If you’re looking for variation when you’re traveling then make sure to visit Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron, Canada at some point. We visited the island twice, once in summer and earlier this year, in spring when we had our last visitors over before the move.
Did you know that Manitoulin Island…
- Is the biggest freshwater island in the world?
- contains over 100 islands itself which in turn have their own islands, one of them called Treasure Island (in Lake Mindemoya)
- has a rich history that includes indigenous peoples, voyageurs, and industry?
- has the best variety of quaint little villages, waterfalls, viewpoints, and trails?
To give you a bit of an idea, here are 8 great reasons to visit the island
What does Manitoulin mean?
‘Manidoowaaling’ was the historic Odawa name that meant Cave of the Spirit. More than 13,000 people live on the island now, but historically it belonged to several indigenous peoples. The name as we know it now is the corrupted pronunciation of Manidowaaling with the French trying it first and then the English copying them.
Little Current Swivel Bridge
The island has only one mainland connection in the shape of the Little Current Swivel Bridge. The 112 m. long bridge connects the island to its neighbor Goat Island and it was built in 1913 as part of the Algoma Eastern railway system.
The foundations of the bridge were built the preceding year and up to 1946, when road traffic was allowed, the bridge was always open. Due to legislation to ensure that boats could always pass the island, it only closed if a train had to make it over.
The reverse happened after 1946, from then on, the bridge was always closed, and only opened when ships had to pass through the 48-meter-wide spaces on either side.
Nowadays the bridge opens for the first 15 minutes of daylight during spring, summer or winter, and as needed throughout the day depending on traffic from the highway. But never during the night.
It is a great sight to see the bridge, now an Ontario Heritage site, turn on its axis and definitely worth a visit.
During spring, summer and early fall, you can also reach the island over water. Either sail around Lake Huron from any of the islands or the mainland on a boat or take the Big Canoe.
The Big Canoe – making it through the Lake Huron Archipelago
The ferry that goes twice daily between early May and mid-October is called Chi-Cheemaun. Or per the English translation: The Big Canoe, takes passengers, cars, and trucks to-and-from Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsula to South Baymouth on the Island.
The trip takes about two hours and is a great, relaxing way to see the beautiful scenery as you travel between the many islands that dot Lake Huron. You can have breakfast, lunch or an early dinner aboard the ship and arrive refreshed onto the island.
The trip takes both passengers, cars, bikes and trucks. Just note, that reservations are highly advisable, especially if you intend to bring your car. You’re expected to arrive an hour ahead of
An island as beautiful and at times as rugged as this, you have to explore on foot. Fortunately, it has a number of interesting trails with a variety of distances and levels of difficulty.
The Cup and Saucer trail named because of the shape of the rock in the centre of its surrounding valley resembling them, is a trail that caters to a lot of different interests. Most of it is quite easy and flat but there are some very steep ascents (70 meters) and descents that, if you suffer from knee problems or at times of rain and mud, are quite challenging. For kids, they are (excuse the pun) the bees knees, especially if you make it to the adventure trail. It starts from the Cup & Saucer trail itself, but you don’t have to do it as the route takes you around as well.
If you have kids and like some climbing (our youngest was 5 years old at the time as was able to), do it! You’ll walk a 2km narrow trail and climb around 12 ladders set against and between rock faces. We had a great time making it up this way.
The Cup & Saucer Trail is 12 kilometers long and takes between 1.5 – 4 hours (we spent about 2 hours here including the adventure trail). It’s located less than 20 kilometers from Little Current on the crossing of Bidwell Road and Highway 540.
Lifting the veil on these falls
One of the other highlights on the island is the Bridal Veil Falls. The first time we visited them was in the summer and we followed signs to a very busy spot, not even realizing we’d driven over it There were tons of cars and people eating ice cream in the hot sun. The road is built over the water of Lake Kagawong flowing to the 20ft/ 6-meter-wide rim to plunge into the hollowed-out bowl almost 11 meters below.
As with a lot of natural spots, it’s seeing the clear layers at the inside of the bowl that tells you how much water and time have passed to create these ‘veils’.
From the little parking lot (it looked bigger at the time) a set of stairs with viewing platforms takes you to the foot of the falls to soak your feet in the cold water and make it behind the falls. Both a fun activity and ideal to take some Instagram-able pictures.
There is also a short trail that takes you from a parking spot along the road and the ensuing river upstream to the falls and in spring makes this an entirely different experience. The water roars towards you, whiteheads topping the water that crashes onto the rocks on the bottom and the sides.
You may not spend more than an hour here depending on the time of the day and year, or how busy it is, but don’t miss it. It’s a lovely stop between the islands’ main two villages Little Current and Gore Bay.
