Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Legend of Urban Camping

Often when we think of a getaway, we dream of places far away and exotic, or perhaps erotic. With tough economic times hitting a good chunk of the population, many people are seeking out affordable vacation destinations close to home, now often referred to as “staycations”. Another growing trend is the desire to combine some form of soft-adventure or active component to their valuable time away from work. With Toronto traffic known for being the most congested in the country, here are a couple of options that will leave you with that feeling of escape, without even having to leave Toronto. Best of all, owing or renting a vehicle is not required.

Urban camping is not a legend. There are actually two campgrounds located within the city of Toronto that provide both visitors and residents an opportunity to experience an urban-rural setting. The 4700 hectare (47 square km/11,500 acres) Rouge Park is operated by the City of Toronto, and is located in the northeast part of Toronto, within the Rouge River, Petticoat Creek and Duffins Creek watersheds. It’s been designated as a protected natural ecosystem since the mid 1990’s, and parts of the area are also designated as National Historic Sites because of the ancient 1600 Seneca native archaeological findings.

The existing park area is thirteen times larger than Central Park (New York, USA), and over 30 times larger than Hyde Park (London, UK). Interested explorers can discover glacial rock formations, native Indian portage trails, Toronto’s only existing farms still in operation, and the largest Carolinian habitat within the city. There’s also a wide array of bird species, natural flora, and fauna. Canoeing on the Rouge River is a wonderful experience that provides scenic nature views, as well as glimpses of the distant city landscape. Visitors must bring their own canoes (or other floatation devices), and take caution as the river is unsupervised. There are also ten different hiking trails of varying length that meander through forests and meadows, as well as a sandy beach to soak up the rays at. Several programs are also offered throughout the season, providing historical and cultural interpretations of the region.

Guests can choose to visit and explore for the day, or do an overnight camping adventure. Glenn Rouge Campground is located at 7450 Kingston Road, within Rouge Park, and can accommodate both tents and RV’s. It’s located along the banks of the river, and provides laundry, showers, flush toilets and fire pits available for all campers. There are 125 camping sites, seasonality is until mid-October, and rates start at just $14 a night for cyclists and backpackers. Leashed dogs are permitted, and firewood and ice are available onsite.

The Toronto Regional Conservation Authority operates Indian Line Campground, which is located at the opposite end of the city, in the northwestern reaches. This site definitely has more of an urban feel to it, far removed from nature, but still providing a fun experience. The nearby Claireville Dam gives a simulated lakeside camping experience, where campers are able to fish or float around in motor-less floatation devices such as canoes, kayaks, or rubber rafts. There’s also an onsite swimming pool, camp store, laundry facilities, flush toilets, showers, and a fire pit at each site. This is a very basic row-style campground with 247 sites, both serviced and un-serviced. Rates start at $28.50 per night, and the season ends in late October. Leashed pets are allowed.

Many campers stay here to combine a visit to the adjacent Wild Water Kingdom during their stay, as it is within easy walking distance of the campground. There are a slew of water activities that includes 16 water slides, a half-acre salt-water Tidal Wave Pool, a half-kilometre River Raft Ride, rock climbing under a waterfall on the Wild Water Wall, and Bumper Boats. Land action includes two 18-hole miniature golf courses, batting cages, volleyball tournaments, and weekly musical entertainment options. For those with any energy left, pop into the adjacent 60,000 square foot sports dome, offering a variety of indoor soccer and golfing range options. Finally, when it’s time for a break, Caribbean Cove offers up a relaxing lush hideaway surrounding a 6,000 square foot salt water pool with a cascading waterfall. The $29.95 admission fee includes unlimited access to most activities.

The Toronto public transit system can get you to within walking distance of either park, making this a eco-friendly getaway. All buses are equipped with bike racks so you can explore the surrounding areas upon arrival, or if you’re feeling fit then the trek can be done by bike to either site within about an hour from most anywhere in the city.

For visitors, this is not only an inexpensive alternative to staying in a hotel, it’s a unique experience that can’t be found in many major metropolitan centres anywhere in the world. For Toronto residents, this is a great urban adventure that can be done on the cheap, and doesn’t require a vehicle. I personally think trekking through the woods, or canoeing down a river, can be a somewhat of an exotic experience no matter where it is. Sleeping beneath the stars, spashing in the water, or lying on the beach admiring the latest bathing wear is certainly added value. With fall quickly approaching, ending the day with a moonlit fire, a bottle of wine, and a playful partner definitely fulfills the erotic part of my “staycation”.

