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Toronto on two wheels

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The Beaches neighbourhood in eastern Toronto is a rarity in that homes and not a freeway still line the lakeshore.

The Beaches neighbourhood in eastern Toronto is a rarity: homes, not a freeway, still line the lakeshore.

I can remember the moment Toronto began to win me over. It was at BMO Field, an hour after arriving in the city, in the waning minutes of Toronto FC’s MLS game versus the Columbus Crew.

Losing 1-0, many Toronto fans upped and left when a storm swept in from Lake Ontario. Soaked to the skin, my son and I took advantage of space behind the Columbus goal just as Toronto equalized.

We’d barely finished high-fiving the locals when Toronto scored the winner in injury time, sparking more sodden pandemonium. We saw ourselves on TV highlights that night. Just as well we hadn’t worn our Whitecaps jerseys!

Like many west coasters, I harbored some instinctive disdain for Canada’s biggest city. I’d heard about its swagger, its summer humidity, and, of course, the Maple Leafs. Yet riding the bus full of fans back to the Fairmont Royal York, past the CN Tower and Rogers Centre (aka SkyDome), I was warming to Toronto.

No cyclists were hurt while taking this photo.

No cyclists were hurt while taking this photo.

Some of that big-city swagger must surely have originated in the Fairmont Royal York, once the biggest hotel in the British Empire and still oozing opulence from every one of its 1,600 rooms. The hotel of choice for royalty and rock stars is down to earth enough to grow its own herbs, vegetables and flowers on a rooftop terrace, as well as maintain three beehives.

The hotel will also store your bikes for you, a bonus in a city that’s expanding its bike lane network. With only two days in Toronto, we rented bikes at Segway Ontario, a short tram ride away in the Distillery District. The endless roadworks and construction across downtown made us glad of the two-wheeled escape.

Once home to the Gooderham and Worts Distillery (said to be the world’s largest distillery by the mid-19th century) the Distillery District today is a well preserved pedestrian village. Upmarket stores, bars and restaurants have taken up residence in the red-brick Victorian buildings and Vancouverites might see some similarities with parts of Yaletown and Gastown. The Mill Street Brew Pub is a great spot for local beers and great food – especially when you’re finished bike riding for the day.

The Lower Don Trail, where graffiti is prolific as wildflowers.

The Lower Don Trail, where graffiti is prolific as wildflowers.

We left the Distillery District’s cobblestones behind and headed for Toronto’s Waterfront Trail. The trail is part of a series of bike and pedestrian paths that connect 31 communities along Lake Ontario’s shores. About 450 kilometers of the trail is signposted and the few kilometers we biked transported us to beaches seemingly a million miles removed from downtown Toronto.

Known as The Beaches, this eastern Toronto neighbourhood is a rarity in that homes and not a freeway still line the lakeshore. The feeling of community is palpable at the beach where seniors and toddlers were dancing to a live Cuban salsa band and dozens of beach volleyball games were in progress. Just a week before, Toronto had sweltered in the upper 30s. Now in the mid-20s it seemed that every dog-walker, kite-flyer, roller-blader and cyclist in the city had descended on The Beaches and its boardwalk. Like proper tourists, we dismounted, bought ice creams and watched the world go by.

Toronto’s weather gods weren’t quite so kind the following day. Under leaden skies and with drizzle in the air, we headed inland on the Lower Don Trail. Whereas much of the cycling in Toronto is on routes shared with cars, the Lower Don Trail is blissfully free of vehicle traffic. More than that, it’s a slice of downtown Toronto far removed from the city’s more popular tourist attractions.

The Lower Don River is only about eight kilometers long but it flows through one of the most densely populated communities in Canada. So it’s odd to cycle by rusting and abandoned footbridges, beneath concrete express ramps, and yet still spot a heron presiding over a river bank that resembles a healthy wetland. In places the graffiti is as dense as the wildflowers and the proliferation of the latter is due in part to the efforts of volunteer groups.

The Fairmont Royal York, once the biggest hotel in the British Empire and still oozing opulence from every one of its 1,600 rooms. The lobby's nice, too.

The Fairmont Royal York, once the biggest hotel in the British Empire and still oozing opulence from every one of its 1,600 rooms. The lobby’s nice, too.

We dried off from the rain at the Evergreen Brick Works, known for almost a century as the Don Valley Brick Works. Evergreen is a national charity and one of the groups involved in reviving the Lower Don. It runs the brick works as a community environmental centre, nurturing the disused quarry as a park, naturalizing ponds and restoring the brick works’ old buildings. On any given day you’ll find a farmers’ market, cooking workshops and family pizza nights at the site which once supplied the bricks for most of Toronto’s major landmarks.

From Evergreen Brick Works we cycled through Beltline Trail and the racy-sounding Milkman’s Run (Couldn’t help thinking of Benny Hill) before zig-zagging our way through quiet residential streets to Sherbourne Street. Sherbourne was the first of Toronto’s separated bike lanes and from Bloor Street to King Street, biking is a breeze.

Even after we’d returned our rental bikes we noticed signs of cycling’s growing popularity in Toronto. After ascending the CN Tower on our last night we walked across historic Roundhouse Park to Steam Whistle Brewing. There outside the brewery on Bremner Boulevard, not far from a BIXI bike-sharing stand, was an urban bike repair station complete with pump and tethered bike tools: free for anyone wanting a tune-up!

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On a clear day you can see Saskatchewan.

On a clear day you can see Saskatchewan.

If you go:

Segway Ontario in Toronto’s Distillery District rents a wide variety of bicycles for $35 a day, as well as offering walking and Segway tours. Visit segwayofontario.com

Toronto grew up around the historic Fairmont Royal York, which features several bars and restaurants and offers numerous accommodation packages. They will also store your bikes. Visit fairmont.com/royal-york-toronto

Evergreen Brick Works is a hive of activity, combining history, education, and environmental activism. It also serves great food! Visit ebw.evergreen.ca

For all other travel matters Toronto, visit seetorontonow.com

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Written by nevjudd

October 2, 2013 at 10:34 pm