A Toronto Transformation

To do in Toronto

A Gorgeous Gatsby Garden Party at the Spadina Museum

Gatsby Garden Party - 1920s costumes

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had romantic ideas about travelling to another time and I’ve definitely always loved playing dress-up. So I jumped at the chance to attend this year’s Gatsby Garden Party at the Spadina Museum last weekend.

The Spadina Museum has been on my list of places to check out for years now, but I’d just never got around to it, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity.

While the horrible weather made for more party and less garden, my gorgeous 1920s posse and I had a great time exploring the stunning time capsule of a mansion in all its jazz age glory (can you believe the family still lived there until the 1980s?)!

Oh, and we had almost as much fun coming up with our outfits. People went all out with their 1920s costumes, which really made the whole event feel about as close to time travel as it gets (minus our iphones, of course)

Gatsby2 The Solarium at the Spadina Museum in Toronto

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The Gatsby Garden Party at the Spadina Museum in Toronto

Low back 1920s-style gown at the Gatsby Garden Party

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Have you discovered any hidden gems in your city lately? Also, if you could time travel to any period, where (when?) would you go?

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10 Ways to Embrace Fall

10 Ways to Embrace Fall I know, I know, summer is barely in the ground and here I am telling you how to move on! It certainly didn’t feel terribly autumnal in Toronto this weekend as my darling cousin and I lounged around on a blanket in High Park, but fall is definitely on its way, and I for one, am determined not to let the winter blahs set in early! So, I’ve come up with a list of 10 ways to embrace fall:

1. Have a pumpkin carving party – If fall doesn’t leave you feeling nostalgic on its own, this ought to do the trick! Pro tip, if you eschew the usual grinning jack-o-lantern face for carving a lizard you perfected in 8th grade art class into your pumpkin, you’ll totally win the carving competition (even if said competition was not explicitly stated as part of the event. Ahem.)

2. Go apple picking – another classic. Bonus points if you can work in a hay ride! Fall Activities - Apple-picking! 3. Picnic under the changing leaves in the park. Just because summer’s over doesn’t mean we need to stop dining alfresco. Just throw on a sweater and gloat over the fact that the wasps who plagued your August picnics are probably dead by now!

4. Have a fall feast – Speaking of dining, why not throw on a pot of borscht, slow cook some lamb stew and have some pals over for an evening of hearty fare, tasty wine and a game of drunken truth or dare…I mean, civilized discourse on current events! If you want to get really ambitious, try organizing one of those roaming dinner things where you eat a different course at each friend’s house before moving on to the next! Fall activities - pumpkin-carving! 5, Go on a ghost walk – grab a thermos of boozy tea (a little sortilege whisky maple syrup liquer should do the trick) and someone you can cling to in fear and head out for some campy, guided-tour fun.

6. Explore a new neighbourhood or a nearby town – There’s nothing like a little road (or rail!) trip to take in some fall foliage.

7. Match your lipstick to the leaves – you don’t have to go on an all-out spending spree to update your fall wardrobe. I like the look of Bite’s Matte Creme Lip Crayon in Truffle, or if you’re feeling crafty, you could even make your own lip stain with beets for a sexy, chemical-free fall pout! Fall Activities -picnic under the leaves in High Park!

8. Thrift for Sweaters – Emma, my champion thrifter pal recently snagged the most stunningly soft 2-ply cashmere sweater the world has ever known from a thrift shop on Queen West. I will not rest until I find its equal. And hey, thrift shopping is economical and environmentally-friendly!

9. Cemetery Scavenger hunt- If you dare! I love strolling through a gorgeous cemetery, although I do get the heebie-jeebies every so often. Race to find historical figures, dates, images, symbols or statues. But if you come across your own name, get out of there because you’re obviously now living the plot of a horror movie.

10. Tour a winery – I hardly think I need to sell this one. Wine country just about anywhere is notoriously gorgeous. Bring home a case of something unique to take to parties all winter long! Just remember to bring a designated driver!

How do will you guys keep yourselves entertained this fall? Let me know in the comments!

Where to go on a Date in Toronto

Southern Accent Toronto

Mirvish Village’s charming Southern Accent Restaurant boasts amazing eats and an in-house psychic!

As much love as I have for Toronto, I will acknowledge that “love” is not the first thing you might associate with our skyline.

Somehow the CN Tower’s silhouette, while impressive in its own way, just doesn’t lend itself to romance the way, say, the Eiffel Tower’s lacy and intricate structure does.

That said, this time of year, the cold brings with it plenty of excuses to cozy up to some lovely someone in the city.

