Toronto 2010

Family trip from UK across Canada. Toronto leg.

Public Transport in Toronto

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by MagdaDH_AlexH on April 6, 2010

Public transport in Toronto is surprisingly good and much better than what I expected of a North American city. The system is completely integrated and easy to understand and use.

Essentially, it consists of a thick network of buses supplemented with trams (street-cars) combined with a three-line underground (subway) system. There are also some local trains (GO trains) which are mostly for commuters and a typical visitor will not find much occasion to use them.

Each single one way journey on the bus/subway system costs 3 CAD, and in some cases you need to obtain what is called "a transfer" to be able to change vehicles, in others the transfer is seamlessly automatic, without a need for the paper slip. A child ticket costs 75 cents, and all children above 2 years old pay.

In addition to single ticket there are also passes that allow for a freedom of the whole system for a day. These costs 10 CAD per day, and are thus only of use if you are genuinely likely to make more than 3 single journeys a day. However, on weekends and statutory holidays (and that, amazingly, includes school holidays), the pas is good for a whole group consisting of 2 adults and up to 4 children or an adult and 5 children! This is excellent value and during our stay in Toronto we were lucky enough to be able to use it every day as it fell during so called "March break".

Most bus stops and all subway stations have a map of the system as well as a time table, and the map is easy to read and interpret, though it's worth remembering that it's not to scale which means that what looks like a short hop might prove to be a 20 minute journey (and vice versa).

Toronto subway is great: quick, frequent, clean and efficient, the trains don't seem to get very crowded even in the rush hour. The bus often drive into the subway stations or stop directly outside so even in bad weather one stays under cover.
I am not sure ow comprehensive the system is in the far-out suburbs, but wherever we went (and that included central locations, residential areas not too far from the centre as well as attractions further out (the Science Centre and the Zoo) there seemed to be a bus, street-car or subway nearby. The bus stops are very frequent and the stops are announced via the loudspeaker on the bus as well as the subway.

The system seems safe and at night there are designated waiting areas on the subway stations (well lit and near an intercom system for communicating with staff) while women travelling alone can ask the bus driver to stop at any point and not just at designated stops.

Altogether I found the public transport in Toronto efficient, easy to use and very convenient.

Explore Habitats

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by MagdaDH_AlexH on April 6, 2010

Toronto's Zoo is one of the biggest in Canada and if zoos are your kind of thing is definitely worth visiting. It's not particularly easy to get to by public transportand if you have somebody who could drive you there it would be a good idea to make use of them (unless you are in eastern part of Toronto in the victinity of the route of no 86 bus).

The zoo takes up over 700 acres and I divided into zones that group together animals from different parts of the world. In addition to normal zoo enclosures and cages there are also six pavilions which are filled not only with animals but also growing plants from various regional habitats.

In the summer there is a road-train like Zoomobile, and all year rund you can hire strollers (very useful even just to carry bags and coats, never mind any toddlers or pre-schoolers).
The animals are exhibited and housed in a way that combines looking after their well being and being informative and entertaining for visitors. The information boards could be a little more factual, though: they were interesting, giving details of behaviour and conservation issues, but they didn't for example show where the animals lived.

The highlights of the exotic sections were the rhinos, resplendent in their armoured glory, the wonderful Sumatran tigers, prowling about in roomy and wooded enclosures, and caracal lynxes. I do have a thing for big cats, though! Many African animals were not on display during our visit, though, I particularly missed the giraffes.

The American section was pretty good, with an excellent pavilion showing plenty of Canadian water animals including lively otters (and also some great reptiles from the South America). The Tundra loop was, however, the very best, with several polar bears which could be seen both from above, lying or walking and rocks, and from below, when swimming in their pool. Scary and magnificent, even through the thick glass the white bears invite respect and something close to awe.
It's difficult to cover the whole zoo well during one day's visit with children: there is a lot of walking between the areas, and a lot of slow walking and standing about inside the pavilions. But even if you just see a selection, it's an excellent zoo and well worth visiting. We came in March when the leaves were not yet appearing on the trees, but I think late April and early May might be the best times to come, not yet the heat of the summer but already past the winter time.

