Manitoulin Island is truly a hidden gem in Ontario! I find that it's increasingly difficult to find peaceful destinations with outdoor adventures that are unspoiled by over-obsessive tourists, but this is one of the few. Perhaps it's the long drive from Toronto that deters most people from visiting.
While the protective side of me almost feels inclined to keep this itinerary to myself, it's my duty to share this magical place with you not only to support the local businesses I've included below, but also so that if you do choose to visit, you will be prepared, do ample research, and truly appreciate the destination and its rich culture. We acknowledge that we are on the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe Peoples and wish to recognize the long history of First Nations and Métis Peoples in Ontario, and show respect to them today.
As usual, the purpose of this post is to provide you with our exact itinerary so you can see what is feasible in 3 days, rather than give you a laundry list of possibilities. It may seem like our schedule was packed because we're high-energy travellers, but we actually felt present in the moment - nothing was rushed and there was plenty of time for breaks. Feel free to borrow portions of this and DIY your plan, or spread our itinerary over a longer period (although we think 3 days and 2 nights is perfect).
What makes Manitoulin Island so special?
1) It's rich with First Nations history and a beautiful place to learn and appreciate their culture. The town Manitowaning is where Canada's first European settlement and the Anishinaabe settlement are located. Also, among the six Indigenous reserves on the island, Wikwemikong is Canada's only unceded reserve (meaning that the land was never signed away to the Crown or country).
2) The island is quiet as it's less commonly visited by people from the city. I realized many Torontonians haven't had the fortune of enjoying Manitoulin because of what seems like a far drive, but I can guarantee that the effort is worth it!
3) It's the largest freshwater island in the world!
How to get to Manitoulin Island
There are two options from Toronto (both take about 6 hours):
1) Drive - this will take you around the Georgian Bay where you will pass many beautiful destinations like the French River, Killbear Provincial Park, and our favourite - Killarney Provincial Park.
2) Drive, then take the Chi-Cheemaun Ferry across from Tobermory (Bruce Peninsula) to Manitoulin Island. This option will cost a bit more and take slightly longer than the first if you are driving directly from Toronto, simply because you are at the mercy of the ferry's schedule. During Covid, the ferry is also slightly harder to book because the online reservation system is closed.
Either way, you may come across places you may want to explore, but make sure you leave enough time to spend at least 3 days at Manitoulin. If you haven't been to the Bruce Peninsula or Killarney, it's definitely worth spending 1-1.5 weeks on the Georgian Bay Coastal Route.
Flying is the complicated option as there's no direct connection from Toronto. You will need to fly to Sudbury AIrport, take a taxi into Sudbury and then a bus to Espanola, then take a cab to Little Current on Manitoulin Island.
Where to stay
My instinct is to look on Airbnb before entertaining other options, but didn't have much luck with that this time. So, I turned to the trusty Google Map search and there were many options with vacancies, which surprised us particularly because we were last-minute booking for the May 24 Long Weekend.
Pro tip: location is key for us so after searching "Manitoulin Island Accommodations" on Google Maps, I zoomed in and clicked on the blue dots (or properties) closest to the lake. That's how I found the beautiful Viva Villa Cottages.
We stayed at Viva Villa Cottages and loved every moment of it! The owners, Scott and Kate, were sweet and accommodating, and the pictures will speak for themselves. Our cabin, "The Palace", backed onto a quiet stream just off Lake Kagawong. Our cabin was the smallest of the four available but it was plenty for us - it had a full kitchen, living room, bathroom, and two bedrooms large enough for four people. Another huge selling point for us was that it was a resort and all amenities were included - from firewood to canoes and lawn bowling. It only cost $150 per night and we stayed for two.
The runner up contender for us was Twin Peaks B&B - I loved how their rooms were luxury Victorian-themed and offer amazing breakfast. We hope to stay there next time but for now, we always prioritize properties that offer adventure.
Inclusive of all food, gas, accommodations, and activities, the trip cost around $400 CAD. Note that accommodation prices do increase during high season (summer months). A trip like this doesn't get much cheaper unless you are camping and spending maybe $60/night on a campsite.
