Ontario may not have the tourist profile of the Rockies out west, but the province still boasts many of Canada’s top attractions: Niagara Falls is the country’s most visited sight; Ottawa makes an engaging capital, while Toronto is one of the most visited cities in North America; and Algonquin Park is an especially fine tract of pristine wilderness. It’s also very, very big – a giant slab of land, Canada’s second-largest province, stretching all the way from the St Lawrence River and the Great Lakes to the frozen shores of Hudson Bay, a landscape studded with thousands of lakes from which Ontario gets its name – literally “glittering waters” – given by its earliest inhabitants, the Iroquois.
Spreading along the northern shore of Lake Ontario to either side of Toronto is a chain of towns that are often lumped together as the Golden Horseshoe, a misleadingly evocative name that refers solely to the area’s geographic shape and economic success. This is Ontario’s manufacturing heartland, a built-up strip whose most notable attraction is the Royal Botanical Gardens, close to steel-town Hamilton. Further round the lake are the famous Niagara Falls, easily Ontario’s most popular attraction, and Niagara-on-the-Lake, one of the province’s quaintest towns. West of the Golden Horseshoe, much of Southwest Ontario is profoundly rural, an expanse of farmland sandwiched between lakes Huron and Erie. High points here include Goderich and Bayfield, two charming little towns tucked tight against Lake Huron; Stratford, with its much-vaunted theatre festival; and Georgian Bay, whose Severn Sound is the location of the astoundingly beautiful Georgian Bay Islands National Park, an elegiac land and waterscape of rocky, pine-dotted islets and crystal-blue lake. The national park – and its campsites – are best approached by boat from tiny Honey Harbour, but you can sample the scenery on a variety of island cruises from Penetanguishene, Midland and the dinky little port of Parry Sound. Also here on Severn Sound are a pair of top-notch historical reconstructions, the one-time British naval base at Discovery Harbour and the former Jesuit mission at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons.
Central Ontario, inland from the coastal strip bordering Georgian Bay, is largely defined by the Canadian Shield, whose endless forests, myriad lakes and thin soils dip down from the north in a giant wedge. This hostile terrain has kept settlement down to a minimum, though latterly the very wildness of the land has attracted Canadian holidaymakers, who come here to hunker down in their lakeside cottages – hence the moniker “cottage country”. The centre of this is the Muskoka Lakes, a skein of narrow lakes and rivers, and their main supply towns, Gravenhurst and Bracebridge. The Muskoka Lakes may be relatively domesticated, but neighbouring Algonquin Provincial Park is certainly not, comprising a wilderness tract with abundant wildlife and a mind-bogglingly large network of canoe routes.
The implacability of the Shield breaks up as it approaches the St Lawrence River at the east end of Lake Ontario, and it’s here you’ll find a string of historic towns and villages. The pick is Kingston, renowned for its fine limestone buildings and a pleasant stepping stone on the road east to either Montréal or Ottawa, Canada’s appealing capital city, which boasts some of the country’s finest museums and a first-rate restaurant and bar scene.
Stretching north from the shores of Lake Huron and Lake Superior, northern Ontario is almost entirely flat, give or take the odd ridge and chasm, an endless expanse of forest and lake pouring over the mineral-rich rocks of the Canadian Shield. It was the north which once produced the furs that launched Canada’s economy, but the travelling is hard and time-consuming and, unless you’re after some hunting and fishing, the region’s charms are limited. Two main roads cross this immense, sparsely populated region, Hwy-11 in the north and the much more enjoyable Hwy-17 to the south. Highlights of Hwy-17 begin with Sault Ste Marie, the terminus for a splendid wilderness train trip on the Algoma Central Railway, and continue with the string of parks bordering Lake Superior, notably the extravagantly wild Lake Superior Provincial Park and Pukaskwa National Park. Beyond lies the inland port of Thunder Bay, the last place of much appeal before Winnipeg, a further 680km to the west. Hwy-11, on the other hand, links a series of far-flung mining towns and has little to offer with the possible exception of thePolar Bear Express train, which strikes north from Cochrane beyond the road network to Moosonee on the frozen shores of James Bay – though to be frank, the rail journey across these northern wastes can seem interminable, the mosquitoes infuriating the moment you disembark.
