TO Places – The Beaches

Part of a series on my favourite places to go for a walk in Toronto

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Any time of the year is a good time for the beach

If you live in Toronto, just saying “the Beaches” probably brings up several images – the shops, restaurants and bars, ice cream, the parks, the sand, the boardwalk, and probably more besides. Whether you are a lifelong resident or a weekend visitor, strolling the boardwalk and staring at the waves is magical.

Location: There’s the “beach” part of the Beaches and then there’s the neighbourhood. The sandy lakefront starts at Woodbine Beach and continues along the lake to Balmy Beach Park. The neighbourhood stretches along Queen eastward from around Woodbine Avenue to the end of Queen Street near Victoria Park Avenue, and then south to the lake and north to Kingston Road.

Public Transit: Take the Queen 501 Streetcar east from Queen Station on Line 1 and get off at Coxwell Avenue for Woodbine Park, or a bit further east past Woodbine Ave for the shops.

Why I like it:

For me the Beaches bring up several other images. One is of Canada Day in 1999 – we had just arrived back in Toronto that day, having returned from London, so we thought we’d go for a walk to get reacquainted with the City. The Beaches seemed like the perfect spot to do that. There was a big celebration and party going on in Kew Gardens, and we nearly cried thinking about what we had left behind in London and what was welcoming us back to Toronto.

And then when we were expecting our son and my wife was well along in her pregnancy, in fact a day or 2 past her due date, we decided to go for a walk along the boardwalk. We’d heard that exercise was a good way to get things going, along with eating spicy food, so on our stroll we also grabbed a slice of hot pepperoni pizza.

With no signs of impending labour, we wandered the neighbourhood and came across a home for sale with an open house in progress. We popped in, and must have fit the estate agent’s profile, because she was all over us. We were living in a downtown condo at the time and knew that eventually we’d want a home with a garden and some space for a toddler, and this was a nice family house that backed onto the local school – you could send your child off through the backyard gate into the school grounds – and for a few moments we had serious thoughts of “what if we lived in the Beaches”.

And then we realized that the timing wasn’t great – she was only days from delivery and we didn’t fancy moving with a 1 or 2 month old – so we kept on strolling. Soon enough, within a few days our son was born, and we had more important things to do.

And as he got older, every few months we’d drive out to the Beaches, this time with a stroller, and walk along the boardwalk. Later our strolls took in the parks and playgrounds and ice creams and chasing him along the sand and tossing pebbles into the waves. Once he even won a prize by guessing the # of jelly beans in a jar at a local antique called The Seagull – it was a framed picture of well-known Beaches shops and restaurants. We kept that for years afterwards.

And then there’s the Toronto Waterfront Marathon. I did that in 2017, and the last quarter of the route took in Queen Street right through the heart of the neighbourhood. The eastern end of the route was at Maclean Avenue, where you turned and headed back down Queen, and from that turn there were about 8-9 km to the finish. I was exhausted when I came up Woodbine Ave onto Queen and as I plowed along I kept thinking “where is Maclean, when do I get there”. I was one of the stragglers at the end of the race but there were still lots of locals cheering on us slowpokes as we dragged ourselves through. I still think of that whenever I pass Maclean.

So all of those memories colour how I see the Beaches. I’m sure I’m not the only Torontonian who has a range of memories of the neighbourhood, and I’m sure that as long as we live here we’ll continue to visit to soak up the spirit of the place.

Sights:

The lakefront and the sand are why this area is popular, and the sightseeing starts there.

Woodbine Beach

There’s much more to the area than the actual beaches, of course. The parks are great for picnics and playgrounds. There’s also the pool at Woodbine Park, the outdoor skating rink at Kew Gardens, and many great spots to run around as a kid, an adult, or a dog (there are several off-leash dog run areas along the beach). Plus there are dozens of benches and Adirondack chairs along the boardwalk, perfect for people-watching or just staring at the lake.