We visited Manitoulin Island on May 24 Long Weekend and contrary to our expectations, it was idyllic and quiet.
We have already done separate trips to the Bruce Peninsula and the area around Killarney, so this time, we decided to drive straight to Manitoulin Island. The drive was beautiful so we didn't even notice it took 6 hours!
9AM - Depart Toronto, drive 4h to Sudbury, where we stopped to do a nice little hike and eat lunch.
1PM - Hike Point Trails Loop in Lake Laurentian Park, Sudbury (a little over 4km, 1.5h including a lunch break). The views were spectacular. While the trail was decently marked, you have to pay attention to the arrows sprayed on the quartzite rock. I would recommend downloading the offline AllTrails map. At the trailhead, people were launching their canoes and fishing. This is a great place to stop and break up the long drive.
If you're looking for a shorter hike, the other trail we considered in Sudbury was the AY Jackson Lookout which features a waterfall.
3PM - After the hike and late lunch, we drove another 2 hours to Manitoulin Island.
Tip: If you plan on driving directly to Manitoulin Island (rather than taking the ferry), you will need to cross the Little Current Swing Bridge. Time your drive so that you don't hit the top of the daytime hours when the bridge will open for 15 mins each hour for water transit (hours change according to times of the year so check the website).
And just to throw a fun fact in here - Little Current is one of the only Swing Bridges in Canada and is a designated Ontario Heritage Site!
5PM - Visit Bridal Veil Falls, which you'll only need 30 minutes at if you're not planning on swimming. The falls aren't very tall (they're only 35 feet) but you can walk behind them (you won't get soaked but will feel a bit of refreshing mist!). Make sure you're wearing good shoes as it's slippery.
Parking is located in a small lot at the top of the falls, and you'll then take two sets of metal stairs to the base of the falls. There will likely be people in your pictures if you go any time other than in the wee hours of the morning, but they cycle through pretty quickly. If you are patient, you'll eventually find a break in the crowd and can sneak in some photos like this!
6PM - Viva Villa Cottages check in. The cottage was a convenient 10 minutes from the falls. Everyone on the island was so sweet and waved to us while driving by! It took a while to sanitize the cabin to our level of comfort as Covid-19 was still in full swing.
7PM - BBQ dinnertime! Throughout our Ontario road trips in 2020 and 2021, Geoff has gained a new skill of barbequing (we aren't allowed to have a BBQ at our Toronto apartment). This evening we had stuffed potatoes, peas, and steak.
Tip: marinate the meat with an acidic fruit for 1h (we like using kiwi). It makes the meat so tender and juicy! But don't over-marinate as the acids will begin breaking the meat down.
8PM - Canoe into the sunset. We spontaneously took a boat parked outside our cabin to watch the sunset on the water. One of the perks of staying at Viva Villa.
10PM - Star gazing - Manitoulin Island is a designated Dark Sky Reserve.
Tip: Don't visit near or during the full moon if you want nice star pictures! Unfortunately our visit coincided with the full moon and the sky was so bright that we were unable to photograph them.
8AM - make coffee, breakfast, and pack lunch.
9AM - Hike Cup and Saucer Trail (a convenient 15 minutes from Viva Villa Cottage) is one of our favourite hiking trails in Ontario! Its original name is "Michigiwadinong" which means “bluff in the shape of a spearhead" in Ojibway.
Trail head coordinates (which you can type into your Google Maps app): Latitude: 45.863711, Longitude: -82.105127
Cup and Saucer Hike Tips:
- Parking is free, so you don't need to bring money. However, donations are encouraged for trail maintenance, and at the trailhead there is a QR code to scan and pay via your phone. There are two large parking lots; the lower level is right next to the main trailhead while the overflow parking lot is connected to the side trails. Try to start at the main trailhead in the lower lot. When we arrived at 9am on the weekend, both lots were nearly empty.
