Knocking on the front door of the downtown city core is Toronto’s secret garden – a small cluster of islands, just over a kilometer across the harbour.
Bring your visitors…
Bring your kids, your bikes, your dog, a picnic, your bathing suit or just yourself.
No Bike? – hire one at the pier on Centre Island
No picnic? – a couple of places you can buy decent nosh on the islands: see below
No swimming togs? – go visit the “clothing optional” beach on Hanlan Island!!
Whatever your “preference” this is a cliched “something for everybody” affair and large enough to swallow boatloads of visitors and residents that arrive by way of three ferry entry points – Hanlans Point (far West of Island near Airport); Centre Island (all aboard for Centreville and central beaches); and my favourites Ward and Algonquin Islands (the two easternmost communities)
Brief island genealogy:
To the east
Ward’s Island, actually the east section of the old peninsula, was named after the Ward family who first settled here about 1830. David Ward, a local fisherman, raised seven children. His son, William, built the iconic Ward’s Hotel in 1882, just south of the ferry docks at Channel Avenue. Sadly this was demolished in 1966.
By the 1880s the Ward’s Island community began as a settlement of tents which by 1913, had increased to the point where the city organized the community into street; tents gave way to small cottages which eventually evolved into a cottage community.
To the the west:
Amongst the first year-round inhabitants, were the Hanlan family who settled at Gibraltar Point in 1862. This area became a summer cottage community with John Hanlan building another hotel at what is still called Hanlan’s point on the north west tip of the island. Ned Hanlan, (John’s son) earned international repute as a world class rowing champion.
Cue Centre Island which became THE place to have your Grand Country Mansion following the relocation of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club to the north shore.
Now that this is one if the only structures visible on the Islands from Toronto Lakeshore, it’s impossible to imagine that during the late 19 century the north shore of the Islands (Both on Centre and Hanlan’s) resembled Blackpool in its heyday with these grand mansions, an amusement park and a Ball Park made famous by Babe Ruth.
Centre Island is now home to “Centreparc”and “Far Enough Farm” and is the relatively “crowded” part of the Island archipelago. Also home to a guided tram tour; formal Gardens and Waterfalls; bike, tandem and buggy hire and beaches plus a small pier. All sorts of sporting events take place off this Island plus you can hire canoes and kayaks here.
In 1915 the “rot” started when a small hanger was built at the beach by the Curtiss Flying School. This float plane aerodrome was used for flight training for World War I. In 1937 the stadium and amusement park made way for a new larger airport which also led to the displacement of the Hanlan’s Point Cottage Community, many of whom physically barged their homes round to the newly reclaimed Algonquin Island adjacent to Ward’s.
During the 1950’s the Island residential community extended from Ward’s Island to Hanlan’s Point, and was made up of some 630 cottages and homes, many of which extended along the then unprotected boardwalk (the sea wall was added later). Now only a whisper of evidence of habitation along this walkway exists (apart from a couple of existing buildings: The Rectory Hotel and the Sunrise Senior’s Home). Now you have to look really hard amongst the lush, wild vegetation for a few ragged openings and the skeletons of bygone concrete paths. At the time though this thriving community had a movie theatre, a bowling alley, stores, hotels, and dance halls which were razed to the ground around 1955 by Metropolitan Toronto Council to make way for Parkland. Since that time right up to 1993, the Islander’s have fought many battles for the survival of their communities. Now Islanders own 99 year land leases from a Land Trust. For anyone wanting to live the idyll (beware the winter season though!), be warned: these houses are not for sale on the open market and only available through the Trust. If you are interested, you will sign up to be placed at the bottom of a long line up (literally a list) of potential purchasers. When a property comes up for sale it will be offered to around 100 folk on the list with the person at the top taking priority. Islanders may only bequeath their properties to a spouse or offspring.
The Ferry Ride itself
Whether its the Hanlan’s Point, Ward Island or Centre Isle Ferry – here is a chance to view the magnificent skyline for a mere $7.00 return. The best value Ferry ride is a late ferry back from Ward’s Island as this car ferry often sails west along the shore to pick up folk from the far west of the Islands at Hanlan’s Point, so you get a 30 minute scenic ride.
The Boardwalk end of the Beach on Ward’s Island – in essence this end of a long sandy beach is like a little sheltered cove snugged up to the boardwalk with tree and rock fringed sand and an almost constant northerly breeze.
The Island Cafe – Open till 8pm in the summer months but closed during the winter; this is a family run entity opening off the Community Centre (think Bowling alley. tennis court and cute Community Hall. Serves amazing lemonade, delectable home-made deserts, and great espresso. Add to that a varied bistro-styled dining menu including house-smoked fish and an excellent selection of ice cream served either in the tiny bar area, on the patio, alfresco under a raised pergola affair or in the shady nook of the covered porch. This is the closest I’ve gotten to Cornish paint-washed casual barefoot beach- chic. Just gorgeous and worth the Ferry ride just to sit out here of an evening.
The Rectory Cafe
The shady loveliness of this “open all year round” Restaurant/Cafe (check website for details – http://www.therectorycafe.com is what attracts visitors to Ward and Algonquin Island. Accessible both from the road leading west from the Ward Island Ferry terminal and from the boardwalk, this has to be one of the nicest patios in Toronto
The Island Marina Cafe
A bit off the tourist route – as it is part of the workaday Island Marina just to the west of the Centre Island Ferry Point. With great views of the Lakeshore, a private tender will ferry you to and from York Quay. Beer, coffees and snacks available here for those who want to get away from Centre Island Madness.
Far Enough Farm
Love visiting the horses and animals here – you can toddle through here on the 2 km walk to Ward Island (if you feel so inclined). Unfortunately you have to run the gamut of CentreParc – and all the excited kids – to visit this but get there first thing in the morning and even that is bearable. In fairness some of the Centreparc rides are country cute and swaddled in trees and gardens so not your average amusement park
Walking around Algonquin and Ward Island’s cottage communities; exploring the tiny lane way maze that winds in and around these cottages. If you like cottage gardens, tangled foliage, quirky garden ornaments and house decor layered with spectacular glimpses of the Toronto skyline, then this is for you.