The first Europeans to make regular contact with the region’s Aboriginal Iroquois and Algonquin peoples were the French explorers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most famously Étienne Brûlé and Samuel de Champlain. These early visitors were preoccupied with the fur trade, and it wasn’t until the end of the American War of Independence and the immigration of the United Empire Loyalists from New England that mass settlement began. Between 1820 and 1850 a further wave of migrants, mostly English, Irish and Scots, made Upper Canada, as Ontario was known until Confederation, the most populous and prosperous part of Canada. This pre-eminence was reinforced towards the end of the nineteenth century by the industrialization of the region’s larger towns, a process underpinned by the discovery of some of the world’s richest mineral deposits: in the space of twenty years, nickel was found near Sudbury, silver at Cobalt, gold in Red Lake and iron ore at Wawa.
In 1943, the Progressive Conservative Party (PCs) took control of the provincial government and remained in power for over forty years. The PCs followed a right-of-centre, pro-business agenda and their skill in handling the popular vote earned them the nickname the “Big Blue Machine”. Nevertheless, the PCs did move with the times, passing a string of progressive acts such as, for example, Canada’s first Fair Employment Practices Act against discrimination and the Female Employees Fair Remuneration Act, both in 1951. In 1985, the PCs finally lost a provincial election, but returned to power ten years later with a flinty right-wing agenda that owed much to Britain’s Margaret Thatcher. The PCs were much taken up with privatization and tax cuts (plus endless carping about welfare scroungers), but this did not play well with a sizeable chunk of the population and, much to the relief of the Left, the Liberals have defeated them in the last four elections, with 2014 seeing Kathleen Wynne elected as the first female leader of the majority winner.
Economically, Ontario’s timber and mining industries, massive hydroelectric schemes and myriad factories have kept the province at or near the top of the economic ladder for decades. The province’s industrial success has also created massive environmental problems, most noticeable in the wounded landscapes around Sudbury and the polluted waters of lakes Erie and Ontario – problems which the provincial government has started to tackle, albeit somewhat tardily.
Created in 1893 at the behest of logging companies keen to keep farmers out, Algonquin Provincial Park is Ontario’s oldest and largest provincial park and for many it comprises the quintessential Canadian landscape. Located on the southern edge of the Canadian Shield, the park straddles a transitional zone, with the hilly two-thirds to the west covered in a hardwood forest of sugar maple, beech and yellow birch, while in the drier eastern part jack pine, white pine and red pine predominate. Throughout the park, the lakes and rocky rounded hills are interspersed with black spruce bogs, a type of vegetation typical of areas far further north. Canoeing is very popular here and with an astounding 1600km of routes there’s a good chance of avoiding all contact for days on end. Wildlife is as varied as the flora – any trip to Algonquin is characterized by the echo of birdsong, from the loons’ ghostly call to the screech of ravens. Beavers, moose, black bears and raccoons are all resident, as are white-tailed deer, whose population thrives on the young shoots that replace the trees felled by the park’s loggers. Public “howling parties” – which can attract up to two thousand people – set off into the wilderness during August in search of timber wolves, or rather their howls: many of the rangers are so good at howling that they can get the animals to reply.
Whether you’re after the full wilderness experience or just a quick dabble, access to Algonquin’s backcountry is via the 56km Parkway Corridor – also known as the Frank McDougall Parkway (Hwy-60) – the park’s only significant road linking the West Gate, 45km east of Hwy-11, and the East Gate, on the long road to and from Ottawa.
The beaver is Canada’s national animal: it appeared on the first postage stamp issued by the colony in 1851, and now features on the back of the 5¢ piece. There was nothing sentimental about this choice – beaver pelts kick-started the colonial economy – and only recently has the beaver been treated with some restraint and protected from being indiscriminately polished off.
