Toronto's Distillery District a charming blend of old and new

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TORONTO - The Victorian industrial buildings within Toronto's Distillery District loom large against the winter sky as two modern Segways glide noiselessly over the paved red brick lanes.

There are no sounds from a motor and no engine fumes to distract riders from taking in their surroundings as the two-wheeled machines manoeuvre through a series of courtyards flanked by beautifully restored brick and stone buildings.

The heritage structures — which all house an array of modern businesses — span the district's five-and-a-half hectares of pedestrian-friendly streets, which are located just east of the city's bustling financial district, within sight of Lake Ontario.

Riding a Segway to explore the nooks and crannies of the district, which once housed the largest distillery in the world, emphasizes the area's best feature — the charming juxtaposition of old and new.

"It's a great chance for people to come down, learn about the history of the area as well as learn what's here today," says Jason Rizzuti, guide and manager of Segway Ontario, which runs Segway and walking tours of the area.

"The actual riding of the Segway is a great experience for a lot of people who may have not tried it before or who want to explore the Distillery in a different way."

The area first started out as a gristmill, which made flour. The site of the original structure, now marked by an arc of red paved bricks on the ground, is one of the stops on the Segway tour. In the 1830s, the district got into the alcohol-making business, housing operations owned by businessmen William Gooderham and James Worts, whose names still dot the site. The distilling business lasted all the way until 1990, with the site turning out whisky, rum, gin and even industrial alcohols like anti-freeze over the years.

The shrinking and ultimate shuttering of the distilling business, however, caused the site to fall into disrepair in the '90s. But the area was revitalized and debuted in 2003 as an entertainment and cultural district fusing old world charm with modern-day charisma.

"It's almost like a community within the greater city, it's a really nice area to explore," says Rizzuti. "You don't feel like you're in Toronto anymore, you feel like you're back in time, that era."

Rizzuti doles out choice tidbits of information as he rides through the site's lanes, pointing out businesses riders might like to return to later. Some stops on the tour are used to illustrate important points in the district's history, while others highlight areas featured in famous Hollywood films. During the '90s, the area was a prime film location in Canada.

The basics of riding the Segway are easy enough: the battery-powered vehicle moves with the shifting of a rider's weight. All tour participants receive a helmet and training before heading out, and unless the weather is truly terrible, the tours run all year round.

"As long as the rider pays attention, it's a very safe method of transportation," says Rizzuti. "When you first step on it, it almost becomes a part of your body. It's very natural, so people pick it up very easily and they're happy to ride it."

As the Segways rove the narrow lanes, the relationship between old and new is constantly highlighted in subtle ways. Modern art sculptures compete for attention alongside relics preserved from the site's days as a distiller. New merchandise is framed in old store-front windows and smartly attired office employees emerge from weather-beaten doorways where you'd half expect to see the faces of 19th-century factory workers instead.

"It's a really nice vibe," Lori Newman, retail manager of the district's Mill St. Brew Pub, says of the area.

"For anybody that's interested in history, architecture, beer or Prohibition, or any of that fun stuff, it's a really big draw. Plus there are a lot of quality products."

The Mill St. Brewery, which got its name from the street it's located on, was one of the first businesses in the revitalized area, and has since expanded production to an off-site location as well.

"They were really excited to have someone actually making alcohol because it goes back to the roots of the actual distillery," Newman says of the brewery's beginnings.

Visitors can indulge in a free sampling of brews made on site. One combines beer and coffee beans from a district cafe for an intense jolt of flavour.

Down the lane from the brewery is Soma, a micro chocolate factory which produces an array of delectable delicacies made from cacao beans sourced from around the world. Rizzuti's walking tour includes a stop which lets visitors sample some Peruvian dark chocolate.

Soma's spotless metal counters and gleaming glass display cases stand in contrast to the lofty ceilings and warm exposed brick walls. The entire store smells deliciously of chocolate.

"We were originally drawn to it because of the old architecture.… We definitely like the atmosphere and the artistic side to it," says assistant manager Stephanie Gorman. "It's a very comfortable, nice and relaxing environment."

In the building next door, a tourist reads one of the many plaques explaining the role of distillery equipment scattered throughout the site.

"I like that they have a lot of the pieces from the original distillery that we can go look at," says Pothilde Lumholtz, who is visiting from Denmark.

As the 25-year-old stops to recount the art and history she's taken in, a smile spreads across her face.

"I think it's special, this mix. It's really modern, up against the old. For me, it's more original than what I've seen before."


If you go:

Segway tours start at $39 plus tax. Walking tours start at $19 plus tax:

For a full list of Distillery District businesses and activities:

Mill Street Brew Pub

Soma Chocolate

Organizations: Segway

Geographic location: Toronto, Distillery District, Lake Ontario Hollywood Canada Denmark

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