For a seven-dollar round-trip and a 10-minute ferry ride from the downtown core’s shoreline, the Toronto Islands are a cheap and quick escape from city life, and between their bucolic parks and beaches and a strict no cars policy, they’ll make you forget about cottage country in a second.
Explore the newly reincarnated Centre Island maze | FREE
Amidst the country’s centennial celebrations in 1967, Toronto’s Dutch community erected a labyrinth on Centre Island, but after years of neglect, the city removed it in 2011. When William Meany, a Calgary businessman who’d enjoyed the maze as a child, brought a group of associates to the islands to see it the following summer and found it missing, he contacted the city and donated $200,000 to have it rebuilt. Reopened in his name in June, the 15,000-square-foot maze has been rebuilt just west of its original location, comprised of about 1,200 black cedars and enough puzzle and whimsy to make you feel young again.
(Photo by ctv via ctvnews.ca)
Play disc golf | FREE (Bring Your Own Frisbee)
In 1975, the Canadian Open Frisbee Championships were relocated from their former home at the CNE to the Olympic and Ward’s islands, where they were held for the next decade and helped to introduce disc sports to the country. Today their influence lives on in the form of an 18-hole disc golf course spanning Centre Island Park on Ward’s Island, where tournaments have been held every summer for the past eight years.
(Photo by Jason Baker via Flickr)
Go ghost hunting | FREE
Erected in 1803, the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse is the oldest remaining stone structure in Toronto, and according to legend, it’s haunted. Some have reported hearing invisible strangers walking up its steps, while others have spotted a ghostly light shining up top, even though the lighthouse has been long decommissioned. Theories abound – maybe it’s the ghost of John Paul Radelmüller, Toronto’s first lightkeeper, famously murdered and hacked to pieces while news of the Treaty of Ghent was still making its way back home at the end of the War of 1812; maybe it’s the spirit of a shipmate the lighthouse failed in the 1856 wreck of the Monarch – but one thing seems certain: there’s unfinished business there.
(Photo by Arthur S. Goss via Wikimedia)
Go all in and put your name on the waiting list for a house | $45+
Before the city paved 200 acres of land to make room for the airport, the islands were filled with residences. Now there are just 262 of them. Once you’ve been enchanted by this slow pocket of the city, for an annual fee of $45, you can gamble on a chance to lease one. The waiting list is capped at 500 names, but yearly lotteries are held to let people in when others lose hope and spots open up.
(Photo by chensiyuan via Wikimedia)
Swim naked (or don’t) | FREE
Between the Centre Island, Gibraltar Point, Hanlan’s Point, and Ward’s Island beaches, the islands offer several swimming opportunities, but why let anything come between you and our local Great Lake? All of the island beaches consistently meet a Blue Flag standard, and Hanlan’s Beach lets you experience it in the raw. A traditional site for nude sunbathing for decades prior, it became the second officially recognized clothing-optional beach in Canada (and the only one created by a municipal bylaw) in 1999.
(Photo by Marthin Wichary via Wikimedia)
Go to a music festival | FREE-$150
Bestival isn’t the only festival making use of the islands this summer. Electric Island has already held two days of this year’s programming, but it returns for two more at the bottom of August and September; the Festival of India takes over Centre Island for two nights in July; and Wavelength music series takes on its own ALL CAPS legacy with Camp Wavelength – an all weekend, camp-over music festival – at Artscape Gibraltar Point in August.
(Photo by Eva Rinaldi via Flickr)
Take up an artist residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point (or just visit) | FREE-$900
When the Island Public and Natural Science School was threatened with demolition in the late ’90s, the island community contacted urban development organization Artscape, and soon enough, the former school was transformed into a studio space and temporary residence for creatives. Now it hosts up to 15 painters, ceramists, sculptors, musicians, theatre companies, and writers-in-residence at any time throughout the year and rents out its facilities for special events.
(Photo by SJ Elliot via Flickr)
Ride/rent a bike/canoe/kayak/paddle board | FREE/$8+
“No cars” doesn’t mean you have to restrict yourself to your own two feet, and why not get some exercise while exploring what the islands have to offer? You could even paddle yourself over to the island and forego the congested ferry wait.
(Photo by mark watmough via Wikimedia)
Go on a Toronto history scavenger hunt | FREE
Seek out the location of Babe Ruth’s first home run, visit the oldest remaining stone structure in the city, locate where Toronto used to connect to the main island, and find a house missing its address marker.
(Photo by Public via Wikimedia)
Get Lost | FREE
The Toronto Islands comprise the largest urban car-free community in North America, but there are still some retro service vehicles kicking around. Combined with the shuttered Island Water Treatment Plant built in 1977, island infrastructure makes this place the perfect location to stage a massive Lost LARP event. (Also it is an island.)
(Photo by Norman Maddeaux via Flickr)
(Main photo by John Vetterli via Flickr)