Five years after launching, TBEX, an international conference for travel bloggers and peddlers of tourism, sells out its sponsorship. That tells you (and me) quite a bit. Everyone seems to want to ditch it all and Instagram their global adventures. The 2012 conference in Colorado attracted almost 800 people. This year, more than 1,300 attendees descended into Toronto with big dreams, tight budgets and cell phones hot from incessant tweeting.
The beehive that was TBEX made for an interesting three days, and I hope the million buzzing conversations happening at once yield lasting relationships, which mean more to me than compensated press trips. Yes, I want to see the world, but I’ve been doing it on my own dime so far, an approach that’s gotten me into some pretty big publications. I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, try some new things along the way, see where that goes and if someone wants to fund that, well, super.
Meanwhile, Toronto. I’m not a party blogger, I’m a travel blogger so I skipped sponsored convention parties and wandered the city with Mike and Anna because that’s what we do and we’ve developed a rhythm with our sojourns. We stayed at the Westin Harbour Castle, a curvy hotel on the waterfront that is lovely on the inside and surrounded by construction work on the outside. In fact, much of Toronto is under construction, as the city enjoys an influx of immigrants and Canadians seeking opportunity. More than 51 percent of Toronto residents aren’t even from Canada. Luxury condo complexes are sprouting up like beach umbrellas. And even in early June, with Lake Ontario’s temperatures just hitting a nippy 60 degrees, there are real beach umbrellas to sit under at a place known as Toronto’s HTO Park.
Like a Jean-Claude and Christo exhibit, the HTO Park uses the sunny appeal of large objects to draw in passersby. Cities are innately gray, filled with steel, glass and concrete; a yellow umbrella against a cerulean blue lake pops. Before 2007, this space, like so many stretches of waterfront, was polluted by aggressive industry. It was re-imagined as a green space for urban dwellers, a soft, sandy oasis amid all the hard steel, glass, and concrete. The umbrellas are plastic and permanently installed so strong winds off Lake Ontario won’t suddenly turn an umbrella into a torpedo. Sit under these umbrellas that are the color of fresh lemon peel, have your back to the city, and watch the lake sparkle. Anna built a sand castle. I sat and daydreamed. HTO Park is one of the few city parks I have visited in this world where I felt a genuine re-connection with nature, and it wasn’t just because I had sand between my toes. For about ten, fifteen minutes, I forgot we were in Canada’s largest metropolis of more than two million people. Usually in cities, you have to cocoon in a shoebox of an apartment or a hotel room to feel privacy. In Toronto, hang out alone on a city beach on a Monday morning. It’s better than being the first customer at your favorite Starbucks.
The Distillery District was another favorite Toronto discovery. This wasn’t my first trip to Toronto; I had visited in 1992 and 1995, though it was probably a different city 20 years ago, and my visits came before the rebirth of the Distillery District as a hipster hangout and the city’s only pedestrian village. It was early Sunday evening and shops were starting to close as we arrived, though I managed to score a lovely necklace hand made by someone in Poland, which resonated with me, because, well, take a look at my last name. We ate sweet potato fries and Mike sampled beer at Mill Street Brew Pub, but the real highlight for us was Balzac’s cafe, a coffee chain that feels anything but. To quote Andrew Weir, the vice president of communications for Tourism Toronto, Balzac’s is a local favorite, “a time warp but with a modern espresso machine.” If I lived in Toronto, this would be my home office. It’s a two-story, 1895 harbor front pump house renovated into a funky Parisian-style cafe now pumping coffee. A diaphanous chandelier looms over guests on the first floor, whereas on the second floor, a sofa the color of tiger lilies faces the CN Tower, a landmark that appears to be visible from every vantage point in the city. Balzac’s is where you bring a good book or have a meaningful conversation or think the kinds of thoughts that will set you on a new course in life. And that’s just as awesome if not better than being the first customer at your favorite Starbucks.
Outside Balzac’s sits an old pickup truck. This is how I picture our retirement in Vermont.
A closed shop in the Distillery District, which is good, because I might have impulsively purchased a funky purse I don’t need. But I would’ve been funky.
Of course, you have to do the CN Tower when visiting Toronto. It’s 114 stories, one of the tallest, pointiest skyscrapers tickling the clouds, and there’s a view of Lake Ontario that on a clear day makes the $35 admission ticket more than worth it. During our last night in Toronto, we enjoyed an eerily beautiful sunset.
Toronto’s restaurant scene rivals New York’s or London’s or Tokyo’s. You can find fresh innovative anything anywhere. Our most innovative foodie experience happened during our first night at Susur Lee’s restaurant on King Street. I don’t want to spoil it. Just go. Anything you order will be amazing. The menu is here. A native of Hong Kong, Chef Lee has been named one of the top 50 chefs in the world. We get why. Oh, and they sprinkle edible flowers on your drinks and some of the waiters have sexy accents. Make reservations.
While I attended convention sessions about marketing, blogging, and marketing your blog, Mike and Anna spent a day at the world renowned Toronto Zoo to see white lions, snoozing polar bears and the latest additions, pandas. Giant pandas on loan from China just began their 10-year stay in Canada last month. People are excited and lines are long. I had to wonder if Anna’s generation would be the last to see pandas for there are only 1,600 left in the world and two of them are hanging out in Toronto. I remember the white lions from my 1995 visit to the zoo, and apparently the year before was when the last white lion was seen in the wild. So many of these rare animals now live in faux habitats in captivity, under intense preservation efforts, and while that initially feels sad, it also makes me feel hopeful that perhaps their numbers will turn around, and we can correct our wasteful ways…maybe even restore a little more green balance back to our planet. Getting off my conservation soapbox, the zoo was so fantastic that my daughter won’t cut off her admission wristband, and that’s never happened.
And finally, Niagara Falls, nature’s ultimate shower about an hour outside Toronto. Perhaps the best time to visit the falls is the day you check out of your hotel, for if you’re in a rush and didn’t have time for a morning shower, a ride on the Maid of the Mist (on the US side) will remedy that. Adults cost $15.50 USD and kids are $9. You get a half-hour ride around the falls, plenty of OMG photo opportunities, and a blue plastic poncho, which you will most certainly need. “Mist” is an understatement; you will get hosed.
The area is a bit over-developed with gaudy commercialism, but the park is pretty and the falls are riveting. Maid of the Mist tours have been running since 1846, and Niagara Falls is America’s oldest state park, protected by a small group of environmentalists who in the 1860s, on the tail of the Industrial Revolution, had the foresight to challenge economic leeching along Niagara Falls. The falls, the zoo, Toronto’s city parks all gave me a feeling of hope, that caring about our natural resources isn’t just something that’s trending, but is intrinsic and hopefully timeless. TBEX brought me to Toronto and I learned a great deal, but I would say I learned just as much outside the convention center as I did inside.