Winter getaway anyone? Neither our vacation bank account at work, nor our actual bank had enough margin for us to head south for a week like all of the other cool kids, so we decided to have an alternate adventure. Where can you go for a few days that will give you lots of ad hoc options if you don’t feeling like planning, and will leave with a feeling like you had a bit of adventure? Easy to get in and out of, a subway that let’s you minimize winter cold exposure, and plenty to see and do? Toronto.
Typically I like to plan our travels, well before arriving I know where we are staying, what restaurants we are going to, and which attractions we are seeing. This girl likes surprises, but not really.
This time however, I just wasn’t feeling the love of planning. Maybe because I had already been a few times and already had a loose idea of what I wanted to see, or maybe because after all of the work around Christmas I had become apathetic and gave up? Both options are real and viable. The only must do was hitting up a Brazilian Steakhouse. My husband had been to one a few years earlier and getting back there was the only must-do on his list.
We took the train there because if you are going to the core of Toronto it is the absolute easiest way to get there. The train station is within walking distance of the CN Tower, the waterfront, shopping, the financial district, a subway connection, and a myriad of other things. There are also plenty of hotels right there and fortuitously, for a cold January, the best deal we found when looking was actually at the Fairmont Royal York, across the street but attached by the underground. Almost like the whole thing was meant to be.
Checking in, our first “win” was a free hotel room upgrade. The are in the midst of renovations and we were moved to one of the newer rooms. True to legend the rooms are indeed smaller than many other hotels, the hotel itself was built in 1927-1929 and things were smaller then. The doorways and hallways all just slightly shorter/smaller than say a hotel built more recently. But the luxury was another thing all together. The hotel is gorgeous, ornate even, built with the best materials by the best craftsmen is what comes to mind when you walk up the polished stairs, across the thick carpet through the hand carved wooden elevator doors, into your spotlessly clean elevator. Amazing.
Day one, we might have to call brewery day.
We got there early on day one and managed to drop our bags with advanced check in. Clock-ticking as the train home left in less than 48 hours, we headed right back out to find some lunch. We walked straight to the waterfront, I don’t care where I am or how cold it is, I always want to walk along the water if I get a chance to. If there is another me in an alternate universe, I sincerely hope she lives by the water. Discovery number one was the Toronto Police Marine Unit which carries out specialized emergency response. The doors were open and it was really neat to see all of the boats. I’m a nerd at heart so sue me.
The second discovery was the Amsterdam Brewhouse, located on the lake. Brewery and restaurant, it was a bit of one stop shopping you could say.
They have a wood fired pizza oven, smoke their own brisket on site, and of course brew some beer. We ordered a burger and a brisket sandwich and each tried a flight of beer. Food was delicious and soul satisfying, beers were all good although on this particular day the winners were their 3 Speed lager, Big Wheel Amber, and a raspberry farmhouse ale called Eye Candy. A great start to a mini vacation.
Next, we walked out the door and headed north to Steam Whistle Brewing. A less than five minute walk and right beside the CN tower. Once upon a time this brewery situated on a former locomotive repair facility used to give out free samples of their wares. The policy has since changed, likely due to people taking advantage of the program, but the beer is still good and a favorite we buy at home.
We did not have any samples and had just missed the free tour but we did take the time to visit the gift shop to pick of a few cans of beer that Steam Whistle will be brewing and selling in Canada for US company New Belgium. We also grabbed a copy of the official Steamy Men of Steam Whistle calendar because it was hilarious and 100% of the proceeds go to charity.
Next stop we headed back to the hotel for a mini break and a change of clothes. We had arranged to meet a friend for dinner, and she had to get off work first.
Now friends are good to have and there are many different kinds of friends, but it is good to have the kind of friend who adds just the right amount of adventure to your life. I can’t tell you what your right amount is, but for me, the right amount is Brooke.
Brooke is one of the most fascinating and fun people I have ever met. What I call a social ringer, you can invite her to any gathering and she will help to make it better. She is genuinely kind, but also tells it like it is, will call out your crap. She has no time for xenophobia, racism, misogyny or homophobia and will tell you eloquently and elegantly why you are an ass, so be warned. She also, is a continual learner, a lover of adventurous eating, practices martial arts, and has traveled enough to have excellent instincts and ability to read situations. Our best adventure might have been the time we rented a pick-up truck and drove to the Grand Canyon while in Las Vegas for a course. My second best memory is that same trip where we visited old Las Vegas and found a legit seen better days piano bar slightly off the beaten track. Man, that was awesome.
Planning things with Brooke is always a win because you just know something unexpected and good is going to happen.
So dinner with Brooke was at Bier Markt (brewery #3 if you are counting) where they brew Goose Island IPA on sight. It was also a great meal, a great venue, and on another night, a spot for live music. All within walking distance from the hotel again.
And then Brooke offered up those magical words that I was hoping to hear because she is from Toronto and knows all the good things.
“I know this microbrewery where a friend from high school works as a bartender. It’s a little out of the way if you are interested.”
