08/05/2013 10:00 EDT | Updated 10/05/2013 05:12 EDT

Toronto's Centre Island offers an escape mere minutes from the city

TORONTO - On summer mornings the ferry to Centre Island is packed with bicycles and picnic baskets, with crowds of children hanging off the deck as Toronto's skyline recedes behind them.

The trip across a small stretch of Lake Ontario takes less than 15 minutes, but disembarking from the ferry deposits sun-seekers a world away from grinding traffic and endless pavement.

Centre Island, part of a cluster of islands known collectively as Toronto Island, is an attraction-packed mix of parkland and playground that has long served as a beloved getaway for tourists and city dwellers alike.

It's also an island with two faces — on one side it's a haven of gentle revelry, home to old-fashioned tram rides, puppet shows, miniature ponies and near-constant crowds.

On the other, it's an idyllic park, where weeping willows shade lazy lagoons, bike rides lead to a supposedly haunted house, and hidden watch points reveal staggering city views.

Those elements make a visit to this cluster of 14 islands unique, says Joe Padovani, a foreman for the City of Toronto who manages maintenance across the car-free archipelago.

"It's like a little mini vacation," he says. "(Visitors) can go to any other park in the city, but we're an island. It makes us special."

About 1.25 million people visit Toronto Island every year, according to city statistics.

Originally a peninsula, the islands first served as traditional healing grounds for First Nations.

The Island's Gibraltar Point Lighthouse offered ships a beacon into the harbour in the early 19th-Century, and Elizabeth Simcoe, a writer and wife of the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, wrote about its natural charms.

In 1858, the islands were separated from the mainland by a violent storm. They remained a popular leisure spot for the well-to-do, evolving into a thriving residential community, which still exists today on the Ward and Algonquin islands.

Centre Island was also home to stately houses and local businesses, but in the 1950s and 1960s, the community was torn down, and the island was converted to parkland.

Centre Island is now best known for its popular Centreville amusement park for children, which is packed with old-fashioned swan boats, bumper cars, and a log ride. An antidote to large theme parks, especially for toddlers who are not ready for bigger rides, the rides also evoke a vision of what island life might have been like in the past.

Behind the rides, Far Enough Farm hosts miniature ponies, pygmy goats, llamas, and rabbits.

Regional day manager Tracey McInnis says there are around 30 animals on site, including some which she takes out of their enclosures for children to pet.

The island also features a children's garden, a popular beach, marinas, restaurants, fountains, Frisbee golf, a ropes course, and kayak and bike rentals.

But for those hoping to avoid the crowds, a low-maintenance, low-cost approach can often lead to a true taste of relaxation. There are plenty of spots to tuck under a tree or explore quiet beachfront.

"Some people like to go spend money at the rides. I'd rather have a nice solid area, and meditate on life, the green trees and of course the green grass, beautiful flowers," says Padovani.

Pat Jeffries, an artist who works on Toronto Island, says good timing is also key for seeing the sites.

"Avoid the weekends, the ferry line ups are rude," she says, standing near her easel in a shady corner of Centre Island. "And if you have to come on the weekends, come early, or late."

Venturing beyond Centre Island can also reveal hidden gems.

Homes, gardens and relaxed cafes can be found to the east, on Ward and Algonquin Island. To the west, Hanlan's Point offers a taste of gentle wilderness, featuring the lighthouse — according to the city, the oldest landmark in Toronto — an artist's retreat, and even a "clothes-optional" beach.

There are also surprises in plain sight: near the Centre Island ferry docks, a bridge connects to nearby Olympic Island and offers fantastic views of the city.

With so much to do, it can be hard to choose how to spend a single day on the Island. But Jeffries suggests keeping things simple.

"I like swimming, and campfires on the beach," she says. "Eating outside is always nice, a picnic, reading, just hanging out, enjoying yourself."


If you go:

- Ferries to Centre Island run from 9 Queen's Quay W. from 8 a.m. until 11:15 p.m. every day from the end of May until September. They run every half hour and sometimes every 15 minutes on days when the crowds are large. Schedules for ferries to Ward's Island and Hanlan's Point vary slightly.

- Return tickets are $7 for adults, $4.50 for students and seniors, and $3.50 for children. Children under two are free.

- There is no general admission fee for Centreville Amusement Park or Far Enough Farm. Those who wish to go on the rides must buy ride tickets or an All Day Ride Pass.