There are fast food concessions dotted around the zoo,priced not unreasonably, but you can also have a picnic.

We have not visited the children's zoo and splash play area as we were too early in the year for that, but it looked pretty good too. All in all, a great day out and all that a good zoo should be.
Toronto Zoo
Main Entrance on Meadowvale Road, North of Hwy 401
Toronto, Ontario, M1B 5K7
(416) 392-5900

Science Magic

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by MagdaDH_AlexH on April 6, 2010

Ontario Science Centre is one of the main children-focused attractions in Toronto. Located out of the centre, at 770 Don Mills Road. It's reachable by public transport by taking a subway to Eglington and then a bus to Don Mills Road from Eglington Avenue East. It's about 40 minute's trip from downtown locations.

The entrance to the centre costs 18 CAD per adult (more if a show in the adjoining IMAX cinema is included) but what is inside can easily occupy a family for the best part of the day.
The exhibits star outside the building (not particularly attractive but imaginatively built into a riverside hill), with a tube exhibiting sound interference and giant boxes allowing for seeing what's behind you.

Inside, there are several galleries devoted to different ways of exploring science and technology. Overall, the Centre is probably best suited for children around 9-12 years of age, with the majority of galleries requiring reading skills. However, one floor is dedicated to toddlers' and pre-schoolers' and it is actually one of the best parts of the centre. There are basins for making dams and bridges with flowing water, a semi-built house to finish, a shop with groceries, an area of track with multiple curving parts and balls to run on it, a hot air balloon, bubble stations, round-about an more. It's all very much learning through play, and it's a joy to observe children exploring different objects and co-operating in many of the tasks (particularly evident with anything involving construction). The role of co-operative work as an essential part of human nature becomes really apparent here!

We have also visited the gallery devoted to stars and planet (which was good) and saw a show in the Planetarium (which was also good despite the fact that the main projector for the night-sky effect didn't work and we got a slide show on star gazing instead - very informative and well put together).

One of the highlights is the Human Body gallery, which has working models of internal organs, as well as preserves specimens of real ones (enlightening, but not for the squeamish).

We visited during the March Break and the Centre had several shows running, including a major soap-bubble extravaganza in the man auditorium (more of a circus than a science show, but great fun anyway), a Science Magic show (not bad at all, but perhaps more for show than real enlightenment) and a a few more that we didn't manage to catch.

We also spent quite a long time in the Weston family activity space, where a huge number of hands-on activities and exhibits were presented, nominally for teenagers above 14 years old, but in reality suitable for kids form about 10 upwards, with paper air-plane making classes, a craft area for creating your own shoe and a big exhibit devoted to synthethesia.

There were also several other galleries which we visited only briefly: one devoted to prejudice and stereotyping (and challenging that), one with classical physics and electricity and more.

All throughout the Centre there were members of staff and volunteers directing the activity, providing information, doing longer or shorter shows and generally making sure the visitors are able to benefit from their visit. It was VERY busy but overall less exhausting that I expected (still, after almost six hours inside we were pretty wiped out), partly thanks to good design, partly to the presence and help of the people working there.
Catering facilities seemed a bit limited - one large cafeteria (completely full in the lunch time on the day of our visit) and a counter selling pizza and sandwiches on another floor, but just about adequate.

All in all, Ontario Science Centre was really rather good and I would recommend it to anybody visiting Toronto with children. The best value is undoubtedly provided by the annual membership, and we had entry included within our 5-attractions visitors' pass, but even paying a one-off entrance fee can provide decent value, particularly if you visit when a selection of shows is running.