Beavers are aquatic rodents, growing to around 75cm in length and weighing about 35kg. Aboriginal peoples hunted the beaver for its thick, soft pelt, composed of long guard hairs and a dense undercoat, to use for clothing. In the seventeenth century. European fur traders realized the value of beaver pelts, particularly in the manufacture of the all-weather, all-purpose hat worn by every man of any substance. To keep up with demand the beaver was extensively trapped, and the French voyageurs pushed further and further west along the lake and river systems in pursuit of the animal, thereby opening up much of the interior. The beaver was hunted to the point of extinction in much of eastern Canada, but had a reprieve when the beaver hat went out of fashion in the late nineteenth century; today beavers are comparatively commonplace.
Beavers start to build their dams, which can be up to 700m wide, by strategically felling one tree across a stream. This catches silt and driftwood and the beaver then reinforces the barrier with sticks and stones plus grass and mud, which is laboriously smoothed-in as a binding element. The lodge is constructed simultaneously; sometimes it forms part of the dam and sometimes it is fixed to the shore or an island in the pond. It is about 2m in diameter and has two entrances – one accessible from land and one from underwater – both for its own convenience and to be able to escape predators in any emergency, along with a lot of tail slapping to give the alarm. Lodges are topped with grass thatch and a good layer of mud, which freezes in winter, making them virtually impenetrable. During the autumn, the beaver stocks its pond with the soft-bark trees and saplings that make up its diet. It drags them below the water line and anchors them to the mud at the bottom before retiring to the lodge for the winter, only emerging to get food from the pond or repair the dam. Beaver lakes are not the tree-fringed paradises portrayed by some nature-film makers; nearer the mark is a mud-banked pond, surrounded by untidily felled trees and with a bedraggled-looking domed heap of sticks and sludge somewhere along its banks.
BRANTFORD, a quick 40km west of Hamilton on Hwy-403, takes its name from Joseph Brant, an Iroquois chieftain who was one of the most intriguing figures of colonial Canada. Brant helped the British during the American War of Independence and, after their defeat, he and his followers were obliged to make a hasty exit from New York State before the Americans could take their revenge. The British stayed loyal to their ally (just about) and in 1784 Brant was ceded a large tract of land beside the Grand River on the site of what is today Brantford. European settlers reached the area in numbers in the 1850s and subsequently Brantford developed as a manufacturing centre churning out agricultural equipment by the wagon load. By the 1980s, however, the town was in decline as many of its factories and foundries went bust or relocated. Brantford still bears the scars of this de-industrialization, but a concerted effort has been made to breathe new life into the centre and, for the most part, this has been a success with a batch of new leisure facilities and shopping malls. For Canadians, Brantford is most famous as the home town of Wayne Gretzky, probably the greatest ice-hockey player of all time; for everyone else, the town is best known as being the one-time home of the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell.
The twin industrial cities of Kitchener and Waterloo hog a slab of flatland to the west of the Grand River. They have a distinctive pedigree, as the first white settlers to arrive in the area in numbers were the Mennonites, a tightly knit Protestant sect who migrated here in the 1790s from the US, where their pacifist beliefs had incurred the wrath of their neighbours during the American Revolution. Over the years, the Mennonites gradually drifted out of the twin cities and now own much of the farmland immediately to the north.
They are unmistakeable, with the men wearing traditional black suits and broad-brimmed hats, or deep-blue shirts and braces, the women ankle-length dresses and matching bonnets, and many navigate the roads in black, horse-drawn buggies. Despite appearances, however, the Ontario Mennonites are far from a homogeneous sect. Over twenty different groups are affiliated to the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). They all share certain religious beliefs reflecting their Anabaptist origins – the sole validity of adult baptism being crucial – but precise practices and dress codes vary from group to group: for instance, members of the traditional wing of the movement, called Old Order Mennonite, own property communally and shun all modern machinery.
