Transcending America’s Pacific coastline aboard Amtrak’s Coast Starlight.
Some cities are best arrived at by air; only by flying over Sydney, London or New York do you get a sense of their scale and majesty. Some of the best views of San Francisco can be seen as you cross the Bay Bridge by car. Others cities beg for arrival by train.
Toronto is one such city. Given that its signature landmark, the CN Tower, was built by the country’s nationalised rail operator, with its slender body meeting the ground just meters from Union Station, perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise. The sight of this iconic tower appearing and growing in size isn’t dissimilar to the welcome I received from the Sears Tower in Chicago; a familiar sight asking for further inspection. Union Station — tired, dilapidated, sprawling — puts pay to any further romanticism, although the building is undergoing extensive refurbishment.
I got my first taste of the city as I hunted for my hotel. Similar in stature (although not in size) to Chicago, Toronto has its fair share of skyscrapers, all adorned with the logos of Canadian banks. Yet somehow it lacks attitude — a glossy soulless clone of its southerly counterpart.
I spent my first evening looking for some culture. Ending up in Chinatown, I found a newly opened noodle bar, full of students illuminated by their laptop screens but little in the way of choice on the menu.
From atop the tower
My first day exploring the city started at the top, with a trip up the CN Tower. Lonely Planet says this attraction is adept at “relieving tourists of as much cash as possible” and that was my experience. Having seen my fair share of observation towers, I suspect I’m becoming slightly ambivalent to them. That said, the spectacular views it provided helped me plan the rest of my day. In the distance, a strange building sat upon thin stilts needed to be seen close up.
I initially thought this was the Art Gallery of Ontario, but as I approached I recognised its distinctive outline from an article in Brand New; I’d unexpectedly stumbled on the OCAD University building that intrigued me a few months earlier. This, and the surrounding Grange Park neighbourhood appealed to my artistic side, but sadly its bohemian stylings only extended for a few blocks.
The Art Gallery of Ontario was actually located next door. Designed by Frank Gehry, its exterior is more restrained than is typical of his buildings. Inside the peaceful and relaxing ‘Galleria Italia’ provided space to reflect on the art I’d seen so far. I was particularly inspired by the work of the Group of Seven; a group of Canadian landscape artists whose approach appealed to my own graphic sensibilities. If I had any money to invest in paintings, then these would be first on my list.
I rounded of the day inside another building with a daring architectural design; the Royal Ontario Museum. It’s newly opened entrance, dubbed ‘The Crystal’, is composed of striking angular shapes that call attention to the museum from along Bloor Street. Whilst eye-catching, Daniel Libeskind’s addition smacks a little of tokenism, with little thought given to practicality. I hit my head on the inclined walls a number of times, and kept getting lost inside the building.
For my final day in the city I decided to checkout Casa Loma (Spanish for Hill House) which I recognised from this year’s Scott Pilgrim film. The story of its owner is tinged with both success and sadness. Originally built as a lavish residence for local financier Sir Henry Mill Pellatt, no expense was spared in the design. Its most exuberant feature is a 800m long underground tunnel providing access to the garage and stables. Unfortunately the family was only able to live here for ten years before the Great Depression forced them to leave in 1923.
I’ve often wanted to sample local sports when travelling, but this was the first time I made good on that promise, buying a ticket to see the Toronto Maple Leafs play the Pittsburg Penguins. Once again I forgot my glasses, so following the game was more difficult than it need have been. It wasn’t as violent as I imagined it would be; in fact the crowd was more aggressive than anything seen on the rink. I got into the spirit of things and cheered on the local team who won 3-4.
Much like a pre-1989 San Francisco, Toronto suffers from being split of from Lake Ontario by the Gardiner Expressway. Whilst there is some development around the waterfront, what would otherwise be the city’s greatest feature is surprisingly absent. As I made my way though Toronto Pearson Airport prior to my departure to Vancouver, it occurred to me that this perfectly summed up my experience of the city; new, orderly and clean, but lacking any soul.
In the front seat of a float plane, I enjoyed a breathtaking view of Vancouver as I descended into its harbour. For such a densely populated city, I’d arrived somewhere small and friendly.
After eight days exploring North America, it was time to visit its more westerly extremities, starting with Saltspring Island.