Manitoulin Island was one of those undiscovered gems which my wife Maureen and I happened upon, almost by accident while travelling across Canada. Located along the north shore of Lake Huron, it had the distinction of being the largest fresh water island in the world. While the island may be big, it’s population was quite small resulting in a peaceful, serene, unhurried way of life that the tourist bureau loved to promote. Also promoted was the island’s unique geology, beautiful scenery, pastoral countryside, picturesque shoreline, and significant population of artists and artisans. It sounded like a perfect, “Routes Less Travelled” destination.
The Road To Manitoulin
The only road access to Manitoulin Island was via Ontario Highway 6 which left the TransCanada Highway about 80km west of Sudbury, near the town of Espanola. From Espanola, it was a 60km jaunt south down Highway 6 to a rickety looking, single lane, swing bridge connecting the island to the mainland. It looked like an old railroad bridge repurposed for vehicle use. Whatever the history, it was an obvious indicator that the island was not a high traffic area.
On the other side of the bridge was the town of Little Current. With a population of around 1,600, it was the largest community on the island. The downtown area had a quaint, folksy feel with several crafts boutiques, art studios, gift shops, galleries, restaurants and cafes. A boardwalk along the waterfront provided an excellent view of the harbour, marinas and North Channel, the body of water separating the island from the mainland.
On the day of our arrival, a cruise ship was berthed at the town’s main dock. Not to be confused with the massive luxury liners that ply the Caribbean, this one was significantly smaller. As we later learned, cruising the Great Lakes was a popular tourist activity.
After working up an appetite wandering around the downtown area, Maureen and I had lunch on the patio of the Anchor Inn Hotel, a restored 19th Century inn at the western end of the main street. Following a delicious meal of fish tacos made with fresh, locally caught white fish, we continued on our way. Our destination was the Providence Bay Tent and Trailer Court, located on the south coast of the island. While there were many great RV parks to choose from, this one had space available and a sand beach close by.
After an hour on the road and our destination still some distance away, it began to sink in that this was a really big island. The roads were in relatively good shape but narrow with little in the way of road allowance or shoulders. Thankfully, traffic was light, speed limits were low and most drivers were patient. All were definite pluses when towing a 26 foot travel trailer.
The island itself was relatively flat with a few low rolling hills. The landscape was a mixed bag of farmland and forests with an occasional water view in the distance. It all looked very peaceful and pastoral.
Midway to our destination was the community of Mindemoya. With a gas station, grocery store, laundromat and ice-cream stand, Mindemoya became our “go-to” spot for provisions and services during our stay on the island.
About a half hour south past Mindemoya was Providence Bay. This large half-moon shaped inlet featured lovely sandy beaches along most of its shoreline. At the eastern end of the bay stood a marina while the western end was occupied by the tiny community of Providence Bay. In between was the Providence Bay Tent and Trailer Park, our destination and base of exploration.
With 250 campsites, this park was anything but small. Many of the sites were occupied by seasonal residents while the remaining spots were taken up by campers who would typically stay for a week or two. We were lucky enough to snag a large site near the office and beach. Rates were around $50.00 a night for water and 30 amp power. Pump out sewer services were available as well. The shower and toilet facilities were clean but definitely well used.
Across a frontage road and over the sand dunes was the beach. This wide, long and gently sloping expanse of sand, extended far out into the bay. The water itself was a bit on the cool side but refreshing on a hot summer’s day. Add to this, waves that were small and gentle plus a lack of dangerous currents or rip tides and the result was a perfect place to soak up some rays, enjoy the water, play in the sand and generally relax.
Connecting the trailer park to the community of Providence Bay was a kilometer-long board walk which followed the shoreline around the bay. Along the way, information kiosks and viewpoints highlighted the area’s flora and fauna. The boardwalk ended near a building called the Harbour Center, a kind of community center with a couple of businesses that included an ice-cream shop – the perfect motivation for a stroll into town on a warm summer’s evening.
Just up the street was the Lake Huron Fish & Chips restaurant. This “take-out” style eatery had them lined up around the block. Our first attempt to eat there was met with a perspective 2-hour wait. We didn’t. Instead, we returned the next day for lunch. This time the wait was only a half hour. Regardless, it was worth it. The “fish” part of the combo consisted of fresh, locally caught Lake Huron white fish, lightly battered and cooked to perfection. The potatoes were locally sourced and delicious. Together, they were bliss in a basket. One bite and it was easy to understand why people would wait hours for an order.
Besides eating fantastic food and laying around beautiful beachs, other tourist activities included biking, hiking, canoeing and of course, fishing. For creative folks, the island was also a mecca for artists and artisans. Most of the island’s communities were home to numerous studios and galleries while many more could be found in the countryside and along the coast. My wife’s favourite was the Percivale Gallery, located outside the village of Spring Bay near the middle of the island. From the outside, it looked like an upscale resort while inside, the gallery would have been right at home in a swanky Toronto or Vancouver neighbourhood. Despite its prestigious appearance, the gallery offered items in a variety of price ranges.
