From Hippie to Hip – Yorkville, Toronto

Once an enclave for several, now, well known icons of Canadian music – Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young to name just a few – who would gather and play in the area’s many coffee houses, Yorkville has been transformed from hippie to hip.

What could, in the 60s, have been considered Canada’s version of Haight-Ashbury is now a thriving mix of large business, residential and, what the area is perhaps best known for, high end shopping.  Yorkville is most definitely a destination for the upscale traveler.  Not just for the shopping; however.  Excellent dining and art are also part of today’s Yorkville scene.

According to Briar de Lange, Executive Director of the Bloor-Yorkville BIA, Bloor Street has long been a draw to the well heeled customer.  Stores such as Holt Renfrew and Stollery’s have had a presence on Bloor Street for many years.  Stollery’s is over 100 years old and Holt Renfrew was established in the area in the 1950s.  Holt Renfrew originated in Quebec in 1837 and opened its first Toronto store in 1889.  de Lange said “What happened over time was people began looking at the areas and real estate values off of Bloor Street,” the artists who are typically trend leaders move into an area that’s affordable and then move along to other areas as real estate prices start to rise and the switch started to happen at that point.

Into the 1970s, more commercial development began to take place in the Yorkville area bringing in more business and a key hotel was built at this time as well – the Hyatt Regency Hotel which, a few years later, became The Four Seasons Hotel was established.  The building of that hotel was a milestone for the area and from that point forward, the transformation of Yorkville from hippie to hip was unstoppable.

Today Yorkville is a thriving area of commercial retail, business and residential.  The original stalwarts Holt Renfrew and Stollery’s have been joined by several other well known luxury brands such as Harry Rosen, BCBG, Cartier, Chanel, and Zegna among others.  And it’s not just Bloor Street any longer.  Yorkville is a several block area bounded by Yonge Street on the east, Avenue Road on the west, Scollard to the north and Charles Street to the south.  The entire area is full of shopping, dining and art galleries.

When you need to take a break from your shopping and are feeling a bit peckish, the area can accommodate those needs too.  If you’re looking for a dining experience from a celebrity chef, Mark McEwan operates One in the Hazelton Hotel.  Daniel Boulud has opened Café Boulud in the new Four Seasons HotelJacques Bistro du Parc is loved for its French Onion soup and omelettes according to de Lange.  If you’re looking for something a little more casual yet a more upscale take on the pub concept, The Oxley is the place to check out.

I asked de Lange why people should come to Yorkville.  There are other malls in Toronto that have higher end stores including Holt Renfrew and Harry Rosen.  Her response was quick and decisive.  “While those other places will have some higher end shops, they won’t have all the ones we have.  When you talk about Escada or the new 20,000 square foot Louis Vuitton, you’ll only find those here.  Then, when you move off of Bloor Street you have a terrific variety of independent, one of a kind, nowhere else to be found shops like Over the Rainbow.”  Over the Rainbow has been in the neighbourhood for over 40 years and is the place to shop for jeans and contemporary wear, said de Lange.  She concluded by saying that something else people won’t find anywhere else is the award winning Village of Yorkville Park.

To conclude our discussion I asked what Ms de Lange could tell me about the Yorkville area that wasn’t on the BIA’s website.  She told me that the thing she hears most often about from visitors is that they feel special when they’re in Yorkville.  “It’s a different atmosphere, the efforts of our BIA members are to make sure the area is inviting, clean and friendly,” said de Lange.  The Bloor Street corridor has also undergone a complete, 2 year renovation to continue to keep the environment up to date and fresh.  Service is of paramount importance to the shop owners and hotel operators in the area.  “Job number one is to provide excellent service to anyone coming to our area.”

Finding accommodation in the area isn’t difficult.  There are a number of luxury hotels in the neighbourhood.  Tucked off on a quiet side street just south of Bloor, one in particular stands out.

Windsor Arms Hotel


Understated luxury may be the best way to describe the Windsor Arms Hotel. The exterior is so unassuming, you may miss it if not looking carefully. Stepping into the reception area guests are presented with an intimate and inviting environment.

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Windsor Arms Reception Area



Having just 28 rooms, the Arms is truly a boutique hotel. Rooms really isn't the proper word. Suites is the better term. Each suite is multiple rooms. All tastefully appointed, each suite also has a musical instrument for guests to use. Some have a piano, some a guitar and some even have a harp. Each suite also has a butler closet. What's a butler closet? This is a passway from the suite into the hall where guests can receive butler service and place items to be picked up and never have to have hotel staff enter their suite. According to hotel Communications Director, Christine Korda, "these are used more often than you might think." The two Windsor suites also have a fireplace in the living room.

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Guest Suite



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Guest Suite



The bathroom in the Windsor Suite also has a fireplace, the only one in the hotel.

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Windsor Suite Bathroom Fireplace



Originally opened in 1927, the hotel was designated as an historic property under the Ontario Heritage Act in 1992. The hotel fell into disrepair in the 1980s and was closed in 1991. Purchased by the current owner in 1995, the hotel underwent a complete top to bottom renovation and reopened in 1999.

Numerous celebrities have stayed at the Windsor Arms over the years, including Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Woody Allen. The halls outside the guest suites are replete with photos of the hotel's celebrity guests.

In our discussion, I posed the same question to Miss Korda that I had to Briar de Lange of the BIA: Why the Windsor Arms as opposed to other luxury hotels in the area? Her answer was as definitive as de Lange's when talking about the Yorkville area in general. "We have just 28 suites so our guests are offered a much more personalised level of service," said Korda. She continued by saying that "we offer 24 hour butler service, our spa and health club facilities are open 24 hours and there is nothing we won't do for our guests." The spa has a salt water pool which is easier on the skin than a regular, chlorinated pool. Service, professionalism and discretion are key drivers of the hotel's business model.

The hotel offers personal shopping services and has arrangements with many of the stores in the area for a highly personalised shopping experience for guests of the hotel.

High tea is an event at the Arms as well. Three tea rooms each with a different theme welcome guests. Reservations are required as it is a popular time. The hotel has a very interesting program in connection with its tea as well. There is a stand with an eclectic collection of fancy hats. Guests can wear a hat during tea with the donation of $5. These donations are then given to the chosen charity of the hotel, which is Look Good Feel Better. Korda also made note of the fact that the hotel offers a full vegan menu, not just in the restaurants but available through room service as well.

The Windsor Arms has also been the launching point for two world renowned annual events. The Toronto International Film Festival was launched at the Arms. Canadian Fashion Week was also begun at the hotel.

The Windsor Arms is the place to stay in Yorkville for visitors looking for quiet luxury and exceptional service. Definitely the place for those confident in their position and who don't feel the need to advertise themselves. In other words, exactly the TVT type of reader.

 

 

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