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 the Polar 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.