To explain their history and faith, the MCC runs a small but intriguing interpretation centre, The Mennonite Story, at 1406 King St North in the village of St Jacobs, just north of Waterloo via Hwy-85. Also in St Jacobs, along the short main street, are several Mennonite stores selling home-made farm produce – the maple syrup is simply magnificent. Mennonite traders are also prominent at the much-lauded Farmers’ Market, back in the centre of Kitchener on King Street East (Sat 7am–2pm; kitchenermarket.ca).
Separating the main body of Lake Huron from Georgian Bay, the Bruce Peninsula holds two of Ontario’s national parks. The more distinctive is the Fathom Five National Marine Park, at the northern tip of the peninsula, which provides wonderful sport for divers. The second is the Bruce Peninsula National Park, comprising two slabs of forested wilderness on either side of Hwy-6, its northern portion offering magnificent coastal hiking on a small section of the Bruce Trail. There’s camping at both parks and a reasonable choice of hotel and motel accommodation at lively Tobermory, from where you catch the car ferry over to Manitoulin Island.
Fathom Five National Marine Park comprises a scattering of uninhabited islands and the waters that surround them at the end of the Bruce Peninsula, offshore from Tobermory. To protect the natural habitat, only Flowerpot Island, 4km from the mainland, has any amenities, with limited space for camping – six sites only – and a couple of short hiking trails that explore its eastern reaches. A delightful spot, Flowerpot takes its name from two pink-and-grey rock pillars that have been eroded away from its eastern shore – and these are readily seen on the islet’s hiking trails.
Fathom Five is known across Canada for its excellent diving – the waters are clear, there are extraordinary rock formations and a handful of shipwrecks. Prospective divers must register in person at the national park office. Diving gear can be rented down by Tobermory harbour at G&S Watersports (519 596 2200, gswatersports.net), who also offer diving lessons and kayak rental.
With a population of around 500,000, HAMILTON lies at the extreme western end of Lake Ontario, about 70km from Toronto. The city takes its name from George Hamilton, a storekeeper-turned-landowner, who surveyed the area after he moved here following the destruction of his homestead during the War of 1812. By the early 1900s, Hamilton had become a major steel producer and today its mills churn out about half the country’s output, though the city’s industrial heyday has faded and in recent years it has struggled to keep itself afloat. Industrial cities are rarely high on tourist itineraries and Hamilton is no exception, but it does have one or two quality attractions, most notably the sprawling Royal Botanical Gardens. Other than the gardens, all the city’s key attractions are in – or within comfortable walking distance of – a surprisingly compact downtown core. This runs east to west parallel to the lake shore along King Street West and Main Street West, between Bay Street North and James Street North. Beyond here, Hamilton becomes a large and sprawling city with a confusing one-way street system.
Royal Botanical Gardens
cover some twelve square kilometres just across Burlington Bay from downtown Hamilton, its several sections spread over 15km of wooded shoreline. The flower displays here are simply gorgeous with highlights including
Hendrie Park’s Rose Gardens
(best June–Oct) and nearby
with its irises and peonies (May & June). Hendrie Park adjoins the main
RBG Visitor Centre
, where there’s a shop, café and several inside areas featuring forced bulbs, orchids and cacti. Wilder parts of the RBG are round to the west with the 800-hectare
Cootes Paradise Sanctuary
latticed with hiking trails.
Birthplace of the rock singer Bryan Adams but prouder of its handsome limestone buildings, the city of KINGSTON, a fast 260km east of Toronto along Hwy-401, is the largest and most enticing of the communities along the northern shore of Lake Ontario. The town occupies an attractive and strategically important position where the lake narrows into the St Lawrence River, its potential first recognized by the French who built a fortified fur-trading post, Fort Frontenac, here in 1673. It was not a success, but struggled on until 1758 when it fell to a combined force of British, Americans and Iroquois, a victory soon followed by an influx of United Empire Loyalists, who promptly developed Kingston – as they renamed it – into a major shipbuilding centre and naval base. The money rolled in and the future looked rosy when the completion of the Rideau Canal, linking Kingston with Ottawa in 1832, opened up its hinterland. Kingston became Canada’s capital in 1841 and although it lost this distinction just three years later it remained the region’s most important town until the end of the nineteenth century. In recent years, Kingston – and its 160,000 inhabitants – has had as many economic downs as ups, but it does benefit from the presence of Queen’s University, one of Canada’s most prestigious academic institutions, and of the Royal Military College, the country’s answer to Sandhurst and West Point.
