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Toronto Gets A Decent Outdoors Music Fest

15 Jul

Toronto doesn’t have a big, outdoors, multi-day music festival to rival Coachella, SXSW or Osheaga, but it recently put on an event that might just come close…one day.

The first ever Toronto Urban Roots Festival ran from July 4 – 7 at Fort York, with a mainly folk-indie line up including Belle and Sebastian, Camera Obscura, She & Him, The Cat Empire, Barr Brothers and my (new) Canadian faves, Whitehorse.

It was very much my musical cup of tea, so I was super happy to cover it for Torontoist.

Capture

There’s a bit of a debate raging underneath the Torontoist article as to whether She & Him’s Zooey Deschanel – yep, her off of New Girl – was being excessively diva-ish by banning photos and videos as she performed.

On balance, I probably side with “HotDang”, though I’d couch my views in slightly different terms. There’s definitely something to be said for living the moment, rather than documenting it, but it’s a difficult argument to make when you have 2.1m Instagram followers and once tweeted: “Being away from my dogs it feels my camera has no purpose.” Zooey suggests there’s a kind of purity to enjoying music “in 3D”, but isn’t above using Twitter to post links to She & Him music videos, or flog tickets to her gigs. It’s almost as if the camera ban’s just an attempt to control PR.

Ignoring all of that, it was a great festival; here’s hoping TURF becomes a permanent fixture on the Toronto summer calender.

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The Great Canadian Cheese Festival

3 Jul

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A few weeks ago, I posted a reader’s offer for discounted tickets to the Great Canadian Cheese Festival.

Naturally I had to venture up to Picton, in Prince Edward County, to check it out myself; let’s put the delayed report down to an epic cheese and wine coma.

The festival calls itself the “biggest artisan and homestead cheese show in Canada”, and 36 cheesemakers turned up to show off their produce, all made with the milk of Canadian cows, goats, sheep and water buffalo, using no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives, and no modified milk ingredients.

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I was there on the first day of the weekend-long cheese-fest. There were so many samples being thrust politely in my direction, it was hard to know where to start, but the rich, creamy Maple Dale “aged” (Canadian for “mature”) cheddar was a big hit, as was the Dandelion wine jam by Henderson Farms, based on nearby Wolff Island.

Major Craig’s Inc put together a hearty charcuterie plate, and the four cheese wood fired pizza by the Flatbread Pizza company ensured that we didn’t go short of a square – or, rather, circular – meal.

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Prince Edward County is, of course, famous for its wineries, so there was plenty of booze to keep everyone merry. The Waupoos ice wine cider was the perfect cooler in the sticky end-of-Spring weather, but the Pinot Gris by solar-powered Redtail Vineyards, and the draught beers by Church-Key Bewery were also appreciated. Luckily, I had a designated driver.

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There were also cute goats:

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And a one-week old bull; the farmer raved about its breeding, I was mainly impressed by its eyelashes:

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After filling our chops with rich food, it would’ve been rude not to show off our expanded bellies at nearby Sandbanks Provincial Park, which boasts the world’s largest freshwater sandbar and dunes.

The park’s beautiful enough in the winter, but it’s even easier to admire its transparent water while wading knee-deep in the absurdly warm lake, or lounging on the rippled white sand.

Sandbanks Provincial Park

Sandbanks Provincial Park, courtesy of Kate Brown on Flickr

I’m slightly in love with Prince Edward County, so the cheese festival was the icing, or maybe the mascarpone, on the cake.

What’s weird is that, despite being just over two hours from Toronto, tons of city-dwellers have never been to Prince Edward County and, in some cases, seem unsure as to where it actually is. It’s a lovely corner of Ontario well worth a daytrip or weekend break not only for its beaches but also for its wineries, cycling, camping and – as I now appreciate – cheese.

Toronto’s Top Bike Trails

20 Jun
Best Toronto bike trails

View from Humber Bay Park

 

It’s Bike Month in Toronto, meaning the place is crawling with cycling evangelists waddling about with their padded bottoms, inciting everyone to get on two wheels.

Whatever their fashion crimes, the wild-haired ones are onto something: This compact, flat city’s ideal for cycling, aside from some inconveniently placed streetcar tracks and spatially challenged supertruck drivers.

As a signed up member of the tribe, with the oil stained calves to prove it, I recently decided to take part in one of the Bike Month events, a group ride around Ward 18.

