SORREL DOWNER

Journalist, film producer, and media consultant, mixing it up for TV, online, newspapers and magazines. I cover travel & tourism, lifestyle, and design. Mainly. This is the HQ for previous work, and an introduction to current projects. I work all over the world and live on a farm in Cadiz which I write about at www.somewheresville.org.

Toronto Hotels: 6 of the Best | The Times

The Drake Hotel: This place has glam rock and lush style. It’s nonchalant, sophisticated, artfully retro and an air of cheeky naughtiness. It is, in short, where the party’s at.

A one-stop venue for great dining, stylish bars, cafe culture, music and contemporary art, The Drake is a nobody-does-it-better, upmarket microcosm of its hip and lively (if fascinatingly seedy) environs, Queen Street West.

A full-time music curator ensures they’re ahead of the curve with live performances from the best in town in the intimate Underground venue, also used for cocktail parties and discos, while DJs add late night ambiance in the Lounge. And a full-time art curator not only brings in temporary exhibitions, but is largely responsible for the fact the hotel as a whole is a visual treat, full of fabulous, witty artwork and installations from the likes of Even Penny and Bruce LaBruce, positioned to catch you by surprise or to set the mood, like Joe Becker’s take on Dutch baroque murals by the grand copper-topped bar.

Owner Jeff Stober travelled the world drawing inspiration from grand hotels and returned to channel the best of his findings into The Drake. It’s a heavy emotional investment, he says, the result: part 30s (like an art salon with red velvet), part 50s (booths and banquettes) part au courant (sashimi and indie bands). Despite its undoubted cool, it invites a demographic clash ‘like a British pub’. They’ve primed the canvas he says, and they benefit from whatever guests, artists and creative staff bring to it.

After all that, the rooms are almost a bonus. While there are larger suites, the bright, light, clean-lined Crashpads are a lesson in ergonomics and proof that small(ish) is beautiful. In keeping with the general air of innovation and playfulness, there’s a Pleasure Menu as well as the usual array of nice soaps, arty magazines and in-room paraphernalia offering order-to-own sensual toys courtesy of local suppliers Come as You Are.

Plenty on the doorstep – not only supermarts, pawn shops and another fine bar and live music a few doors away at the Gladstone (see below), but several galleries including the Stephen Bulger Gallery, Clint Roenisch, Fly and Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (952 Queen St W), boutiques and vintage emporiums stuffed with clothing and 50s furnishings.

1150 Queen St West, http://www.thedrakehotel.ca, tel +1416 531 5042.

Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel Central, solid and one block big, this briskly, bustling navigational landmark makes for a handy first night hotel, not least because it’s a scheduled stop for the Airport Express. It’s a vertical slice of Toronto life. The lobby, dominated by a mesmeric hi-tech motion wall and reminiscent of a re-designed station concourse is packed with suited workers from the surrounding law and finance districts, while, surprisingly, up the escalators there’s a veritable oasis of calm: a waterfall garden complete with fir and birch trees and, seasonally, nesting ducks.

A pool, part indoor, part outdoor and boldly used by native visitors all year round, is thrillingly anachronistic in this thickly urban setting, overlooked by a thousand office workers in the vertical cliffs of office blocks that rising up and enclose it.

And a lengthy elevator hoist past dozens of floors of soberly stylish rooms and suites equipped with a lot of leather stuff, desks and bowls of fruit, summits at the 43rd floor Club Room which, with its walls of glass gives an aerial view of the abstract curves of Toronto City Hall, the flashing spire of the Canada Life Building, and Nathan Phillips Square, Bruegelesque with circling ice-skaters in winter, thick with farmers’ markets, street performers and all sorts of Canadian wholesomeness in summer.

Bordered by the lakeshore and built on a grid, Toronto is easy to cross-match on a city map when you’re perched high above it, making this a top spot in which to quaff a beer, get your bearings and plot out the next day’s sightseeing itinerary.

123 Queen Street West, http://www.starwood.webcanada.com, tel +1416 361-1000

The Hazelton Remarkably, until last year Toronto didn’t have a 5-star luxury hotel. The Hazleton was conjured up to fill that gap and opened its doors in the nick of time, just as the starriest of celebrity clientele descended on the city for the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival.

It’s now an established port of call for visiting celebrities, (and indeed some resident ones, anonymous occupants of apartments on the top four floors), and a sleek, discreet and pretty darn sexy place it is too. This is partly as a result of it being dark which always helps, and partly down to its liberal use of jaw-droppingly extravagant, sensual stuff from mohair-lined walls in the opulent 25-seater private cinema to the glowing etched bronze lifts.

Hide panels decorate the bar and restaurant, and the large and lofty private dining room has, I kid you not, scarlet suede walls which demand a quick sneaky feel. Some circa 1940s Hollywood glitz and glamour is craftily combined with hot mod cons. Large bedrooms have the massive plasma screens and remote control gadgetry men like, along with bathrooms destined to appear on lists of the world’s best, many strides across with dark green sparkling granite slabs on the walls, trough-like baths you need a hoist to get in and out of, rainfall showers and TVs built into the mirrors.