Central Kingston’s medley of old houses and offices displays every architectural foible admired by the Victorians, from neo-Gothic mansions with high gables to elegant Italianate villas, but the cream of the architectural crop are the city’s Neoclassical limestone buildings, especially City Hall and the Cathedral of St George. Kingston also holds the first-rate Agnes Etherington Art Centre gallery and Bellevue House, once the home of prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald. Add to this several superb B&Bs, a cluster of good restaurants and scenic boat trips round the Thousand Islands just offshore, and you have a city that is well worth a couple of days.
Kingston’s elongated centre slopes up from Lake Ontario. Most of the key sights and the pick of the city’s bars and restaurants nudge together along the first few blocks of the main commercial drag, Princess Street.
If you’re travelling from Kingston to Ottawa, the obvious route is east along Hwy-401 and then north up Hwy-416, a journey of 175km. With more time, however, it’s worth considering a slower route along two country roads – Hwy-15 and then Hwy-7. En route, you’ll pass a battery of signs to the 24 lock stations of the 202km-long Rideau Canal (t 613 283 5170, w pc.gc.ca), which cuts through the slab of coniferous and deciduous forest, bogs, limestone plains and granite ridges that separate Ottawa and Kingston. Completed in 1832 after a mere six years’ work, the canal was built to provide safe inland transport at a time of poor Anglo-American relations, but after the political situation improved it developed as an important route for regional commerce. The canal’s construction led to the development of Bytown, renamed Ottawa in 1855, but in the second half of the nineteenth century the railways made the canal obsolete and today it’s plied by holiday boats. For the motorist, one of the more impressive lock stations is Kingston Mills (Locks 46–49), 12km inland from Kingston on Hwy-15, where a steep flight of locks negotiates a wooded ravine overlooked by a blockhouse and lock offices. It’s a lovely spot and there’s more of the same, albeit in a wilder setting, at Jones Falls (Locks 39–42), 3km off Hwy-15 and about 40km from Kingston. Here, a huddle of old timber buildings is a prelude to a rickety footbridge that leads over a lake to a steep flight of locks guarded by several old stone buildings. By boat it takes five days to get from Kingston to Ottawa on the Rideau Canal with Ontario Waterways (t 705 327 5767, t 1 800 561 5767, w ontariowaterwaycruises.com); there are between three and six cruises monthly from mid-May to mid-September, the cost is $1951, and reservations are essential.
The Crees have been hunting and fishing James Bay, a southerly extension of Hudson Bay, for several thousand years and they make up the majority of the population of MOOSONEE, which occupies an incredibly remote and solitary bayside location well to the north of the road network. A French fur-trading company, Révillon Frères, founded Moosonee in 1903 and the Révillon Frères Museum (late June to early Sept daily 10am–6pm; free; t705 336 1209), in one of the original company buildings, traces the history of the settlement and its largely unsuccessful attempt to challenge the local monopoly of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The latter had established the trading post of Moose Factory Island, just offshore, in 1673, which makes it the oldest English-speaking community in Ontario. Water taxis ($10 one way) zip travellers from the jetty at Moosonee to the island, where the Moose Factory Centennial Museum Park (late June to early Sept daily 9am–5pm; free; t705 658 2733) holds the original blacksmith’s shop, graveyard, powder magazine (the island’s only stone building) and a teepee where the locals sell bannock (freshly baked bread). South of here, St Thomas Anglican Church, built in 1860, has an altar cloth of beaded moose hide, prayer books written in Cree and removable floor plugs to prevent the church floating away in floods.
