Four rooms: Railroad hotels and Crash Pads in Toronto

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TORONTO -- During a recent visit to this vibrant Canadian city, I spent several nights each at the Four Seasons Toronto and the Fairmont Royal York hotels, world-class redoubts for the rich and famous, as well as at the Drake and the Gladstone, properties shaking off the detritus of checkered and unfortunate pasts.

My report follows:

Fairmont Royal York

To my mind, the designation railroad hotel is a proud one, conjuring up images of the majestic properties erected by the Canadian Pacific Railway throughout Canada from the late 1800s to the mid-20th century. The Fairmont Royal York, with its neoclassical facade and pointed green roof and dormers, was nearly the last such grand edifice to have been constructed when it opened for business in 1929.

Ideally located hard by the business district, two blocks from the Toronto Convention Center and above a busy transit and shopping nexus, this Front Street colossus checks in at 1,365 guest rooms and 82 suites, with five restaurants, four bars, a business center and an indoor pool.

While my room was large, handsomely decorated and equipped with amenities that ranged from a soaking tub to a useful work space, it was love at first sight when I entered the Royal Yorks grand lobby, featuring a forests worth of lacquered woodwork, a meet-you-under-the-clock landmark, hand-painted ceilings, travertine pillars and an elevator reserved for Queen Elizabeth II and other honored guests. Rack rates start at $179.

The excellent Epic restaurant occupies a space at the western extension of the lobby. For more, see www.fairmont.com.

The Drake

This property, like the Royal York, began life as a railroad hotel in 1880 to accommodate the CPRs new Parkdale Station, but there the resemblance ends.

For as recently as 2001, the Drake was, in the words of owner Jeff Stober, part flophouse and part crackhouse, which probably should have been enough to discourage even a visionary like Stober from sinking $5 million into transforming the joint into an artsy hangout featuring, as the hotel proclaims, high style at affordable prices.

Situated in Queen West, once an area no tourist ever ventured to, the Drake is an artists residence for the rest of us, complete with live-in painters, exhibitions, performances and a young and exuberant staff.

And where else will you find hotel rooms called Crash Pads, described as ideal for one, fit for two, or a meetings space with the moniker the Underground, a lower-level venue with a sound system that would do a top-notch nightclub proud?

Although there is no in-house pool or array of high-tech exercise equipment, there is a yoga den on the second floor featuring yoga classes, as well as an adjacent massage and treatment facility.

My Crash Pad digs were spare at 150 square feet, with exposed brick, a metal grid attached atop one wall (with a ladder to reach it) for hanging clothes and packing away accessories. A long window ledge, which doubled as a shelf, looked out on Queen Street West, where gritty street life is reality art of its own kind. A narrow stall shower subs for a tub.

Rooms come with LCD televisions, DVD players, hardwood floors, custom furniture and millwork, safe-deposit boxes and something you wont find, I believe, in any other hotel: a handmade textile doll. The nightly rate for the Crash Pads is $159, while a suite is $259.

The hotels Lounge, both restaurant and bar, is excellent. For more information, go to www.thedrakehotel.ca.

The Gladstone

Another former railroad property built, in part, to service the Parkdale Station is the Gladstone, which prides itself on being the oldest operating hotel in Toronto and is just completing a redo. The property was constructed in 1889.

My room was one of 37 artist-designed units on the third and fourth floors -- there are 51 newly renovated rooms and suites in all -- that feature works by locals.

The room itself, while a bit on the cramped side, featured a 20-inch, flat-screen TV, with CD/DVD player and all-natural, Canadian handmade knickknacks.

Rack rates range from $150 to $275. For more information, go to www.gladstonehotel.com.

Four Seasons

It is only about a 20-minute taxi ride from the formerly mean streets of the western badlands, where the Drake and the Gladstone are formative agents in a cultural revival, to the posh Yorkville district that the Four Seasons Toronto calls home, but it took no more than the hotel doormans hearty greeting on my arrival to make instantly clear that I was not only in another part of town but truly in another world.

The expedited check-in process, for starters, was at once proper, friendly and courteous, without bordering on the condescension that is all too often the case in the ethereal realm of five-star hotel heaven.

My quarters in a deluxe executive suite were big enough to house Torontos Maple Leafs hockey team -- no penalty box, this -- with a large bedroom, spacious separate seating area and two baths.

All told, the Four Seasons offers 380 guest rooms on 32 nonsmoking floors, with nearly half of the accommodations falling into one or another category of suite.

The hotel keeps room service and concierges on duty 24/7, maintains a full-function business center and will shine your shoes, press your clothes and baby-sit your kids. It will even drive you to work in a limousine, free of charge. Rack rates start at $340.

The hotels flagship dining room, Truffles, was named Torontos No. 1 restaurant by Gourmet magazine, and its Studio Cafe is a cheery venue for breakfast, lunch and an informal dinner. For more, go to www.fourseasons.com.

To contact reporter Joe Rosen, send e-mail to [email protected].

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