Toronto Islands via Ferry
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As an American, I'll admit, I don't know as much about other countries as I should. Even Canada, our closest and friendliest neighbor, is unfamiliar. When I decided to make a loop around Lake Erie, I knew that it would be worthwhile to add a side trip to Toronto to my plan. But what I didn't realize, is Toronto is a pretty big deal. It's kind-of like Canada's version of New York City. Sure, it's cleaner and friendlier -- that didn't surprise me. What came as a shock is just how big Toronto is.
Now, I know that Toronto is Canada's biggest city. It's also the 5th most populous city in North America -- you know, that continent that I live on, that shockingly doesn't end at the U.S. border. Toronto's metro area has more than 5 million people, making it the 7th largest metro area on the continent.
I guess the moral of my story is, I wasn't very smart to plan for just half a day in Toronto. But, since that's all I had, I knew where I wanted to go, and what I wanted to see. Specifically, I wanted to see that impressive skyline, pictured above. And to get that view of the city, you need to head out to some of the best real estate in Toronto -- the Toronto Islands.
The Toronto Islands lie just offshore from downtown Toronto, forming a crescent shape. While they are close enough to the mainland to easily build a bridge, there is no direct connection -- you have to take a ferry. Fortunately, the boats run frequently, and are not very expensive (as of 2011, $6.50 for adults, $4 for students, $3 for children under 14).
The ferries leave from docks along Queen's Quay, the road that runs along the waterfront. Just look for Yonge Street, Bay Street, or the Westin hotel, which towers directly above the docks.
Crossing the Inner Harbour only takes about 10 minutes, if I remember correctly. You can choose from three destinations: Centre Island, Ward's Island, and Hanlan's Point. And, you can depart the island from on a different ferry with no extra charge, making it easy to take a one-way walk or bike ride on the island.
I chose to arrive at Centre Island, walk east, then depart via Ward's Island. As the ferry pulls in, you're already enjoying a great view of the city -- most notably the CN tower, which at 553 meters (1,815 feet, or the equivalent of 147 stories) is the third tallest free-standing structure on land in the world, and the tallest in the Western Hemisphere. The tower dominates every view of the city.
As soon as I stepped off the ferry, my first concern was lunch. There is a sit-down restaurant next to the dock (you could see its tables in the photo above), but I thought it to be a little on the pricey side...
... so I went to the more affordable pizza stand (also near the ferry terminal), and put together a picnic lunch.
Centre Island has plenty of places to view the city, but even better viewpoints await.
Now that's my kind of park! I happily obliged.
There are numerous paths you can take, as you begin your wandering around the Toronto Islands.
At first, I headed over this bridge onto Olympic Island. It's one of the smaller islands in the archipelago, nestled in the inside curve of the crescent. Olympic Island is mostly undeveloped, and has a lot of open, green space -- but not a whole lot to see.
As I crossed back to Centre Island, I was heading into the middle of the islands' small amusement park.
Centreville Amusement Park offers swan paddle boat rides...
... a log flume ride (and more than a dozen other rides)...
... and a "downtown", where you can get a meal or snacks. Surprisingly though, I didn't find many souvenirs.
It's free to walk around Centreville Amusement Park, but if you want to go on any of the rides, you'll need to buy individual tickets, or a day or annual pass. Explore all the options on the park's website.
Heading south from the amusement park, I crossed another bridge, then walked past a water fountain...
... and through a garden...
... to the south side of the islands, and the fishing pier.
This is a great spot to gaze out towards America (which at this point, is to the southeast -- the Niagara Falls, Ontario area is directly south).
From the Pier, you can either go right (west) or left (east). I chose to go left, which is proof that I hadn't fully done my research before setting out. Had I gone right, I could have visited Toronto's only officially-approved clothing-optional beach. Hanlan's Point Beach allows you to fully expose yourself to the Toronto skyline.
To feast your eyes on something less phallic, you can also head to the west side of the island to see Gibralter (Gibraltar) Point Lighthouse. It's the oldest existing lighthouse on the Great Lakes. Construction was completed in 1808.
Heading east from the pier, you can choose a paved road, or this dirt path, which runs alongside the seawall. Eventually...
... the two paths merge, and a long boardwalk runs along the wall, as you head toward Ward's Island Beach.
In early July, I found a lot of beautiful and fragrant flowers blooming along here.
Before visiting, I had read that you can see the very best view of downtown Toronto from Algonquin Island, one of the small islands tucked inside the crescent, on the north side. Algonquin Island is an interesting place, with what must be some of the most desirable property in the city. Cross the bridge...
... and head down Ojibway Avenue...
... to find this viewpoint. I must admit, it does seem like all the downtown buildings line up perfectly here.
After admiring the view, wander along the streets of Algonquin Island for a few minutes, and dream about living in one of these houses. They're all quaint, well manicured, and the city's best view is just a short walk away.
Of course, there is a downside to living in this island paradise: you can't drive home at night. The Toronto Islands Ferries will transport cars, but it's expensive, and not a practical option for a daily commute. If you want to go work or the grocery store, you'd need to walk to the ferry, ride across, then get in your car.
Well, I guess you could take your own boat, instead of the ferry. There are plenty of slips here, filled with expensive yachts.
I stopped at the Island Cafe for a snack on Ward's Island, before catching the ferry back to the mainland.
If you'd rather ride than walk around Toronto Islands, you can bring your bike over on the ferry for free. If you don't have a bike, you can rent one. Rates start at $7 per hour, $30 per day (as of 2011, check out torontoislandbicyclerental.com)
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