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Photo by: Stephen Leon

Inside Toronto
Cold weather won’t stop you from enjoying this bustling Canadian city

By Stephen Leon

For one delirious moment I was Shackleton, determined to lead my men to the center of Antarctica in defiance of the bitter cold and whipping wind. Onward I trudged, trying to ignore the icy blasts that froze my cheeks and made the very act of taking a breath seem like a test of will. My men—well, actually, my boys—looked miserable, but there was no turning back, so I gripped my fingers more tightly around the handle of the stroller, and pressed on toward my goal . . .

When I told my family that Toronto’s Casa Loma was easy to reach by subway, what I meant was, hey, it’s only three blocks from the station, how hard could that be? Here’s how hard: It was below zero and windy (see above), and the last 50 yards to Casa Loma consist of a steep uphill climb that, in the bleak midwinter, is better left to your transmission. Yes, you read that correctly: I, champion of mass transit, now sheepishly admit that when the mercury dips that low, you’re better off visiting Casa Loma by car. (I also sheepishly admit that I’ve never learned how to translate the Celsius-only Canadian forecasts into what that’s gonna make my ears feel like.)

We did make it up that hill, and into the grand old “medieval” castle built from 1911-1914 for Toronto industrialist and financier Sir Henry Pellatt and his wife, who lived there for less than 10 years before his extravagance and failing businesses forced him to sell it to the city. I left my wife and three young boys to explore the castle’s opulent and fascinating rooms and furniture while I returned by subway to the hotel to fetch the car, lest I expose them to such an uncomfortable walk again.

The experience drove home two points: (1) that visiting a northern city in winter requires some adjustment to account for the cold, and (2) that Toronto still has plenty to do and see even when the weather outside is frightening. Probably the biggest disappointment of our four-night visit there last weekend was that the cold and intermittent light snow kept us from exploring neighborhoods on foot to the extent that we had planned. We knew that we would not be going to the islands (the city’s wonderful park across the harbor) or the zoo, attractions better left to warmer weather. But we were planning to stroll through Greektown, Chinatown, Little Italy, Cabbagetown (a pleasant neighborhood of colorful Victorian houses probably so-named because late-19th-century Irish immigrants planted cabbages in their front gardens), upscale Yorkville, and bustling, heavily ethnic and somewhat chaotic Kensington Market.

In sunny, 25-degree weather we would have been able to do so, but alas, on all three of our full days, it was considerably colder and often snowy. So our attempts to walk neighborhoods were aborted, as in Little Italy, where we dashed into the first sympathetic-looking neighborhood eatery we could find [see accompanying story on Toronto dining]. The day we saw Casa Loma, we did drive through a couple of neighborhoods: Kensington Market—a several-block extravaganza of outdoor vendors selling food, clothing, wares, you-name-it, and they were out there in spite of the weather, god bless ’em—and West Queen West (Queen Street West, west of Bathurst), once primarily a garment/fabric district that now also boasts block after block of boho clothing stores, bookstores, cafes and the like. In slightly better weather, I highly recommend this street to the urban-hipster traveler looking for interesting streetlife day or night.

Casa Loma’s imposing hill notwithstanding, the subways and streetcars offer a great way to get around the city in winter, as most attractions downtown and in the immediate surrounding neighborhoods are near a stop. Toronto’s main subway line forms a U with its main train depot, Union Station, at the base, and parallel lines running north-south a few blocks apart up Yonge and University streets. Uptown a bit, these are crossed by the east-west Bloor subway line, but throughout downtown, streetcars run on east-west to complete the grid. Furthermore, there is an “underground city” connecting a large swath of downtown—what seems like miles of malls and food courts and subway stations and tunnels to give you a break from the elements. While obviously not as interesting as the city above, the underground city does make a long day of sightseeing, dining, shopping, etc. a bit easier by allowing you to “cheat” and make some of your transitions underground. For example, at times we took advantage of the fact that Eaton Centre—a mammoth indoor shopping mall—a Marché franchise where we ate breakfast twice, the Union Station subway stop, and the Hockey Hall of Fame are all connected.