OWEN SOUND, just under 200km northwest of Toronto and 130km north of Goderich, occupies the ravine around the mouth of the Sydenham River, at the foot of the Bruce Peninsula. In its heyday, Owen Sound was a rough and violent port packed with brothels and bars, prompting the Americans to establish a consulate whose main function was to bail out drunk and disorderly sailors. For the majority it was an unpleasant place to live, and the violence spawned an especially active branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Organization, whose success was such that an alcohol ban was imposed in 1906 and only lifted in 1972. The town was in decline long before the return of the bars, its port facilities undercut by the railways from the 1920s, but it’s managed to reinvent itself and is now an amiable sort of place well worth at least a pit stop, though navigation can be confusing: avenues run north–south and streets east–west, while the river, which bisects the town centre, separates avenues and streets East from those marked West.
The small-time port of Collingwood, 65km east of Owen Sound on Nottawasaga Bay, is the gateway to the Blue Mountain, a segment of the Niagara Escarpment whose steepish slopes are now a major winter sports area, mainly for alpine skiing though several cross-country trails have also been developed. To get there from Collingwood, take the Blue Mountain Road (Hwy-19) which reaches – after about 10km – the downhill ski slopes at the Blue Mountain Resort (t 705 445 0231, t 1 877 445 0231, w bluemountain.ca), a large and modern sprawl comprising hotels, shops, restaurants and cafés. In total, the Blue Mountain ski area has 36 downhill ski slopes of varying difficulty with a maximum vertical drop of 219m. The prime season is from mid-December to mid-March.
Strategically situated beside St Mary’s River, the tortuous link between lakes Superior and Huron, industrial SAULT STE MARIE – more popularly The Soo – sits opposite the Michigan town of the same name and sees constant two-way traffic, with two sets of tourists keen to see how the other lot lives. The Soo, 300km from Sudbury, is northern Ontario’s oldest community, originally settled by Ojibwa fishing parties. The French called these Ojibwa Saulteux (“people of the falls”) and the Jesuit missionaries who followed added the Christian sobriquet to give the town its present name. Initially, The Soo flourished as a gateway to the fur-rich regions inland, but it was the construction of a lock and canal in the nineteenth century that launched its career as a Great Lakes port and industrial centre, churning out pulp, paper and steel. Too industrial to be pretty,
Some 2km long and three blocks wide, The Soo’s downtown core runs parallel to the waterfront to either side of the main drag, Queen Street East. All the principal sights and most visitor facilities are located here, the pick of which stretch along the waterfront, but its real appeal is as the starting point for a splendid wilderness train ride on the Algoma Central Railway.
The 476km-long Algoma Central Railway (ACR) was constructed in 1901 to link the Soo’s timber plants with the forests of the interior. the first recreational users were members of the group of Seven, who shunted up and down the track in a converted boxcar, stopping to paint whenever the mood took them. the ACr’s timber days are long gone, but today the railway offers one of Ontario’s finest excursions, with the train snaking through a wonderful wilderness of deep ravines, secluded lakes and plunging gorges. to see it all, sit on the left-hand side – otherwise you’ll end up looking at an awful lot of rock. there are several tours to choose from, though only two stand out, and all depart from the Algoma Central railway terminal, in downtown Soo at 129 Bay St and dennis (t 705 946 7300, t 1 800 242 9287, w agawacanyontourtrain.com).
The Agawa Canyon Tour Train takes a day to cover the first 200km of track and back (late June to mid-Oct departs daily at 8am, returns 6pm; $84; $102 in autumn). Reservations are strongly advised and essential in the autumn, when the leaves turn. A two-hour stop within the canyon’s 180m-high walls allows for a lunch break and a wander around the well-marked nature trails, which include a lookout post from where the rail line appears as a thin silver thread far below. Unless you are properly equipped don’t miss the train back – the canyon gets very cold at night, even during the summer, and the blackflies are merciless.
A regular passenger train service from The Soo to the remote francophone township of Hearst three times weekly was suspended in the summer of 2015. Previously passengers on this train could get off and on at various points along the line; check w algomapassengerrail.com for the latest on the ongoing efforts to get this service reinstated.
