There is nothing nicer for a Lady In Black than to be recorded for posterity lounging by an English country scene, one you might think belongs to a duke’s palace. In fact the gal is lounging by the trompe l’oeil wall at the end of the indoor pool of Fairmont Royal York, Toronto’s most historic luxury hotel. The photo, by the way, had to be rescheduled. At first attempt, Josh the pool manager had to admit that the wet and clinging romantic couples canoodling in front of the rural landscape just before they checked out after a Saturday night would have ruined the Lady In Black effect.
I came here, from Montreal, by VIA train. Anyone who flies this route is out of their tiny mind. The train takes under five hours, city centre to city centre, and makes only four stops on the way. Travel business class and you get masses of legroom, electric sockets and really good free WiFi without interruption. They also have a non-stop complimentary bar and they serve a proper meal, the type that airlines offered in the good old days. Arrive at Toronto’s Union Station, cross Front Street, and there you are, right at the 28-floor iconic hotel, built in 1929 at a cost of C$16 million. It had 1,100 rooms then, but that was not enough. Another 164 rooms were added in 1951.
This is the events hotel, with over 250 of ’em, big things, held every year. It is also the friendly hotel, kind of mumsy and best-friendsy. The knowledgeable buy up to get access to the Gold Lounge, run by those who truly seem to want to help, be it an Apple hiccup or advice on which is the best nearby store for Louboutins. Amazingly, once inside the hotel – which now has a total of 1,348 rooms but you would never know it, and there are eight elevators, now rising to the 19th floor – you are sheltered from the modernization of Toronto outside. Peer out of your window and Front Street is, and will be for two more years, one enormous hole.
They, whoever ‘they’ are, are putting in a direct airport-to-Union Station rail link, which means from 2015 you can get to the hotel just a few minutes after coming through customs. But while all that is going on outside, inside the hotel nothing changes. Young doormen greet you at the hotel entrance, doing all they can to make you feel instantly at home (one carried my Porsche Rimowa up the 13 steps to the main lobby). Here, a four-sided grandfather clock rises up from the lower lobby. Overhead, mediaeval-type paneling did make think, once again, I was in a duke’s palace.
But how many palatial residences run a farm on the roof? Here, the chefs have a large 13th-floor terrace garden, with vines, and vegetables, and fruits and herbs, and six beehives. The hotel is commendably green. Every day, unused food is sent to 13 local shelters, and food residue is recycled as compost. Fairmont was the first hotel group to put recycling trash bins in guest bedrooms, and it started here, in the days when Ann Clayton set up the corporate sustainability initiative long before the subject was fashionable.
And do palaces today serve real afternoon tea? Stay at the modern equivalent of Downton Abbey and you may get a teabag in a mug. Here, afternoon tea in your room is an absolute pleasure. Exquisite floral china includes a big teapot. You might well get four sachets, sensibly named, offering you: Imperial blend of Japanese green teas; black tea blend of Ceylon, Assam and Orange Pekoe #1, Chamomile flowers and Egyptian mint; and Orange and pineapple. Three-tier stands are delicately packed with savouries, say asparagus enrobed in courgette slivers, and sweet selections ranging from home-made scones with cream through to cupcakes and macaroons. Yes, on reflection a luxury hotel that acts like a ducal palace has lots to commend it.