Notes from North of the Border: A Travelogue (Day One)

The CN Tower, Toronto, Ontario.

Last weekend The Wife and I enjoyed a three-night getaway to Canada. We hadn’t been to Toronto in way too many years, even before COVID made crossing the border impossible, and we were excited to return. Our plans were all in Toronto, but I learned a valuable lesson as a kid from my parents: when visiting a very large city, it’s best to stay well outside the city and use the public transportation and your feet to get around. Driving around in an unfamiliar city is never a great idea. (The object lesson as a kid was several trips to Boston, which is a uniquely devilish city to try to drive around, but it applies to Toronto as well. We only drove into the city once on this trip, and that was our first night there, because the place we were going isn’t easy to reach via public transport and The Wife is currently experiencing some mobility issues.)

So we crossed the border Friday afternoon and drove to our hotel in Mississauga, which in America would be cheekily called “Toronto’s biggest suburb”, but Mississauga is a huge city in its own right, with a population almost three times that of Buffalo. It always feels like something of a mental re-calibration of my concept of a “city”, whenever we go to a significantly larger (and more healthily urban) place than Buffalo. There are clusters of residential towers all over the entire greater Toronto region that dwarf the entirety of Buffalo’s skyline, and with that many people and a robust public transport system*, it must be nice to be able to see news of something new being built and not see all the comments in the replies to the effect of, “But where will we park?” (Seriously, any time anything is announced in downtown Buffalo, the questions of parking come up, because nobody in this region has any idea what a healthy and dense city is supposed to be like, in terms of parking and driving. People here glaze over at the very thought that you’re not actually supposed to always be able to park within fifty feet of the front door of wherever it is you’re going.)

Our hotel was very near Toronto’s Pearson Airport, and our windows faced south, giving us a nifty view of both downtown Mississauga to the west:

And downtown Toronto to the east.

Our hotel had no free breakfast (you could pay for a buffet, but these are always dicey in terms of gluten), so we made the Starbucks across the street our first stop each morning.

On the first full day there, we drove to the GO Station to catch the train into Toronto’s Union Station, which is the city’s major transportation hub, at the very foot of the financial district. We enjoyed the GO Trains, which are clean and comfortable.

What we didn’t enjoy quite as much was navigating Union Station, which is quite the complicated warren of tunnels and passages. Toronto’s downtown core–the area in the Financial District and some points immediately surrounding–is all connected underground through a system of tunnels called PATH, and it has all developed over the years to the point where it’s basically a giant subterranean shopping mall beneath the city. The problem is that it is highly confusing, with signage that isn’t entirely clear. We got lost twice down there in one day! Not badly lost, mind you–it’s not like we were suddenly six blocks off our intended location–but we did have to do some backtracking to figure out just where we were in relation to where we wanted to be, and that was annoying (particularly when The Wife is having a hard time getting around). Add to that the fact that apparently nothing in the PATH “mall” is open on weekends, and the whole atmosphere was like walking through a sterile, closed environment. And that’s not the reason we go to dense, vibrant cities! If I want to walk through a deserted mall, I can go to the dying mall ten minutes from our house.

Union Station is quite beautiful, though:

Another contrast with Buffalo, I suppose: Toronto actually uses its grand train station as a train station. Buffalo has a big gorgeous train station, but refuses to use it as such. Anyway, our initial destination on Full Day One was the St. Lawrence Market. This is a big public market that is a major food destination. Think of the Pike Place Market in Seattle…or Buffalo’s Broadway Market, but, well, consistently packed and successful.

The very first thing we did when we entered the Market was to buy a couple of coffees, since (a) it was cold and drizzly out and we needed the warmth, and (b) we were hit by the smell of the coffee the second we opened the outer doors. This particular coffee place is tiny–your house probably has at least one bathroom that’s larger than this place–but it was packed as tightly as possible, spilling out onto shelves outside the location proper, with coffee beans and coffee supplies and also tea and tea pots and whatnot. The joint is run by an elderly Asian couple, and the coffee was wonderful. We ended up coming back to buy some whole-bean coffee (“Maple Cream” flavored, if you’re wondering).

(By the way, on the topic of coffee: you know what we saw far fewer of than we’d expected, given that we were in Canada? Tim Hortons locations! They exist, but they do not seem to have the “Tim’s on every corner” thing going on that Buffalo has. We even saw a closed Tim Hortons! Like, an empty storefront with the signage removed but you could still make out the logo from the pattern of dirt on the terra cotta!)