STRATFORD, some 150km west of Toronto, is a likeable country town of thirty thousand people, which rises head and shoulders above its neighbours as the host of the Stratford Festival, originating in 1953 and now one of the most prestigious theatrical occasions in North America, attracting no fewer than half a million visitors every year. It only takes an hour or so to work out what is where in Stratford, beginning with the town’s downtown core, on and around the junction of Ontario and Downie streets, where a handsome set of nineteenth-century brick facades reach an idiosyncratic hiatus in the grandiose city hall, a brown-brick fiesta of cupolas, towers and limestone trimmings. The town is also bisected by the meandering Avon River, whose leafy banks are lined with immaculately maintained footpaths and overlooked by the largest of the town’s four theatres, the Festival Theatre.
Each year, North America’s largest classical repertory company puts on the Stratford Festival (t 519 273 1600, t 1 800 567 1600, w stratfordfestival.ca), featuring two of Shakespeare’s tragedies and one of his comedies; this programme is augmented by other classical staples – Molière, Chekhov, Jonson and so forth – as well as by the best of modern and musical theatre. The festival also hosts a lecture series, various tours (of backstage and a costume warehouse, for example), music concerts, an author reading series and meet-and-greet sessions with the actors. The festival runs from mid-April to late October and there are performances in four downtown theatres – the Festival, the Tom Patterson, the Avon and the Studio. Regular tickets cost between $50 and $80 depending on the performance and seat category, though there are all sorts of discount deals for students, seniors, same-day performances and previews; many plays are sold out months in advance. Call or check the website to book.
The Lake Superior port of THUNDER BAY, some 110km from Nipigon, is much closer to Winnipeg than to any other city in Ontario, and consequently its 120,000 inhabitants are prone to see themselves as Westerners. Economics as well as geography define this self-image, for this was until recently a booming grain-handling port – for grain harvested in the Prairies. Some grain still arrives here by rail to be stored in the town’s gigantic grain elevators on its way to the Atlantic, but since the 1990s the economics of the trade have favoured Canada’s Pacific ports and many of the elevators that dominate the harbourfront are now literally rotting away.
Scarred by industrial complexes and crisscrossed by rail lines, Thunder Bay is not immediately enticing, but it does have enough of interest to make a pleasant stopover on the long journey to or from Winnipeg and points west. The most agreeable part of town is the few blocks stretching inland from behind the marina in Thunder Bay North, north of Central Avenue, where you’ll also find several good cafés and restaurants. Thunder Bay South is much less appealing, but on its outskirts is the city’s star turn, the replica fur-trading post of Fort William Historical Park.
Thunder Bay was created in 1970 when the two existing towns of Fort William and Port Arthur were brought together under one municipal roof. Fort William was the older of the two, established in 1789 as a fur-trading post and then becoming the upcountry headquarters of the North West Company. It lost its pre-eminent position when the North West and Hudson’s Bay companies merged, but it remained a fur-trading post until the end of the nineteenth century. In the middle of the nineteenth century, rumours of a huge silver lode brought prospectors to the Lake Superior shoreline just north of Fort William, where Port Arthur was established. The silver didn’t last and the Port Arthur, Duluth & Western Railway (PD&W), which had laid the lines to the mines, was soon nicknamed “the Poverty, Distress & Welfare”. The Canadian Northern Railway, which took over the abandoned PD&W lines, did much to rescue the local economy, but did not bring Fort William and Port Arthur closer together. Rudyard Kipling noted that, “The twin cities hate each other with the pure, passionate, poisonous hatred that makes cities grow. If Providence wiped out one of them, the other would pine away and die.” Fortunately, the 1970 amalgamation bypassed Kipling’s prediction and nowadays these parochial rivalries have all but vanished.
Heading west from Thunder Bay, it’s almost 700km to Winnipeg in Manitoba. The logical place to break your journey is Kenora, almost 500km away along Hwy-17, through the interminable pine forests of the Canadian Shield. Remember to put your watch back one hour when you cross into the Central time zone, about 60km west of Thunder Bay.