With that in mind, and the help of some of my trusty Toronto advisers, I’ve come up with a list of places to take your sweetheart that will surely help you see the city in a different light.

Escape chilly northern nights at Southern Accent, a sparkling, mysterious treasure box of delicious spicy Cajun food to get your blood pumping. They have amazing cocktails AND an on-site psychic, if you dare to find out what the future has in store for you and your lovebird.

For thrill-seekers with $175 to spare, the CN Tower edge walk would definitely make for a memorable date.  Plus, if you’re one of those Torontonians who has no fondness for the image of our iconic sky-scraping structure, look at is this way: if you’re dangling from the edge of it, you don’t have to look at it.

For a slightly less terrifying, but equally spectacular view of the city, Emily recommends swapping your jumpsuit and harness for some fancy duds and popping up to the Panorama Lounge at the top of the Manulife Centre for a romantic cocktail or two.

Take your beloved bookworm to BMV Books – Not your typical date spot, I grant you, but someone who knew I was a reader once took me there on the way to dinner and insisted we run around the giant used bookstore and pick out a book each that the other person then had to read. It was a fun way to break the ice a little before dinner and I really appreciated that he had obviously paid attention to my interests and put a little creative effort into our date.

Cozy up with tea or hot chocolate in the (fairly ostentatious) sumptuous purple dining room and treat your honey to a little box of beautiful bonbons to take home from the sparkling, jewellery shop inspired chocolate boutique on your way out the door of Moroco Chocolat in Yorkville.

Though she acknowledges it isn’t situated in a particularly romantic area, Emma says lately she swears by bistro cafe Zocalo for a cheap and cozy (and flatteringly lit) date spot. She also says, and I quote: “There is also an outrageous hipster tea shop across the street, so if the date doesn’t go well and you need a confidence boost, just pop over there and you’re guaranteed to be hit on by half a dozen toque-wearing bearded men who will try to tell you about their performance art. I’m not exaggerating.”

So. there’s that.

Step inside the Sultan’s Tent to feast on seriously incredible Morrocan food and be entertained by equally incredible belly dancers.

For the Goth couple, a stroll through the gorgeous and historic Mount Pleasant Cemetery is the perfect way to while away an afternoon (or for the really goth couple, an evening).

The Distillery District (another Emily recommendation) is terribly charming in a cobblestone sort of way. There are plenty of galleries and shops to poke your head into, and it’s also host to an annual Christmas market. Mulled wine by an outdoor fireplace anyone?

For adventuresome winter dates, pack a flask and a thermos of hot chocolate, and go tobogganing either in High Park or at Riverdale.

And for the super successful date, Emily also suggests breakfast at Aunties and Uncles.

Also, if you’re an app-y sort of person, this week, Toronto is the featured city on Spotted by Locals and they are offering a free app download of our fantastic city guide, so be sure to take advantage of that while you can!

Do you have a go-to great date spot? Have you ever been on a really unique, memorable date? You know I want to hear about it in the comments! 

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401 Richmond

Exhibit at 401 Richmond Toronto

I really wish I’d read something about this one. Without an explanation it just looks a little creepy, which was apparently the theme of the eve for me!

Last night I popped by 401 Richmond, a gorgeous old restored industrial building that houses over a hundred studios, galleries and shops for local artists and businesses here in Toronto. It also boasts a rooftop garden, which I am determined to take a tour of one of these days.

My friend Erin and I had a grand old time strolling around and checking out some of the exhibits, many of which, looking back, skewed a little creepy. Behind a mysterious curtain reminiscent of that crazy curtain of death in Order of the Phoenix, a video taken from the viewpoint of a driver on dark country roads played under a recording of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds. Creepy.

I peered through a series of portholes to view three black and white photos, one of a giant pile of discarded glasses, one of a pile of shoes. It was the one of the pile of discarded walkers, canes and artificial legs that raised the hairs on the back of my neck as I realized what I must be looking at. Reading the wall placard confirmed these were things taken from Holocaust victims. Definitely creepy and of course, horrifying to contemplate. Amazing how inanimate objects can tell such a powerful story.

I felt so spooked after viewing them that it took me a minute to get up the nerve to walk in to one of the next exhibits we came across. Though, to be fair, I think it would have given me the heebs and jeebs all on its own. It featured an empty bed covered with a quilt, gaudy funeral wreaths in the corner, and paintings of women’s hair and rugs and more funeral wreaths.

There were also some stunningly gorgeous giant charcoal drawings I’d have happily taken home were I in a position to cough up a few month’s rent. I bought these adorable cards at the rad book/gift shop instead:

Rifle Paper Co Greeting Cards

Love these little greeting cards from Rifle Paper Co.

