If you’re looking to escape the city hustle for a quieter retreat or family outing this summer, head to the Toronto Islands, which are a short ferry ride away from the downtown core.
The chain of small islands was created from erosion of the Scarborough Bluffs. A storm in the late 19th century fully separated the mainland from the peninsula. The area is made up of several islands, including Ward’s Island and Centre Island, which is the largest.
Click here for a history of the Toronto Islands.
Click here for a map of the Toronto Islands.
How to get there
You can catch a ferry from the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal, located at 9 Queen’s Quay W., to Ward’s Island, Centre Island or Hanlan’s Point.
Click here for the ferry schedule.
Getaway destination at your doorstep
Once you get to the islands, there are a plethora of things to do to relax and rejuvenate. Visitors can rent bikes, canoes, kayaks, play baseball or volleyball, take a swim, or unpack a picnic.
The Toronto Islands also boast several beaches for swimming, lounging, reading or taking a stroll. They include Centre Island Beach, Manitou Beach, Gibraltar Point Beach, Ward’s Island Beach and Hanlan’s Point Beach, which is known for its clothing-optional section.
Centre Island a hub of activity
Situated between Hanlan’s Point and Ward’s Island, Centre Island is home to Centreville Amusement Park, which features rides, mini-golf, and other activities.
There are also festivals and events held on the island, such as the Toronto International Dragon Boat Race Festival, which runs June 21-22, and celebrates its 26th anniversary this year. Over 5,000 athletes on 180-200 teams are expected to take part in the boat races.
Another event that draws visitors to the island is the Festival of India, which runs July 12-13. The Hare Krishna event, also known as Ratha-Yatra, starts with a parade on Yonge Street, followed by festivities on the island. Around 40,000 people are expected to attend the event.
At the tail end of summer, runners will converge on the island for the 34th annual Longboat Toronto Island Run on Sept. 7 for the city’s oldest 10k race. There’s also a 5k run and a 1k fun run, followed by a barbecue and prize giveaways.
Rectory Café charms visitors & islanders
The Rectory Café, located on Ward’s Island, offers tranquility and a picturesque atmosphere that is the antithesis to busy city life.
Nestled off the boardwalk, it’s a five-minute walk west from the Ward’s Island Ferry Terminal.
According to a The Essential Toronto Island Guide by Peter Dean and Linda Rosenbaum, who live on the islands, the two-story, stucco home was built in 1948, and survived the demolition of homes by the newly-created Metropolitan Toronto government in 1953. It used to be the home of the local priest, but now houses the café, community meeting rooms, offices and the Island Art Gallery.
The Rectory Café has been in business for almost 15 years, growing from its humble beginnings of serving coffee and muffins to a full-service restaurant.
“We are on Toronto Island, probably one of the most beautiful parklands in North America, and we have a huge patio right on the water,” said Jane Rodgerson, the café’s general manager.
The patio expanded this year and now seats 250 people, making them feel like their “looking out over Lake Muskoka.”
“You’re looking at Leslie Street Spit, which is a bird sanctuary, and there’s a huge expansive water in between us and the bird sanctuary. It’s just peaceful,” Rodgerson said.
The café is favourite hangout for visitors and islanders alike due to its tucked-away location on the island.
“One of the things that appeals to many is the existence of this little oasis in the middle of the park, but so close to the city,” said long-time island resident Lynn Cunningham in an email while on vacation.
Cunningham, who retired earlier this year as associate professor at Ryerson School of Journalism, often goes to the Rectory three or fours times a week with her work and computer in tow.
She said as soon as she walks in, someone on staff asks if she wants “the usual” — a latte served in a particular glass that staff now call “Lynn-ttes.”
“A big draw for me is the staff: friendly, efficient, thoughtful … the manager, Jane, is very high energy and full of ideas to tweak the place,” Cunningham said in an email from vacation.
Summer hours have already started at the café, so it’s now open seven days a week.
Allure of the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse
If history and ghostly tales piques your interest, head to the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse, which is the older landmark in Toronto and the oldest existing lighthouse on the Great Lakes. The last lightkeeper was Mrs. Dodds who kept watch from 1955 to 1958.
According to local legends, the lighthouse tower is haunted after the first keeper, John Paul Radelmüller, was murdered in 1815. Some people have claimed to have heard moaning sounds, while others said they’ve seen a ghost wandering the grounds.
Artists converge at Artscape Gibraltar Point
Located just steps away from the lighthouse is the renowned Artscape Gibraltar Point — a 35,000 square-foot private retreat space for artists and creative thinkers to work in a serene and collaborative environment.
Formerly the Toronto Island Public and Natural Science School, the beachfront property is located on the southern point of the Toronto Islands and offers short-term accommodation and studio rentals. Artists who stay there can enjoy the outdoors and idyllic lake views from Gibraltar Point Beach.
“The artists that come here they really get the opportunity to become detached from the busy city and enjoy a very rural-like environment where there are birds chirping. They just get to enjoy the natural environment,” said Lisa Cristinzo, managing director of Artscape Gibraltar Point.
“People love it here and they often come back year after year.”
The centre also hosts arts and music festivals and houses a public main gallery space that features the work of Artscape Gibraltar Point and Toronto Island community.
Artists can also register for programmed residencies, and at the end of each residency, they can display their created work in a studio exhibition.
“Toronto Island is where the general public comes for day trips to enjoy the lake and natural environment. Artscape Gibraltar Point extends this experience to those wanting space to make art, get out the city and be a part of an inspiring place and community,” Cristinzo said.
The space opened in 1999 and celebrates its 15th anniversary this year. It is not only popular with artists but also for some of the 800 residents of the islands who spend the day at their studio.
“There’s a real connection with this place and the island community,” she said.
Click here for more information on the centre and its amenities.