- The Washington Times - Friday, September 9, 2005

It’s nature’s rule: Toronto is the summer festival gift of the gods. Fall and winter are given over to cultural treats indoors — including first-run shows from London stages — but the entire city becomes the setting for one or another public attraction in spring and summer.

The list of events on tap recently included an international circus festival, a dance festival, a dragon boat festival, a busker festival, and even a festival for dogs called Woofstock. This isn’t to ignore the numerous folk festivals taking place alongside the city’s highly rated film and jazz festivals that go on inside and out, many of them under tents. July alone saw the Beaches International Jazz Festival, the Fringe of Toronto Theatre Festival, the Casa Loma Renaissance Festival, and the Caribana Festival.

A festival, it seems, is any event not called a celebration.

That’s not including two new open-and-closed venues — “year-round destinations” as the brochure writers like to call them: the historic Distillery District on the eastern end of town and the oddly named West Queen West area on the western side. Both are dedicated to spirited fun reminiscent of Manhattan’s Soho and South Street Seaport combined.

These days, city and Ontario provincial officials are ever anxious to tell the world — especially American tourists whose numbers dropped after September 11 and the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) scare of 2003 — about the advantages of “TO,” as locals refer to their domain. To this end, they recently unveiled a $4 million rebranding campaign under the slogan “Toronto Unlimited.”

Why take Toronto over Manhattan, both well-known multicultural centers? Those are fighting words for Bruce MacMillan, president of the Toronto Convention & Visitors Association. In essence, he sees his city as a more intimate metropolis offering tourists “comfort” and “tolerance” compared to Big Apple crowds and frenzy.

A “multicultural mosaic” rather than “melting pot” is another maxim in play.

Coming attractions on which tourism officials have spent lavishly include the world debut next year of “Lord of the Rings” in a three-hour musical stage version opening March 23.

The city’s terrain is widespread but well suited to their message, being easily negotiable on foot. Public transportation is plentiful, and there are subterranean pathways in some areas to circumvent cold or inclement weather. The center core is largely a business area containing some magnificent skybound office buildings that are an architectural feast for the eyes. The CN Tower (“Canada’s Wonder of the World”), 241 stories tall, has a high-tech “air puff” machine that checks all visitors for explosives and dominates the waterfront and the outer islands beyond.

Notable contrasts abound.

Two large hostelries, the King Edward and the Fairmont Royal York, are symbols of WASPy old-time Canadian flavor. A full-bore afternoon tea at the stately King Edward is a bargain at slightly more than $20.

Tucked away on a side street is the spanking new and “new agey” all-suite Cosmopolitan, a sleek boutique hotel offering flat screen TVs and even videos in the elevators. It’s pricey but guaranteed to provide restful calm in the modern manner.

The Distillery Historic District, several miles eastward, is a triumph of reconfigured design in a totally different mode. Architectural designers there took the old and made it adaptable to complex needs of the present day. Founded in 1832 under the fine Dickensian name of Wooderham and Worts, it once was the largest distillery in the British Empire.

Today the 13 acres of prized Victorian industrial architecture have been given over to cozy bars, restaurants, clothing stores, and art galleries.

It’s a still-developing village of sorts, just two years old, with brick-lined streets meant only for pedestrians. Some two dozen arts organizations are headquartered in its precincts, including the delightfully named Queen of Puddings Music Theatre and Inner City Angels.

West Queen West, by comparison, is less circumscribed, being a stretch of eclectic shops and eateries whose center is the popular and decidedly offbeat century-old Drake Hotel, which lists rooms as “crash pad,” “den,” “salon” and “suite.” (Rates are $159 to $259. Tel: 1-866-DRAKE.TO). The open-air rooftop bar is standing-room-only with a line at the door composed of locals and tourists alike. The Drake operates as a community center sponsoring talk fests, art shows, music and even an “artists in residence” program.

Like the older Kensington Market, WQW is Greenwich Village with “edge.” The Distillery District is more restrained but no less family friendly. Both areas are commercial and arty in equal parts.

The latter even has a contemporary “distillery” of sorts — the Mill Street Brewery — that makes and sells a home brew on the spot. There also is a small but superb chocolate factory — SOMA Chocolate — tucked away inside one of the District’s buildings that are known by numbers as well as names. (Entrance to the Distillery (www.thedistillerydistrict.com) is 55 Mill St., between Cherry and Parliament streets.)

A major attraction for visitors is being on the spot where dozens of Hollywood movies have been made and possibly chance upon a production in progress.

The District’s Victorian backdrop suited the makers of “Chicago,” as well as “Ragtime,” “Cinderella Man,” “X-Men,” “The Recruit” and others. (Likewise, Toronto’s Greektown, home to one of the largest Greek-American populations in North America, was the backdrop for many of the scenes in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”) The visitors center even sells a poster highlighting the titles.

Another advantage of the District’s location is the plethora of large interior spaces that serve well as artist studios and exhibition rooms.

One of the largest of these is the 8,000-square-foot Sandra Ainsley Gallery in the Cooperage Building (No. 32) that specializes in glass art where an elaborate blown glass sculpture by Seattle artist Dale Chihuly can cost $120,000. Between 20 and 50 percent of the gallery’s artists — quite a spread — are Canadian, whose work gets shipped around the world, says a proud gallery spokesman.

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