January 28, 2004 -- Okay, sure, we know, it's cold in Canada. Wind chill this week is hovering around zero Fahrenheit. But if you don't mind the cold, Toronto is offering compelling discounts over the next few weeks on some of North America's finest restaurants and a wide range of city attractions, and two Québecois cities are making their own winter fun.
Tasty Toronto's Treats
US residents may be surprised to hear that Toronto is the fourth-largest city north of the Rio Grande, with 2.5 million people - just a touch smaller than Chicago. Once known as "Toronto the Good" because of its peace, harmony and cleanliness, it's now thought of more as "Toronto the Diverse" because of the city's dozens of immigrant communities.
The highlight of Toronto's month is Winterlicious (www.city.toronto.on.ca/special_events/wintercity/winterlicious.htm), a two-week period from Jan. 30 to Feb. 12 when 80 restaurants offer lunches for C$10-20 ($7.70-$15.40) and dinners for C$20-30 ($15.40-$23.10).
Frommer's picks on the restaurant list include Monsoon, our choice for best décor in Toronto; the 360 Restaurant atop the CN tower, our pick for best view; Centro, with the city's best wine list; Biff's, the best bistro in town; Lai Wah Heen the city's best Chinese restaurant, and Agora, our choice for the city's best brunch.
Other top-notch places you might not otherwise be able to afford include the futuristic YYZ, the see-and-be-seen spot Jump and the inventive Avalon. If you're dead set on a culinary holiday in Toronto, remember to make sure you can get reservations before you book your flights and hotel.
The winter festival is about more than just restaurants: there are ice skating parties, cooking demonstrations in the downtown Eaton Centre, and even an insane outdoor barbeque on Feb. 8. Attraction discounts apply to everything from the CN Tower to the Bata Shoe Museum and (brr) the Toronto Zoo.
If you're around from Feb. 10-13, you should try to get tickets to the special tapings of the "Conan O'Brien Show," in Toronto for those four nights only. To enter the ticket lottery, e-mail your name, address, phone number and e-mail details to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can get up to two tickets per person, and you'll be notified anytime between now and a week before the show.
For a full list of events and restaurants, head to www.city.toronto.on.ca/special_events/wintercity/index.htm.
Winter Fun in Montréal and Quebec
The healthy rivalry between Ontario and Québec means that there's plenty happening on the French-speaking side of the provincial border, as well.
Montréal's "High Lights Festival" (www.montrealenlumiere.com/English/index.lasso), running from Feb. 19-29, is more about performing arts than food; patrons will feed on ballet, opera and modern music. But Montréal also has a slew of food-themed events running from Feb. 23-27, including cooking demonstrations and free tastings of local Québecois products.
Québec City celebrates its 50th annual Winter Carnival (www.carnaval.qc.ca/english/index_corpo.asp) from Jan. 30-Feb. 15. This is an active, snow-themed festival that's great for kids. Sledding, ice fishing, ice sculptures, and outdoor dance parties are the order of pretty much every day in North America's most charming medieval city.
Crossing the Border and Saving (American) Dollars
The best airfares from the US to Toronto right now seem to be from discount airline Jetsgo (www.jetsgo.ca), which has a "hot fare" of $188 roundtrip including tax for February weekends from Newark right now. That's an excellent fare to fly to Toronto, and considerably lower than the $240 fare we found on Air Canada.
If you don't mind a bit of a drive, always compare fares to Buffalo to Toronto fares. Buffalo is only 100 miles east of Toronto, you can rent a car at the airport, and airfares from US destinations to Buffalo can be much lower than fares to Toronto. JetBlue (www.jetblue.com), for instance, is running a sale with flights to Buffalo for $158 roundtrip from four Florida cities and New Orleans; fares directly to Toronto seem to hover around $350 including tax, so that's a big savings. A one-way rental from Avis for one day from Buffalo to Toronto is $100 including tax for a five-passenger car, so if you're going with a group, renting a car can really work out for you. A car can also give you access to cheaper suburban hotels and can help you stay out of the cold when navigating Toronto's sprawl. Try not to drive within downtown Toronto, though, which has the same traffic and parking problems you see in other major North American cities.
If you're headed to Montréal, compare fares to Burlington, Vermont, 100 miles south. Once more, you can rent a car at the airport, and you may save plenty on airfares. JetBlue is offering $158 roundtrips from five Florida cities to Burlington right now, and US Airways (www.usair.com)often has competitive fares into Burlington. A somewhat less convenient alternative is Albany, New York, 220 miles south of Montreal, which is served by Southwest (www.southwest.com)and several other airlines.