Allow for at least 3-4 hours (unless all you have is toddlers/preschoolers, then 2-3 will be enough) but to extract maximum benefit you should really make a day out of it, take your time, make breaks and come outside if weather permits (there are some areas of a terrace surrounded by woods). You'd also save money if you bring your own food and water.
Ontario Science Centre
770 Don Mills Rd
Toronto, Ontario, M3C 1T3
+1 416 696 1000

Toronto Below your Feet

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by MagdaDH_AlexH on April 6, 2010

The CN Tower (Canadian National) is a major Toronto landmark and one of the most iconic if perhaps not the most iconic building in Canada.

Built as a television tower in 1975, it is the second tallest free-standing structure in the world at 553m, and quickly gained enormous popularity as an attraction in its own right.
Although the tower as a whole is 553m metres high, the main observation platform and restaurant are located at 346m metres and the so-called Sky-pod 100 metres.

The adult entrance ticket to the tower costs normally xx CAD. We visited as a part of our City Pass that allows for an entrance to five different attractions over 9 days and costs around 60 CAD for adults (the SkyPod is not included in the pass, but on the day of our visit it was closed anyway due to high winds).

The base of the tower contains a shop, some catering establishments and the entrance to the tower elevators. We had to wait at least 10 minutes on a fairly dull but not rainy Sunday and I can imagine in the high season on a sunny day this might be much longer.

The ride up is quick and fairly interesting, with the glass panels in the lift allowing the visitors to see out and up through the roof of the lift. The main viewing area is indoors, with large, panoramic glass windows affording excellent views over Toronto. You are high enough to see really far (60 km on a good day) but close enough to be able to pick individual buildings.

The view of the Toronto Islands is also excellent, although the best views towards the lake are from the restaurant that takes up a section of the circle. We had a coffee and cake or juice and sorbet for kids) there and although expensive, it was good fun (and decent enough if not mind-blowing cakes).

The Glass Floor is another gimmick, an area of grubby thick glass, It takes quite an effort for an adult to walk on the glass, and to look down is vertigo-inducing, but also almost magically exhilarating. I can imagine that when the floor first opened and was yet unscratched, the experience of walking on air mush have been pretty amazing, as it is it's still good.

Is this all worth the entrance price? This of course depends on your budget. I would say that if you had to choose between let's say the tower and the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) or, if you have children, Ontario Science Centre, then go for the museums every time. On the other hand, the views are really great and the Glass Floor is a memorable if gimmicky addition that somehow makes it more worthwhile.
CN Tower
301 Front St West
Toronto, Ontario, M5V 2T6
(416) 868-6937

Magnificent deluge

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by MagdaDH_AlexH on March 28, 2010

We travel to Niagara Falls from a rainy Toronto on the second day of our stay in Canada: a slightly mad, jet-lagged venture that we came up with separately. Having checked out of the hotel in which we spent our first night, we wait for a response from our potential Couch Surfing hosts and instead of hanging round Toronto, we decide to just go for it an visit one of the biggest tourist attractions of Ontario and possibly the whole North America.

We walk to the bus station across Toronto downtown, Katie exclaiming in wonder on the sight of every tall building. The bus leaves in half an hour and the kind clerk in the ticket office sells us a "child" ticket for M even though he's twice the allowed age. So we are riding the Greyhound! The bus is pretty shabby, despite going all the way to New York, but the seats are comfortable (and noticeably wider than on Thomas Cook plane that brought us here), fold out far and have quite a bit of leg room.

The rain becomes heavier as the bus moves along the coast of Lake Ontario, so there is not much of a view. We strike a conversation with two fellow passengers, are presented with recommendations for British Columbia and for today's trip to the Falls and a bag of salty sesame snaps.

As we get off the bus, the sky clears a little and the driving rain changes to drizzle. We choose to walk and the river soon appears, with a narrow pavement skirting the very edge of the gorge.

This is a wonderful way to approach the falls, a walk of about 3 miles, along the bank of the river, with not much traffic and hardly any other pedestrians. The street is lined with smart houses, clad n clapboard and with pretty porches, most of them hotels and Bed and Breakfasts, but the real attraction s the gorge. The naked trees and bushes make it possible to look down. There is still quite a lot of ice, accumulating in patches of dirty white and cream, but the water is also visible, greenish blue, opaque and opalescent, even in the feeble winter light.

