This spectacular island in the northern end of Lake Huron in Canada is the world’s largest freshwater island and is a truly special place to visit.
The largest freshwater island in the world is located at the north end of Lake Huron, in the province of Ontario, Canada. It’s called Manitoulin Island, which literally translates from the native Ojibwe language as “God’s Island.” After spending four days camping there with my family, I’d agree that the name is fitting.
Manitoulin Island is a beautiful and unusual place. With a population of just 13,000 people spread over 2,766 square kilometres (1,068 square miles), the island feels wonderfully remote while keeping travellers in relatively close contact with amenities. Villages and small towns dot the island’s main routes, featuring many independent businesses, playgrounds, picnic shelters, and the ubiquitous fish-and-chips stands serving fresh Lake Huron whitefish.
The island goes an impressive job at creating tourist appeal in its towns. Almost every place we visited had its own museum or interpretive center, which were welcome destinations when it rained and we had three children in a tent desperately needing entertainment. The Assiginack Museum in the town of Manitowaning was particularly fascinating, built in the former jail and filled with a wonderful display of artifacts from pioneer life, First Nations art, and accounts of shipwrecks off the coast of Manitoulin, of which there have been many. The museum also has a blacksmith shop, a schoolhouse, a carriage house, and log cabin, all open for touring.
© K Martinko — The Norisle was the 1st passenger ship built in Ontario after World War 2. Many hope it can be restored to its former glory, to run routes throughout the Great Lakes. For now it sits in the port of Manitowaning, on Manitoulin Island.
The scenery on Manitoulin Island is spectacular, changing from rolling farmland dotted with wildflowers and hay bales, farmhouses, old stone foundations, and the split-rail fences for which Manitoulin is famous, into harbor towns and fishing hamlets with boats from fishing tugs to gigantic yachts in the docks. Roads wind around the island’s more than 100 interior lakes, many of which are huge themselves.
© K Martinko — Another view from the Cup and Saucer trail on Manitoulin Island
Manitoulin is home to a northern portion of the Niagara Escarpment, an ancient ridge of rock that runs from New York State through Ontario, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois. A famous hiking trail called the Cup and Saucer takes hikers along the edge of the escarpment, overlooking 70-metre (230-foot) cliffs with spectacular views of forest, lakes, and Lake Huron in the distance. The trail was rough but manageable by our small children, although we kept them away from cliff edges and avoided the surprisingly huge holes that appeared at the edge of trail, some plunging all the way to the bottom of the cliffs.
Bridal Veil Falls is also a fun place to visit, where a literal ‘veil’ of water cascades over the lip of a deep rock basin, creating a natural swimming hole in the pretty town of Kagawong. Hiking trails and a boardwalk make it accessible.
© K Martinko — Bridal Veil Falls in Kagawong, ON
Manitoulin Island has a northern Ontario vibe, without actually being too far north. You can get there in 5 or 6 hours driving from Toronto, but the most fun way to arrive at the island is the way that First Nations people and settlers always traveled in this area – by boat. Take the Chi-Cheemaun ferry from Tobermory, at the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula.
The trip is just under 2 hours, and while it may extend travel time somewhat if you’re coming from southern Ontario, it’s time and money well spent, with beautiful views of Huron’s smaller islands, spectacular turquoise water, limestone formations, and old lighthouses. If you don’t have kids who require constant monitoring, then relax in one of the comfy lounge chairs on the sunny back deck and enjoy the ride.
© K Martinko — The beautiful Cove Island Lighthouse has marked the passage between Lake Huron and Georgian Bay since 1858