Yes, please, absolutely. We finished dinner and headed to brewery #4, Blood Brothers Brewing.
Living up to her reputation for delivering unexpected adventure, it took two subways rides and a 15 minute walk across train tracks into a loosely industrial area to get there. By loosely industrial I mean it was sandwiched between a seafood distributor and a hydroponics supply store. The brewery itself is unassuming but we had heard good things about them from reviews we had read previously. It is a converted garage with a bar, some tables and a kitchen. Everything is brewed on site. The decor is a goth meets mystic meets wiccan sort of affair and if I was having a Halloween party this would be the place to throw it.
Their beers are produced with fruit, grape skins, and barrels from the nearby Niagara winery region, and as we do also enjoy wine, we were curious and a little bit excited to try some. They all have names befitting the branding, Bloodvar, Fall of Thebes, Paradise Lost, and Trans Human State were among the fine choices. We each had a flight and circled back to our favorites. I find that it is not typical for a brewery to do a variety of beers and do them all well, but not so here. These were good beers. I have to give a special shout to their imperial stout, a surprising smooth number entitled Balam which is produced with an exactly perfect balance of smoky malt, coffee, and vanilla.
Brooke’s friend from high school was indeed there and I tried without luck to get some dirt on her from high school. No dice, he was a loyal friend. Funny and friendly, I was kind of sorry when our visit came to an end. It was late, we said goodbye to Brooke and took an Uber back to the hotel.
Our hotel package came with breakfast and before we left, I probably said the wisest thing I ever said: Don’t wear your hoodie to the restaurant.
Even in office casual, we were woefully under dressed for breakfast, which I kind of expected being so close to the financial district but wow. I have never seen so many people so well dressed for a breakfast business meeting. There is not blending in, and then there was not blending in. Clearly there were only two tourists in the room and they were us.
No matter, the food was excellent and the staff equally attentive and fantastic. Highly attentive, attention to detail, friendly and considerate. We enjoyed our meal and headed off to adventure.
Bucket list adventure time. Did I mention I was a nerd? We went to the Royal Ontario Museum, aka the ROM. When I was little the King Tut exhibit went on tour and spent some time in Toronto at the ROM. I begged my parents to take me but for lack of a better way to put it, we were working poor. If they could have, they would have taken me, but for lots of reasons it didn’t happen, and that’s OK. As an adult I’ve been to many a museum, I’ve still got a few on my wish list, and while I never did see Tut, I have seen my share of mummies, so we are good.
My husband likes the ROM for the dinosaurs so that was a must, but they also had a special exhibit of award winning wildlife photography, and a sweet little number entitled “Blood Suckers: Legends to Leeches”. How fun is that? We hit all three, but I can not tell a lie, my favorite was Blood Suckers because I spent too many years working as a phlebotomist and am fascinated by the history of it.
They also had giant mosquito and black fly models, a section on vampires and other mythical creatures. Yay!
Kudos to ROM as well for also having a decent cafeteria and lunch offerings. Not fancy but great variety and good quality for the most part. And again, terrific staff.
That really killed much of the day, we took the subway back, walked around Toronto’s PATH system for awhile to check out the shops, and otherwise enjoyed exploring until dinner.
We went to the Copocabana, but not the one with Barry Manilow. This one was the Brazilian steakhouse and it was everything my husband promised. You pay one price, there is no menu. A great salad and side dish bar but really the main attraction is the meat. Servers walk around with different grilled meats on large skewers. Try as much or little as you wish, and you can choose from multiple beef, chicken, or shrimp dishes. They keep coming until you admit defeat. This is a special occasion come hungry sort of place. I was impressed by both the variety of side dishes as well as the grilled meats and we had a fun time. My favorite though might be this sign by the bathroom:
There is one bathroom door with one wall of sinks. The stalls themselves are floor to ceiling stalls and unisex. One common bathroom for all of the patrons. When we walked into the bathroom my husband was afraid he’s walked into the women’s room, when he left, a woman coming in thought she had walked into the men’s room. When I was washing my hands, a man from another stall came out and washed his hands, slightly awkward because this isn’t the norm yet but it was perfectly functional and perfectly fine. Welcome to the 2020’s, everybody survived.
This girl was tired and we had had enough beer the day before. The best plan was to walk off some of the meal we just shared and that’s what we did. We walked to the Eaton’s center and explored Hudson’s Bay. They were selling overpriced Dolce and Gabbana toasters which reminded me of Harrods in London, so lets just call the whole thing posh. I confess that I did find the kettle cute but at $800 I left it there.
We walked by and spent some time by city hall and Nathan Philips square. Lots of skaters out there, but I was after a picture of the Toronto sign.
That’s probably as Canadian as it gets.
Back to the hotel to pack our bags and have a good sleep before the next morning’s train ride home.
The verdict: Toronto is fun, easy to navigate, lots to see and do, even better if you have an adventurous friend acting as a tour guide. Completely acceptable for a mid-winter getaway if the beach is too far to get to.