Manitoulin Island is the largest freshwater island in the world. With an area of 2766 square kilometres it could take weeks to explore all its freshwater lakes and rivers and to hike its countless trails.
1. Cup and Saucer Hiking Trail
The Cup and Saucer Hiking Trail is a trek that you do not want to miss when visiting Manitoulin Island. It offers a chance to take in the iconic view of the island that you see in all the brochures. From the top of 70 metre high cliffs, you’ll stand in awe as you take in the panoramic view of the island and Niagara Escarpment! It’s an intermediate to advanced hiking trail, but the scramble up to the top is well worth it. With our Aboriginal guide, Falcon leading the way, we learned about medicinal plants, local legends, and how to give thanks with a tobacco ceremony at the end of our hike. Sitting atop the rocks at the highest point of the island, we enjoyed traditional bannock and fresh fruit preserves before making our way down to the lower cliffs for our adventurous walk back to the parking lot.
The Great Sprit Circle Trail is a unique experience on Manitoulin Island. We have yet to see another spot in Ontario where you can learn so much about Aboriginal heritage and culture. We visited the Great Spirit Circle Trail head office in M’Chigeeng where we were fed a traditional meal around the campfire. Consisting of moose meat, corn, and rice it was a delicious way to try new cuisine and learn about the traditions of the Anishinabek people. Our guide Falcon began the feast with a smudging ceremony. Lighting herbs and tobacco in a wicker bowl, each person spreads smoke over their five senses to give thanks for the day and to clear out any bad energy or feelings from the day. It sets a spiritual tone for a relaxing meal.
After dinner, we retired to the grassy yard to watch the Rolling Thunder Dance Traditions perform several types of Aboriginal dances that you would witness at a Pow Wow. Accompanied by the Genaaabaajing Jr. drum troupe, we enjoyed an authentic experience while making new friends. It was truly the highlight of our time on the island.
Who doesn’t love visiting waterfalls? Bridal Veil Falls is probably one of the most popular stops on the island and with good reason. Located near Kakawong, it is an easy walk from the parking lot down the steel staircase to a beautiful cascade flowing over the gorge. On a hot day, you’ll find many people swimming in the calm pool below. There are short hiking trails around the falls, but the highlight for children and adults of all ages is having the opportunity to walk behind the falls and slide down the smooth rocks back out to the front. It’s playtime for everyone!
Whether you choose to take a sailboat or cruise line, a visit to the Benjamin Islands is a must. From the town of Little Current, you will leave from the harbour for a two-hour boat ride out to the colourful rock islands known as the Benjamins. These islands made of pink granite paint a pretty scene. We travelled with North Channel Tours and it ended up being an excellent choice. The rain and wind moved in on our day trip, so having the warmth of the large cabin made for a pleasant afternoon. Luckily the rain cleared up in time for us to camp on one of the islands. Taking a zodiac from the boat to the shore, we set up tents on the smooth rocks and had a peaceful sleep awakening to a gorgeous sunrise and a brand new sunny day.
What makes Manitoulin Island truly special is the chance to get to know the aboriginal people native to the island. There are six reserves on the island and instead of remaining separate from tourists they have opened up their doors to allow a glimpse into traditional life. We had many aboriginal experiences during our time on the island, and the Voice of the Drum, part of the Great Spirit Circle Trail, was one of our favourite. During this afternoon workshop, we met our guide Steven who told stories of the drum and the importance and purpose of the instrument in his culture. The drum was given to warring tribes by a young girl and has remained a symbol of peace throughout history. Only men play the drum as it was a woman’s gift, but lucky for us, we were all allowed to make a drum to take home for ourselves. After watching a performance of different techniques and rhythms, we had the chance to give it a try ourselves and then make our very own deerskin drum to take home. Loving arts and crafts myself, I had a ball threading the string made of hide through my leather drum to fasten it to its base. By the end, I was quite happy with my craftsmanship and cannot wait to paint my drum once it dries completely.
6. Ride a Horse
If you like riding horses, Manitoulin is the place to do it. Check out places like Honora Bay Riding Stable and Kicking Mule Riding Stable. Having the opportunity to ride to the top of the island’s plateau on horseback was a special experience. It’s a fun and challenging ride with a lot of ascents and descents on rocky trails. We took part in an overnight camping trip, but if you don't want to commit to an overnight trip, we instead recommend taking a shorter two or three hour ride to give you a taste of riding. Fair warning: the overnight camping is very rustic.
Manitoulin Island offers amazing views, incredible cultural experiences, and endless chances to spend time outdoors.