FIRST, THERE'S that lake next to Toronto. Viewed from the 23rd floor of the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel where I checked in during my last week in Toronto, Lake Ontario looks like a sea, not a lake. It’s vast. It’s dotted with yachts and ferryboats. It’s blue. Lakes are supposed to be green, but this one’s blue. I’m told it’s not even the largest of Toronto’s bodies of water. Lakes in the Philippines suddenly look like ponds.
Then there’s the skyline. Downtown Toronto’s is pierced with skyscrapers in bronze and glass; on repeated viewings, they begin to look generic. The iconic, 1,815-foot CN Tower stands next to the rotund Rogers Centre; together, they look like a space ship with a really long antenna. I was actually surprised at the lameness of the collective architectural design. Given the city’s proximity to New York City, I expected a lot more adventure in the way the buildings were designed.
Several walks in downtown Toronto revealed to me the city’s many different faces. Literally. The city is unmistakably cosmopolitan. Apparently, half of Toronto's 1.3 million population was born outside of Canada, as a recent survey reported. These immigrants have set up shops that give endless supply of food and grocery needs to the ethnic communities. On my first day, we lunched at an authentic Filipino restaurant; on my last, we munched on shawarmas and kebabs at a Middle Eastern joint. There’s a Little Italy and a Little Korea. I wouldn’t be surprised if a new Bollywood release is showing in Gerrard Street with its rows of South Asian cafés and grocery stores.
From my hotel, I took the underground PATH pedestrian network to see The Bay department store at Queen Street. This was a mistake. The walk looked like ten kilometers. There wasn’t much to see in this highly vaunted walkway except generic-looking shops and lots of benches. There are crowds ambling about in business suits—I realized later that lunch hour is the wrong time to use PATH, which links buildings around the Financial and Entertainment Districts. The streets outside would probably be more picturesque, but I was too confused with the exits to even think about going out to the street.
One thing nice about PATH, though, is that the entrances and exits are seamlessly connected. I didn’t even notice entering The Bay until I saw fabulous-looking Christmas decorations being set up. I met the store’s amiable visual merchandising head, who allowed me to take pictures of his team at work.
The Bay is one of the oldest department stores in the world, operating as the main brand of Hudson’s Bay Company, North America’s oldest company. Its Queen Street branch includes The Room, a shop carrying such high-end brands as Chanel, Balmain, and Ungaro. The walls of this section are undulating see-through screens that allow shoppers to see and be seen. The shop manager allowed me to take pictures, telling me that everyone had been taking photos the whole day anyway!
Outside, at the fashionable Queen Street West, upscale boutiques stand next to quaint shops with basements. Most of what I saw was expensive; there were shirts selling for one hundred US dollars apiece! There’s a shop with ethnic crafts; when I saw how expensive their Rajasthan string puppets were, I knew I must open an Indian crafts store one day.
Along Spadina Avenue off Queen Street West, I found an oasis of tranquility and inspiration at a low heritage building simply called 401 Richmond Street West. The facility houses a number of design studios and learning institutions. I wanted to check the garden café just outside the building, but walked instead into a small bookstore called BUILT. The shop carries mostly art and architectural titles. Since the prices forbade me from even thinking of buying the latest Pantone color guide, I lapped into the marvelous presentation of books and trinkets. That was gratifying enough.
As I walked west past Chinatown, the views became rougher. Glass façade gave way to bricks. I stopped by a gorgeous menswear store called Gotstyle in hopes of getting a good bargain, as the neighborhood looked down-market. Well, I should have known from the leather club chairs and dress forms that it is an expensive store.
The next day, I was up at the CN Tower with my siblings. Toronto’s panoramas spread out before (and under) us; I didn’t realize how much trees existed in the city until now. I closed my eyes to savor the moment of being 1,000 feet above the city. I thought about how expensive its shops may be, but with the way it has embraced and celebrated cultural diversities, Toronto's delights are priceless.
I was absolutely on high.