Toronto — If you travel for the challenge of the exotic, the bizarre, and the difficult - in short, to build character - don't go to Toronto. There's nothing to conquer here. Especially if you're from a big American city, being here is easier than being home.
Toronto's virtues are undramatic. It's sensible. It's pleasant and easy to figure out. There's no foreign language to master, and you won't notice the accent until someone says ''about.'' It's hard to get lost. The town slants down toward the bay, so uphill is, logically, north, and street signs tell you whether you're on the east or west side of town. You can walk home at night after the theater, alone and secure. And the subway looks like the favorite toy of a scientifically minded child - tiled, quiet, with the news flashing on digital signs, and neat as a pin. It also goes everywhere, and connects handily with buses.
Torontonians, who have been welcoming immigrants in great numbers since World War II, won't make you feel like an alien. They're reserved, but not as reserved as the English. The Canadian silence is a New World silence, not chilly and based on manners you never heard of, but self-sufficient, in a gentle sort of way.
This is a city for people who like the amenities. It seems, after a week here , that Toronto is mostly amenities. Everywhere you turn, there's a wonderful bite to eat or an exquisite enclave of glittery shops. There are good museums, plenty of inexpensive, thoughtful theater, an abundance of dance and music, a winter carnival in winter and an ethnic festival called ''Carnival'' in June, not to mention the Festival of Festivals, a film festival, in September.
Downtown, insurance buildings hulk like cliffs, and banks glitter like ice sculpture (one of them is gold, and paves Bay Street, their Wall Street, with a gold reflection). But Toronto isn't as blankly modern as you'd expect. The big buildings seem to have stepped aside for little old brown brick places like Osgoode Hall, headquarters of the Law Society of Upper Canada, which still has an iron gate designed to keep cattle off the lawn. Office blocks stand back respectfully from the sight lines of the clock tower on Saint James's Church, which Lake Ontario ships used to use as a landmark. The crusty brick castles of the University of Toronto squat near tall new creations like professors eyeing gangly freshmen. Undoubtedly a lot was lost in the building boom that reared all these towers, but it seems to have been planned not only well but kindly.
When it gets cold, for example, you can shop in underground malls or in the pink and blue glass gallery that vaults over a three-tier avenue of deliriously fancy shops stretching between two massive, feet-on-the-ground department stores , Eaton's and Simpson's.
And if it's not cold, you can wander through Chinatown or the West Indian, Portuguese, and Italian neighborhoods to the west, or the Greek neighborhood to the east. Kensington Market is a West Indian and Portuguese explosion of vendors of vegetables, old clothes, reggae music, cheese, and pastries. The fishmonger and his clients exchange diatribes in patois. The ethnic neighborhoods aren't outposts. Through the exotic smells, strange voices, and translated street signs , you can see these places are as well-looked after as the rest of Toronto.
Everywhere, there are interesting snacks, ethnic and otherwise. You could spend a week here and not go into a restaurant. At the antique market on the waterfront, after you have looked at immense oaken farmhouse pie safes and whatnots, squadrons of flowery china teacups, elderly reindeer sweaters, and strange early-century postcards, you can warm up on hot chestnuts, cashews, or whopping French fries with the skins on from the stands along the quay.
After the Art Gallery of Ontario, bolt across the street to Village by the Grange, a kind of cobbled mall, for tacos, ice cream, cheesecake of several nationalities, or cocoa made with a froth of steamed milk.
Or you can gnaw your way through the arcades and burrows and warrens of stores that seem to unwind before you every time you go down a subway entrance, tasting a cheddar muffin here, frozen yogurt with real banana there, an avocado salad at that booth over by the leg warmers.
Toronto isn't all shopping. There are plenty of ways to learn something. And in this university town that is fond of its children, education is as much or more fun than shopping.
The Royal Ontario Museum, the Rom for short, looks formidable but isn't. ''Silk Roads and China Ships,'' which the museum originated, is here till Jan. 8 , when it sets off for the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The show tells the history of East/West trade. Surprisingly, the objects and artifacts from the museum's immense collection aren't overpowering. The stars of the exhibition are roads and waterways and the traders who plied them. The rare China bowls, elaborate furniture, rich embroidered silks, and remains from a caravan-looter's stronghold in Iran appear in their context. It's lucidly explained, and on Mondays, when schoolchildren come, there are docents at large who will answer further questions.
The museum, which is emerging from a restoration period, holds other art and ethnographic treasures, and runs a Canadiana museum with a collection of Canadian silver and furniture.
The Art Gallery of Toronto has the remarkable Henry Moore Sculpture Center. You enter it by way of a staircase lined with Moore's drawings and etchings of shapes, sculptures, and sheep. There is a wonderful series of photographs of Moore himself, leaning up to his big plaster forms with a mallet and chisel. You remember these pictures as you emerge into a wonderful skylit room thronged with plaster originals and actual plaster casts of Moore sculptures. The big reclining figure in the pool at Lincoln Center sprang from the plaster piece sitting in the middle of this room, and the scratches you see on its bony slopes were made by the man, hammer, and chisel you have just seen in the pictures. Moore gave these to the museum because Torontonians worked so hard raising the money to buy a big bronze of his for their New City Hall in 1965.
The statues sit, they loll, they lean. Some are women with faces, ponytails, and dresses, and others are just powerfully reposing masses. They have a timeless, archaeological look. They are all at rest, and they draw you in. Moore himself was involved in the design of the Sculpture Center, and it shows his works off beautifully.
Harbourfront, down the hill at the edge of Lake Ontario, would be a typical redeemed waterfront, full of shops in old buildings, except that there has been an effort to provide public space in each building for cultural programs. Queen's Quay Terminal, a 1926 concrete food warehouse, has been glamorized. One corner is carved out and glassed in, and the pillars that hold up the building look like spools stacked up inside. The lobby floor is marble, and there are two levels of glitzy neon-signed shops. Upstairs, there's a state-of-the-art theater designed especially for dance. It's small (450 seats) and lined in dark red and gray, so modern dancers spring forth in ascetic glory. It also serves as a movie theater.
Harbourfront has more going on in summer, but the Winter Festival opens Jan. 29 with an ice-canoeing race. Racers slide 4,000-pound keel boats across the ice , paddling when they get to water, or falling through. You can probably watch from inside. York Quay Center, next door to Queen's Quay, offers free jazz concerts Sunday nights at 7:30. Visiting authors read from new books Tuesday nights at 8.
Toronto is a kind, indulgent city that seems to want nothing more than to sit you on its lap and entertain you.
The only challenge on a trip here is not to get too spoiled to go home. Practical Information:
The Windsor Arms is a moderately expensive small hotel between the University of Toronto and Yorkville. It looks just like its name, with crenellated walls and a heavy wood door. Rooms are pleasantly old-fashioned, and tea is served in the afternoons. It's handy to the theater. Double room: $62.50-$112.50. 22 St. Thomas Street.
Bangkok Garden is an elegant Thai restaurant with delicious coriander and chili laden food. A nice place to spend time with various courses. Produce is flown in from Bangkok if it can't be found in Toronto. It's expensive, like most Toronto restaurants. 18 Elm Street.
The King Edward Hotel, the grand old hotel of Toronto, has been sleeked up, and a good way to enjoy its tan marble lobby decorated with gleaming pillars and celebrities is to have afternoon tea there. Scones are quite tasty. The restaurant is sumptuous, quiet, and worth the price, which is high. 37 King Street East.