The fifth in a summer series of dispatches taking the pulse of Toronto’s beach culture. Last week: Sunnyside. CENTRE ISLAND Accessed: Sunday, June 26, 1:30 pm Supplies: Camera, blanket, jacket, Leaving Earth, by Helen Humphreys Temperature: 19C, overcast Water Quality: Swimming not recommended. Blue Flag-certified since 2007 Soundtrack: Cher, Heart of Stone It’s no party writing a beach column in Toronto. “What beach?” friends ask with a mix of disdain and resignation. “This one. Right here,” I insist, stabbing at the stretch of waterfront on the Google map. Friends shrug, look at me like I’m suggesting we spend the afternoon learning about four-stroke engines while spooling yarn. “Maybe another time,” they say. “We made plans with all our other friends to see Bad Teacher.” I sigh. True, it’s been rainy and cold for months now, and the water temperature is still only degrees up from frigid, but since when is seeing a Cameron Diaz movie more fun than going to the beach? Wouldn’t Cameron be with me on this one? Determined, I press on. After a ride down to the water that’d tear the crotch off even the hardiest cyclist, I find myself shivering alone on a piece of beach that’s half-cigarette butts, half-damp sand. Looking up from my NOW Magazine Toronto Beach Guide, I earnestly scan the beach, hoping to make some new buddies, but the only eye contact I manage is with a pair of seagulls and a despondent man picking up after an even more despondent basset hound. There are no beach bodies in sight. I sigh, but I can’t hear myself over the din of the city around me. I sigh louder. The basset hound looks up, barks. I lie down and think of California. Weary of intrepid potheads and Snuggie-cloaked couples desperately clinging to each other for warmth, I decided to spend the last weekend of June – yes, this is June – at Centre Island Beach. Centre Island has been practicing its beach culture since the 1880s, and was for many decades a high-end, resort-like location. In the 1960s, the city razed the houses, the restaurants and everything else there to make way for a large public park that never materialized. The community was displaced, but the beach has remained a destination for picnickers, barbecuers and all manner of celebrations. Better still, thanks to its south-facing location, the water quality there is frequently excellent. There will be people at this beach, I thought as I headed to the ferry. Families! Rides! A lookout pier! Even a snack bar or two! Centre Island is all leisure and recreation – the perfect balm for months of damp one-woman excursions. And on June 26, it was all that times 100,000 courtesy of the 23rd Toronto International Dragon Boat Race Festival. Upon arrival at the ferry docks, I almost left. The line for tickets was out to Front St., and the Port Authority had, in all its wisdom, wrapped garbage bags over all the credit card terminals. I walked around to the front of the line to see if there was any way to sneak through a gap in the fence. No dice. I Googled “advance ferry ticket purchase” but nothing came up. I contemplated buying a $17 Summer Island Garden Tours ticket, which would get me a tour of 20 Ward’s Island gardens and, more importantly, a ferry ticket that would allow me to bypass the line, but I felt guilty about skipping the tours. While I was trying to figure out what to do, my supportive, patient and kind-hearted friend Mia arrived. I apologized for dragging her out to this festival of line-ups. Finally, we gave in and got in line behind a family pushing a cart stacked with four wheely coolers, a full charcoal barbecue and a case of Coke Zero. Beachy. Hoping to beat the crowds, Mia and I took the ferry to Ward’s Island and biked the 1.68 kilometres to Centre Island Beach, stopping en route to puzzle over the disc golf fields and to let rogue quadracycles wobble by. From Lake Shore Avenue, the Island’s ashphalt backbone and a former carriage route, we turned onto the Avenue of the Islands. Within seconds, we biked right into a wall of fitness. Abs. Pecs. Biceps. Abs. A beachgoer’s paradise. And all unfortunately obscured by microfibre jerseys emblazoned with team names like Stroke It, OMG Ponies, The Shag’n Dragons and The Stamp-Eaters. Yes, the Stamp-Eaters. We watched the races for a while with the thousands of dragon boat fans who’d set up camp for the day, but soon gave up trying to figure out what was going on. While pushing our way to the beach, we stopped in at Bill’s Beach House Bar, where we paid $18 for two Coronas, a Barenaked Ladies soundtrack and a view of some foliage – such a shame that the only licensed patio on the water has an obstructed view of the lake. We downed our beers as quickly as possible and headed to the beach. Centre Island Beach is probably the PG-est of Toronto’s beaches, the sand you seek when you’re thinking procreation, not copulation. Several capital-C cute kids splashed around in the water, supervised by an antisocial group of parents, many of whom looked like they’d just gotten out of a day of meetings. A smattering of kayakers paddled by. Behind us, small dogs patrolled the volleyball courts. We tried to relax but got restless and cold after 15 minutes so decided to walk out to the tip of the pier. From there, the beach looked action-packed, a real postcard-worthy shot. After the beach, Mia and I cut a swath through the Pizza Pizza fog to the flume ride, the crown jewel of Centreville Amusement Park, which was built in 1967 as a replacement for Sunnyside Amusement Park after the latter was demolished to make way for the Gardiner. After the flume, Mia and I rode the Centreville train past the swans and the bumper boats and the lonely horses at Far Enough Farm. By then we were tired so we biked back to the Ward’s Island docks and sat down to wait for the ferry. As we looked out at the city’s skyline, Mia started singing “If I Could Turn Back Time“. Even the PG-est of beaches needs an R-rated, fishnet-leotard-and-black-leather anthem sometimes.