Did you know that only minutes from downtown Toronto – Canada’s largest city with a population of over 2.6 million- you can find beautiful wooded islands with sandy beaches and just maaaaybe trick yourself into believing that you’ve gone up north for a short holiday? The Toronto Islands are an easy access haven for nature lovers and an interesting spot for visitors looking to see a different side of the big city.
The Islands are only a 15 minute ferry ride from downtown Toronto, leaving from the Jack Layton Terminal located at the bottom of Bay Street. During the high season (spring to autumn) ferry trips are very frequent and cost only $7.50 per adult for a return ticket. You can catch a ride directly to Centre Island (where most of the activity is), Ward’s Island or Hanlan’s Point. Bicycles and well behaved leashed dogs are welcome on the ferries which is great for those who want to make use of the Islands’ many lovely paths. Have your cameras ready for some fantastic views of the Toronto skyline during the ride, and keep in mind that the main Islands are all connected via walking bridges, so you’re not trapped in one spot based on which ferry you happen to catch.
We went to Centre Island first because that happened to be the first ferry available, and it was very busy with families on a Sunday afternoon. Most of the attractions are kiddie friendly stuff like the hedge maze and children’s garden, and there’s a lot of lawn space for games of catch and picnics. Centreville Amusement Park seemed to be ground zero for the families with children…lots of cute rides, vendors and games to keep the little ones occupied. Even though the place is obviously geared for the junior set we couldn’t resist trying the Windmill style ferris wheel. It was was a short ride but got we got a cool view of the Toronto skyline peeking over the trees…a reminder of how the city centre is really not far away.
There are numerous waterways throughout the islands, and we saw people renting canoes and kayaks, along with lots of people navigating their own personal boats around. I was pretty excited when I saw the swan boats. I thought I would finally get my chance to paddle around in a huge cheesy fake swan – something I’ve been inexplicably wanting to do since I saw them in Ueno Park, Tokyo last year. Like the previous time, the long line up made me pass them by…so I guess they remain on my “must try” list for now.
I’m a huge animal lover, so without a doubt my favorite thing we did on Centre Island was visit Far Enough Farm. A darling little hobby farm/petting zoo, this farm opened in 1959 and this is one of Toronto’s oldest tourist destinations. This is a great place for children (both fun & educational) but it can be endlessly entertaining for adults too… what adult doesn’t love to pet a friendly sheep until it falls asleep? Just me? And it’s totally FREE! With over 40 different species of animals and birds, Far Enough Farms is a must. Trotting ponies and curious llamas (with amazing hair-dos), fuzzy sheep and piglets playing in the dirt. One of the highlights was meeting Darby the horse – an extremely charming Clydesdale who loves to get attention. We saw him stop eating and literally run to his fence to greet some children who stopped to visit him! Some of the animals are rescued, and some are retired working animals. They definitely look happy and most of them were total hams. So fun!
Toronto Islands are known for their beaches (and I love beaches), so of course we checked out a couple of them. First we wandered down past the big fountain and garden plaza to the Centre Island beach next to the pier and found some overly expensive food vendors along with a beach bar joint serving adult beverages and blasting 80’s rock. We chilled here for awhile, but it wasn’t long before we continued on to find Ward’s Island beach – popular with the young hip Toronto crowd. The walk to Ward’s was long but enjoyable since we took the boardwalk route running directly along the lakefront. We spotted cormorants fishing and a bunch of pretty sailboats out on the lake. Very summer vacationy feeling.
Ward’s Beach was much busier than the first, and the area is a interesting mix of visitors and locals…very local. Although the Toronto Islands are mainly a public park, there is also a small residential community present (made up of less than 300 homes) which are almost all in the Ward’s Island area. Most of these homes are very cute with lovely gardens, and because no vehicles are permitted the area still maintains a holiday cottage-type feel despite the year round residents. I saw many adorable little houses near Ward’s beach- most of them surrounded by mature trees and killer lake views. Canadian abstract painter and Olympic sprint canoer Tom Hodgson (1924-2006) was raised here, and it seems like an idyllic place to grow up. Those lucky folks have this sweet little lakeside beach right in their backyards.
For the more adventurous, there’s another beach in the in north end of the Islands called Hanlan’s Point Beach. Since 2002 it’s been officially a Clothing Optional Beach and is a popular spot for nudist day trips. We skipped it, but for those who are into the au naturel scene it could make for pretty good travel story! We were beat from all the wandering, so we wrapped up our island visit and made it back to downtown Toronto in less than half hour.
Visitors to Toronto and the GTA should definitely take the chance to explore the Toronto Islands. This unusual spot offers a respite from the city without requiring a car, and if you are a nature lover or an animal lover there is plenty to enjoy – I think we even saw a weasel in the woods! It also seems to be a popular and safe place for exercising in this urban centre. Numerous people on bicycles, running, and playing frisbee. So much frisbee! The Islands are easily accessible for anyone visiting the city and It’s an inexpensive way to fill a warm day. And remember, you might get to pet a friendly sheep until if falls asleep. Important.