Naturally it has an expensive-smelling spa with lap pool, and a signature restaurant (ONE by Mark McEwan), serving sophisticated fare (stuffed quail, Alaskan black cod, prosciutto-wrapped grouper) with lots of tapenades, mousseline and seared foie gras trimmings. The Hazleton’s unassuming brick exterior gives no hint of the treats inside. First time visitors might be similarly surprised to discover that the vaguely suburban looking street it sits on is mere paces from Toronto’s most upmarket shopping strip, Bloor Street West, dubbed the Mink Mile for its density of designer shops, Gucci, Prada and Chanel among them.

118 Yorkville Ave, http://www.thehazeltonhotel.com, tel +1416 963 6300,

The Cosmopolitan Whether or not it’s really down to the crystals on the pillows, the application of Feng Shui principles, and the natural gemstone fountain at the energy-centre of each suite, or simply the floor to ceiling windows, sense of space and blonde wood floors, this delightful hotel does indeed exude a Zen-like air of calm. Ideal for a longer stay, each suite comes with a full-equipped kitchen and, excitement of excitements, a washer-drier. If you happen to have super-friendly staff and views of a futuristic city lit like a Christmas tree from the bedroom window of your own house you will find this a veritable home from home.

Located close to the lake at the heart of the action, the setting is truly spectacular. The best vantage point is the Designer Penthouse, with loungers on a balcony suspended over the city, and 28ft tall windows looking out towards shimmering water one way and the CN Tower the other (as well as a row of people pedalling exercise bikes against a wall of glass in an opposite block). White leather settees, orchids, spa tubs and general vastness give the penthouse jet set oomph, but all rooms are cool and contemporary and come with a cityscape thrown in for free.

There’s a good hubbub and mood of bonhomie in the popular ground floor bar Low tables, eat at the bar, 60 seat restaurant glowing with bonhomie dark, warm, super-friendly staff. Bird’s Eye maple table a cross-section rippling with honeyed colours. Tip: swipe your card in the lift or you ain’t going nowhere.

8 Colborne Street, http://www.cosmotoronto.com, tel +1416 350 2000.

The Gladstone Most hotels serve as an antechamber to the neighbourhood they stand in. You check in but you haven’t quite arrived until you’ve wandered off a few blocks, got lost, stumbled across places by accident. The reverse is true of The Gladstone which is firmly rooted in the local community and offers a fast-track introduction to the vibrant contemporary art, performance (and rollicking karaoke) scene centered around Queen Street West.

A once grand railway hotel, the Gladstone underwent a lengthy and sensitive restoration that left its wonky wooden floors, rare old hand-operated elevator, arched windows and grand stairwells intact, and emerged as both hotel and public space in late 2005, ‘an architectural backdrop for creative passions to play out’ as they say, a ‘social and cultural incubator’. Much of that incubating is done with gusto in the Melody Bar (once touted by Conde Nast as one of the Top Ten Bars in the World) but also in the private studios let to local artists. In all, they average 100 events a month from concerts to book launches and club nights, which keeps things lively for the guests.

Step outside and go left (east) through this pleasantly scruffy, (relatively) edgy, neighbourhood for trendy bars and cafes, small galleries, designer shops, 50s antiques and, weirdly, a number of places selling jackets for dogs. Hours of fun.

But you don’t even need to roll out of bed for full-on cultural immersion. As well as two suites, the hotel has 37 artist-designed rooms, each from the Parlour of Twilight to Teen Queen, distinctive, inspired and wittily themed down to the last detail for slow-release delights. For example, in Canadiana, all books on the shelf are by Canadian authors, while in Chinoiserie, close inspection of what looks to be traditional wallpaper reveals that Toronto landmarks along with hotel staff and regulars have been worked into the pattern. All rooms can be previewed and booked online, or you can leave it to the friendly front desk staff to size you up and allocate something appropriate and then spend hours analysing why they put you in something that looks like a bordello.

1214 Queen Street West; http://www.gladstonehotel.com, tel +1 416 531 4635;

213 Carlton – Toronto Townhouse B&B As a glance from any ultramodern Toronto glass tower will tell you, much of the city is made up of two-storey houses time left behind, arranged in old-fashioned homely fashion on neighbourhood grids. Hence it’s possible to step out from the newly-opened Frank Gehry redesigned Art Gallery of Ontario, and into a tableau of picket-fenced family life in the heart of Downtown.

Each neighbourhood comes with its own food, atmosphere and to a large extent, language. The Toronto Townhouse’s neighbourhood is Cabbagetown, on Downtown’s east side, named for the cabbages planted in yards by early Irish immigrants during the depression, but don’t let that put you off. Having endured a period of indubitable seediness, the area is officially designated ‘historic’ and ‘up and coming’ which for visitors translates as cheap, interesting, thick with artsy, vintage shops, wine bars and good, small, restaurants among the discount stores and drop-in centres, plus local festivals and events.

It apparently has the largest concentration of Victorian housing in North America, and the B&B itself is a beautifully renovated heritage home, with large rooms, quirky corners, decks, garden, mod cons, wi-fi and a super-friendly host, Tan. Interrogation of other guests over a hearty stack of pancakes reveals that many are regulars and rightly regard the Townhouse as home from home.

For all the relative tranquility, this is handy for subways and streetcars to all downtown locations, most of which are (winter blizzards, summer heat waves allowing) walkable.

213 Carlton; http://www.toronto-townhouse.com; 416 323 8898.

SORREL DOWNER. THE TIMES

This is the HQ for archive features, and an introduction to current projects. See also somewheresville, the travel blog; Vimeo for videos, LinkedIn for skills and contact details. 

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