Speaking of the Hockey Hall of Fame, it’s a must if you have any fans in the family—as we do—and kids especially marvel at everything from the ancient skates and pads to the replica of the Montreal Canadiens’ locker room to the Stanley Cup itself (sometimes the real one is there; sometimes a replica). Entering from the underground mall gives part of the Hall an odd resemblance to a mall store itself, but there’s plenty of fascinating memorabilia, and the upstairs shrine—a former bank—is a gorgeous room with stained-glass windows. And, of course, the Cup, which is the stuff of dreams if there’s an ounce of Canadian in you.

As I said, we did not visit the islands or the zoo this time, nor did we make it to the Ontario Science Centre; but we highly recommend all three from previous visits. This time, the highlights were two museums we had never visited before: the grand Royal Ontario Museum and the surprisingly rich Art Gallery of Ontario. In addition to a small but worthy collection of famous artists such as Rembrandt, Degas, Picasso and Rothko, the AGO features large collections of Canadian and Inuit art and hundreds of pieces by British sculptor and artist Henry Moore. And the Grange House behind the main galleries, once the museum itself, and earlier, the home of Toronto’s mayor—is a must-see itself, full of fascinating period details (and the original basement kitchen, where they make and serve bread). The ROM is more massive, with almost too many highlights to list, although our favorites included the impressive dinosaur collection, large rooms full of Greek, Egyptian and Islamic art and objects, and displays of textiles, weapons and musical instruments. The museum is under construction but still open; when completed, besides expanded gallery space, it will include a direct subway connection (although having to come up from the subway stop allowed us to explore a bit of the stately University of Toronto—another foray that was cut short by impending frostbite).

By the way, if you have kids, take note: the Delta Chelsea Hotel, where we stayed, features family-oriented suites complete with kitchen and bunk beds for the little ones; it also has a large children’s play area, pool and four-story corkscrew slide. Needless to say, it was a required activity every day.

So, with world-class museums, shopping and restaurants [see accompanying story], along with plenty of other attractions I haven’t mentioned (I’ve still never been to the top of the CN tower, and we never did ice skate at City Hall, as we had hoped), there’s plenty to do and see in Toronto in winter, even if it’s cold outside. And if you do go (say, for Toronto’s upcoming WinterCity Festival—see sidebar), it may not be as cold as it was last weekend. Toronto has more snow days than Albany, but virtually the same average temperatures—so come February, those may moderate a bit. If you do go, and the temperature is, say, a balmy 25, I guarantee you’ll be fine taking the subway to Casa Loma.

City of Plenty

A foodie’s tour of Toronto

Perhaps the most exciting thing about Toronto is the abundance of choices, particularly when it comes to food. Just about any international cuisine can be found here, which can be a little daunting, but, for foodies and the brave of heart, this just translates to sheer heaven.

Traveling with kids in the dead of a brutal winter can be tricky; you’re less inclined to explore neighborhoods and examine menus, and more likely to take fate in your own hands by walking into the nearest trattoria or corner luncheonette you see. We were determined to try a variety of cuisines, though, so, with some help from the hotel concierge and through our own research, we chose Bangkok Thai for the first night. As is the case with the Albany namesake establishment, this is a place whose end experience is greater than the sum of its parts. A narrow, undistinguished room tucked into an unassuming corner of downtown, it had a musty carpet and minimal gilt oriental gewgaws on the wall. But the table linens were beautifully woven and colorful, and the aromas coming from the kitchen were oh-so-inviting. The spring rolls are a little pasty, but everything else—from the curries to the satays to the ultra-light shrimp rolls—is satisfying and evidences an experienced hand at balancing complex flavors and textures.

On another day we stumbled, frozen and zombielike, through the streets of Little Italy, a place where, normally, we’d spend a long time searching for the perfect biscotti, canolli or pasta. But on this day, we drew our breaths, hoped for the best and entered Cafe Diplomatico, a bright corner spot that had the feel of having been a neighborhood haunt for ages. There were other cafes in the neighborhood, some of which appeared more modern, featuring more of a Cal-Ital style than Old World, interspersed with a motley assortment of shops touting leather goods, newspapers, electronics and antiques.

