Strange emails started arriving in Bits&Bytes’ email account. “2Lips 4 U” sounded suspiciously like a pornographic come-on for a young Asian bride or pair of San Francisco hustlers. Since the repeated mailings were not in junk mail, this timid scribe cautiously opened the first in the series.
Surprise—the intriguing subject line was actually an invitation to join a press tour to Toronto and Ottawa, two major cities in the province of Ontario in eastern Canada. Not only a press tour, but a press tour for writers of GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered) publications. SGN had been invited, and Bits&Bytes got to go.
Three nights in Toronto (one of this scribe’s favorite Canadian cities) with a visit to the new, lavish, $27 million production of Lord Of The Rings. Then three nights in Ottawa, Ontario’s capitol city (a new experience for this writer) and its famous museums, historic Parliament Buildings and its annual Tulip Festival—the “2Lips 4 U” of the emails. All with a group of writers for GLBT publications with a focus on the GLBT history, activities, districts, restaurants, clubs, housing choices in each city.
LEAVING SEATTLE & MEETING TWO ‘FELLOW TRAVELERS’
All totaled, the press group numbered 12 with GLBT publications ranging from Los Angeles’ Frontiers (often available in Seattle bars and bookstores), Baltimore Outloud, Chicago’s Lavender and the Chicago Free Press—plus a couple of freelancers, web sites and other publications—PlanetOut, Front Page, Envy Man, Liberty Press.
SGN’s Bits&Bytes and two women from three web publications based in Seattle were all flying from the Emerald City at the same time. As I checked into the Air Canada flight to Toronto, I wondered how would I meet the two Seattle women, who represent the three web sites: GayWebMonkey, LesbianNation.com and GayWired.com. Provincial as it may be, it seemed a good idea for the three Seattle writers to meet and greet.
Turned out to be easy—as I started to climb into my dreaded middle seat for the long, long flight, the woman on the aisle asked if I would switch my seat so she could sit “with my partner.” A few casual comments and—you guessed it—we discovered that we were all three headed to the “2Lips 4 U” writers’ outing—no pun intended. Laura Vess and Christina Witwer and this scribe became fast friends and enjoyed many of the trip’s activities together.
FINDING THE CAR, HEADING TO GLOUCESTER INN
The Three Seattle Musketeers arrived after a pleasant flight, picked up our luggage and set out to find the car that the press coordinator said would meet us. Thank heaven for Vess and Witwer—Bits&Bytes stood by hopelessly when it seemed no representative held a sign for any of us. Laura and Christina were clearly wiser media troopers—the limousine greeter had his sign upside down and backwards. The two women noticed that one name was inverted and had the forethought to walk behind him and notice our three names on the reserve side. It wouldn’t be the only time that Laura and Christina saved the day….
GAY-OWNED GLOUCESTER INN
Our arrival at the Gay-owned, Gay-staffed, “straight-friendly” Gloucester Square Inn was right out of Hollywood film. The rainy airport mix-up had put a slight damper on our arrival, but the owner and staff of the Gloucester Square Inn happily changed the scene. As we arrived at the three-mansion complex (the Square of its name), the rain disappeared and the sun peeked out for a late afternoon cocktail party.
Planned for the patio area (actually the “Garden Terrace”) that connects two Victorian mansions, the party had been moved inside to the handsome, remodeled carriage house. Wine from Stratus, a Niagara, Ontario, winery, flowed. Overflowing platters of goodies highlighted the cocktail reception, the meet-and-greet so important to any gathering of strangers who will become best friends for the next six day.
The Gloucester Inn complex and the coach house are often the site of same-sex marriages, anniversary parties and other GLBT events. Ontario, it should be remembered, was the first province in Canada to sanction same-sex marriages. The city’s Gay Pride Celebrations rank as the third largest in the world (after San Francisco and Sydney). Decades of “Queer Culture” have made the city a travel destination for GLBT visitors—every travel publication that Bits&Bytes has ever seen about Toronto lists the GLBT clubs, housing, restaurants, baths, galleries, in a “proud” manner. “We’re Here, We’re Queer, Get Used To It” could be the theme of the city.
When it opened, the first of the three buildings was advertised as a Gay Guest House, the complex’s owner and restorer, told Bits&Bytes. As he and his partner added a second house, a famous mansion, to the “Square,” many Gay business travelers asked if the receipt could omit the GLBT label for corporate accounting and company reimbursement. When the third house, an historic mansion that had been a former rectory for Catholic priests, was added, the generic Gloucester Square Inns Of Toronto became the formal name. The web site, however, retains a hint of its origins —www.SleepWithAFriend.com.
A NIGHT VISIT TO ‘THE VILLAGE’ STARTS THE TOUR
The Gloucester Square Inn is only a few blocks from the center of Gay Toronto—Church Street and “The Village,” as it’s affectionately known. Think the Castro in San Francisco, Capitol Hill in Seattle—that’s The Village. Ric Tremaine, the Square’s owner and innkeeper, became our spontaneous host for the evening with a walking tour and stops at several happy GLBT pubs—one used for the Toronto-based filming of Queer As Folk. The media group—with people coming from the West Coast and Florida and all points in between—obviously was ready for something to eat, a media event not scheduled.
The gregarious Tremaine, an official and unofficial cheerleader for The Village and all that is Gay in Toronto, quickly ushered the crowd in the handsome, stylish, upscale Byzantium restaurant in the center of the Church Street Gay Village area. A large table was quickly assembled, menus were presented and we each gleefully feasted on top quality, gourmet presentations. At the end of the impromptu meal, we all reached for our individual credit cards (this was not a preplanned media tour event) only to find out that Tremaine had convinced the owners and hosts that we were hungry journalists in need of a good meal, an unexpected treat that capped our first night in the Gay-friendly city.
