In the last eight weeks or so, I've been fortunate enough to be able to explore four of the world's iconic cities with four of the loveliest women: Cambridge with my cousin, London with my best friend, Paris with my aunt, and this past Saturday I went into Toronto with my sister. Compared with places like New York and London, Toronto has always seemed rather small to me. I've been in and around the city a fair bit in the time I've lived here but I've always felt that I was missing something. Toronto was nice, yes, but not fabulous - and surely a country's main cultural hub should be fabulous in some way or another? And so my attitude to Toronto has always been, quite simply, meh.
This past weekend, however, I had an attitude adjustment. Saturday morning came around and my younger sister Ru and I had an age-old conversation beginning with the words "What shall we do today?", a conversation that usually ends hours later at dinner time with the realisation that we've spent so long deferring a decision that the opportunity has gone. This time, remarkably, the conversation was a snappy one, leaving us plenty of time to actually do something. Ru mentioned that she'd always fancied having a look at the Toronto Islands. The city sits on the edge of Lake Ontario and there's a small cluster of land just off the shore, overlooked by the skyscrapers of downtown. I'd seen the islands from the top of the CN Tower (and was never intrigued by them) but Ru said that she'd heard they had a little amusement park bit in summer, and it might be interesting, and hey, what else are we going to do today anyway? So without further ado we hopped into the car and off we went, windows down and Sam Smith blaring from the speakers.
The first amendment to my attitude came on the way into the city. We were a little overconfident with our sense of direction and promptly overshot our exit from the highway, meaning that we took the long way round going into Toronto and found ourselves driving through a part of the city I'd never seen. There were little restaurants and delicatessens and lots of leafy avenues with houses that I can only describe as Toronto-ish (google 'Toronto Houses' and you'll know what I mean). It was all rather lovely, and then when we parked on the corner of Queen and Simcoe I found myself happily in what I assume is the bohemian artsy part of the city. There was a certain vibe there, and I liked it.
45 minutes and a crowded walk to the lake shore later, Ru and I got on the ferry amongst a jostling gaggle of students, couples and young families carrying picnic baskets and even disposable BBQ trays. The holiday atmosphere intensified once we reached Ward's Island; this was obviously where city-dwellers come as a retreat, and why not? There are beaches, rivers, bridges, parks, bikes, quadricycles, row boats, dragon boats, canoes, fairground rides, food shacks - we even passed an outdoors wedding ceremony! We rented bikes and wound our way around the whole landmass. I kept thinking of those old illustrations you see from the 1890's, depicting ladies with wide-brimmed hats and parasols and gentlemen in straw hats and striped blazers as they row under bridges or picnic or ride the merry-go-round. I can just imagine the late 19th century Torontonians doing all of these things on the Islands: city bankers taking their young fiancés away from the brick and the heat of the city to have a day out by the water. I think that the Islands are to Toronto what Brighton is to London, or what Central Park is to New York.
I didn't just like this slice of Toronto, I loved it. It was amazing to be cycling down a forested path and to suddenly see the downtown Toronto skyline through a gap in the trees. You had that distinctly urban feeling that you were a part of something, yet you were so obviously removed from concrete and car fumes. The Toronto Islands are, in a word, fabulous.