There was a time when Buffalo was the big city and an entertainment destination for the good folks in and around the greater Toronto metropolitan area.
Decades of Ontario financial prosperity and enormous controlled and mostly logical growth, coupled with a parallel slide in the fortunes of the Queen City, have changed all that.
For local travelers, however that hasn't always been a bad thing. In some ways, the lure of a major metropolis with world-class theater, dining, entertainment and historic attractions just up the road has added to the quality of life in Western New York. We can easily sample all the best of what our big-city neighbor to the north offers without dealing on a daily basis with its horrendous traffic, increasing smog, ever-rising costs and downright appalling taxes.
To occasionally partake of the good things can require a hotel stay. And while Toronto has a variety of options at many price points, picking the right hotel is a Toronto Travel 101 essential.
As a veteran of well more than 100 Toronto stays, I've had experiences ranging from the sublime to the most disappointing. Here's an insider's guide to where to stay in the greater Toronto area, concentrating on the downtown core area.
1. The Fairmont Royal York
You've seen it, read about it and your parents probably stayed in it at least once. It is one of the oldest hotels in the city, once the tallest building in Toronto and now one of its premier properties. The Royal York is centrally located to just about everything downtown and is easily accessible by car, train, bus and even a good pair of walking shoes.
The hotel prides itself on having served kings, queens, presidents and movie stars. That's a selling point if you're rich, famous or just like to pick out lobby and elevator scenes in a host of movie and television productions, but it really doesn't add to the quality of your stay.
On its best days, the Royal York is a pampering kind of place with a regal lobby, a comforting pool and well-managed health club. The restaurants, especially Epic, are all of good quality. The underground walkways, though sometimes confusing, lead to almost everywhere you would want to go without going outside.
If you really want to do it right, book at the gold level with separate check-in, a comfortable lounge area and most of the nicer (and roomier rooms) in the hotel. The Gold Lounge alone is almost worth the extra price and the service is first-rate.
Downside: The Royal York is a busy place and sometimes that detracts from the service. There have been times when cleanliness and slow service have been an issue (though a phone call or two usually resolves the problem). Also, the walls are thin and it's not uncommon to hear telephone conversations, television broadcasts and even the occasional intimate moments of the guests next door. This is one of those hotels were being a club member pays off, especially when the check-in desk is overwhelmed by busloads (or sometimes even trainloads) of guests arriving at the same time.
Address: 100 Front St. Info: (416) 368-2511, www.fairmont.com/royalyork
2. Le Royal Meridien King Edward
Another of the old guard hotels, the King Eddie (as the locals like to call it) was built nearly a century ago. It, too, has hosted kings, queens, movie stars and even the Beatles and the New York Rangers. It is an historical masterpiece of old-school architecture that has been carefully updated over the years so that it is current in amenities, yet comfortable in old-world charm. Service is excellent from the doorman who helps you through a difficult arrival process on a busy street, to the wait staff of the Cafe Victoria where the food is first-rate and the staff takes pride in the preservation of the old custom of afternoon tea.
Like the Royal York, however, rooms tend to be small, especially at the entry-level price, but the beds are comfortable and the bathrooms are well appointed.
The King Edward is in the financial district and the core of downtown, but it's also a near- perfect spot for taking in the sights and sounds and especially the shopping opportunities of the St. Lawrence Market area and the historic Old Town. Furniture and decorating shops abound in the surrounding area. There are also numerous high-end dining choices and several clubs, watering holes and entertainment options like the Hummingbird Center, the Canadian Opera Company and Can Theatre. It's another park the car and forget it hotel.
Downside: The King can be a bit snobby at times. We had an article of clothing sullied from sitting on a sofa that was smeared with makeup from a previous guest. A complaint to the front desk offered an apology but nothing in the way of consideration or compensation. If you go, be sure to get a room away from the noisy elevators that can disturb sleep. Also leave plenty of time for the valet to recover your vehicle since service can be slowed to a frustrating level due to the often-busy King Street traffic.
