If you’re picturing an oasis in your mind’s eye, it might be Manitoulin Island you see. People are few, nature is big, and the pace is refreshingly slow in this idyllic haven of crystal-clear lakes and quiet shores. It’s also a community with distinctive Indigenous culture and friendly folk who welcome guests and are happy to share their traditions.
The name means “Spirit Island” or “cave of the spirit” in Ojibwe, referring to an underwater cave in the local lore, and anyone who’s visited agrees Manitoulin weaves its own kind of magic. If you get the chance to go, here’s a guide to the best of the island.
Where it is
In rugged northern Ontario, Manitoulin Island is in Lake Huron. Sparsely populated and not often visited, the region is between Hudson Bay and the Great Lakes, anchored by its largest city, Thunder Bay. Manitoulin is a two-hour drive from Sudbury or two-hour ferry ride from Tobermory.
Why it's worth the trip
There are lots of “firsts” that make Manitoulin unusual and appealing. First, it is the largest freshwater island lake on the planet. It’s also home to Canada’s first European settlement, the town Manitowaning, and the historic Anishinaabe settlement. There are six Indigenous reserves on the island and one, the Wikwemikong, is still Canada’s only unceded reserve. The area is incredibly rich in archaeology stretching back as far as 2000 BC. But really, you want to go to have an authentic experience with Indigenous people, learn about their culture and heritage, and get far away from it all on classic outdoor adventures where the only one on the trail or lake or river might be you.
Where to stay, what to eat and drink
Manitoulin is rustic — and that’s its charm. There are lots of options for accommodations — from tipis and fishing lodges to inns, hotels, and cabins — so choose something that matches your style. Twin Peaks is an elegant B&B in a spacious Victorian near Mindemoya or you can pitch a tent at picturesque Mississagi Straits Lighthouse Museum and Campground on the west coast. Or rent your own summer cottage on Lake Mindemoya’s sandy bay.
For dining, comfort food and mouthwatering baked goodies reign here. Local favorites are Garden’s Gate for the beef tenderloin with chimichurri sauce and key lime pie; Lake Huron Fish & Chips for the cod best around; and Garden Shed Café for fluffy omelettes in a greenhouse. For sweets, it’s local ice cream at staple 3 Cows and a Cone and MUM’s Restaurant & Bakery for decadent apple fritters and butter tarts. Don’t miss a sunny afternoon with a beer flight over lunch on the patio at Split Rail Brewing Co., a small-town craft brewery in an old marina fishery plant. Try the amber ale and LoonSong oat stout, or hawberry when in season, and take a growler back to your cabin.
The best time to visit
For fishing, hiking, paddling, and playing on the beach, summer is the best time for a trip, followed by fall, if you like quieter hikes and stunning autumn colors. August is the season for the cherished hawberries on Manitoulin; in fact, islanders born here are called Haweaters. To celebrate, on the August holiday long weekend (the first weekend of August) locals put on the Haweater Festival with craft fairs, parades, street dances, classic car cruises, old-style rural competitions like horse pulls, and fireworks.
Another prime time is winter to see the Northern Lights dancing in the night sky. Camp and stargaze from your tipi at Gordon’s Park Eco Resort. Gordon’s has knowledgeable staff to help you spot and photograph the aurora, plus hosts fun events like the year-end Dark Side of the Moon Party and Laser Guided Sky Tour.
There are hundreds of things to do, but here are a handful you shouldn't miss during your getaway:
- Get to know the Indigenous people: Manitoulin’s biggest highlight of all is spending time with the native Anishinabek people. Great Spirit Circle Trail is your connector and will arrange one-on-one and small group experiences— a stay with locals, a sunset canoe voyage, a torch or drum making workshop, a tobacco or smudge ceremony, and traditional song and dance performances.
- Get outside: Manitoulin is an outdoor paradise. The island itself has 108 freshwater lakes. The largest are Manitou, Kagawong, and Mindemoya, which all have their own islands, too. Lake Mindemoya’s Treasure Island, for example, is 82 acres. Paddle the lakes or rivers, and be sure to see the silvery ribbons of Bridal Veil Falls cascading over a gorge near Kagawong. The falls are easily accessible, and you can you can swim or slide down rocks behind them, or watch salmon spawning in October. In winter, cross-country ski and ice fish. In warm months, cycle, backpack, camp, and hike. The best trek is the moderate Cup and Saucer Trail, a loop that rewards with dramatic panoramic lookouts over the green landscape from the craggy white quartzite of the Niagara Escarpment 230 feet up. Go with an Indigenous guide to learn about the legends and medicinal plants.
- R&R: Beach time is a must on the island, and the best spot is the south shore’s Providence Bay Beach. It’s sandy, pristine, and scenic, plus the big waves off Lake Huron are really something to see. Stroll the long boardwalk, fish for salmon, swim, and nap on the shore.
- See lighthouses: There are so many to choose from — some are historic, all are quaint and a delightful backdrop for a lazy afternoon picnic — Strawberry Island, Janet Head, Kagawong, South Baymouth Range Front, and more.
You aren’t likely to meet many who’ve been to Manitoulin Island, not to mention the wilds of northern Ontario, and that’s exactly why you want to go.
Get vacation inspiration at the Ontario Travel website.