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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Travel Itinerary: 72 Hours in Toronto and Niagara

One of the many perks of my day job is go on press trips to cities where my hotels are, and each time I get to travel with a group of diverse and often times (thankfully) entertaining bunch of journalists. 

Now with Langham Hospitality Group, it's on the rare occasion that I join a press trip as I've a supremely talented and hardworking network of regional PR directors who have taken that mantle.  But just recently, I stepped in for my colleague Serene to accompany four very chilled yet enthusiastic travel writers to one of my hometown cities of Toronto, courtesy of Chelsea Hotel Toronto and Air Canada.  And hand to heart, it was truly the best media trip I've ever been on.

Created by Chelsea Toronto Hotel's PR director Tracy Ford and her extremely able assistant Iris Ibarra, our three-day itinerary had such a smooth and seamless flow, even when packed with diverse activities such as visiting a centuries-old market, zipping around a historical distillery district on Segways, flying over the mighty Niagara Falls, sipping sparkling ice-wine at the most famous vineyard in Canada, indulging in multiple farm-to-table dining experiences, and getting a sneak preview of the latest exhibition inside the city's newest cultural attraction.

Their itinerary was too good not to share, so here is a day-by-day breakdown of what we did over 72 hours in Toronto and Niagara.
A view of Toronto Islands, as seen from 360 Restaurant, CN Tower
Day 1 /12 pm:  We really lucked out with the weather in Toronto.  Here we were, mid-November, and it was a balmy and clear 18 degrees Celsius outside.  Pretty much unheard of, flashing back to all those frigid temperatures of my years growing up in this city.  So taking full advantage of the clear skies and to give the best introduction to Toronto to the journos, we went up to 360 Restaurant, the revolving restaurant (1,151 feet above street level) in CN Tower, the third tallest tower in the world. 

At the point when we arrived, our table was overlooking Toronto Islands which is a chain of small islands on Lake Ontario (the restaurant completes a full rotation every 72 minutes.)  These islands are special in the sense that it is still the largest urban car-free community in North America which makes it a great recreational destination especially for Torontonians.  The small population of island residents and visitors get around on foot, bicycles or water ferries.  There's even a small airport that which serve regional flights to nearby North American cities.

Lunch was a prix-fixe affair, and we got a taste of their new winter menu.  Like a lot of restaurants in the city, it is a point of pride for the chefs to use Canadian ingredients and produce sourced from neighbouring farms in creating the dishes.  Here we had (clockwise from top left:)  Willow Grove Farm's pork and rabbit terrine with apple marmalade; Atlantic salmon and scallop with oyster mushrooms, new potatoes, pickled onions and creme fraiche; Quebec's Nagano long bone pork chop with upper Canada ricotta, Savoy cabbage and heirloom carrots; and a chopped salad with Nostrana salami, Niagara Gold cheese, dried tomatoes and chickpeas.

For the most part, the dishes were paired on the prix-fixe menu with Canadian wines, with a few Southern Californian recommendations.  This brings me to one of the other Guinness World Record setting features of the tower: the world's highest wine cellar that's on the same floor as the restaurant.  With a 9,000 bottle storage capacity and kept at the optimum temperature of 13 degrees Celsius (55 degrees Fahrenheit,) it's stocked with more than 550 labels from around the world, mainly from Canada, France and the U.S.  Gives new meaning to the phrase "getting high." Get it? Get it? Ok, moving on......

Now, the best thing about selecting the prix fixe lunch menu is the complimentary access to the Glass Floor level just below the restaurant.  I'm not sure that immediately after lunch one should have the fortitude to step on the extremely solid clear glass and look down - one might even have to imbibe in a sip or three of that cognac to muster the courage to do so.   The video below shows my two feet gingerly walking on that glass and peeking down at the roof of Ripley's Aquarium below.

Day 1 / 3pm: After those daredevil baby steps we made on top of the CN Tower, we drove a couple of kilometers to an old favourite of mine - St. Lawrence Market, ranked the number one food market in the world by National Geographic in 2012. The ebullient and very knowledgeable Bruce Bell was our guide and he's the best at pointing out the specialties of each merchant and their wares.  He's also a history buff, and it's fascinating to hear his narration not only of the market's origins in 1803 (he gleefully showed us the section of the market that once served as a prison, complete with the original brick wall where the convicts were shackled) but the fact that the site was at the absolute heart of the city in its day.

