Downtown Whitby, Ont., is concerned about appearances.

You can see it on the sidewalks that line its largely independent commercial heart. Red and light brown brick on the ground complement the pool of red brick buildings that wind through Whitby’s centre. Narrow trees and classic lampposts accent the streets, stirring with local retailers and residents alike.

And more literally, you find it in the abundance of aesthetic services — hair, cosmetics and body salons — that seem to mark every corner. But while some cities try to cheat enchantment to attract, in Whitby, perception is reality.

Home to Durham Region’s headquarters, Whitby was officially established in 1855 and now weighs in at just over 110,000 residents. While the town is most populated in the south, it also includes northern, largely rural communities Ashburn, Brooklin, Myrtle and Myrtle Station.

The perception is part of what drew Ellen Fernandez, 40, to Whitby six years ago, after living in Toronto for more than two decades. Because of the high residential turnover, she felt like she hardly even knew her neighbours. “I like the fact that (Whitby’s) not as busy as Toronto. It’s like living in a little Toronto!” she says.

Fernandez traded busy for business, when she opened up a women’s accessories shop called Beso shortly after moving to the city. And due to its success, she recently debuted her second retail outlet just a few doors down, a café called Sip & Slurp. Fernandez likes the newfound personal touch Toronto couldn’t offer her. “If you go to Sears or The Bay, it’s pretty hard to get someone to do one-on-one. I know my customers. I know what they like. I know what they don’t like. And I just go from there.”

Going from the city centre to the south, you’ll pass by a cross-section of Whitby’s architectural traits. Within close reach of the core sits Trafalgar Castle School, a 150-year-old all-girl private day and boarding school. But just minutes away, the gothic wonder’s antithesis lies in Iroquois Park Sports Centre, the nation’s largest municipal facility of its kind.

Home to the Major League Hockey team Whitby Dunlops and Ontario Lacrosse Association Junior A’s Whitby Warriors, the complex features a plethora of sporting arenas, pools, fields, courts and parks.

“If you have kids that like sports, it's a really good place to come,” says Cheryl Grayer, 46, walking along Whitby’s waterfront, “We’re big on sports here.”

She and husband Michael, 48, Whitby residents for five years, commend the athletic opportunities for young people the city has to offer, citing the football opportunities their son has had at his high school.

The host of professional and Olympic-level athletes Whitby has produced, including NHLer Adam Foote and the NFL’s O.J. Santiago, confirms their claim.

But the Grayers didn’t come to Whitby for the sports. “You can still get a lot of nice houses that are cheap here,” says Michael.

The Grayers’ quest for economy matched their want for tranquility. Confesses Cheryl, “We were in Ajax, but it was just getting too busy there.”

Ajax, just a 10-minute drive southwest of Whitby, does look busy upon first glance. Cookie-cutter subdivision upon subdivision of single-family detached lots will please some, but unique-seekers are sure to find themselves in, for lack of a better term, “disturbia.”

But if you’re willing to break the mold, diversion from the bedroom community can be found. Heading north, the peaceful Greenwood Conservation Area at Westney and Greenwood roads features trails that are part of city’s 38-kilometre network. Bird chirps and pulsing woodpeckers are all that can be heard, an unexpected solace from the southerly sprawl. Filled with a range of trees and expansive natural areas, the park is ideal for hiking and walking dogs, as it’s one of just two leash-free areas in the city.

Or, heading south toward the water, stately, spaced-out homes populate the luxurious Lake Driveway, which borders Douglas Park. For homebuyers with capital to boot, novel abodes with three-car garage in tow are available with romantic views of Lake Ontario.

“The lake is beautiful,” says Renee Bourgon, marketing and communications director for Davies Smith Developments. “Prices of homes and condos are very affordable given the GTA averages.”

Back in Whitby, Bourgon represents lakeside development, The Rowe Condominiums, which has units starting at $260,000. The winner of the 2006 Ontario Home Builder’s Association “Project of the Year” features private terraces with lake views.

“Whitby offers the best of urban and suburban living. It has thousands of acres of parkland and a beautify waterfront which the city is continually investing in revitalizing.”

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