 

Exhibit at 401 Richmond

I had the strongest urge to touch all the art in this room. I resisted, but man, sometimes the temptation to act like an unruly child is a strong one!

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I thought these were pretty spooky too.

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But these pigeons were the creepiest thing of all. “I feel bad for pigeons!” Erin sweetly declared. “You mean,” I said, squinting at her suspiciously while I waited for the punchline, “because they’re so terrible?”

Look at me, contemplating art like a grown up!

Look at me, contemplating art like a grown up!

 

At least until I'm distracted by a funny hole in the floor. Such a philistine.

At least until I’m distracted by a funny hole in the floor. Such a philistine.

 

Favourite Places – Ward’s Island

It can be overwhelming trying to explore a city as lively and diverse as Toronto. There is so much to see and do (and eat!) that it’s hard to know where to start.

Lucky for me, I’ve always had friends who lived in the city and could point me in the most delightful, delicious or entertaining directions. And lucky for you, I’ve decided to share some of their recommendations in a little series called  Favourite Places with photos by my lovely and talented friend, Emma.

 
 

My dear friend Irene is what you might call a dynamo.

As well as working a full-time non-profit job, she is an accomplished choreographer, dancer, photographer, traveller and co-founder of Mother Nature Partnership. Her to-do lists make me absolutely dizzy but she pulls it all off with considerable aplomb and a great sense of humour, and makes it all look easy to boot!

After a long day of moving, shaking and world-changing, she is lucky enough to head home to Ward’s Island, one of the loveliest spots in Toronto.

Here’s what she has to say when I asked her about her beautiful island home:

1. Do you remember the first time you visited the Toronto Islands? Was it love at first sight?

I do remember my first ever visit to Toronto Islands – about 16 years ago. (Talking this way is not helping me dispel rumours that I am actually a 90-year old in a 28-year old body). I was in the city on a choir trip in the big smoke of Toronto, a very exciting adventure for a small town girl who was obsessed with big cities. (Obviously I am now living in the big smoke and obsessed with the idea of rural living. So there’s that.) What stood out from that initial visit was the boat ride more than the islands themselves. I was twelve, and I can clearly remember standing with my dear friend Yvonne and getting photographs against the rail of the old ferry. 

2. What’s so great about them (besides, you know, everything?)

You said it: everything. I love hearing the sound of the lake when I’m lying in bed, and I love having for the first time the space to garden – I’ve planted beans, lavender, basil, peppers, blueberries and nasturtiums. To walk into the garden, you walk under a trellis overgrown with leaves, and it feels like a storybook. I love that I don’t lock up my bicycle, and that I don’t lock my front door, and that I feel like I am at a cottage whenever I am home. I love that after an unreasonably stressful day I can walk barefoot from my house to the beach and have a late night swim and remember that there is a world outside of my stress and that the night sky is calm.  

3. Did you ever think you’d actually get to live there?

I can honestly say I never thought I would actually get to live here on Wards Island – definitely not when I first came here at age twelve and the reality of leaving Stratford, Ontario felt so elusive. (I was fixated on moving to California or Upstate New York mostly – so somehow Wards was not on my radar.) Since then I have worked on the island for three-ish summers, and toyed with the idea of putting my name on the list to get a home. I think I will still do that, and then in thirty years at just the right time a letter will arrive at my door – wherever that may be. Now that I live there it feels so perfect – I can’t imagine a more idyllic place, especially with the benefit of being in the city and not in the city all at once. 

4. How do you deal with the commute? Any other challenges?

The commute is actually shorter than when I lived on the mainland. I go by ferry or kayak, so there are options, and it’s only 15 minutes until I’m right downtown. The main thing its taught me is that, if I (literally) miss the boat coming home, instead of fixating my head on a plan of how things should be, I just go and get a glass of wine or sushi and get on the next boat. But definitely it wouldn’t work for all lifestyles. The only challenges? Ummmmm… there are lots of cobwebs in my house? But I feel like there is a solution for that…

5. How does the culture differ from that on the mainland?

One of the greatest aspects of Wards Island is the sense of community – it really has redefined community for me, and helped me to understand it more fully. People know where their neighbours live, and will stop and chat about the leaves turning or garden tips. I never experienced that in the city. People chat with each other, and when you sign up for the island listserv you have to put your address every time so that people know where you live, and people’s posts mention that a group of geese flew over the island in the early evening. It is definitely like being on a different planet than the mainland: once you arrive on the island it is like being in a small hamlet of a few hundred people, where everyone knows everyone. Plus in the island culture you always know what groceries people buy because it is spilling off the back of their eccentric bicycles.