This involved cycling around Little Portugal and nearby neighbourhoods, stopping off enroute to scoff delicious pasteis de Nata. Anything for the cause, cycling comrades. Photos from the ride have been posted here (spot the lanky cyclist in the fourth picture down).

My unwavering commitment to the right to wear impossibly tight lycra and feel a little superior truly knows no bounds.

So, to further demonstrate my unwavering solidarity, here’s an extra contribution to Bike Month:

My pick of Toronto’s cycle trails, in no particular order.

1. Don Valley-Sunnybrook Park-Edwards Gardens. 17km, 1 hour.

Look out for raccoons and rabbits on the Don Valley, and take some extra time to meander through Sunnybrook Park. Walk your bike round serene Edwards Gardens, admiring the rock gardens and meadow flowers.

Best bike trails Toronto

Don Valley bike trail

2. Waterfront Trail Westwards-Humber Bay Park. 12km, 45 mins.

Keep left when you get to Coronation Park and take the lakeside trail. Pause on Humber Bridge and drift round to Humber Bay Park, through the butterfly meadow and over to a peaceful rocky beach with a fabulous view of the city. Keep an eye out for tortoises!

Humber Bay tortoise bike Toronto

A tortoise I spotted at Humber Bay during a bike ride last Sunday

3. Humber Bay Park-up the river until your legs get tired. Up to 35 km, 2.5 hours.

Ride alongside the river, through a series of quiet parks. The occasional steep hill gets the glutes going. In late September/early October you can spot salmon jumping out of the river.

Best bike trails Toronto

Along the Humber River

4. Waterfront Trail Eastwards-Cherry Beach-Ashbridges Bay Park-Kew Beach. 11 km, 45 mins. Optional weekend detour: Tommy Thompson Park.

Take a detour past urban Sugar Beach, stop to watch kite-surfers at Cherry Beach, then weave around Ashbridges Bay Park harbour before dodging rollerbladers and kids on the path running along the sandy shores of Kew Beach.

Best bike trails Toronto

Cherry Beach

5. Don Valley-Evergreen Brickworks-Moore Park Ravine-Mount Pleasant Cemetary. 10km, one hour.

Gorgeous in the Fall, when the ravine and cemetery are carpeted with auburn-yellow leaves.

Best bike trails Toronto

Moore Park Ravine in Fall

6. ??????

This one’s my all-time favourite. It doesn’t seem to be as “on-the-map” as the others just yet, which works for me. Maybe I’ll reveal all in a future post. Possibly.

Note: Times and distances are approximate and are based on setting off from Union Station. They don’t take account of any detours, wildlife spotting or pausing for photos of the CN Tower in the distance (you can never have too many of those, after all).

Cheesy Reader Offer

31 May
Cheese 101

Cheese, courtesy of Steel Wool on Flickr

Based in or near Toronto? Stuck for weekend plans? Like cheese?

As a special (last minute) thank-you to my lovely readers, here’s a discount to Canada’s biggest cheese festival, taking place tomorrow and Sunday in Prince Edward County.

You can get 25 per cent off tickets for The Great Canadian Cheese Festival by entering the promotional code CF13NEW before starting your online ticket order here.

It’s only good for tickets purchased online in advance of the festival on June 1-2.

Let me know if you go and what you make of it!

First Five Months

12 Dec

Facebook’s inviting users to: “See your 2012 in review: Look back at your 20 biggest moments from the past year.” According to the site’s handy photo memo, I’ve spent much of the year with a drink in my hand and/or wearing questionable hats or wigs. Usually while pretending to be a pop star.

Personally, I’d have included emigrating to another continent, fulfilling my dream of travelling to Alaska and making the huge decision to leave my magazine job  in a list of 2012’s “biggest moments”, but Facebook’s  clever algorithms don’t seem to have quite captured any of this.

You can’t blame Facebook for trying; at this time of year, everyone’s clamouring to get in on the “Review of 2012” action. This blog’s nothing if not bang on trend (even though the phrase “bang on trend” really isn’t), so I’ve created an interactive Dipity timeline of my experience in Toronto, which starts when my husband and I touched down in mid-July.