Long tables made it easy to have a convivial lunch—as several regulars appeared to be doing—and the aroma of espresso wrapped around us like a comforting blanket. Antipasto dishes were hit-or-miss, but the minestrone soup was a veritable “I remember mama,” provided, of course, that your mama was an outstanding Italian cook, adept at turning chunks of carrots, potato and kale and bits of pasta into a phenomenal bowl worth savoring. Another must-try would be the penne rose, an astoundingly satisfying dish of creamy tomato sauce over pasta.

Another night we took the kids to Greektown. A decently kept-up neighborhood of shops and residences, Greektown’s main attraction is, of course, its restaurants. Later, we realized just what a variety of options were to be found, from the Greek diner sort of place to the more nouveau Greek, bistro-type place ripe for more “serious” dining. Again, on this trip, the cold prevented us from exploring to the extent we normally would, but our destination, Pappas, may well have made our cut at any rate. A large family-run establishment, Pappas is known for its homemade pizzas, prepared in a brick oven, using a variety of fresh ingredients. A huge assortment of hot and cold appetizers included phenomenal stuffed grape leaves, olives and dips. Main courses are pretty standard Greek diner—barbecued meat with lots of starch on the side. The absolute best thing—that which we could have eaten all night, with nothing else save maybe some wine—was the saganaki, kasseri cheese which is sautéed in butter, then lit with brandy before finally being doused with freshly squeezed lemon juice. The salty, sharp taste of the cheese, combined with its springy feel against your tongue, is addictive.

Toronto also is noted for its first-class restaurants, and we were lucky to be able to go, sans children, to two such places. Oro, nestled amidst a quiet row of upscale dining spots, taverns and apartment rowhouses at 45 Elm Street, offers a beguiling menu featuring dishes that range from Mediterranean in flavor (mosaic of grilled calamari and cured sardines) to Asian (cardamom and pistachio-crusted Atlantic salmon) to Canadian/New World (coffee-dusted bison tenderloin and braised pork belly). Try the curried Prince Edward Island mussels, outlandishly tasty and pristine and resting in a bath of lemongrass-cardamom oil that could just as easily be drunk straight from the bowl, as used to dip pieces of freshly baked bread into. Entrees defy easy categorizing: seared bluefin tuna, served with crisp boudin noir, baby yellow beets and Peruvian potato puree in a maple-soy emulsion, for instance.

Another night we went to Avalon, a restaurant that appears on nearly everybody’s short list of places to dine in Toronto. Chef Chris McDonald blends Mediterranean and French influences with, as much as possible, fresh, native ingredients for a result that is cooking—and eating—at its best. Royal miyagi oysters, served with a champagne mignonette and a tiny bottle of chipotle salsa, were pearlescent gray in color, and baby tender in texture. McDonald’s way with meats, including lightly smoked duck breast and, especially, organ meats like sweetbreads and calves brain, makes one realize the folly of sticking only to loin or breast cuts. Both Oro and Avalon had extensive, well-considered wine lists and outstanding cheese selections, both of which made dessert quite out of the question.

In the car on the way back home, my husband asked each of us to name the one thing we had done in Toronto that we would definitely want to do again. “Royal Ontario Museum!” “The corkscrew slide at the hotel!” “Hockey Hall of Fame!” My choice, of course, involved food. “Grano,” I said, settling into a mouth-watering revelry of this Italian eatery in the Corso Italia section of the city. Corso Italia is a bustling, tidy neighborhood in which you will find fashion and leather boutiques, a nice selection of Italian groceries, real estate offices and cafes, the most notable being the orangish stucco facade that is Grano.

Three long rooms, dark wood walls and tables, terra-cotta-colored ceramic plates and snowy napkins, vibrant posters and prints on the wall, and, the piece de la resistance, a glass display case featuring a score of freshly concocted antipasti dishes, including roasted fennel, sautéed broccoli rabe, eggplant parmesan, rolled eggplant stuffed with golden raisins, pine nuts and celery capanata, rolled cheese fritters with flecks of fresh spinach, roasted peppers and cured olives. We drank copious amounts of Chianti. We overindulged on freshly made, rustic pastas featuring rapini, tomatoes and slivers of veal sausage, or, chopped wild mushrooms, or, simply, roasted tomatoes. We left, reluctantly, as we left Toronto, vowing to return, in warmer weather when, perhaps, we can savor Grano’s luxurious tastes and aromas in one of its outdoor piazzas and feel we are closer to Italy than we ever could have imagined.