Gore Bay and Manitoulin West
And then of course, there’s exploring – wandering the byways and backroads for the sheer enjoyment of discovering what lay around the next corner or over the next hill. Our island explorations began in the small town of Gore Bay, located on the north shore, about 60km west of Little Current. We were lucky enough to arrive during a farmer’s market/craft fair. Those are always fun and provide a window on local culture and activities. The town also boasted several artist’s studios, galleries and businesses. Many were located in a large building by the water called the “Harbour Center”. That caught my wife’s attention. Mine was snared by a local microbrewery across the street called Split Rail Brewing. While their tasting room was open and samples were available, they were completely sold out – very disappointing.
At the far western end of the island about an hour’s drive from Gore Bay was the hamlet of Meldrum Bay. To call this place tiny would be an understatement – even by Manitoulin Island standards. Besides a couple of houses, the community consisted of a restaurant (which was closed) a museum and a marina. The road to Meldrum Bay was across the middle of the island so there weren’t even any water or shoreline views to captivate or entertain.
Manitowaning and Manitoulin East
On the eastern side of the island was the community of Manitowaning which boasted a restored steamship, The SS Norisle plus a couple of restored buildings that made up the Manitowaning Heritage Complex. The Norisle once provided ferry service between Manitoulin and the Bruce Peninsula on the mainland. It has since been replaced by a much larger passenger/car ferry called the SS Chi-Cheemaun (meaning “Big Canoe” in Ojibwa). Not far from the complex was a heritage light house and Anglican Church.
Great Lakes Salmon
North of Manitowaning lay the hamlet of Sheguiandah. Located off the main highway along the eastern shore of the island, this community contained a few houses, a restored grist mill and a salmon ladder/spawning channel. That’s right – salmon! Not Atlantic salmon as might be expected but Pacific varieties – CoHo and Chinook. Apparently, they were introduced to the Lake Michigan in the 60’s and have adapted well to their new environment (which now included Lake Huron), spawning in local streams and rivers. Because these salmon never leave the Great Lakes, their diet is completely different and they tasted nothing like their Pacific kin.
The SS Chi-Cheemaun
All too soon, our time on the island came to an end. Rather than retrace our route back across the island and up to the TransCanada, we decided to take the ferry – SS Chi-Cheemaun – which we had learned about at the Manitowaning Heritage Complex. The service operated between the months of May to October, connecting the towns of South Baymouth on the south-east coast of Manitoulin Island and Tobermory on the northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula. With only two trips a day from the island however, reservations were strongly recommended for large vehicles like RV’s. Unlike BC Ferries, there was no extra charge for reserving but the cost of the trip was a bit more than the Tsawwassen-Swartz Bay crossing. In other words, it wasn’t cheap.
The community of South Baymouth seemed to be built around ferry traffic. With the exception of a museum and marina, virtually all the businesses were tourist oriented – motels, souvenir shops, cafes or restaurants.
The ferry crossing itself took about two hours and on a warm summer’s evening, it was pure heaven. Sitting out on the deck, we watched the forest covered islands and rocky coastline of Georgian Bay glide by to the north. To the south, just on the horizon was the Michigan shoreline while ahead lay the rugged outline of the Bruce Peninsula. Behind us, Manitoulin Island receded into the distance. With such a picturesque vista flowing by, it seemed the perfect time to reflect on our Manitoulin adventure.
As with so many other islands, Manitoulan had a character and charm all its own. It seemed a world away from the hurly burly and hectic pace of modern life and urban living. As the brochures promised, the landscape really was peaceful and pastoral; the shoreline, rugged and picturesque; the people, friendly and hospitable; the pace, leisurely and laid back. It really was a magical place and a perfect Route Less Travelled destination.
Anchor Inn Hotel, Little Current: http://www.anchorgrill.com/
Gore Bay, ON: http://www.gorebay.ca/
Gore Bay Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLO8QdqEIPs
Lake Huron Fish and Chips: https://www.facebook.com/Lake-Huron-Fish-Chips-Co-123049604384009/?ref=page_internal
Little Current, ON: http://www.manitoulin-island.com/little_current/
Manitoulin Tourist Information: http://www.manitoulintourism.com/
Manitowaning, ON: http://www.manitoulin-island.com/manitowaning/
Percival Gallery: https://www.perivalegallery.com/
Providence Bay Tent and Trailer Park: http://www.manitoulin-island.com/providencebaypark/
Providence Bay Tourist Information: http://www.manitoulintourism.com/portfolio/providence-bay/
Sheguiandah, ON: http://www.ourmanitoulin.com/Sheguiandah.html
Split Rail Brewing Company: http://www.splitrailmanitoulin.com/
South Baymouth: http://www.manitoulin-island.com/south_baymouth/
SS Chi-Cheemaun Ferry: http://www.ontarioferries.com/en/ms-chi-cheemaun-en/