Toronto is full of great surprises

CN Tower and MTCC

Michelle Chenery reports on a packed Fam Trip itinerary

Ditch what you think you know about Toronto and take a fresh look at the city. Development over the past few years has changed the city dramatically, so that even the locals don’t recognise it. There have been hotel openings, new venues and refurbishments, with many still in the pipeline to be ready for the Pan American Games in 2015.
One is the Union Pearson Express rail link that will speed delegates the 20 miles from Toronto Pearson International Airport in 25 minutes. Billy Bishop City Airport can be even more convenient.

With approximately 230 hotels, over 9,000 restaurants and over 302,864sqm of meetings and event space, there are plenty of facilities to hold events and meetings and the 200 plus attractions can keep delegates busy in their free time.

Hosted by Tourism Toronto and Starwood Hotels & Resorts, upon arrival I was picked up by Luxury Coach and whisked to the Westin Harbour Castle Toronto, located on the vibrant waterfront of Lake Ontario.

With 977 rooms in total, including 22 suites and 555 King Rooms over 38 floors, the hotel also boasts a Convention Centre linked via an enclosed glass walkway. This offers nearly 8,000sqm of meetings space. It has a fully equipped business centre, FedEx Office, in-house audio visual company and a dedicated Convention Services Team. A Tradition room at the hotel features the iconic Heavenly Bed, a spacious workspace and high speed internet access (for a fee).

The hotel has also recently completed a $300,000 refurbishment of its 1,560sqft WestinWORKOUT Toronto Gym, featuring state-of-the-art treadmills, elliptical machines, and stationary bikes, all equipped with personal TVs as well as free weights and universal machines. Westin has also partnered with New Balance to provide athletic shoes and apparel during guests stay for just $5.25. Simply ring up, state the size and they are delivered to your room.

The Westin Harbour Castle boasts four restaurants. The Mizzen serves breakfast; the 38th floor Toula Restaurant and Bar provides an authentic Italian dining experience with 360 -degree views over Lake Ontario. The Chartroom Bar and Lounge, open from 11.30am - 01.00am, features complimentary internet access and is a relaxed area, great for a quick bite or to meet over a drink.

Rachel Carnac – Metal Events Ltd:“Toronto has so much to offer all sizes and types of groups. There is a really good selection of meeting space on offer and from what I saw much of it has the added bonus of affording natural light, so you don’t feel that you are underground for the duration of a conference. There is no shortage either of venues to hold outside dinners and parties: from the amazing views from the CN Tower to the Hockey Hall of Fame to King Street West and its many bars and restaurants. All I would say is you need to book space well in advance as it’s a very busy city.” The 32 versatile meeting rooms at the hotel can host an intimate group of 10 in the Regatta room overlooking Lake Ontario, up to 2,000 for a gala dinner in the Metropolitan Ballroom or cater for up to 3,000 for a reception. The hotel also features Tangent at Westin, a flexible workspace that can be hired by the hour for small groups of up to four.

That evening we dined at the multi-storey The Chase, recently opened and becoming one of the places to be seen in Toronto. There is The Chase Fish and Oyster on the ground floor. Whilst on the lower level guests can enjoy a vast array of seafood dishes, with the upper floor serving a more mixed menu, still heavily seafood orientated but with some meat available. A private dining room can cater for up to 16 guests, there is a terrace for exclusive use and the restaurant can provide a-v facilities, teleconference, valet parking and even offsite catering options.

The following day started off at The Ritz-Carlton, another downtown hotel, located on the vibrant Wellington Street, opposite the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. It features 263 luxurious rooms, including 56 one bedroom suites, four Simcoe Suites, two Wellington Suites and one Ritz-Carlton Suite. Even the smallest guestrooms are 450sqft, ranging up to the 2,415sqft of the Ritz-Carlton Suite. In-room amenities include 42in. LCD flat-panel TV with Blu-ray/DVD player, floor to ceiling windows, 19in. HD television custom-designed into the vanity mirror, high speed wired and wireless internet connection, large marble bathrooms with underfloor heating, twice daily housekeeping service, laptop safes, BOSE Wave music system with iPod dock and a fully stocked honour bar. The Club Level rooms are located on floors 18, 19 and 20. A lounge setting on the 20th boasts views over Lake Ontario and serves complimentary dishes throughout the day.

The 5th floor features North America’s only Spa My Blend by Clarins, its 23,000sqft encompassing 16 treatment rooms, ladies and men’s wet lounges, vitality pools, spacious aromatherapy steam room, sauna, private dry relaxation dens; champagne nail bar; and a retail boutique with hair/make-up beauty bar.

There is also a 24hr professionally equipped fitness centre with a cardio fitness theatre, strength training systems, free weights, kinesis centre, yoga and core fitness training. Meetings facilities at the hotel include 20,000sqft of conferencing and banqueting space, distributed over two floors. The Luxury Ballroom caters for up to 700 delegates theatre style and four smaller rooms host up to 150 for a banquet, with a further 4,500sqft of pre function promenade available. The 4th floor facilities include the 1,666sqft Gallery Room and the Wellington Ballroom, divisible into four, catering for up to 200 for a banquet.