Rouge Park:
Glenn Rouge Park reservations: or 416.338.CAMP (2267).
Indian Line Campground:
Reservations: 905-678-1233, 1-800-304-9728 or
Wild Water Kingdom:

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Parkdale (Toronto)

Once an elite residential area of the city, Parkdale is suddenly emerging from a long period of decline. Bordered by Dufferin to the East and Roncesvalles to the West, the neighbourhood is experiencing rapid gentrification along parts of Queen but is still marked by troubled spots that warrant a consistent police presence.
South of Queen to Lakeshore Boulevard is mostly residential with a mix of large homes that date back to the 1800s, poorly planned public housing complexes and boarding houses. The stretch along King is functional at best with many convenience stores, a No Frills and - probably the best pick of the lot - Asia 21, a popular pho joint that caters to the Liberty Village crowd.

At Queen and Lansdowne sits RK's Bollywood Entertainment, probably the best place outside of Little India to discover the latest Bollywood films. They also have a selection of pirated DVDs. Across the street, Mother India serves tasty east-indian roti and mango lassis in confines perhaps best described as the antithesis of ambience. Best to get them to go.

Closer to Roncesvalles, Parkdale's personality begins to change. Numerous antique and vintage clothing stores line both sides of the street west of Sorauren. The Queen West Antique Centre has a huge selection of sofas, chairs, tables and other sought-after vintage furniture. Stella Luna, Frou Frou Vintage and Take Me Back Vintage Clothing are good bets to score designer and retro finds from decades past.

For more contemporary styles, it's worth taking a look at El Toro at the corner of Queen and Triller. The relatively new store stocks a stylish selection of handcrafted women's clothing and accessories, all made by local designers.

The eastern edge near the Parkdale Public Library is where the neighbourhood's gentrification can more clearly be seen. There must be something in the water between Gwynne and Cowan along Queen as this strip keeps sprouting new cafes. Two of the gems include the decidedly eclectic Salvador Darling and the cozy Rustic Cosmo Cafe.

Designer Fabrics, also along this stretch, has long been a destination for interior designers and closet crafters for the city's best selection of upholstery and fabrics. If you spot Audis and BMWs parked nearby, it's a good bet their occupants will be there and not down the street at M&B Yummy, a bare-bones vegetarian-friendly Ethiopian restaurant that has won over locals as well as some of the city's restaurant critics.

Further south, closer to the lake, it's easy to forget about the Sunnyside Pavilion and recently restored Palais Royale. Prior to the 1950s when the city began construction of the Gardiner Expressway, Parkdale extended unobstructed down to Lake Ontario. It was there the Palais played host to the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Bassie and Eddie Duchin's Park Central Orchestra.

Worthy Of Note

Bacchus RotiThis cheerful long standing Trinidadian-style roti joint recently gave itself a face lift with a new sign. But the excellent roti hasn't changed. Outside of Ghandi admirers, many feel this place makes the best roti in the city. Veggie-friendly options include tofu, channa (curried chickpeas), spinach and squash. Goat and jerk chicken are also on the menu.
Easy BreakfastOne of the best brunch places in the city. Famous for their Huevos Divorciados, Easy Breakfast tries its best to accommodate the throngs who line up on weekends for a table. If the wait is too long, there's always the Easy Express Coffee Shop accessible through the back door. And if the stars aren't aligning for whatever reason, a good alternative is Poor John's Cafe a couple of blocks down the street

Common ClothThe most fashionable store west of Trinity Bellwoods Park, Common Cloth at the corner of Gwynne and Queen sells two local sisters' eponymous line of women's clothing. Pants, skirts, dresses, tops. It's all pretty and stylish. For accessories, walk down the street to Make You Look, a jewellery studio and shop featuring unique, hand-crafted items from more than 15 Canadian designers.

KOMA Designs This award-winning furniture and design store has an amazing collection of vintage, retro, modern, functional and imported furniture. Don't forget to have a look at the furniture gallery downstairs. For a selection that features more eco-friendly options, head west to Simone Interiors.

Mitzi's SisterLong before some of the newer bars like Not My Dog, Dragonfly and Chino opened their doors there was Mitzi's Sister. A local institution, Mitzi's Sister has live music every night of the week. While they have a small patio in the back, for some more serious lounging the Cadillac Lounge or even Rhino further east are better options.

Conspiracy Culture - This store has the city's best collection of non-fiction books, DVDs and magazines for conspiracy theorists. A fun spot to talk JFK or 9/11 with like-minded individuals, the store also hosts occasional live lectures and other events that usually draw a packed house.

Forest Hill Village (Toronto)

Spanning a short stretch of Spadina Rd. around Lonsdale Ave., Forest Hill Village is part of Forest Hill, the neighbourhood bordered roughly by the Cedarvale Ravine on the west, Avenue Rd. on the east, St. Clair Ave. on the south and Briar Hill Ave. on the north. One of the most affluent areas of the city, Forest Hill is famous mostly for its luxurious mansions, but there is a forest (well, perhaps merely a sizeable grove) of taller buildings around its edges, particularly in the south-west.

