There is much to enjoy on the north shore of Lake Ontario, despite its platoon of condominium tower blocks and the concrete brow of the Gardiner Expressway. Footpaths and cycling trails now nudge along a fair slice of the waterfront and the Harbourfront Centre offers a year-round schedule of activities. Even better are the Toronto Islands, whose breezy tranquillity attracts droves of city-dwellers during the city’s humid summers. It only takes fifteen minutes to reach them by municipal ferry (see Toronto’s leading festivals), but the contrast between the city and the islands could hardly be more marked, not least because the islands are almost entirely vehicle-free.
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Originally a sandbar peninsula, the Toronto Islands, which arch around the city’s harbour, were cut adrift from the mainland by a violent storm in 1858. First used as a summer retreat by the Mississauga Nation, the islands went through various incarnations during the twentieth century: they once hosted a baseball stadium, where slugger Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run, saw funfairs featuring horses diving from the pier, and even served as a training base for the Norwegian Air Force during World War II. Today, this archipelago, roughly 6km long and totalling around 3.2 square kilometres, seems worlds away from the bustle of downtown, a perfect spot to relax and unwind – and a place where visitors’ cars are banned; many locals use wheelbarrows or golf buggies to move their tackle, while others walk or cycle.
The city side of the archipelago is broken into a dozen tiny islets dotted with cottages, leisure facilities, verdant gardens and clumps of wild woodland. By comparison, the other side is a tad wilder and more windswept, consisting of one long sliver of land, which is somewhat arbitrarily divided into three “islands”. From the east these are: Ward’s Island, a quiet residential area with parkland and wilderness; Centre Island, the busiest and most developed of the three; and Hanlan’s Point, which leads round to Toronto City Centre Airport. Hanlan’s Point also holds the city’s best sandy beach – though, as Lake Ontario is generally regarded as being too polluted for swimming, most visitors stick to sunbathing.