As we pull away from the cluster of concrete high rises and into the glistening greeny-blue water, I can’t help but relax. It’s not as though I’m super stressed, we’re on vacation after all, but something about being whisked by boat out the downtown core makes you feel like you’re being transported to another world. And if you’re headed to the Toronto Islands, you certainly are.
A refreshing respite from the hustle and bustle of the big city, the Toronto Islands are an archipelago of 15 islands in Lake Ontario located a mere 1.6 km south of the downtown core. Flush with both rugged and groomed green space, the islands are a sweet sanctuary laced with miles of park land, sandy beaches and arguably the best views of Toronto’s skyline.
If you’ve got kids, your first stop will likely be Centreville, a 14-acre amusement park designed to look like a turn of the century Ontario village. With over 30 rides and attractions, you can bet wee-ones will not want to leave this perfectly proportioned park. The old fashioned rides are a hoot and it’s especially nice to see a midway that suits the ability level of the smallest guest. There’s a “light” roller coaster and one of those log fume water rides that splashes everyone at the end, but with a drop that isn’t terrifyingly steep. Those bursting for independence will want to roam along an antique car track in their own mini-vehicle and break out the hand santizer, there’s a petting farm with over 40 different species of farmyard animals and exotic birds.
Tip: Centreville is best suited for children under 8-years-old. If your kid is still into bouncy castles, they’ll love it. If they’ve outgrown that stage, they might find it too babyish.
Become a Pirate
Got a buccaneer in your brood? If so, take your scallywag on an adventure they won’t soon forget. Pirate Life is an interactive family theater and adventure cruise. Mates of all ages get decked out à la Captain Jack Sparrow and sail aboard a pirate ship as they search for sunken treasure. But first you’ll have to complete pirate school, so your crew knows the ins and outs of rogue seafaring life.
Biking around Toronto Islands
Step away from the action by renting bikes and cruising along little trails that weave their way through the island. There are playgrounds to stop at, art installations to suss out and several restaurants to try. Tip: Avoid the tourist traps near the ferry harbour and head to the Rectory Cafe for a delightful meal.
If you’re somewhat of a real estate voyeur, you’ll enjoy cycling through the island’s small residential area to get a glimpse of the lives of the island’s 700 or so permanent residents. Expect a few daydreams to be prompted by the sight of these adorable cottages with picket fences and beautifully manicured lawns bursting with vibrant flowers. Become even more jealous as you cruise over wooden bridges connecting the islands together, while spotting a school and artist studios, all flanked by Lake Ontario.
Be sure to stop at one of the leafy green spaces for a play or pack a frisbee and try your hand at the disc golf course. Tip: be sure to pack a bathing suit and towel as there is a splash park and several beaches.
Beaches of Toronto Islands
While there are a few beaches to choose from, we hit up Chelsea beach. This life guard patrolled beach also boasts several picnic tables, a swing set and has large boulders making a natural boundary for swimmers. What’s most notable, however, is this beach has a blue flag rating – an international eco-label awarded to beaches for excellence in water quality.
Head’s up, there is a clothing optional beach, but it’s tucked away on the west end of Centre island, so there’s little chance you’ll run into a show.
I thought we’d spend an hour or two at most on the islands, but we ended up whiling away the better part of a day. It can get crowded, especially in summertime, so plan to visit early and pack lots of provisions (food, bathing suit, frisbee), so you’re able to make the most of your visit.
Have you ever been to the Toronto Islands or visited another city island? What did you like best about it?