- The trail is generally quiet and we got the viewpoint all to ourselves. However, if the overlook point is busy and you want to get a clear photo without people in the way, keep hiking along the path, and there are quite a few other outlooks along the escarpment with an even nicer view. You don't need to take all your photos at the first viewpoint.
- Take the adventure trail - it isn't much harder or longer than the regular trail, but so worth it! We hiked the cup (4km) and 'saucer' (5km) when most people only hike the 'cup'. However, the trail in general is awesome because there are different trail options and it can be as hard/easy as you like. If you do take the Adventure Trail, make sure you follow the map. There are some ladders leading to places off-trail and that's where we stumbled upon a porcupine!
- Make sure you wear hiking boots with tread. The terrain is tricky and there are many opportunities for slips and sprained ankles.
2PM - Relaxation. We took a break and read our books along the river outside our cottage, while waiting for the sun to set a little so that the time would be appropriate for fishing.
4PM - Fishing on Lake Kagawong, which is rich with Bass!
Tip: If you didn't bring bait, the local corner stores and gas stations should have live earthworms (which are perfect for Bass fish). We bought our worms at Paul's Corner Store and it was a bonus that we scored PC points on the purchase! We had a good chuckle when the shop owner directed us to the sandwich fridge where the earthworms were stored in styrofoam soup bowls right beside the lunches.
7PM - Dinner time. Today we had bacon-wrapped hotdogs and thai & korean-style chicken wings. We spoil ourselves a little on these vacations :)
The final day of vacation is supposed to be the saddest because it's time to go home, but we made the most of it and found some hidden gems!
10AM - On the way off the island, we visited a couple lookout points, each of them only requiring 15 minutes.
- Ten Mile Point Trading Post, Sheguaindah - This scenic viewpoint provides 180-degree views of the LaCloche Mountains. Can you believe the view has remained the same for 10,000 years since the Ice Age? There is a 2km trail at the North end of the parking lot, as well as a gift shop which is owned by First Nations (unfortunately, it was closed during Covid). There are washroom facilities in the parking lot and plenty of free parking space.
- Maclean's Mountain Lookout - This is a great place to picnic (there are some tables) but there are no hiking trails contrary to what was advertised. The views weren't any better than Ten MIle Point, and if I only had time to visit one of these, I would recommend Ten Mile Point over Maclean's Mountain.
11AM - Little Current Downtown - we then strolled around the waterfront of Downtown Little Current, visited the lighthouse, and saw the Little Current Bridge for a distance. It was oddly quiet despite it being a long weekend and definitely had an island-like feel.
12PM - Lunch at 3 Cows and a Cone and Farquhar's Dairy Bar. Conveniently located right by the Swing Bridge, we couldn't leave Manitoulin Island without trying the local food! We had Manitoulin Whitefish and a Manitoulin Beef Chip Dripper burger.
Dessert was ice cream of course! Although the ice cream wasn't made in-store, Farquhar's is a 100% Canadian-owned business that originated on Manitoulin Island, so I think that qualifies as supporting a local company :)
1PM - Willisville Mountain Lookout - we stumbled upon this hidden gem off the highway and were so happy that we could end our trip with a highlight! This 1km (round trip) hiking trail provides a good challenge - it's a straight upward rocky scramble. However, it's short so anyone can manage and not time consuming so you can easily stop by on your way out of Manitoulin. We even saw two little girls no older than eight hike it. We would definitely recommend this trail to everyone!
Parking is free but there aren't many spots, although we didn't have trouble finding one. The trail markers are maintained by a local 80-year old couple!
2PM - Drive 6h home. We were home before 8, which left enough to unpack, clean up, and get ready for the next work day!
What we wish we did but ran out of time
- Bebimawake hiking trail
- Drive around the entire island
- Swim at Providence Bay Beach (it was spring and not warm enough yet)
- Learn About Aboriginal Culture on the Great Spirit Circle Trail (this was closed during Covid)
Our first time at Manitoulin Island was truly spectacular and further increased our love for Northern Ontario. We hope that our itinerary was helpful to you and that you can enjoy Manitoulin someday too!