Monday, July 18, 2016

Toronto Island Park

When I think of being a tourist in Toronto, I think CN Tower, Ripley’s Aquarium Canada, ROM, High Park and the waterfront, a combination of historic, iconic, family-adventure and the outdoors. What this list is missing might be the best option to get in a little of everything Toronto-ish in just one day… a visit to Toronto Island Park.

This island retreat in the middle of the city is accessible by a short ferry ride from the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal in downtown Toronto, within walking distance from the popular Harbourfront area. Ferry prices are reasonable: adults $7.50, students/seniors (ages 15-19 and over 65 with proof of age) $5.00, children ages 2 to 14 $3.65 and infants under 2 free (prices in Canadian dollars as of May 2016 and include return trip, for vehicle pricing and monthly pass info see ferry website). On your way out to the island grab a spot at the railing looking back at the city – the view of the Toronto skyline is unbeatable, except maybe from a plane…

There are actually three separate ferries, one heading to Ward’s Island on the east end, one to Hanlan’s Point on the west end, and the third to Centre Island. Home to Far Enough Farm and Centreville Amusement Park, the 30 rides and bevy of animals could keep you busy all day. Keep in mind there’s still the entire main island to explore, starting with its four beaches: Ward’s Island Beach (west end), Centre Island Beach, Gibraltar Point Beach and Hanlan’s Point Clothing Optional Beach (east end). We chose Manitou, even though with three kids under six clothing optional activities are rather commonplace.

We crossed the bridge from Center Island and strolled past a fountain and through large, formal gardens to reach the water. The pier at Manitou Beach is adjacent to the island bar, bicycle rental and changing room facilities, and Centre Island Beach is right there. All the beaches have lifeguards on site, but pay attention to the flags; it might be a red-flag day due to water quality. Don’t let this keep you dry though, head to the nearby splash pad and playground if the sun and surf isn’t your thing!

out on the pier

My favorite part of the whole Toronto Island Park experience was Franklin Children’s Garden. This interactive garden is inspired by the Franklin the Turtle book series, and there was so much to explore that we ended up spending over an hour there. We climbed the Snail Trail, played in the Hide and Seek Garden, watched bees at the Pollination Station and helped water the Little Sprouts Garden.

The William Meany Maze is not far from the gardens and proved to be a challenge the boys couldn’t resist. 1,200 black cedar trees create a hedge maze to truly get lost in…

A little further west from the garden is the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse, the 200 year-old (reportedly haunted) historical beacon that is the oldest stone building in Toronto and Canada’s oldest standing lighthouse. Past that is Hanlan’s Beach, beyond which is Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, which you might have flown into if you’ve ever flown Porter to Toronto – a good spot to watch planes with the kids. Meanwhile, on the east end of the island are the car-free communities of Ward’s and Algonquin Islands with their distinctive architecture and beautiful summer gardens (approximately 750 people live in the 262 homes year round). There is a guided tram tour that will visit all these historical sites, or you can rent a boat or paddleboard and explore via water. And if swimming, cycling and boating don’t use up all your energy, there’s even an 18-hole disc golf course, volleyball courts and tennis courts. Once you get hungry there are food & beverage vendors located through the park, or you can find one of the 40 picnic sites dotting the island if you’ve brought your own food. Finally, you’ll find several other park and private vendors and activities throughout the park, ranging from the Toronto Island Challenge Course to the Pirate Life Children’s Theatre, which urges visitors to join the crew & search for treasure!

I’m not sure when we’ll next return to Toronto, but I hope that on our next trip Toronto Island Park is included. I would love to explore in autumn when the monarch butterflies are migrating through, to see the sand dunes in the spring, or to take the boys fishing; northern pike, panfish and largemouth bass populate the weedy shallows of the lagoons. It would be fun to take either the Ward’s Island or Hanlan’s Point ferry across and then work our way across the entire park, we would just have to tear ourselves away from the beaches and gardens! The park is truly an island escape, and although you might be reluctant to leave, just make sure of one thing – that you don’t miss the last ferry back to the city and that scenic view of the downtown skyline!

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