6. What would you recommend a visitor to the islands do or see?

I would recommend that a visitor to Wards Island wander. I would recommend that they bring a bottle of wine and a picnic with baguette, cheese, olives, strawberries and chocolate, and turn off their cell phone and leave their wristwatch at home, and find a nook amongst some trees with a book or a lover or a friend (or all three) and not get too worried if it is rain or shine, because it’ll be beautiful either way.

view of Toronto skyline from Ward's Island

Yeah, she looks pretty at home here.

What to do Alone in Toronto

lulalounge

Well, heavens to Betsy.

I actually managed to follow through with my goal of not over-scheduling myself and leaving plenty of time for R&R this weekend.

In fact, it turned out to be a fairly solitary long weekend in the city, which got me thinking about what advice I would give to someone visiting the city solo, without the benefit of my couch to lie around on:

1.Stuff some Junior mints in your purse and head to The Royal – there’s always something interesting on at this historic movie house. You’ll feel a bit like you’ve travelled back in time thanks to its lovely old-timey decor and if you go alone, you won’t have to share your popcorn. Bonus!

2. Paint Nite – I haven’t done this yet, but a coworker went with her husband and they loved it! They learned how to paint some birds (everyone follows instructions and attempts to paint the same thing – no painting experience required) at the designated bar for the evening they signed up for, and the best part was that all of the materials were supplied, and they didn’t have to clean up! (Dread of clean-up is my main deterrent from becoming an artistic genius, guys)

3. Ceramics class – Pop by the Gardiner museum for one of their drop-in clay classes throughout the week. I would go alone so as not to humiliate myself in front of my friends when I inevitably come away with the world’s ugliest ash tray, but I’m sure there’s at least one couple re-enacting “Ghost” in every class, so, prepare for that.

4. Pick up a book at BMV – I love wandering around this massive used bookstore on Bloor West, choosing books by their covers and peeking at what other people are picking up.

5.Take said book to Trinity Bellwoods Park – If the weather is good, Trinity Bellwoods is fantastic for lounging under a tree and reading, or pretending to read and people (and dog -how many french bulldogs can one city contain!?) watching.

6. Check out a show or exhibit at TIFF – Perfect your Hollywood sexy stranger act at the TIFF Bell Lightbox’ second floor restaurant/bar and then wander through one of their exhibits or catch a flick.

7. Take a salsa class at Lula Lounge – You don’t need a partner to check out their weekend lessons. So if your particular version of solitary involves meeting some new people, check it out!

8. Shop Queen West -much as it’s nice to get a second opinion, I do love being able to puruse awesome shops like Durumi and Chocolate Shoes or Coal Miner’s Daughter without worrying that someone else might be bored and ready to move on without carefully examining everything in the stores.

9. Get pampererd – I’m not huge on manis, pedis or spa treatments, but almost every Torontonian woman I know is obsessed with Body Blitz and their “therapeutic waters.” As the only person on earth who hates hot tubs, I have avoided the place so far, but I can certainly see the appeal of a massage or something called a “body glow” so I may wind up trying it yet.

10. Embrace being a tourist (even if you live here) and hop on one of those double-decker tour buses that drops people off in various neighbourhoods to explore the city. I always thought this seemed really hokey but my travel buddy and I hopped aboard one in Madrid and it was actually a really cheap and easy way to travel around the city and learn a little history we wouldn’t have come across otherwise.

Any Torontonians or former tourists have any good solitary activities to add? 

 

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Launched!

One of the projects that has been keeping me the aforementioned busy bee the last little while has been writing for the brand new Toronto section of Spotted By Locals, a European and now North American city guide for travellers who like to get off the beaten path, for tourists who don’t like to feel like tourists.

I really love this approach to travelling, don’t you? It’s so much fun to get out of the tourist traps and experience a city and culture in a way that approximates what it would feel like to live there.

The concept behind Spotted By Locals is simple. Founders Bart and Sanne Van Poll select 4-6 local “spotters” from each featured city to write about their favourite places to eat, drink, shop, play etc. in their city, and rely on them to check back frequently to write about new spots and update old ones so that the information is seasonally appropriate, accurate and never stale.

So, if you want to know where to take me for dinner in Toronto, pop on over and check out my recommendations. Or, better yet, do what I’ve been doing and read through the European city pages and plan the ultimate Euro-getaway in your head.

Let me know what you think! Would you use this as a travel guide? Are there any spots we should add (I’ll be writing about a few spots each month)? Is it weird that my profile page on their website so prominently features the year of my birth? haha. (the answer is yes.)

