Visiting the Toronto Islands

A view of Toronto from the Ward's Island Ferry.

A view of Toronto from the Ward’s Island Ferry. Photo © Dan Dickinson, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Just a short ferry ride across the harbor from downtown, the Toronto Islands (415/397-2628) in Lake Ontario are the city’s backyard, where both residents and visitors escape the urban bustle to lounge at the beach, cruise around by bike or kayak, or have a picnic. The awesome views of the city skyline, from the ferries and from the islands themselves, are a bonus; this is the place to take those picture-postcard city snapshots.

Cars are not allowed on the islands, so you’ll need to get around on foot or by bicycle. Bicycling is a good way to tour these flat islands, which are crisscrossed with pathways.

The “Toronto Islands” actually consist of several small islands, most of which are connected to each other by bridges. Ferries from Toronto dock at three points: Centre Island, Ward’s Island to the east, and Hanlan’s Point to the west.

Bring a picnic from the mainland, so you can eat on the beach or as you’re exploring. If you’d rather sit down to a restaurant meal, you can choose from several eateries, including the year-round Rectory Cafe (Ward’s Island, 416/203-2152) or the more touristy, seasonal Shopsy’s Island Deli Bar and Grill, right next to the Centre Island docks. Washrooms and drinking water are available on the islands.

Centre Island

Centre Island is the entertainment hub, with an amusement park, gardens, bike and boat rentals, and beaches. If you have young kids, head for the Franklin Children’s Garden, with play structures, a tree house, and a theater that hosts summer storytelling events. There’s a beach by the pier on Centre Island, but if you walk or cycle either direction from there, you’ll find prettier, less populated sand.

Bike rentals ($7/hour, tandems $14/hour) are available near the Centre Island pier, on the opposite side of the island from the ferry dock; it’s 0.75 kilometer, or about a 0.5-mile walk. You can also rent fun “quadricycles,” four-wheeled pedal bikes that can seat two ($16/ hour) or four ($30/hour) people. On a bike, it takes about an hour to make a leisurely but complete loop of the islands, if you don’t stop much to look around. You can take bicycles over from the mainland, although bikes aren’t allowed on the Centre Island ferry on busy summer weekends.

In the summer, you can rent canoes, kayaks, and pedal boats at the Boat House on Centre Island. To find the boat rentals from the Centre Island docks, follow the main path past the amusement park. When you cross the bridge near the fountains, bear left (east) toward the Boat House.

While many come to the islands for their more natural charms, a big attraction for the kids is the Centreville Amusement Park (604/203-0405, 10:30 a.m.–close daily early June–early Sept.; 10:30 a.m.–close Sat.–Sun. May and mid-to-late Sept.), with a 1907 carousel, a Ferris wheel, bumper boats, a roller coaster, antique car rides, and a whole host of other old-time carnival attractions. If you arrive on the Centre Island ferry, it’s hard to sneak past the amusements without the kids noticing, since the park is just a short walk from the ferry dock.

Admission to the amusement park itself is free, but you’ll pay to ride the rides. A sheet of 50 ride tickets costs $42.48, or you can buy an all-day pass. Passes for individuals are based on height; one-day passes for adults and children who are more than four feet tall are $30.97, less than four feet tall $21.90. Family all-day passes are $96. You can get a small discount on both individual and family passes by buying them online before your visit.

Ward’s Island

Ward’s Island looks like an urban cottage colony, with the islands’ only community of permanent residents, a beach, and a playground. The mostly sandy Ward’s Island Beach can be a little less crowded than some of the others. Wander past the lakeside homes and imagine living here yourself.

Hanlan’s Point

If you see airplanes coming in over the harbor, so low that you think they’re going to land on your ferry, it’s because they’re headed to the Toronto Island Airport, near Hanlan’s Point, which also has parks and beaches. On this side of the island is the stone Gibraltar Point Lighthouse, built 1808–1809. It’s the oldest surviving lighthouse on the Great Lakes and the second-oldest in Canada. The Gibraltar Beach, west of the pier, is nice and there’s a clothing-optional beach at Hanlan’s Point.

Getting There and Around

Catch the ferry (9 Queens Quay West, at Bay St., 416/397-2628, round-trip adults $6.50, seniors and students $4, kids 3–14 $3) to the islands from the docks just west of the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel. Both the #509 Harbourfront and #510 Spadina streetcars stop at Bay Street/Queen’s Quay.

From downtown, ferries run to three different island docks: Centre Island, Hanlan’s Point, and Ward’s Island. You can disembark at one and return from another. The schedules for the three ferries are different, though, so be sure to check. While schedules vary seasonally and by time of day, the Centre Island boats run most frequently (mid-Apr.–mid-Oct.), with departures every 15 to 30 minutes in the summer. Boats to Hanlan’s Point (mid-Apr.–mid-Oct.) and Ward’s Island (year-round) typically operate every 30 to 60 minutes in summer. Only the Ward’s Island ferry runs year-round.

Cars are not allowed on the islands, so you’ll need to get around on foot or by bicycle. Bicycling is a good way to tour these flat islands, which are crisscrossed with pathways. In summer, 35-minute tram tours leave from Centre Island, a short walk south of the ferry docks.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Ontario.

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