I read that the best view of downtown Toronto can be seen from the Toronto Islands, and I took that to heart. With just a little bit of obsession with finding the best photo ops, I began to research my options for exploring Toronto Islands. They sit right offshore creating a rather protected harbor for the city of Toronto.
I knew I could just take the Toronto Islands Ferry, but I wasn’t sure where to go…or how long it would take to find the best spots. I’d be on foot because no cars are allowed on the islands. In fact, I learned that the Islands are the largest car-free community in North America! So when I discovered there was a bicycle tour available, I knew that was going to be the best way.
A Toronto Islands Bicycle Tour?
I had to ask myself, “When was the last time I had ridden a bicycle?” Well, to be fair, I had rented a bicycle in San Diego a few times, and while I don’t win any races, I can still keep up. Besides, islands are relatively flat, right? And one more thing…the more I learned about the Toronto Islands, the more I wanted to see the parks, beaches, gardens, and cottages that make the Islands so unique.
More than just riding a bike
Terence and Tara were our guides for the Twilight Islands Tour we reserved with Toronto Bicycle Tours. While there was a morning tour offered, too, I liked the idea of seeing the sun set from the Toronto Islands. And while I was excited about photo opportunities, this bicycle tour was much more than just situating myself for taking photos. Our guides were very knowledgeable about Toronto and its islands. We stopped often to allow Terence or Tara to share information about each place, and to allow us to ask questions or take photos. I’m going to share with you just what it was like for us to take a bicycle tour of the Toronto Islands!
From the beginning
We met at 275 Dundas Street West in downtown Toronto. That was my first surprise! I knew we’d be using the ferry to reach the islands, so I was confused as to why we weren’t meeting at the ferry. Duh! We had to pick up our bicycles from their storage site.
After signing waivers and receiving a bicycle matched to us by our height (plus a helmet), we took a little test. Wait…what?! A test? Don’t get too worried about this. It’s just a quick ride through a parking garage to show you know how to ride a bike and give proper hand signals for turning or stopping. Oh! And to make sure you know how to use the brakes, too. It wouldn’t be safe for you to be riding a bicycle through the city and on the islands if you couldn’t perform these basics.
And then we proceeded to follow Tara 2.4 kilometers through the city to the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal on the waterfront. It was mostly downhill and we were always instructed when it was safe to cross city streets. Terence even stood in the middle of a street at one point to stop traffic for us at a tricky intersection.
Riding the Ferry to the Toronto Islands
The ferry ride to the islands only takes about 13 minutes — in my opinion, it was too short, as I was really enjoying the views from the water and the sensation of riding on the lake. But we did come here to do some bicycling, right?
Once we were on the Island (Toronto Islands are actually a collection of 15 islands that are all connected by bridges, but they are often referred to as the Island), riding our bicycles was very simple. First of all, at this time of the day, there weren’t many people on the island. And as I suspected, it was very flat.
The path we took was paved and it was easy to follow our guides while also enjoying the scenery as we went. There were several places where we stopped and learned more about the Island. I’ll touch on a few of them, but I don’t want to ruin all the surprises if you’re going to take the tour!
GibraltAr Point Lighthouse
The Gibralter Point Lighthouse is the oldest lighthouse on the Great Lakes and was built in 1808. It used to stand about 25 feet from the shore, but because of the build-up of sand, it is now about 300 feet from the shore. It is no longer used as a working lighthouse, but there are occasional tours, and it’s a great place to enjoy a picnic. However, you should know it is also at the center of an unsolved murder and folks say it is haunted by its first lightkeeper, John Paul Radelmueller.
Beach on the south of the Island
Of course, there would be great views from all sides of the Island! Terence took us to a beach with an old mostly washed away pier and shared information about Lake Ontario and cities along its shore. We all guessed which direction Niagara Falls was from where we stood, but I was wrong. Once properly oriented, I was in awe of all that is close to the Toronto Islands!
Centre Island is one of the Toronto Islands…and maybe the most popular. It’s where you’ll find the Centre Island Pier, the Avenue of the Island with its gardens, the William Meany Maze, the Franklin Children’s Garden, the Centreville Amusement Park and Far Enough Farm.
We continued on a path that paralleled the beaches – so pretty! – and learned about how the Island originally was a peninsula connected to the mainland, wrapping itself around Toronto like a protective arm. Eventually a powerful hurricane punched through and created an opening that now allows two access points to the Toronto harbor. It was this event that created the Island.
We also spotted a small waterfront stadium, the Allan A Lamport Regatta Course, and a beautiful white bridge — an extension of the Avenue of the Island.
I haven’t mentioned the people who live on Toronto Islands, mainly because it’s kind of a long story. But, to make a long story short, there used to be a lot of people living on the Island…and lots of homes, too. At some point, someone in city government decided it would be better not to have island residents. People were evicted and homes destroyed to make room for a more park-like space. Eventually the number of residents was reduced from about 8000 to 800. But the remaining residents on Algonquin Island put their foot down and fought the evictions. After about 20 years of court battles, they won the right to stay there. (Forgive me if I’ve oversimplified this!).
It was cool to ride through the streets of Algonquin Island and see the cottages and homes there. I would imagine it would be a very quaint community to live in, where everyone knows everyone else. I’ve heard you have to be on a waiting list for decades to buy a home on Algonquin Island because it is in such high demand.
Ending the Tour
It was finally time to make our way back to the ferry dock and get some of those beautiful night shots of the Toronto city skyline. We enjoyed a snack of granola bars, took photos of each other, and the city, then boarded the ferry for the return trip to downtown Toronto.
Once we’d disembarked, we all donned reflective vests and followed Tara back to the bicycle storage site on Dundas Street. Even in the dark, we never felt unsafe, as Tara and Terence were such good guides, always mindful of our safety and comfort.
I failed to mention earlier that my husband and I took this bicycle tour after participating in a 9-mile city walking tour on the same day! I wasn’t sure how I would hold up to another 7-8 miles of bicycling. But in reality, it was very relaxing. So I want to assure you that you can spend a good part of your day exploring Toronto and still fit in a bicycle tour as well. In fact, I can’t think of a better way to end our first day in Toronto — it really was rather exhilarating!
What You Should Know
- The Toronto Islands Twilight tour includes use of a bicycle, helmet, and reflective vest. You will be provided with water and snacks and your round trip ferry fare will be paid for you. Don’t forget that your tour ticket is also providing knowledgeable guides who will teach you a lot about Toronto and also safely navigate you through the city and islands. Cost is $80 per person for a three and a half-hour tour.
- Dress comfortably and be sure to bring a camera! If you have belongings you do not wish to take with you on the tour, there’s a secure place to store them at the bicycle storage site. There is no basket on the bicycle.
- Your tour guides are well equipped to deal with things like flat tires or minor mechanical repairs. If you are unable to finish the ride, transportation for you and your bike will be provided back to the starting point.
- Toronto Bike Tours also puts together private customized tours. Tours can be offered in French, Spanish, German, Russian, Mandarin & Cantonese.
- If you have a member of your group who cannot ride a bike, he/she can still join by riding on a tandem bike.
When you visit Toronto, keep in mind how much fun it is to take a bicycle tour and orient yourself to the city and its stories!
Note: My husband and I were invited by Toronto Bicycle Tours to take a bicycle tour and share our experience with you. This post reflects our honest opinions and real experiences.
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