Staycations mean you can stay — and get away

by Diana Ballon

Published in the Toronto Guardian on March 1, 2021

The idea for arranging staycations with each member of my family was inspired by a tradition my psychologist aunt initiated many decades ago. When she visited my cousins, she would meet separately with each child and let them direct how they wanted to spend their allotted time together.

Fast forward about five decades, and I decided to make a similar arrangement with my kids – and my husband as well. The same sentiment applies — to make each person and each relationship special. In my case, I would spend one night with each person in a hotel no more than about five kilometres from our home. The hotel would be the setting – and a very beautiful one at that. How we would spend time there is something we would co-create, without the encumbrance of a domestic routine, the social requirements of Zoom, and the domestic chores that being at home requires.

Admittedly, in the middle of a pandemic lockdown, staying at a hotel is a bit different: pools aren’t open, nor are fitness centres or restaurant dining. I vetted each hotel in advance to ensure COVID safety — around HVAC system and air filter upgrades and maintenance, and cleaning protocols. I felt comfortable that we would be safe, and that we also not compromise the health and safety of others.

We planned to order in room service, and knew that housekeeping would not enter while we were there.

Staycation #1: A romantic overnight at The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto

From the time we stepped out of the elevator, with two glasses of bubbly presented to us on a tray, I knew we were in for something special.

Then glasses in hand, we entered our stunning accommodations: the 900-square foot Simcoe suite consists of two large rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the lake, islands and CN tower. Our living room featured both a sitting area and a table with banquette and chairs, so we had our own private dining area when dinner arrived. And arrive it did.

Photo credit: The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto

No sooner had we got to the hotel, exhausted from our work days, than we were treated to their delightful three-course chef’s dinner, with wine pairings (part of the Experience The Ritz-Carlton). The meal began with an amuse bouche —a delicious green apple and smoked salmon and foie gras mousse paired with a glass of champagne. We then moved to burrata, pickled beets and bitter greens as an appetizer, accompanied by an Italian Pinot Bianco. Then we had the main – an interesting pairing of venison with mild red curry sauce, along with parsnip purée, braised collards and heirloom carrots with a glass of Beaujolais. To finish, we enjoyed a pistachio tiramisu with Brachetto d’Acqui, a lightly-sparkling red wine.

It was truly the most memorable meal we had had since the pandemic began. Feeling both, well, heavier (!) and lighter, I drew myself a bath in the soaker tub in our massive ensuite bathroom, and then snuggled into bed with my husband for our romantic night away.

Next morning we drank our Nespresso in bed, and then sat down to their delicious Canadian breakfast — eggs and bacon with asparagus — that arrived at our door. Because we had a late check out, I then spent the morning “at work” but on my computer, in bed, drinking more coffee, and gazing out at the lake. It was pretty near perfect!

IF YOU GO: If you want to replace romance with family fun, consider their Ritz Kids package: they’ll set up an in-room tent for the kids to sleep in; arrange a scavenger hunt; provide cool treats like a colouring book, stuffed animal and glow sticks; and supply milk and cookies for turndown.

Photo credit: The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto

Or not staying at the hotel, but still want the TOCA dining experience? You can order their Dine at Home takeout, with themed dinners on weekends. Meals can be delivered through the usual channels like Uber Eats, or picked up more economically with Tock.

Staycation #2: Mother-daughter overnight at The St. Regis Toronto

My daughter and I arrived at the majestic St. Regis in downtown Toronto — the first St. Regis in Canada — ready for an elegant girls’ night away. We were giddy to escape our domestic Zoom lives and home chores. And I’ll admit, we were happy to leave my husband and son at home to watch college football and eat pizza on their own!

Photo credit: The St. Regis Toronto

It seemed pretty decadent to have an entire suite to ourselves — a spacious living room with fireplace, a massive flat screen TV and wet bar — and a separate bedroom with king bed, and en suite bathroom as well as separate powder room.

First order of business — to decorate the gingerbread house that the St. Regis had gifted us for our stay. We then put on our pjs, ordered in sushi at nearby NAMI restaurant, and got into bed to watch Hillbilly Elegy, and then go to sleep. The Frette linen sheets were so cozy I would have been happy to never get up. But we set our alarms anyway. How often do you get to wake up at the St. Regis?

Photo credit: Diana Ballon

The morning started with a Nespresso – well actually two – and then a HIIT class on our massive living room flat screen (thanks to a Chloe Ting YouTube video). Then our in-room breakfast arrived – a full Canadian breakfast for me and buttermilk waffles with berry compote and whipped cream for my daughter. Aah. After that I had a bath in the beautiful soaker tub. We then played a game of Banagrams (I always keep a game in my purse for family travel) and made bead jewellery from materials we had brought with us.

With a late check out, we had a bit more mother-daughter lounge time until we had to say good-bye to our suite. We got home within a half hour on the streetcar, so we didn’t have far to travel, but I did really feel that we had gotten away, and really connected like I would have with a close girlfriend!

Photo credit: Diana Ballon

IF YOU GO: I heartily recommend LOUIX LOUIS’s private dining menu (also available for take out). The Wagyu burger and 13-layer King’s Cake are delicious, though the price is a bit steep at $29 each.

Staycation #3: Mother-son overnight at The Westin Harbour Castle

My son Felix and I decided to bike along the waterfront trail to the Harbour Castle, so that we could have our bikes to combine a stay at the hotel with a trip to Toronto island. That meant travelling light: I put a board game in my panier, my son strapped my yoga mat in a bag across his shoulder, and we put our overnight gear into a backpack.

Photo credit: The Westin Harbour Castle

Taking advantage of the early check in, we arrived just after lunch at our beautiful penthouse suite on the 34th floor. The suite in the North tower had views of the lake from both the living and bedroom windows. And with ample space in each room, I could do an online class in one, while he did his online class in the other. We then headed to the ferry docks immediately next to the hotel: travel time, about three minutes.

It was a cool but sunny afternoon on our ferry ride over to the islands. Although the ferry is packed in summer, the combination of winter and pandemic meant that our ferry was all but empty, and the islands that greeted us were quiet and peaceful. Skaters played shinny on a channel between the islands, a couple of residents pulled wagons with groceries from the city, and the houses on Ward’s island sparkled with Christmas trees lit up in the windows.

Photo credit: Diana Ballon

Returning back to the hotel, we ordered dinner from their in-room dining: I had a deliciously rich wild mushroom soup with haloumi, followed by a red curry with jumbo shrimp and spring rolls on the side. My son had empanadas as his app, and then a beef dish he devoured. We were comfortably sated!

Then it was time for Christmas movies on Netflix before bed. The next day we had a breakfast of yoga and granola, muffins and juice delivered to our room, and played cards and a board game until it was time to leave.

Like my other staycations, I relished the time with my son. We have spent more time than ever as a family since the lockdown, but this felt different for just being the two of us. It was an occasion I would not forget.

Photo credit: Diana Ballon

IF YOU GO: Marriott’s Westin Hotels & Resorts place a big emphasis on wellness. While many of their wellness offerings (like their fitness studio and gear-lending program) are not available during lockdown, you can still borrow yoga mats, order gluten free and other healthy food on their menus, and request a map of nearby running routes at the front desk as part of their RunWESTIN program. You can also be assured of a good night sleep on their “Heavenly Beds.”