Toronto's Just the Ticket for Children

WASHINGTON POST

I joined the standing ovation for "Mamma Mia" and thought, "Clinically depressed people should come to this show in busloads for a few hours of relief and old-fashioned joy."

But I couldn't linger. "The Lion King" was also about to let out half a block away, and I had to get my 8-year-old daughter, Madeline, and solicit her opinion. She had seen one show on Broadway and was a budding theater snob.

"Well, I know the story too well," she said of "Lion King" as we walked away, "but the staging was better than 'Peter Pan."' High praise coming from her for a production 450 miles off Broadway.

But this, after all, was Toronto, a metropolitan area of 4.3 million that offers more theater than any city except London or New York. Granted, it's a distant third, but there are more shows playing in any given week than one could see. And much of it is high quality, nurtured with government funds, molded by artists eager to prove their nation's cultural worth.

During a three-night stay in Toronto, the capital of Ontario, during the last week in April, I saw three excellent plays, two in gorgeously restored old theaters. I stayed in two first-rate hotels, ate in several good restaurants, strolled a harbor front that reminded me of Chicago, toured a Chinatown that made me think of San Francisco--and spent about the same amount I would have eating in delis and sleeping a step above fleabag in New York.

My husband, Bruce Alpert, and I were there with a twofold purpose: to have an adult-style theater escape yet still show our daughter and 13-year-old niece a good time. We scored on both attempts.

Every night except Monday, Toronto offers four to six plays by producers capable of mounting large-scale shows and a plethora of others. Recently there were 29 plays for adults and 11 for kids--plus two operas, five classical music concerts, seven dance productions and shows at three comedy houses. Ticket prices for all were at least 25% lower than at most big-city U.S. venues.

We started at the Royal Alexandra with "Mamma Mia," which had a recent run in Los Angeles and is Broadway-bound.

"The Lion King" is a smash in Toronto, but visitors can get tickets from the blocks set aside for hotels.

After our matinees, we grabbed a cab for the nearby Harbourfront, an entertainment and shopping complex with a lot of open space. From here a seven-minute ferry ride takes you across the harbor to the Toronto Islands, 14 to be exact, one of which features a small amusement park and petting farm.

For parents inclined to let their children sample theme parks (we were not, at least on this trip), there is Ontario Place, also on the lakefront. The park has amusement rides, a playground with an enormous trampoline and a water play area with squirt guns, hoses, slides and giant dryers. Paramount Canada's Wonderland is outside town, with 50 rides and 12 water slides that Madeline would have loved. (Neither had opened for the season when we were there.)

Instead we grabbed a bite at Shopsy's Deli, which failed my husband's Jewish authenticity test (the food did not come near the standards of a New York deli), and headed back to our hotel.

With 1,591 rooms, the Delta Chelsea is Canada's largest hotel. It features, among other things, a family-only pool. It also has an adult-only pool, which I coveted after an hour at the family-only pool. Suffice it to say, if you build a pool for children, they will come. And they will be loud.

The next morning we took a tour of the largest of Toronto's three Chinatowns.

Having a guide who knows the history and culture of a neighborhood is definitely the way to go. With Shirley Lum, I discovered the identity and use of the mysterious items sold in Asian groceries.

The kids loved the Chinese pharmacy, where scorpions, flattened lizards, roots and snakeskin cures were a page out of a Harry Potter spell book. The dried sea horses, we learned, are for liver problems; slices of antler at $110 an ounce are for anemia.

At Tung King Bakery we enjoyed fried lotus sesame balls, white sugar cake and butter cream buns. Lum also insisted on getting us samples of those heads-still-on pigs, ducks and chickens that hang in the shop windows of every Chinatown. I won't be feeling the need to try the pig again.

But the dim sum at the Bright Pearl? Now, that's another story. Waitresses arrived with 75 choices. The garlic, chive and shrimp dumplings, the sui mai and the mango pudding dessert were excellent. The owner apologized that, this being a Monday instead of a weekend, he didn't have 150 dishes to offer.

We took a cab to the Royal Ontario Museum, where we had to drag my daughter away from the two floors with interactive exhibits. She held a live garter snake; examined fossils, tusks and dead frogs in jars under magnifiers; put specimens under microscopes; and touched Egyptian artifacts and British suits of armor.

That left us just enough time for dinner in the Delta Chelsea's New Canadian Bistro and Brasserie, where dishes like coq au vin with Canadian bacon, Alberta steak with Quebec blue cheese butter and Yukon gold frites draw locals as well as visitors.

The hotel offered a "fun center" where staff entertain guests' children for a few dollars per hour. Because it closes early on Mondays, we parked the kids with a sitter arranged by the hotel and went off to see "Good Night Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet."

My husband took the children to the Ontario Science Center, which he reported to be elaborate and comprehensive.

I went shopping instead, at the Eaton Centre. Its stores offer the usual international brand names, but the prices, sad to say, did not get my blood running.

