By Emily M. Grey
Autumn will arrive in a blink. As an alternative to Maine’s crowded US 1 and the lake states, there is a lesser known yet equally alluring region to view foliage.
Last year, Ontario Tourism launched its 540-mile (870-kilometer) Georgian Bay Coastal Route. This driving tour wraps around lighthouses, multi-billion year-old rocks, and some of the planet’s most mesmerizing land and seascapes.
In October, I decided to check out this region. After a 90-minute flight from BWI, I rented a car in Toronto and set off for the unknown.
The next twelve days, I circumnavigated (E-N-W-S), visiting a new locale each day and sleeping in a different bed at night. It was like a smorgasbord of scenery. Often, I longed for more time to hike, photograph, and talk with spirited Canadians.
Geologically unique, UNESCO’s Niagara Escarpment and Canadian Shield delineate much of the terrain. Tourists do not congregate here until Canada’s Thanksgiving. (Check calendars because this holiday falls on different days each year).
Two and a half hours northwest of Toronto, I reached the charming town of Meaford. As if anticipating the weekend Scarecrow Festival, these familiar garden dolls clung to lampposts, held pumpkins, and pointed to the harbor overlooking Georgian Bay.
Irish Mountain B & B owners and I entered an unusual carnival-lit menagerie of mounted animals amidst a jamming band. At Ted’s Diner, elk steaks, bison burgers, and other tasty game or fish nibbles are listed on chalkboard menus. In contrast, the elegant Falls Inn in remote Walters Falls served equally wonderful dinners like sumptuous rabbit and local wine.
After walking about Blue Mountain Resort, I boarded a gondola for an aerial view of the clustered village, shops, and ski trails. At Scenic Caves Eco Adventures, I ducked in and out of scenic caves as children squealed happily from a zip line. A steamy outdoor bath at Le Scandinave Spa relieved my achy muscles.
The town of Collingwood is a living history of the shipbuilding industry. To the west, the town of Owen Sound was the terminus of the Underground Railroad.
An hour north, I strolled along the boardwalk at Wasaga Beach. This is the world’s longest freshwater beach, also known for its upswept parabolic dunes.
Here to Killarney is known as the land of 30,000 islands. Ontarians will tell you there is no place like it. Approximately 2000 km-long (1243 miles), this is the world’s largest freshwater archipelago. The famous Group of Seven Artists captured this rare seascape in a variety of paintings.
Lovely harbor vistas and giant murals of ferries, snow-driven horses, and lighthouses decorated the town of Midland. This safe haven even has an Easy Street.
Canoeing through narrow cattail trails at Wye Marsh Wildlife Centre next morning reconnected me with the natural world. A resident Trumpeter Swan (North America’s largest) and two cygnets sunned on the shore.
CROSSING INTO WILDERNESS
By dawn’s faint light, two companions and I rode a skiff from Honey Harbour into Church Bay. A family waved from their rock island home.
Shortly, we arrived at a rugged windswept land of white pines and granite.
Part of UNESCO’s Georgian Bay Islands National Park, Beausoleil Island is a favorite amongst birders and campers. On certain days and times, shuttle services whisk visitors to certain islands to mountain bike, cross-country ski, and hike.
“People have been coming here thousands of years to experience the scenery,” said Andrew Promaine, wildlife biologist. “The park is here to ensure it is maintained into perpetuity.”
“Lots of spring and fall birds migrate to the park,” explained birder Ethan Meleg. “During breeding season, neoptropical species are drawn to these natural areas for insects.”
After hiking a bit and admiring the solace, we “phished” in flocks of Golden Crowned and Ruby Crowned Kinglets. Remarkably, this was the largest concentration we had ever seen. Fewer Common Mergansers, Wood Ducks, and loons also appeared.
“Though low in diversity, we made some good finds today,” Ethan opined.
“The Georgian Bay region is relatively unknown which makes it fun.”
Beautiful rocks, inukshuks, and shimmering leaves framed Highway 400. Climbing 130 steps of a lookout tower at Parry Sound rewarded me with a glimpse at fall gardens, glistening bays, and a roaring railroad below.
