I don’t get to travel for work often, so I felt very fortunate that I was able to attend a conference in Toronto in early March, and even better, stay on a few days longer so I could visit with my sister. Though it seems like just yesterday when I was out east (in reality, it was back in July), it was a great opportunity to be able to see the city in a low-tourist season. I’ll do my best to recap the trip in a timelier manner than I have in the past!
Depending on your interests, the number of tourist-driven sites and activities to visit could take up the bulk of any visitor’s itinerary. And though Amanda and I made a valiant effort to clear off some of those highlights last summer, there were still a few boxes I wanted to tick off my list.
Westin Harbour Castle
The conference hotel happened to be the Westin Harbour Castle, and after our experience, I think it will become our accommodation of choice on future visits to Toronto.
Our home for the week
Although the room itself and the service were nice but not exceptional, the location was second to none. Situated on the shore of Lake Ontario, our room had fantastic views of the water and of Billy Bishop Airport, all while being just steps away from Union Station and several major attractions. The waterfront location and directionality of our room sheltered us from the hustle and noise of the nearby freeways, and even better, we were able to easily take advantage of the trails and park adjacent to the hotel.
Harbourfront in the late winter – still beautiful on a cloudy day
Do not feed the birds
We had crossed through the same area in the summer, but it was more peaceful in the time leading up to spring – smaller crowds and open waters – all the more conducive to relaxing, contemplative strolls.
Even swans love the harbourfront!
We also made a point this time around to explore the Harbourfront Centre. We had no idea you could watch artists at work in the open studios, or take a look at the art displayed in the galleries.
There were also skate rentals available to make use of the picturesque rink in front of the Centre, but (for me), the lack of railings were a deterrent.
Steven and Chris and the CBC Museum
After sitting through another taping of a daytime talk show, I think Amanda and I have gotten it out of our system. She booked us tickets to Steven and Chris, a CBC lifestyle show that airs in both Canada and the US.
We couldn’t help but compare this taping to our experience at CityLine last year. It was clear that for Steven and Chris, the audience was somewhat of an afterthought. First of all, it was longer than advertised – about three hours from the expected arrival time to being released from the studio. Second, there was only one monitor where we could follow the action on stage – especially important given the camera and behind the scenes personnel obscured much of what was happening. This monitor was unfortunately also partially blocked by cables. Third, unlike CityLine host Tracy Moore, who spent a lot of time after the show taking photos with all guests who requested one, Steve and Chris, between segments, only managed to pose with about half of the audience, then ran off immediately after the show wrapped. The show assistant and audience wrangler did their best to entertain us during the breaks, with giveaways, but they felt divorced from subjects covered in that episode.
The topics, which included storage design tips, muscle building exercises, cocktail recipes and children’s snacks, were of marginal interest to us, but we could see the appeal of the show. Chris is undoubtedly the star of the show, playing up a persona of a bumbling but good natured host.
Steven and Chris
We left the show with something in hand – generous samples of a shampoo and conditioner. But if being a part of a Toronto taping is something on your list, unless you are a Steven & Chris devotee, I’d recommend that you sign up instead for CityLine tickets.
That said, one of the bright sides of the Steve & Chris taping was that it got us to the CBC building. We made sure to check out the public museum while there, where we saw artefacts from shows that both my sister and I grew up watching, including Mr. Dressup and The Friendly Giant.
Doing her best Don Cherry impersonation
I will always remember my introduction to Canada’s only NBA franchise – they played an exhibition game many years ago in Edmonton, and although I’m sure the team itself should have been more memorable, what I recall instead was their mascot, Raptor. He has two versions: the more accommodating costume allowed Raptor to perform tricks and dunks, while the other (my favourite) was inflatable, and could be expanded and shrunk in the most comical matter. Needless to say, in anticipating our visit to the ACC, I was most looking forward to seeing Raptor again.
Amanda was able to secure tickets to a game versus the Orlando Magic. They were great seats at an amazing discount, courtesy of her friend who works for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
We weren’t treated to the inflatable Raptor that day, and as a whole, the Raptor entertainment factor was rather low that day – no half-time tricks or anything more than a pre-recorded video of Raptor’s attempts at making it onto the Canadian Olympic team.
Raptor in the spotlight
The closest we got to Raptor was his foray into our section towards the end of the game, patty-caking with spectators a few rows away from us. His energy was certainly infectious, and it was clear that he was a crowd favourite.
Unfortunately for the team, a late rally and a strong performance from DeMar DeRozan wasn’t able to push them past the Magic. They lost 88-92 that night.
Real Sports Bar & Grill
Also on the sports theme, Amanda took me to one of her favourite place in Toronto – Real Sports Bar & Grill, a sports bar in Maple Leaf Square. It’s definitely a feast for the senses, to the point where I felt overly stimulated – between the flat screens (including our own personal television in our cozy booth), sports-themed fixtures, spotlights and blaring DJ-mixed music. And though there was nothing overly inappropriate for children, given the amount of alcohol flowing all around us and the tightly-clad waitresses, I was surprised to see the number of families with young children on the restaurant side of the establishment.
That said, it’s the bar side of Real Sports that really wows. A wall of screens entertain two floors of patrons, seated at the bar and a mix of tables and booths, all lit with a stylish blue hue. In addition to this open space, Real Sports also has a variety of smaller seating options as well, including a private area featuring recliners and in-seat service.
This is Real Sports
Amanda was able to make an early 5:45 reservation, but because it was game night for the Leafs and the place had been entirely booked up a week in advance, we were only able to have the table for an hour. Thankfully, they weren’t very rigid in enforcing this, and we didn’t feel rushed at all.
The prices were definitely a little higher than what I was used to paying in a lounge, but given the location and the surroundings, the premium was understandable. I couldn’t resist ordering one of the hot dogs in “Burkie’s Dog House” (I wonder if this section of the menu would be automatically renamed if Brian Burke was no longer the GM). My southwestern BBQ dog ($12.99) came topped with coleslaw and pulled pork – the hot dog itself had a nice snap, but the barbecue sauce was a tad sweet. The fries were perfect, however, hot and crispy and served in a cute mini-fry basket. Amanda’s Real Sports burger ($12.99) arrived pretty charred, but she didn’t mind.
Southwestern BBQ dog
Real Sports burger
Real Sports did a great job in replicating some of the energy that would be found in a sporting venue. There is nothing like it currently in Edmonton, but I have to wonder if something similar (albeit smaller) would work in the proposed Arena District.
Pearl Harbourfront Chinese Cuisine
We decided to take it easy on our last day in Toronto, with the aforementioned trek by the water. At lunch, we could have ventured to other more well-known restaurants, but given our low-key day, opted for the convenience of a restaurant inside the Queens Quay Terminal.
Pearl Harbourfront offered a water view and a relaxed dining atmosphere, just what we were looking for that day. We knew its tourist-centred address would make the food a crapshoot, but we were willing to take the risk. Urban Spoon reviews directed us away from the pricey dim sum menu (even though the majority of diners around us were partaking in the shared approach), but we found the regular menu just as expensive.
Amanda liked the view
We ended up with two dishes we were reasonably happy with (even though we weren’t entirely sure the server, with his limited English, understood what we wanted). Both the broad rice noodles and crispy chow mein ($15 each) hit the spot, and our only qualm was that the broccoli had been woefully overcooked.
In all, it was a great place to sip tea and enjoy our last few hours together in Toronto, and contemplate when I’d return again.
I’ll be writing more about some of the unique food events and restaurants that we visited in future posts – stay tuned!