by Just Juan

In my opening post, I did write that I’d chronicle my travel experiences. 2013 was a bit of an intriguing year for me as I spent a lot more time on the road than I planned to. One of the unfortunate things about starting this blog in December 2013 as opposed to September 2013 was that I didn’t get a chance to write about one of the better trips I’ve taken in the last couple of years: the Toronto trip. Just like there’s no statute of limitations on murder, I don’t think there’s ever a bad time to talk about travel experiences. That written, this post is about my trip up to T-Dot.

I made the trip up to Toronto in mid-September 2013, coinciding with the final weekend of the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. The trip actually started off horribly…at my origin in Atlanta. After arriving at Hartsfield-Jackson International well ahead of my 3pm non-stop to Toronto Pearson, I managed to get through security and to the gate in only 13 minutes. That’s my personal best for that notorious Atlanta airport. We started boarding at 2:30pm and by 3pm, I was seated and ready to rock. In fact, once I got on the plane and got situated, I slapped on the BOSE QuietComfort 15s and dozed off in a slumber. I woke up about 45 minutes later, looked out of the window and I saw a runway. Initially, I thought I was in Toronto but then I gained my bearings when I saw all the Delta stuff and realized we were still in Atlanta. We didn’t leave until 4:30pm because some damn idiot didn’t know how to weigh the plane and the pilot refused to leave without knowing how much the bird weighed. I shouldn’t have been surprised. 13 lifetime flights out of Atlanta and none of them have left on time. It’s truly the worst place to fly out of in the world. Anyway, I finally got to Toronto a few minutes after 6pm…almost an hour behind my scheduled 5:20pm arrival. I cleared customs and immigrations with relative ease, as I always do in Canada, and it was on.

Toronto, unlike most major international cities, doesn’t have a direct rail link from the airport into the heart of the city. That’ll change in the next year or so. I had planned on taking the Toronto Transit Commission’s Airport Rocket, which is a public bus that runs between the airport and Kipling Station, just west of the city center. I’d then take the subways the rest of the way, starting with the Bloor-Danforth line to Bloor-Yonge Station, where I’d transfer to the Yonge-University-Spadina line to Queen Station. My hotel was located only a block away from Queen Station. The 90-minute delay in Atlanta threw me off big time. I was supposed to be at Rogers Centre for a Blue Jays game at 7pm but it was already 6:20pm and I was still at the airport. I settled for the first thing smoking directly into the city that wasn’t a cab, which was the Toronto Airport Express, a private bus. And because I wasn’t fond of the currency exchange rate in the airport, I ended up paying $32USD for a $26CAD ride. The Wi-Fi on the bus made up for it and I spent the entire 50-minute ride talking to my then-girlfriend. I got off downtown right outside the Hilton Toronto on Richmond Street and walked  4 ½ blocks to the Cambridge Suites Hotel.

After I got checked in, I was back out and soon making my Toronto Subway debut at Queen Station. I hopped on the Yonge-University-Spadina line and got off at Union Station, where I walked about 4 blocks to Rogers Centre. Once I was outside of the stadium, I actually took a moment to take it all in. So many times, I saw the SkyDome—the real name of the stadium as far as I’m concerned—and the CN Tower next it on television and in pictures. Here I was, right there. I walked into the stadium and took my seat. The Blue Jays were hosting the Angels and the game was already in the 6th inning. I was in absolute awe of the facility in its baseball configuration. Seeing those sliding pits brought back a moment of nostalgia for me in regards to since demolished stadiums such as The Kingdome and Riverfront Stadium. The game wasn’t that interesting…both teams were well out of playoff contention so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. I took some pictures and I left around the middle of the 8th inning. I ended up headed back towards the hotel. Queen Station is located underneath Toronto’s top tourist attraction: Eaton Centre. It was still open when I got back so I walked around and the mall certainly didn’t disappoint. After that, I called it a night because the next day was a pretty busy day for me.

The next morning, I woke up extra early and took a 6:30am subway down close to the Toronto International Film Festival headquarters, where I picked up tickets I purchased online a month before while scoring tickets to a few of other films I was interested in. I ended up being the 3rd person in line and I actually ended up getting the last ticket to one of the films I planned to watch. After that, I ate breakfast at one of the downtown café spots and talked to my girlfriend…pretty much wasting time and all. Around 9am, I made my way back over towards Rogers Centre and the CN Tower. I was booked for the CN Tower’s EdgeWalk Experience. I arrived an hour ahead of my scheduled time slot, checked in and took a seat in the waiting area. Having never hung off the edge of a building before, I spent that whole time getting my mind right. After orientation, we went up and I did the whole walk around the CN Tower thing. I’ll detail that in a forthcoming blog.

