TRAVEL

Living it up in Toronto and in... Philadelphia

Richard Burnett
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Richard Burnett

It’s that time of year again, when Montrealers get a little restless and need some fun down time away from home. A weekend in Toronto or Philadelphia is always a good bet, with plenty of fine restaurants, museums, accommodations, vibrant LGBT nightlife and – my favourites – plenty of opera and big-league sports teams.

Toronto 
In 2014 Canada’s Queen City became the No. 1 queer destination in the Great White North, and for good reason: After wowing the world in 2014 with the best WorldPride festivities ever held, the city continues to put its best face forward as it prepares to host the 2015 Pan American games. The GTA is home to six million people, the fourth largest city in North America, where 50 per cent of the population was born outside of Canada, and where folks speak some 130 languages. Toronto truly is a global city. And for queer folks, there is more to the Queen City than the vibrant LGBT nightlife you’ll find in “The Gaybourhood” that surrounds the Church Wellesley intersection.
 
Arts fags will adore this city: it’s full of museums; it is home to the oldest LGBT bookstore in the world, Glad Day, which opened in 1970; and the theatre scene is pretty damn good. Angela Lansbury will reprise her Tony Award-winning role as Madame Arcati in Michael Blakemore’s revival of Noël Coward’s smash-hit comedy Blithe Spirit when it opens at the Princess of Wales Theatre on Feb 11 (I saw Lansbury perform this role on Broadway opposite Christine Ebersol and Rupert Everett and she stole show), and superstar tenor Ben Heppner will play the role of Isidor Straus, a prominent U.S. politician and businessman, in Titanic: The Musical, which opens on May 20, also at the Princess of Wales Theatre. 
 
My last two trips to Toronto I travelled just to see productions by the Canadian Opera Company (or COC – love that acronym) at the Four Seasons Centre, which is not just the finest opera house in the land, but comparable to the great opera houses of Europe. It is home to both the COC and the National Ballet of Canada; and its horseshoe-shaped R. Fraser Elliot Hall was built with superior acoustics as its first priority. Each of the theatre’s 2,071 seats were computer-tested for optimal sightlines to ensure an unobstructed view for every member of the audience.
Anyway, in October I attended the opening night performance of Giacomo Puccini’s classic opera Madama Butterfly starring American soprano Kelly Kaduce as Cio-Cio San. It was a breathtaking production with high production values.  But my superb seat in the orchestra ring was outdone with a private box seat the following month when I attended the closing night performance of Guiseppe Verdi’s Falstaff. Director Robert Carsen’s version lovingly evoked 1950s England in this hilarious production, which previously delighted audiences at Covent Garden, La Scala and the Met. An added bonus was to see internationally-renowned Quebec contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux co-star in this production. No question, going to the opera in Toronto is still the grand affair opera it is supposed to be, with folks dressing up for the occasion and enjoying bubbly during intermissions. Other COC productions this season include Don Giovanni (which closes on Feb. 21), The Barber of Seville (opens April 17), and the much-anticipated season-closing Bluebeard's Castle/Erwartung (May 6–23), directed by Quebec icon Robert Lepage. In fact, it was Lepage’s original ground-breaking production that put the COC on the opera world map.
 
Like Montreal, the next few months in Toronto is all about hockey. However, if you can’t catch a Toronto Maple Leafs NHL game, then I highly recommend a visit to The Hockey Hall of Fame. The hall’s centrepiece is an exact replica of the Habs’ old Montreal Forum dressing room, complete with genuine jerseys, skates, pads and other equipment worn by the team’s legendary superstars.
 
All in all, glamourous Toronto makes for a fun weekend escape from Montreal.
 
HOW TO GET THERE Via Rail – which links 450 communities across Canada with its 12,500-kilometre route network and transports over four million passengers annually – is also a partner of nine Gay Pride festivals across Canada. The VIA Rail Panorama Lounge at Toronto’s Union Station has also been relocated and expanded, with complimentary snack bar and business centre. There are always last-minute deals on Discount Tuesdays: www.viarail.ca/en/fares-and-packages/special-offers/discount-tuesdays.
 
WHERE TO STAY The Radisson Admiral Hotel (249 Queen’s Quay West) is centrally located in the Harbourfront area, which is close to the entertainment district and in the thick of things (outdoor activities) in summertime. Reservations: 416-203-3333 or surf to  www.radisson.com/toronto-hotel-on-m5j2n5/ontoront.
 
WHERE TO EAT Céilí Cottage (1301 Queen Street E.) is my fave new restaurant in Toronto in the heart of Leslieville: This Irish pub boasts a wide range of Irish & Canadian premium craft beers, whiskies and spirits, fresh oysters, and quality homemade food. And it oozes atmosphere. Reservations recommended: 416-406-1301 or www.ceilicottage.com. Another fabulous restaurant with a superb fresh seafood menu is the French Cluny Bistro and Boulangerie (35 Tank House Lane Street) in the Distillery District. Reservations recommended: 416-203-2121 or www.cluny.com.
 
