The Big Picture: Toronto Beckons with Cinema, Golf and a Retro-Chic Hotel

If there’s an international destination that’s been taken for granted or treated lightly by the typical American campaigner, it’s Canada.

Let’s skip the silly jokes about the ‘frozen north,’ eh? Let’s get right to the stats. Hockey, which is played with near-religious fervor by Canadians, was surpassed 10 years ago by golf as the sport of choice. The participation rate—roughly 20% of the Canadian population plays golf—is one of the highest in the world. (Perhaps that is why Canadians on average live nearly three years longer than Americans).

Toronto, Canada’s largest metropolis, claims the title as North America’s (and maybe the world’s)  most multicultural city. As Yogi would say, you could look it up. More than 140 languages and dialects are spoken in this city of nearly 2.5 million. (An additional 5.5 million residents live in the Greater Toronto area). Even the five boroughs of New York City can’t claim that much ethnicity.

Small wonder the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), scheduled for Sept.  9 -19, is the world’s largest celebration of cinema and second only to Cannes in prestige, though in truth the red carpet is longer and the welcome warmer in Toronto.

Hundreds of contemporary films will be premiered at the festival’s new home, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, a new five-story complex at Reitman Square in downtown Toronto. The fare will range from Armadillo, a new documentary that paints a harrowing portrait of the current conflict in Afghanistan, to chestnuts like The Bill Chill (1983), Lawrence Kasdan’s “bittersweet testimony to a confused generation.” No wonder TIFF’s mission is “to transform the way people see the world.”

If you plan to attend the festival, the best place to stay is the Four Seasons Hotel Toronto, a vintage 380-room property located on Avenue Road in the heart of Yorkville, the city’s fashionable shopping, dining and entertainment quarter. With more than 700 art galleries and dozens of outdoor cafes tucked among the district’s lanes and streets, Yorkville manages to be both charming and commercial.

Refined accomadations await at the Four Seasons Hotel Toronto

I’ve been to newer, more architecturally distinguished Four Seasons hotels in New York, San Francisco, Vancouver and elsewhere, but the company’s flagship property in Toronto has a nice residential ambience, its marble-floored lobby leading to a comfortable street-level lounge. Public areas, done up in a sort of post-Victorian parlor style, do not strive for special effects. The reason to stay here is for the location—superb—and for the understated, Old World elegance. The guest rooms and suites have custom furnishings that include an antique-style writing desk (for those who eschew the property’s high-tech business center). The hotel’s south-facing rooms look to the Canadian Nation (CN) Tower, at 1,815 feet the world’s tallest freestanding structure.

When I visited with my wife in July, Yorkville, formerly an independent village within the city, was a construction zone. The Bloor-Yorkville BIA (Business Improvement Area), in partnership with the city, was in the process of transforming the neighborhood by widening the sidewalks and adding as many trees and seasonal flowerbeds as possible. The goal is streetscape beautification.

Perhaps just as interesting is what Four Seasons is creating a couple of blocks away from its flagship property at the corner of Yorkville Avenue and Bay Street, where two edifices are taking shape. One is a 55-story tower that will house 253 guest rooms and suites plus 101 residential units; the other is a 26-story tower that will have 103 residential apartments. Four Seasons Hotel & Private Residences Toronto, as it’s called, is scheduled to open in early 2012.

On a lark—no, it was a test–I asked the concierge at the existing Four Seasons about golf in the Toronto area. I was well aware that with the possible exception of Chicago, more new and established daily-fee courses can be found among the glacier-carved hills and valleys an hour’s drive or less from downtown Toronto than any other North American city. The concierge handed me a basic ‘Golfing in Toronto’ brochure with five courses described, including mainstays like Glen Abbey, Wooden Sticks and Lionhead. I was more intrigued by the two venues on the flip side: Angus Glen and Eagles Nest, both the work of area resident Doug Carrick.

On a warm, sunny day in June 2002, Carrick, a soft-spoken man who lets his work do the talking, took me on a tour of his creations on the outskirts of Toronto. Our first stop was the 54-hole complex at Osprey Valley, which is set in the rolling hills of Caledon an hour’s drive from the Harbourfront.