K is excited and interested, stopping every few minutes to take pictures with her new(ish) camera. M demands to be carried, as usual, but not all the time, so things are not looking badly.

The curve of the Rainbow Bridge appears eventually round the corner and with it the gaudy developments of the Canadian side of the river: huge hotels, casino towers, restaurants and other amusements. It's all rather excitingly kitschy: here is America as I imagined it, in all its brash, huge wealth.

But it's enough to look past the bridge and to the other bank of the river to see the other side: not just oversized fast food chains, but also incredible, undoubted, overwhelming in fact majesty of the Falls themselves. The roar can be heard before the waterfall is actually visible, and the cloud of mist in the air precludes the actual appearance of the falls too. But then they appear: and, countless pictures, films, postcards and posters notwithstanding, they are still amazing. First are the American Falls, at 320m wide, the narrower of the two,but still incredibly impressive. The piles of snow surrounding the waterfall, the icicles and frozen parts of the waterfall itself add to the drama.

We spend a good while staring at and listening to the American falls and then make our (by now a little bit weary) way to the larger of the two, the Horseshoe Falls located a few hundred metres up the river on the other side of the tiny Goat Island and opposite the Table Rock observation platform and visitors' centre. The Maid of the Mist boats don't operate at this time of the year or this our, and the other Falls-related attraction (the tunnel for example) also seem closed now, so we trample about in increasing rain and just look: and despite the clouds of freezing mist enveloping the falls whose middle is completely shrouded and large parts appear only ghost-like, the view is very compelling. I like the Horseshoe Falls better, possibly because there are quite a few angles from which you can see the falls in a natural frame, without any buildings in the background. The winter landscape adds a desolate flavour to the setting and one could - just - imagine that the casinos, hotels and amusements are not there. In fact, one doesn't even need to imagine that - they are there, in all their over the top gaudiness - but it doesn't matter. The phrase "pales into insignificance" seems invented for this moment. The Falls win over the brash resort that grew up to watch them, every time.

It's raining now, and getting colder by the minute, the children don't want to walk back and neither do we, so after a round of picture taking we catch a taxi to the bus station and take a rainy ride back to Toronto and our first Couch Surfing hosts.
Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls, Ontario

Adequate but not Wonderful

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by MagdaDH_AlexH on March 25, 2010

We have booked our first night in Toronto via, and after reading many Internet reviews have picked the downtown Toronto Primrose, mostly based on the location and the reasonable price (70 GBP for a room with two double beds).

I was a little bit worried because some of the reviews were rather scathing, but there was no reason for that: the hotel, although nothing particularly special, was perfectly adequate.

Considering the price we paid, although Primrose is technically a three star hotel, I will be comparing it to the likes of Travelodge in the UK, and in this comparison the Primrose comes out pretty well.

The hotel is a tall (23 floors at least), seemingly 70's, rather stark block, and the lobby is fairly spacious but mostly just functional space. There were four reasonably fast elevators and we never had to wait more than a couple of minutes for one.

The check in was efficient if somehow impersonal, and the staff members we interacted during our stay were helpful if not overtly friendly.

We had a room with two double beds, which was spacious and sensibly laid out, with an area by the window containing a round table and two armchairs (the views of the Toronto skyline, by the way, were fantastic). The beds were large (I think bigger than our doubles) and comfortable, and so were the coverings though I would have liked two pillows per person, but I suppose it's assumed each bed would be slept in by one adult.

The d├ęcor was a bit dingy, in dark browns and the like, and the carpet, although not exactly worn out, definitely was not in its first youth. But the room was perfectly clean, the sheets fresh and the bathroom spacious and immaculately clean. The shower was powerful and it was easy to control water's temperature. The bath was deep and easy to step in and out of, but starangely enough it was not possible to lie down in it (despite appropriate length) as the head-end ended in a steep cliff rather than a normally expected gentle slope. Usual shampoo and soap items were provided and there was plenty of clean and absorbent towels.

