Exploring Manitoulin Island: A 48 Hour Travel Guide (COVID Staycation)
Due to the many challenges and restrictions of 2020, we’ve had to get a bit creative with our vacation time and travel plans. With this, Jordan and I recently took the opportunity to explore a destination closer to home that we may not have necessarily explored otherwise — Manitoulin Island.
Manitoulin Island is located in Ontario, Canada and with an area of approximately 2,766km2, it is the largest freshwater island in the world. With beautiful natural landscapes, rich history, culture, and a laid-back feel, I’m going to share how you can experience a safe, relaxing, and enjoyable staycation on Manitoulin Island.
Getting to and from the Island
There are three ways you can get to Manitoulin Island.
Driving along Highway 6 will take you to the famous Swing Bridge located in Little Current. This trip is approximately 6 hours from Toronto.
By MS Chi-Cheemaun
Meaning “Big Canoe” in Ojibwe, the Chi-Cheemaun makes daily trips between Tobermory and South Baymouth from May to October. The ferry takes approximately 1 hour 45 minutes and makes for an enjoyable ride across Lake Huron. As of August 2020, the ferry is operating at 50% capacity to allow for adequate social distancing. Masks are mandatory onboard and there is no food or beverage service. This being said, we did not find it negatively impacted our experience. We were very comfortable with the measures taken.
Aside from the great views and potential hours you can save driving (depending on your location), you can choose to walk onto the boat or bring your car! We loved this option since it gave us the flexibility to explore the island freely, at our leisure. There is no land-based public transportation around the island.
It is good to note that adding an extra day to your trip will allow you to also spend time exploring the beautiful Tobermory area. There are wonderful areas to hike and explore, including beaches with crystal clear waters, national parks, and more.
Reservations for the Chi-Cheemaun must be made in advance by phone. Check the latest schedule here.
Though less common, Manitoulin Island can be reached by plane. The main airport on the island is located in Gore Bay.
Pro Tip: Groceries are limited on the island at this time due to difficulties with logistics of transportation as a result of COVID-19. Plan ahead and bring your own groceries from outside of the island. This will not only be more convenient for you, but it will also keep groceries more available to those who live there.
Cup and Saucer Trail
The Manitoulin Extension of the Niagara Escarpment, the Cup and Saucer Trail is a must-do activity when visiting the new island. With breathtaking views and an adventurous landscape, it’s easy to see why it’s one of the most famous trails in Ontario. While we hiked the 9km loop, including a 2km “adventure trail”, there are numerous paths to choose from! Individuals can select the one best suited to them based on time and degree of difficulty.
Note: Pay very close attention to trail markings as we found this trail to not be very well marked in comparison to other hikes in the area (like Lion's Head located in the Bruce Peninsula).
I recommend going here first thing in the morning as the trail gets very busy by midday.
Manitoulin Brewing Company
If craft beer is your thing, there are few things more refreshing than a nice cold beer after a good hike. There are two craft breweries on the island (the other one we’ll get to later), each worth checking out. Only a 19-minute drive from the Cup and Saucer trailhead, the Manitoulin Brewing Company is a great place to grab lunch and some drinks. The brewery’s back patio provides plenty of space for distancing, shaded seating, and a variety of beers for tasting. I recommend ordering a flight so you can taste 4 different kinds! The brewery works with the Anchor Inn Hotel to bring food to its customers, so I also recommend grabbing lunch while you’re here.
Port of Little Current
From the Manitoulin Brewing Company, take a walk down to Little Current’s Port. On the way, you’ll pass cute local shops filled with artisan work. Eventually, you’ll reach a beautiful boardwalk to wander, allowing you to admire the water, boats, and famous Swing Bridge.
3 Cows and a Cone
A trip to the island wouldn’t be complete without a visit to 3 Cows and a Cone. I used to visit the island every summer with my grandparents as a kid and the extensive list of Farquhar’s ice cream flavours still makes my mouth water!
Bridal Veil Falls
With a beautiful veil of water you can walk behind and a swimming hole below it, Bridal Veil Falls is the perfect spot to relax, enjoy a picnic, or take a swim (the photo ops aren’t bad either 😉).
Due to COVID, the staircase down to the falls from the viewing platform is currently closed. The viewing platform provides a nice aerial view of the falls (with a limit of 5 people at max. and face masks required), but I would absolutely recommend making the effort to get to the falls themselves.
Approximately 500m toward town from the viewing platform, on the righthand side, you’ll find a trail (it’s better to park here too). Take the short 1.1km path along the river and you’ll wind up in this pretty little oasis.
Note: Be sure to STICK TO THE TRAIL as there is a large amount of poison ivy scattered about on either side.
Once again, I recommend getting there early as it is another popular spot on the island. We left the falls around 11 am and it had started to get busy by then.
Split Rail Brewing
The first craft brewery on the island, Split Rail Brewing is located in Gore Bay. With a beautiful patio providing lakeside views, it has to be the best place on the island to grab a drink. While the brewery does not serve food itself, it does allow its customers to bring food from the neighbouring “Buoy’s Eatery & TakeOut” restaurant. I recommend ordering your food here first.
The brewery is only a 17-minute drive from Bridal Veil Falls.
East Bluff Lookout (Gore Bay)
Only a 5-minute drive from Split Rail Brewing, head to the East Bluff Lookout for amazing views of the bay below. We were told this area provides gorgeous sunset views and though our schedule didn’t permit the timing of it, I have no doubt it would be spectacular! This being said, no matter the time of day, it’s worth checking out.
Located on the south shore of Manitoulin Island you’ll find the charming, sandy beaches of Providence Bay. Soak up some sun, wander the boardwalk, fish off the dock, or play in the sand — this beach is bound to offer all you need for an enjoyable afternoon.
While we stayed with family in the Providence Bay Tent & Trailer Park during our time on the island, cabins, trailers, and campsites are available for rental to non-seasonal visitors. We found the park to not only be very beautiful and well-kept but also to be a great base for our time in Manitoulin, providing easy access to anywhere we wanted to explore.
Especially if you plan to take the Chi-Cheemaun, be sure to take a walk around South Baymouth (this is easy enough to do in the hour you have between arrival and boarding of the ferry on your way out). Close to the boat launch area of the harbour, you’ll find a boardwalk leading to the sweetest little lighthouse. Regularly, if they are open, you can also pop into the Southbay Gallery or the Little Schoolhouse and Museum. Though there isn’t too much more to explore, other than a few tourist shops and restaurants, the area makes for a nice wander.
We found Manitoulin Island offered us the relaxing and nature-filled vacation we needed. Not only was it a fun way to explore more of our beautiful backyard, but it was also a very easy place to navigate and soak up Canadian nature.
Note: The area is also known for its cultural experiences but given the current climate, we were unable to participate in any at this time.
Until next time, stay safe and healthy!