Considering the visible landscape at the corner of Liverpool Road and Bayley Street in Pickering, a visitor’s inference of the city as just another big box residential area with an anti-Toronto attitude wouldn’t be surprising.

A Home Depot in one corner, a mega-mall in another and a shopping plaza in a third, matched with cars and trucks whizzing by, should equal stereotypical suburbia. But if you cut corners and look outside the box, you’ll find the sparkling pivot of Pickering.

The Greater Toronto Area city was established in 1974 and now boasts a population just shy of 90,000. While bordered by rural communities Whitevale, Brougham and Claremont to the north, Pickering’s appeal lies in its southern scenery.

Heading south on Liverpool Road, glimpses of shimmering Lake Ontario catching the sun’s rays are delightfully unavoidable. Like a light at the end of the tunnel, descending the street is like going from night to day. After the highway hustle follows a quaint collection of homes, many resembling cottages with antiquated white picket fences and country ornaments.

Before reaching the water, sidewalks turn to brick in Frenchman’s Bay Village around the newer homes and shops with beach-like uniform construction, setting an introductory summer tone to the waterfront. The district divides residential from commercial, the latter lining the main Liverpool Road.

A veritable mercantile mashup, this strip of shops features everything from an accountant’s office and insurance broker to the Hy-Tea restaurant and a tattoo parlour.

But beyond the variety sits simplicity when you approach Beachfront Park on Lake Ontario.

One might opt to try their line at fishing in the adjacent Frenchman’s Bay, also home to tens of stationary yachts with membership in the Frenchman’s Bay Yacht Club.

Strolling along the waterfront boardwalk, you’ll find company alongside joggers, dog walkers and parents with children romping on the playground equipment nearby. At the end of the promenade is Peake Trail, one of several in the area.

Peake Trail leads to Alex Robertson Park, a quiet, wooded area beside North America’s once-largest wind turbine at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station.

Art from old hydro poles
Though the out-of-place plant proffers to spoil its picturesque surroundings, it’s quickly forgotten when you approach old neighbouring hydro poles that have been recycled into art. A large owl, baby fetus and array of unknown visages, among other characters, now find refreshing homes in nature, whittled into the wood by sculptor Dorsey James.

Back on the boardwalk, driftwood-hunting friends Helen Harkin, who has lived in Pickering for 11 years, and Helen Rogers, a 30-year Scarborough ex-pat who’s lived here for six, enjoy their routine morning walk. “Living close to the water is really great!” says a smiling Rogers. “We love Pickering. And although we’re a distance from Toronto, it’s so convenient and so easy to get there. (We) just hop on the GO Train right beside us.”

Pickering clocks about 40 minutes, driving time, east of Toronto. The distance may not be too far a jaunt for the Helens, but Rogers notes her younger son wouldn’t live anywhere else but the Big Smoke’s Beaches. Harkin suggests Pickering caters more to an older demographic, nearing or in retirement. Still, the pair touts the Pickering Recreation Complex as a place they both enjoy a swim, but that’s appropriate for all ages.

With both membership and pay-as-you-go options available, the facility provides space for squash, tennis, raquetball and acquatics and has an affiliated wellness spa and exterior skate board park.

Sports summer camps and a youth drama club are sure to peak kid interest, while belly dancing and photography courses might be more mom and dad’s cup of tea (yes, it also hosts afternoon tea).

Keeping cultural

The Pickering Recreation Complex is just one block east of the Pickering Town Centre mall, located downtown. Although Pickering’s commercial core tends to focus more on necessary larger and franchise retailers, culture isn’t totally absent from the area. The Central Library borders the mall and it’s only 10 minutes north, by car, to the area’s feted Pickering Museum Village, an assortment of 15 heritage buildings that have been restored for preservation, that holds educational tours.

Local bus driver Linda advises a Pickering trip is incomplete without sampling a burger from The Big M, a staple since 1965. Inside, one animated employee jovially assures, “You got it baby, you got it!” as orders are placed.

Employee Vicky, a 10-year Pickering resident, says she loves the feeling of community in her city she didn’t sense in surrounding ones. “When we came into Pickering, it was like ‘Come on in!’” she says, arms outstretched.

Best in town

Best Burgers: The Big M at Liverpool Rd & Krosno Boulevard (right). A homemade 7 oz. beef patty with all the fixings costs $3.99, or $7.99 with fries and a pop. Herbivores can enjoy a sturdy veggie burger at $4.39.

Best Fest: Artfest on the Esplanade — May 23, 2009. More than 80 Ontario artists and artisans join together at Esplanade Park each year for this outside sale and show, with live music, dance and drama in the gazebo. Free admission.