Annoyingly, WordPress.com doesn’t like Dipity, but you can see it here:

Highlights

The timeline includes loads of highlights that I didn’t get a chance to blog about, including (not in any particular order):

Toronto Nuit Blanche

Colourful speakers in Nathan Phillips Square blasting out choral music during Nuit Blanche

  • Nuit Blanche – Definitely one of Toronto’s cooler events.  An all-night contemporary art festival, with car parks, public squares, cinemas and municipal buildings converted into installations for the night.
  • Haliburton Highlands – When my parents came to visit in early October, we spent Thanksgiving in cottage country. The Fall colours were at their beautiful, golden, peak and we had a perfect weekend of games, wine, a cottage with a dock down to the lake, some silly canoeing and a day trip to Algonquin Provincial Park.  If my little sis had been there too, it would’ve been perfect. It wasn’t bad though (sorry sis):
Algonquin Fall Colours

Fall colours

  • Niagara Falls by helicopter – Every bit as cool as it sounds. Niagara-on-the-lake is a really pretty town to wander through, too. I’m sure the wineries will call us back.
  • Taste of the Danforth – A meaty cloud wafted over Greektown while crowds lined up at stalls selling grilled quail, souvlaki and fried calimari at the hugely popular (Toronto’s most popular, according to the website) August festival.
Taste of the Danforth Toronto

Grills line the street at Taste of the Danforth

You’ll have to check out the timeline for the rest.

Btw, this isn’t meant to be a “hidden gems of Toronto” guide – these diamonds are all very much on the  map. But it all depends on what map you’re using; I don’t think Nuit Blanche features in any of the guides I bought before arriving here, yet I’ve never seen Toronto’s streets so buzzing (in more ways than one, by the early hours).

Some of them are personal highlights, like passing my sailing practical exam.

And  there are so many great experiences that aren’t on the timeline. It’s just intended as a visual reminder of what a fantastic introduction we’ve had to our new city – and hopefully, a handy set of suggestions or reminders for anyone planning to be in Ontario next year.

I’d love to know what other people’s Toronto/Ontario highlights have been in the latter part of this year – and what a newbie can look forward to in the first half of 2013.

In search of wine

4 Dec

You can’t find a bottle of plonk for much less than $15 (£9.30) in Canada. And if you can, you probably don’t want to drink it.

It took me months to come to terms with this, and many fruitless hours of searching the shelves for a label cheap enough to sustain my midweek wine habit. There are certain rituals to which I’ve become accustomed over the years – just like the Queen, but her vices probably don’t involve £4 bottles of Sauvignon Blanc.

The high prices suck. But a seasoned expat offered some sage advice when I first arrived, concerning  relocation-related annoyances: “Don’t think of it as stupid or backwards, just see it as different.” Wise words.

The history bit

I was surprised to learn that the reason for the hiked-up wine harks back to the prohibition era, when bootleggers compelled the authorities to enforce strict controls over the sale of liquor which, to this day, is regulated by provincial agencies.

In practical terms this means you can’t pile wine into your supermarket trolley or pick up a quick bottle from the all-night offie – you can only get it from official Liquor Control Board of Ontario stores, or from wineries. You can’t even import more than a case of wine from another province within Canada. This means there’s a monopoly, which means high prices.

You’re probably thinking: “That’s stupid! Backwards!” No, no, remember: Just “different”.

The LCBO also has a paternalistic mission to curb alcohol consumption and it claims the mark-ups generate revenue for health and education services.  Others argue the government would save more money by axing a $300m a year bureaucracy and privatising liquor retail sales.

But this long pre-amble, whilst fascinating I’m sure, is just background info. It helps to explain our trip to the Prince Edward County wineries last weekend – the original point of this post.

Prince Edward County

PEC’s a two-and-a-half hour drive north east of Toronto and, since the early 2000s, has attracted a growing wine industry thanks to its rich soil, cheap land and the temperature-moderating effect of Lake Ontario.

It’s also home to Sandbanks Provincial Park, which bills itself as “the world’s largest fresh water sand bar and dune system”. Also known as a bloody big beach:

Sandbanks Provincial Park Prince Edward County

December probably isn’t the prime time to visit Sandbanks

There are now over 30 wineries, most of which are pretty small – too small to get their products onto LCBO’s shelves and, since selling elsewhere isn’t an option, their customers have to go to them.

Attracting bus loads of wine fans in the winter, when the more established Niagara region’s closer to Toronto, isn’t easy, so they came up with the “weekend wassail”. This sounds like something from a Thomas Hardy novel, but there was no sign of mead, peasants  or ill-fated heroines. Instead, there was lots of free (woo!) wine, rum balls, s’mores, mini beef Wellingtons, spiced cider and carol singing.

Prince Edward County wine map

Where to go

The fact the wineries aren’t overly commercialised made for a really personal experience – maybe slightly too personal in one case, when the two of us were forced to sing a carol of our “choice” in exchange for wine and my husband chose the famously easy-to-sing Good King Wenceslas. The owner was good enough to reward my tuneless mumbling with a fruity Chardonnay. I don’t normally enjoy Chardonnay, but the ones in PEC seemed to be less oak-ey and crisper than normal.