Since The Wife is celiac, we had to get a little creative for lunch, since the many sandwich joints and pasta joints and whatever else were pretty much out of the running. We ended up getting a chunk of cheese and some cured meat sticks from a cheesemonger, which was lovely anyway. Dietary restrictions certainly do lend an investigative air to finding food in unfamiliar locales; you can’t just say, “Ooooh, that looks good, let’s eat there!” In addition to the cheesemonger (there are several of these in the Market), we also found a stall in the basement making crepes, and they had a gluten-free crepe available, so we got one to share (apple and cheese-filled, if you’re wondering).

We’ve found a liking for crepes in recent years, partly because we discovered a lovely restaurant near Rochester that has gluten-free crepes.

I generally try not to partake of gluten-filled goodies in front of The Wife, because that’s mean, but I did have to give in at this patisserie:

I mean, look at that stuff. I got a single Coconut Rum Ball.

Not a great photo, admittedly. I took one shot and started nomming.

I ate it on the spot, and it was good, and I regret NOTHING.

After we were done at the Market, we walked back the way we had come, heading for Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada. On the way we came to Toronto’s Flatiron Building, which is appropriately pointy on one end, and flat on the other, with one of the niftier murals around:

Just beyond the Flatiron Building is a lovely park with a fountain of fantastic whimsy:

The fountain’s jets are all dogs!

Note that one figurine is a cat, who is totally ignoring what all the dogs are focused on…

…and note that at the top of the fountain, drawing the attention of all those spouting dogs, is a bone! The fountain wasn’t running, unfortunately–it’s probably too early in the season for such things yet–but here’s a bit of info on the fountain, which we found utterly delightful. (Apparently the cat is staring at a couple of bird statues, which we didn’t realize at the time.)

The walk from the Market to the Aquarium was longer than we would have liked, owing to The Wife’s difficulties; in normal times it would have been fine, but I did find myself wondering why Toronto has no streetcar line running between the St. Lawrence Market area and the CN Tower area (the Aquarium is literally right next to the CN Tower; I took that photo at the top of this post from the Aquarium’s walkway, very near the front door).

As for the Aquarium itself? It’s a fantastic facility, full of exactly the kind of exhibits you expect at any fine aquarium. Since Toronto is a Great Lakes city (by population, it’s the largest city on the Great Lakes!), there are a lot of displays of Great Lakes habitats, but they also have large tropical fish displays, too. The Aquarium’s main event is a huge tank , mimicking a tropical reef, through which visitors can walk (or ride, via moving walkway) via a submerged tunnel that’s surprisingly long, and this is all suitably amazing. We do wish we’d attended to Aquarium on a school day, though–the place was loaded with kids and their often beleaguered parents. A few thoughts here:

::  Look, aquariums are awesome places to take your kids. I get it. I loved those places as a kid myself. But prepare yourselves, wouldja?

::  That said, your one-year-old baby is not going to remember any of this, so maybe spend a bit less time hogging the space right in front of a particular tank or exhibit because you’re trying to get that perfect photo of your baby in front of a shark or ray or eel or whatever. It’s obnoxious.

::  And ferchrissakes, please brush your kid up on the concept of personal space. Because if your kid reaches forward and touches the guy in the overalls in front of you, repeatedly, eventually that guy might well turn around and give your kid an impromptu lesson in how to incorporate the F-word into the sentence Keep your hands to yourself and do NOT touch me again!

::  You may wonder, at some point in your aquarium experience (any aquarium, not just the Toronto one), if Finding Nemo has been out long enough that kids won’t lose their shit and start shouting “DORY!!!” the second the spot a Pacific blue tang. The answer? No, it has not. Be warned. (Oddly, they don’t get nearly as excited about clownfish.)

::  They should keep human-sized lobster traps on hand, in which to lock people for one hour any time they start singing “Baby Shark”. In fact, this rule should exist outside aquariums, too.

All this sounds bitchy and whiny, I concede, but Ye Gods, folks. It’s an Aquarium, not an amusement park.

But still…what an aquarium it is!

With friends like this, who needs anemones?

“People will come, Ray!”

The jellyfish displays were surreal. The blue water was so blue and featureless that it actually felt like an extremely high-resolution video display.

Yes, I know, there are a couple of “Dory” fish in there. Squeal to your heart’s content, folks!

Apologies for this…they have a dark tunnel where the only light is simulated “rippling light on the ocean floor” and I wanted a selfie in that light, not realizing it would make me look like the person waiting in the dark to murder you.