Address: 37 King St. East. Info: (416) 863-3131
3. Renaissance Toronto Hotel at Skydome
OK, everyone knows this is the hotel that has rooms overlooking the Skydome facility where major league baseball and Canadian League Football games are played. The rooms that front the field are both famous for what hotel guests can see and infamous for what Skydome patrons have seen.
This is actually quite a nice place to stay. Renaissance is part of the Marriott family, so the standards are high and the staff seems to try harder to make the stay memorable aside from the sporting endeavors.
Rooms away from the field of view (and that's 278 of the 340) are pleasant and very well decorated in a more modern decor than the York or the Edward. And though the tracks leading away from (or into) Union Station are in your line of sight, good insulation means you seldom hear the trains. The rest of the city view is first rate.
It's a little hard to find the entrance, but once you do, there's a rather large wait staff that makes check-in and parking easy. The front-desk staff has been especially gracious on every one of my stays, taking pains to check me in quickly and also to point out the hotel features including a very good pool area and workout space (though you must pass through the lobby and take a separate elevator to get there).
Another plus is a 24-hour business center that is mostly free, including free Internet service. The on-site restaurant, the Bistro, is high quality and has an excellent wine selection. There are also numerous nearby dining options.
The Skydome is just steps to the CN Tower, Planet Hollywood, the Metro Convention Center, the CBC Broadcast center and a couple of clubs including a Hard Rock Cafe that is a part of the Skydome facility. Go north and it's an easy walk into the entertainment district or turn south for the waterfront area. To the east is the Air Canada Centre; to the west is a mammoth outdoor golf center. The valet parking service is first rate.
The staff is exceptional here and the service is as good as any hotel I've ever stayed in and better than most. Consider upgrading to an end-unit room that has a window wall. There appears to only be about four of them, but they are huge and have a mammoth sliding Roman shade that can be electronically opened from the bedside to reveal a spectacular night view.
Downside: Because of the configuration of the hotel and the stadium, corridors can be excessively long; a consideration if you are wheelchair-bound or have health issues that limit walking (staff will address that with a room close to the elevators if you ask). Getting to the pool area is also awkward.
Address: One Blue Jays Way. Info: (416) 341-7100, www.skydome.com/aboutskydome/renaissance
4. The Westin Harbor Castle
Western New Yorkers can't miss this place. Coming in off the Gardiner Expressway, the Westin boosts two towers and nearly 1,000 rooms. Surprisingly, a hotel this large is also still very big on service and has several fine dining choices, including the well-regarded Toula on the 38th floor. It's a restaurant that doesn't skimp on service and quality dining just because it happens to have one of the most fabulous views of the city.
The Harbour Castle is largely a convention and tourist hotel, but that's not a bad thing if done well and Westin usually does things well. The rooms are decent sized and well-appointed and the much-touted Westin Heavenly Bed is indeed extremely comfortable. The tall towers can be intimidating to some, but they are well-serviced by a battery of elevators so wait time is reasonable.
The all-day restaurant, the Mizzen, is very good with an excellent Sunday brunch that sometimes has a live jazz group. The huge lobby is a gathering place for residents of both towers so it is sometimes overcrowded, but there's a comfortable bar service to one side and an additional room, the Chartroom, that takes it down a notch while also serving drinks and some light meals.
Location is a big part of this hotel's appeal. It's on the waterfront and is also the embarking point for ferries to the nearby Toronto Islands that are a must-visit in good weather (roundtrip fare is $6 per person with lower rates for kids and seniors). The hotel runs a free shuttle service into the central core for shopping and businesspersons, but it's an easy walk as well. It's a little farther to Ontario Place and the Canadian National Exhibition Grounds, but still walkable. It's also a pleasant (and shorter) hike to Skydome, the Air Canada Centre and the CN Tower.