Favourite Places – TIFF Bell Lightbox

It can be overwhelming trying to explore a city as lively and diverse as Toronto. There is so much to see and do (and eat!) that it’s hard to know where to start. Lucky for me, I’ve always had friends who lived in the city and could point me in the most delightful, delicious or entertaining directions. And lucky for you, I’ve decided to share some of their recommendations in a little series called  Favourite Places with photos by my lovely and talented friend, Emma.

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It seemed appropriate to kick things off with one of my oldest friends. Meagan (aka, Red) and I were both born in Toronto, and our families both moved out of the city when we were toddlers. We met on the first day of kindergarten, when my mom coaxed me into the classroom by saying “Look, you can sit beside that little girl with the red hair. She has a Minnie Mouse necklace.” Sold. Friends for life.

Just as she paved the way into that classroom 22 years ago, Meagan moved back to Toronto a couple of years ahead of me, becoming a talent agent for film and television and, conveniently for me, sussing out all of the coolest places to go. Knowing that I’d be living around the corner from one of my most hilarious, smartest, kindred spirit-est, very best friends made the move from rural Ontario far less daunting than it could have been.      

Here’s what Meagan had to say when I asked her about the Tiff Bell Lightbox, her favourite place for watching talkies.

What is a lightbox?

I really have no clue! I was reading that there’s a thing called a light therapy box for seasonal affective disorder, and maybe I can think of it like that, because it really is a place you can go to shake the winter blues, or see people way more depressed than you up on the big screen. You’re like, “Oh, hey, there’s some perspective.”

How would you describe the place?

Well, you walk in, and you feel like you could be somewhere in New York. They really did a great job designing it. It feels world class. Bright and airy and a bit slick and cool.

Why is it a favourite for you?

Aside from being a ten minute walk from my office, it’s got fancy drinks and snacks, but also cheap popcorn. It also has about 17 different and entertaining things going on at any given time, from art exhibits to lectures to weird foreign films or popular Hollywood ones or sad indie ones. They also work a lot with the Canadian Film Centre, which has brought me there numerous times and I love that there are these two great film organizations that support each other.

What sets Lightbox apart from other cinemas?

There is a wide range of programming that surpasses other theatres or institutions in Toronto. They do great themes that allow you to really explore a certain aspect of cinema at any given time. I can check out the French New Wave or see the Oscar nominated animated shorts on the big screen or even Arnold Schwarzenegger stuff that normally I just watch alone on my laptop.  It also attracts an amazing array of actors, producers, directors who give talks or interviews there. I’ve heard Juliette Lewis, Leslie Mann & Judd Apatow, Sebastian Junger, Jodie Foster, Gale Ann Hurd, among many others. You don’t really get that opportunity so often in one place here.

There you have it cinephiles! Ditch the $40 popcorn of ye olde Cineplex and check out the films and exhibits at the Tiff Bell Lightbox.

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Just checking out showtimes and being a shampoo commercial babe.

 

Friday Night Live (Partying with Dinosaurs)

One of my favourite places to lurk on a rainy Toronto day is the Royal Ontario Museum. I love the dinosaurs and the giant prehistoric sloth and the bat cave and the glittery minerals. Always have. I even get a delightful shiver poking around the super creepy room full of stuffed birds. So I can tell you I was quite perturbed to learn that their sleepover camp has an age limit and I am approximately two decades beyond it.

Imagine my delight when I heard about Friday Night Live at the ROM. While they don’t actually let you stay the night, they invite anyone over 19 to  roam the galleries from 7-9:30pm before guests are corralled into the dino-heavy first and second floors which are outfitted with bars and food vendors to spend your ROM bucks at (ROM bucks are probably the only drawback. You have to purchase them and use them to buy food/drinks and they are non-refundable. So be sure to use ‘em up before last call).

Each week is a different theme, (Big Fashion is coming up this week) and last week’s was Africa. We were lucky enough to arrive in time to hear two Massai Warriors speak about their culture, show off some of their weaponry and casually flabbergast us with stories to the tune of “I was told after grade eight that I was done with school and could not go to high school unless I killed a lion. So I killed a lion…”

Yeah.

I was there with a group of pals but kept thinking it would be a great event to take a date too, either as an ice-breaker or just to shake things up. No awkwardly staring at each other over overpriced pasta here. The conversation starters are practically handed to you!

The first floor lobby is transformed into a dance floor for these events, and after I’d had my fill of tacos and oysters and Singapore chicken wings, last Friday night’s DJ had me utterly possessed with dancing until the clock struck twelve and we were ushered out into the night like so many tipsy Cinderellas.

If you’re in the city of a Friday night, I can’t recommend Friday Night Live at The ROM(And buying your tickets online to avoid the lineup) enough!

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