Toronto may just have the solution for people who like the dynamic nightlife of a city vacation (shows, concerts and first class restaurants) and those who prefer going to the beach, enjoying water sports and communing with nature. A recent visit to Toronto’s waterfront demonstrated that you can have both.

Toronto’s waterfront has undergone a transformation, and it has become a centre of recreational activity both on the water and along the waterfront boardwalks. Where warehouses once stood, luxury lakeside hotels like the Westin Harbour Castle now welcome guests with views of the sailboats and the island park of Centre Island; with its public beaches, bird sanctuary, and the tony Royal Canadian Yacht Club. Visitors to the waterfront will find restaurants, concert venues, yacht basins, sea kayak and canoe rentals, and HTO Park and Sugar Beach – two new dry waterfront beaches, complete with deck chairs, and umbrellas. You can stroll along the boardwalk in the morning and see a musical in the evening; or go to the beach in the afternoon and take in a Blue Jays ballgame at night.

I saw how the dramatic re-development has made the Toronto lakefront accessible. For visitors to Canada’s largest city, the waterfront adds a whole new dimension to an already impressive list of things to do and see; including professional sports, culture and entertainment.

First up was a Toronto Bicycle Tour ride that began downtown and continued westward through the Canadian National Exhibition site, and a return rout along the waterfront. We had riders from mid-twenties to sixties and one whose bum hadn’t seen a bicycle seat in 25 years. Company owner Terrence Etta made sure that each rider’s bicycle and helmet was adjusted to provide a comfortable fit, followed by a little practice within the friendly confines of the Village-by-the-Grange indoor parking garage. Then we rode out into the warm sunshine and the streets of West End Toronto as we made our way to the cycle paths. The bicycles are comfortable with traditional upright handlebars, and the different gears simple to operate.

“We move at a leisurely pace with frequent stops so that we can point out historic locations explain the history”, explains Terrence. “We accommodate all levels of riders – from beginners to advanced; including people who haven’t cycled in many years. They quickly learn that there is truth to the expression –‘It’s like riding a bicycle’.”

We pedaled over to Fort York, originally constructed in 1793; and learned about the Battle of York in the War of 1812 between Canada and the United States. Our group then enjoyed a leisurely ride through the Canadian National Exhibition grounds, before heading for the waterfront and our journey back along the Waterfront Bicycle Trail; a dedicated route that stretches 20 km from The Beaches in the East to Etobicoke in the West End. Along the way we learned the history of Little Norway Park, where, Norwegian pilots and troops trained after their country was overrun in 1939; how elevated The Gardiner Expressway was built in the 1950s to pass above the then dirty harbourfront industrial buildings; now replaced with gleaming condominiums, green spaces along the boardwalks and performance spaces, such as the tranquil Toronto Music Garden designed by world-famous cellist Yo Yo Ma and landscape designer Julie Moir Messervey. Performances are at 7pm on Thursday evenings and 4 pm Sunday afternoons. This is the kind of ‘discovery’ that you can make on a bicycle. In a car or sightseeing vehicle – you’d be past in the blink of an eye.

While our tour had a waterfront theme, Toronto Bicycle Tour owner Terrence Etta said that the most popular tours are those that follow a Downtown route and include many historical landmarks. Our group was total strangers at the beginning of our ride, but we finished three hours later with knowing each other much better. I’d recommend this activity for a business group team building exercise.

We ended our tour at Harbourfront, the 10 acre area south of Queen’s Quay that was first developed for recreational and cultural activities. And used it is – with 4,000 events annually. The West Jet stage has covered seating for 1,500 – imagine taking in a concert just a few feet from Lake Ontario on a warm summer afternoon or evening. The giant pond provides a safe boating area for children in the summer and a skating rink in the winter. This is action-central for much of the summertime events and water sports. The development of parks, hotels and condominiums has continued to the west and east of Harbourfront.

Sea kayaking on Lake Ontario. This turned out to be a lot of fun and at the same time informative. Our group of journalist/adventurers was outfitted with life vests, kayaks, and our footrests set before being gently pushed off the landing dock at Harbourfront Canoe and Kayak Centre. Our guide James Seabrooke led us out into the harbour. It was quite an experience – with turbo-prop aircraft overhead coming in to land at Billy Bishop Airport (better known as The Island Airport), ferries crossing to Centre Island and a variety of sailboats and yachts. There was room for everyone; and it seems that traffic on the lake is more civilized than on land, giving way to our trio of kayaks. Our boats also proved to be more seaworthy that we had initially expected as we bobbed around after launching.

Once we got to Centre Island, James led us through a series of tranquil waterways, past the yachts of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club and into waters less travelled. The silence interrupted only by our paddles and birdcalls. We saw Egrets, ducks, Canada Geese, and a few swans. After exploring the island, James led us back across the harbour. The company has added paddleboards to their roster, and they are hugely popular – outstripping the canoe and kayak rentals. A great adventure to do with teenagers or as a couple.

Ahoy! The 165 foot, three-masted Kajama offers a two hour sail out onto Lake Ontario and it is clearly popular with Toronto residents and visitors. Soon after casting off – the crew and volunteers raise the sails and the engines are turned off – leaving us to the sounds of the rigging and the wind in the sails. The crew is made up of college kids – and their enthusiasm for their summer employment is infectious. This is by far the best waterfront view that you’ll have of the Toronto skyline, including the CN Tower, the domed Rogers Centre and home of the Blue Jays, and Canada’s tallest skyscrapers. The ship is equipped with state-of-the-art kitchens and offers a variety of burgers, wings, hot dogs, salads and other pub grub. Beer, wine and spirits are also sold. The cruises depart several times daily during July and August, and evening cruises are also scheduled.

A little further west of the Westin Harbour Castle, you’ll find a working Redpath Sugar plant. Redpath is one side of the ship lock, and the brand new Sugar Beach is on the other. With pink umbrellas, it is already proving to be popular with local condo residents and hotel guests. When we visited, an all-female acoustic music festival was taking place – and the plan is to continue again in June of 2013. One stage was set up on a riverboat moored alongside Sugar Beach, with performers hosting singer/songwriter workshop during the day and individual evening performances. That night we attended an outstanding water and laser show sponsored by Redpath. The 3D artistry of the lasers and lights playing and reflecting on the waterfalls were spectacular. If you want to spend a couple of quiet hours in the sunshine – head for Sugar Beach.

So there’s a sampling of the waterfront activities available in Toronto. You can combine the outdoors with cultural and sports activities for a memorable Toronto Summer Holiday. Visit the Picasso exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario in the morning and HTO Harbourfront Beach in the afternoon – and then maybe a Blue Jays baseball game in the evening. How about a morning paddle over to Centre Island and then take in a Mirvish Productions show in the evening? Warhorse has been extended until early November and Backbeat: The Story of The Beatles runs from July 21 to September 2. And while you’re building up an appetite with all this exercise – you can enjoy fine dining or casual pub fare throughout the city.

Travel Planner:

I travelled to Billy Bishop Airport on Centre Island with Porter. It was my first time and I enjoyed the leather seats, courteous and attentive in-flight complimentary beverages and snacks. Perhaps best of all –a short walk through the small airport to the 3 minute ferry ride to the shore. On the return trip, my taxi ride from the Westin Harbour Castle was less than 10 minutes on a Monday morning.

Westin Harbour Castle:
Toronto Bicycle Tour:
Harbourfront Canoe and Kayak Centre
Kajama Schooner:
Mirvish Productions
Art Gallery of Ontario:
Royal Ontario Museum: