Who knew that being surrounded by actual, non-Photoshopped naked human beings could help you feel better about yourself?

  • UPDATE June 2017:  The Toronto Islands remain closed to tourism until at least August 2017  due to flooding from massive rains.  Climate change 😦
  • Transit:  The beach can be reached by ferry or, if you’re a boat person, by mooring on the Islands.  The Ferry Terminal is easily reached by transit.  (Driving in downtown Toronto is one of those at-your-own-risk, expensive-parking affairs.)
  • Cost:  Transit and ferry fees are low.  Mooring fees on the Islands range from cheap to expensive.  Parking downtown is usually expensive, and harder and harder to find.
  • Crowds:  Hanlan’s Island is usually fairly quiet, but the beach can be very busy – especially on holiday weekends.
  • Attractions:  Relaxation, getting sun, swimming, photography, getting rid of those tan lines, bird watching, sailing.
  • Accessibility: The Island paths are quite flat, but they can be long.
  • Legal note:  Hanlan’s Point Beach may be the only officially clothing-optional beach in the province of Ontario, but (to the best of my not-a-lawyer understanding) toplessness is legal for all genders across the province (except where it’s banned on private property).  How toplessness is received by strangers, however, is unpredictable.
  • Click here for map.

Until you factor in the words “clothing optional,” Hanlan’s Point Beach is one of the least intimidating places on Earth.  It’s a gorgeous, generous strip of warm beach sand that winds between the western trees and dunes of the Toronto Islands and the inland freshwater sea we call Lake Ontario.  The din of North America’s fourth largest city is a distant echo here.  There are no cars, no parking lots, no obnoxious crowds with too-loud music.

And then it’s time to decide whether you’re going to get naked in public.

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Maybe you won’t.  It’s clothing optional, after all.  But…are the naked people cooler than me?  Weirder than me?  Ehem…bigger than me?  Do they think I’m I a prude?  A voyeur?  Am I just…dull?

Maybe you will.  Maybe it feels natural.  Maybe – well, holy [expletives deleted], maybe it’s like driving off a cliff and trusting the angels will be there to lift you up.

But let’s not start there.

For those not in the know, Toronto is blessed with a string of islands – the aptly named Toronto Islands – that stretch out in a crescent from the east end of downtown to the west in the, shall we say, cool waters of Lake Ontario.  Clustered together and interconnected, the Islands are home to the largest urban car-free community in North America, picturesque parks and marinas, conservation areas, the site of Babe Ruth’s first professional home run, and some A+ beaches along the south and west shores.  There’s also the Island airport, which, though convenient, is inaccessible from the island itself (you have to take a tunnel from the mainland to get there), is not terribly noisy as there are no jets allowed, and is a bit of an eyesore if you get up close to it, so let’s forget about it and move on.

Getting to the Islands is a trip in and of itself.  Lining up at the bottom of Bay Street at the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal on a warm weekend is at once a bit sweaty in that big city way, and exciting in that big city way.

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The ride on the lovely, antique ferries that take you to Ward’s or Centre Islands, meanwhile, is like being transported back to a different age.  The broad white-and-black boats with their wooden decks and benches offer a phenomenal view of the harbour.  Once you’ve landed on Ward’s or Centre Island you can take a lengthy but worthwhile walk (or briefer, but still lovely bike ride) along boardwalks and promenades virtually devoid of motorized vehicles all around the Islands.  The old-fashioned ferry ride followed by the lack of cars subtly, almost unnoticeably cements an ambiance of vacation, of getting away.

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The direct ride to Hanlan’s Island is far more functional.  The boat, the Ongiara, is newer and distinctively less pretty than its fellow ferries.  Though it’s open-topped, and that’s great for those of us with hyperactive cameras, it’s also the one that transports service vehicles to and from the island – so your chances of admiring the view of the downtown skyline or the on-coming islands are weighed off against your chances of standing astride a big truck that smells of heat and diesel.  But, if all you want is to get to Hanlan’s Beach, this is the direct route.  And if you want to take your bike on weekends or holidays, it’s your only choice.

Arriving at Hanlan’s Island, you’ll walk off off at the western docks and into the park.  There’s a large monument to Ned Hanlan right there, with a plaque to let people know about the rower’s historic connection to the Islands.  Past him and to the left, the walk passes by finger docks and a long wall at the edge of the lagoons where visiting boats can moor and hook up to power.  To the right is a humongous field dotted with mature trees of all sorts.  In fact, taking the main road from one end of the Islands to the other is like passing through some massive arboretum:  Magnificent specimen trees abound, trunks broad and branches reaching out wide.

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The crowd on the ferry is usually a Bohemian lot – Hanlan’s is popular among that set – and the first main entrance to the beach, with its braided wood and rows of parked bicycles, fits that aesthetic beautifully.

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The boardwalk to the beach wends through an area the City is leaving to naturalize, long grasses, wildflowers, short trees and shrubs spring impossibly from the sand.

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Dunes occasionally swallow the boardwalk whole.

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Emerging on the beach, to the right is the long, usually deserted clothing-mandatory section of the beach.  Perhaps there’s another reason for the division, but it seems silly.  The clothing-mandatory side, despite being quite lovely, goes virtually unused even when the clothing-optional side is jam packed.  On the other side of an eye-sore fence that cuts most of the way from the beach to the tree line are the naked folks.

Here the trepidatious are given a rather stark and perhaps meta-level choice:  Cross over to where everyone’s congregated and having fun, or definitely keep your clothes on and hang out alone.

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Because even the people who aren’t naked wanna be where the naked people are, it seems.

Many who go to the clothing-optional side often report the same worries:  Everyone will look better than them; only the people they don’t want to see naked will be naked; people will gawk at them.  Those first two worries, of course, are completely incompatible:  One holds that the beach will be a non-stop parade of beautiful people, while the second holds that it will be a non-stop parade of ugly people.

It’s neither of those things.  It’s just a bunch of folks, some of them with bathing suits on, some of them without them.

As for gawking, though it does indeed happen, it seems to less so than at clothing-mandatory beaches.  Funny, that.

What at first seems a little shocking – naked! people! – slowly fades into the background.  Every once in a while the surprise reasserts itself, like the smell of your bed after a long sleep, but most of the time you don’t really notice it.

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And that tired old line about it being the people you don’t want to see naked being the only ones who are?  Seeing regular folks naked turns out to be neither gross nor shocking.  There are short bodies and tall bodies, bodies of different colours and different sizes.  Though they are in the minority, there are often women’s bodies and sometimes trans bodies; and I’m happy that they have strength and support enough to flout all the social prohibitions and pressures that order their bodies to be hidden, and to just enjoy the sun.

Certainly, I can see where mileage will vary – how getting naked in front of strangers would be a step way too far for many – but for some I can see how it this is a body-positive, self-esteem building activity.  By the end of my time on the beach, I’m often less preoccupied with my own pride at not being overwhelmed by all the body shaming messages in the world, and more proud of everyone else’s.

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Since my first visit I’ve discovered that Hanlan’s Point was where the first Pride celebrations were held in Toronto (unless you count the protests from which it was born), to take what was villifed and shamed, and bring it into the light.

And that makes utter and beautiful sense.


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