Picture of a family in Toronto Harbour, Canada

A family goes canoeing in Toronto Harbour, a world removed from the urban center.

Photograph by Chris Rainier

By Liz Beatty

Just a ten-minute ferry ride and a world away from Toronto’s chrome-and-glass core is the boho oasis of Ward’s and Algonquin Islands, on the Toronto Islands archipelago cut off from the mainland during a violent storm in 1858. The communities of 262 quirky cottages on tidy, treed lanes date back to confederation in 1867, when leading Toronto families summered here. There were no cars then and still none allowed today. Only owners’ children and spouses can now inherit properties. “I don’t think there’s anyone on the island that doesn’t appreciate it every day,” marvels second-generation Ward’s Island resident April Hickox, a photography professor.

When to Go: Summer is prime time for beaches, the boardwalk, and Centreville Amusement Park. Still, the hush of midwinter brings brilliant skating on lagoons that link all 15 Toronto Islands.

How to Get Around: Catch the Ward’s Island ferry from docks at the foot of Toronto’s Bay Street. Walk or cycle, but avoid pricey Bixi bike rentals in favor of those behind the Sheraton on the harbor. Once at Ward’s, pick up a Toronto Island Grannies in Spirit bike tour pamphlet for a toonie (that’s two Canadian dollars). Explore historic houses, the boardwalk, unique freshwater coastal dunes, Toronto’s oldest landmark (Gibraltar Point Lighthouse), and the nude beach at Willow Gate (among others).

Where to Stay: Live like an islander in one of a handful of B&Bs or rental cottages on Ward’s or Algonquin. The Boathouse at 5 Third Street on Ward’s Island is a compact, home-away-from-home apartment with kitchen, washer/dryer, bedroom, and bath minutes from the water.

What to Read Before You Go: A Magical Place: Toronto Island and Its People by Bill Freeman (1999) tells the islands’ sometimes fraught history and includes archival and current photographs.

Where to Eat or Drink: Young, hip condo dwellers flock to the ferries on hot summer weekends and to the Island Café, just off the Ward’s Island pier. Before or after hitting the beach, savor fresh, local, homemade comfort food. A packed outdoor patio scene features local microbreweries, Ontario wines, and live concerts. The genteel Rectory Café patio overlooks the boardwalk on the north shore under a canopy of hardwoods. Order brisket or lamb burgers, semi-sweet brownies, or flourless chocolate torte washed down with more local libations.

What to Buy: Local art abounds, from established names to newcomers—sculptor, painters, photographers—many of whom work from affordable retreat space at Artscape Gibraltar Point. See interpretations of island life displayed for sale at both the Rectory Gallery and the Island Café, with the latter hosting an arts festival Labor Day weekend.

Helpful Links: Tourism Toronto, Nature on the Toronto Islands: An Explorers Guide

Fun Fact: A popular amusement park in late 1800s at Hanlon’s Point on the archipelago’s east end included a professional baseball stadium where, in 1914, a 19-year-old Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run.

Toronto-based writer Liz Beatty is a frequent contributor to National Geographic Traveler. Her work has appeared in Toronto Life, Experience magazine, and others. She also writes for In the Hills magazine.

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