Admittedly, the neighbourhood does not score too many points for cultural diversity. According to the 2001 census, 90% of its population is white (primarily Jewish and Anglo-Saxon), though the number of visible minorities is (very) slowly increasing.
Traditionally known for upscale shopping and dining, Forest Hill Village underwent some significant changes in the last few years. Several stores and restaurants moved out of the area, leaving unsightly abandoned storefronts behind (though new business are starting to move in and fill up the space), and a few indie businesses got squeezed out by chain operations. Nevertheless, the area retains a remarkable "village" feel. Located away from the hustle and bustle of downtown, it is rarely a shopping destination for out-of-the-area visitors. Instead, it serves as a gathering place for the local residents: from flocks of spoiled teenagers to little old ladies from the nearby nursing homes.

Worthy of Note

Mashu Mashu - A relative newcomer to the neighbourhood, this lively Middle Eastern spot has almost instantly become a local favourite. Cheerful and friendly service, reasonable prices, generous portions and above all great food (falafel aficionados, take note; great salads too) have earned this restaurant a crowd of devoted regulars (yours truly included).

Kitsch Boutique - Approaching a 20th anniversary, this facetiously named fashion joint specializes in evening gowns, though it has an upstairs casual wear section. Featuring an eclectic mix of designers, Kitsch Boutique has something for all ages and wallets (check out the bargain basement). A substantial proportion of the clientele is local, but many arrive from lands as remote as Vaughan and Richmond Hill for that perfect prom dress.

The Village Chill - This tiny hole-in-the-wall ice cream parlour packs one big chill, offering 14 flavours of famous Greg's ice cream (I especially recommend ginger and of course roasted marshmallow), and as many of frozen yogurt. It is well loved by the locals, as evinced by relatively short but ever-present line-ups on hot summer afternoons.

Banfi - Despite its inconspicuous location away from Spadina, the Village's main drag, this little ristorante is filled to capacity nearly every night - I'm afraid this secret hasn't been kept very well. Offering authentic Italian fare in a relaxed rustic atmosphere, Banfi is considered by some Toronto chowhounds to have the best traditional pizza in town.

Forest Hill Barber Shop - While women are relaxing in FHV's many spas and salons, the men gather at the legendary Forest Hill Barber Shop. If there was ever a quaint village shop in an urban setting, this is it. Area's oldest business (est. 1931!), it is a meeting place as much as a haircutting joint: many regulars drop by just to chat and load up on the local news. A business with a heart, Forest Hill Barber Shop has been organizing an annual charity golf tournament for the last 12 years, raising over half a million dollars for SickKids.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Best Places to See Autumn Colours in Ontario

Algonquin Park, Ontario - The size, beauty and proximity to Toronto of this 7,725 square kilometre park make it one of the most popular parks in Ontario. The forests, lakes, and rivers that comprise Algonquin Park can only be explored by foot or canoe. The maple trees are at their best at the end of September or early October. The aspens, tamaracks and red oaks reach their peak in the middle or end of October. Consult the Algonquin Fall Color Report for fall colour activity and specific viewing spots.

Agawa Canyon Trip, Ontario - The Algoma Central Railroad/Railway's Agawa Canyon trip, which runs north from Sault Ste Marie in northern Ontario, is another excellent way to see the colours at the end of September / beginning of October. Consult the Weather Network's Fall Colour Reportfor more information on fall foliage in Ontario.

Beaver Valley - Grey County: The area around southern Georgian Bay, about two hours northwest of Toronto, is an excellent choice for an autumn foliage tour. One suggestion is to take County Road 7 south from Meaford, making a stop at Epping for spectacular views of the Niagara Escarpment. Continue south to Kimberley, Eugenia Falls and Flesherton. Returning via Kimberley, go north on County Road 13, following the Beaver River to Thornbury. Grey County Tourism, 1-877-SEE-GREY or are useful sources for information on hiking the Bruce Trail, fall events and driving tours.

Elora Gorge and Grand River The Grand River Valley in southwestern Ontario is a spectacular sight in autumn with cascading waterfalls, seven-storey cliffs, pretty towns and villages and dozens of hiking trails. The Elora Gorge and Conservation Area is on the outskirts of the picturesque village of Elora. Drive west on Highway 401 to Highway 6 and drive north past Guelph. To the north of the hamlet of Marden follow County Road 7 to Elora or remain on Highway 6 to Fergus and turn left on to County Road 18 north of the Grand River. Information: 519-846-9742 and or

Fall Festivals and Fairs in Ontario during October: Ontario Fall Colour Report 39th Annual KW OktoberfestKitchener Waterloo, Ontario, October 5-13 For other foliage route ideas in Ontario's Near North visit Autumn Cycling Tours around Toronto