The Great Lakes comprise the largest body of fresh water on the planet and more than 35,000 islands are found in the water system. Not all are inhabited and some aren't much more than a single rock jutting out of the lake with a lighthouse on it – but the inhabited ones provide the perfect opportunity for a weekend getaway. Here's our list of the best islands in the Great Lakes.
Manitoulin is largely undiscovered territory for modern travellers because it's difficult to get to without a car or boat, but it’s totally worth the effort. Six small reserves with names like Kagawong, M'Chigeeng and Sheguiandah dot the shores of this island and are the best places to find out more about Canada’s First Nations people.
Canada’s most famous First Nations theatre group, De-Ba-Jeh-Mu-Jig (meaning “storyteller”), are based in Wikwemikong and do performances of native legends during summer.
The island is also unique for the small reddish hawberries that grow wild along its shores. Early settlers ate the berries in winter as a last-remaining food source – today, residents born on Manitoulin refer to themselves as “haweaters” as if it’s some secret club.
This isn't just one island, but an archipelago of 1864 dots of land straddling the Canada-US border on the north-eastern exit of Lake Ontario into the St Lawrence River. The islands span fifty miles from the lake into the river, with dozens of waterfront towns (and even some cities) and restaurants.
The Thousand Islands have a rich history – they were a battleground for the War of 1812, an early 1900s playground for the rich and famous, and have always been a hub of maritime activity. This history is celebrated in the many museums, castles and mansions across the islands. If you're looking for a hands-on experience, take part in one of the re-enactments or living history demonstrations that overtake Sackets Harbor Battlefield during the summer.
Beaver Island's history is unique: it began as a strong Mormon settlement with 300 followers of the Strangite sect, the Mormons who chose to follow James Strang instead of Brigham Young. The Strangites weren't necessarily welcomed, and after Strang's death in 1856, mobs from nearby communities drove the settlers off the island. So then the Irish fisherman came – earning Beaver Island the nickname "America's Emerald Isle". They were quickly followed by droves of outdoor-loving tourists and now the island is a hotspot for fishing and hunting.
The Beaver Island Wildlife Club has been active for more than 70 years working to preserve and maintain the wildlife and its habitat. In addition to many available deer, wild turkey, and small game for hunting, the island is known for excellent fly-fishing and a robust supply of smallmouth bass, carp, and walleye.
Party-lovers rejoice: you have your place in the Great Lakes, too. South Bass Island is home to one of Lake Erie's largest entertainment destinations, the town of Put-in-Bay. Beer Barrel Saloon claims to have the longest uninterrupted bar in the world, seating 160 people on its stools, and the Round House has great live bands daily. There's a reason it's called the "Key West of Lake Erie," and it's not just because of the sun-kissed sands.
This small island once belonged to a Swedish fisherman but was recently purchased by New Yorker, Rob Gorski, and turned into a thriving artists' colony. Gorski, an emergency room doctor, found the island on CraigsList. At the time, it only held the remains of a cabin, but Gorski saw more. Now the island has a shelter, a kitchen, and a sauna, and attracts artists from across the world to live in the wild wooded space and let Lake Superior's moods influence their art.
Gorski hopes to eventually open an office and studio space in nearby Calumet, Michigan, to showcase the work of the island's artists for locals and visitors interested in the robust art scene in the Upper Peninsula.
Explore of this area with the Rough Guides Great Lakes Snapshot. Compare flights, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.
Top image © John Brueske/Shutterstock