View of the street level floor of the market from the Miele Kitchen on the mezzanine level.

Every time I come to this market, I always have a taste of this "world famous peameal bacon on a bun" at Carousel Bakery. It's a total comfort sandwich made from slices of lean Canadian bacon (cured pork loin with its salty goodness) on a plain hamburger bun.  They do a brisk business of selling nearly 3,000 of these sandwiches daily and count mega celebrities, and now four journalists from Hong Kong, as their fans.

Day 1 / 5pm:  Dusk was falling fast but we arrived in time to see the preparations for the Distillery District's Christmas market which were to open the following day.   Comprising more than 40 heritage buildings and 10 streets, this former Gooderham and Worts whiskey distillery now features the largest collection of Victorian-era industrial architecture in North America.  We had an appointment to tour this historic district with our young guides, each on a decidedly modern contraption - the Segway - which made for an interesting alternative to the traditional walkabout.  Especially on cobblestone pavements.  I was pretty sure I was going to fall flat on my face if it wasn't for the fact that it's physically impossible to do so on a Segway, but I got the hang of it after our super brief tutorial.

The (Hong Kong media) gang's all here, with a hearty shout out to uber PR director Tracy Ford in the pink crash helmet on the left. (Photo courtesy of Clement Huang.)

Designated in 1988 as a National Historic Site in Canada, the former distillery is now home to more than 70 independent stores and boutiques. My favourite is SOMA Chocolate Maker (see video above) - a mini chocolate factory and gelato lab housed in a former whisky-aging tankhouse.  Take a deep breath when you walk in and fill your lungs with that pure cocoa goodness; and during the winter, go order their very own "Dark Side of the Mug" hot drinking chocolate.  It's just divine.

My hot chocolate at SOMA

Day 1 / 7pm: We came back to a rare treat of having our dinner prepared by Chelsea Toronto's executive chef Brian MacAskill and executive sous chef Gaurav Kapoor at the hotel's Walton Room.  Paired with Stratus and Inniskillin wines (we were scheduled to visit their wineries the next day,) the bite-sized dishes were made from fresh and locally sourced produce from neighboring farms and suppliers.  We were lucky to have Lynn Orgyzlo, author of Ontario Table share her incredible knowledge of the bountiful meats, fruits and vegetables of the province.  It's amazing how much food is produced in this country, the high standards of growing sustainable crops, and it's heartening to know that all these efforts are held in such high esteem by the rest of the world - even more so when one increasingly hears of some of the insane and definitely dubious growing tactics of mass-producing farms in other regions around the world.

Clockwise from top right: Potato pancake with quail egg and back bacon; medallion of pork tenderloin with Macintosh apple compote and maple glaze; raspberry and chèvre puff; and roast beef tenderloin crostini with baked onion, garlic and canola drizzle

Day 2 / 12pm: We set off early this morning and drove against traffic to the very fertile Niagara agricultural belt for wine tastings, lunch and a jaunt to see the trio of waterfalls that make up the mighty Niagara Falls: the American, Bridal Veil and Horseshoe.

Our first stop, however, was to Stratus Vineyards.  Only 10 years old, Stratus prides itself as one of the world’s most sustainable and modern wineries. Recycled materials were used in the construction of the winery and environmentally responsible features, like a super-insulated roof and geothermal heating and cooling were incorporated. Native plants and flowers were selected for landscaping because they can thrive without the support of chemical fertilizers or pesticides.  All these admirable efforts led to them becoming the first fully LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) winery in the world in 2005, and most recently, Stratus was  accredited with the LFP Designation (Local Food Plus) for both the winery and farm.

As Stratus' winemaker J-L Groux believes that "outstanding wines are grown, not made," that is why he oversees the planting, harvesting and sorting of grapes at Stratus. According to the company's website, Groux "has worked continually to better understand the vineyard, and to bring the grapes and the soil into perfect balance. Most recently, the efforts have included sub-grafting new grape varieties and clones to the vineyard’s existing root stock that are even better suited to the vineyard and its wines."

