Hostel home to world's travellers Toronto Backpacker Hostel voted number onein North America PETER EDWARDS STAFF REPORTER
They are thousands of kilometres from home during the holidays, strangers to the snow and slush of our streets and, apparently, happy as clams.In fact, residents of the Canadiana Backpackers Inn hostel on Widmer St., off Adelaide St. W. in the downtown entertainment district, say if the National Hockey League wasn't shut down, things would be pretty much perfect."I'd like to go to a hockey game, but they're on strike," says Cinta Santos, 31, of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, who's living in Canada until the spring to improve her English.Santos is more accustomed to the white sand of Rio than the white (at least initially) snow of Toronto, but she says she loves spending the holidays at the packed hostel with a collection of New Zealanders, Australians, Mexicans, Japanese and Dutch, among others.On Christmas Day, Santos was one of about 50 people spread out over three rooms of the hostel who shared a huge Christmas meal, including four big turkeys. And for New Year's Eve, she will likely join residents in a pub crawl. "After the first night, I found it home," said Asraa Ali, 34, a dentist in her native Iraq, who is also spending the holidays at the Canadiana, which was voted the top hostel in North America by hostelworld.com, a service that helps travellers book hostels worldwide. Customers graded it on character, security, location, staff, fun and cleanliness. Ali first stayed in the hostel a couple of years ago, after arriving from Iraq. She's now studying for certification as a dentist at the University of Manitoba, but returned to the Canadiana for the holidays, "Just to say hi to everybody.""This Christmas, it was beautiful," Ali said. "It felt like a real Christmas."Michel El Chalache, 29, originally from Beirut, now studying money management in Toronto, also found himself heading back to the hostel over the holidays for that extended-family feeling.The Canadiana's owner, Chris Morgan, 37, knows the feeling of being away from home over the holidays, since he spent a decade backpacking around the world, working as an orange picker in Greece, a kibbutz volunteer in Israel and a telemarketer in Australia.Morgan was aided in setting up the hostel, set in a row of Victorian townhouses, by his father John Morgan, who died last month. John was a writer and comic for CBC's Royal Canadian Air Farce, playing the dim-witted character "Mike from Canmore." Father and son bought the property in 1997 and renovated it for several years before opening it to backpackers.The hostel, where accommodation runs from $65 for a private room to $25 a night for shared quarters, has a distinctly Canadian theme with stuffed deer and fish on the walls, as well as old photos of the Fathers of Confederation, Queen Victoria and a Mohawk lacrosse team. It also has a surround sound theatre that seats two dozen, with benches made from the seats of an old airliner. Other amenities include rec rooms, laundry rooms and a backyard patio in the shadows of the CN Tower.Morgan also runs sightseeing trips in the entertainment district, takes groups to the taping of shows at CBC, and for pool-playing nights. Generally, guests stay at least a few days and rarely more than a month. Countries best represented are probably New Zealand, Australia and Japan. Last summer, the Canadiana was packed for the visit of the Dalai Lama, although it wasn't until the end of his visit that Morgan realized how many of his guests were monks."They all got back in their robes to leave and I realized the hostel was full up with Buddhist monks, Tibetan Buddhist monks," Morgan says.Other recent guests included a collection of graduates from the posh British private school Eton, who rented a van with the plan of retracing beat writer Jack Kerouac's trek across North America.Those plans were kiboshed at the New York state border, when American authorities discovered a marijuana joint in the van, and one of the Englishmen remarked, "Oh yeah, I've been looking for that. Where did you find it?" The Etonians were turned back at the American border twice before deciding to try to fly over the U.S. if they couldn't drive through it, Morgan says. "They're probably in Mexico somewhere."Among the lures for visitors are the nearby Second City comedy troupe and watching the Jays at SkyDome. "They all seem to know Mike Myers from Austin Powers," Morgan says.For Morgan, the secret of making the holidays work for people far from home is the same as for making the hostel a success the rest of the year: "Success is when you don't know whether you're working or playing."
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