise of having to sign in each day.
The 202-room Shangri-La Toronto opened in August 2012, just in time to host the stars and starlets in town for the annual Toronto International Film Festival, which takes over the city each September. The modern-with-hints-of-Asia hotel/condo tower is a perfect example of Vancouverism, the glassy see-in, see-out architectural style of most of the city’s new high rises, inspired by similar architecture found in Vancouver. If you need some comfort food after a long day of meetings, dive into the ramen and pork buns at the brand new Momofuku Noodle Bar just off the hotel lobby.
Further north in the tony Yorkville neighbourhood, Four Seasons Hotels, which is headquartered in Toronto, opened a new flagship in October 2012. The all-glass, super-luxe 259-room Four Seasons Toronto is home to Michelin-starred chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud’s new Café Boulud , offering a contemporary, local take on French cuisine.
If you are worried that the Four Seasons might still be working out its grand opening kinks, check out the uber-cool 77-room Hazelton Hotel down the street. This popular five-star hotel has had five years to perfect its product, and attracts a crowd of insiders who appreciate its discreet, cosy feel, with extras like a plush private screening room and see-and-be-seen patio.
Edgy Unwind at the yoga studio or by the rooftop pool and lounge at the trendy 102-room Thompson Toronto, which fits in nicely in the artsy and eclectic King West Village, home to the city’s gallery and boutique scene.
In 2010, Montréal-based Groupe Germain, which pioneered the boutique hotel concept in Canada, opened its second location in Toronto, the contemporary 167-room Hôtel Le Germain Maple Leaf Square downtown. Its location near many of Toronto’s popular sporting venues is reflected in oversized black-and-white prints of athletes hanging in each room.
Out at Pearson airport, the new 153-room ALT Hotel offers simple, stylish, colourful, “no-frills-chic” rooms, a grab-and-go restaurant stocked with organic snacks and meals, and a quick and easy intra-airport rail link to terminals. Interestingly, this year, the hotel is experimenting with a flat, year-round $149 per night rate, unlike most other hotels that base rates on demand.
Expense account For a tasteful taste of Canada, make a reservation at Canoe, one of the country’s best restaurants, which turns out dishes such as maple-torched salmon from British Columbia, pan seared Québec foie gras, Alberta lamb or New Brunswick sturgeon, all from a unique location high atop the TD Bank tower downtown.
To wow your team or your client, book the chef’s table inside the kitchen at TOCA in the Ritz-Carlton. The fantastic meal (such as beer-battered Nova Scotia lobster and Kennebec fries) includes meeting chef Bruno Lopez, who will help plan your meal and lead you through the restaurant’s unusual glassed-in cheese cave.
Off the clock During winter, when the wet or icy winds blow in and even a day trip to nearby Niagara Falls is out of the question, follow Torontonians underground to PATH, one of the world’s largest underground walkway and shopping complexes with 28km of retail space offering everything from cocktails to shoe repair. This vast warren of clean, bright underground passageways connects the entire downtown area (subways, department stores, office buildings, parking garages, hotels), and you can walk almost anywhere in warm, weatherproof comfort.
When the weather is nice, take a stroll through the pedestrian-only Distillery district on the eastern edge of downtown. During the 1800s the area was home to the Gooderham and Worts distillery — at that time, the largest in the world. Today, the remaining 44 historic buildings (restored and re-opened in 2006) constitute the largest collection of Victorian industrial architecture in North America, now inhabited by a colourful mix of galleries, restaurants, theatres, cafes and shops.
Go local Rub elbows with the locals at the St Lawrence Market, Toronto’s first permanent farmer’s market dating back to 1803. Saved from demolition in 1974, the vibrant market reflects the city’s rich ethnic and cultural diversity, offering hundreds of varieties of cheese, rice, olive oil, bread, mustard and sausage, plus a wide selection of fruits, vegetables and flowers. For a truly Canadian experience, order the famous fried pea-meal bacon sandwich, dusted with cornmeal and served with cheddar cheese and spicy mustard.
Don’t do this! Do not think that suburban Pearson International is your only air travel option. Porter Airlines, operating out of the tiny Billy Bishop Airport on a small island just off the shore of downtown Toronto, is hugely popular with business travellers for short, less-than-two-hour hops to cities such as Montréal, Ottawa, Boston, New York, Washington DC or Chicago. The airline draws in the business travel set with leather seats, lots of leg room, free beer and wine, plus fun and friendly flight attendants who wear locally designed Pink Tartan duds like pencil skirts and pillbox hats.