After the CN Tower, I went to wait in front of the TIFF Bell Lightbox in order to get a standby ticket for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. I was resigned to the fact that I would likely have to wait until its United States release but about 20 minutes before the screening, a woman came out and said that she just wanted to go home to kiss her husband. She looked at me, said I looked like I really wanted to see the movie, and gave me the ticket. It didn’t cost me anything. The movie was the best movie I saw last year and one of the best I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. After that, I saw Half of a Yellow Sun. It wasn’t bad and didn’t deviate too far from the book. To finish the evening, I hung out around downtown, taking in some of the scenes. Me being me, I ventured into a jazz spot to scope the Toronto music scene. I wasn’t disappointed.

The next day was a Saturday and it started with me visiting the CN Tower Observation Deck, where I got views of Toronto and the surrounding areas from the top. Very big city…I’d definitely live there, in the concrete and steel jungle. After the CN Tower, I made my way over to the Scotiabank Theatre, where I spent the next 7 hours watching 3 movies: Khumba, 1982, and a South Korean crime thriller called Cold Eyes. After that, I made my way back to the hotel, changed into GQ mode and headed off to Roy Thomson Hall to see Life of Crime, starring Jennifer Aniston, Tim Robbins, Isla Fisher, and Mos Def. It was the world premiere and it was the Closing Night Gala selection for the film festival. I stayed back for the cocktail party afterwards. I got a chance to mingle with a few celebrities. I danced a little bit, shared conversation with a few ladies and gents. And then that was it.

My final full day in Toronto wasn’t in Toronto. I spent it on the road in Niagara Falls…or on the road between Toronto and Niagara Falls. I did get a chance to hang out with a good friend I only knew through social networks. She treated me to dinner at a Jamaican fusion spot in the heart of the city. It doubled as a spoken word spot, too. It was there that I was introduced to the Canadian poetry scene and it was way better than I imagined. I even met a guy I heard rumblings about when I was getting hip to the spoken word scene down in Atlanta back in the days I was on Air Force assignment in the South.

The next day, I made my way back to the airport and after more Delta delays, I was out. Here’s a little more breakdown of the trip:

LODGING ACCOMMODATIONS. For the 5-day, 4-night trip, I chose the Cambridge Suites Hotel because it was the only hotel in the city center that met all 7 factors I consider when selecting a hotel in North America: (1) at least a **** rating, (2) a Top 20 TripAdvisor ranking with at least 500 reviews, (3) within ¼ mile walking distance of a metro line or bus line with direct link into city center, (4) has an in-room refrigerator, (5) has an in-room iron and ironing board, (6) has on-site self-serve laundry and (7) free Wi-Fi. I’m usually good if I can get 5 of 7 in a city center hotel but this hotel presented the full house so that’s where I elected to lay my head. The staff was very pleasant and warm during check-in, checkout, and all instances we interacted in between. The hotel had, by far, the best currency exchange of all the places I saw in Toronto. They did a 1-for-1 exchange, which was a lot better than the $1USD = $0.87CAD the airport offered. The facility was wonderfully designed. I really loved the architecture, the color scheme, and even the artwork. The on-site restaurant was really swell, too. I stopped through for a couple of the “mingle events” they had while I was there. The room I slept in was a Deluxe Suite with a king bed and a sofa bed in a separate sitting area. It had 2 flat-screen TVs, a really nice-sized working desk, and a refrigerator with some goodies provided. The Wi-Fi signal was amazing…my Wi-Fi Calling even worked in the elevator. The bed was very comfortable…made it somewhat difficult to wake up in the morning or even get up once I plopped down on it. Overall, I was very satisfied with the hotel and it will likely be my hotel of choice in future trips to Toronto.

