The aroma of egg noodles in rich chicken broth tugged us by the nose into the tiny doorway of King's Noodle Shop at Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street in Toronto. Behind a long metal counter, a young man in white apron and cap enveloped in a thick cloud of steam rapidly ladled noodles out of giant metal pots, tossing them high into the air and deftly parceling them into gleaming white bowls of sizzling yellow soup.
"Shall we stop for a taste?" asked Shirley Lum, our guide, looking at the noodles with undisguised longing. "We could stay just awhile. We could have just a little."
Why not? We were, after all, on a three-hour Taste of the World tour aimed at filling us with all the food and smells and impressions of Toronto's old and new Chinatowns.
The walking tour was the first of several outdoor excursions I took on a recent trip to the Canadian metropolis. Let others fill their days with bargain shopping (thanks to the weaker Canadian dollar), top Broadway shows and great museums. I hungered for a more aerobic and less costly itinerary.
In three days I sampled several of the area's diverse outdoor opportunities:
During my guided Chinatown walking tour, I feasted my eyes (and often my stomach) on freshly made Korean tofu, Vietnamese meat pies, sweet Indian pastries, spicy Chinese dim sum and a dizzying array of richly scented Malaysian, French, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Lebanese and Thai delicacies. This multitude of ethnic bakeries and cafes happily coexist along a roughly 10-block radius around the bustling core at Dundas Street and Spadina Avenue northwest of the Queen's Street Metro stop.
The next day I hiked the steep ravines of the city's Rosedale section, a residential neighborhood in the heart of Toronto undiscovered by most tourists, who might be pleasantly shocked to find quiet woods and craggy cliffs a short walk from the commercial centers of Bloor and Young streets.
Craving more rural fare for my feet, I rented a car and drove 90 minutes north to the sleepy village of Elora. Known among Ontario residents (but not many outsiders) for the twisting forest trails along the 80-foot deep Elora Gorge, Elora also offers tranquil cycling routes along shaded streets flanked by 19th-century stone houses and outlying Mennonite farmlands. At the massive stone 1850 Elora Grist Mill, now restored as a 32-room inn and restaurant, diners can sit on a glass-enclosed terrace perched directly over the Elora Gorge's thundering falls.
Had I had more time, I could have hopped a ferry and made the 10-minute trip across Toronto Harbor to the Toronto Islands. The 600-acre park made up of four main islands is a fine place to cycle or stroll past quiet cottage communities, colorful marinas, landscaped lagoons and beach-side boardwalks. Back on the mainland, I could have taken a street car down Queen Street East to Woodbine Avenue, and walked or cycled the waterfront beaches, trails and boardwalk around Kew Beach Park. Or I could have spent a day on a guided canoe or raft trip along the Grand River, an hour from downtown Toronto.
For more traditional outdoor diversions, I could have driven 90 minutes south and east around Lake Ontario to Niagara Falls. For a longer trip, I could have continued north from Niagara to pretty Niagara-on-the-Lake, with its 100-year-old storefronts, gracious bed-and-breakfast inns, and -- April to October -- its annual Shaw Theater Festival.
As it was, my three days of outdoor explorations were filled with sights and sounds most visitors to the city miss.
Chinatown on foot
Shirley Lum, a 34-year-old first-generation Chinese-Canadian, has been running her Taste of the World walking and cycling tours around Toronto's neighborhoods since 1993, when she quit her job as a test administrator at a psychology firm. With the city already surfeited with traditional tours, she based her business on unearthing offbeat nooks and crannies skipped by most guides. A food-lover, she figured it wouldn't hurt to stuff her guests with equal portions of food and facts.
And so we walked and we talked and we ate.
Even before we reached Chinatown and our official tour start, Shirley began dispensing tidbits: Strolling through trendy Yorkville en route to the southbound Metro, she led us past the bridal shop where Whoopi Goldberg bought her wedding dress last year.
By the time we reached Chinatown via a 10-minute Metro ride, Shirley was in full spiel. Walking northwest from the Queen Street stop, she pointed out old and new, in sync and out -- high-rises of gleaming chrome and glass in which were reflected stately old stone buildings with green copper roofs. At Nathan Phillips square, the swank, modern city hall lost some of its appeal after Shirley explained how it occupies land that once made up a bustling old Chinatown. "Ethnic wasn't in in the Fifties," she said, relating how the city bulldozed the section to make way for a new look. Not far from the square, a plaque commemorates Sam Ching, credited as the first Chinese resident of Toronto and patriarch of the community's hand laundry trade, started in 1878.