I mean, in normal light, I actually quite like the look I had going on that day!

I continue to wish I’d discovered the “Renfest shirt with overalls” combo earlier in life, as I do think it’s pretty much my definitive look at this point.

(Also, the entire time we were in one of North America’s biggest cities, I saw exactly one other person wearing overalls, and that was an Asian guy on the streetcar in Chinatown. And I only saw two people wearing the “Canadian Tuxedo” look, so…what gives, Toronto!)

After we left the Aquarium we struck out again back for Union Station (the same walk as before, sigh, only I have found that a long walk often feels a bit shorter the second time because you know how long it is, if that makes any sense). This time we hopped aboard the subway, heading north up Yonge Street to a gluten-free Chinese restaurant we had read about online. This trek also turned into a thing, because the subway is actually closed beyond a station that is three stations shy of where we were going. Luckily Toronto is running shuttle buses to the remaining stations, but the going is a lot slower as now you’re at the mercy of street traffic…and the station where we were getting off was six or seven blocks south of the restaurant’s location, as noted by Google Maps. (Hold onto that last point.)

So off the bus we went and we started walking up Yonge Street. Yonge is one of Toronto’s major north-south streets; in fact, at one point it was held to be the “longest street in the world”, as the way it was formerly rendered on maps it literally went north all the way around all of the Great Lakes’ north shores, terminating near Minnesota! That’s not the case now, but Yonge is still very long, and walk we did, and walked, and walked. Which by this time was quite hard on The Wife. This is unfortunate, because quite honestly, I wouldn’t mind someday taking a day in Toronto in which I go up quite far on Yonge and walk all the way back down to Union Station. There’s so much fascinating stuff along Yonge as you go from neighborhood to neighborhood.

And, for all you Bill and Ted fans, strange things are afoot on Yonge, as well!

But finally we reached the address where Google said our restaurant was located.

Guess what.

Not there.

I remembered then that the restaurant had announced on social media several months before that they were moving to a new location on Yonge, which was another four blocks north…but Google Maps had not updated. So walk more, we did.

By this point my poor wife was suffering.

But we got to the restaurant. It’s called Riz, and we had a lovely time here.

An admission of ignorance: we weren’t sure how to eat these. We cut open the leaves and ate the filling (chicken and rice), which I think may have been incorrect.

We didn’t actually order meals here. The appetizer menu looked so good that we just ended up kind of replicating a dim sum meal by ordering a bunch of apps, along with a couple of cocktails. I felt a little bit bad about this, because the person who sat us at our table made an impressive pitch about their Peking Duck Dinner for Two. I think he really wanted us to try the duck. We were a bit gunshy about that, neither of us ever having actually had Peking Duck. (In fact, I don’t actually know that I’ve ever eaten duck, “Peking” or otherwise.)

Once we finished eating, we struck out again, heading back south down Yonge to the bus stop. Unfortunately the restaurant is almost exactly in between two subway stops, so it wouldn’t have saved us anything to walk north to the next one. (What I should have done was find a bus stop and then take the bus to the subway station, instead of walking all the way back to catch the buses that were only doing shuttle runs between subway stations. Again, when you’re not in a city with a robust public transport system, you don’t end up taking advantage of the one you’re visiting to best effect. Live and learn. We’ll be back.)

The day ended with our staggering back through Union Station to board the GO Train back to our car, half an hour away in Mississauga, so we could rest and recuperate for Day Two.

And that will be another post. Day Two went better, transportation-wise, than Day One did, because I made some adjustments…but Google Maps did us dirty again! How? Stay tuned!


* I don’t know a whole lot about the particulars, but I know that the Ontario government, currently run by Canada’s conservatives, has not been particularly supportive of public transport and that apparently the system has suffered as a result. We did not notice any problems, save one time when a station along the subway line we were riding had to be closed due to a violent incident. This did not inconvenience us, as we were not stopping at that particular station, but it did cause some consternation to other passengers near us.

This entry was posted in On Travels and Adventures and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Notes from North of the Border: A Travelogue (Day One)

  1. Roger says:

    I was on Yonge St in Toronto in 2011. I believe our hotel was near there. We parked in a narrow underground parking garage and never moved the car until we left three days later and drove to family reunion in Peterborough.

    We took mass transit for EVERYTHING, especially the Zoo. Next time you go, check if the City Pass is listing anything you want to see; it was not only cheaper but gave us priority at two places (one was the zoo)

    I never even went underground. Maybe next time, when I finally see a Blue Jays game, I hope in 2024.

Comments are closed.