A nice touch for families is the Westin Kids Club, which provides a child-ready room, a kid's menu in the dining areas and even a kid's storyline with age-appropriate stories by phone when you dial a special number. There's a play space for kids on the fifth floor that has DVDs, games and the like.
Downside: Parking on your own is more than a long block away -- a long walk with luggage and in inclement weather. And when you get to the hotel there's a treacherous set of switchback steps before you find the lobby again. The valet service is much easier and it's well-run, but if there is a function in the connected Westin Conference Centre, it can run slow.
The pool and health club are on the fifth floor between the two towers and are sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer number of guests. There are often long lines at check-in and checkout, including the Starwood Preferred Guest Check-in line. To save time, use the video or express service for checking out. Controlling the heat in rooms on the upper floors can be a problem.
Address: One Harbour Square. Info: (416) 869-1600, www.westin.com/harbourcastle
5. Holiday Inn on King
If you enjoy Toronto's cosmopolitan theater scene, it's difficult to top the Holiday Inn on King. The location is in the heart of the entertainment district and the Mirvish collection of theaters that includes the Princess of Wales and the Royal Alexandra.
The hotel is also easy walking distance to Roy Thompson Hall, the city's world-class music venue and perhaps the densest collection of upscale eating establishments in the city. On top of that it's reasonably priced (though parking can be dicey) and still an easy hike to most every downtown attraction. It's also within walking distance to the funky Queen's Street West shopping and dining, the vibrant Chinatown area, the University of Toronto (which has a wealth of attractions all on its own) and the Art Gallery of Ontario, another world-class institution.
This is not your roadside Holiday Inn. The building is upscale in every way. Although the hotel shares space with a number of businesses (including the Score television network) there are 425 mostly comfortable rooms; check-in is swift; there is a delightful service known as in-room spa treatments (massages and the like); and it offers some of the best theater combo packages in the city.
There is street and underground parking and the hotel does have a relationship with the underground operator for valet services. There are two restaurants on site and room service. The hotel has a TicketKing kiosk for last-minute show tickets. There's a very thoughtful service called StayAssured which caters to women traveling alone or in groups and provides added security touches, room upgrades and some discounted services. There is a functional business center if you need to combine a little work with play. It runs from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. which is unusual in a hotel of this type.
Downside: The restaurants are commercial establishments with direct access to street traffic so pre-theater seating can be difficult to obtain (there are countless choices nearby, however, and the competition for your business is keen). The pool is an outdoor facility on the 17th floor, spectacular in summer, but useless in the heart of the theater season. Room service is adequate, but more geared toward satisfying basic hunger than servicing a romantic evening and it does not run in 24-hour cycles. Elevators can be slow during business hours when the rest of the building is up and running.
Address: 370 King St. West. Info: (416) 599-4000, www.hiok.com
6. The Strathcona
If you can do without on or even near-site parking, windows that view little more than other windows and odd room layouts, the Strathcona is a reasonable choice. It's just a half block up from the Royal York and while it doesn't have near the amenities, the rooms are clean, functional, comfortable and of decent size.
The hotel has been around for decades but it was renovated in 1999 with an eye toward both comfort and efficiency. Though the 194 rooms could hardly be called plush, they are more than a cut above budget accommodations. The attached restaurant is comfortable for breakfast and lunch (we passed on dinner) and if you book with a breakfast special you get a choice of items from a buffet or off the menu and it's of good quality.
Service was good during a recent stay, with a particular nod to the front-desk staff that is efficient, caring and very knowledgeable regarding the hotel, where to get reasonably priced parking and even the best way to make use of a nearby fitness center for which it offers a discounted rate. A tip here: go for the business accommodations. They appear to be bigger rooms and offer a few more useful appointments (like in-room coffeemakers) for very little more money.
Overall, the Strathcona is affordable and very comfortable once you get used to the somewhat odd layout of the rooms.
Downside: Elevator service is sometimes limited due to an insufficient number of elevators and the heating-cooling arrangement can be noisy and somewhat temperamental.
Address: 60 York St. Info: (416) 363-3321