We follow Shirley north and west along the migration Chinatown itself took, where Yung Sing's Pastry Shop at 22 Baldwin St. still uses the original red butcher counter from when the store was a kosher meat market.
The farther we walked, the deeper the concentration of ethnic cafes representing the latest waves of immigrants -- Malaysians, Lebanese, Thais and more. But throughout was a Chinese thread -- a Chinese social club and credit union, the city's oldest Chinese art gallery (at 289 Dundas), and at 105 Baldwin the Toronto Mahjong Club, where on most days one can hear the clacking of mah-jongg tiles within. Old and new clash and coexist. In dim sum shops, men shoveled rice into their mouths with chopsticks while feverishly doing business on cellular phones.
Our tour culminated in a dim sum luncheon feast at the third-floor Chinatown International Restaurant (421-429 Dundas Street West), where Darjeeling and jasmine tea washed down meat pies, shrimp dumplings, vegetarian spring rolls in hot pepper sauce and other delicacies we selected from roving pushcarts that we hailed with the wave of an arm.
Satiated on food and frenzy, I was ready for quieter ramblings, and found them the next day a short Metro ride east from downtown. Disembarking at the Sherbourne stop, we walked north on Sherbourne Street, then right on Elm Avenue and into the Rosedale residential section's tranquil streets. We turned left onto South Drive and then right onto Milkman's Road and into a parkland of green foliage, a winding creek and a mile-long trail abutted by steep ravines on which were perched a few snazzy modern houses with lots of glass overlooking the ravine.
Though this residential-cum-conservation area was encircled by major highways, we heard no sounds but birds and an occasional dog sprinting by with owner in tow.
Our walk eventually took us to Park Drive and then Mount Pleasant Road, from where we threaded our way northwest through Balfour Park, eventually coming out onto bustling Yonge Street and the Summerhill Metro station. We didn't follow any particular directions on our return to civilization. We headed west knowing we'd eventually find a major street and its inevitable Metro connection.
Our taste of rural life in the city made us hungry for the real thing, so the next day we headed north 90 minutes to the old mill town of Elora, population 3,265. Bad luck gave us several hours of steady rain, but, enveloped in our slickers, we braved the muddy gorge trail, taking in rich evergreen scents and misty views of caves, a winding river and swimming holes across the craggy rock chasm. The weather made the gorge all ours that day, not a bad trade-off for a little bit of mud.
Almost as quiet was the nearby residential area and the small commercial stretch of Mill Street, home to an espresso bar, a few craft outlets and a bike shop. There were livelier doings at the town post office where everyone picks up their mail (no home delivery in Elora) and catches up on the latest neighborhood gossip.
Though a sleepy place most of the year, Elora bulges with visitors in the summer, when the 16-year-old Elora Festival brings thousands of music lovers to concerts around town, including several in the old Elora limestone quarry, where musicians perform from rafts in a wide swimming hole. The music ranges from classical to baroque, folk and rock, from choral to instrumental. Many folks make a weekend of it, staying at the Old Mill Inn or one of the 17 bed-and-breakfasts in the area.
Rewarding ourselves for our can-do spirit on this dour day, we luxuriated in an extra-long lunch of Atlantic salmon and crisp Chardonnay at the Elora Mill Inn, where we watched the raging falls from our window seats. Cosmopolitan Toronto seemed a world away, yet 90 minutes after paying our bill and taking a last tTC look at the gorge, we were back in the heart of the city, refreshed, recharged and perhaps even ready for just the littlest bit of shopping.
If you go
The ideal way to get around the city is the Metro system. Fare is $2 Canadian. The exchange rate is $1.37 Canadian to $1 U.S.
Shirley Lum's A Taste of the World Neighborhood Bicycle Tours and Walks; P.O. Box 659 Station P, Toronto, Ontario, M5S 2Y4 Canada; (416) 463-9233.
Metropolitan Toronto Convention and Visitors Bureau; (800) 363-1990. The bureau publishes pamphlets and brochures for would-be walkers and cyclists.
Toronto Islands Ferry Service; (416) 392-8193.
Elora Chamber of Commerce; Box 814, Elora, Ontario N0B1S0; (519) 846-9841. Elora Gorge information: P.O. Box 356, Elora, Ontario, N0B1S0; (519) 846-9742.
Grand River Canoe Company; P.O. Box 25090, West Brantford Postal Outlet, Brantford, Ontario N3T6K5; (519) 759-0040.
Niagara Falls Tourism Information, Ontario Travel Information Center; (800) 668-2746.
Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce; (905) 468-4263. Shaw Theater Festival runs through Oct. 27. Information; (800) 267-4759.
Pub Date: 8/18/96