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Kid-Friendly Zones: Toronto, Canada

by Elaine Sosa Labalme

Thankfully, it didn’t take long for a young man to correct me:

“It’s pronounced ‘To-RON-No,’ not ‘To-RON-To,’” he said.

I flashed back to the many times I’d said “don’t call it ‘Frisco’” to tourists in my beloved San Francisco and sensed this instant grammar lesson was a lifesaver, since Toronto is one of those places where you want to feel like a local.  The city is friendly, accessible, multi-cultural – a true 21st century destination.  Where to begin?  At the top!

The Main Attraction     CN Tower, the tallest free-standing structure in the Western hemisphere, is an icon on the city’s skyline.  Think of a spear thrusting skyward with a couple of plump donuts near its tip and you’ve got the picture.  Pretty as the picture is (and you WILL find yourself gazing up at the Tower constantly), the view from the top is even better.  A speedy, glass-walled elevator whisks you to the 114th floor, where lunch at 360 Restaurant is a must.  Not only are the food and view spectacular, this revolving restaurant makes a complete revolution every 72 minutes.  Have a blast as you spot your hotel, the Rogers Centre (home to the Toronto Blue Jays), Lake Ontario and most everything else you’ve seen from ground level.  A floor below, be brave and step onto a glass-floored observation deck where the city will literally be at your feet.  It’s thrilling, to say the least, and hey, that slab o’glass can handle the weight of fourteen hippos so relax and enjoy the view.  Back on terra firma, check out the well-stocked gift shop and the Himalamazon Motion Ride, which will keep the adrenaline flowing till nightfall.  cntower.ca

A Muse     The Bata Shoe Museum is not (and I repeat, NOT) simply for women with a shoe fetish.  Step inside this jewel box of a museum and you’ll see for yourself how footwear has shaped the human experience since the dawn of man.  From the first-known footwear 5,300 years ago to shoes worn by celebrities named Tiger and Elvis, the Bata is a history lesson unlike any other.  Ogle everything from over-sized sandals intended to keep the wearer’s feet from ever touching ground to teensy footwear worn by Chinese women who were slave to bound feet (the revered “golden lotuses”).  In Rome, it’s the Pope alone who can wear shoes embellished with a cross – no matter, it seems that everyone else made up for the slight by wearing shoes awash in gold.  Footwear for babies, marriage, death and everything in between is detailed as to style and meaning, with the “chestnut cruncher,” a foot-tall boot with a daggered sole meant to pulverize nuts, the most surprising of the bunch.  Special exhibits are also part of the mix but the permanent collection is reason enough for a visit that will delight children.  batashoemuseum.ca 

At the Royal Ontario Museum, or ROM, the newest jewel is the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, a jagged play of glass and steel that has greatly expanded the museum’s exhibit space and makes for great angles on every floor and multiple nooks for kids to explore.  Level 2 is the main event for families thanks to its excellent dinosaur collection and studies of mammals and insects.  In the Discovery Gallery, kids will have their own dinosaur dig and make new friends in a full-sized tepee; at Hands-on Biodiversity, they’ll encounter countless stations at which to touch and learn.  The Teck Suite of Galleries, filled with an amazing and comprehensive display of minerals (their hues must be seen to be believed), cannot be missed.  Alongside it is “Light and Stone: Gems from the Collection of Michael Scott,” a gem and jewel show that would make the folks at Tiffany wince.  After all this, the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead housed on Level 3 might seem anticlimactic.  rom.on.ca

The Sporting Life     Hope springs eternal at the start of every baseball season, which is why the locals are quick to root for their hometown Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre – and you should, too.  The stadium formerly known as Skydome is topped by a retractable roof that takes twenty minutes to open and another twenty to close and, on a recent April visit, was closed due to a snowstorm outside!  No matter, every one is toasty warm indoors and while it may seem odd to witness baseball absent a sweet summer breeze, the fans more than make up for it by sending paper airplanes into the still air in the hopes of an on-field landing.  Suffice it to say that the crowd is friendly and fun and the team, former World Series champs, almost always puts on a show.  bluejays.mlb.com 

