Toronto – top 8 first impressions

“Instead of trying to make your life perfect, give yourself the freedom to make it an adventure, and go ever upward.” ~Drew Houston

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Nathan Phillips Square

It’s been a while since I’ve put finger to keyboard and shared a piece of my writing with the general public, but, after a bit of a break, I’m back and in a brand new city. Last fall my partner, Zeke and I made the very difficult decision for him to take a work contract in Toronto. We are very established in Vancouver, our lives, friends and families are there and as climbers, we love our mountains and boulders there oh so much. Leaving one of the nature meccas of Canada for the concrete jungle which is Toronto did not appeal to us in the least. But, sometimes life has other plans for you. Sometimes you have to take big risks and it’s never easy and it’s always scary.

Zeke went ahead of me and spent five weeks in Toronto before I joined him there after Christmas so he had a little bit of a feel for the city, but this past month we’ve really started to experience it together in a whole new way, so I wanted to share my first impressions of Canada’s largest city and how we’ve fared so far.

Here are my top 8 first impressions of the ‘Ront, as his oldest daughter calls it.

  1. People are really friendly here. Like Canadian friendly, eh?

On the West Coast there is a serious bias against Toronto. We all like to gloat over our “warm” winters, our gorgeous scenery and just being the cool, chill ones on the hippy West Coast. We think of Torontonians as snobs who are caught up in the hustle and bustle of big city life and have disdain for everyone else. Well, I’m here to tell you – guys, we were WRONG. Torontonians are REALLY nice. Like in a “how can they be this nice and live in a big city?” kind of way. I’m constantly surprised by the general politeness and manners and geniality of 95% of people I encounter throughout my days. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a big city and with that comes the general edge and intensity of living in such close quarters with millions of people. I’m not saying everyone on the street will stop and say hello (and that would freak me out anyway), but honestly, I feel like it is possible here. Vancouverites – we have a thing or two to learn from these guys. I love Vancouver folks, I’m from there for goodness sake, but man, people can be really rude and cold back home sometimes. It often catches me off guard. Once you get to Vancouver Island things chill out, but in Vancouver there is a coldness that I don’t fully understand, and it has nothing to do with the climate.

So, it was a delightful surprise when just yesterday on the subway here a pregnant woman got on the train and immediately three people jumped out of their seats to give her a seat. In Vancouver I’ve seen a pregnant woman with two kids in her arms get on a bus and no one moved an inch. Not sure what gives, but I’m giving Toronto a big old Canadian pat on the back for proving that the friendly Canadian stereotype really does exist for a reason. Also, no one in Toronto thinks badly of Vancouverites (as far as I know) – they only have good things to say about Vancouver and the West Coast when they do mention it at all. So, there you go. These are my experiences anyway as a Caucasian 30-something woman.

2. Transit here is pretty bad for such a big city. 

 

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Toronto’s streetcars – you get on and off in the middle of the street. So bizarre and a little scary. It’s amazing more people aren’t hit by cars, but it’s likely due to the fact that traffic crawls in Toronto.

Wow – this one blows me away. Vancouver you beat Toronto here, and I never thought I’d say that. Canada’s largest city has a population of 2.8 million (over 5 million if you include Greater Toronto), making it the 5th most populous city in North America and yet it only has two subway lines. That’s right – two. Um? Am I missing something here? When the place you’re going is on the subway line and the subway isn’t delayed or broken (which, so far is pretty rare) then it’s great, but the moment one of the subway lines shuts down, or is delayed – you’re kind of stuck. Toronto also has trams and buses of course, but the trams move at about the same speed as someone walking. One of the things that makes me laugh the most is when I Google travel times across the city and the walking time ends up being maybe five minutes slower than transit, tops. This happens all the time. So, I have been walking the city a lot, which is a great way to discover new cities anyways and I would recommend walking as much as you can here. Don’t trust transit. And I know I’m not just being a whiny West Coaster (who has also lived in Hamburg, Germany where transit is beyond anything anyone in North American can even imagine) here because I’ve talked to Torontonians who say this is the biggest embarrassment to Toronto and something the city has been working on for decades. I wonder when it will change? If ever?

