Annual Caravan pulls together Toronto's ethnic mix


Toronto is one of Canada's most cosmopolitan cities, and one of the most ethnically diverse. In fact, it holds an annual event called Caravan that celebrates the various cultures there.

For nine days in June, Caravan showcases the ethnic complexion of Toronto.

Groups block out spaces in "pavilions" that feature dances, costume fashion shows and a chance to taste the foods of the countries represented. This year there will be 45 international locations across metropolitan Toronto.

After paying an admission fee, visitors are issued "passports" to be stamped upon entry at each of the pavilions.

We visited Krakow, Poland; New Delhi, India; and the Hawaiian Islands. Some pavilions have hourly shows while others seem to party from sunrise to sundown. Each has a deputized "mayor" for the duration of the event and a Caravan princess to welcome visitors.

In the Krakow pavilion, the aroma of sausages and puff pastries filled the air as "villagers" in native costumes danced on a stage with a painted backdrop of the city.

Miss New Delhi greeted us in the India pavilion. As pungent curry tempted our noses, we watched fortune-tellers paint faces and hands with henna, and looked on in awe at a demonstration on the correct way to wrap a sari.

Indian children paraded their native dress as the emcee asked all to refrain from eating for 15 minutes in honor of the Krishna spirit while two young women performed a spiritual dance. Everyone seemed to be obeying the request.

From one pavilion to the next, we could feel the pride and communal spirit of Toronto for this event, which, now in its 24th year, is still going strong.

After this infusion of culture, we opted to celebrate the child in all of us at Canada's Wonderland.

The Canadian equivalent of Disneyland, the amusement park is 30 minutes from downtown Toronto. It has eight theme areas and more than 130 attractions sprawling over 300 acres.

Visitors can take the subway to the York Mills station and hop a scheduled bus from there to the park's entrance.

The focal point and rendezvous marker of the park is the 150-foot Wonder Mountain, which is surrounded by fountains at the entrance.

Being a roller-coaster buff, I headed for what was billed as "the greatest variety of coasters in North America." There were eight in all.

First up, the wooden Mighty Canadian Minebuster, a wonderfully creaky, old-fashioned coaster with some lunch-losing drops. Next was the Vortex, a suspended coaster that is fast and frightening, especially when you're plunging over a pond only to look down to see no tracks beneath you. They're overhead.

To get my stomach back in order, I embarked on what I thought would be a "sissy" ride. No sissy, the Bat turned out to be a loopity-loop lunge at self-destruction.

Still, I needed more. So I headed to the Dragon Frye, another loop coaster with a tunnel and crooked turns. I emerged a little crooked and made a decision to pass on the four other death-defiers -- a stand-up looping coaster called SkyRider, Ghoster Coaster, the Wilde Beast and the Jet Scream.

The more sensible rides are located in the theme areas, where Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters are on hand to greet visitors. I made friends with my childhood favorite, Fred Flintstone.

Splash Works, a water play area that opened last summer, covers nearly 10 acres of the park with 16 water slides, tube rides, a separate children's play area and a "lazy river" to paddle around in.

And for kids only, there's a choice of Rhyme Time theater, Hanna-Barbera Land and the Smurf Forest.

Wonderland also boasts $9 concerts throughout the summer and into fall.

But Toronto's attractions don't stop there. The annual Dragon Boat race festival, organized by the Toronto Chinese Business Association, has been held on Centre Island for four years. A Chinese tradition spanning 2,400 years, dragon boat racing commemorates the fourth-century B.C. poet-philosopher Qu Yuan, who committed suicide in a lake.

Local fishermen jumped into their boats to try to save him but failed. While trying to retrieve his body, the fishermen pounded the waters with their oars to keep fish from consuming him.

Today, this colorful re-enactment features corporate teams vying for honors of fastest oarsmen. The prize? Round-trip tickets to compete in the international races in Hong Kong.

IF YOU GO . . .

When: Caravan will be held June 18-26 from 6 p.m.-11 p.m. weekdays and from 3p.m.-11 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Nine-day "passports" allowing unlimited admission to more than 200 shows cost $14. If purchased before June 14, the price is $12. A one-day passport is $7 and children under 12 are admitted free with an adult.

Where to stay: Hotel-motel chains such as Journey's End offer free shuttle service from the airport to downtown sites. Call (800) 668-4200.

Information: For other hotels, land packages and a full schedule of Toronto events, including September's film festival and bungee jumping at Ontario Place, contact the Metropolitan Toronto Convention and Visitors Association, (800) 363-1990, or (416) 203-2500. Or write the convention office: MTCVA, Queen's Quay Terminal at Harbourfront, P.O. Box 126, 207 Queen's Quay West, Toronto, Ontario M5J1A7.

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