TRANSPORTATION. As far as transportation in Toronto, I only experienced the Toronto Airport Express and the TTC Subway. Since my introduction to rail transport in 2004, I haven’t been a big fan of riding on buses but the Toronto Airport Express was a wonderful surprise. The seats were very comfortable. The bus was damn near surgically clean. And it had on-board Wi-Fi. I couldn’t complain too much about anything after that. Because all of what I had to do or wanted to do in Toronto was in the city center and my hotel was in the city center, I didn’t use the subway as much as I would normally do so had I stayed outside of the city center. I only used the Bloor-Danforth Line and the Yonge-University-Spadina Line. Didn’t really need too much else. I was able to cover a lot of distance just walking the PATH. In most cities I travel to with rail systems, I typically purchase a rechargeable fare card but I went old school in T-Dot and got coins. I ended up purchasing 15 coins and they held me over. In fact, I still have 2 of them. The trains were on time and they were clean. The routes were pretty simple to grasp. Overall, it was a good transportation experience in Toronto.

FOOD & DRINK. Being in the heart of the city center, I had some incredible selections as far as food and drink. After seeing Half of a Yellow Sun, a couple and I walked over to the Canoe Restaurant & Bar to have dessert. It was on the 54th floor of the TD Bank Building and we didn’t really need to make a reservation since it was closing less than an hour after we arrived. I had a slice of cheesecake with New Brunswick wild strawberries and a white jasmine iced tea. The way all of that felt in my digestive system suggested it cost way more than the $17CAD I paid. Another spot I ate at was The Drake. I had brunch there and it was an OK vibe. That scrambled burrito with the jalapeño jack cheese and avocado is the truth. Aside from that, I ate at the Good Bite Restaurant on Yonge and since I was in Canada, grabbing a bite from Tim Hortons and A&W were mandatories. I also ate a Jamaican spot called Harlem Restaurant, where I had my first taste ever of jerk chicken. It was good.

SHOPPING EXPERIENCE. It wasn’t a shopping type of trip for me but I couldn’t ignore Eaton Centre. Starting with Shoppers Drug Mart, which had all kinds of soft drinks that I’ve never seen in the United States or even in Europe and Asia (heck…even Western Canada), I was thoroughly pleased with the selection of stores available to me. I only ended up getting a really nice scarf out of this trendy spot called Jack & Jones.

INTERACTIONS WITH THE LOCALS. The people of Toronto, much like the people I interacted with in Vancouver and Montréal, are very nice people. I think that’s just a Canadian thing but I ain’t mad at it. As I was in town for the film festival, I came across a lot of Toronto-based people at the various venues. We all talked films, actors and actresses, directors, and other film talk. That couple I went to Canoe with…they came up and talked to me about the movie and the conversation jumpstarted from there. We all eventually ended up taking in a jazz set at The Rex on Queen before I broke out and went back to my hotel. I also had some great interaction with the poets and spoken word artists in The Roots Lounge at the Harlem Restaurant. They were very accepting…even tried to persuade me to get up on that stage and drop some fire. Maybe next time. Overall, though, the people of Toronto are great. Very settled down. It’s a vibe where I would definitely thrive if I moved there.

THE WOMEN. Had I written this in September, I probably would’ve left this out. I had a girlfriend at the time. But, that fizzled out so I don’t have to worry about backlash now. The women of Toronto are very intriguing. They carry themselves with a certain fashion sense…kind of like haute fashion with a conservative flavor to it. They were all very mild-mannered…just really nice. And apparently, they don’t have any problems in making conversation. On 2 occasions, I was sitting in the A&W across the street from the hotel—eating and using the Wi-Fi—and on both occasions, a woman made conversation. I probably could’ve walked away with a phone number in both instances but I promised my then-girlfriend that she’d get a 104% effort from me so I passed. I also passed on the waitress/bartender at the Harlem Restaurant. She was cute with that tawny skin and she kinda had googly eyes when I said “thanks” after she walked around the bar to bring a soft drink to my table while I was checking out the spoken word action…a soft drink I could’ve actually reached out and grabbed myself being that I was thisclose to the bar. Anyway, the women of Toronto…they’re first-rate. Regardless of skin tone or ethnicity, those ladies got it going on. I saw them in their corporate element and in the play element and I definitely liked what I saw.

Overall, the trip was good. Even though I had problems getting in from Atlanta and leaving to return to Atlanta, those were actually Delta issues so I don’t hold it against T-Dot. It was safe and it afforded me a lot of action on a short schedule. I’ll probably be back later this year.

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