As I flew to Toronto for the first time last week, I felt a bit like I was cheating on Montreal, a city where I have several good friends and with which I have had an ongoing love affair for the past two decades. Toronto, the largest city in Canada (and fifth largest in North America) with its famously multicultural population of 2.5 million who speak 130 different languages and dialects, was never really on my radar as a place to escape to for a romantic weekend. (To be honest, it sounded a bit too much like New York, which is where Id be escaping from.) But a recent spate of luxury hotel openings paired with an innovative dining scene finally lured me to see what Toronto has to offer couples seeking a sophisticated urban retreat with excellent food and wine (much of it from the nearby Niagara on the Lakes wine region). And wouldnt you know it, I was pleasantly and deliciously surprised.
Its November, so temperatures have begun to dip, but if you like brisk weather (which goes really well with some of the heartier local fare Canadian bacon and horseradish-laced mustard on a Portuguese sourdough roll, for example) there is still time for a quick pre-holiday visit. If not, plan ahead for next spring or summer.
The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto
If your idea of romance is sleek design and sweeping views, check into the sophisticated, five-star The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto, the citys newest luxury hotel (opened February 2011), located on the first 20 floors of a high-rise (the upper floors are residences) in the downtown financial and performing arts districts. For added amenities, book a Club Level room, which includes access to the 20th-floor Club, with its private concierge and five culinary offerings throughout the day.
Accommodations: The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto features 267 rooms and suites, all with floor-to-ceiling views of the city or Lake Ontario. Mine had a perfect panorama of the landmark CN Tower (shown above at left), where I could spy on the brave participants in its new Edgewalk attraction located 1,158 feet up (and get psyched myself since Id be up there the following day details next week!). The rooms palette of pale gold with touches of cream and garnet is both contemporary and comforting, while the soaking tub in the marble bathroom faces an in-mirror TV, making it the ideal spot to wind down before dinner. Rates start at $485/night.
Dining: One of Canadas rising-star chefs is the force behind TOCA by Tom Brodi, The Ritz-Carltons fine-dining restaurant (shown at right). Brodi, a Toronto native, has given TOCA (short for Toronto, Canada) a classic Canadian menu that is both local and sustainable. In addition, about 30 percent of the wine list is from Canadian vineyards. A sampling of some the current menus highlights included addictive Fancy Fish and Chips (tender Mill Street beer-battered Yarmouth lobster frites with espelette tartar), Roasted Cinderella Pumpkin Soup (with toasted seeds and dash of birch beer) and B.C. Dungeness Crab Marrow (a divine combination of crabmeat and bone marrow topped with peau rouge cheese and fennel foam). All were exceptional, especially when paired with local wines, such as the Huff Estates sparkling wine made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes fermented for two years and a 2007 Daniel Lenko Old Vine Chardonnay made from grapes grown on vines planted in 1959. Dinner for two, from $150.
Extras: Guests can also enjoy the indoor/outdoor DEQ Terrace Lounge with its all-day dining menu (flatbreads, antipasti) from an outdoor oven, as well as TOCA Bar, where innovative libations are mixed up by head bartender Moses using fresh muddled ingredients and liquid nitrogen rather than ice (so as not to dilute the flavor). Work off all those extra calories in the fitness center and indoor pool that are part of the hotels 23,000-square-foot Urban Sanctuary and Spa. If youre celebrating a special occasion, you can splurge on the two-hour Cloud 9 Massage for Two using aromatic local ingredients (lavender, sage, pumpkin, cranberry) in a private couples sanctuary ($579).
Thompson Toronto Hotel
Toronto also has its edgier luxuries and the 16-month-old Thompson Toronto Hotel, located in the emerging Central King West neighborhood, is a great option for couples seeking an eclectic vibe and easy access to galleries and clubs. Offering 102 rooms (again as part of a mixed-use condo development), the Thompson Toronto, like its nine U.S. siblings in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., has a striking visual design (that's the lobby, shown at left) with lighting that gives it a nightclub feel and a youthful ambience thats ideal for socializing.
Accommodations: Designed by the New York-based Studio Gaia, the Thompsons rooms and suites will satisfy guests who appreciate a minimalist aesthetic: dark wood floors and cabinetry accented by crisp white and plush orange and softened slightly by a wall of sheer white curtains. The platform bed features an especially comfy pillow top and 400 thread-count sheets, but youll have to head up to the top-floor lounge for any kind of view. And all rooms feature roomy walk-in showers and heated floorsbut for a tub, youll need to book a suite. Rates start at $225/night.
Dining: With five hotels in its home base of New York City, Thompson Hotels lured one of the Big Apples star chefs, ScottConant, north to Toronto to open the first outpost of his award-winning Italian restaurant Scarpetta. Featuring a sophisticated mix of rustic and refined techniques, Scarpetta seduces the taste buds with dishes that may seem simple (Spaghetti with Tomato and Basil, shown at right, and Creamy Polenta with Fricasse of Truffled Mushrooms), but which reward with pure flavor thats impossible to forget and those are just the appetizers. Be sure to save room for the Dolce (desserts), which include luscious Amedei Chocolate Cake (with burnt orange caramel gelato). Dinner for two, from $120.
Extras: Before you head out for the evening, check out the glass-walled Rooftop Lounge, which overlooks the hotels outdoor infinity edge pool and a wonderful view of the skyline, for a cocktail or glass of wine. If you party a little too much, a little too late into the night, you can make a beeline for the ground floor Thompson Diner, open 24/7 and serving classic diner fare. And yoga fans can rebalance at any of 30 flow-based weekly yoga classes at the on-site 889 Yoga + Wellness Spa.
Preview of the new Four Seasons Toronto
Four Seasons is based in Toronto, but for many years its hotel here has lacked the sophistication of its newer properties. Thats about to change as the company prepares to open a new 259-room luxury hotel (with an additional 210 private residences) in two modern towers just blocks from its current site in the citys chic Yorkville neighborhood. Scheduled for summer 2012, the new Four Seasons Toronto will also feature a full-service Four Seasons Spa as well as a restaurant and bar by acclaimed chef Daniel Boulud. The signature restaurant will be Café Boulud, offering a slightly more casual format than the New York City original, but still with cuisine inspired by Bouluds four culinary muses: la tradition (classic French); la saison (seasonal specialties); le potager (the vegetable garden); and le voyage (international flavors). In addition, Boulud will open a modern street-front bar with a menu that incorporates the chefs more casual culinary offerings, such as his famous db Burger as well as house-made charcuterie and sausages.