These eight narrow, tree-lined islands, plus more than a dozen smaller islets, just off the city's downtown in Lake Ontario, provide a gorgeous green retreat with endless outdoor activities. The more than 550 acres of parkland are hard to resist, especially in the summer, when they're usually a few degrees cooler than the city.
Sandy beaches fringe the islands; the best are on the southeast tip of Ward's Island, the southernmost edge of Centre Island, and the west side of Hanlan's Island. In 1999 a portion of Hanlan's Beach was officially declared "clothing-optional" by Toronto's City Council. The declaration regarding Ontario's only legal nude beach passed without protest—perhaps a testament to the city's live-and-let-live attitude. The section frequented by gays and lesbians is at the east end; the straight section is more westerly. There are free changing rooms near each side. Lake Ontario's water is declared unfit for swimming a few days every summer, so call 416/392–7161
or check www.toronto.ca/beach for water-quality reports. In the summer, Centre Island has bike and row boat rentals and Centreville Amusement Park. Bring picnic fixings or something to grill in one of the park's barbecue pits, or grab a quick (and expensive) bite at one of the snack bars. Note that the consumption of alcohol in a public park is illegal in Toronto. There are supervised wading pools, baseball diamonds, volleyball nets, tennis courts, and even a disc-golf course. The winter can be bitterly cold on the islands, but snowshoeing and cross-country skiing with downtown Toronto over your shoulder are appealing activities.
All transportation is self-powered: no private cars are permitted. The boardwalk from Centre Island to Ward's Island is 2½ km (1½ miles) long. Centre Island gets so crowded that no bicycles are allowed on its ferry from the mainland during summer weekends. Consider renting a bike for an hour or so once you get there and working your way across the islands. Bike rentals can be found south of the Centre Island ferry docks on the Avenue of the Islands.
You may want to take one of the equally frequent ferries to Ward's or Hanlan's Island. Both islands have tennis courts and picnic and sunbathing spots. Late May through early September, the ferries run between the docks at the bottom of Bay Street and the Ward's Island dock between 6:35 am and 11:45 am; for Centre and Hanlan's islands, they begin at 8 am. Ward's Island Ferries run roughly at half-hour intervals most of the working day and at quarter-hour intervals during peak times such as summer evenings. On Canada Day (July 1) the lines are slow moving. In winter the ferries run only to Ward's Island on a limited schedule.