Toronto Pronto: 36 hours in Canada, Part I

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By BRAD BARTH

If there's one thing you'll quickly learn about me on vacation, it's that I can't sit still for very long. Ask my parents and they'll tell you how as a kid I would strategically plan our daily schedules to ensure that we had enough time to go on every ride at Disney World.

So after being invited to screen a film at the Toronto International Film Festival, I realized that this would be the perfect opportunity to write a travel piece all about (or should I say aboot?) Canada's largest metropolis. The only problem: I was due to arrive at 9 a.m. on Saturday and my return flight was scheduled for 9 p.m. Sunday.

Obviously, with such a narrow window of time, there was no way I could possibly experience all of the culture, history and entertainment offerings that make Toronto such a diverse and cosmopolitan destination. But it wouldn't be for lack of trying. Only 36 hours to cram in everything I ever wanted to see in Toronto? No problem -- just call me Jack Bauer.


ICE ICE BABY
Having already swapped out my George Washingtons for Canadian loonies, I quickly checked into my hotel and started my North-of-the-Border adventure. As a former sportswriter, I knew exactly where I wanted to go first: the Hockey Hall of Fame, a shrine to the best athletes ever to lace up a pair of skates. Considering I can barely stand up in skates, on dry land no less, I'm surprised the ticket-taker didn't bar me from entering the building just on principle alone.

Once inside, I found myself overwhelmed by the sheer volume of exhibits, including a collection of old-time NHL uniforms (basically wool sweaters with logos stitched on them), a Winter Olympics hockey section (with memorabilia from last year's epic USA vs. Canada final, the results of which I have conveniently forgotten, so let's just say the U.S. won), and a replica of the Montreal Canadiens' locker room.

One of the most popular areas is the Interactive Games section, which was clearly built for one singular purpose -- to humiliate me. Putting my hockey skills to the test, I tried my best to channel my inner Canadian, but this American was quickly exposed as a hockey hack.

Several games require you to stand in front of a video screen - sans skates - and either take a shot on goal or block one. In the first game, I was given five chances to score on a virtual goalie, and much to my delight I twice shot it through his five-hole. (Yes, I know that last sentence sounded dirty, but that's just hockey parlance for saying I scored between his legs. Oh, forget it!)

I walked away from that game with my head held high, until I looked at the pictures of me playing the game. Check out the image below. What kind of stance is that? What am I out on the golf course? Am I putting for birdie?

It was all downhill from there as I put my goal-tending skills to the test. In the first game, you literally have to physically block pucks that come flying at you; in the second game, you use your own movements to control an on-screen "virtual" version of yourself. Between the two games I must have stopped about three shots out of 20, for an abysmal save percentage of 15%. But hey, at least I walked out of there with all my teeth.

There was also an exhibit on broadcasting where you could call your own play-by-play. I chose the famed 1980 Olympics Miracle on Ice game between the USA and the Soviet Union. After playing my call back I realized why I became a sportswriter, and not a sports announcer. Although I must say, my "Do you believe in miracles?" line was quite inspired and original, and I plan to trademark that phrase for future commercial usage. (Please don't sue me, Al Michaels.)

Of course, the main attraction inside the 57,000-square-foot complex is Great Hall. Crowned by a 45-foot-high stained glass dome, this grand cathedral of hockey is home to perhaps the most prized hardware in all of sports, the Stanley Cup, which is awarded each year to the NHL championship team. Gazing at the Stanley Cup in all its glory almost makes you want to hoist it in the air victoriously and pass it around amongst your friends as you sip champagne from its insides. But that doesn't come with the price of admission.

Additionally, the room contains the portraits and biographies of every single Hall of Fame inductee, including such greats as Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe. Inside a vault -- the building used to be a bank -- you can also find the original version of the Stanley Cup, which was commissioned by Canadian Governor General Lord Stanley Preston in 1892.


A SPIRITED NEIGHBORHOOD
It seems like every major modern city has a historic industrial neighborhood where they've converted a bunch of old warehouses and factories into a hip retail space. The Distillery is Toronto's version of this urban renewal movement, yet it is unlike any other that I've encountered in my travels.

Built in 1832, the 14-acre, pedestrian-only district reflects a bygone era of Victorian industrial architecture and brick and cobblestone streets. I would have appreciated a few prominently placed plaques detailing the history of the various buildings, which were primarily used for the production and warehousing of whiskey and spirits. Having said that, the focus here is clearly on the unique assortment of retail stores, restaurants and outdoor cafes, art studios and galleries, live theaters, street performers and quirky public art -- all with a vibe that one might find in New York's SoHo neighborhood.

A particular highlight for me was a humble little workspace called Cube Works Studio. Inside, I found a small yet amazing collection of portraits made entirely out of Rubik's Cubes. I still have no idea how the artists and designers behind these works were able to invoke images of the Mona Lisa and Marilyn Monroe out of the famous puzzle toy's individual colored squares. I have enough trouble just trying to get one side all the same color.

Forgoing chain stores, The Distillery is home to 18 local retail shops and boutiques, offering such specialty goods as homemade crafts, antiques, hand-made jewelry, and preserves and cheeses from nearby Quebec. There are also Segway Tours of the area in case you're looking for a little fun, or simply too lazy to tour the grounds on foot.

After grabbing a quick lunch at one of the seven full-service restaurants on property, I headed back to my hotel to quite literally recharge my batteries (my digital camera was kaput).

STARGAZING IN YORKVILLE
Pressing on, I attempted to squeeze in a visit to the world-famous CN Tower before my scheduled 7 p.m. film screening. But after walking over a mile to my destination and waiting in line for an admission ticket, I realized that I had left my wallet back in the hotel room. (D'oh, Canada!)

Anyway, it's a good thing I retrieved it, because my next stop was Yorkville, a posh, trendy and very expensive neighborhood similar in look and feel to Boston's Newbury Street. Yorkville is for all intents and purposes Hollywood North during the Toronto International Film Festival, which today is considered to be one of the preeminent public film festivals in the world. During this 11-day stretch, celebrities treat this historic town-like setting as their personal playground. And considering all the luxury hotels, high-end shopping, cutesy boutiques and sizzling-hot clubs and restaurants, who can blame them?

From the moment I arrived, traffic was snarled as hordes of wide-eyed gawkers and wannabe paparazzi stood outside the Hazelton Hotel, hoping to catch a glimpse of the rich and famous. Things got particularly awkward after my film screening when I made a grand exit out the Hazelton's front doors. "Hey, who's this hot young stud?" I completely imagined everyone was asking as I faced my adoring crowd. And then I could feel the collective disappointment when they realized I was just another nobody. Not 10 minutes later, that same crowd erupted into a wild frenzy as apparently Megan Fox made a dramatic appearance. And to think, if I only I had waited another 10 minutes, maybe people would have thought we were the next big Hollywood power couple.

As the night wore on, Yorkville became a hotbed of activity and nightlife. On one block, a female opera singer belted out the classics. On another, a woman in a money booth was stuffing her pockets with cash as fast as she possibly could. And somewhere in town -- though it wasn't anywhere I was -- movie stars were partying into the early morning.

But so what if I wasn't invited to the party? I was on a mission anyway, and after a busy Day One, I still found myself behind schedule. If I was to truly get the taste of Toronto I was looking for in the short time I had left, I was going to have to step up my game.

Stay tuned for part two of "Toronto Pronto," when I tell you all about my dizzying ascent up one of the world's tallest structures and also my visit to the shoe museum. Will I be making a lot of footwear puns? You might say that it's a shoe-in.