On a cool and blustery afternoon that felt more like October than August, I met Nicolas, my Lokafy guide, in the middle of Toronto’s financial district. Despite the choice of meeting point, Nicolas looked nothing like the finance type. Wearing flip-flops, shorts and a baseball cap, he proved to be a friendly, funny, and interesting Torontonian who took me for a 2-hour walk through my own city, and still managed to make me discovers things I had never seen before.
Lokafy, the brain child of Kiran Samra, is a new company that connects travellers with locals in both Toronto and Paris. From the Hindi “lok” which means “people” and “fy” the suffix for “make”, Lokafy’s vision is about going beyond the tourist sites and buildings, and making your travels about people. The site shows you the pictures and profiles of several dozen potential friends, and lets you select your favourites. I picked Nicolas because his many interests made him sound like a renaissance man, and also because he was closer to my age. 🙂
The booking form lets you specify your interests, or areas of the city you would like to visit. I decided to let Nicolas surprise me, which is no small order.
“I’ve lived here for 26 years” I said to him. “Show me something I don’t know”.
“I don’t know what you don’t know” he replied, amused.
“Well, I don’t know what I don’t know either” I said.
This apparent conundrum didn’t seem to faze Nicolas, and he took me to the Design Exchange (234 Bay Street) to start the tour. This historic building, little known to the public, was the Toronto Stock Exchange until 1983. The architectural details and murals have been preserved. Now it’s a non-profit design museum focused on exhibitions,competitions and educational programming dedicated to the pursuit of design excellence and preservation of design heritage. I had never even heard of this place!
We continued to Union Station and made our way through the indoor paths (made more confusing by all the construction going on) to the brand new public space between the CN Tower and the new Toronto Aquarium. “Nobody here lives in the city” said Nicolas, and to prove his point, a woman stopped to ask us directions. Since I live in Toronto, this “tourist central” is of course a place where you wouldn’t find me dead on a normal day. But I was happy to notice that the large traffic-free plaza was cheerful and well attended. I can only imagine how crowded it gets on a warm sunny day.
Nicolas’ work designing and directing lighting concepts for films, TV and live shows has given him access to places off-limit to the public, and he demonstrated this next by taking me into the Sky Dome, all the way down to the playing field (under the condition that I do not reveal how I got there)! Here there wasn’t a tourist in sight. We then proceeded to walk around the whole corridor that lines the periphery of the dome, which is used by workers in golf carts to move around equipment. Even though it definitely felt like we weren’t supposed to be there, nobody questioned us. “It’s all about looking like you belong” said Nicolas. That was an interesting (if a little eerie) experience.
The rest of our walk was along the waterfront, still one of the best spots for views of downtown Toronto, especially if you go further West, past Spadina Avenue. After checking out the disused Canada Malting silos, we came across an odd and completely deserted sculpture park. “Ireland Park” announced a plaque. Even Nicolas admitted to never having seen it before. A little research revealed that until this year, the site had been fenced off because of adjacent construction work. The award-winning Ireland Park is a green space memorial to migrants displaced from the Emerald Isle during the Great Famine of 1847, a time when many Irish immigrated to Toronto.
Our walk ended at the National Yacht Club, a private sailing club. Because Nicolas is a sailor and member here, we were buzzed in through the gate. The patio would have been a nice spot for a beer on a sunny day. Nevertheless, the views back to Toronto, beyond the marina, provided a unique angle on the city.
Being a photographer, with a good eye for visual detail, Nicolas provided me with opportunities for interesting and unusual photos along this walk.
Lokafy’s hourly rates vary with the number of people in your party: $25 for 1 or 2 people, $30 for 3 or 4, and $35 for 5 or 6. While $50 for two hours seems rather pricey for a solo budget traveller, it starts to make more sense for a small group of friends, especially the younger set. Indeed, most Lokafyers are currently under 35 years old. Kiran says that she hopes to recruit more lokafyers to eventually represent the diversity in ages and ethnic backgrounds found in cities such as Toronto and Paris.
For the best chance of getting one of your picks, you should submit the booking form at Lokafy.com at least two weeks in advance.
Overall, I would recommend Lokafy for groups of two or more. It’s like renting a friend in a city where you have none! 🙂
Lokafy hosted me on this walk. However all opinions are my own.