The heating/ac unit worked very efficiently and was easy to control. There was a coffee machine (and some coffee as well as tea bags provided).

Our rate did not include breakfast, so I can't comment on the quality of food.

The hotel is located near College subway station and, bearing in mind that we are travelling with two children and thus never ventured out later than 8.30pm, the area around (or at least the bit of Carlton between the hotel and the subway and all the way towards the main downtown part of the city) Primrose seemed perfectly reasonable. Despite what some reviewers on other sites noted, I didn't feel unsafe, or not any more than anywhere else in a centre of a big city, in fact, probably safer. There was a one or two of not-too-derelict homeless people, but I noticed no prostitutes or any other signs of dodginess.

All in all, adequate if not particularly wonderful option and noticeably better than UK Travelodge that would be our option at home for similar price.
Best Western Primrose Hotel Downtown
111 Carlton Street
Toronto, Ontario, M5B2G3
(416) 977-8000

Bits and Pieces that Make Canada's Biggest Museum

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by MagdaDH_AlexH on March 31, 2010

The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto is Ontario's and Canada's largest museum, with a collection of more than 6 million items. Unlike museums dedicated to one area of human activity, art or science, ROM is a traditional national museum housing all kinds of objects relating both to humanities and natural sciences. If you imagine British Museum combined with the Natural History Museum you wouldn't be far off.

The museum is located north of Queen's Park and near the area occupied by the University of Toronto, with a dedicated subway station and plenty of public transport.

The building itself is an impressive Neo Renaissance pile with recent de-constructivist additions by the famed Daniel Libeskind: shards of glass and aluminium sticking out of the front, striking and internally practical, but whether THAT good looking is arguable.

But what matters is what's inside. And the ROM is a veritable treasure box indeed. We have only visited part of what the Museum has to offer and it still filled a busy half day - you probably need at least four hours to even scratch the surface of the place.

We started at the new area devoted to fossils, including an excellent and informative display of dinosaur skeletons and other fossils, as well as some (even more impressive I think) exhibits of prehistoric mammals. The brand new Bat Cave also works well, though is perhaps a bit more of effect than substance, but the children loved it.

After this, we spent a lot of time in the earth galleries, where an excellent collection of gems and minerals gives tribute to Canada's mining traditions.

Natural history theme continued in the Diversity exhibition, with areas devoted to various habitats and ecosystems and pointing out in what way they were endangered.

There were specific galleries and stations dotted around the museum that made it more child friendly, with more hands-on exhibits and members of staff and volunteers explaining and demonstrating things.

We had no time for Canadian, Middle Eastern, Greece or Egyptian galleries, but we did make way to ROM's justly famous collections of Far Eastern artefacts, from the spectacular Ming Tomb to Chinese ceramic and everyday objects, beautifully transfixing temple wall paintings, Buddhist sculpture, Japanese armour, ceramics and sculpture. This was undoubtedly the highlight of the visit (which just goes to show that one can't predict what would strike children's interest - it was supposed to be dinosaurs, but M was more keen on the "acrobats" cave, and K loved the Chinese sculpture and ceramics).

Unlike the British national museums, Royal Ontario Museum is not free to enter and the ticket will set you back 22 CAD (a whopping 14 GBP at the current exchange rate), and children over four years old pay 15 CAD. Admission is free every Wed for the last hour (4.30pm to 5.30pm) which might be actually one of the best options for exploring the collection if you spend longer time in Toronto, as one visit is definitely nowhere near enough.

Despite the price, ROM is emphatically worth it and would be in my top10 of ever visited museums and art galleries. It's variety of themes and galleries makes it attractive to most if not all people, and its well designed galleries, helpful staff and positive approach to children make the visit a pleasure.
Royal Ontario Museum
100 Queen's Park
Toronto, Ontario, M5S 2C6
(416) 586-8000

Couch Surfing with a Family

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by MagdaDH_AlexH on March 30, 2010

The more I use CouchSurfing, the more amazed by the idea, but especially by *how well couch-surfing works* I get. It's one of the prime examples of how the communications revolution facilitated by the Internet has genuinely changed the way people interact and actually do things - do things in real life rather than just things online.

