It can be overwhelming trying to explore a city as lively and diverse as Toronto. There is so much to see and do (and eat!) that it’s hard to know where to start.
Lucky for me, I’ve always had friends who lived in the city and could point me in the most delightful, delicious or entertaining directions. And lucky for you, I’ve decided to share some of their recommendations in a little series called Favourite Places with photos by my lovely and talented friend, Emma.
My dear friend Irene is what you might call a dynamo.
As well as working a full-time non-profit job, she is an accomplished choreographer, dancer, photographer, traveller and co-founder of Mother Nature Partnership. Her to-do lists make me absolutely dizzy but she pulls it all off with considerable aplomb and a great sense of humour, and makes it all look easy to boot!
After a long day of moving, shaking and world-changing, she is lucky enough to head home to Ward’s Island, one of the loveliest spots in Toronto.
Here’s what she has to say when I asked her about her beautiful island home:
1. Do you remember the first time you visited the Toronto Islands? Was it love at first sight?
I do remember my first ever visit to Toronto Islands – about 16 years ago. (Talking this way is not helping me dispel rumours that I am actually a 90-year old in a 28-year old body). I was in the city on a choir trip in the big smoke of Toronto, a very exciting adventure for a small town girl who was obsessed with big cities. (Obviously I am now living in the big smoke and obsessed with the idea of rural living. So there’s that.) What stood out from that initial visit was the boat ride more than the islands themselves. I was twelve, and I can clearly remember standing with my dear friend Yvonne and getting photographs against the rail of the old ferry.
2. What’s so great about them (besides, you know, everything?)
You said it: everything. I love hearing the sound of the lake when I’m lying in bed, and I love having for the first time the space to garden – I’ve planted beans, lavender, basil, peppers, blueberries and nasturtiums. To walk into the garden, you walk under a trellis overgrown with leaves, and it feels like a storybook. I love that I don’t lock up my bicycle, and that I don’t lock my front door, and that I feel like I am at a cottage whenever I am home. I love that after an unreasonably stressful day I can walk barefoot from my house to the beach and have a late night swim and remember that there is a world outside of my stress and that the night sky is calm.
3. Did you ever think you’d actually get to live there?
I can honestly say I never thought I would actually get to live here on Wards Island – definitely not when I first came here at age twelve and the reality of leaving Stratford, Ontario felt so elusive. (I was fixated on moving to California or Upstate New York mostly – so somehow Wards was not on my radar.) Since then I have worked on the island for three-ish summers, and toyed with the idea of putting my name on the list to get a home. I think I will still do that, and then in thirty years at just the right time a letter will arrive at my door – wherever that may be. Now that I live there it feels so perfect – I can’t imagine a more idyllic place, especially with the benefit of being in the city and not in the city all at once.
4. How do you deal with the commute? Any other challenges?
The commute is actually shorter than when I lived on the mainland. I go by ferry or kayak, so there are options, and it’s only 15 minutes until I’m right downtown. The main thing its taught me is that, if I (literally) miss the boat coming home, instead of fixating my head on a plan of how things should be, I just go and get a glass of wine or sushi and get on the next boat. But definitely it wouldn’t work for all lifestyles. The only challenges? Ummmmm… there are lots of cobwebs in my house? But I feel like there is a solution for that…
5. How does the culture differ from that on the mainland?
One of the greatest aspects of Wards Island is the sense of community – it really has redefined community for me, and helped me to understand it more fully. People know where their neighbours live, and will stop and chat about the leaves turning or garden tips. I never experienced that in the city. People chat with each other, and when you sign up for the island listserv you have to put your address every time so that people know where you live, and people’s posts mention that a group of geese flew over the island in the early evening. It is definitely like being on a different planet than the mainland: once you arrive on the island it is like being in a small hamlet of a few hundred people, where everyone knows everyone. Plus in the island culture you always know what groceries people buy because it is spilling off the back of their eccentric bicycles.
6. What would you recommend a visitor to the islands do or see?
I would recommend that a visitor to Wards Island wander. I would recommend that they bring a bottle of wine and a picnic with baguette, cheese, olives, strawberries and chocolate, and turn off their cell phone and leave their wristwatch at home, and find a nook amongst some trees with a book or a lover or a friend (or all three) and not get too worried if it is rain or shine, because it’ll be beautiful either way.