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See the world in Toronto

It's a spring evening, just past 6 o'clock, and I'm sitting with my wife in a restaurant more than 1,100 feet above Toronto, the city we came to more than 40 years ago. The sun is strong, so an amber glow falls over all below. The restaurant, in the CN Tower, revolves.

Beneath us, white sails fleck the water of Lake Ontario. Then, in turn, downtown moves into view, towers of glass and steel that shine in the waning light.

Almost all the buildings have risen since we came to Toronto in 1961. But one _ a bit west and about where the city land begins its long slight slope to the lake _ has been there since 1929: the Royal York. The city's most famous hotel, its form is so graceful that when it opened in 1929, a writer called it "a veritable poem written in stone."

The Royal York was a natural place to stay on the first night of our carefully drawn anniversary plan: to revisit, over a few weeks, the city we came to as a young couple and will call home forever.

Now named the Fairmont Royal York, the hotel's mystique still lingers. Our room, one of 1,365, had a picture view of city and water. The next evening we had dinner in the hotel's new dining room, Epic, presided over by a chef from France's Loire Valley, Jean Charles Dupoire.

When we first arrived in Toronto, it probably had neither a chef from France nor even a French restaurant. A river of immigration, beginning about when we arrived, changed all that.

Today's Toronto bursts with multicultural diversity, particularly evident in its cuisine. Even in our neighborhood, just north of the city center, we can walk in minutes to any of 30 restaurants offering a large choice of menus: Portuguese, Thai, Japanese, Indian, French, Mexican, Chinese and so many Italian restaurants, one seems to open most every week.

Inventing something new

In the years since we came, Toronto has become what may be the world's most multicultural city. More than 100 languages are spoken here.

Not long ago, I phoned the man many consider Toronto's most distinguished former mayor. "It's almost a miracle, so many cultural groups living together in such harmony," said David Crombie, mayor in the 1970s before becoming a federal cabinet minister. "The fact is that Toronto is not just bigger and better. Toronto has invented something new."

It depends a bit on where you draw the circumference, but Toronto has about 2.5-million people. Many still live in downtown neighborhoods, deliberately preserved during Crombie's term with the intellectual inspiration of Jane Jacobs, one of the world's leading urban thinkers. She moved to Toronto from New York in 1968, and her views helped keep downtown from becoming merely a commercial canyon.

Now the downtown is new glass towers, old bank buildings and shaded streets where people live in hundreds of elegant, restored period homes.

Many cultural and sports venues are within a short drive or reasonable walk of the Fairmont Royal York and other downtown hotels: Roy Thomson Hall, home of the acclaimed Toronto Symphony; the Hummingbird Centre for the Performing Arts, a stage for celebrated entertainers; Skydome, a 52,000-seat stadium with a retractable roof allowing the Blue Jays to play baseball rain or shine; the Air Canada Centre, home to the NHL Maple Leafs and NBA Raptors.

Canada's finest art venue, the Art Gallery of Ontario, is about 10 minutes by car from the downtown business district. The nation's largest museum, the Royal Ontario, with 39,000 objects, is a short distance from there. The city's Royal Alexander, home to live theater, is a couple of blocks north.

Toronto draws people largely because its ethnic variety has shaped an interesting, dynamic city. You can stroll and eat in Greektown, a strip along Danforth Avenue in the east end where, within a couple of miles, there are about 40 restaurants. One weekend every August the neighborhood becomes the scene of the biggest Greek festival in North America.

The world awaits

Toronto also has one of the largest Italian populations outside Rome, with many of the people residing in one of three Little Italy neighborhoods. The oldest is downtown along College Street, which has trattorias whose atmosphere hasn't changed much since the day they opened decades ago.

At the corner of College and Spadina, you are suddenly in the most distinct of all Toronto districts: Chinatown, where sidewalks are lined with food stalls and family vendors, and signage is in Chinese (and sometimes in English). It is as colorful as Hong Kong.

