Story by Carol Perehudoff
Vacay.ca Senior Writer
TORONTO, ONTARIO — Biting into a tiny donut topped with caviar is like wearing a cashmere bikini — a pairing of elements so unexpected it makes you blink. Given the option, however, I’d far rather eat the donut — in fact, make it a dozen — especially when it’s at Bosk, the oak-panelled restaurant helmed by oh-so-likeable executive chef Damon Campbell at the year-old Shangri-La Hotel, Toronto.
With its beginnings in Singapore and a current base in Hong Kong, the Asian-inspired Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts possesses a mystique few hotel groups can rival. Or is that just in my head? My introduction goes back to my grad school days when my Australian roommate told me her father was vacationing at the Shangri-La in Borneo.
“It’s the best hotel in the world,” she said, describing the gardens, teak furnishings and tropical air so vividly that Shangri-La became a mirage of opulence in my mind. Now that I’ve had a few memorable Shangri-La moments of my own — a bath strewn with rose petals in Qingdao; Peking duck at Island Shangri-La, Hong Kong; a sunset swim in the pool overlooking the Chao Phraya River at Shangri-La, Bangkok — the mirage has solidified. But, I wonder, does Shangri-La lose its lustre without an exotic setting to back it up? There is only one way to find out, and that’s with a Toronto staycation.
Located downtown at University Avenue and Adelaide Street, the Shangri-La hotel condo complex is a glass highrise flooded with natural light and grounded by rich Asian design elements such as Chinese porcelain and Oriental credenzas. Colours alternate between soothing (think hallway walls lined with pale raw silk) and dramatic (chocolate and aubergine carpets with splashes of burnt orange).
Equally dramatic is the independently owned Miraj Hammam Spa by Caudalie Paris, a sultry combination of Middle Eastern steam rituals and wine-based therapies from Bordeaux, while the hotel’s pool area is airy with built-in cabanas and Chinese lantern-esque lights.
Shangri-La is a TIFF Hot Spot
Still, there is no mistaking the downtown surroundings for Asia. There are no waving palm trees, no junk boats sailing through a harbour. The TIFF Bell Lightbox, however, headquarters of the Toronto International Film Festival, is moments away and that, as every Torontonian knows, has a mystique of its own.
With the film festival fast approaching, Shangri-La will be part of the action. The 2013 TIFF Asian Film Summit will be held at the hotel on September 10. It’s a fitting match. According to Kerry Connelly, director of communications for Shangri-La, Toronto, the summit is a key element of TIFF’s ongoing commitment to building bridges between Asian cinema and the West.
TIFF runs from September 5-15 this year and the Shangri-La will be a hot spot for filmdom’s elite. More than half a million tickets are sold for the film fest each year and 2013’s edition is highly anticipated because of the world premieres of “The Fifth Estate,” the movie based on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” the biopic about the aging South African statesman. Numerous Asian films will also be showcased, a sign of that region’s growing influence in the movie world and a demographic that is sure to appreciate the Shangri-La, Toronto.
I’m feeling more West than East when I return to the Shangri-La after a tour of the boxy TIFF Bell Lightbox, but the first thing that hits me when I enter the hotel is the Essence of Shangri-La, a signature scent that is light and spicy and ever-so faintly transporting. The lobby is expansive, with a 90-seat lounge, a five-volume drinks menu, and touches that deserve a second look: orange carp swimming under a glass floor, a Bohemian crystal chandelier, a Fazioli piano. But nothing says wow like the art.
To say I’m obsessed with the Rising, a polished stainless steel sculpture that fronts the hotel, is an understatement. Created by Chinese artist Zhang Huan, it seems to twist and shapeshift like a living silvery beast. I photograph it from the street, from the lobby, and through the window of Momofuku, the trendy noodlery from New York that has set up shop next door to the hotel. At times I see a tree, a dragon, fingers, a flock of doves. Sometimes the leafy tentacles seem to be reaching right into the lobby. Oh wait, they are in the lobby — glance up at the ceiling or over the double-sided fireplace and you’ll see an occasional glimpse of fluttery metal wings.
Tearing my gaze away from the Rising I immediately become transfixed by four monumental black-and-white paintings dominating the lobby lounge. Commissioned from the Shanghai artist, Wang Xu Yuan, they’re calligraphy-style portraits of women from the Peking Opera. They’re more like swirling wisps of wind than flesh. They bring to mind another image, a towering silk landscape called The Great Motherland of China that soars up 16 storeys at Island Shangri-La, Hong Kong, and for the briefest instant I have one foot in Asia, another at home — a pairing of cultures as irresistible as a caviar donut and, to be sure, much sexier than a cashmere bikini.
More About Shangri-La, Toronto
Location: 88 University Ave, Toronto, ON
Room Rates: From $355 per night
Reservations: 1-647-788-8888 or use the booking engine on the hotel’s website.
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