Toronto Island

May 2, 2001
Filed under Travel

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Take in a game at the SkyDome; laugh uproariously at the musical Mamma Mia! and explore Toronto’s diverse, distinctive neighborhoods. Then make sure that your visit to Canada’s most cosmopolitan of cities is even more unforgettable by settling your rig in the public lot near the southern end of Yonge Street and taking a boat to Toronto Island. You can catch a ferry behind the Westin Harbour Castle, but it’s worth spending the extra money to explore the harbor and hear the history of this scenic wonderland by taking the Inner Harbour & Island Cruise, begun where York Street meets Queen’s Quay West. Any way you get there, you’ll quickly learn to appreciate the fortuitous cataclysm of weather and geography that created this exciting escape.

Were it not for the big storm that ripped through Toronto in 1858, one of the city’s most interesting features would be just another strip of land. The hurricane that rearranged the geographic configuration of Toronto Harbour, turning a peninsula into an island, also changed the way tourists and locals get their kicks. How better to spend a day than to relax on an island beach, bicycle along its edge and take in the spectacular skyline of this sparklingly modern city?

Actually a series of interconnected islands–some named, others not–but known collectively as Toronto Island, this natural attraction annually lures 1.2 million people from the mainland, a mere 10-minute boat ride away. Originally settled by Native Canadians, then called home by European fishermen in the 1830s, and finally established as a posh
retreat for wealthy Torontonians, the island today still houses the exclusive Royal Canadian Yacht Club–but gladly embraces the masses. So all-inclusive is the destination, in fact, that tourists regularly join locals in a friendly game of volleyball. Americans indulge in their national pastime on Canadian soil and children of every race and creed chase one another through the maze or splash each other in the wading pools. To ride the trackless train, explore the bike and pedestrian paths or navigate the waterways in a rented boat is to become a charter member of a recreational United Nations.

Children adore the place. Which is understandable once they take in the open spaces, the picnic area, the ducks and swans and Centreville, the amusement park that features some 30 rides, a petting zoo, pony rides and fanciful “swan” boats in which to circle the lagoon. But there may be more to the youngsters’ enthusiastic appreciation. The fact that Babe Ruth, one of the world’s biggest kids, hit his first professional home run clear out of the island’s Hanlan’s Point Stadium on September 15, 1914, could contribute to the childlike wonder the location inspires. Since the Babe had yet to earn either his colorful nicknames or reputation, no one thought to retrieve the spherical souvenir. But even though the ball from the Sultan of Swat’s first professional clout most likely lies at the bottom of Lake Ontario, a downtown bar proudly displays it, proving that capitalism is alive and well (and that all baseballs look alike). Hanlan’s Point Stadium no
longer graces the island (the City Centre Airport launches planes, not baseballs, from the site today), but the Bambino’s legacy still remains.

And Babe would certainly have been the first in line at the many barbecue pits, visited the snack bars time and again, indulged at the Island Paradise Restaurant and pulled up a chair at the Iroquois Restaurant. And after Babe had touched all of these culinary bases, he might have sat back and laughed at the political tug-of-war between Ontario’s provincial and Toronto’s municipal governments.

You see, Ontario, like a Big Brother who knows what’s right and proper, believes that beachgoers should at all times be adorned in attire made of fabric; cotton, polyester, Neoprene, etc. The city of Toronto, however, is not bothered by the altogether. These disparate views make for some interesting days at the beach. Should one elect to pursue an allover tan, one can legally do so on the island’s clothing-optional beach, since it falls under the jurisdiction of the city of Toronto. But should said sunbather choose to cool off in Lake Ontario–the province of the provincial government–one must first step into a bathing suit, take a dip, return to the sand, reacquaint oneself with the natural state, then go about ray catching in earnest. Politics make strange beachfellows.

And speaking of politics, during America’s prohibition era, enterprising Canadians capitalized on the United States’ ban on alcohol by establishing a casino on the island that served plenty of the hard stuff. Americans would take a ferry from Rochester, New York, satiate their tipsy desires, and then chug for home, skirting the letter of the law but not breaking it.

In the mid-1950s, the island fell under the aegis of the newly formed regional Toronto government, which tried to remove the numerous cottages in order to transform the entire landmass into a giant park. The owners of the cottages, who didn’t share the government’s fondness for parkland, protested–and won. Many of them still live on Algonquin
Island and Ward Island, armed with 99-year leases and a vocal community lobby.

The Gibraltar Point Lighthouse–which may be haunted–was built in 1808, and is the oldest structure still in its original location on the island. Before being replaced by an automated lighthouse in 1958, its beacon had guided ships into Toronto Harbour for 150 years. If you hear voices and see things that aren’t there when you visit, the place is either inhabited by spirits or you’ve drunk too many of them.

And drinking in the view of Toronto’s impressive skyline, despite the many fun-filled activities that the island offers, highlights the trip for plenty of visitors. As seen from the ferry, the skyscrapers slice upward yet are dwarfed by the world’s tallest freestanding structure, the CN Tower. And tower it does.

But to take in much more of the view, as well as to learn interesting facts about what you’re seeing, take the Inner Harbour & Island Cruise, run by Toronto Tours Ltd. Begin the trip at Pier 6, at the southern end of York Street, where the tour guide will start to relate salient details about the Harbourfront Centre, the SkyDome sports and concert facility and the various luxury condominiums that line the harbor, including the one that, when the light hits it correctly, appears to be made of cascading waterfalls.

One of the boats in an island slip is named Cirrhosis of the River. Clever, but also a poignant commentary on the allure of the island and the waters that surround it: Even teetotalers can quickly become intoxicated by the place.

Tourism Toronto; (800) 499-2514; www.torontotourism.com.

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