Veering onto Route 637 was where my true journey began. This was my element, pristine without a hint of city madness. I had reached the Killarney region where wolves, moose, black bears, and wildcats are supreme.
In Killarney Provincial Park, Kris Puhvel and I paddled George Lake.
Smooth, pinkish multi-billion-year-old orthoquarzite was juxtaposed by multi-million-year-old granite.
Reflections of red and gold were almost as gorgeous as the genuine peaked foliage.
A trail of red spruce, club moss, and moose maple led to Kris’s favorite spot. Atop a rocky knoll, we observed the crystalline lake and blazing glory below.
“Ten years ago I left eastern Canada for this and have never looked back,” Kris said.
Stretching into Georgian Bay from a rock outcropping, the Pilot House at Killarney Mountain Lodge was mine. After a dinner of local whitefish, vegetables, and bumbleberry pie, I slept soundly.
BACK TO GOOD CIVILIZATION
As a rainy day diversion, Sudbury’s Science North exhibits Georgian Bay’s indigenous flora and fauna. A corn-eating porcupine and sweet-potato loving beaver were the main headliners.
Passing through the city are the Precambrian shield and 219 lakes. Nearby nickel and copper mines create rich acidic soils, believed responsible for copious, plump delicious blueberries. Ontario’s largest urban snow mobile trail system is also found here.
Three hours southwest is Manitoulin Island, the planet’s largest freshwater island. The woodland Ojibwa tribe live here and display their nature art on the reserve.
Crossing the main channel between Georgian Bay and Lake Huron, the two-hour Chi-Cheemaun Ferry runs from South Baymouth to Tobermory, Ontario.
Though a test of nimbleness, the Cup and Saucer Trail rewards hikers with dramatic limestone and dolomite bluffs bathed in autumn patchwork. Sequestered off the main drag is Rockville Inn, an antidote for relaxation. After soaking in a bear claw tub, I joined an Australian couple for home-cooked pot roast.
Next morning, vehicles and pedestrians crossed the main channel between Georgian Bay and Lake Huron. The two-hour Chi-Cheemaun Ferry runs from South Baymouth to Tobermory, Ontario’s dive capital. Here on the Bruce Peninsula, I discovered the scenic lagoon-bathed Grotto, Big Tub Lighthouse, pitcher plant bogs, and singing sands.
The Cabot Head Lighthouse vicinity is a globally significant migratory birding hotspot. Here, the Bruce Peninsula Bird Observatory operates a research station and works to protect and study avifauna.
An southwest in Wiarton, I rendezvoused with my Ontarian hosts, Bev and Chris Hughes, and their children for a countryside drive. Skinner’s Bluff provided a panoramic replica of Bruce County.
That evening, a pre-Thanksgiving Day feast was an appropriate finale of my Ontarian trek. From vegetable quiche to turkey to pumpkin pie, Waterview Resort Restaurant has been dubbed the “Caribbean of the North.”
“We need to learn from other areas about the bigger challenge—to keep nature intact and still earn a living,” co-host Evan Leblanc said about tourism.
Spending each day and night in a new place was like an accelerated parade. My whirlwind adventure whet my appetite to return and appreciate what I missed.
IF YOU GO:
* Georgian Bay Coastal Route
Lodging & Dining
* Irish Mountain B & B
* Ted’s Diner
* The Falls Inn
* Historic Snowbridge at Blue Mountain
* Chartreuse Restaurant
* At Wasauga Beach—Beverly’s On Main Grillhouse
* A Charters Inn B & B
* The Library Restaurant
* Delawana Inn
* Bayside Inn
* Bay St. Cafe
* Killarney Mountain Lodge
* Auberge Sur Lac
* Lakehouse Restaurant
* Rockville Inn
* Blue Bay Motel
* Mermaids Secret Restaurant
* Stone Orchard Restaurant
* Island View B & B
* Waterview Resort Restaurant