Please, Mother Nature, lay off the Toronto Islands for a while, OK?
Some of the best features of the city's best feature are struggling. With recent flooding restricting ferry access, the Island Cafe has laid off staff. Even worse, the nearby Rectory Cafe has revealed that it is shutting down after this season owing to financial trouble brought about by the rising waters.
The good news: There’s nothing stopping you from enjoying a pitcher of sangria on the Island Cafe’s airy patio, or a Wellington County striploin on the Rectory’s leafy terrace. While ferries to Centre Island and Hanlan’s Point have suspended operations until at least June 30, the Ward’s Island ferry is still running. Service is limited to “residents and their guests, staff, and emergency personnel,” according to the City of Toronto, but this is easily circumvented in three ways: One, take a water taxi. Two, simply tell ferry staff that you are dining at either spot and you will be allowed to board. Three, paddle over yourself, as I did just last week. As you can see from the top photo, the flooding is striking and worth checking out. Does it hinder the dining experience? Not at all.
Supporting these wonderful eateries in tough times is far from the only reason to explore the Islands. Let me ask you this: How far from downtown Toronto is the bucolic waterway pictured above? Two hours by car (or five on a summer Friday)? Fifty minutes by float plane? Believe it or not, this verdant, mellow spot on Ward’s is less than 20 minutes by ferry from the foot of Bay Street.
I’ve learned a lot about the quirky archipelago since I first visited more than 20 years ago. Did you know, for instance, that Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run out of Hanlan's Point Stadium in 1914? But my Island education hasn’t been limited to T.O. trivia. Here are six key lessons I’ve learned:
They are Hogtown's hidden gem
It amazes me how many Torontonians say they have never visited the Islands, or have only ever checked out the fun and kitschy Centreville Amusement Park or the clothing-optional Hanlan's Point Beach. After all, there’s so much more to the place than bumper-boats and CN Tower-themed thongs. With leafy pedestrian laneways and adorably rustic homes, Ward’s and Algonquin islands are like little slices of Ontario cottage country — but with some striking differences…
Downtown shines from the lake
The northern shores offer unparalleled, unobstructed views of the Toronto skyline. On warm evenings my family often carries a cooler to one of the picnic tables lining Algonquin’s leafy shore to revel in the surreal proximity of the concrete, glass and steel jungle. From the Gardiner Expressway it can seem dystopian. From the islands, it looks like Emerald City.
Deluxe digs on the doorstep
B&Bs and cottage rentals are the only overnight options on the Islands. But with the Westin Harbour Castle practically on top of the mainland ferry dock, all the comforts and amenities of a luxury hotel — including perks such as free Wi-Fi for Marriott Rewards members — are just a ferry ride, water-taxi fare or canoe rental away.
No cars, no stress
Being almost entirely free of motorized vehicles, the Islands are bicycle-centric and perfect for young kids like mine. Every time I climb in the car to drive home from the mainland ferry dock, I am reminded of how nice it is to eschew internal combustion engines for even a few hours.
Free (disc) golf!
Ward’s is home to one of the world’s premier disc golf courses, a 6,925-foot, 18-basket stretch of bucolic parkland. It hosted the Professional Disc Golf Association’s World Championships back in 1986 — six years after the course was established — and each July hosts the pro-am Toronto Island Open. Let’s hope waters subside enough for the event to take place this year.
Ward's Beach rules
The clean, compact and uncrowded stretch of sand on the south side of Ward's is arguably the city's finest, especially for families. The ferry dock is a five-minute walk away, lifeguards abound, toilets are mere steps away, and you gaze out onto nothing but Lake Ontario, the parkland of the adjacent Leslie Spit, and boats that are either passing or anchored in the small bay. Again, fingers crossed that full beach operations resume soon.