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Oh, Canada!

August 16, 2016

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It’s been more than 20 years since I visited Toronto. The first time I was just here to see a Blue Jays game, so I saw very little of the city other than the CN Tower and the ballpark, which was called the SkyDome back then.

This time, the Blue Jays were out of town, so a ballgame was not an option. We definitely needed to go to the CN Tower observation deck (we’re suckers for observation decks in the sky) and the Hockey Hall of Fame, and we figured we could squeeze in several other sights in the same day. A tour of the Blue Jays’ ballpark, which is now called the Rogers Centre, would make Sam feel a lot better about not seeing an actual game. And when I started researching things to do in Toronto, two things kept coming up everywhere: a castle called Casa Loma, and a bunch of parks. So I added them to our list.

Everything we wanted to see is clustered pretty close together in downtown Toronto except for Casa Loma, so we started there. To say it exceeded our expectations would be a significant understatement.

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The castle was built in the early 1900s to be the dream house of a fabulously wealthy Torontonian named Henry Pellatt and his wife. They lived in it for about 10 years before financial ruin forced them out. For a while after that it was turned into a hotel. More recently it’s been used as a set for a whole bunch of movies, most obviously the X-Men franchise but also such wide-ranging titles as Chicago, Cocktail, The Pacifier, and The Love Guru.

I told Sam beforehand that a bunch of movies were filmed there but I didn’t mention which ones. But as soon as we walked in he recognized it as the Xavier Institute for Gifted Youngsters, and what he enjoyed most about it was recognizing rooms inside and scenery outside that were in the X-Men films. The castle’s Peacock Room, for example is the main hallway for the dorms in the movie, and is the backdrop for several notable scenes.

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Sam was also excited by one of the first signs we saw when we walked into the castle–a sign that directed visitors to the tunnel. A castle is pretty cool by itself, but a castle with a mysterious underground tunnel is much cooler. He insisted that we explore the tunnel before we even saw the rest of the house.

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It turns out that the tunnel is more practical than nefarious. The Pellatts’ stables and a few other ancillary buildings are located a few hundred yards (sorry, metres) north of the castle itself, and a city street runs in between, cutting the property in two. Henry Pellatt petitioned the city to shut down that street, but they refused, so he and his staff had to cross the street to get to the other buildings. To avoid having to spend so much time outside in the bitter Toronto winters, Pellatt put in an 800-foot underground tunnel connecting the buildings. Today the tunnel is decorated with a photo exhibit about Toronto’s hardships throughout history, but back in Pellatt’s day it was supposedly decorated much more vibrantly.

We also particularly liked the study, chiefly because it has two secret doors on either side of the fireplace, one of which leads down to the lower level and the other of which leads up to the bedrooms.

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Here’s Sam standing in one of the secret doorways

 

 

The castle has more than 50 rooms, each one jaw-droppingly ornate and gorgeous. It hosts weddings pretty often, and even more often it’s used as a setting for wedding photos. In fact, we saw two such photo shoots while we were there.

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I loved every room, but Sam got a little tired after 30 or 40, so he found a place to sit and chill while I climbed the many, many staircases up to the castle’s highest tower. On the third floor, an unfinished storage room has a plain staircase that leads up to a round brick room, which in turn contains an iron spiral staircase that goes up and up and up until it finally delivers you to a small, round tower with windows that extraordinary views of the rest of the castle, the surrounding neighborhood, and, really, all of the city.

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I figured we’d spend half an hour to an hour in the castle, but we were there exploring for more than two hours. By the time we left the place was packed, so we were glad we avoided the biggest crowds by going early in the day.

By then it was almost lunch time, so we decided to take advantage of Toronto’s large Jewish population and the resulting large selection of kosher restaurants. We treated ourselves to a decadent feast that was more of a dinner. (I had ribs and Sam had a chicken pot pie.) While we were in the Jewish neighborhood, we did some grocery shopping to restock our cooler with meat and vegetables.