—Laura Leon

Photo by: Kathryn Lurie

I Want to Be a Part of It
When all the world is cold, the lights of New York will warm you

By Kathryn Lurie

The ice-cold midwinter air in Albany may be refreshing for some positive-thinking, winter-appreciating people, but it makes me want to crawl out of my skin. I get extremely restless during the lingering winter months, and I long to get the hell outta Dodge. With many interesting cities close enough to travel to without much difficulty, it’s possible (and recommended) to take day or weekend trips to provide you with the livening-up you (if you’re like me) may need to make it through the rest of the winter.

New York City, or more specifically in my case, Manhattan, calls to me more often than other cities within drivable distance from Albany, probably because I am more familiar with it than any of the others. Over the years, Manhattan has been my number-one destination for short, invigorating getaways. My friends and I have found every excuse in the book to make the trip—whether it was to check out a taping of a favorite late-night talk show, or that we simply had a hankering for a New York bagel (and we did—often), Manhattan was never too far away. I especially appreciate it in the wintertime, because since the city is always relentlessly bustling with people rushing here and there, it’s as though the sheer energy emitted by the millions of people scurrying about raises the temperature. To me, it always seems warmer in the city.

For my most recent trip, I joined my grandmother (a New York authority in her own right) for a day in the city that never sleeps. I met her at her home in Morristown, N.J. and we took the train in to Penn Station. It was cold, although not as cold as it had been the previous few days, so we decided to grab a cab to take us to 57th Street, an ideal street on which to go gallery hopping. The galleries are situated pretty close together, so you don’t even have room to get cold when trekking between them. It’s always a delight to discover a new favorite artist at small galleries like these—you feel as though it’s a secret that you alone stumbled upon, and you inflate with pride for your open-mindedness and worldliness. Some cool galleries to check out on 57th Street are the Hammer Galleries (where currently you’ll find a pleasant mix of paintings depicting everything from war to oranges to views of 57th Street), the Laurence Miller Gallery (which specializes in American photography), and the Marlborough Gallery (where you can find works by international modernists). Other gallery hotspots in Manhattan are in Chelsea, Soho, Tribeca and the Upper East Side, to name just a few.

After we wore ourselves out on 57th Street, we walked a few blocks toward the theater district to reenergize with a hefty lunch at the Stage Deli. Yes, it may sound a bit touristy, but man, do they have some great old-fashioned Jewish grub. From the blintzes to the pastrami sandwiches, it’s comfort food at its best. The epitome of the perfect New York meal can absolutely be had at the Stage Deli. Part of the charm of the place is how they practically sit you on top of the table next you, the result of which feels like you’re eating in a chaotic cafeteria. But that doesn’t get in the way of being able to relax and take in the energy and warmth of the cozy restaurant. Our waiter was old as hell and perfectly charming. And nothing is better than their old-fashioned hot cocoa with whipped cream on top to warm your insides from being out in the cold.

Full to the brim, my grandmother and I strolled farther south, and stopped at one of the ubiquitous Starbucks for dessert and tea before ducking into Broadway’s Palace Theater to see the matinee production of Aida, the Disney version of the old opera, complete with music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice. One of my favorite things to do in the city is catch a show. This is possible for even those who don’t think ahead and order tickets. In the middle of the theater district sits a huge booth where you can go and wait in line (and try not to freeze to death) to get tickets for shows that are playing that day or later that night. And usually, coming by tickets in this manner works to your advantage, since they tend to cost half as much.

After the show, it was getting dark out, but we still wanted to head uptown to hit Zabar’s, the quintessential New York City marketplace. Located at Broadway and 80th Street, this market has the freshest fish, meat, bread, cheese, and anything else your heart desires (if your heart has good taste). The first floor of this unique marketplace is chock-full of this fresh food, and the second floor is overflowing with high-quality, reasonably priced kitchen tools and gadgets. We shopped for a while, and then we were off down the street to Citarella, a specialty seafood shop and butcher/charcuterie, where we shopped some more. These special food shops are ideal to visit if you want the freshest and widest selection of specialty foods that aren’t always available upstate, such as Marrons Glaces and white truffles.

