Although I didn’t plan it that way, this summer is definitely turning out to be the summer of exploring my own backyard, and discovering places that I’ve known about for years, but never really appreciated until now: in this case Tobermory and Manitoulin Island.
And although we only got to savour a small taste of the area, including a spectacular piece of the Bruce Trail, our 2-day drive-thru visit to the largest freshwater island in the world – (that’s right, Manitoulin island can humble brag about that fact!) was enough to whet our appetite for more.
1. Getting there is half the fun
We planned our trip as a driving loop starting in Toronto and following the line of the Niagara Escarpment up to Tobermory on the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula. From Tobermory, the only way to continue to Manitoulin Island is to take the Chi-Cheemaun ferry across Georgian Bay, which we knew would make the journey more fun, since there aren’t many places you get to drive onto a boat, enjoy some beautiful scenery, get a suntan and have a cocktail!
We booked the late afternoon ferry, allowing us enough time to stop along the way to take in the coastline and some of the best views of Georgian Bay that you’ll find anywhere: from the Bruce Trail that runs along the Peninsula’s eastern edge.
2. Bruce Peninsula National Park and ‘The Grotto’
Every website I researched and everyone I spoke to told us that a visit to the Grotto near Cypress Lake in Bruce Peninsula National Park was a must-do, so we took this advice and paid a short visit to this tiny part of the 154-square-kilometer Park. Only 15 minutes south of Tobermory, the Park was the perfect place to spend an hour or two killing time before our ferry departure, and a well-trod, shady trail made it an easy hike to get to the water’s edge. What we found at the end of the trail was a rugged shoreline made up of the shale, limestone and rock characteristic of the Escarpment, yet sloped gently enough at this point to make it accessible for swimmers who were willing to climb over huge flat rocks to get in the water.
And the water! It was the colour of the crystal-clear lake that surprised us most, looking more like the deep blues, greens and turquoise you’d expect to find in the Caribbean ocean, not a Canadian lake. But make no mistake, this fresh water is….fresh! The Great Lakes are big waters, and big waters run cold, even in July, so swimmers who took the plunge were in for a bit of a shock at the temperature.
Hiking a little further north from this rocky ‘beach’ was the Grotto itself, a niche carved out of the side of the Escarpment’s dramatic cliffs, complete with a swimming cave that made for a spectacular setting for adventurous swimmers willing to climb down the sides (or swim here from the rock beach just around the bend.) We chose to sit and enjoy the view, since swimming wasn’t part of the plan, and we had only a short time left before catching the ferry.
3. The Chi-Cheemaun Ferry
The Chi-Cheemaun (meaning Big Canoe in Ojibway) is only the latest in a long history of car ferries that have been crossing to Manitoulin since the 1930s when a small wooden vessel named the Kagawong was first used to shuttle automobiles from Tobermory to South Baymouth. With two stacked mezzanine decks for cars, and both bow and stern opening up to swallow the vehicles, this modern ferry can hold 240 vehicles and up to 648 passengers.
“Travel in Good Spirits” is the motto on the side of the Chi-Cheemaun, and with its brightly-painted Native designs, licensed lounge and open sun decks, it was easy for Henk and I to get into the vacation spirit once the cars were loaded and settled on board. With perfect sunny skies to match the sparkling water, and green islands drifting by the ship on both sides, ‘getting there’ was definitely more than half the fun of this trip to Manitoulin.
The unexpected bonus was a mini-lecture and performance onboard by Falcon Migwans, a local guide, singer and drummer, who came into the lounge and explained a little about the significance of the island to the First Nations people who call it home. “Manitoulin” means “Great Spirit” in the Ojibway language, and like the drumming and dance rhythms that are all based on our heartbeat, it was easy to see that Falcon holds this Island close to his own heart as well.
4. Good for the Heart
From the instant Henk and I drove off the ferry, and realized that the 50 or so vehicles with us constituted ‘rush hour’ on Manitoulin, we immediately embraced the slower, relaxed pace of the island, leaving the chaos and traffic of Toronto even further behind. And although we only saw a small part of the area on the eastern side near Sheguiandah, we did manage to do our hearts good with a hike on one of the trails during the 2 days we were there: the Cup and Saucer trail.
This trail picks up the last bits of the Niagara Escarpment that extend onto the Island, and although it is a much less-travelled path than some of its southern counterparts, the trail rewarded us with some pretty impressive views.
5. Eat Fish Where the Fish Are
Manitoulin is known for its fish, and the fresh water whitefish, pickerel and rainbow trout that come out of the North Channel are some of the tastiest in the province. Henk and I got to enjoy fresh-caught whitefish several times while we were there, and although I’m not a fan of fishing itself (no talking!), I’ve definitely become a fan of Manitoulin’s fish.
Visiting Manitoulin was the perfect start to a 5-day mini-vacation, and with perfect weather and starry summer night skies to keep Henk the astronomer in his own version of heaven, this trip ticked all the boxes for an Ontario getaway. My only regret? Our timing didn’t coincide with a First Nations pow-wow. Which might just be reason enough to go back to this Island of the Great Spirit and lift ours even higher.
TIP: The Chi-Cheemaun ferry gets busy during the summer – on weekends especially – so if you are thinking of booking the ferry, plan ahead or think about travelling on weekdays. You’ll need to be at the ferry loading area an hour before departure, too, or your reservation may not be held.