Naturally we treated ourselves to a few choice bottles…well we were bound to be getting some sort of discount, straight from the supplier, right?

Our stash

Our stash

Lots of the wineries are clustered together in the west, and it’s possible to tour them by bike. I might save that for a weekend when it’s not minus 6.

Santa and (Dog) Seances

26 Nov

Torontonians love their organised fun. When they’re not playing cult board games in hipster cafes, it seems they’re doing the seventh-inning stretch at a ball game, wearing fancy-dress, going to a festival (see below) or taking part in charity fundraisers.

Last week, in the name of charity, my husband was persuaded to don a fat suit for a sponsored sumo-wrestling contest in the office, before channelling Simon Cowell (with a Cumbrian twang) as a judge at his company’s karaoke talent show. And this blog’s already dealt with the extreme lengths people go to when it comes to Thanksgiving costumes and zombie get-ups.

It’s all very different from the British spirit of: “Sod the silly outfits, can’t we just get pissed and/or donate a few quid?” When the publishing company I worked for in London turned our annual Christmas party into a talent contest one year (in a nightclub, with booze), the backlash could’ve been seen from space.

Large amounts of enforced jollity can be a bore. But the upside of Toronto’s propensity for good wholesome fun is the number of huge family festivals that are bigger and just, well, more amicable than you’d expect in Blighty.

Take the annual Santa Claus Parade last Sunday. It’s a Toronto tradition that’s been going since 1905 and this year around a million people pitched up with fold-up chairs, blankets, hats and scarves, lining up along the main downtown route, which was entirely closed to traffic.

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Onlookers passed round tubs of home-made cookies and flasks of hot chocolate, kids chanted a premature “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas”, clowns handed out sweets and everyone waved, hi-fived and shook hands with the characters parading past.

This was slap bang in the middle of town. Where were the squealing brats, the pushy crowds, the scowling, shivering teens? It couldn’t have been any more heart-warmingly festive if Clarence Odbody had flown down from the sky, scattering mince pies and booming “ho ho ho.”

We were able to track Santa’s progress on a cool iphone ap created especially for the day, which contributed to a build up so immense that by the time the main man arrived, the children around us were practically levitating with excitement.

Another example

There isn’t an easy transition to be made from Santa to skipping dogs.  But I had to highlight altogether different – but equally family friendly – festival happening across town that day: Winter Woof-Stock.

It featured mutts that skip, play basketball and calculate sums. There was an event I was dismayed to miss called “running of the pugs”, a doggie fashion show and a dog clairvoyant. Yep, really.

Here are some pics.

The canine attendees seemed to love all the  attention – have you ever seen a sheepish Shih Tzu? But possibly even more entertaining than the star performers were the Dog Moms pushing their “babies” around in prams. One spent 10 minutes trying to convince us that pugs are “highly intelligent”. Er…whatever you say, crazy woman.

Toronto Zombie Walk

22 Oct

“Was that your husband, dear?” The elderly lady with a tight bubble perm pointed to a bloody brain being munched by a lone female zombie.

The zombie nodded, vacantly.

“Men, eh?” The lady offered.

“Errrrk” The zombie replied.

Just your typical zombie-human exchange, as witnessed at Toronto’s tenth annual zombie walk, which saw thousands of people moaning, groaning and lurching their way around the city centre on Saturday afternoon.

There were zombie Mario brothers, teletubbies, headless brides, Lego men, bakers and gimps. Zombie babies. And – my personal favourite – zombie dogs.

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They were a noisy but surprisingly musical rabble. A zombie Elvis strummed his guitar, a mariachi band sang a series of laconic ballads and a dead-eyed ghoul sparked a spontaneous rendition of the 1994 Cranberries hit (you guessed it) “Zombie”.

From time to time, a zombie would lunge at an unsuspecting onlooker, provoking squeals from the victims – mainly teenage girls.

It was all very entertaining, until a woman stood in front of me and spat (from her MOUTH) fake blood all over her partner – and all over my coat. Time to leave.

Anyway, we had a film to catch: To be precise, two films, both playing at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema as part of the After Dark Film Festival, with a $2 discount for zombies.

It wasn’t your standard Saturday night at the movies, as you might expect from a ticket stubb saying: “We Ate the Children Last will proceed Rec3”.