To create the “complexity from diversity” that is the essence of assemblage wine, eleven varieties of red grapes and seven of white, are grown in blocs, strategically situated throughout the vineyard. In order to provide the grapes with the best possible mix sun and soil, Stratus employs Vertical Shoot Positioning in which vine shoots are trained upward while the fruit hangs below. Stratus also practices “low yield” viticulture, deliberately minimizing the number of grape clusters per cane, which helps to ensure they have more concentrated, complex flavours, truly reflective of the vineyard’s character. All of the vineyard’s grapes are still tended, harvested and sorted entirely by hand. (Source:

The gentle care and consideration in the making of the wine is embodied in the physical structure of the cellar.  Bright, airy and above ground, translucent panes separate the 1,000-barrel cellar from the rest of the facility allowing light in while geothermal cooling keeps the cellar at an ideal 140 C. There's a four-storey tank elevator that helps move wine without pumping (which can introduce air and compromise flavours.) Instead, the wine flows naturally, through gravity, from stainless steel or oak fermenters into carefully selected French oak barrels, where it will age under the care of the cellar master. 

As Status Vineyards does not have its own restaurant, lunch was beautifully prepared for us by the father-and-son team from Treadwell Farm-To-Table Cuisine. Above photo: our main course of sesame and boison glazed beef short rib with Kozlik's mustard pomme puree, pickled red onion and autumn vegetables.  Paired with 2012 Stratus Red.
Peppercorn crusted BC albacore tuna with pickled mushrooms and porcini mayonnaise.  Paired with 2012 Stratus White.

Day 2 / 2 pm:  After that delicious lunch and several wine glasses later, our private bus dropped us off at the main street of the ridiculously pretty Niagara-on-the-Lake town for some much needed walkies to ease our digestion.  While everyone roamed the shops selling preserves, wines and handmade jewellery, I ventured down a couple of residential side streets to check out the historic homes.  Basically, I was indulging in some serious pre-war real estate porn.  And the houses framed with the late autumn foliage did not disappoint.
The colours surrounding this house are unreal.

After a quick 45 minutes of ambling around town - and yes, I did succumb to temptation and buy a couple jars of must-have sundried tomato tapenade from Kurtz, we headed over to Niagara Helicopters to live their tagline of the "thrill of a lifetime" over Niagara Falls and its surrounds.

Photo by Niagara Helicopters
With great excitement, a little trepidation, huge grins and a quick group photo later, we boarded the Bell 407 which the soothing taped narrator in our headphones assured us is the safest chopper in the world, and for ten minutes, we flew over golf courses, wineries, residential subdivisions, several hydroelectric power stations, parts of the state of New York, and then finally the three waterfalls that make up Niagara Falls on both sides of the border. 


Up close at the Horseshoe Falls. 

Day 2 / 5 pm:  With the sun fast sinking into the Niagara escarpment, we headed over to our last stop of the day - Inniskillin winery.  Founded by Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser in 1974, Inniskillin's winery license was granted the following year, making it the first in the region to receive one since Prohibition. It wasn't until nine years later that the duo decided to make ice wine.  The first attempt saw their entire crop eaten by birds. Lesson learned, and nets were placed over the grapes the following year (1984) which saw the winery's first production of ice wine.  The rest, as they say, is an extremely sweet and a highly profitable, history.

The weather was mild at 15° Celsius when I took this photo at Inniskillin vineyards.  But when it dips to -10° to  -12°  Celsius, the grapes that are left on the vine freeze, the water inside the berries turns to ice, while the natural sugars and other dissolved solids do not. It is at this optimal temperature and usually in the middle of the night, that the ice wine harvest begins.  Even though grapes for ice wine are also grown in Germany, it is truly more suited to the Canadian climes, with the result that Canada is recognized as a world leader in the production of ice wine with more than 45 per cent of the country's wine export revenues derived from this "liquid gold."

