Nicknamed “The Sixth Great Lake,” Ontario’s Georgian Bay is a vast body of water almost completely separated from Lake Huron (one of the real Great Lakes) by the Bruce Peninsula and Manitoulin Island. Romantic and rugged, with sandy beaches, ancient rock formations and crystal-blue water, Georgian Bay begins two hours north of Toronto and extends up. Way up. Dubbed La Mer Douce (“the calm sea”) by 17th-century explorer Samuel de Champlain, the bay has 1,200 miles of shoreline and more than 30,000 islands—some substantial, others lone rocks with wind-twisted pines. This was the heartland of the Huron people, who once lived in bark-covered longhouses on the bay’s southern shores. Then came the fur traders and French missionaries. Today, you’re more likely to find pastry chefs, nature enthusiasts and retired baby boomers.
FINDING YOUR CENTER
The Blue Mountains, one of the most striking natural landmarks of southern Georgian Bay, aren’t really mountains at all, but rather the highest part of the Niagara Escarpment—a 450-mile-long ridge that’s been named a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Once known primarily as a ski destination, the Blue Mountains are now a vibrant four-season tourist hub, thanks to the development of the Village at Blue, a resort with chalet-style hotels, chic restaurants and the Millpond at its center.
“Ten years ago, this was nothing but a meadow and a snow-making pond for the ski hills,” says Chris Huycke, manager of Activity Central, a concierge service on the Village’s Main Street that both organizes and books excursions in the region. Spring activities range from wine tastings to rock climbing. The new Alpine Coaster offers a wild ride down Blue Mountain in a two-person car, with jumps, corkscrews and waves.
Once you get your breath back, stroll the village’s cobblestone streets, shopping for resort wear and Canadiana collectibles in the boutiques. Stave off any lingering spring chill with warm-from-the-oven pastries at the Royal Majesty Espresso Bar Bakery.
Five miles east on Grey Road 19, Collingwood is a restored Victorian town with a shipbuilding past. It’s also ideal for a casual lunch with urban flair. Try the quiche Lorraine at Café Chartreuse, but don’t be fooled by the restaurant’s laid-back, order-at-the-counter atmosphere: Co-owner and chef Patrick Bourachot honed his culinary skills at the posh Hôtel de Crillon in Paris.
The lively summer scene at Wasaga Beach—12 miles east of Collingwood—has made it one of Ontario’s iconic vacation destinations. Nearly nine miles long, this stretch of pale gold sand ringed by low rolling waves is the longest freshwater beach in the world. A hybrid of natural beauty and kitsch, Wasaga does double duty as the Coney Island of Canada. One minute you’re wandering the lonely sand dunes in search of endangered piping plovers, the next you’re weaving past amusement arcades, ice cream shops and rows of retro motels.
But there are signs that the region is moving upscale. A recent addition to the culinary scene is Haisai, a 28-seat restaurant and bakery in nearby Singhampton. The décor is wow-I-didn’t-expect-this: snakelike mosaics on the ceiling, and walls embedded with stones. Haisai is the newest venture of chef Michael Stadtländer, whose organic seasonal dishes and veggies from the garden command a cult-like following among Toronto locavores.
MOVING ON UP
As you curve east and north up Georgian Bay’s shores, the terrain gets wilder. The 3,000-acre Wye Marsh Wildlife Center, just east of Midland, straddles two geological areas: the Canadian Shield with its weather-worn Precambrian rock to the north, and the lowlands to the south. An important natural filter that keeps harmful sediments and pollutants from draining into the bay, the marsh is also a birdwatcher’s bonanza, home to such at-risk species as the black tern, least bittern and trumpeter swan. Here, you can hike cedar-scented trails and follow the boardwalk over the lowland marsh, a mesmerizing wetland that harbors everything from lily pads to poisonous spotted water hemlock.
Finally, catch a live presentation at the visitor center (check the schedule beforehand). At the Birds of Prey show, led by a professional falconer, a Harris hawk might skim the top of your head as it swoops past, and you’ll learn more bird lore than you ever wanted (such as why a turkey vulture pees on its legs while eating carrion. Answer: to repel maggots).
It’s one thing to visit the wilderness today. Imagine settling here nearly 400 years ago. Next door to the marsh is the evocative Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons, a replica of the original French Jesuit mission founded here. A tour of the grounds and museum recreates this tumultuous time. Costumed characters share tales of early pioneering efforts as you tour the rustic chapel, climb timber watchtowers and peer into traditional longhouses. Before you leave, stop at the on-site restaurant for a bowl of Three Sisters Soup, based on the holy trinity of native staples: corn, beans and squash.
Right across the highway are the towering twin spires of the Martyrs’ Shrine. The cathedral-sized Shrine Church, along with its landscaped grounds, is dedicated to the area’s eight martyrs, most notably Sainte-Marie priests Jean de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalemant, who were captured and burned at the stake by the Iroquois.
Once you’ve explored the area east of Collingwood, venture in the other direction. A drive west along Highway 26 gives you expansive views of the bay and the area’s many apple orchards, in full bloom by mid May. As more big-city escapees settle in the region, the small towns are undergoing a renaissance. The prettified centers of Meaford and Thornbury are worth a stop, as are the cinnamon buns at the Thornbury Bakery Café. And if a souvenir mug isn’t enough to take home, the landscape paintings at Loft Gallery in Clarksburg might tempt you.
As you turn back toward Collingwood, make a detour to Scenic Caves Nature Adventures, off Grey Road 19 on Scenic Caves Road. This limestone cave and cliff formation sits high on the Niagara Escarpment. Enjoy panoramic views from Ontario’s longest suspension bridge, then wend your way through caves, crags and clefts on an exploration that ranges from the silly (try to squeeze yourself through the 14-inch Fat Man’s Misery Cave) to the sacred—the local Petun people believed that the standing rock of Ekarenniondi marks the entrance to the afterlife.
Open year-round, the nearby adults-only Le Scandinave Spa is a soothing way to end the day. Soak in a mist-shrouded heated pool, inhale the crisp wood-smoke-tinged air and let Georgian Bay’s alchemy of luxury, nature and history wash over you.
Blue Mountains: bluemountain.ca
Activity Central: activitycentral.ca
Royal Majesty Espresso Bar Bakery: 190 Jozo Weider Blvd
Café Chartreuse: 70 Hurontario St; 705.444.0099; cafechartreuse.com
Haisai: 794079 County Road 124; 705.445.2748
Wye Marsh Wildlife Center: 16160 Hwy. 12 E.; 705.526.7809; wyemarsh.com
Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons: 705.526.7838; saintemarieamongthehurons.on.ca
Martyrs’ Shrine: 705.526.3788
Thornbury Bakery Café: 12 Bruce St. S., Thornbury; 519.599.3311
Loft Gallery: loftgallery.ca
Scenic Caves Nature Adventures: 705.446.0256; sceniccaves.com
Le Scandinave Spa: 152 Grey Rd. 21; 877.988.8484; scandinave.com