A trip from Toronto to Ward’s Island Village Special

Posted Feb 9, 2011 by Bart B. Van Bockstaele
Ward's Island, the east-most island of Toronto Island Park, is a joy for the eye in summer, but it is a dream come true in winter, and getting there through the ice on Lake Ontario is half the fun.
The Toronto skyline in winter  seen from Ward s Island
The Toronto skyline in winter, seen from Ward's Island
Tourism is important for Toronto, the heart of Canada's economy and the largest city in the country. With millions of visitors every year, countless brochures and guides and books, one would be tempted to expect that Toronto is part of the been-there-done-that destinations, and this is probably true in some ways. However, Toronto has so many hidden gems, and so many remarkable aspects, that one can safely leave the trodden paths and discover a Toronto that hardly anyone knows.
Most people know the Toronto Islands. Surprisingly though, they tend to only know "Centre Island", even people who have lived in the city for most of their lives. More interesting still, they usually only know what Centre Island looks like during the summer. Far fewer people have seen it in the spring, the fall, or -heaven forbid- the dead of winter.
The same is true for the west-most island, Hanlan's Point, but it is even true for Ward's Island, an island with a small and picturesque village, inhabited all year round. Although it receives 24 ferries a day during the week and 22 on Sundays and holidays, few people go there in winter if they don't live there. I believe that is a mistake.
Last Thursday, I left from Ryerson University. I took the subway down to the ferry docks at the foot of Bay Street and boarded the first available ferry to Ward's Island, armed with my trusted camera. It was a clear and beautifully sunny day, which made me almost forget the chilly -13C temperatures and the nasty windchill.
While there was quite a bit of snow around Ryerson University, the gorgeous sunny weather and the relative protection one has from the wind in that area, were not particularly suggestive of what awaited me at the lake and on the islands.
The small Ongiara ferry boat is able to handle ice, but it is not really an ice breaker. The noise of the boat crashing into the ice can be intimidating and really reminds one of documentaries about the high north where ice breakers have to keep maritime routes accessible. Obviously, the Ongiara is hardly comparable to an impressive ice breaker, but since one is so much closer to the water and the ice, it can be an interesting experience.
Once I got off the boat, I walked along the south street as far east as I could get, passing the picturesque wooden houses. I then walked south until I found the narrow path to the pier along the eastern gap.
To me, Ward's Island is as close to paradise as one can get. This is the place where I'd love to live and die. Unfortunately, the long waiting list makes that an unlikely proposition, unless I can find someone there who is willing to adopt me. Until then, I guess I'll have to make-do with regular visits.
Winter conditions on Ward's Island can be pretty harsh. However, the well-prepared visitor is repaid with what must surely be one of the most romantic places on our planet. The small wooden houses are a joy for the eye during the summer, but in winter, they are covered in pristine white snow. The narrow streets, completely covered in the white stuff, make it even better.
I can wholeheartedly recommend a visit to Ward's Island in the winter. A word to the wise though: there are no stores on the island, and the only restaurant, the Rectory Café, surely one of the most romantic food places in the city, has very limited opening hours, and then not even every day. It is best to go well-prepared, with warm clothes, socks and boots, and don't forget to take along something to eat and drink if you plan to stay for longer than a few hours.
Ward's Island Village looks like a Christmas fairy tale, but there is a lot more to see on the island, and if you like the north, you'll like Ward's Island. And don't forget: so many Torontonians are prepared to travel hours away north of the city, only to find the peace and quiet and the beautiful snow we can find a ten-minute ferry ride away. We Torontonians surely are a privileged lot.