TORONTO — In James Hilton's novel Lost Horizon, the protagonist, British diplomat Hugh Conway, is transported to the mythical kingdom of Shangri-La in the mountains of Tibet. In the years since the novel's publication, the term Shangri-La has become synonymous with "earthly paradise."
Arriving in Toronto after a nearly missed flight connection and an hour ride through bumper-to-bumper traffic, and suffering from a miserable head cold, I was in need of my own Shangri-La.
I found it at the Shangri-La Hotel. In the center of the city's Financial District, it is one of only two North American properties of the Hong Kong-based luxury hotel group (the other is in Vancouver, British Columbia).
Known for its attention to detail (each guest receives a bookmark with a different quote from Hilton's novel on their bedside table every night) and impeccable service, Shangri-La has become a favorite of travelers worldwide. Easing myself into a chair in the Lobby Lounge, I ordered a glass of wine and prepared for a long weekend of pampering.
It's a good thing that the Shangri-La provides such an oasis of calm, because outside its doors, Toronto buzzes with activity. Cranes have become a regular fixture of the skyline. It seems that a major construction project dominates every street corner.
Just about everything
Some people say Toronto lacks the joie de vivre of its Gallic neighbors Montreal and Quebec City, or the jaw-dropping physical beauty of Vancouver on the West Coast, but few would deny that for sheer excitement and variety of activities, nowhere else in Canada comes close.
For starters, there is a theater scene that is considered among the best in the world (along with London and New York). If you prefer your drama in the form of a sporting event, take in a Blue Jays baseball game at Rogers Centre, famous for its fully retractable stadium roof, the first of its kind.
Toronto offers visitors a mini-tour of the world in one destination. Start at one of the city's three Chinatown neighborhoods, and move on to Little Italy, Little Portugal and Greektown. Or you can do something uniquely Canadian, by spending a day bicycling on one of the car-free Toronto Islands.
Take a walk on Yonge Street, an old Huron Indian trail that stretches from Lake Ontario to the town of Rainy River, 1,180 miles away.
Most visitors concentrate on the section between Front Street and Lawrence Avenue. That stretch is a beehive of activity where you can shop for couture or vintage fashion or indulge your passion for ethnic food. You also can visit the Hockey Hall of Fame, where you can get your picture taken holding the Stanley Cup.
There are art museums galore. You have plenty of time to catch a blockbuster exhibit on ancient Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) at the Royal Ontario Museum. That exhibit runs through Jan. 5.
You also can check out the David Bowie exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario, which will run through Nov. 27. It's the first North American stop for the show, after a record-breaking run at London's Victoria & Albert Museum. The exhibit focuses on Bowie's amazing career, from his brush with surrealism to the antics of his glitzy alter-ego Ziggy Stardust.
Speaking of glitz, you'll be too late for the spectacular Christian Louboutin exhibition at the Design Exchange (it ends Sunday), but don't fret. Upcoming exhibitions will feature the origins of French lingerie and the artistry of Hermès.
Whatever else you do, you'll probably end up at the iconic CN Tower, where on a clear day, visibility can extend for 100 miles. There are several ways to take in that view, including a quick trip up to the SkyPod (1,465 feet above the city) or a leisurely meal at 360 Restaurant.
Daredevils won't want to stop there. On my first visit years ago, despite having a fear of heights, I ventured out on the glass floor, eventually opening my eyes to see the cityscape 1,000 feet below.
I went back out on the glass floor during this trip and again felt a lump in my throat. Then I saw the line of thrill seekers, attached by what looked like a very thin wire, suspended on the lip of the tower's outside terrace. They were engaged in the CN Tower's newest thrill, the Edge Walk. I decided against joining them.
Back on terra firma, I was ready to explore the area where Toronto had its beginning.
'The meeting place'
The settlement of Toronto — which means meeting place in the native Huron language — had existed for several centuries when the British Crown bought the land on the shore of Lake Ontario in the late 18th century and renamed it York.
American forces plundered York during the War of 1812, leading to the burning of Washington, D.C., by the British in retaliation. In 1834, the town was incorporated under its original name.
For a good sense of where Toronto started, hook up with local guide Bruce Bell for a two-hour walking tour of St. Lawrence Market. One of the world's great marketplaces, the three red-brick buildings give the area a definite Colonial feel.
Start at South Market, with its 120 specialty vendors (be sure to sample a peameal bacon sandwich at Carousel Bakery); move on to North Market, dating to 1803 and the site of a seasonal farmers market; and end up at St. Lawrence Hall, with its array of retail businesses.
There is no more colorful area of the city. I decided I had to come back in July for Woofstock. Billed as "the summer of canine love," it is North America's largest outdoor festival for dogs.
Leaving St. Lawrence Market, it's a history-filled stroll through Toronto's Old Town before you arrive at the Distillery District. Once the Gooderham & Worts Distillery, it is now a pedestrian-only village integrating art, culture and entertainment.
With 40 heritage buildings and 10 streets, it is the largest and best-preserve collection of Victorian-era industrial architecture in North America. Many of those buildings now house art galleries, boutiques, restaurants and a renowned microbrewery.
At the end of my busy day, it was back to the Shangri-La for afternoon high tea in the Lobby Lounge. The clink of champagne glasses, the soft strains of classical piano music and the buzz of conversations conducted in multiple languages made me realize that for all its New World entrepreneurial spirit, Toronto has many links to its Old World past. It truly offers the best of both.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay: Shangri-La Hotel. The owner, a Hong Kong company, is known worldwide for its elegant, comfortable hotels. The hotel's 202 rooms and suites have floor-to-ceiling windows offering panoramic views of Toronto's financial district. Dining options range from small plates in the Lobby Lounge to an Asian-inspired tasting menu at Bosk, the signature restaurant. The sensual Miraj Hammam Spa by Caudalie Paris offers a full range of treatments. 188 University Ave. (647) 788-8888. Shangri-la.com/toronto.
Learn more: Seetorontonow.com.