I would owe Toronto an apology before the night was done.
For too long I had characterized the city as one that lacked natural and architectural beauty, diminishing its attractiveness when compared to some other metropolises in Canada and abroad. No city — not even pretty Copenhagen or gorgeous Vienna — is without its shortcomings and areas of blight. Likewise, any modern centre that attracts visitors will have features worthy of praise.
Toronto gets knocked because it has a highway, the Gardiner, that batters through it, dividing the city’s waterfront district along Lake Ontario from the core of skyscrapers and boxy condominium buildings. The highway also generates a painful amount of vehicle traffic each day. It’s the busy downtown, with a mishmash of design styles and lack of green spaces, that is responsible for the criticism Toronto receives about its looks.
But when you observe the city from the water, away from the congestion, basking in sunlight, with its sentry-like towers guarding the shore with might and grace you realize Toronto has seized your breath. It’s what happened to me frequently when I embarked on a tour aboard Northern Spirit, a yacht with a capacity for 565 guests.
During a three-hour cruise, the boat showed off Toronto and the resplendent islands just off of its shore. The islands are known for a play area with children’s rides, adult eccentricities such as the municipality’s only nude beach, and the Billy Bishop City Centre Airport that includes flights from Air Canada and Porter. As Northern Spirit wanders close to the airport, planes fly overhead as they take off and land on the runways that edge up to the lake. Their presence is eye-catching and terrific for photography buffs.
Meanwhile, on the mainland, the city’s skyline mesmerizes. The CN Tower — which for many years held the title as the tallest free-standing structure in the world — needles to the sky while the neighbouring Rogers Centre sports stadium, with its curved retractable dome the cover of a white egg shell, provides further reason to gaze.
The most pleasant part of the evening journey is the slow amble eastward, beyond the Toronto islands and the marshland that surrounds them. It’s here were the sun starts to fall, dripping orange, red and yellow hues on the water. It was on the upper deck of the Northern Spirit where I felt the spell of nature envelop me, leaving me relaxed and eager to enjoy the other aspects of the trip.
Built in 1982, the Northern Spirit underwent a $500,000 renovation in 2018 that improved its appearance and performance. The boat is operated by Mariposa Cruises, which is owned by Entertainment Cruises, the leading provider of dinner sailings in North America. In May, the company acquired the Gananoque Boat Line — based in Kingston, about 250 kilometres (155 miles) north of Toronto — and added that venture to its collection that also includes Hornblower Cruises in Niagara Falls. The expansion gives the company 53 vessels in total, including multiple options on Lake Ontario.
The expanded fleet allows the company to provide multi-city tour packages for foreign travellers and Chinese visitors have been particularly keen to board the boats. Mariposa Cruises says of their approximately 35,000 sightseeing guests annually, 60 per cent are from China.
Along with the sightseeing aspects of the cruise, passengers receive a meal and the chance to dance to classic disco songs. While the programming may seem unoriginal, the execution is solid. The food will especially please. The menu is focused on fresh ingredients and local flavours. Dinner features a buffet with a large variety of familiar staples: meatballs, pan-seared fish, baked chicken, salads, pastas, and an abundant dessert table.
Between servings from the buffet, you should act on your temptation to step outside to get another clear look of the city and its surroundings. For certain, when the Northern Spirit returns you to Toronto’s harbour, you will feel you are coming back to a city that is suddenly more tranquil than when you departed. With that, the Northern Spirit cruise achieves what an outstanding tour experience should: It leaves an indelible image in your mind of a place more lovely than you envisioned it before you arrived.
MORE ABOUT MARIPOSA CRUISES
Departure Point: 207 Queen’s Quay West, Toronto (at the foot of York Street)
Cost: The weekday dinner cruises (Sunday to Friday) costs $87.90. The Saturday dinner cruise costs $92.90. There are additional taxes and fees as well.
Other Itineraries: Mariposa features six boats and a variety of tour options, including a sightseeing-only cruise that starts at a bargain rate of $25.95.