One recent night we ate Canton chicken in the noted Bright Pearl, a huge banquet-style room. I happened to look out the window at a scene that spoke Toronto's character: one of the city's oldest synagogues and next door to it, a Vietnamese cafe.

And I remembered something said a few days earlier by Olivia Chow, who came from Hong Kong as a teenager in 1970 and is now a progressive member of the City Council: "We can honestly say to people everywhere: Come to Toronto and see the world.

For visitors, some places are not to be missed. I would begin with the trolley tour that gives an overview before exploring on your own. I would also pick two or three restaurants for early dinner before a show or two at any of a dozen theatres (Toronto's theater district is behind Broadway and London's West End in the English-speaking world).

And make sure you also include these sites:

+ The Ontario Science Center. One of the great science museums in North America, it has 800 exhibits in three pavilions. The center is set on a graceful ravine in northeast Toronto. It's hands on. Visitors can experience steering an Olympic bobsled, working a robot and taking a rocket to the moon.

+ The Toronto Zoo. The third-largest zoo in the world, it would take days to cover the 700 acres that are home to about 5,000 animals. If you have children, start with the Children's Area, near the entrance, where they can ride a camel. For a few extra dollars, you can hop aboard vehicles to take you from place to place.

+ Toronto's Harbourfront Center and Toronto Islands. The center is a waterfront cultural mainstay, with shops, galleries, concerts and craft studios. It's not far from the dock where you can hop ferries to the slender green islands that seem a world away from city life. On the islands, there are no hotels, no stores, no cars.

If you go

GETTING THERE: American Airlines and Air Canada have regular flights from the Tampa Bay area to Toronto.

STAYING THERE: After staying at the Fairmont Royal York, my wife and I brought our Toronto anniversary to a close with more style than is our custom. We chose, for one night, an inn that is the finest boutique hotel in the area: the Old Mill. It is set amid large trees along an old river bed in the city's elegant west end.

When it opened in 1914, the Old Mill was touted as "a Little bit of England far from England." That was old Toronto. Today, the Old Mill is luxury suites, a spa and a staff from two dozen countries, from Mexico to Indonesia. That one night, sitting beside the huge wood-burning fireplace in the inn's Tudor-style dining room, old Toronto and new Toronto came together for us.

Contacts: Fairmont Royal York: (416) 368-2511, toll-free 1-800-441-1414; e-mail royalyorkhotelfairmont.com; 100 Front St. W, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5J 1E3.

The Old Mill: (416) 236-2641; 21 Old Mill Road.

EATING THERE: Over the years, we've enjoyed many restaurants in the city, but most recently at the new Ampeli in Greektown, we found a menu that's probably more diverse than any outside Athens. Ampeli, 526 Danforth Ave., (416) 465-4001. In the "old" Little Italy, try Giovanna Trattoria, where diners are enveloped in the warm joy of Italian families. Giovanna Trattoria, 637 College St., (416) 538-2098.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: For complete information on the city, including details on the regular discounts offered on lodging and attractions, contact Toronto Tourism, toll-free 1-800-363-1990 or go to www.torontotourism.com. Get the latest copy of the visitors guide, which includes maps and event calendars.

RECOMMENDED READING: Fodor's Toronto; Fodor's Around Toronto with Kids, by Kate Pocock; Passport's Guide to Ethnic Toronto, by Robert J. Kasher.

KEY

1. Fairmont Royal York Hotel.

2. CN Tower.

3. The Old Mill.

4. Ampeli.

5. Giovanna Trattoria.

6. Ontario Science Center.

7. Toronto Zoo.

8. Harbourfront Center.

9. Roy Thomson Hall.

10. Hummingbird Centre.

11. SkyDome.

12. Art Gallery of Ontario.

13. Royal Ontario Museum.

Freelance writer Kenneth Bagnell lives in Toronto.

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