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In Toronto, we simply call it “The Island.” Officially, it’s Toronto Island Park – 15 connected islands just off the shore of our city centre, accessible to all by a short ferry ride. It is one of the best tourist attractions this city has to offer the world. And in the summer of travel restrictions,  a visit to the Island is definitely the cheapest, easiest, safest way for Torontonians to “get away” on a holiday. 

What to do on Toronto Islands? What ferry to take? Here’s my dawn-to-dusk visitor’s guide.

The Toronto Islands are where I go to escape the city’s heat waves, traffic congestion and overly commercial aspirations. To swim, ride my bike, lay under trees and watch the sun go down behind the CN Tower. And every single time I make it over there, I think, “Why don’t I come here more often?” So I’ve been making an extra effort this summer. I even recently had the chance to overnight there, thanks to a generous friend with a boat at the Toronto marina. (Island sleepovers are rare, because there are no hotels, only a few heavily booked-up BnBs, and camping is not permitted.)

With a full 24 hours to explore I was reminded of the Island’s restorative powers, and why it’s the perfect mini-break for pandemic embattled souls. Unfortunately, this summer it also has a bit of an image problem. Hanlan’s Point, its very popular clothing optional beach, has attracted thousands, and in photos at least looks like a COVID-19 super spreader waiting to happen. If you ask me far too many people think that beach is the island. But if you want to follow the physical distance rules you actually don’t need to go to Hanlan’s at all. 

Whether it’s your first time visiting the Toronto Islands, your first time in a while, or you just want to explore more than that one beach spot you hit up on the regular, here is my dawn-to-dusk advice for the perfect Island adventure.

Come early and stay late

An empty picnic table on Centre Island Beach
Centre Island Beach

Make a day of it. A full day. Not to discount the appeal of a quick after-work Island swim, but arriving well before noon and staying until after sundown is the way to go. If you want a prime waterfront spot or the picnic table of your choice, you need to beat the competition after all. And rushing to catch the last ferry home is an Island tradition.

COVID notes: Boat operators are doing everything to keep guests safe but people queuing can get too close for comfort. To keep your distance, you really want to avoid travelling during prime time hours.

Check beach water quality

The waters around Toronto island are some of the cleanest and safest places to swim in the area. But heavy storms or other environmental events can sometimes mess with the ecoli levels in the water. Check Swimsafe for the latest conditions before heading out.

Pick your beach, then your ferry

A ferry to the Toronto Island on the waterfront
Photo by City of Toronto, via Flickr

There are three arrival points for the Islands: Ward’s to the east, Centre (obv.) and Hanlan’s to the west. Ferries departing the Bay Street terminal service all three, but with different schedules. While the entire Island span is walkable, for maximum “Time to Fun” pick the the ferry that will drop you off closest to the beach where you plan to hang out. Each beach has its own vibe, and own tribe.

Centre Island is the main drag, popular with families. It has the most facilities (washrooms, splash pads, food, etc), shade, and the biggest beach to spread out on.

Ward’s Island is a residential neighbourhood, and its small beach just a short walk from the ferry is a chill place for quiet groups of friends, especially at night. It makes the ideal spot for discrete bonfires (not exactly legal, but common).

Hanlan’s is where the party’s at, and home to the clothing optional, LGBTQ-friendly beach. If you have ever used “Sun’s out, Guns Out” non-ironically, you enjoy suntanning naked, and/or watching a display of penises of every shape, age and size, this is your spot.  (Also good if you don’t care for kids.)

Gibraltar Point is, in the words of my friend Ben, the beach for people who hate people. This is my go-to spot because I’m the opposite of a nudist and prefer to swim where the least amount of people will see me. There are no facilities. The farthest walk from any ferry. Mind the fire ants.

COVID notes: Ferry tickets need to be purchased on-line in advance now, with reduced capacity. Return from Hanlan’s stops quite early, Ward’s is the latest home. Info here.

Pack a Picnic

Food options are quite limited to a few corporate fast food chains. Some families haul BBQs and coolers and throw a full cookout; I look at them with envy since I tend to pack light, with wraps or shareable fruit like plums or cherries. In any case, bring lots of water, as there are no working fountains right now and buying overpriced, single-use plastic bottles of Dasani is gross. The one nice restaurant patio and bar is near Ward’s Island, The Riviera

COVID notes: the popular Island Cafe near Ward’s Island ferry dock is currently closed, and other food services are on limited hours.

Bring your Bike

I would never consider visiting the island without a bicycle. Why not take advantage of one of the biggest car-free urban communities in North America, one that’s flat, well paved, and perfect for riding? There are rentals at Centre, including tandems, but you’ll walk a while to get there, queue, pay $9/hour and it’s really more for a novelty/date/family experience than for exploring the island on wheels. It’s quite sad that the city’s bike share programme doesn’t operate here, so if you don’t have your own bike, I recommending renting one for the day on the mainland then bringing it over. If you’re planning to stay til late, don’t forget a front light. It gets dark over there.

Upgrade to a Water Taxi

A tiki bar sign aboard the Tiki Taxi
Spotted on the Tiki Taxi. (No actual bar aboard.)

Yes, the Toronto ferries are nostalgic and affordable. But for an extra $13 round trip, you can get to the island much faster on a small water taxi. ($10 each way vs $7 return for ferry.) It’s easier for transporting your bike, and if you select the Tiki Taxi (as I do) you’ll likely get a fun music soundtrack for the ride. It’s also your way back if you miss that last ferry, as they tend to run later. Seriously, I exclusively take water taxis now and every time I feel like a genius. They leave from different docks than the standard ferry. Check locations and schedules here.

Get Lost

A pathway of trees on Toronto Island.
Photo by Filip Maljković, via Fickr.

If you’re like me you’ll need a break from the sun so take a nice long ride or walk through the many forested paths. You may discover a lighthouse, a church, a maze, a boardwalk, bridges, or Snake Island.

Turn your phone off

Once you get to the far side of the island, cell signals are sketchy. So don’t count on meeting up with friends that way. Do use this as an excuse to turn everything off. You’re on vacation, remember.

Watch the Sunset

View of a Toronto sunset from Ward's Island ferry
View from Ward’s Island

What if you only have a half-day to visit? Come for dusk. Both Hanlan’s beach and Ward’s ferry dock offer gorgeous views of the sun going down. And the boat ride home after dark illuminates Toronto’s waterfront skyline line like nowhere else.

Plan a Return Visit

If leaving the island makes you sad, I get it. The cure is to immediately make a plan for when you’ll come back.