DISTILLERY DISTRICT, ZELDA’S FOR DINNER
Our second day started bright and early with a hearty continental breakfast at the Gloucester Square and a tour of the historic St. Lawrence Market by “local legend” Bruce Bell, an actor who has become more famous as a tour guide. A quick trip to Toronto’s famous Distillery District, where the outdoor sequences of Chicago, the Academy Award winning musical, were filmed, and a lunch at the casually upscale Canteen filled the mid-day.
Seated next to Carla Waldemar, a food and wine critic for Michigan’s Lavender, proved insightful. I discovered that I was a “destination” travel writer—Bits&Bytes tends to travel to report on theater and arts events rather than a “general travel writer.” Carla, it turns out, is a “destination” travel writer who reports on restaurants and wineries. She would gleefully skip a major theater event for a hard-to-get late night dinner reservation at one of Toronto’s top gourmet restaurants. The chance luncheon conversation proved that you can learn something every day….
A quick dinner at the campy, tongue-in-cheek Zelda’s in The Village (with a menu had most of us laughing at its clever phrasing) gathered us together before hiking around the corner for a production at Buddies In Badtimes Theatre, Toronto’s major GLBT stage venue. (Zelda is a legendary drag queen in The Village and her colorful, casual restaurant is a hoot-and-a half.)
A new play, A Beautiful View, focused on a female-to-female relationship between two women who cannot call their longtime sexual affair a “Lesbian relationship.” A camping trip proves a chance to explore the full aspect of their complex relationship. Written and directed by Daniel MacIvor, the play is sure to have future productions. It was, logically, best received by Lesbian members of the audience—and the media tour.
TIFFANY COFFEE FILL THE DAY
By the third day, the media group was happily off on its own, open agenda. One man had bailed out of the group and driven home (“personal problems,” the media coordinator guessed) and another excused himself from most planned activities. (“I don’t eat in places like that” was often his strange explanation.)
Museum visits—the famous Bata Shoe Museum. The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), a stop at Toronto’s Tiffany & Co. (the only store in the Tiffany chain to serve free coffee), small antique shops filled the morning and much of the afternoon. One of many worthwhile ROM stops, The Royal Ontario Museum’s Lalique Exhibit, continues through Jan. 27, 2007, and it is a “must see” for fans of the French glass artist and innovator. Sixty major pieces of Lalique glass and jewelry are showcased in the exhibit, plus 10 other works created by artists inspired by Lalique. Bits&Bytes plans to spend hours studying the exhibit on his upcoming Toronto trip to check out Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Wagner’s Ring cycle, opening next week and continuing with three complete cycles of the four-opera work through September.
Lunch at Hemingway’s, a rooftop restaurant in Yorkville, united most of the group. Alas, a wet Toronto day took the edge off Hemingway’s rooftop—even with sheltering awnings and space heaters, the media group was chilled to the bone. Note: plan a visit on a sunny day—the restaurant deserves another look.
LORD OF RINGS
HIGHLIGHTS LAST TORONTO DAY
The lavish, innovative Lord Of The Rings—The Musical was the hoped-for-highlight of the Toronto trip for Bits&Bytes. The $27 million production transformed the Princess Of Wales Theatre into Tolkien-land with a literal forest of tree branches sweeping out from the stage and over the roof of the large auditorium. Brent Carver, the Vancouver, B.C., artist who won a Tony for his role as the Gay window dresser in Broadway’s Kiss Of The Spider Woman, headed the huge cast.
Alas, the production received strangely savage reviews from all major critics—U.S. and Canadian—who reported on the opening night. The musical—which truly combines traditional musical theater elements and innovative new influences—was a huge hit with school groups (which often filled the theater’s balconies) and young audiences—and, of course, Lord Of The Rings fans. Ushers reported that weekend nights were often sold out but weekday crowds simply never showed up.
The open-ended booking, expected to run for at least two years before heading for London and then Broadway, ends early—it closes mid-September. There’s much to like about this eye-filling spectacle but maybe not quite enough. As it is now, the physical Toronto production moves to London with major revisions. New York and Broadway are not in discussion –at least until the London opening.
Reactions among the media group were equally mixed.
Carla Waldemar, the Chicago-based food and wine critic, had scored an “impossible to get” 10 p.m. reservation at one of Toronto’s major gourmet restaurants. She had attended Lord Of The Rings with the full understanding that she would leave at the first intermission of the three-hour cycle. When she rushed to a waiting taxi, she confided, “It was much better than I thought it would be…I’d stay if I didn’t have the reservation.” Now that is praise from a food writer….
OFF TO OTTAWA FOR TULIPS, KINKI & TOM STOPPARD
Early the next morning the media group headed for VIA Rail Canada to take us to Ottawa for the world famous Tulip Festival and tours of the equally famous museums and Victoria-era Parliament Buildings, still in use.
An unexpected highlight was dinner at Kinki, an Asian-fusion restaurant that combined Seattle’s Dragonfish or Wild Ginger with a hip-hop club atmosphere. A production of Tom Stoppard’s Tony Award-winning The Real Thing was another unexpected highlight. But all of that will have to wait—it seems churlish to report on a late-spring Tulip Festival when the autumn leaves are starting to change color. Look for a full report in an upcoming, seasonally correct, SGN.