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July 18, 2007

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Where's Sarah?                                        Toronto!


My first visit to Toronto was on a field trip in the sixth grade. We took a bus from Pittsburgh and learned the words to "O Canada" to sing as we crossed the border. I remember thinking that Toronto looked like OZ; clean with tall, sparkling buildings and sophisticated, fashionable people from all different cultures. When I had a chance to go back to Toronto for the inaugural LUMINATO Festival of Arts & Creativity last month, I wondered how my adult impression would compare to that from my childhood. David Pecaut, the co-chairman of the festival and one of its inspirational forces, discussed the festival with me and I got a real sense of how innovative and expansive it was. Planned for three years, Luminato aimed to pay tribute to and showcase Toronto's open attitude toward multiculturalism and art. There were street performances in surprise locations all over the city, interactive live performances and music, and just about anybody in Toronto that week could feel the energy of the festival in the air. Toronto really is a traveler-friendly city where diversity is celebrated and art a way of life. Going back to Toronto as a grown-up, I now see that Toronto is an easy, fun and hip getaway for anyone looking to expand their cultural horizons and have a great time.

My flight was leaving L.A. at 7am on Air Canada, so I packed a carry-on bag the night before and made a reservation at (800-441-7368) for the following morning. I've parked here before and enjoy their ‘mom and pop' style of business. Early morning flights always stress me out so I did everything possible to make sure things would go smoothly: I packed carry-on luggage only, pre-printed my boarding pass and made parking reservations. When I arrived at the parking lot at 5:15am, I was cutting it close for my international departure. The gates were (gasp!), LOCKED! Panicked, I called the phone number, which fortunately, I had programmed into my phone before I left, and was told in barely comprehensible English, "We are full … go someplace else." Click. I called back to protest and explained that I had a reservation, that I COULDN'T go someplace else and that I was about to miss my flight. When this didn't work, I informed the manager that I was going to abandon my car, parked in front of the closed gate. What do you know? That did the trick and the gates opened immediately. Check-in was a breeze and though LAX security lines are notoriously long in the summer, I still made my flight with coffee and bagel in hand.

I slept through the five-hour flight, breezed through customs and exited the airport to find the car that was pre-scheduled to pick me up. After mild confusion, I figured out that the pre-booked cars at Toronto's Pearson International Airport (YYZ) are called when you check into a booth outside by the curb, where you can also grab a taxi. We drove about half an hour to the Four Seasons Hotel, which is conveniently located close to everything: museums, nightclubs, chic cafés and shopping and is nestled in the heart of the city's colonial Yorkville. Much like Greenwich Village in the ‘60s, this quaint area is a glamorous shopping, dining and entertainment destination – a place to see and be seen. There are outdoor cafés galore and Bloor St. has shops you'd find on Rodeo Drive.

The Four Seasons staff is impeccable. They cater to every detail and go out of their way to offer guests personalized attention. In my experience, they always greeted me by name, housekeeping showed up when I was out instead of knocking on the door or coming in unannounced, and the concierge was both helpful and well informed. Standard room rates start at $430CDN, but with a little research, you can often find specials and package discounts. The hotel could use some updating, but is still comfortable in the typical and reliable Four Seasons fashion. Plus, it has a pretty happening hotel bar. The lobby, restaurants and common areas are gorgeous and sleekly decorated. The regular rooms, however, seem to have not been updated for a while … the color scheme is a bit dated and the traditional furnishings lack the modern feel of the more glamorous Yorkville Suites, which have a distinctly newer and richer look and feel in the decor.

That night at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, I attended one of the 100 events in the LUMINATO festival. Constantinople was a really unique multimedia performance conceived by Canadian composer Christos Hatzis. The stage was dimmed and set with drapes as a backdrop for a show of music and photography portraying the history and culture of what is now Istanbul. Though beautiful and moving, the performance was kind of sad, so I stopped into a nearby deli/pub called Shopsy's for some live music afterwards to lift my mood. (33 Yonge St., 416-365-3333). There was an outside patio with a DJ and a live band, and my first drink was free! The menu is extensive and includes all types of food, with entrée prices ranging from $8 - $17. The vibe at Shopsy's is pure summertime fun! Casual and relaxed, I spent the evening on the outdoor terrace chatting with locals and enjoying the band's music. There were all ages and types of people enjoying the summer evening and it seemed like a popular Happy Hour-type place. But I quickly found out that although most Canadians are friendly, helpful and outgoing, they do not seem to share a fondness for America's current politics. In future, I'll be sure to avoid these types of discussions in Canada as much as I do in Europe.

With so many options, I wanted to experience as much as I could, so I had a full day planned. After a breakfast of lemon ricotta pancakes at the Four Seasons' Studio Café, I walked a couple of short blocks to The Royal Ontario Museum, (The ROM) for a tour of the architectural and cultural landmark. Recently unveiled at the festival's start was the Michael-Lee Chin Crystal, the centerpiece of an ongoing Renaissance ROM expansion and renovation project. Not only is it awe-inspiring, but also it's one of many architectural structures that demonstrates Toronto's "old meets new" attitude. Instead of tearing down an old building or adding on to it in the style of the original structure, architecture in Toronto seems to merge traditional with modern. The original museum literally looks like it was hit with some type of futuristic glass meteor, but strangely enough it works. I could've spent more time in the museum, but wanted to get an overall feel for it and then move on. The ROM has a new restaurant called Crystal Five (C5) that wasn't yet open to the public, but looked elegant. The menu looked like it would be worth a return trip to Toronto though I'll bet the tables will be hard to reserve. Entrees include seafood and 60-day aged beef, and are priced between $22 and $32.

