Travel: Toronto, a gem of a weekend flying by BA Dreamliner

Toronto's skyline near the harbour featuring the CN Tower.
Toronto's skyline near the harbour featuring the CN Tower.

Who’d turn down a city break in Canada flying in comfort and style on BA’s 787 Dreamliner? Graham Chalmers nearly did - and discovered in Toronto just what a mistake that would have been.

I was like a man who’d won the National Lottery but thrown the ticket away.

British Airways' Boeing 787 Dreamliner,

British Airways' Boeing 787 Dreamliner,

It was an amazing offer. An all-expenses paid, press shindig to Toronto with the chance to fly first class on British Airways much-heralded Dreamliner 787 and be wined and dined in a five-star hotel.

But I didn’t want it. I’d been to Vancouver the year before on holiday, which I’d enjoyed immensely.

But Canada’s an awful long way to go for the weekend - despite the generosity of BA and Tourism Toronto.

What did I know about Toronto except that it’s got an annual film festival each September and John Lennon played one of his few solo concerts there in the dying days of The Beatles.

Eventually I saw sense and relented but, as I took off from one of the world’s most civilised and peaceful airports, Leeds-Bradford, bound for one of the world’s biggest and busiest, Heathrow, I feared the worst.

Awaiting me at the airline’s flagship home at Terminal 5 amid the Concorde Room’s glittering chandeliers and luxurious waiter service are six other journalists.

Unlike me they are seasoned travel writers. Unlike me they mainly work for national newspapers.

I am about to feel out of my depth at 40,000 feet.

Through the expanse of windows I can see a fan of towering tailgates brandishing the red, white and blue flash of the union flag. The BA livery is one of the few symbols of British greatness still visible on the world stage and good press coverage clearly means a lot to them.

So much so, that we small band of journalists don’t have to ask to meet the captain as we waltz onto the 747 after champagne and nibbles. No, the captain asks to meet us.

Installed safely upstairs we have the Club World section almost completely to ourselves.

I’ve always flown economy and happily told myself it would be expensive and pointless to do it any other way.

My opinion is quickly revised. It’s not so much the different standard of service, the lashings of free food and drink, the fantastic personal attention of the cabin staff, it’s the sheer amount of room.

What a strange feeling. Absolutely no one is crowding your personal space.

If it wasn’t for the view, I might even forget I was on a plane.

I settle back in my bed-like seat and watch as the terrain far below us passes by in the 747’s slipstream.

The forbidding white expanse of Greenland’s vast ice sheets have come and gone as I decide it’s bed time.

I’ve flown round the world many times and never managed to sleep for more than 15 minutes at any point but I manage to do so on this flight.

As we land, I wonder what tomorrow will bring in Canada’s largest city, a “global business, entertainment and tourism hub” with a population of 2.8 million people?

Americans tend to look down on their North American neighbours for being a bit dull, and the Canadians themselves tend to play up to the joke - despite the city’s TV news being awash in scandalous tales of the Toronto mayor Rob Ford and his liking for crack cocaine and hookers.

The limousine taking us from the airport snakes its way past Lake Ontario and into the heart of the skyscraper city.

The historic Fairmont Royal York Hotel is slap-bang in the centre of modern Toronto, sitting like a luxury gateau surrounded by towering shards of steel and glass.

This handsome five-star pile is handily situated for most of the major tourist attractions, from the Hockey Hall of Fame to the truly spectacular CN Tower, at 1,815.4 ft the tallest such construction in the world, and the Art Gallery of Ontario, home to an impressive collection of Henry Moore sculptures.

Not being winter when temperatures can dip to -7C, our visit is devoted to a couple of lengthy walking tours.

It’s exactly the sort of thing I love to do and it gives us the chance to trace a time in Toronto’s past before the current boom in office and apartment development.

In the version of Toronto presented to us by the knowledgable Linda Humphreys of the Canadian Tour Guide Association, few of the buildings are taller than three storeys.

It’s a young city and packed with culture - both in the deeper sense and the more recent idea of bars, cafés, markets, restaurants and shops.

For a moment we pick up on the refined air of academia in the old townhouses round the University of Toronto.

The ghost of a young Joni Mitchell floats by us in Yorkville, now a chi-chi shopping district but once the city’s bohemian heartbeat.

Lunch is at Pure Spirits Oyster House & Grill amid the cobblestones, indie shops and red brick of the historic Distillery District.

A power cut forces us to dine in candlelight on the only thing restaurant staff can serve without electricity – oysters and champagne.

As the walking tour resumes, this time in the expert hands of perky arts expert Betty Ann Jordan of Art InSite, I realise I have an advantage over my fellow journalists.

Most of them seem happy in the city’s sports bars watching ice hockey or American football but I’m genuinely interested in all things ‘arty’.

The afternoon sees us being given the keys to West Queen West, the city’s trendiest and most important area for galleries and boutiques where even hairdressers showcase paintings between the blow dyers.

We start at the Gladstone, a boutique hotel which is also a live venue which is also a bar which is also an art gallery.

A TV crew is there to film multi-talented artist Che Kothari introducing his new exhibition of Hip Hop photographs.

At a friendly nod from our tour guide, he waves away the camera man so we can chat to him in front of a stunning portrait of rapper Ice Cube.

Further down the same street we gate-crash the launch of another new exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art.

It’s a swish affair but soon MOCCA’s artistic director David Liss is walking across to talk to us, too. “

“What do you think these pictures mean?” he asks us.

I look around. The whole room’s gaze is is directed our way.

The speech bubble reads “who are these people David’s taking the time to talk to?”

As for me, as brilliant as this is, I’m wondering what can possibly be in it for him to talk to someone from the Harrogate Advertiser?

Such is my ridiculous good fortune, it’s hard to believe I’d be having a better time even if I had won the National Lottery.

Toronto has been laid on a plate for us and the VIP experience extends all the way to our departure. Before we board, we’re introduced to the manager and chef in BA’s first class lounge.

We’re given the run of the place, treated to a three-course meal with a different hand-picked wine for each course, then whisked onto the spectacular 787 Dreamliner.

BA’s newest, most eco-friendly passenger plane more than lives up to its billing.

With less noise and lower cabin pressure, more oxygen and larger windows, it’s an altogether gentler way to spend time at altitude.

There’s fantastic in-flight entertainment and mood lighting. It’s like being in a nightclub in the sky.

The drink and chat with my new-found friends flows until we land back in London.

There’s no bump but there is a shock before boarding one of BA’s regular connecting flights back to Leeds Bradford.

For the first time in two days I’m not ushered instantly past the queues.

What on earth is going on? Whoops. After briefly being treated like a VIP, I’m starting to think like one.

I’ve been looked after royally by BA’s likable consumer PR manager Michael Johnson but the ironic thing is none of it was necessary.

Toronto is a great city. Contrary to what the comedians say, it’s not more boring than its US counter-parts, just a little more civilised, like much of Canada.

It’s youthful, vibrant and fun. As an alternative to New York, it’s definitely worth a long weekend – and I’d happily go economy next time.

Graham Chalmers flew to Toronto, Canada courtesy of BA at Leeds-Bradford and Heathrow airports and stayed at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel.

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