Travel: Scots leave their mark on Toronto

A mixture of modern and Victorian architecture features throughout Toronto. Picture: Esme Allen
A mixture of modern and Victorian architecture features throughout Toronto. Picture: Esme Allen
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With the launch of direct flights from Edinburgh to the cosmopolitan Canadian city of Toronto this summer, Esme Allen takes a look at what travellers from Scotland can expect to find across the Atlantic

THE launch of Air Canada’s new Air Canada Rouge route on 3 July, taking passengers direct from Edinburgh to Toronto, means there has never been a better opportunity to discover what Canada’s largest city has to offer.

As a first time visitor to North America it does take some time to get used to the fact that the country’s ‘historic’ buildings are not much older than Edinburgh’s tenement blocks and that it is modern glass sky scrappers that define the city’s skyline.

Yet one of the city’s best known historical buildings, Casa Loma, is a must-see.

Built by the hugely rich and influential industrialist Sir Henry Pellatt, this sprawling monument to New World capitalism and optimism, stands tall on the hills above Toronto.

Sir Henry’s father had arrived from Scotland and made his fortune in the burgeoning finance sector. The design of the towering 100-room palatial building was based among other things, on the design of Scottish castles.

Another nod to his Scottish ancestry can be found in a copy of the Stone of Destiny which sits in the Great Hall.

There has even been some discussion as to whether Sir Henry had actually tracked down the ‘real’ Stone of Destiny with the one left in Britain a fake used to trick the English.

The story of the castle and the life of its owner is what make Casa Loma so interesting. Sir Henry lost all his money through bad deals, the effects of the First World War and the Depression and died a pauper with his dream-home still incomplete.

Among the many unfinished plans for the house, the swimming pool is a concrete hole in the ground which sits next to framed artists’ drawings of what was meant to be.

Next door to Casa Loma is Spadina House, although more modest in size, it is more of a true reflection of the history of Toronto’s high society.

Spadina House stayed in the ownership of the Austin family for more than 100 years and it has been left as if the family still live there, even down to the family’s cutlery in the kitchen drawers.

The Ontario Heritage Foundation, which now owns the house, are marketing it as Canada answer to Downton Abbey - which says something of the success of the series in Canada. The servant’s quarters have been recently opened and work is being done to restore them.

It is said that Toronto is the cultural capital of Canada. The city can certainly boast many cultural landmarks including the recently opened glitzy Ballet and Opera House and the marvellous Royal Ontario Museum and Art Gallery of Ontario.

The city also hosts the world renowned Film and Literary festivals. Surprisingly the Art Gallery of Ontario also has the honour of housing the world’s largest collection of works by Yorkshire-born sculpture Henry Moore. The Royal Ontario Museum has plenty to keep children entertained and has fascinating historical objects from Canada’s indigenous people, such as children’s fur skinned moccasins and dug out canoes .

The city’s obvious appreciation of sculptures is something you notice soon after strolling around the streets. This is due to the requirement of architects to put one per cent of the total construction cost of a building into providing the city with a piece of street art.

Another appeal of Toronto as you wander the streets is to explore the different ethnic areas of the city. With a huge influx of immigrants from China, Greece, Portugal, Italy, Jamaica and India, especially over the past 30 years or so, the city has evolved into areas which reflect these cultures. In fact, the UN declared Toronto one of the most multicultural cities in the world.

The most obvious of these sectors is Chinatown, with bustling markets and shops and restaurants covered in gold and yellow signs.

Behind Chinatown can be found a real gem of a place. Kensington market is a bohemian mish mash of tattoo parlours, furniture bazaars, food specialists and clothes shops ,all housed along narrow, old streets.

However if you are a true foodie, the place to head for is St Lawrence Market, a world renowned emporium, selling all manner of everyday and artisan food stuffs. The Distillery District is a relatively new attraction and is part of the city’s waterfront regeneration project. These wonderfully restored historic buildings now house independent shops, art galleries and smart restaurants.

Getting round Toronto seems pretty easy either on foot, underground or using the original streetcars and you can buy day passes to make it even easier.

Leaving Toronto, I headed for Canada’s most popular tourist attraction, Niagara Falls. Once a top destination for honeymooners, Oscar Wilde once described it as ‘the bride’s second great disappointment’.

The falls themselves are certainly a dramatic and awe inspiring sight but with millions of visitors every year the surrounding area certainly has the appeal of Blackpool and Las Vegas with towering hotels, casinos and tacky tourist attractions.

Once away from Niagara town you can head to the picturesque Niagara on the Lake with its clapboard houses and quaint, shop-lined streets. It is in stark contrast with the falls. From here you can have a tour on a horse and cart, visit a nearby fort to find out more about the history of the area or visit one of the numerous local wineries.

I hadn’t realised that Canada was a wine producing country but when I discovered that Niagara is on the same latitude as Bordeaux, it made sense. My visit to the Inniskillin winery, which is famous for its ice wine, was certainly an education, not only about wine but how different types of food affect the taste of the wine.

Ice wine, is made by pressing the grapes while they are still frozen and with one grape producing only one drop of wine, it is very sweet and intense. You can book a tasting session and their table wines, along with a three-course meal.

Toronto and Niagara are only a small part of Ontario and with more time you could fully explore the areas lakes, scenery and wild life.