Visiting friends or family who live in different states or countries offers up a different perspective to experience the local scene of a place. It’s a double-trip because we can check out highlights we might be curious about and capitalize on insider info. We often take these visits for granted, they’re sometimes done out of obligation, but they can be loaded with gems. Travel agents who spend time with far-flung friends or relatives can use the opportunity to hone their writing. Interviewing their hosts, and any friends or neighbors, can expose you to a bird’s-eye view on a simple slice of life. I lived in Toronto over 20 years ago, and back then the town would roll up early. Sundays were like being in lock-down, and you couldn’t buy a thing—or a drink. After several years, I paid a visit and surrendered my control freak nature to my sister Sandy and my brother-in-law Greg, and enjoyed a different experience of the city. Today, Toronto pretty much operates 24/7 and the amount of construction with all the high-rise development around the waterfront area answers the question of why there’s a crane shortage. It’s crazy.
Toronto was in the grip of a heat wave, so my hosts recommended we check out Sugar Beach. This former parking lot on Queen’s Quay is now a two-acre urban beach for city dwellers. Bright bubble-gum pink umbrellas, white Adirondack style beach chairs, candy-stripe rock outcroppings, a mini boardwalk, and artificial sand offer a welcome respite for locals and tourists and a tree-lined promenade runs through the park. Our visit coincided with the Redpath Waterfront Festival, a four-day experience of nautical history, digital storytelling, extreme watersports, concerts and the Tall Ships’ 1812. Food trucks and barbecue stands catered to the crowds and reps from Tourism Prince Edward Isle offered up a cup of their famous mussels and fries if you entered their five-day getaway drawing. I submitted an entry form and quickly went from feeling like a local to a tourist but it was all good. Under a beach umbrella, we enjoyed the scene and listened to the band. Later, we cranked up the air-conditioner and they turned me on to a sugar kiss. A fruit that’s a cross between a cantaloupe and honeydew melon, and its sugary sweetness was pure, thirst-quenching delight. That evening we grilled black cod and sweet corn they’d picked up earlier from the famous St. Lawrence Market, where you could easily plan a day trip and experience a major food orgy.
My family lives in Cabbagetown and it’s a gem of a neighborhood. It’s the largest area of preserved Victorian houses not just in Toronto, but in North America, and strolling though it is like being in a fairyland. The Irish settled this area in the 1800s and grew loads of cabbage, hence the name. Today, it’s the picturesque architecture of the brick homes with front yards of pale peach to scarlet red rambling roses, exploding hydrangea bushes, lavender, azaleas and rhododendron that creates what feels like an exclusive haven. “I’ve never sat out here,” my sis said as we settled on her front steps, breathing in the garden’s scent and sharing intimacies on life, love and the pursuit of happiness. We typically hang out in their backyard but I guess it took this Brooklyn girl to remind her of the pleasure you get sitting on your stoop. Later, we went into the night to find the Supermoon that had graced the planet but we must have looked like zombies as we staggered through the quiet streets with our heads craned trying to glimpse it through the lush trees arches.
The next evening, we enjoyed an after dinner stroll and stopped to chat with neighbors who were enjoying their own stoop. We exchanged introductions and got talking about the city and the area. Tony grew up in Pakistan during British rule and immigrated to Toronto when he was younger. “Because of my ethnic background, things were very challenging back then,” he said. But times have changed and he and his wife Holly, from Montreal, love their life in Cabbagetown. My sister mentioned that she moved to Toronto 38 years ago from New York. “Back then it felt like a small town, and it was conservative and a bit uptight. It was mostly Scottish, English, and Irish, now there’s an amazing ethnic mix,” she said. Toronto has most definitely grown into a cosmopolitan city. The Danforth is the Greek area, there’s also a Little Italy, a Little India, Little Portugal, and Chinatown. Not to mention a dynamic food scene, shopping, music, arts and all the other ingredients that contributes to a city’s cultural vibrancy. “It’s a great city, it somewhat reminds me of New York now. And then there’s lovely Cabbagetown, which is kind of like, you know…I know the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker,” she said. Greg’s American too, and originally came to Toronto on a research project. “I was disappointed Canada didn’t feel like a foreign country” he said. But two years later he set roots down and established himself as a professor of economics at the University of Toronto. These folks are all retired now.
We moved on and meandered through the neighborhood’s secret lanes, strolled through small Riverdale Park where locals walked their dogs, or just enjoyed the twilight hour on a bench. Across the park is Necropolis Cemetery, a lush and historic resting place. In front of a grand home we glimpsed feet on the top rung of a ladder that disappeared into a glorious tree whose branches spread across all directions of the garden and street. Looking up, we noticed it was a cherry tree rich with bright red drops of fruit. I asked the guy trimming it if they were edible. Then I heard a snap and he handed us a two-foot long stem, loaded with cherries. We enjoyed the sweet and juicy offering all the way home.
With the heavy heat came heavy thunderstorms. My flight was canceled and I had to spend another day with family, but it was all good.
Stay tuned for more on things to see and do in Toronto.