Toronto Beaches: Hanlan's Point Beach
There are three reasons to go to Hanlan's Point Beach: the sand, the view, and the flesh.
The last reason - nudity - is optional. You don't have to take your clothes off to have a good time. You can remain covered, stick to the "clothing mandatory" end of the beach, and enjoy the dunes and the cityscape in their own right.
That said, Hanlan's Point Beach is most famous for being one of Canada's only two official nude beaches. (Wreck Beach in Vancouver is the other.) Skinny-dipping is the main attraction.
Sanctioned by the City of Toronto in 1999, Hanlan's Point has always been a place where you can strip down. The Mississauga people first inhabited what are now the Toronto Islands. Historians remarked on their swimming abilities - but not their bathing suits. For the first British immigrants, swimming nude was also the norm. From 1894 to 1930, there were "clothing optional" beaches in Toronto. Near the foot of Dufferin Street and Woodbine Avenue, you could swim nude from 5 pm to 9 am. At Hanlan's Point Beach anyone could be naked, any time.
The beach and other public attractions co-existed for decades. Champion rower Ned Hanlan opened the Hanlan Hotel in the late 1860s, attracting guests, swimmers, and picnickers to the newly-formed islands. An amusement park opened in 1895, followed by Hanlan's Point Stadium in 1897. Minor league baseball club the Toronto Maple Leafs (yes, baseball) played here. On September 5, 1914, Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run. The Leafs, like the amusement park, moved to the mainland in 1927.
Around the time of the Great Depression, bathing suit rules changed all over the world. In Toronto, council shut down nude beaches, but relaxed bathing suit rules at other public beaches. Bathers needed to wear "proper" suits and "prevent indecent exposure", but were no longer required to cover themselves neck-to-knees. Attitudes towards baring flesh - in any amount - shifted like beach sand, one day tilting liberal and the next extremely conservative. In 1930, police charged one Toronto resident with indecent exposure for taking off a shirt, at home, in front of a window. His name was John Pleury, and he was 70-years old.
After the amusement park left, Hanlan's Point Beach languished. The gay community embraced the beach, but few other swimmers made the trip to the island. Those who did often preserved the tradition of the "old-time plunge", though no longer legal. In 1999, pressure from the public convinced Toronto city council to pass a by-law authorizing a "clothing optional" section on Hanlan's Beach. Toronto's nude beach was (re)born.
For the first few years after the new by-law, political will clashed with law enforcement at Hanlan's Point Beach. Sunbathers could stroll around Hanlan's beach fully nude without a problem. The moment they entered the water, however, police issued tickets to swimmers for violating an old Harbour Commissioners rule. At one time, police begged parks officials to remove the bushes and trees that separate dunes from land, exposing the beach to discourage nudism. Parks officials refused, noting that the plant life keeps the islands from being washed into Lake Ontario. After a few rocky years, police moved on and Hanlan's was fully accepted as a clothing-optional destination.
Those controversial sand dunes make Hanlan's Beach. They create a secluded atmosphere, and they also create a fantastic beach. Like at Gibraltar Point, you'll find soft sand and virtually no rocks. To preserve the dunes, and the islands themselves, stay on the designated paths and do not join the ranks of people who take shortcuts through the bushes. Every footstep off the path shortens the beach's life.
The view offshore is at least as noteworthy as the view onshore. Hanlan's Point Beach is the only west-facing beach in Toronto, making it the single best place to watch the sun set over water and skyline. In years when there are fireworks at Sunnyside Beach, Hanlan's provides a place to watch them free from traffic jams. Likewise, it is one of the best places to watch the Canadian International Airshow over the Labour Day weekend.
Number of days closed due to water quality problems since June 1 2011: 2
Sand quality: Perfect sand dunes
Trails: Walking paths connect you to all corners of the Toronto Islands
On-site facilities: Washrooms nearby
To get to the Island: Hanlan's Point Ferry from foot of Bay Street or Water Taxi from foot of York Street
People watching potential (out of 3): 3 (they're naked!)
Aggressiveness of seagulls and geese (out of 3): 1/2 (there are hardly any)
Krystyn Tully is the co-founder of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, a Toronto-based charity working for a Lake Ontario in which you can swim, drink, and fish. Check out her Swim Guide smartphone app for more info about beaches in Toronto and beyond.