Although autumn has unmistakably arrived, a sun drenched day calls to mind a fascinating road trip I took this summer to visit two of the most iconic locations in Ontario, Canada – Manitoulin Island, (known as Mnidoo Mnising in Ojibwa, or Spirit Island), and Tobermory. This portion of Northern Ontario, generally known for its rich history of Canadian Indigenous people, picturesque views as well as hiking and cycling on the Bruce Trail footpaths, proved to be the recipe for the “mindfulness retreat” vacation that I so desperately needed!
Given the short 3 day time frame I had to work with and the fact that I wanted this to be a stress-free trip, I did not want to make the 7 – 8 hour drive solo. Beginning my internet quest for “short road trips”, I stumbled across a company called ShortTrips.ca. Reviews were quite favourable and, lo and behold as if by Devine intervention, they were offering a trip to my selected destinations! Awesome! This road trip was meant to be!
The day of my departure arrived. I boarded the luxury coach and settled into my seat. Introducing myself to my seat mate we struck up an interesting conversation about our previous trips to Manitoulin Island & Tobermory and our respective reasons for wanting to return. Time flew by and we arrived at our first scheduled stop, the French River Trading Post where we exited the coach bus to stretch our legs and have some free time.
The French River Trading Post is a 50-year-old tradition and destination for visitors travelling along Hwy 69. Still owned and operated by the Biggs family who founded the trading post, they boast a large gift shop where you will find Canadian made moccasins, souvenirs, local First Nations handicrafts as well as sweets like….mmmm…creamy fudge! Additionally, you will find the aptly named Hungry Bear Restaurant, where hungry guests return every season to experience their mouth-watering fare and highly rated hospitality. This place should definitely be on your list of stops along the way!
There are 2 routes to Manitoulin Island when coming from Southern Ontario and each are well worth their turn. First, on the way there, we drove the highway around Georgian Bay, crossing at the swing bridge, one of the island’s most famous landmarks, to arrive at our hotel in Little Current, known as the island’s “gateway community”.
On the way home, we would take the second route, across the water on the Chi-Cheemaun Ferry, between South Baymouth on Manitoulin Island and Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsula.
Assisted by our ShortTrips tour guide, check-in at The Manitoulin Hotel & Conference Centre was smooth and effortless. An hour later we were freshened up, changed and ready for our sunset dinner cruise aboard the North Channel Cruise Line. The view from the ship was exquisite, offering various photo ops as the sun descended beyond the horizon. Whitecaps, winds off the water and gorgeous skies made for the perfect launching of my mind-body-spirit journey.
Upon returning to the hotel to retire for the night, I readied myself in my fully wheelchair accessible bathroom of my King Suite and had the most restful sleep in the wonderful comfort of my king-size bed. (Queen Suites also available without the wheelchair accessibility).
Day two: After a nourishing breakfast at the hotel, we departed in the morning for our first stop; the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation which was established in 1974 to “preserve and revitalize the language, culture, arts, spirituality and traditions.” You will find a gallery, museum and can listen to a presentation given by a Native Canadian representative of the Anishinaabe people. In a natural setting, members of The Ojibwa Cultural Foundation are trying to increase awareness, inform and educate the rest of us, Canadians, who want (and should) explore and make a real effort to understand the history of our country and our Native Peoples.
Next, I was able to take time to reflect on the history lessons I had just learned when we stopped at Bridal Veil Falls, followed by a mindful hike along the trail into the town of Kagawong, each at our own pace. (Although the trail itself is on fairly even ground, there are stairs leading down to the falls and trail which could be limiting to someone with a physical challenge. The town of Kagawong however is accessible by road.)
The town of Kagawong is a quaint small village stop worth your time if you aren’t in a hurry. After a contemplative walk along the waterfront, I eagerly stopped in at a magnificent little shop called Manitoulin Chocolate Works, where I chose to noch on a chocolate covered coconut macaroon and savoured the flavour of a chocolate fudge milk shake, (there’s no such thing as too much chocolate!), while soaking up the warmth and sunshine of the afternoon on their outdoor patio. While in town, you can also play a life-sized board game, visit the town’s lighthouse or visit the Old Mill Heritage Centre.
Our final stop for the afternoon was at the Church of Immaculate Conception on the island’s First Nation Reserve of M’Chigeeng (pronounced Shih-geeng). This parish, which is part of the Catholic Diocese of Sault Sainte Marie, is a beautiful representation of both Aboriginal traditions and Catholic beliefs having come together in a mutual celebration and appreciation for God, our Creator, as well of course as Christ and the Great Spirit Kitche Manitou.
