Anyone connected to the film industry will tell you that the Toronto International Film Festival is the best film festival in the world. What they fail to mention is that it's also the perfect attraction for a lively vacation.
TIFF leads the pack for three key reasons. First, selection: Their programmers present the world's best films. Second, timing: Distribution companies release Oscar-caliber films in the fall for awards consideration. Third, location: The 36-year-old, public-friendly festival infuses the entire multi-cultural city with verve for 10 exciting days every September. If you love urban meccas, lively tourist sites, fine dining and top-notch movies too, TIFF gives you a good reason to visit Toronto.
The provincial capital of Ontario, with a population of 2.5 million people from more than 200 distinct ethnic origins, is the largest city in Canada. It sits on the western tip of Lake Ontario and was founded in the late 18th century as the Town of York when the British monarchy bought the land from the Mississauga of the New Credit First Nation. Today, Toronto is a sprawling metropolis of tall buildings, historic brownstones and suburbs. It's a financial, culinary and cultural hub.
Most of the festivities take place in downtown Toronto, where luxury condos are being built next to office buildings, performing arts centers, museums and tony restaurants. Citizens, who are Native Americans or people with heritages from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Europe and the Middle East, walk the streets with a cool, easygoing, cosmopolitan vibe that is simply exhilarating.
TIFF, under the guidance of co-directors Noah Cowan, Piers Handling and Cameron Bailey, built the new TIFF Bell Lightbox building at 350 King St. West, a shimmering glass-and-steel city-block sized five-story complex, in 2010. It has a three-story public atrium, five public cinemas, two galleries, three learning studios, a center for students and scholars, a bistro, a restaurant and a lounge. This cinema arts building is unlike any other in the world and provides a home for the festival, a haven for film professionals, educators, fans and year-round programming.
Torontonians love film so much they take their vacations during the festival to see films. TIFF programs include gala premieres (e.g. Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt), works by veteran filmmakers (Coppola, Almodovar), documentaries, foreign films, midnight genre films -- the gamut. Films are shown at various venues, in a 5- to 10-block radius. Tickets are easy to score online and there is always a rush line at each screening for those who prefer an impromptu schedule.
Stand in any screening line and you will hear people from all over the world talk about movies with great savvy and affection. At each public screening, directors and actors (George Clooney, Freida Pinto, Terrence Howard) walk the red carpet, introduce their films and hang around for Q & As after the final credits, making TIFF's movie-watching experience interactive. But high-quality films are just the beginning for this city.
The Sites to See in Downtown Toronto
Put on your walking shoes and the fun begins. The Royal Ontario Museum, at 100 Queen's Park, founded in 1912 and one of the world's leading museums of world culture and natural history, exhibits more than six million treasures in forty galleries, with exciting shows like Bollywood Cinema Showcards: Indian Film Art From the 1950s to the 1980s with portraits of the greatest Bollywood celebrities and award-winning Indian films.
The communications and observation CN Tower defines Toronto's skyline as its needlepoint architecture rises 1,815 feet into the sky. Dubbed one of the Seven Wonders of the World by the American Society of Civil Engineers, this hollow, concrete, oatmeal-colored, hexagonal pillar is crowned by a metal broadcast antenna that emits TV and radio signals.
If you're looking for an extreme urban adventure, for $175 you can get tethered to the tower and walk around the edge of the roof of the CN Tower's restaurant, which is 1,168 feet above the ground! It's a 20- to 30-minute outdoor walk that gives you bragging rights and membership in the lofty EdgeWalkers club, whose members get a keepsake video, photos and a certificate of achievement. Those who aren't so adventurous can try dinner and a panoramic city view indoors, at the Tower's 360 Restaurant, which has an eye-catching glass-bottom floor and a motion theater ride. Snack on the hot whiskey mustard crusted Quebec pork tenderloin.
Arguably the most surprising and appealing tourist attraction are the Toronto Islands. This 570-acre string of small islands (a former peninsula) is about two miles off shore in Lake Ontario. Back in the 1800s, Toronto's wealthiest gentry built summer homes here. The islands became a mini Las Vegas during Prohibition in the '20s. A movie theater, bowling alley and hotels were destroyed by hurricane Hazel in the '50s, and the land later became national park land with some residences. Canadian geese, deer and mink roam on some of the isles.
Ward's Island and Island Park were developed as resort communities. Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run at a baseball stadium here, originally built in the early 1900s. These days you can take a sightseeing boat ride -- you'll get the best view of the Toronto skyline through the glass ceiling -- to these car-free islands where locals and visitors alike dine at outdoor cafes, sunbathe on beaches (including a nude beach), and see fountains, a baseball field and the Bill Bishop Toronto City Airport. Rent a bike for $7 per hour and take a tour.
Other attractions of note include the Art Gallery of Ontario, Bata Shoe Museum, Casa Loma, Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art and Ontario Place.
You don't have to venture out of the Bell Lightbox building for a tasty lunch: Dine at Luma on global and Canadian artisanal cuisine and try the roasted halibut with poached duck egg, asparagus and maitake mushrooms with champagne sauce. The trendy Ultra Supper Club, at 314 Queen St. West, serves 10-course dinners with tasty beef carpaccio appetizers, a mango and chili glazed salmon entrée with crispy rice and vanilla panna cotta for dessert. An ultra-hip DJ spins as you eat -- and tap your feet to the beat.
Breakfast at Arriba Restaurant in the Renaissance Hotel at the dome-shaped Rogers Centre stadium includes a bird's-eye-view of the multi-purpose field where the Toronto Blue Jays play. At a night game, if the Jays hit the ball hard enough over left field, it could hit your window. Theoretically.
The mystical, chic, candle- and torch-lit atmosphere at the Asian Fusion restaurant Spice Route, at 499 King St. West, is as spectacular as the crispy orange beef dish, with crispy wantons, spicy orange peel and garlic glaze, and the signature spiked cold teas. Add a 3,000-square-foot patio and no wonder the trendy crowds flock here.
At the popular Mengrai Gourmet Thai, at 82 Ontario St., fresh herbs and special spices inspire every creation by avant-garde Thai chef Sasi. Morning Glory, a crispy lightly battered Thai spinach is topped with egg and mouth-melting sweet chili-tamarind palm sugar drizzle, is a signature dish; it's reminiscent of tempura, only tastier. Samuel L. Jackson raves about the crispy beef with cashew sauce, field greens, onion and soy garlic basil. The $39 prix fixe dinners are a steal in this intimate eatery that looks like someone's cozy living room.
A Place to Stay
The Westin Harbour Castle, Toronto sits on the banks of Lake Ontario, sporting spectacular views of the city, lake and Toronto Islands. As the city vibrates, the Westin offers a quiet, vacation retreat: swimming pool, tennis court, spa, restaurants and other resort amenities in a city hotel, with views of boats sailing in and out of the harbor.
Come to Toronto for the films (besides TIFF, the city host 75 other film festivals), but stay for the sites, restaurants, culture, people and an unforgettable vacation.
Visit travel writer Dwight Brown at www.DwightBrownInk.com.