With its pioneering status within the Canadian wine industry, it is not a surprise that Inniskillin continues to push boundaries and sets the standard for not just the production of ice wine but how we drink it.  In 2000, the Inniskillin founders collaborated with Georg Riedel, the Austrian master of wine glasses, to create the Vinum Extreme ice wine glass (see photo below.) Sitting at a tasting of four ice wine varietals, we were initially skeptical that there would be much difference made by a glass, but the effect of tasting the ice wines through the Riedel Vinum Extreme glass was remarkably more magnified and three-dimensional.  That's because the shape and the size of the Riedel-designed ice wine glass maximises the concentrated aromas and delivers the wine to the back and sides of the tongue where they perfectly balance the wines' natural sweetness and acidities (other glasses, even the flutes used for champagne, would focus more on the front tip of the tongue thereby limiting the ice wine's full potential.)

Photo source: Inniskillin Winery

Day 3 / 10 am: Our only fixed appointment on our last full day in Toronto was at the striking Aga Khan Museum on the north eastern part of Toronto.   Designed by Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Fumihiko Maki and opened only a year ago, this museum of Islamic Art houses a collection of more than 1,000 historical, artistic and religious artifacts from the Muslim world, dating back to the 9th century.  All the more prescient during these present times, it is the hope of His Highness, the Aga Khan, that the museum will be a centre of learning and education, and that "it will act as a catalyst for mutual understanding and tolerance." 

What impressed me the most was the ample use of natural light within the building; this is especially uncommon in museums housing delicate and ancient pieces of art, manuscripts, and textiles.  Through clever and strategically angled windows and ceilings that shine through and reflect the eastern geometric patterns on Brazilian granite walls, the designer Maki successfully created spaces that collectively feel far larger than its relatively modest size.  And what spaces!  Aside from the two exhibition halls, there are also galleries, areas for art conservation and storage, two classrooms, a gift shop, restaurant and a 350-seat theatre.

One of the airy, naturally lit exhibition halls in Aga Khan Museum

The highlight of our tour was a sneak preview of the Iranian poet and filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami world premier exhibition titled Doors Without Keys (from now till 27 March 2016.)  His premise is that walls and doors represent both boundaries and barriers, and also, paradoxically, hope of entry, escape, connection, and "for finding another world, for finding freedom."   Photographed over two decades in Iran, Italy, France, and Morocco, these weathered doors have been witnesses to the many lives lived behind, through, and before them.  As seen in my video below, the doors are presented at life size on canvas in one of the exhibition halls.

I'd mentioned the restaurant in passing earlier, but decided to save the best for last.  Situated adjacent to the museum's main entrance, Diwan features a fusion menu of modern Middle East, North Africa and Indian dishes.  As befitting its location, the restaurant features floor-to-ceiling windows complete with 19th-century wooden panels that were hand-carved and painted in Damascus.

Tracy and I were the first to arrive super early for our group lunch (and by the time we left, the place was heaving with happy diners) so in the full spirit of the Middle Eastern custom that encourages the sharing of food, we decided to order every single dish on the starters menu for our group prior to their arrival.  Admittedly, being indecisive about what to order also played a part in that. 

These were most of our appetizers which arrived all at once.  The unofficial consensus from everyone was the deep fried onion bhaji (batter) was the best of the lot, although the rest of the starters were not too shabby judging from the empty plates at the end of the lunch.

This was my main course of chicken jalfrezi with basmati pilau, kale sambal and coriander sauce. The rice was on the right side of fluffy (as only basmati can be) but the chicken could have had a bit more kick in terms of spices.

Clockwise from top left: grilled octopus with green chickpea salad, Moroccan olives, sweet stewed peppers, and Aleppo pepper aioli; grilled lamb burger with whipped feta, caramelized onion aioli, cucumber pickle and heirloom tomato; and braised goat meatballs in curry and with warm naan.
Clockwise from top left: lamb kibbeh with toasted pine nuts, golden raisins, citrus tahini, and shirazi salsa; grilled salmon with organic red quinoa, spiced falafel, harissa glaze and pomegranate yogurt; Moroccan wedge salad of iceberg lettuce, carrots, peppers, grape tomatoes, pickled red onion, cilantro mint dressing, tamarind chutney and crispy daal; and one of my personal favourites, sweet onion bhaji with tamarind chutney.

(Unless otherwise credited, all photos were shot by Vivienne Gan with the Samsung S6 phone)

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