The people-watching and window-shopping are also fun along Queen. The area is constantly changing, and old favourites like Seagull Antiques or Lick’s Burgers have sadly closed up, but new places open constantly and there are still some familiar spots like the Sunset Grill and the Beacher Cafe. COVID-19 has put a dent into the retail character of the area, but it will bounce back over time and in the meantime there’s plenty to see and do.

That’s true any time of the year, by the way. The changing seasons are reflected in the parks and the lake. On a hot summer day, the water is blue and enticing, while on a cold January day it can be grey-green and forbidding, but it’s always fascinating. The autumn colours are wonderful, and the spring flowers too. And the many places to pop into along Queen mean that you can always warm up or cool down no matter what the weather.

New Year’s Day at Balmy Beach

Food & Refreshment:

There are dozens of ice cream, coffee, burger, pizza, and other takeaway places in the area, including a Pizza Pizza outlet in Kew Gardens at the Boardwalk. There are also usually food trucks around on weekends. And of course, there are many local bars and restaurants to choose from, offering casual to formal options.

Another great idea is to visit some of the many food shops along Queen and grab the ingredients for a picnic – fresh fruit, bakeries, cheeses, snacks, coffee, tea, soft drinks, and more are all available, and there are many picnic tables scattered around the parks along with shady spots and sunny sand where you can enjoy your feast.

There are public washrooms in the parks, along with public water fountains. These are seasonal, open from about May 1 to about Oct 1 depending on the weather. Outside those months, the many coffee shops on Queen are good places for a pit stop.

Diversions:

  1. The Leslieville neighbourhood lies just to the west of the Beaches, along Queen between about Broadview to about Leslie. It’s only about a 2 km walk or so between the neighbourhoods, and there are lots of shops and sights in between, so breakfasting in Leslieville and lunching in the Beaches makes for a great day out.
  2. If the weather is kind, walking from Queen Station on Line 1 along Queen out to the Beaches will take you about an hour and a half, and then you can take the Streetcar back. You can also do that in reverse, and walk back to Queen Station.
  3. The Martin Goodman Trail follows the lakefront all the way across Toronto. Walking or cycling that trail to and from the Beaches is a great way to get some exercise.
  4. The Glen Stewart Ravine runs north from Queen at about Glen Manor Drive, and takes you along a wonderful trail up to Kingston Road. The autumn colours here are spectacular.
The RC Harris Water Treatment Plant at the east end of Queen

Walk Journal – Dec. 30, 2018

Location: Toronto – Corktown to the Beaches and back

Weather: 1C, grey skies, snow on the ground

Duration: about 2:45 hours, 14.5k

Today my wife and I decided to walk through the Beaches neighbourhood, so to make it longer we drove to Corktown Common and parked there. Then we walked along Eastern Ave to Broadview and then up to Queen and from there walked east through Riverside and Leslieville to the Beaches. After a nice brunch pitstop at the Sunset Grill, we kept going east on Queen to Silver Birch Ave to get down to Balmy Beach. From there, turned back west and walked along the boardwalk and the Waterfront Trail to Ashbridge’s Bay, then back up to Queen to keep going west all the way back to the Lower Don River Trail, and so back to Corktown.

If you know Toronto, you’ll recognize those neighbourhoods. For those out of town, this combined revitalized ex-industrial lands (Corktown Common), gentrified, already-past-hipster-and-on-to-Starbucks blocks (Riverside and Leslieville) and 1-kid-2-dogs ex-hippy Beaches. We’ve been going for walks in the Beaches for years – in fact the day before she went into labour, my wife and I went for a walk there after eating some spicy food in order to get things going.

It’s changed and yet it’s the same – the houses, the vibe, the people. The sound of the day for me was the rattle of sticks and pucks from the outdoor ice rink at Beaches Park, closely followed by the crunch of wet snow underfoot and the churn of small waves on gravelly shores. It was grey but it was lovely, calm, and a reminder of one of the things I love about Toronto, it’s park and trail system.

For a few years in a row when our son was younger, we’d go out to the Beaches and walk the boardwalk on New Year’s Day. This year we went a bit earlier, and now that he’s older he didn’t come with us. But watching the other young parents with kids brought back memories. Walks are often contemplative, and that was today.