Hannah Fletcher, Chambers Travel Group: "I was amazed by how much Toronto has to offer as a destination, particularly as a twin centre incentive destination, mixing the city with Niagara and the Ontario wine region. The destination as a whole really surprised me and I will definitely be considering it as a contender against other North American cities." Restaurants at the hotel include TOCA. It has an open kitchen concept, a walk-through pastry corridor, an in-kitchen chef's table where comments can be written on the walls, a glass encased cheese cave where private tasting can be arranged and an extensive wine cellar with a focus on Canadian wines.

Close-by, we visited the boutique Thompson Hotel in the city's vibrant entertainment district. This hotel sets itself apart with dark hardwood floors, wall to ceiling windows giving sweeping views over the Toronto Skyline and Lake Ontario and contemporary furnishings. Each room features a marble bath with thermal floor, amenities by REN, Lutron lighting and multimedia workstations, 42-in plasma tv with movie library, iHome dock and wi-fi.

The hotel’s 30,000sqft of event space includes the stunning Rooftop Lounge with 360deg views of the Toronto skyline as well an infinity pool, able to cater for up to 220 guests. The Wellington Ballroom holds up to 280. There is also a luxurious 41-seat screening room with writing tables.

The Thompson Diner is the hotel’s classic restaurant, open 24 hrs to serve diner bites with a twist, artisan beers and signature cocktails. Wabora Sushi serves sushi with a Korean kick. In addition to firing up one of the few Robata grills in Toronto, Chef Minsoo Kim has crafted a lengthy menu that includes steak, lobster and decadent sushi creations.

Located amongst designer label shops in the heart of Yorkville is the 55-storey Four Seasons Hotel. Opened in 2012, it has 259 spacious rooms, including 42 suites. Each room features an iPad to give access to Four Seasons services, which can also be customised for delegates attending events. Other amenities include desk side charging, safes large enough for 15in/38cm wide laptops, complimentary daily newspaper, espresso machine and tea maker, as well as a private bar, satellite TV and iPod docking station.

Lucy Baker, Managing Director, Zebra Events: “My first impression above all was the Canadian’s themselves, great sense of humour and genuinely very kind in nature and welcoming. When visiting Toronto the helicopter ride over Niagara Falls was just breath-taking, the views of this phenomenal Wonder of the World is an experience never to be forgotten. I was also surprised to discover Canada also produces exquisite wine. Visiting a vineyard here is a must!” With 14,300 sqft of dedicated function space on the third and sixth floors the hotel offers a wide range of flexible settings for meetings and events. The largest, on the third floor, is the Aria for up to 600 theatre style and 430 for a banquet, featuring floor to ceiling wrap around windows, access to an outdoor terrace and garden spaces. For a more intimate setting the Tamarack room can host up to 16 delegates boardroom style or 29 for a reception. The Vinci ballroom on the sixth floor can host up to 316 theatre style or 180 classroom. PSAV Presentation Services have offices on site to provide technical expertise and equipment.

Next to the CN Tower is the Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada it features North America's longest underwater viewing tunnel, where sharks swim overhead and alongside. There are nine galleries and over 100 interactive points, including three touch pools where you can get hands on with horseshoe crabs, sharks and rays. The Aquarium is a unique space available for groups, with the option of behind the scenes tours and custom dive shows.

The following morning we were driven to Niagara Falls, just 90 minutes from Toronto. We stopped at Table Rock to take in the awesome power of the falls from the top, before boarding a Hornblower 700-passenger catamaran. Wearing ponchos, we toured the Great Gorge, American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls and sailed close to the thundering of the Horseshoe Falls. Poncho hoods were no match for the power of the spray and with wet hair and wide smiles we could look back on the experience of a lifetime.

Hillebrand Estate Winery was our lunch venue. For more than 30 years it has been crafting VQA wines in the four appellations of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Every course was paired with Trius Winery produce. We went through Trius Sauvignon Blanc to Trius Red 2011 and then to Showcase Cabernat Franc Icewine with the rich chocolate dessert.

Trius Winery has a range of event spaces. The Studio combines a restaurant experience with fine dining for up to 24 guests. The Winemaker's Lookout caters for up to 28 guests and up to 125 can dine in the Vineyard Pavilion looking onto the Vineyard and Niagara Escarpment. In the Trius Red Barrel Cellar guests dine amongst 20 years of Trius Red, candlelight creating an intimate stetting for up to 32 guests. The winery offers a team building option, whereby teams blend their own wines and then go home with their own label.

Victoria Avenue was our next stop, the Niagara helicopters base. Six passengers enjoy uninterrupted views of the Falls, listening via individual headsets to commentaries in a choice of 12 languages. We flew over Niagara Parks Commission School of Horticulture, the Niagara River, the Whirlpool Rapids and the Rainbow Bridge, the Queen Victoria Park, the American Falls and the Skylon Tower.