 

3. Toronto winter is pretty warm. At least so far.

 

I was preparing myself for a -30, oh my god I want to die Canadian winter here. I bought a super warm wool coat, spent a million years (it felt like anyway) finding good boots, bought mittens, asked my family and friends for scarves and toques and everything you can think of. Zeke and I were terrified of how cold it was going to get. I survived four New Brunswick winters by the skin of my teeth and was not looking forward to that again. But guess what? For the last month the weather has been better than Vancouver winter. As in, it’s been above freezing and has hardly rained for almost a month. We had three cold days, I believe, and when it does get cold here it’s really the wind that’s the worst culprit, but in general, it’s been downright balmy. To the point that I really would like a snow dump. I really would like a day where I feel like a true Canadian. I know, I know….be careful what you wish for. I’ll report back in February on this one folks. I may be eating my words, or not being able to eat them because I’m wearing a balaclava.

 

 

4. Toronto has the best drinking chocolate I have ever tasted in my life.

 


SOMA Chocolatemakers folks. Have you ever had a shot of intense, chili-chocolate goodness that made you feel like all was well with the world and you could suddenly climb a mountain and sing for joy? That’s what SOMA drinking chocolate shots are like. Pure joy. I’ve had to limit myself to one a week now (um, which sometimes ends up being three times). Every day was becoming a bit dangerous for my “mostly healthy” lifestyle. Although if I ever do run a marathon, I’m having 20 drinking chocolates the following week. Check them out: www.somachocolate.com

5. The TIFF is my favourite place in Toronto so far.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zeke and I are both huge film buffs and back home we (along with his parents and often his kids) are regulars at all the cinemas in Vancouver but we particularly love the VIFF (aka the Vancouver International Film Festival/Vancity Theatre.) When Zeke’s company booked our accommodation downtown Toronto we didn’t really know what to expect but were happily surprised to find out that we were a three minute walk from the TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival)/ TIFF Bell Lightbox Cultural Centre. As much as we love the VIFF (and we do – those seats!) it’s hard to compare its one screen and one lounge area to it’s big brother out East. The TIFF in its current location was opened in 2010, has five stories, five screens, a film reference library, galleries, a gift shop, a cafe, workshops, a lovely restaurant (LUMA) on the second floor and an equally lovely lounge right next to the restaurant which is open to the public, and also happens to be my favourite place to write so far. It’s pricey, but since it’s a public space you don’t have to buy anything in order to hang out there. It’s a gorgeous spot and I have to say, it’s pretty freakin’ great (pinching self). And of course the programming at the TIFF is top notch. We arrived just in time to catch some films in Canada’s Top 10 Film Festival and felt lucky to be at two screenings with the directors in house. There is something special about festivals – there is a feeling of sharing experiences with others, appreciating the arts and the work and passion that goes into indie films and having a much more personal connection to the films since the directors are often at the screenings. So that was a pretty special way to start our TIFF experience. We look forward to many more films to come and discovering the film scene and other great indie cinemas in Toronto in general.

 

 

6. There is no nature here. Or anything green. At all.


Yes, I know it’s the middle of winter and yes, I know I’m in a big city, and yes, this is Eastern Canada, but I am missing nature, the mountains, trees , or anything green in a big way right now. Toronto is one giant mass of brick and concrete, skyscrapers, old buildings and just a whole lot of grey. Even getting down to the lakefront isn’t simple and in the middle of winter it’s not even really that appealing. We’ve heard that when it does snow (we’re still waiting…and waiting) you can cross-country ski on Toronto Island, which does sound fun, but so far, nada. So, in desperation yesterday I googled “indoor gardens in Toronto” and luckily found a list: www.blogto.com. We did manage to get out to the Allan Gardens Conservatory on the weekend, which is open seven days a week and is free to the public and it was a lovely little splash of green, flowers and plants. I’ll be sure to report back on the other gardens soon.