Lunch at Jamie Kennedy's restaurant at the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art was kind of expensive and somewhat disappointing. (111 Queen's Park). The service was poor and slow. My companion, for example, is a vegetarian and had to tell the staff three times not to include meat, then had to send dishes back. None of the wait staff or hosts was able to answer any questions about the menu or the restaurant and the portions were small, even for a "tasting" meal. The wine list, however, was a delight; it featured many local wines and suggested food pairings that were right on the money! I opted to skip a visit to the Gardiner Museum but scoped out the elegant gift store and if I return to the museum, I'd still go back to the restaurant for the ambience and the wine, though I might have to grab a Happy Meal afterwards to fill me up.

A great way to burn some calories and get oriented with the city is to take a walking tour. Bruce Bell from Tourism Toronto not only knows his stuff, but also was also funny and entertaining along the way. Next time I take a walking tour, though, I am going to bring a map and highlight the route along the way. As much as you might think that you'll remember how to get back to a particular destination, it's never quite as easy as when you're following a guide. I spoke to Bruce about my impressions of Toronto's liberal, old-world-meets-new style of building and in turn, he made this a focal point of the tour. Dating from 1919, the Hart House is a multi-purpose art gallery, performance center, music hall and student lounge that represents some of the city's more traditional architecture. Passing the Ontario College of Art and Design, you'll see an example of modern art juxtaposed with an original, older structure. You can't miss it; it looks like a giant piece of Lego with enormous colored pencils holding it up. I mean, seriously … I can't imagine this type of building plan being approved anywhere else, but it's an innovative design that reflects the artistic and inventive nature of the college. The University of Toronto grounds are so pretty, they make you want to laze away an afternoon, throwing a Frisbee around with your buddies and at Trinity College's Philosopher's Walk you might just want to stop, grab a book and have a seat along the tree-lined pathway.

Kensington Market (95 Front St. East) feels like a side street in New York City but it's cleaner and has better manners. The streets are filled with fresh flower and produce markets, cute little shops and one of the best bakeries in town (My Market Bakery, 184 Baldwin St.). The neighborhood merges into Chinatown, which is a great place to shop for souvenirs. Here, as in most Chinatowns, you'll find all kinds of inexpensive and unusual wares.

After a quick change and mini-bar dinner of chips and soda, I rushed off to the Premiere Dance Theater at The Harbourfront Centre for the Canadian premiere of Shen Wei Dance Arts' "The Rite of Spring" and "Re-". (207 Queens Quay West, Harbourfront Centre) By the way, this theater is hard to find. You have to go through a mall and take an elevator to the third floor. One of my goals at the festival was to experience some new art forms. I am usually drawn to the same types of theater, dance and music, so I purposefully chose events that might expand my cultural horizons. This particular show caught my attention because it was described as "… combining contemporary dance with martial arts and Chinese opera, striving to become live paintings." I'm not sure what I expected, but a more accurate description would've been "… yoga instructors on acid, moving their bodies in strange rhythm to weird music." It definitely expanded my personal notions of "art" and although it was really bizarre and unsettling, I have to admit that I was impressed, watching the "dancers" move their bodies in seemingly impossible ways. However, I could've done with a little more upbeat music. Why are so many artists depressed, anyways? Life is good, be happy.

The Harbourfront Centre is located on the city's Queens Quay, a strip of fun and good times along Lake Ontario and is the center of Luminato attractions. I wandered around here in a melancholy daze from the Shen Wei show and came across one of the highlights of my trip. There were tents set up, featuring live music from different countries. I spent the next few hours learning the samba, dancing to calypso music and watching an Irish jig. Had I not had such a long day and so much wine the night before, I probably would've kept up with the party, into the wee hours. Alas, my comfy bed at the Four Seasons was calling my name. This really is the place to be if you're visiting Toronto, and worth a trip alone for any one of the many ongoing cultural events.

Expecting a run-down old brewery, I unenthusiastically took a cab to check out the Luminato events in Toronto's historic Distillery District. What a pleasant surprise when I saw the cobblestone streets packed with restaurants, shops and galleries. After touring some of the most interesting and unpretentious art galleries I've ever been to, I enjoyed lunch at the Mill St. Brewery while listening to a full outdoor orchestra performing Latin jazz for what seemed like my own personal listening pleasure. I then caught a live Capoeira performance before heading back to the Harbourfront on Le Art Boat, a Luminato riverboat. The Harbourfront activities were still going strong, but already feeling pangs of sensory overload, I grabbed some street-fare for dinner and headed back to my hotel.

The next day I was sad to leave but looking forward to relaxing on my ride to the airport. Confirming that my hotel was a swanky place, I (literally) ran into Tori Spelling and her camera crew in the hallway on my way out. Safely in a cab but with no time to spare, I settled in to what I hoped would be a refreshing 30 minute power nap. No such luck! The cabbie not only insisted on giving me a play-by-play of every street sign, landmark, or shopping mall that we passed, but also touted his opinions on just about everything from gun control in the US to his views of several Canadian politicians and journalists who I've never heard of. The worst part was that he was making absolutely no sense! Honestly, I couldn't even politely follow along and offer up a comment or two because the guy was talking in word salad. Every now and then, he'd ask me if I agreed with him and why, and I would stumble through some off-the-cuff nonsense until he nodded in approval. At one point, he even tried to exit the freeway to drive me past some monument he was talking about and seemed genuinely disappointed that, in fact, I actually wanted to catch my flight. Eventually, I asked him where he was from. He said Newfoundland. As much as I didn't want to laugh, I remembered a joke that someone in a pub had made about "Newfies". I decided to give the guy a break; we were probably just having a major breakdown in communication, but it reminded me that even the gentle Canadians engage in stereotyping, just like the rest of the world.

I am definitely going back to the Luminato Festival next year, and if I lived closer than L.A., I would make it a weekend getaway much sooner! Nicely done, Toronto!

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