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Yorkville, off-camera at the film festival Artsy district attracts stars and gazers

TORONTO -- "My husband was looking in the mirror, trying on some clothes at Holt Renfrew, when he heard a familiar voice saying, 'Nice sweater.' It was Dustin Hoffman! Of course, he had to buy it."

"I walked right past Kevin Costner. There was nobody else around him. I had to look twice to make sure it was him."

"I saw Emma Thompson shopping in Hazelton Lanes. She smiled the 'I know you know who I am' smile. She comes across even more charming in person."

Stop anyone in Toronto's glamorous Yorkville district and chances are good they'll have a celebrity-sighting story to share with you.

Once the hippie haven for rebellious youth and rock and roll -- think Canada's answer to Greenwich Village -- Yorkville is Toronto's epicenter for all things glitzy, branded and luxurious, and a magnet for stars.

Brad Pitt, Harrison Ford, Gwyneth Paltrow, Colin Farrell, Susan Sarandon and countless others have shopped, dined and partied here, making the neighborhood one of the best places to spot celebrities, act like one for the day, or just enjoy one of the best people-watching spots anywhere.

Situated about a mile north of downtown, the glitzy enclave is one of the most expensive retail spaces in North America and draws shoppers from all over, including the window shopping variety as well. The "Mink Mile" on Bloor Street boasts shops the likes of Chanel, Hermes, Prada, Tiffany and Birks, among others. Hazelton Lanes shopping complex and Holt Renfrew department store are places to splurge on designer fashions from around the world, or just browse and ogle the shoes that have too many zeros on the price tags.

But even more than shopping, Yorkville's hotels, bars, restaurants and spas are places to see and be seen, especially during Toronto's International Film Festival (starting Thursday and running through Sept. 19). In its 34th year, this prestigious event attracts internationally known actors, directors and screenwriters, and creates a "buzz" that can be felt throughout the city. George Clooney, Matt Damon, Mariah Carey, Snoop Dogg, Drew Barrymore, Chris Rock and Oprah Winfrey are all expected at this year's festival, and there's a good chance many will be in Yorkville at some point.

So whether you want to try to catch a glimpse of your favorite star or just bask in the glamour of it all, here are some prime spots to check out:

The Four Seasons (21 Avenue Road; (416) 964-0411; www.fourseasons.com), Park Hyatt (4 Avenue Road; (416) 925-1234; www.parktoronto.hyatt.com), Windsor Arms Hotel (18 St. Thomas St.; (416) 971-9666; www.windsorarmshotel.com), Hazelton (118 Yorkville Ave.; (866) 473.6301; www.thehazeltonhotel.com) and InterContinental (220 Bloor St. West; (416) 960-5200; www.toronto.intercontinental.com) are all posh Yorkville hotels that attract the stars and the paparazzi. Rooms book up way in advance, but a cruise through their lobbies might reward you with an A-list celeb sighting. Locals have been known to book holidays this time of year just to sit in the breakfast room of the Four Seasons, where many celebrity interviews take place.

Yorkville's numerous patios offer a more comfortable way of people watching or the chance to wind down after a hard day of shopping or watching films with subtitles. Sassafraz (100 Cumberland St.; (416) 964-2222; www.sassafraz.ca) is a perennial hot spot of the festival, and its large patio attracts industry executives, big-name actors and fans. Mick Jagger, Robert De Niro, Renee Zellweger, Matthew Broderick, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and Queen Latifah have all been spotted there.

Hemingway's (142 Cumberland St.; (416) 968-2828; www.hemingways.to) has a lower-key atmosphere and a fabulous double rooftop terrace in a prime location. For your own taste of the "high life," try the 51st-floor balcony of Panorama (Manulife Centre, 55 Bloor St. West; (416) 967-0000; www.eatertainment.com/restaurants/panorama), or The Roof at the Park Hyatt with an 18-story view of Lake Ontario.

With all those late night parties and films, coffee is a necessity for festivalgoers. Starbucks is always popular; hang out long enough at the Yorkville location (765 Yonge St.) at this time of year, and you're almost guaranteed a glimpse of a celebrity or two.

Of course, if you don't see a celebrity in person, there is always the big screen, where most actors look taller anyway. The film festival showcases more than 300 films, from big name Hollywood productions to foreign fare. Same-day tickets are available for some films through the TIFF box office. Even sold-out shows become available with rush tickets, though this generally involves waiting in line, providing the perfect opportunity to scour the crowds. Who knows who you'll see.

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If you go:

The Bloor/Yorkville District is from Charles Street west to Davenport Road, and from Avenue Road to Yonge Street. By subway, exit at the Bloor-Yonge and Bay stops. A cab from Union Station runs about $10.

Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) box office is at Nathan Phillips Square, 100 Queen St. West (in the white tent, on the west side of the square; (877) 968-FILM; www.tiff.net/boxoffice.

Remember, U.S. citizens returning from Canada are required to show a passport, enhanced driver's license or NEXUS card to re-enter the United States, so Canada will no longer admit U.S. citizens who don't have the documents.

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