Doug Carrick

Osprey’s Heathlands Links, one of Carrick’s early designs (1993), is a short, compact layout walled in by a sea of fescue-covered mounds, with menacing pot bunkers placed to defend the small, tricky greens. It’s very exacting. Locals love it. Carrick returned several years later to build a pair of total opposites, fancifully named Hoot and Toot. Hoot, carved into a rolling expanse of Sahara-like wastelands dotted with spruce and pine, was inspired by Pine Valley, the epic course carved from similar terrain in southern New Jersey. Toot, by contrast, is a refined parkland spread, its elevated tees set atop knolls and its tree-lined fairways paved through glacier-carved troughs. I came away thinking that Hoot and Toot were as good a public golf tandem as you could ask for.

Our next stop was Angus Glen. The original layout at this attractive facility in Markham, now called the South Course, is a brawny test built by Carrick on roller-coaster terrain that once served as horse paddocks. Marked by sharp elevation changes and sturdy par fours, the South Course hosted the 2002 Canadian Open. The facility’s newer North Course, a collaboration between Carrick and Jay Morrish, is a grand-scale track routed across gently rolling pastureland, its broad fairways and sprawling greens staked out by sod-walled bunkers. A strategic tour de force, the North Course welcomed the Canadian Open in 2007. Carrick told me the gingerbread-trimmed, farmhouse-style clubhouse is a reminder that champion Aberdeen Angus cattle were once raised here.

Carrick and I then drove to tiny Kleinburg to tour Copper Creek, which had just opened. Tied up for 13 years in the permitting process, the designer described it as “a career-long project.” On a very diverse site, Carrick routed 11 holes on upper tableland, built three holes in a terrace-like bowl, and sketched four holes across a lovely valley skirted by a branch of the Humber River. Clusters of tall white pines and a series of interconnected ponds frame these lower holes, which are tucked far below an enormous, copper-roofed clubhouse. Copper Creek had a completely different look than the courses at Osprey Valley and Angus Glen. Clearly Carrick wasn’t interested in repeating himself.

We made our final stop at a former sand and gravel extraction pit 45 minutes north of downtown Toronto. It was now late in the day. Shadows had fallen across an industrial wasteland that stood behind a chain-link fence. Standing in the rutted parking lot near the fence, the modest, self-effacing Carrick became quite animated when he started talking about what he was going to do on the site. All I saw was a spent mining pit. Carrick saw in the random heaps of sand and terrible scars on the land the makings of a great golf course.

Out of curiosity, I made a return visit this summer to see how Eagles Nest, as it was named, had turned out.  I was blown away.

Eagles Nest is one of Canada's finest inland links

Magically, Carrick had transformed the woeful landscape into a compelling links-style course, the sand scars and gashes enlarged and shaped to resemble eroded dunes. Along with its huge plateau greens, fescue-covered hills and sandy wastelands dotted with grass islands, this strategic gem’s revetted bunkers and “blowout” sand pits are a tip of the hat to the Auld Sod. Opened in 2004, Eagles Nest quickly established itself as the finest public-access course in the Greater Toronto area and one of the best newcomers in all of Canada.

The hurly-burly layout, with six tee placements ranging from 7,476 to 5,183 yards (par 72), has a nice come-hither quality. The course gets off to a relatively benign start, but the third tee plunges 100 feet into a valley where the Honey Pot Ski Centre once operated.  Steep pine-covered slopes encase holes three through seven. The layout rises out of this valley at the eighth, emerging in a netherworld of gnarly hills parted with holes that appear lifted from a Scottish links. At 235 meters above sea level, the high points of the course, swept by breezes, serve up unobstructed views of the Toronto skyline and its backdrop, Lake Ontario.

In additional to a first-class practice center headed by Henry Bruton (“Serious Coaching for Serious Golfers”), the golf shop in the well-appointed clubhouse carries top-of-the-line brands like Paul and Shark, Hugo Boss, Zegna Sport and many more. Home to the only Titleist Fitting Centre in Canada, Eagles Nest offers the latest equipment that Titleist, Cobra, Bob Vokey and Scotty Cameron have to offer, including custom clubs. Eagles Nest has fine dining at Lago and a good bar menu at Jim & Garry’s Pub, named for the club’s two owners.

The ‘Golfing in Toronto’ brochure available by request at the Four Seasons Hotel Toronto describes Eagles Nest as “an exquisite blend of tradition, nature and design.” Carrick calls it “the longest and most challenging course we have designed to date.” I nominate it as my favorite public course within striking distance of a major city in North America.

Now if only the Toronto International Film Festival would get lowbrow for a moment and schedule a 40th anniversary screening of Caddyshack this year!


Four Seasons Hotel Toronto:

Toronto International Film Festival:

Eagles Nest Golf Club:

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