PHILADELPHIA
Many LGBT travellers know Philadelphia as the city of “brotherly love” where Hollywood director Jonathan Demme filmed his ground-breaking 1993 film Philadelphia about AIDS and starring Tom Hanks, who won a Best Actor Oscar for his work in the movie. This is also the city where Sylvester Stallone filmed the original Oscar-winning Rocky movie, and one of the city’s most popular photo ops is the famed “Rocky steps” outside the enormous Philadelphia Museum of Art. Like Toronto, Philadelphia is a cosmopolitan city. Philly – the fifth largest city in America – is also much like New York, but without the madness. I keep returning to the city mainly for two reasons: Major League Baseball’s Philadelphia Phillies and the city’s amazing museums.
 
In fact, when it comes to museums, few cities compare to Philadephia. For instance, once you get beyond the “Rocky steps” outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, wander around inside. After stints at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris and the National Gallery in London, an even larger version of the Discovering the Impressionists: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting exhibition opens June 24 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for its only U.S. showing. On display through September 2015, this ground-breaking exhibit will showcase more than 80 impressionist works by some of the genre’s most significant artists: Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas and Alfred Sisley, all supported by the Parisian art dealer Durand-Ruel.
 
The nearby Barnes Foundation – whose “priceless” art collection is worth billions and features 181 Renoirs, 46 Picassos, 69 Cézannes and 59 Matisses (including his Spirit of Life, worth an estimated $100-million) – is next door to the spectacular Rodin Museum which boasts over 120 of the French master’s sculptures, the largest collection of his works outside of Paris. The greatest hits of the famed 19th-century sculptor are all here, including bronze casts of Eternal Springtime, The Gates of Hell, The Burghers of Calais and, of course, The Thinker, which sits outside in the museum’s beautiful gardens. 
 
These art institutions are just the tip of the iceberg in a city packed with historical landmarks everywhere you look. The Historic Philadelphia tour, for instance, covers one square mile in the Old City, the area between Front to 7th Streets and Spruce to Race Streets. America’s most sacred historic sites – Liberty Bell and Philly’s red-brick Independence Hall where George Washington was appointed commander-in-chief of the U.S. Continental Army, Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was signed and the U.S. Constitution was adopted – stand alongside world-class museums such as the National Museum of American Jewish History, which is just couple blocks away from the National Constitution Center. Here, every stone speaks, none more than Benjamin Franklin’s grave in the Christchurch burial ground just off Philly’s historic Independence Mall.
 
On my most recent trip to Philly last September, I even managed to score a front row ticket sitting right beside the hometown team dugout and saw the Philadelphia Phillies beat the Miami Marlins 3-1 with a game-winning 10th inning homerun by Cody Asche. It was a beautiful game on a beautiful night, the retro Citizen’s Bank ballpark is one of the finest in the league, and the Phillies beat the hated Marlins, the team owned by Jeffrey Loria, the man who destroyed the now-defunct Montreal Expos. Since the Montreal franchise moved to Washington, DC, in 2004, Philadephia has become my “home” team. I’m also proud to point out the Phillies organization will host their 13th annual Gay Community Day this summer: surf to phillygaydays.com. The Phillies 2015 home opener is on April 6.
 
There’s plenty more to do and see for LGBT tourists in Philly: visit the recently reopened gay Bookstore Giovanni’s Room in the city’s vibrant and walkable “Gayborhood,” not to mention the whole city will celebrate their 26th annual PrideDay LGBT Parade and Festival on June 14. The City of Brotherly Love, indeed.
 
HOW TO GET THERE US Airways has direct daily 75-minute flights from Montreal to Philadelphia: www.usairways.com. 
 
WHERE TO STAY The Sonesta Hotel (1800 Market Street) is a sumptuous hotel located smack in the middle of the downtown core. It is also home to the pretty cool Art Bar which opened last July and has become one of the city’s most stylish hotel bars. Hotel reservations: 215-561-7500 or www.sonesta.com/philadelphia 
 
WHERE TO EAT I enjoyed a superb steak dinner at the uber-gay Knock Restaurant & Bar (225 S. 12th Street) in the heart of the “Gayborhood.” Knock features a New American-meets-global comfort-food menu in a chic setting, and its back room converts into a popular old-school piano bar starring some wonderful cabaret-style piano players from Philly and New York. Reservations recommended: 215-925-1166 or www.knockphilly.com. 
 
 
 
Read Richard Burnett’s POP TART blog for The Montreal Gazette at http://montrealgazette.com/tag/pop-tart 
 
Read Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at www.bugsburnett.blogspot.com .