Toronto, Sans SARS

By Peter Mandel
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 18, 2003

Toronto the Good. Toronto the Kind. Toronto the Clean.

Canada's largest city is a beacon for travelers -- a metropolis that's as friendly and safe as most small towns. Ordinarily, it's the last place you'd expect to be on guard for trouble. But ever since it became the only city outside Asia with a major outbreak of the SARS virus and the World Health Organization told travelers to stay clear (a warning it has since rescinded), tourism here has nosedived. Hotel occupancy rates are down as much as 70 percent and the city has lost millions of dollars due to canceled conventions.

But Toronto is not only kind, it's brave. Officials insisted all along that their city was safe, and last week WHO removed Toronto from its list of areas affected by the virus. Businesses have come up with all kinds of cut-rate deals to lure the nervous. So here I am.

During my first few hours in Toronto last weekend, I fight the urge not to touch any more doorknobs than necessary. Not to shake hands. Not to reach out for straps on the subway. But soon, since no one else seems tentative, I decide this is dumb. Torontonians are more likely to be killed by dog bites or by strangulation in bed than by SARS, I read in Canada's National Post newspaper. Heck, even Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien booked a night at a hotel here a couple of weeks ago. "I will sleep very, very, very well," he assured the media before turning in.

Me too -- especially in my ultra-posh room at the five-star Fairmont Royal York, which, as part of a three-day package I've snagged, is setting me back only about $70 (U.S.) a night. For a total of $219, I not only get the hotel room but also dinner at a downtown restaurant and a ticket to "The Lion King."

And that's not even one of the best deals out there. I didn't log onto the Internet in time to score one of the hundreds of free round-trip tickets JetsGo Airlines was advertising last weekend. But its regular fares turn out to be plenty cheap -- so with my tour voucher and a bottle of antibacterial spray, I'm off.

Toronto is a city that seems squashed together out of its ethnic parts: Greektown, Chinatown, Little Italy, Little Portugal and "Indian Bazaar," just to name a few. I set out walking from my hotel, which is right in the city center, and the clusters of pedestrians look as thick as New York's.

In the background of every neighborhood I explore, I keep noticing an enormous pointy object that moves when I move and then stops short when I try to give it a stare. Since the CN Tower wants to be in all of my pictures, I decide I'd better go and see it.

Sure, I'm curious -- at 1,815 feet, this is the world's tallest structure -- but I'm also eager to see if there are other tourists there, checking out the view or buying souvenirs. I've been here half a day and I can see that the downtown area is busy, and that no one is wearing a mask. But I haven't seen a tour bus, cameras slung over shoulders or anyone with a map.

I run smack into a bank of CN ticket windows with their blinds down. "Temporarily Closed." Not a promising sign. When I do find a booth in business, there are only a couple of people ahead of me. They are locals, Toronto hospital workers who flash their IDs and get a free pass.

I select the $31.99 Total Tower Experience, which includes not only the Observation Deck but the Sky Pod (an extra-high platform), the Glass Floor, two simulators and a movie. On my way up I get an elevator all to myself. The woman who runs it shakes her head. "Usually you'd have an hour wait," she says.

But today it's just me, some stressed-out clinicians and the horizon-busting view. Wow, I think. Toronto does seem quiet from up here: pocket-size squares, perfect parks, trolleys that motor along like toys. I test my nerve by walking across the lookout's glass floor, which boasts that it can safely support "as many as fourteen hippos." How would you get them up here? This might be interesting to try, I think, as I head back down to the street. But I have more to see.

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