This was about the time that we really fell in love with Toronto. It’s a beautiful city with a great skyline and parks everywhere–really nice ones, with zoos and fountains and stuff, not just grass. The Lake Ontario waterfront is even nicer than Chicago’s Lake Michigan. The weather today was perfection: high 70s with low humidity and a nice breeze. And driving out of downtown to the castle and the Jewish part of town took us through some great neighborhoods. Our favorite was called Forest Hill, with stunning but not oversized houses and of course plenty of nice parks. It’s pretty close to the kosher food, too. So in the fictional scenario where we move to Canada, that’s where we’ll settle.

Meanwhile, all of this tunnel exploring and feasting and shopping put us hours behind schedule. So we cut a few things from our list, including the parks and a historic downtown neighborhood. There was still time, I figured, for the ballpark tour, the observation deck, and the Hockey Hall of Fame.

We got to the Rogers Centre just in time for the 2 p.m. tour. We’ve been on enough ballpark tours that we’ve become connoisseurs, and compared to the others this one ranked as mediocre. As on all ballpark tours, our tour guide gave us lots of interesting detail about the history of the building and why things are the way they are, and took us to the press room, a luxury suite, and then down onto the field.

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But the tour was missing a walk or even peek into the clubhouse, which the best tours include. We didn’t even get to go into the dugout, which is a staple of these tours and was especially inexplicable because the team is out of town which means the dugouts are sitting completely unused. The roof was closed, too, which seemed silly considering the excellent weather, and it made the stadium a bit dark because they don’t keep all the lights on if nobody’s playing baseball. Also (and this is a much more minor thing), our guide was a nerdy kid who clearly isn’t much of a sports fan; she knew all the material, but along the way there were little tells that she doesn’t come to many games, like when she called the outfield wall “the home run wall.”

The ballpark is literally next door to the CN Tower, so I figured we’d need about an hour or so for the observation deck, including waiting in line to get in. I bought tickets online in advance so we could avoid the ticket counter and head straight for the elevators. Little did I know that we’d spend the rest of the day waiting in line for the elevators.

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You know those little signs they have at amusement parks telling you how long the wait is from that point? The CN Tower doesn’t have those. And you can’t see one end of the line from the other, so there was never any way to know how long it’d be. We ended up being online for over an hour and a half. It would’ve been nice to have enough information to evaluate the situation and decide whether we wanted to wait on the line or do anything else the entire rest of the day.

It didn’t help that the person right in front of us smelled horrible, and a few families behind us there was a baby that literally did not stop screaming for a second the entire time. I’m all for letting babies cry it out, but my G-d, an hour and a half? You can punch a baby in the face and it will cry for less than an hour and a half. (I mean, I assume. I’ve never actually punched a baby. But I did fantasize about doing so today.)

We had been having a great day up until this point, but it ground to a halt very quickly. By the time we got to the elevator we were so fed up that we almost didn’t appreciate it. Almost.

 

We did enjoy the observation deck. There’s just something fun about being so high up, looking out onto a tiny little city below you. Sam had fun using our camera’s zoom lens to get close-ups of interesting buildings and sculptures he spotted throughout the city. We also tried to find Casa Loma, but we weren’t able to.

You know what would make the CN Tower a whole lot better, other than a much shorter line? Little signs around the observation deck indicating which notable landmarks you can see from a few different vantage points. I think this is the first major observation tower I’ve ever been to that lacks these signs.

We did have fun, though. And then we had to wait 20 minutes to ride the elevator back down to street level. By the time we got out of there is was almost 6 p.m., which is when the Hockey Hall of Fame closes, so we weren’t able to go.

By that point we were pretty fed up with crowds, so we gave up on Toronto and drove northeast toward tomorrow’s destination. In roughly the amount of time it took us to go up 350 feet to the CN Tower observation deck and come back down, we managed to drive about 180 miles, stop off to grill and eat dinner at a rest stop, and wildly overpay for a tank of gas. (You never really appreciate how cheap gasoline is in the United States until you have to buy it somewhere else. I paid $51 for what would have cost about $30 at home.)

You’d think that our car rides would be pretty boring more than 3,600 miles into our trip, but this one was one of the most fun yet, as we reminisced, shared weird thoughts, and belted all the words to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” when it came on (we even coordinated choreography on the fly).

All in all, Toronto was great, even if we didn’t get to everything we wanted to do. But tomorrow we’ve got a very different kind of day planned. I just hope there won’t be any screaming babies.

 

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