Even showier is the Hockey Hall of Fame, an ode to heroes past and present from Canada’s national pastime.  Begin your tour with an excellent 30-minute film on the history of hockey in the Hall’s Hartland Molson Theatre.  From there, proceed to galleries covering all thirty NHL teams and pause at exhibits saluting Gretzky and Orr.  A full-on Montreal Canadiens dressing room filled with custom hockey jerseys has been dropped into the Hall and kids of all ages will be snapping pix next to their favorite player’s jersey.  Equally sweet is a peek at hockey jerseys of old when they were still sweaters and wooden hockey sticks that deserved to be called twigs.  Best of all is the Great Hall upstairs, a grand gallery replete with stained glass dome that acts as a repository for hockey’s many trophies.  King of the silver is Lord Stanley’s Cup, which you can (unbelievably) touch.  End your visit with a stop at the Interactive Zone, where kids can play forward or goalie against a virtual team or clean dad’s clock in a spirited game of bubble hockey.  hhof.com 

Probably not as exciting but equally delightful is a boat ride courtesy of Toronto Harbour Tours.  The sixty-minute cruise takes you onto Lake Ontario and affords terrific views of the city’s skyline amid fun facts and local lore.  The boat’s trusty captain will zig and zag around the close-in Toronto Islands, operated by the city’s Parks Department and a mecca for biking, hiking and sunning during the summer months.  Kids should feel free to ask for a turn at the wheel and it’s this simple pleasure that will make their ride memorable.  (A comprehensive ferry system operates during warm weather and is the way to go for half- or full-day visits to the Islands.)  145 Queens Quay W.  (416) 868-0400; reservations strongly encouraged.

A Walk on the Mild Side     A stroll through Toronto’s Financial District yields the kind of gawking reserved for the financial capitals of the world.  No surprise, then, that Toronto is Canada’s financial capital as confirmed by its many gleaming skyscrapers.  Youngsters will swoon over the Royal Bank of Canada’s glass tower, dubbed “The Bank of Gold” by our son since each of the building’s panes is skimmed in gold leaf.  Due east of downtown is Old Town, where the buildings are largely brick and far more modest in stature.  The best of the best can be found along Queen Street East, where a burgeoning design district is keeping the neighborhood in fighting trim.  Continuing east along Queen Street, you’ll hit The Beaches, a bee-hive of family activity during the summer months.  Consider a picnic along Kew Beach or head uphill to a Greektown taverna when hunger strikes; a miles-long boardwark is the place for biking or strolling post-eats.  On the flip side of town along Queen Street West, it’s shop-till-you-drop in Toronto’s version of SoHo.  Grunge meets gilt in shops that range from skateboarder chic (Oakley) to hi-end cosmetics (MAC) and blinged-out sportswear (Juicy Couture).  Smack in the middle of this shopping expanse are two Vancouver-based stores that embody Canadian ingenuity.  At Lululemon, smartly-designed athletic apparel is on display and the staff is eager to educate the consumer on how to use it in an active lifestyle.  Shoes are the meme at John Fluevog, whose footwear long possessed an 80s sensibility but is now gorgeously down to earth.

The Royal Treatment     Casa Loma (“House on the Hill”), a castle-fancy that was the brainchild of Canadian industrialist and financier Sir Henry Pellatt, has been lording over Toronto since the early 20th century.  Pellatt, who never met a deal he didn’t like (hence the nickname “Pellatt the Plunger”), soared to great financial heights, only to suffer an astounding reversal of fortune that forced his family out of its home a mere ten years after completion.  A tour of the property is still worthwhile, even though Pellatt was forced to sell most of Casa Loma’s furnishings to raise much-needed cash.  Predictably, kids will be entranced by the spooky tunnel that leads out to the stables.  casaloma.org 

Family matters are also part of the mix in “The Sound of Music,” an exhilarating staging of the much-loved Rodgers and Hammerstein musical as re-imagined by Andrew Lloyd Webber.  Do-Re-Mi will send toes tapping and the pace quickens as the von Trapp children get in and out of one scrape after another.  Even children completely unfamiliar with the story will warm to the engaging young performers and easily catch the lyrics to standards such as My Favorite Things, Climb Ev’ry Mountain and Sixteen Going on Seventeen.  This is one of many Broadway-caliber shows staged by Mirvish Productions at theaters in the city’s vibrant Entertainment District.  mirvish.com/tsom/