Kagawong – the prettiest town in Ontario
Much closer by is Kagawong, a tiny town but with a lot to offer. It was founded by the Henry Brothers, Robert, and William who set up the wood pulp business here. Trees along the river, close to the falls were felled and turned into pulp in the mill and then taken to the waterfront. From the harbor life stock, passengers, pulp and produce were transported to and from the island.
The brothers were the industrialists of their time, time is money after all, and they installed an electrically powered mill. They did well for themselves and this community which can still be seen in the mill which is now has been put to good use serving as an Art Studio (Edwards studio and Gallery) and the local museum.
Local history will tell you that both brothers died in similar ways: on a trip on a ferry within a year of each other. Robert traveled on the steamship Manitoulin when the engine room caught fire. According to stories, he died when he jumped overboard to help others. Whereas William died taking the SS Asia which sailed into a big storm. As a result, it capsized and sank, and William’s body washed ashore in the mainland town of Parry Sound.
All nice and well but there is more to ‘Ontario’s prettiest town’ (Kagawong’s tagline).
Yes, the address reads 160 Main Street but there barely is more than that street so you almost cannot miss it. Unless your eyes are immediately drawn to the Candy corner shop (Booh-bah-lou Candy), of course. As we were here in May and the season hadn’t started yet, obvious from the very cold nights and cloudiness most days, it wasn’t open. Something we didn’t mind because we were in need of a nice hot drink.
Even though we didn’t see anything to that effect, chocolate shops don’t just speak to me, they yell. So, I had to go in. Best idea ever!! Not only did they turn out to have coffee and very good coffee at that, the chocolates were amazing! We selected a box of 10-12 mainly bitter chocolate and with coffee in hand did a sample menu. Delicious!!
I understand that delicious seems a rather expected judgement when it comes to chocolate but not all chocolate is actually good, well made or treated to warrant it, as our visit to a chocolate shop in Florida proved. These chocolates had a lovely sheen, deep, satisfying taste and fresh and creamy fillings. They lasted about 7 minutes. Best spent 7 minutes: sun peaking through (day 3 finally), sharing chocolate and great coffee between us and our visitors. Yum. Check them out here: http://manitoulinchocolate.ca/ (you can order online!).
To a hedonist like me, food and travel go hand in hand. Partly because I simply like food, drink, and different tastes. Partly because food shows you how people, nations or cultures live, work or function together. Visiting Gore Bay, therefore, the next day around the misty marina, suddenly the Split Rail Brewery loomed up across from the local museum.
The brewery is housed in a big wooden building that looks like it was once a transshipment building. A small rustic looking terrace has been added to the front for when the weather does look inviting. Inside, there is some merchandise along the sides, a couple of tables and a bar. Beyond it, the gleaming stainless steel kettles are humming in their several stages of the process.
The brewery was started after a Kickstarter campaign in 2012 by two enterprising ladies: Andrea Smith and Eleanor Charlton, with the actual brewery opening in 2015.
The menu is on the wall and they have a great seller: their tasters. A tray that holds 3 glasses to be filled to your choice. Such a great idea! The tasters are big enough to be able to share between friends and have a good sense of the tastes, yet small enough that you don’t leave feeling drunk. We chose: and where I really appreciated the Copper Ale, my fellow tasters preferred Amber Ale and Hempberry Ale. The one thing we all agreed on; we love the presentation, the ambiance and our favorite each.
Go to Split Rail for the tasters or a nice beer as you watch the comings and goings in the marina.
On an island surrounded by water, you may be more interested in water-related activities. Well, besides the obvious sailing, boating, and fishing which you can do around the island. You can also go on shipwreck viewing or diving expeditions in the Fathom Five Marine Park. As the waters are very clear and lots of wrecks lay at a reasonable depth you can see them from a boat on top, or upfront underwater.
The Fathom Five Marine park was started to protect both the wrecks and the lighthouses in the area (the Georgian Bay side of Lake Huron, close to Tobermory), and it is a treasure trove of ships dating to as early as 1871. They met all sorts of fates ranging from fires to capsizing due to storms, being wrecked on rocks or while hard at work.
They require different levels of skill and knowledge, so be sure to visit the Marine Park visitors centre or check with the surrounding tour operators that organize trips to these sites.
We look back on a great couple of days on and around the island again. Weird to think 6 months have passed by and it’s fall already. Time to plan some short get-aways like our First Lights experience last year, or our autumn break to Fréjus, France, last month. Keep an eye out for it next week.
Want to Visit Manitoulin Island now?
Note to the wise:
If you consider visiting Manitoulin Island, make sure to book early. Both the Big Canoe and accommodation on the island sell out very quickly and early on in the season. Even though you don’t pay for your trip on the ferry until you get there, you do need to plan and register. Especially when you hope to bring your car.
Should you go, what would be your first port of call?