The U.S. dollar is worth about a third more than its Canadian counterpart these days. Although that difference yields great bargains on hotels, restaurants and sightseeing, clothing prices were closer to what you'd find at home.

Ah, but my lunch a cab ride away, in a neighborhood of renovated warehouses ... the Mildred Pierce, named after the Joan Crawford film, had been described to me as French and Italian. My meal was a heavenly thing that seemed to be not quite either: an appetizer of warm chevre in vine leaves with marinated sweet peppers; wild mushroom strudel filled with potatoes, mushrooms, Swiss chard and asiago; a warm apple tart with dribbles of sauce that resembled a still-life painting.

The manager said the cuisine originally was a la " bonne femme ," or in the style of a good French housewife. Into that the chef had incorporated Canadian, American and Asian influences.

I rejoined my family, and we hit the landmark CN Tower, taking its glass elevators up 1,815 feet. It's a terrific view, and a section of glass floor is spine-tingling. But we skipped the IMAX movie and the simulated airplane ride; a $16 combination ticket was the only thing I saw in three days that seemed overpriced.

Our final play, "Drawer Boy," is a serious drama, but I decided to take the kids anyway. They loved it as much as I did.

The play brings Canadian theatrical history full circle: In the 1970s, a new company with government dollars sent young actors to live on Ontario farms and develop material. Thirty years later one of them wrote "Drawer Boy" to recount his experience.

Just going to the Winter Garden Theatre, where it's playing, was a treat. Built in 1913, it was boarded up when the Depression hit in 1939. Nothing was touched for decades; the sets of the plays were still onstage at the Elgin and Winter Garden theaters, which share a building, when someone took the time to look inside. The Ontario Heritage Foundation spent $20 million restoring the double-decker theater building, now a National Historic Site.

There was one more must-do on my list: the Bata Shoe Museum, which we squeezed in before leaving town.

Not since the O.J. Simpson trial had I considered shoes interesting. But it turns out that if you have the right shoes to consider, they can be fascinating. Take the ceremonial shoes from a strict Jewish household in the 1900s: If an unmarried man gave one of these shoes to his dead brother's childless widow, he could escape the obligation of marrying her. Or the French clogs with 4-inch spikes for cracking chestnuts. Or the stilted sandals that life-affirming devotees of Jainism wore to avoid harming as many insects underfoot as possible. There are Imelda Marcos shoes and Princess Diana shoes and metal shoes from Tibet.

Yes, it's weird. But, like the city, it's a kick.

*

Cindy Loose is a writer at the Washington Post.

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Guidebook: Trying Out Toronto

* Getting there: Air Canada and American fly nonstop from Los Angeles to Toronto. Restricted round-trip fares start at $438.

* Where to stay: At the Fairmont Royal York, with its magnificent old-style lobby, double rooms range from $140 to $205. 100 Front St. W., telephone (800) 441-1414 or (416) 368-2511, fax (416) 860-5008, http://www.fairmont.com.

The Renaissance Toronto Hotel at SkyDome has 70 rooms, which start at $150 for a double and rise to $260; city-view doubles start at $146. 1 Blue Jays Way, tel. (800) 237-1512 or (416) 341-7100, fax (416) 341-5091, http://www.renaissancehotels.com.

The Delta Chelsea has bright, cheery rooms, a nice lobby, a business center and great services for kids. Doubles range from $125 to $155. 33 Gerrard St. W., tel. (800) 243-5732 or (416) 595-1975, fax (416) 585-4375, http://www.deltachelsea.com.

The Strathcona Hotel, centrally located beside the Royal York, has doubles from $84 to $136. Rooms are small but a good bargain. 60 York St., tel. (416) 363-3321, fax (416) 363-4679, http://www.toronto.com/E/V/TORON/0012/10/42.

* Where to eat: The Mildred Pierce, 99 Sudbury St., local tel. 588-5695; dinner entrees $11 to $18; this is a must, for both the food and the unique decor.

For an elegant French bistro experience, check out Biff's, 4 Front St. E., tel. 860-0086, near the St. Lawrence Center for Performing Arts. Entrees about $12 to $18.

For dim sum, go to the Bright Pearl, 346-348 Spadina Ave., tel. 979-3988.

* Theater: To see what's onstage, contact the Toronto Theatre Alliance, (800) 541-0499, http://www.theatreintoronto.com.

For information on the Shaw Festival, 80 miles from Toronto: (800) 657-1106, http://www.shawfest.com.

For the Stratford Festival, 90 miles from Toronto: (800) 567-1600, http://www.stratfordfestival.ca.

* Tours: Biking and walking tours, including a visit to Chinatown with Shirley Lum, bring the city up close. Prices range from $11 to $33, with discounts for seniors and children under 12. Details: A Taste of the World, (416) 923-6813, http://www.torontowalksbikes.com.

* For more information: Canadian Tourism Commission, 550 S. Hope St., 9th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90071; tel. (213) 346-2700, fax (213) 620-8827, http://www.canadatourism.com.

Also: Tourism Toronto, (800) 363-1990, http://www.torontotourism.com.

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