The driving distance from Toronto to Ottawa is 450 kilometres, which is “basically next door” in Canadian English and “kind of far for a weekend trip” in any European language.
The five-hour drive on the wide 401, one of the world’s busiest highways, is pretty unremarkable—and frustrating when you get stuck in traffic—but it becomes interesting when approaching the Greater Toronto Area. Past the first urbanized section and the usual bland shopping malls in Yorkdale and Scarborough, Highway 401 climbs toward the Don Valley Parkway, which provides access to downtown Toronto. The best place to actually appreciate bumper-to-bumper traffic conditions is the elevated Gardiner Expressway that cuts through downtown Toronto’s forest of buildings and passes the Rogers Centre, the CN Tower and the Air Canada Centre as well as many condominiums and office towers in the Harbourfront and the Financial District. It’s a voyeur’s dream—you’re so close to the fancy boardrooms of big corporations you can almost wave the shareholders hello and expect them to wave back.
Over the years, we’ve stayed in many different hostels and hotels in Toronto. I spent my first night in Canada at the Canadiana Backpackers Inn on Widmer Street and we stayed at the HI Toronto Hostels when we came back from Niagara Falls after getting married. We booked a room several times at the Neill-Wycik Cooperative College, a very basic student residence open to backpackers in the summer. We stayed at the Bond Hotel at the corner of Yonge and Dundas twice, in 2010 and 2017, both times because we got a good deal on Expedia. We stayed in several tired airports hotels when flights and connections were missed. We stayed in faraway suburbs as well, when we couldn’t find a room in Toronto.
The Victoria Day long weekend trip was a last-minute decision and there weren’t many affordable options left. The HI Hostel was charging $200 for a private room and sadly, we couldn’t find a good deal for the Bond Place Hotel, arguably my favourite place in Toronto—can’t beat the location.
Eventually, Feng found a condo for rent on Booking.com. Apparently, this is the new trend—hostels are a thing of the past, nowadays you just rent an apartment for a few nights.
Sorry, not an apartment—a condo unit.
A “condo” (short for “condominium”) is a North Americanism for what the rest of the world calls an “apartment unit.” While many residential buildings in Canada are managed by a single property management company leasing out units to individual tenants, condo units are owned by individuals and usually managed under the umbrella of that condo community’s homeowner association.“Condos” are typically newer, fancier and offer high-end amenities like a pool, a concierge, a gym, etc.
After building entire neighbourhoods of mega-homes with supersized driveways, many Canadians are now rediscovering the fact that you may not need six bedrooms and four bathrooms and that living in an apartment actually kind of make sense in big cities. But you can’t tell people, “look, you can’t afford that million-dollar house, alright?” So instead, Canadians are being sold “the condo lifestyle,” a sales pitch that invariably includes words like “convenience” (“you don’t have to do any yard work or shovel snow!”), “freedom” and “state-of-the-art something something”.
“Are you serious? The fiftieth floor?”
“Are you sure you didn’t book the CN Tower by mistake?” I joked.
We left on Saturday morning, dropping Mark off at my in-laws on the way. “Why do you have backpacks in the car?” he asked suspiciously. “We’re going to Toronto,” I shrugged, still half-asleep. Then Feng gave him pocket money for a toy and for all he cared, we could have been going to the moon, he was going to buy whatever he wanted.
I slept for the first three hours of the trip and I woke up when Feng stopped at the Newcastle Travel Plaza, a fancy name for one of the 401 rest stops with the usual Tim Hortons, convenience store and clean bathroom. It was rainy and cold.
“Shit. I don’t have a jacket.”
I didn’t bring much, just a small backpack with three t-shirts, three pairs of underwear, the jeans I was wearing and a pair of shorts. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who had stopped watching The Weather Network after the last snowstorm—many people were rushing inside the rest stop, underdressed and shivering.
The last 100 kilometres went by fast and soon, we saw Toronto’s skyline. Well, kind of. It was so foggy half of the CN Tower was missing.
At least, we couldn’t miss the two 67-storey buildings on York Street.
The check-in process was as efficient and modern as the condo lifestyle claims to be—no human interaction, the keys were inside the apartment and the parking spot number was provided over the phone.
“Do people actually live there? This is so weird…” I muttered as we walked through the immaculate white lobby, unlocking doors with our passes.
There were two rows of elevators facing each other—half for low-rise units, up to the 37th floor, half for the high-rise units, up to the 67th floor.
I felt my ear pop around the 30th floor.
Read part 2 here!