The list of reasons to visit New York City in the wintertime is endless. Maybe ice-skating at the Rockefeller Center ice rink or seeing the Nutcracker at Lincoln Center are the first things that pop into your mind when considering a winter trip to New York, but don’t let those stereotypical wintery activities limit you. From gallery hopping to dining at your favorite midtown haunt, New York City is the perfect place to visit for some midwinter rejuvenation.

Don’t Hibernate—Celebrate
A roundup of upcoming winter festivals in the Northeast

What: WinterCity Festival
Where: Toronto, Ontario
When: Jan. 30-Feb. 12

Events/Attractions: This festival’s opening celebration will include a bungee performance, trampoline artists and fire performers against the backdrop of Toronto’s City Hall towers. Winterlicious is its culinary celebration, and involves a list of restaurants that offer discounted prix-fixe menus, events hosted by some of Toronto’s restaurants, and an outdoor winter barbecue. The festival also features its Wild On Winter Series, which has six outdoor shows with musical fireworks and airborne theatrics, as well as plenty of music, dance, theater, children’s events, etc. For more information, visit

What: Ottawa Winterlude
Where: Ottawa, Ontario
When: Weekends only between Feb. 6-Feb. 22

Events/Attractions: This festival features ice sculptures, world-class figure-skating shows, skiing and sledding down the Rideau Canal Skateway, musical productions at the Casino du Lac-Leamy Theatre, and a playground made entirely of snow. Trademark mascots the Ice Hogs make their annual trek to the festival too.

What: Coldrush
Where: Rochester
When: January-March

Events/Attractions: More than 30 music and dance companies and galleries feature local and out-of-town artists, participatory mystery dinners, comedies, Broadway productions, and cabaret shows. On Feb. 8 the Lakeside Winter Celebration takes place at Lake Ontario Beach Park and includes a full day of outdoor winter activities, a “Polar Plunge” into Lake Ontario, many family-oriented activities, and Olympic ice carvers creating a giant ice sculpture.

What: Olmsted Winterfest
Where: Buffalo
When: Feb. 13-16

Events/Attractions: This winter celebration takes place at Delaware Park and is a free event for families with food, music, children’s activities, sports and live animals.

What: Montreal High Lights
Where: Montreal, Quebec
When: Feb. 19-Feb. 29

Events/Attractions: The festival begins with the Celebration of Light, which includes dance parties and a photo exhibit. A performing-arts portion follows, with ballet, music, theater, and a circus. The third part of the festival is the Dining Experience, an event where chefs from around the world prepare festival fare. This year it will end with the Montreal All-Nighter, starting on the evening of Saturday, Feb. 28, and continuing until the morning with storytelling, poetry, humor, jazz and techno music, visits to museums, ice skating, painting, movies, theater, and live radio.

What: Carnaval de Quebec
Where: Quebec City, Quebec
When: Jan. 30-Feb. 15

Events/Attractions: This celebration includes the International Ice Sculpture event, horse-drawn sleigh rides, an ice maze, and the festival’s signature Bonhomme Ice Palace. The Montcalm Market features actors in historic garb, bands performing on an outdoor stage, and themed skating nights. The Children’s Village features a Winter Adventure Trail, tobogganing, and a heated marquee with games and shows. This coming year, the Quebec Winter Carnival will be celebrating its 50th anniversary, and special exhibits and presentations commemorating its history will be on display.

What: Burlington Winter Festival
Where: Burlington, Vt.
When: Feb. 13-Feb. 15

Events/Attractions: This weekend celebration of winter includes Vermont’s own sanctioned snow sculpture competition, a snowshoe obstacle course, and an outdoor playground.

What: Syracuse Winterfest
Where: Syracuse
When: Feb. 12-22

Events/Attractions: This festival includes cook-offs, wine and beer tastings, ice carving, ice skating, carnivals, live music and dancing. It also will feature its traditional human-dog-sled race, culinary cruise and medallion hunt.

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