Formerly a concrete wasteland, the Queens Quay strip finally bustles with life
Your first sign that things might finally have changed for the funner at Toronto’s formerly dullsville waterfront: At the Spadina slip, you hear strains of Bob Marley wafting out of the sound system in a water taxi done up in bamboo, thatch and phony flowers, as if a tropical-themed bar has sprouted pontoons and decided to take a dip in the lake.
A fleet of five so-called “Tiki Taxis” plies Toronto Harbour, taking residents and visitors over to the Toronto Islands so they can skip the queues for the official city ferries – which can be long, especially on summer weekends. (The water taxis are especially convenient for people who have just landed at Billy Bishop; they depart from the bottom of Lower Spadina Avenue, a five or 10-minute walk away.)
Tiki Taxi co-owner Luc Côté says water taxis are a simple proposition: “They hand over their $10 [versus $7.25 for a public ferry], they get on, they go.” A Tiki Taxi can take you to any of the popular spots – from family-friendly Centre Island to nudity-allowed Hanlan’s Point beach – and the ride takes 15 minutes, tops. (Scroll down for more info on the Toronto Islands.)
Until last year, the company operated under a different name. The tiki taxis were a pilot project in the summer of 2015. Would people choose the tiki taxis over regular ones? You bet. Given the choice of boats, Côté’s partner Tina Lazzarone says passengers preferred to wait for a tiki taxi rather than take one of the ordinary, plain boats. “So we thought, ‘Why not just switch everything over?’ ”
Côté, who captains his boat in a red Hawaiian shirt, explains: “It was to differentiate ourselves from everybody else, and to make something fun.”
And fun it is. A voyage by tiki taxi is as chilled out as you might imagine: some tunes, the skyline, possibly some chit-chat with the fellow passengers. Out on the water, people gawk at the tiki taxi, because why wouldn’t you?
Luc CÃ´tÃ© in his signature Tiki Taxi
Côté says most of his customers are in a terrific mood, too, because it’s their day off. Côté was formerly a tool and die maker but got into the water taxi business because he liked tinkering with boats. Now he runs Tiki Taxi with Lazzarone full-time. Well, half-time: The business is successful enough that they’re able to spend the winter in Mexico. Meanwhile, the summer is nearly as relaxing. “I mean, there are probably better jobs, but not that many,” Côté says, and to prove his point, he gestures at the harbour and skyscrapers. “This is the office, eh?”
But since the view isn’t exactly a novelty anymore, conversing with Torontonians and visitors is the main appeal for Côté. “It starts to be about the people.”
What else is kind of fun at Toronto’s waterfront?
Tiki Taxi is just one gem among the improving area that is Toronto’s Queens Quay. Traditionally it’s been a launching pad to the islands, crudely fashioned out of dull hotels and condominium buildings interspersed with sad-looking businesses offering generic services and mediocre dining. And what a wasted opportunity: As the Toronto Star noted, Toronto’s waterfront covers as large a span as everything in Manhattan south of Houston Street.
So the city decided at last to change things around; to invest in bike lanes and trees and a snazzy boardwalk that sports ripples and waves. To achieve this, the street had to be torn up for three summers. Starting in 2013, it was three years of pits, pylons and temporary fencing. Now, in the sticky heat of 2016, Queens Quay has emerged from its concrete chrysalis as something new and just plain better. There are people now; lots of them, on foot and on bikes and spilling out of streetcars and hopping into boats.
The new and improved thoroughfare at Queens Quay.
Many of the sad old things remain, but the momentum is in favour of attractions and amenities that are actually fun and enjoyable. Here are some of Billy’s picks for things to see and do along Queens Quay.
You head to this federally funded, multipurpose building thingy, the Toronto waterfront’s focal cultural hub, for three things: (1) To watch artisans work on glass and ceramics; (2) to purchase the results of their work and other Canadian décor and design items in the small but neato gift shop; (3) to get something to eat at the food stalls that set up during summer weekends. Also: Poke around the boat rental kiosks if you’re considering taking to the water, or check out the skating rink in winter.
235 Queens Quay W., 416-973-4949
The Harbourfront Centre
The Power Plant
Easily the biggest, most important city in North America that lacks a major museum dedicated entirely to contemporary art, Toronto at least has The Power Plant, directly next to Harbourfront Centre. It’s small, but the curation deftly uses the most of what space is available.
231 Queens Quay W., 416-973-4949
Grab a seat on the astroturf patio and people watch over Italian coffee and desserts.
225 Queens Quay W., 416-366-0202
Indian Roti House
You can indulge Toronto’s abiding but little-known love of rotis here, and do it very well. As the name implies, the filled wraps at Indian Roti House belong to the Subcontinental as opposed to the Caribbean tradition. A bevy of meaty and veggie options run the options into the dozens. Whatever you choose, the house style gives you fragrant spice and moderate heat. Roti first-timers beware: The portions are as weighty as the spicy curry filling is addictive. And the service isn’t lightning fast.
256 Queens Quay W., 416-260-6666
While not necessarily the best brewpub in Toronto, it’s a brewpub on the waterfront. So, you know, have a beer if that’s your thing.
245 Queens Quay W., 416-504-1020
Located inside the Queens Quay Terminal building, Pearl features a huge dining room with family-sized tables and a beautiful view of the harbour. Tasty dim sum is what brings the loyalists back to Pearl again and again (beware: It can be crowded on a Sunday morning). When using the paper form to place your order, be sure to use the little golf pencil to tick off at least one order each of shrimp cheung foon and the “pan-fried hockey pucks” (with shrimp and vegetables).
Second floor, 207 Queens Quay W., 416-203-1233
Toronto’s islands are close to shore but can feel like a different world. Somewhat confusingly, the ferries head to three places that are all technically located on Centre Island but it calls them by different names. Here are your options:
• Hanlan’s Point is a relatively quiet and bucolic area dotted with beaches, including the secluded, clothing-optional Hanlan’s Point. Ample signage prevents accidental spottings of naked people.
• Centre Island (by which people mean the middle part of Centre Island, around where the Centre Island ferry lands). This is where most people head. You arrive at a bustling park where you can rent bicycles, feel your way through a hedge maze, or take young kids on the gentle rides at the Centreville Amusement Park (www.centreisland.ca). There’s also fast food, a café and a pub, but many families prefer to picnic, and you’ll see the real pros doing it with impressive, elaborate outdoor cooking setups.
• Ward’s Island is mainly of interest to those who inhabit the island’s quaint little Hobbit-like cottage homes, but the area also includes the lovely Rectory Café and the islands’ quietest beach.