For those who have not heard about CouchSurfing, here is a quick run-down: it's an Internet-based hospitality network, where people offer a place to sleep to travellers for free. This is the essential idea and this is really what CouchSurfing is about. There is a website, there is a big, growing and active community around it, there is a multitude of forums and sub-groups for people to interact on, exchange travel tips, advice or just socialise, there are meets and events. But at the core of it all is this fundamental idea of opening your home to strangers that need a roof over their head, with no expectation of payment.

I was talking about it to another CouchSurfer one day and we agreed that the CouchSurfing website makes it possible, in the 21st century, to practice the old virtue of hospitality as it was practised in so called olden days, where a traveller could knock on anybody's door and expect to be put up for the night. CouchSurfing is thus essentially post-modern phenomenon, in the best sense of the word. According to the CouchSurfing website, it is "not about the furniture, not just about finding free accommodations around the world; it's about making connections worldwide. We make the world a better place by opening our homes, our hearts, and our lives." And although very gushy and somehow reeking of new-age California, this is actually, well, true!

Set up by a once-backpacker and a son of hippie travellers, the website now boasts members over 1.5 million members in over 200 countries, offering close to 900,000 "couches" and reporting over 3 million "positive experiences" (of which in a moment).

The website itself is simple enough, but very usable and seems to have enough to make it interesting and easy for people to participate without becoming too heavy or turning into a social networking site.

Every member has a profile, on which they can (but don't have to) place their photo(s), a description and the way they want to participate in the project: this can be either by offering a "couch" (i.e. being prepared, in principle, to host people) or by showing willingness to meet "for coffee or drink" or by just joining and marking oneself as "unavailable" or "travelling".
This profile forms the first, basic level of security - I would be reluctant to host or stay with a person who has neither a photo nor any information about themselves in their profile.
There are other safeguards, though: you can get verified (you make a small payment to the website, this depends on the country and in the UK was 10 GBP) and via that your address and name get checked with the card company and are thus confirmed.

The main way to enhance security is, though, through system of references, or feedback, that members leave for each other. This is simple and helpful, allowing the hosts and the "surfers" to report on their experiences as positive, negative or neutral. Hugely overwhelming (over 99%) majority of the references are positive. Hard to believe? I can't judge - as my own experience is tiny and probably atypical sample, but of the experiences we did have all were positive, and most significantly better than expected.

In addition to references, there is also a higher-level of positive feedback, in which members can be vouched by others, but only such that have been vouched for by three people before. The "vouch" is a harder accolade to achieve than a positive reference and people with more vouches tend to be those that travel or host a lot.

As for our experience, we have hosted several people in our house in Perth - and each encounter was enriching, while some seriously inspirational. We are now travelling around Canada as a family of four, with two children, mainly CouchSurfing, and the whole experience - so far (we have done about 20 days, of which only two were in hotels) has been simply amazing. The level of hospitality, trust and openness has not ceased to astonish me (despite the fact that I did similar things when hosting people). We were picked up at bus stations at midnight, given daily lifts from the Metro, had our kids taken off our hands for a few hours, had breakfast cooked for us, were even provided with packed lunch of sorts (never asked for) and shared numerous meals, bottles of beer, hours of conversation and company. None of these are required in principle by the CouchSurfing system, but people just do it. As another CouchSurfer said "it's like a secret society of really nice, honest, genuine and generous people".

We try to be decent guests, keeping the space we are given clean, we also buy food and cook at least one meal for our hosts. If we stay longer, we also get gifts for our hosts (or at least their children). But again, none of this is required.
In some places you will be offered a floor, in others an en-suite bedroom with fluffy pillows (the profiles describe what the host offers). Some hosts will want to socialise with you, some will be happy just to provide the bed. You create the CouchSurfing experience yourself - and it will be as varied as people who host and who surf, but it has over 99% chance of being positive.

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