The circular image is present throughout the structure of the church — Top-lit design of the ceiling in the church represents a tepee; circular seating placed half below ground exemplifies being close to Mother Earth and is representational of the Circle of Life; finally, the rounded shape with the altar at its middle is symbolic of the fire pit, around which aboriginal people would sit and tell stories, memories and dance in celebration of life, communal in nature where the community would gather together.
From the carvings on the entry doors, to the Ojibwe Dreamcatcher Legend of Spider Woman as embodied in the incense bowl and the Baptismal font as reflective of the Ojibwe Creation Story, Aboriginal culture and Catholic beliefs have been combined into one means of spiritual celebration.
Having spent the day getting in touch with my meditative and soulful sides, it was now time to “contemplate the cosmos”. We were headed out to the Gordon’s Park Dark Sky Preserve. Dark sky preserve? What does that mean? As explained on their website, it means that their park “…offers exceptional dark skies…The Preserve is one of the darkest observing sites in the Province of Ontario with no light pollution or sky glow around the 360 degree observing horizon.” Point taken…It’s REALLY dark! So dark that we had to use red filtered flashlights to be able to see in front of our faces until our eyes adjusted to the darkness. Even the smallest flash of white light would have taken our eyes “hours” to readjust to the preserve’s darkness. Through the use of their monstrous telescopes, we were able to view Venus and Mars and to the naked eye we could see numerous July night sky constellations and even the Milky Way made itself known to us that night. Breathtakingly gorgeous! Got to do it! Just REMEMBER TO BRING YOUR MISQUITO REPELLANT! No Joke!
Day Three: It was time to say good bye to the beauty of Manitoulin Island as we were now making our way to the harbour port of South Baymouth. From there we boarded the MS Chi-Cheemaun. Ojibwe for “big canoe”, the ship carries passengers, passenger vehicles as well as commercial vehicles, crossing the waters both ways between South Baymouth and Tobermory. (Due to the high traffic demand it is always recommended to make a paid boarding reservation ahead of time as part of your travel plans. See link above).
The 2-hour ferry ride took us to the picturesque harbour village of Tobermory, ON, located at the northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula, part of the long Georgian Bay stretch of the Niagara Escarpment. Once there, we perused the charming shops, tasted a Beaver Tail (cinnamon pastry), before boarding onto a glass bottom tour boat. Transported to the nearby Fathom Five National Marine Park , we could view real underwater shipwrecks on the way to arriving at Flowerpot Island. Study the rock formations, hike the trails, walk the shoreline…truly a serene and inspiring scene. Unfortunately the caves were closed for our trip but that’s just one more reason to go back!
If you and/or your family love to spend time outdoors, I do highly recommend adding this trip to Manitoulin Island and Tobermory to your proverbial Bucket List. If you are going at your leisure you can book your hotel, campsites, Chi-Cheemaun reservation etc. ahead of time. You can take your time exploring Flowerpot Island. If they are open, add the caves on the island to your excursion. Check out the Ontario Parks, Manitoulin Island Tourism and Tobermory Tourism websites for details and answers to your questions. There are SO many things to see and do. It would be easy to spend a whole week here!
However, for me this time around, taking this trip with ShortTrips.ca was the best way to enjoy a stress-free short vacation. If you are looking for adventure and travel without having to do the driving yourself, for whatever reason, ShortTrips is the way to do it. Once you make your paid booking with them on-line, they look after the rest! Travel on a luxury coach. Each tour is accompanied by an experienced and friendly Tour Director who acts as the liaison between any accommodation, park, tour or attraction administrators, ticket takers etc. They are the ones who build the itinerary for the tour so they will be able to tell you where you need to be and what time you need to be there. If you think it might be too regimented for you, consider that they do include scheduling of free time into the itinerary whenever and wherever possible.
Do you have special dietary restrictions? No worries. Let them know at the time of booking, (or send an email to their customer service after booking if you forget), so they can let the various restaurant and/or accommodation locations know ahead of your arrival. However, depending on the tour, there will be times when you will be able to choose your own food fare nearby. If you want to give them a try, book a day trip for your first time around. ShortTrips.ca…I’ll book again!
Now…back to reality…it is autumn. Canadian autumn so bundle up – it’s cold, it’s colourful! Even Octoburrr and Novemburrr have a lot to offer! Till next time, happy trails!