The evening provided us with a truly epic dining experience in the Cibo Wine Bar, one of the chic restaurants of King Street. We had a décor of glass and stone walls, rustic wood finishes, exposed brick and butcher block table tops. We enjoyed traditional and modern Italian dishes, freshly baked bread, four styles of pizza, pasta, salads, meat on skewers, with tomato and mozzarella and shrimps.

The morning of the third day we had the crazy experience of riding Segways through the Distillery traffic-free village famous for its restored Victorian buildings housing a wide range of shops.

It was then a short transfer to the unmistakeable CN Tower, seen as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. We shot 351 metres up to 360 The Restaurant, offering diners market fresh food featuring regional ingredients, Obviously not for anyone suffering from vertigo, but for those who love heights it is the place for a full 360-degree view of the city from the comfort of your seat. We enjoyed simultaneously a 3 course meal and a full 360-degree rotation so we didn’t miss any views of the city.

Guests can also test their nerves by standing, sitting or lying on the 256sqft of glass flooring looking straight down for 1,112 ft. The SkyPod, 33 storeys even higher, also boasts 360-degree views over the city. On a clear day visibility can be over 160km, as far as Niagara Falls or Rochester, New York.

Down from the dizzy heights, we then saw the city from ground level on a walking tour that took in Yorkville, the entertainment district, Yonge-Dundas Square and Kensington Market.

Pravda Vodka bar later provided us with a Russian-inspired ambiance for vodka and food pairings. There was a choice of 70 of the world’s best vodkas. Our appropriate vodka shots were presented by a very amusing and knowledgeable hostess.

The entire restaurant can cater for up to 200 people on the upper floor and a further 90 on the lower level. The VIP lounge can host 20-25 and the Atrium up to 20 guests. We were there on one of the four nights when the live instrumentalists were playing along with a DJ, creating an interactive experience. People danced in the aisle and around the bar. Tasting can take place inside the cellar itself and an ice experience can also be arranged, where an ice bar and ice-shot glasses are set up amongst company logos.

Breakfast the next morning was at the Sheraton Centre Toronto. It has 1,371 rooms and suites, all with Sheraton Sweet Sleeper Beds. Sheraton Club rooms offer another level of service, with upgraded amenities and access to the 43rd floor Sheraton Club Lounge.

The 60 newly renovated meetings spaces combine to provide over 120,000sqft of events and meetings space. The Grand Ballroom can cater for up to 2,300 theatre style and for up to 1,900 for a gala. The recent renovation has expanded the exhibition space to more than 60,000sqft of contiguous space on one level.

The group enjoyed a walk from the Sheraton Centre Toronto via North America's largest continuous underground pedestrian system PATH, which links stores, restaurants, office towers, five subway stations, Union Station, six major hotels and several entertainment centres under Toronto's financial district. It brought us to Dundas Square and our lunch location.

I then opted to accept the challenge of the EdgeWalk at the CN Tower. Participants arrive 15 minutes before the allotted walk time in order to complete the relevant paperwork. I then sat and let my nerves absorb what I had signed up to do.

The entire experience takes up to 90 minutes. I was breathalysed, removed all jewellery. I was frisked and body-checked with a metal detector to make sure there was nothing left in any pockets.

Then it's time to start kit out with a nice orange jump suit and harness, whilst listening to the instructors making jokes about not having lost anyone yet. Shoes, harnesses, arms, legs and clips are all triple checked downstairs and then again by the guide before heading up in the lift to the EdgeWalk floor. Then they are checked again after you are clipped into the rope and pulley system which attaches you to the rail that runs around the entire top of the walk.

Then it is time to take a deep breath and brave the full effect of being up 356m (1,168ft) with no handrail and on a grated metal walkway where you can see everything below. What a thrill, walking out onto the platform! The view was stunning. The edge was so close, but I wasn’t bothered as much as I had expected. I was fully strapped in and going no further than the rope allowed. I was the first to have my toes poking out over the edge, looking straight down. We then walked round, with landmarks being pointed out to us.

Then another challenge - I leaned out backwards over the edge, sitting in the harness and inching out till my entire body was leaning over, with just the tip of my feet on the platform. Then I had to let go of the rope that was essentially my security. The rush is fantastic. I was just hanging there, arms out to the side, with the whole of Toronto below. There is nothing to equal being pushed to your personal limits. Next I was hanging over forwards, even standing on tiptoes.

The 30 minutes that I was up there seemed to fly by, but I was certainly buzzing by the time I made it back down to ground level.

Participants don't leave the EdgeWalk empty handed. I walked away with a keepsake video, printed pictures and a Tower Experience Ticket that gives access to the LookOut, Glass Floor, SkyPod and other attractions. And I left happy with the knowledge that I had taken part in a Guinness World Record: the highest external walk on a building.

For further information on Toronto please visit:
or contact the following people directly:
Mark Crawford
Tourism Toronto
Director, International Business Development
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Emma Cashmore
Managing Director
European GSA, Business Events Canada
C/o Axis Travel Marketing Ltd
Tel: +44(0) 208 686 2300
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Meredith Donaghey
Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide
Toronto Metro Market
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To View more pictures from the Fam Trip please visit our Toronto Facebook album