Whenever I visit a strange city, I prefer not to drive. I choose to stay somewhere downtown so that most restaurants and tourist attractions are close by and within walking distance.
On a recent visit to Toronto, Canada’s second largest city, I decided to stay downtown to explore the city’s tourist attractions and amenities. My first choice was the historic Omni King Edward Hotel, a luxury hotel in downtown Toronto. Located at 37 King Street East, it occupies the entire block bounded by King Street on the north, Victoria Street on the east, Colborne Street on the south and Leader Lane on the west.
The hotel officials are very proud to portray its historical beginnings. The hotel was granted its name by King Edward VII and the structure opened in 1903 with 400 rooms and 300 baths. In 1922, an 18-storey tower with 530 additional rooms was added to the east of the original building. On the two top floors of the tower is the Crystal Ballroom, the talk of the town among the trendy, which until the late 1950s became the most fashionable in the city to go.
As soon as you enter the hotel lobby, one is impressed with its grandeur architecture,
tastefully decorated furniture and sitting room in the foyer, conveniently placed for informal chats with guests and their visitors. The front of the beautiful lobby is adorned with two giant chess pieces for decoration.
The Omni Hotel chain invested heavily in the hotel in 2013, restoring the ballroom which re-opened in April 2017 after a closure of 38 years, depicting a 21-century image. The $40 million renovation exemplified the old-world charm and vibrancy of Toronto while transforming spacious guest rooms, meeting space, lobby, restaurant and bar. “While combining modern comfort and elegance, we are excited to have restored the legendary hotel to palace-like grandeur,” an official explained., adding that the restoration programme also included the hotel’s dining establishments, namely Victoria Restaurant and Consort Bar.
Executive Chef Daniel Schick and his culinary team have updated the dining menus to include local, seasonal ingredients and classic cooking methods. Between Friday to Sunday, the hotel holds its long-standing tradition of Afternoon Tea – a favourite activity of families and people-watchers since the turn of the 20th century. The hotel enjoys an enviable location at the heart of the entertainment district. The financial district, Rogers Centre, CN Tour and the Toronto Convention Centre are all within easy walking distance.
But the major point in favour of Omni hotel is its convenient location in the financial, entertainment and shopping districts, close to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Sony Centre, The Distillery District, Eaton Centre, CN Tower, Canadian Broadcasting Centre and the St. Lawrence Farmers Market. One doesn’t have to either rent a car or spend money in taxis to reach the many renowned tourist attractions virtually within walking distance.
Another favourite hotel of mine in Toronto, also within walking distance to most amenities, is Le Germain on Mercer Street. As my cab meandered through various side streets, I was skeptical about what to expect. As the taxi came to a halt, Anthony, the bell boy smilingly opened the door, with a pleasant greeting of “Welcome to Le Germain.” After checking in, he carried the luggage to the room, pleasantly explaining the different conveniences in the room.
The hotel turned out to be the hidden jewel of Mercer Street because it enjoys an enviable location at the heart of the entertainment district and culinary establishments. The financial district, Rogers Centre, CN Tour and the Toronto Convention Centre are all within easy walking distance.
Officially dubbed home away from home by hotel officials, the staff not only seem to believe in the motto but they also practice it. Guest Services Manager Jonathan Estrella explained the Le Germain philosophy. “We believe in the value of staying small and intimate.” He said the hotel gives priority on their patron’s comfort and satisfaction. “Our guest-first approach ensures that you’re welcomed warmly and continue to enjoy attentive, personalized service throughout your stay.”
He mentioned proudly that because of their personalized service, some guests have been coming again and again for years.
As soon as one enters the hotel, one is struck by the luxurious, stylish and elegant detail and decor of the reception area, adjoining a fire-lit rest area for patrons. On the opposite side is a coffee shop, a restaurant and a bar. The Mercer Street property is a122-room boutique hotel with a 65-seat Victor restaurant on street level, its coffee shop frequently patronized by neighbourhood residents. It also has meeting room facilities which have been renovated to give “a fresh new look.”
Toronto has another Le Germain hotel at Maple Leaf Square. The chain has hotels in Calgary, Quebec City, Montreal, Baie-Saint-Paul, Winnipeg and Ottawa – all operated as family-run business established by Victor and Huguette Germain under the Groupe Germain Hotels flagship.
Toronto is constantly adding new hotels, restaurants, tours and attractions. One of the new tours includes Drink Toronto, a premium walking tours of the city’s top drinking and eating establishments and the newly-opened Aga Khan Museum, North America’s first museum dedicated to the arts of Muslim civilizations.
During my recent trip to Toronto, I was able to visit Aga Khan Museum, my second visit. I was fortunate to be invited to the opening ceremony by the Aga Khan and Prime Minister Harper in 2014.
As a member of the media, I had to strictly follow the itinerary set by the organizers which didn’t give me an opportunity to see the museum at my own pace.
This second visit was at my leisure and I was able to visit the museum at leisure. After the end of the tour, I sat in the coffee shop and had an opportunity to interview two ladies who had also visited the museum. The pair who was from Toronto had this to say:
“I was overwhelmed with the beauty and peacefulness of this place. It has stunning architecture, an impressive collection of Islamic art and a fabulous restaurant.
“We will be returning soon with friends to enjoy another delicious lunch and take in another of the interesting cultural events that they sponsor. Toronto is very lucky to have this museum.”
Another visitor from Alberta was also excited to visit the museum, adding that she was impressed with the stunning grandeur of the architecture.
“The reflecting pools at the entrance of the museum were lovely. The courtyard is resplendent. My favorite spot is the infinity pool/fountains with a view of the Ismaili Centre in the background. The ICT is worth a look as well. AKM is a nice gem in Eastern Canada,” she said.
Mansoor Ladha is a journalist, travel writer and author of “Memoirs of a Muhindi: Fleeing East Africa for the West” and “A Portrait in Pluralism: Aga Khan’s Shia Ismaili Muslims.”