7. Toronto has a ping pong night club. And it’s kinda awesome.

 


 

We live just around the corner from SPiN, Toronto’s hipster ping pong nightclub. Yes, I said that right. Apparently the first one was established in New York (I’m guessing Brooklyn) and soon someone had the brilliant idea to open one up in Toronto. Imagine 12,000 square feet filled with balls flying, beer drinkin’, tables a tappin’ and people a laughin’ and that’s pretty much SPiN. We tried it for the first time last week and only booked half an hour, but it was great. You get an individual table, a huge basketful of ping pong balls, and sweepers who come around to collect all the balls so that you….get this…NEVER HAVE TO PICK UP A BALL. Okay, for anyone who has ever played ping pong that is the most annoying part of it, right? It’s worth it to come to SPiN for that reason alone. Of course, with great ball collecting comes a great old price tag and this is no cheap, drop-in community centre price. It’s a night club after all. The prices are as follows:

GENERAL PUBLIC:
$22.12 PER HOUR
$11.06 PER HALF HOUR

WALK-IN RATES AFTER 5PM

GENERAL PUBLIC:
$35.40 PER HOUR
$17.70 PER HALF HOUR

There are also memberships available which make the hourly rates much cheaper and give you all sorts of other perks too, but I’m not sure of the prices. In any case, for a casual ping pong nerd like myself, this place is pretty darn fun. We’ve been told that once the evenings hit it starts to feel like an actual nightclub (I can only imagine trying to clean up the balls after a bunch of drunk people have been playing all night), so if you are a “serious” ping pong player come during the day. We saw kids there too so apparently they are allowed in even though they serve alcohol. Maybe Ontario has different liquor laws? It wouldn’t surprise me.

8. There is an all women spa in Toronto that is my new heaven on earth.

 

Okay, so I said that the TIFF was my favourite place in Toronto, but the only reason it wins out over Body Blitz Spa is because I can’t take Zeke here. And you know, I love movies. I’m telling you if Body Blitz Spa started screening indie films, I may just set up camp and never leave. Oh right, and if they let me dress Zeke as a woman and bring him in.

As a “welcome to Toronto” and “I’m sorry for making you move to Eastern Canada in the middle of winter” Christmas gift, Zeke gave me a gift certificate to Body Blitz Spa which is a women only space with therapeutic waters. There is a large salt pool, a smaller Epsom salt pool, a cold salt water pool, a sauna, a steam room, and full spa services on site. There are two locations in the city but I booked mine for Body Blitz West on Queen Street. You can book time at the spa to just use the waters, but it is quite pricey at $60 a pop. Zeke booked me a 60 minute massage with a registered massage therapist and with that came use of the pools. You can arrive 90 minutes prior to your appointment to enjoy the waters and then I also used them afterwards. The staff were welcoming and professional and they let you know right away that you are in a clothing optional zone and the use of cell phones is strictly prohibited for obvious reasons. The banning of cell phones for privacy had an added bonus of creating a serene, social and relaxed atmosphere in the baths themselves. In terms of the percentage of nudity to clothed (as in bathing suits) I would say it was about 50/50. The main thing was – it didn’t matter and no one cares so do whatever feels good to you.

I was lucky enough to be able to go during a weekday and that’s what I would recommend if you can. When I was leaving the spa at about 4:30 it started to get crazy busy and apparently that’s what it’s like most evenings and weekends. They have a large poster on the wall which tells you the recommended order for the therapeutic waters and I actually suggest following it (although it really doesn’t matter) to get the full effect. I ended up skipping out on the steam room because I couldn’t handle the heat and get claustrophobic, but later my RMT told me that it’s totally doable if you put a cold towel around your face when you’re in there. Next time!

So, as I began the circuit I became more and more relaxed until I’m pretty sure I melted right into the pool after my massage. It was a stressful first couple of weeks in Toronto and a huge adjustment for me and this was just the thing to bring me back to myself. I loved being surrounded by women in a women-friendly environment and the waters were honestly super healing. As I have learned from the extensive physical therapy I have to do in order to be a climber, contrast baths are amazing for healing any kind of injury. The combination of hot then cold opens your blood vessels, allowing more blood to flow to the injured area and thereby increases the speed of healing. I have an on going shoulder problem from climbing and after the incredible massage and water therapy I felt about 50% better. I wish I could afford to go every day and I cannot wait to go back. Oh and did I mention that they have a “juice phone” in the pool area where you can order a smoothie that is then delivered to you minutes later as you relax in the pool? Talk about decadence. It was pretty much the best. I think I glowed for about 24 hours after that experience.

Phew. I hope you’re still with me. Apparently I had quite a lot to say after a month. Now that the blogger ball is rolling (or flying in the air, if you will) again expect many more posts to come. Thanks for the balmy welcome TO. Kristi out.

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