Where to Stay     The Hyatt Regency Toronto on King is the kind of forward-thinking, top-to-bottom remodel that gives the brand a good name.  Formerly a Holiday Inn, the curvy blue-and-white high rise opened under its new flag in February 2009.  Inside, the look is mod and the feel is cosseting, with the lobby’s brown and white leather furnishings continuing into the rooms.  Opt for a one-bedroom corner suite at the front of the building, with expansive views of CN Tower and Lake Ontario.  The ample living room’s dark wood cabinetry plays host to a 42-inch flat screen TV and plentiful drawer space and pairs nicely with a functional yet stylish wet bar; the ergonomic work desk has plenty of outlets for everyone’s tech gadgets.  Focal point of the bedroom is a plush king bed that’s just reward for Mom and Dad.  Back downstairs, the brightly-lit MIX lounge is the ideal spot for liquid refreshment.  370 King Street West  (416) 343-1234; torontoregency.hyatt.com.  Doubles with view from $139 CAD; Internet rates and special packages available.  At the Fairmont Royal York, a property fit for a queen has been host to captains and kings over its nearly 80 years in existence.  The grande dame is as traditional as one would expect, with brocade drapes and Chinoiserie lamps the rule and flat screen TVs and freshened bedding the pleasant exception.  Request a renovated room on an upper floor (four and above) for an optimal experience, with one-bedroom suites providing much-needed space; the lobby-level EPIC restaurant is as terrific for meals as the clubby Library Bar is for drinks.  100 Front Street West  (416) 368-2511; fairmont.com/RoyalYork/.  Doubles from $195 CAD (or $183 CAD with third night free); online packages and promotions available.

Where to Eat     Spadina Garden, on the edge of Chinatown, is a spare yet welcoming table where there’s something for everyone.  The Crispy Ginger Beef is a treat for adventurous palates while the House Special Fried Noodles with Chicken, Shrimp and Pork are a meal-in-one sure to delight everyone.  (114 Dundas Street West  (416) 977-3413.)  Reservations are a must at this popular restaurant and the same goes for the Irish Embassy, a perpetually-packed pub where your only hope is to call ahead, especially on game days as the Yonge Street location is close by Rogers Centre (baseball) and Air Canada Centre (hockey, basketball).  The décor is casually elegant and the din is deafening, all the better since your kids won’t be louder than anyone else.  The bison meatballs in a Guinness BBQ sauce are divine and kids will also inhale the fish and chips and the Tandoori chicken skewers in a peanut dipping sauce.  And yes, the brews, especially Alexandra Keith’s India Pale Ale from Nova Scotia, will soothe the most jangled parental nerves.  49 Yonge Street  (416) 866-8222; irishembassypub.com. 

A far more free-form experience is the centuries-old St. Lawrence Market, an amalgam of food stalls under an grand old roof where the star is the Carousel Bakery and its much-loved peameal bacon sandwich.  Think round slices of Canadian bacon rolled in crushed peas and smothered between a doughy Kaiser roll (honey mustard optional).  92 Front Street East  (416) 392-7120 for Market or (416) 363-4247 for Carousel Bakery; stlawrencemarket.com.  At the Richtree Market, everything is shiny and bright and the idea is to choose food from a variety of stations, swipe a magnetic card at each and pay after you’ve eaten.  The portions are large and fresh and the latter-day concept surprisingly well-executed.  42 Yonge Street  (416) 366-8986; richtree.ca.  Locations throughout downtown Toronto.  An absolute treasure are the many hot dog vendors in downtown Toronto.  These sidewalk concessions are strictly regulated so you can expect pretty much the same dog at every cart, a nearly foot-long wiener that’s been slashed three times in the service of perfect grilling.  An assortment of accompaniments are available and since the only real variable is the grilling technique, make a bee-line to the cart at the corner of Front and York streets, where the hot dog man is passionate about his dogs.

What Else?  Toronto’s public transportation system will make touring a breeze.  Skip the taxis and arm yourself with a Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) map outlining the many subway and streetcar lines, the latter a hit with kids.  ttc.ca  ...  Exchange your currency for Canadian dollars since the variety of coins will prove useful and amusing.  Canadian dollar coins are called loonies thanks to the likeness of a loon on the flip side; conversely, two-dollar coins are called toonies!


Elaine Sosa Labalme is a food and travel writer based in San Francisco, California. When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and seven-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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