With the skyscrapers, crowds and government-mandated ignorance of red lights, Toronto can be exhausting. The city’s boundaries are non-existent – it doesn’t seem to stop before it merges into other towns to the north, east and west – so unless we have a cottage far north of the city (more on that another time), escaping for the weekend isn’t really an option. But there are several small islands of calm – hidden beauty spots dotted around the city where we can flee the busyness of urban life and rediscover a sense of perspective!
Perhaps the most famous of these tranquil retreats is the Toronto Islands (formerly the Island of Hiawatha), a short ferry ride from the waterfront downtown. A five-mile sandbar that stretches from Woodbine Beach in the east to Billy Bishop Airport in the west, it’s home to just over 600 hardy residents and provides a natural shelter for Toronto Harbour from Lake Ontario. In the depths of winter the ice can be too thick for ferries to cross, but on Easter Monday the sun was shining as we sailed to the eastern tip, Ward’s Island. Behind us, a stunning view of the Toronto skyline; but only a few steps inland, we couldn’t even see the CN Tower. It’s little wonder that the Islands are packed in the summer, and that properties there are strictly governed by provincial law with a 35-year waitlist. For us at the start of spring, as we wandered among the old cabins and strolled along the lake, they provided an amazing oasis of calm.
Back on the mainland, the beaches are a scenic haven from which to gaze out at the water. Frequented by dog walkers, joggers and families, they’re lined by a wooden boardwalk along Lake Ontario’s northern shore. We’ve mentioned the striking sculptures we encountered there previously, which face colourful waterfront properties that could have been airlifted from Weymouth. And the beach is only a few minutes’ walk from thriving Queen Street, which takes on a seaside atmosphere this far from downtown and hosts various quaint coffeeshops and stores.
Away from the lake, the natural landscape of Toronto is defined by rivers and ravines. The imaginatively named Old Mill – a restaurant that dates from 1914 on the site of an eighteenth-century sawmill – offers a charming base for a walk along the Humber River as well as afternoon tea. It’s near to High Park (which appears to be pronounced ‘Hyde Park’), a large open space dominated by two deep ravines and a small zoo. The reindeer and llamas looked a little forlorn when we visited on a blustery January morning, but we’re told the springtime blossom is a wonderful sight, and a summer’s hike along the river seems the perfect antidote to the stresses of urban living. No doubt we’ll return after the warm weather arrives – whenever that is!