The top 10 places in and around Toronto to get away from it all
Toronto might be one of the most livable cities in the world, but sometimes one feels the need to get away from it all, to escape the bustling metropolis for a change of both pace and scenery. Fortunately in a city like ours, there are opportunities for mini-escapes of this type without even crossing the border into the GTA. But if you have the time and means of transportation, a sea of day-trip and getaway options exists within a short drive of Toronto. Whether you have 45 minutes or all day, the following destinations will offer a temporary reprieve from city life and the restorative power of an escape from routine.
Leslie Street Spit (Tommy Thompson Park)
The Leslie Street feels like more and more of an escape the further you go out, particularly if you stick to the eastern side, where the view of the lake and distant Scarborough Bluffs seems somehow unfamiliar and serene all at once. If it's a complete escape you're after, head to the spit bright and early in the morning before the crowds show up. Ride your bike. It's the fastest way to put some distance between you and the skyline.
While there are plenty of ravines and green spaces to enjoy in (relatively) central areas of Toronto, the jaunt to the eastern edge of the city and Rouge Park is well worth it should have more time to explore and less desire to see obvious signs of civilization. While the Rouge River Valley is only about 20km from downtown, the river still follows its original course to its floodplain (unlike say the Don), which gives the area a topographical diversity you tend not to witness closer to the core. The park is also huge, so there's plenty of area to explore should you have the time.
The Palm House at Allan Gardens
Allan Gardens still seems to suffer from a bad reputation born of the years in which the park saw its far share of drug trafficking. That's kind of a shame insofar as the Palm House and other greenhouses are an inner city sanctuary, particularly in the dead of winter when everything outside seems frozen over and lifeless. Yes, there's even palm trees. And, no, you probably won't run into Liam Neeson, which could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your perspective.
Le Neuf Cafe
OK, let's say you're in the midst of a hellish day and all you can think about is that trip to Paris you took five years ago when everything was relaxing and filled with the type of optimism that accompanies life on the Seine in springtime. Assuming you're not willing to hop on a plane and abandon life in Toronto, a visit to Le Neuf Cafe might be enough to get you through the day. From the old building to the cafe's location on Clarence Square to the authentic baguette, this is a little slice of France in Toronto.
Ward's Island Beach (on a weekday)
Despite the obviousness of the selection, the Toronto Islands have to make this list. The key here is to take the ferry ride midweek when the visitor traffic is low. As for your choice of beach, that's at least somewhat subjective, but if it's an escape from the "city" you're after, Ward's is my choice. Not only does it face southwest (and hence away from the city), but it's also one of the quietest on the Islands.
I can think of few more relaxing day-trips than a drive out to wine country. You could do Prince Edward County or Niagara-on-the-Lake, both of which have numerous merits, but the Beamsville Bench is the closest, and it might just have the best wine (though that is a matter of some debate). Should you want to register that you've escaped the city, head to deck at Fielding Estate with a glass of wine and gaze out at the Toronto skyline across the lake 50 kilometres away.
Located just over an hour to the northwest of Toronto, the Elora Gorge is a rugged little paradise that's easily accessible to the curious explorer. While there's various camping options in the area, you needn't spend the night to get the most out of the Grand River. Descend down the gorge wall and swim in the shallow waters or, for those with a bit greater sense of adventure, you can snag an inner tube and float down the river. Just make sure you start upstream.
You can do the whole circuit spa thing in the city at any number of fine establishments, but the game changes when you're outdoors surrounded by the smell of trees and burning wood. The first time I went to Scandinave I was dubious at the prospect of enjoyment, but after an hour of cold and hot baths I was about as chilled out as I get. Blue Mountain is a rather family-focused place, but the spa is where the adults go to get away from it all.
Prince Edward County - Drake Devonshire Inn
The once-quiet roads of Prince Edward Country are slowly attracting more visitors as the area becomes a fully fledged wine region, but you really know you've made it when the Drake Hotel chooses to plop down in your yard. While the opening date is still under wraps, it appears that the Drake Devonshire Inn will make its debut in the next couple of months, and with it a whole new era of cool will descend on PEC. And when the Starbucks eventually arrives, well, you know how that plays out.
Shanti Retreat on Wolfe Island
You'll want to make a trip to Kingston's Wolfe Island a weekend getaway based on its distance from Toronto (just under three hours of driving), but for Yoga enthusiasts looking for the ultimate Ontario escape, Shanti Retreat is the ticket. Less dogmatic than some other yoga-based trips out there, this is a place where rest and relaxation are as much a part of the concept as perfecting your downward facing dog. If yoga isn't your thing, Wolfe Island is also known for its good cycling roads, and Kingston is surprisingly charming so long as you stick to the old part of town (mostly east of University).
Try a conservation centre
There are numerous conservation areas spread across the GTA, many of which offer a cheap way to escape the city for a day. Some of my favourites include Kelso (mountain biking), Rattlesnake Point (fall colours), Kortright (maple syrup), Boyd (picnicking).
Got a favourite day-trip from Toronto? Let us know in the comments.