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On our summer family road trip this year we discovered Toronto and an important lesson: It turns out you actually can take an urban vacation on a budget.
Canada's largest city is clean and vibrant. Much of Toronto's verve stems from its remarkable diversity -- half of its 2.5 million residents were born outside of Canada -- and the sprawling metropolis offers visitors attractions as varied as its population.
Budgetary bliss arrived early -- we found a four-star hotel for a mere $130 a night (leaving lots of room in the daily budget for dining and souvenirs). The Westin Harbour Castle's two towers rise 38 stories above the city's waterfront, and the staff gave us a free room upgrade that offered sweeping views of Lake Ontario from the 33rd floor. Remarkably, the hotel seems to have hit a nice balance catering to the needs of both its booming business clientele and families with young children. (If you have downtime, spend it on a chaise lounge near the rooftop tennis court and indoor pool.) Our only complaint: Internet access costs an absurd $18 a day.
Outside the hotel walls was an energized Toronto with something for every kind of traveler. We spent our first morning navigating Casa Loma, a faux castle estate built in the early 20th century by financier and industrialist Sir Henry Pellatt as a monument to his family. The 5 acres of gardens are beautiful (the estate is frequently used as a movie set), but it's the mansion's ostentation -- considered gauche by locals even in those times -- that still resonates in today's unstable economic times.
And speaking of the movies, while Boston has seen a rise in film-related business, Hollywood definitely makes its presence felt in Toronto. We passed no fewer than three location shoots, including one in a spooky-looking underpass near our hotel where Colin Farrell was shooting a remake of "Total Recall."
Having satisfied the history buff in our crowd, we shifted gears for a feast in Chinatown and a bit of authentic urban life. One of the largest in North America, Toronto's enclave of Chinese, Vietnamese and other Asian cultures is centered on the intersection of Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street and accessible by the city's trolley system. We devoured a lunch that included sweet-and-sour and egg-drop soups, shrimp fried rice and stir-fried snow pea leaves at Taste of China on Spadina. The bill for five was less than $50.
Our bargain afternoon continued with a stroll along the neighborhood streets for souvenirs, and Chinatown's mix of street vendors and discount shops were happy to oblige. Our score included paper lanterns, a traditional silk dress and a meat cleaver (the tag line on the box -- "A good helper for family life" -- made it impossible to resist). The location right next door to Toronto's famous Kensington Market district with its eclectic mix of multiethnic boutiques, restaurants and food stores makes the area a bargain-hunter's paradise.
The only disappointment on the shopping front was the Distillery District. It's a former industrial area converted to a shopping and dining destination that tries hard -- too hard, we thought -- to live up to its slick Web site and marketing hype. The selection in the shops was underwhelming. Prices were the opposite.
Finally, for Bruins fans, no trip to Toronto would be complete without a visit to our new home-away-from-home, the Hockey Hall of Fame (on the day we were there it seemed half the visitors were in black and gold). It's a reasonably priced experience at $17.50 for adults and $11 for children and includes life-size interactive video exhibits where kids can shoot pucks or try to stop them. You can also get a picture with one of the two real Stanley Cups or sit in a simulated announcer's booth and re-create classic hockey broadcast moments.
Our 7-year-old's call of Bobby Orr's 1970 cup-winning goal was a winner -- just like our trip to Toronto.