For a start, not every screening starts with a zombie contest in which Beetlejuice and a zombie James Dean compete on stage to say the word “brains” in their best Queen’s English.

Adding to the unusual ambiance, a grim cacophony of zombie cries erupted eerily around us as the lights dimmed.

And there’s nothing quite like averting your eyes from the sight of someone’s head being chain-sawed in two on screen, only to see a zombie on your right creasing his sides in laughter.

In all, a surreal afternoon/evening. My only regret was not dressing up, so I’ve been planning my outfit in advance for next year. Sarah Palin would be good, but I also like my hubbie’s suggestion of a Harry Potter & Hermione double act…Any suggestions?

An idiot’s guide to grabbing TIFF tickets

27 Aug

The 2012 Toronto International Film Festival kicks off on 6 September, promising more than 300 screenings from at least 60 countries and attracting the biggest stars in the celluloid galaxy, including Tom Hanks, Bill Murray, Gwyneth Paltrow and er, Zac Efron.

Movie Theater TIFF

Movie Theater by Roeyahram on Flickr

I’m assuming, therefore, that you’ve sorted your ticket packages, chosen your preferred screenings and got your autograph book ready? Me neither.

However, I’m a step closer to scoring some of those prized tickets following numerous head-scratching sessions on the TIFF website and some painful conversations with the box office.

Having gained some clarity over the whole process, I thought I’d share my findings – purely in the interests of benevolence – this being an apparent motif for the festival this year (as has been widely reported, the Friends of TIFF are holding their first ever charity fundraiser this year, and is there anything more benevolent than Toronto’s elite paying $25,000 to share canapes with Halle Berry rather than just, hmm, handing the money to an actual charity or something). I digress.

Unfortunately, the ticket “packages” are all sold out, meaning if you’re an adult aged between 25 and 65 you’ll need to pay for each screening separately, costing $19.69 for a regular ticket, before tax and “service charges”. A premium ticket – for red carpet events and the like – costs $38.27.

The procedure goes:

1. Check what’s on, when, here. There’s a synopsis of each film here if you’re not sure what you’re looking for yet.

2. Refer to the TIFF website from 10am on 1 September to see whether there are available tickets for the screenings you want to see. Some may be sold out through pre-sales, which it’s too late to register for now. But, in total, only 30 per cent of screenings sell out completely, so you stand a decent chance of finding something interesting.

3. From 10am on 2 September, you can buy tickets either online (using a credit card – no debit), over the phone (416.599.8433) or at the box office.

4. If there aren’t any available tickets for the showing you had your eye on, check at 7am on the morning of the screening to see if additional tickets have been released.

5. If all the above fails, try heading to the venue of your chosen screening early to see if there are any unreleased tickets. You’ll have to stand in line; here‘s a guide to “rushlines”, as they’re known.

Other tips: There isn’t any assigned seating, so people often queue to grab the best spots.

Good luck and happy TIFF-ing!

Jazz; not a huge fan

1 Aug

In considering whether to move to Toronto, its reputation for stellar jazz performances wasn’t high on my agenda.

Sorry jazzophiles, but I associate your scene purely with lifts, hotel lobbies and people who use the word “funky” in everyday parlance.

But that was before I’d experienced the Beaches International Jazz Festival, which sadly finished on Sunday.

I seriously feared my ears would be assaulted with this kind of thing (with apologies to the “charming and talented person” who posted it on YouTube) – or even travesties on this scale. The latter goes to prove that anything that could potentially be suffixed with “lite” is to be avoided; that includes beer and, most definitely, Beethoven.

Happily, the Beaches Jazz Festival was very flexible in its definition of “jazz”, which seemed to incorporate anything from big band to soul, rock, beardy blues, latin, gospel, hip-hop and reggae.

All events were free and some of the stages had dance floors adjacent to the beach, like this one we stopped at:

Image

The festival takes place over a few weeks, with events held at different stages across the neighbourhood.

But on Saturday evening a 2km stretch of Queen Street East was closed off to traffic and tons of performers and groups set up on the street, sparking some spontaneous dancing and LOTS of Peter Kay- style “walking to the dance floor” moves (guilty as charged).

My favourite group – despite the name – was God Made Me Funky, a brilliant frat party style band that performed mash-ups of Nirvana, Cypress Hill and LMFAO. Here’s a video of them on the night – slightly poor sound quality, but you get a sense of the atmosphere.

A great night, enriched – quite literally – by a very reasonable prix fixe menu dinner at nearby Velouté.

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