Travels

Toronto: Summer in the Queen City

Richard Burnett
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Toronto

“Sacre bleu! Toronto rocks!” That pretty much sums up how I feel about Canada’s Queen City. 

A weekend getaway in Toronto is a sure bet, with fine restaurants and fab shopping, museums, top accommodations, vibrant LGBTQ nightlife and – my favourites – plenty of opera and big-league sports teams year-round. I recently returned to Toronto with my mom Diamond Lil: We were invited by our friend Louis-Michel to attend the lavish production of Puccini’s masterpiece La Bohème, performed by the Canadian Opera Company (or COC – love that acronym), in his BMO box seats at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. La Bohème is one of opera’s best-known love stories: Set to some of the most moving music ever composed, the story inspired numerous adaptations, including the hit Broadway musical, Rent. We saw American soprano Angel Blue make her COC debut as the doomed Mimì, and Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan in the role of Mimì’s love, Rodolfo. The production was directed by Tony Award-winner John Caird while renowned Italian conductor Paolo Carignani lead the COC Orchestra.
 
In other words, it was another star-studded performance by the Canadian Opera Company, the largest producer of opera in Canada. For the uninitiated, a night at the opera in Toronto is delightful fun: opera lovers here really do enjoy dressing up smartly, and the Four Seasons Centre is hands-down the finest opera house in the land, on par with the great opera houses of Europe. There isn’t a bad seat in the entire house. Not a one. The upcoming 2019-2020 COC season (their 69th) looks excellent, with new productions of Puccini’s Turandot, Dvo?ák’s Rusalka, and Humperdinck’s Hansel & Gretel, as well as COC revivals of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Verdi’s Aida, and Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.

“The need to hear and share stories is essential to the human experience,” says COC General Director Alexander Neef. “It begins with the fairy tales told to us as children, is developed through the history and literature learned as students, and later inspires the art we seek and create as adults. This season, we have curated a selection of operas that are magnetic for their extraordinary scores and vivid storytelling.”
 
While in Toronto, when Diamond Lil went shopping, I visited Chinatown and Kensington Market, made famous by legendary actor Al Waxman who starred as Larry King, a convenience store owner in the classic 1970s CBC television sitcom King of Kensington. I paid homage to Al Waxman (there is a bronze life-size statue of Waxman in Bellevue Square Park) in the Kensington Market, designated a National Historical Site of Canada in 2006. Kensington Market has it all: historical Victorian homes, diverse food shops, restaurants and a variety of used, surplus and vintage clothing shops.
 
First developed in the late 19th century, Toronto’s Chinatown is now one of the largest in North America. I visited both on the superb Chinatown + Kensington Market Food Tour by the award-winning gay-owned and operated Culinary Adventure Co. The tour is ranked “One of the Best Food Tours in the World” by FORBES Magazine. My tour guide was proudly out owner Kevin Durkee who brought my group to, among other stops, King’s Noodle Restaurant which is famed for their truly amazing grilled duck and pork. If you do just one (vegan and vegetarian-friendly) food tour in Toronto, Culinary Adventure Co. is the way to go: they offer nine different guided Toronto tours seven days a week.
 
Usually when I am in Toronto, I like to spend a couple hours visiting The Hockey Hall of Fame. It never gets tired, and they are currently hosting the temporary 9 & 99: The Howe -Gretzky Exhibition which runs to March 2020. The exhibition features milestone artifacts and rare personal memorabilia hand-picked by Hockey Hall of Fame curators from the Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky family collections.
 
It’s easy to lose oneself in this incredible museum where Montreal’s hockey legacy also looms large. The hall’s centrepiece is an exact replica of the Canadiens’ old Montreal Forum dressing room, complete with jerseys, skates, pads and other equipment worn by the team’s legendary superstars. 
LA boheme
On this trip, I also attended a Toronto Blue Jays home game at the Rogers Centre (originally named Skydome) just to see the hottest rookie in all of baseball, 20-year-old Vladimir Guerrero Jr. who was born in Montreal in 1999 after his father Vladimir Guerrero launched his Hall-of-Fame career with the Montreal Expos in 1996.
 
The same day I arrived in Toronto, Guerrero Jr. checked into the Rogers Centre for his first big-league game wearing his father’s #27 Expos jersey, then made his Major League Baseball debut as third baseman for the Jays wearing a Jays #27 jersey. 
 
“It was to honour my dad,” Guerrero told reporters after the game. “Since I was a kid, I was running around following my dad in the clubhouse in Montreal. I wanted to bring that back today.”
 
About his MLB debut, Guerrero Jr. said, “I was just concentrating on every at-bat, trying to do my job. I was excited. It was just the way I dreamt it.”

The Blue Jays wind down their 2019 regular season at the Rogers Centre on September 29.  Welcome to the Show, Vladdy.
 
HOW TO GET THERE 
For many years I’ve happily travelled with environmentally-friendly Via Rail who are also a partner of LGBTQ Pride festivals across Canada. The VIA Rail Business Lounge at Toronto’s Union Station features a complimentary snack bar and business centre. Rail travel to Toronto is not only relaxing but a terrific green option. VIA Rail also offers free Wi-Fi. To book a fare, visit www.viarail.ca
 
WHERE TO STAY 
We stayed at the budget-minded Holiday Inn Toronto Downtown Centre at 30 Carlton Street, located between Yonge and Church streets. The hotel has 513 air-conditioned rooms with refrigerators and complimentary wired and wireless Internet. They offer an excellent breakfast and the hotel is very clean. Diamond Lil and I were upgraded to a “suite” which boasted a large bedroom, livingroom, kitchenette and two washrooms. The hotel is also centrally located next to the Church-Wellesley Village, downtown shopping and is just steps away from the College subway station. For reservations, visit www.ihg.com/holidayinn/hotels/us/en/toronto/yyzct/hoteldetail
 
WHERE TO EAT 
Pearl Diver offers a very comfortable and casual spin on seafood classics. Diamond Lil and I enjoyed a wide selection of oysters from Canada’s East and West coasts, as well as an oversized bowl of huge Prince Edward Island mussels, and shared a perfectly grilled AAA Striploin. Pearl Diver (100 Adelaide Street East) is a popular destination with both tourists and locals, and folks were still coming in for a meal when we left after 10 pm. For reservations, visit pearldiver.to.  Hair Of The Dog Neighbourhood Pub & Restaurant is a very cozy LGBTQ establishment with an easygoing staff and wonderfully mixed clientele. The pub (425 Church Street) is located on the southern end of the Church-Wellesley Village, around the corner from the Holiday Inn Toronto Downtown Centre. A local institution with a rich history, Hair of the Dog boasts one of the best summertime patios in Toronto, and is a great place for dinner and drinks, or brunch on weekends. Visit hairofthedogpub.ca
 
QUEER TORONTO
 While the Church-Wellesley Village remains the focal point of LGBTQ nightlife, queer-owned and queer-friendly establishments can be found throughout the Queen City, notably in the west end, where the affectionately named “Queer West Village” – centred around Queen Street West between Trinity Bellwoods Park and Roncesvalles Avenue – has become an alternative to the Church Street scene. For all you need to know about Toronto, visit www.seetorontonow.com.  
 
TORONTO LGBTQ PRIDE MONTH
Pride Toronto presents its fourth annual Pride Month in June, climaxing with their 39th annual Pride Parade on June 23. For Pride Toronto programming, visit www.PrideToronto.com
 
vladimir