Have you ever been on a vacation and spent the whole time feeling like you were being fleeced? The world is full of overpriced, overcrowded tourist destinations. Not Northern Ontario. Here you can put worries about being overcharged out of your mind and get on with having fun.
You’ll find you pay a fair price for amazing experiences, just about anywhere you go. So load the kids up and don’t worry about loading up the credit card. Northern Ontario is packed with exciting things to do, at prices that won’t excite your accountant.
Science North has a lock on entertaining outings for kids in Ontario’s hard-rock capital of Sudbury. The science centre is the second-largest of its kind in Canada and the most popular attraction in Northern Ontario. Its offerings include an IMAX theatre, a digital planetarium, a hands-on, high-tech fabrication lab, and a butterfly gallery. It’s open every day from 10 am to 4 pm, and you can buy a “Play all day” passport which includes admission to Science North, one planetarium show and one IMAX show (Adults: $35, Youth 13-17 years: $31, Children 3-12 years: $27).
Or visit Science North’s sister museum, Dynamic Earth, to travel seven storeys into the earth for a 1.25-hour guided tour of a mine.
If being above ground and outside is more your thing (and who can blame you?), then consider Halfway Lake Provincial Park. This full-package park is an hour northwest of Sudbury on Highway 144, right on the southern edge of the northern boreal forest proper.
The park has two hiking trails (from 2-15 km), two-day trip canoe routes, two buoyed swimming beaches, and two camping options (backcountry or car camping). Frequent wildlife sightings include bald eagles, moose, and great blue herons.
What makes it extra special for kids is that through July and August, the park offers a Discovery Drop in program, which is basically a staff-led exploration squad for young naturalists.
Rent equipment in Sudbury before you go. The Laurentian University Outdoor Centre will rent canoes, recreational kayaks, paddleboards, tents, and packs.
Fun fact: the world’s largest freshwater island is itself home to 108 freshwater lakes. The standard photo op on the island is Bridal Veil Falls, a picturesque, 10-metre cascade that drops into a limestone basin. The trail to the falls starts at Highway 540, and after a short walk to the falls it turns downstream to end where the river reaches Lake Huron’s North Channel at Kagawong—a picturesque town in its own right, dubbed by the locals as Ontario’s Prettiest Village.
In town, the kids will want to stop at Manitoulin Chocolate Works, for reasons that don’t need to be explained. A giant chessboard and cedar tree maze seal the deal for kids becoming Kagawong fans.
Two kilometres east of town, Hide Away Lodge offers sandy shores on a quiet bay with the white La Cloche mountains of Killarney in the distance for scenery.
For the more adventuresome, Gordon’s Park campground at the south end of Lake Manitou offers private wilderness campsites, tipi-tenting, bunkies, hammock camping, and a full calendar of events like wolf howls and night hikes to keep the kids enthralled.
You can never be more than a handful of kilometres from a shoreline of some type while on the island, so stop in at Manitoulin Wind and Wave in Kagawong. They will provide you with a rented canoe or kayak and free advice on where to launch it.
Manitoulin Island Cycling Advocates is the one-stop shop for anyone hoping to find a suitable cycling route, which describes most of the uncrowded and undulating island.
Moose Factory and Cochrane
Ontario is world famous for its lakes and rivers. But how about its ocean shores? Ontario’s salty tidewater regions don’t get much attention, but there’s one seaside destination with its own historic settlement and modern eco-lodge waiting for you at the end of a comfortable railway trip.
Board the famous Polar Bear Express in Cochrane and sit back and relax as you follow the Abititbi and Moose rivers north to James Bay. Be sure to book the new “family car” for the five-hour trip that ends at Moosonee. From here it’s a freighter-canoe ferry across the Moose River to the island settlement of Moose Factory. The Hudson’s Bay Company post established here in 1673 became the first English-speaking settlement in Ontario, and Centennial Park is now home to 19th-century buildings from that fur-trading history.
For accommodation, book in at the Cree Village Eco Lodge. Opened in 2000, it has modern rooms and is intimately connected to the community, so will be able to get you on boat rides out the mouth of the Moose River to James Bay, or on fishing and canoeing trips to tour the 460-hectare Moose River Migratory Bird Sanctuary and the Cree Cultural Interpretive Centre.
Or check out Tidewater Provincial Park for camping. It’s a great base for exploring the estuary. Keep your eyes open while boating. You might just spot a seal or beluga whale.
The must-see stop in Cochrane is the Canadian Polar Bear Habitat, a rescue and research facility with 10 hectares of natural habitat and five resident orphaned bears. The centre is open daily, offers a family rate of $45, has bear experts on hand, and even features a wading pool separated from the bear’s wading pool by a (strong) glass wall. Your kids might be the only ones who can write “swam with polar bears” in their next “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essay.
Did you know Bracebridge, Muskoka, is located smack dab on the 45th latitude parallel? The fact that it’s halfway between the equator and the North Pole was inspiration enough for an entrepreneur to build a Christmas-themed amusement park just down the Muskoka River. Santa’s Village has been entertaining kids, mostly nice, some naughty, since 1955 and now takes up 25 hectares of wooded Muskoka riverside.
Rudolph leads the reindeer roller coaster, of course, but there are plenty of other rides to choose from, geared mostly for kids aged two to 12. Older kids might like Sportsland with its batting cage, mini putt, climbing wall, go-karts, and bungee trampoline. Or visit the attached Muskoka Zip Lines and Aerial Park with its zip line canopy tour through the Muskoka forest and an aerial adventure tour.
The adjacent Whispering Pines Campground welcomes campers toting tents or towing trailers.
Straight across the road from Santa’s Village is the trailhead for Porcupine Ridge, a truly naughty network of Canadian Shield mountain bike trails, in case anyone isn’t in the Christmas mood and happens to be an expert biker.
And if you need to sit back and relax after all that fun, hop on the 30-metre Lady Muskoka tour boat for a glimpse of the grand Lake Muskoka. Hour-long trips that stay on the Muskoka River are available, but for a proper outing take the 2.75-hour tour that takes in the lake proper, including a cruise past the stately cottages on Millionaire’s Row (Adults: $39, Teens: $25, Children: $17).
The Hudson Bay Company gets a lot of lip service for its role in the fur trade and the post-contact history of what would become Canada. But for much of its history, the HBC was not much more than a few bean counters cloistered in frozen forts around Hudson Bay. The richer, livelier history of the fur trade derived from the voyageurs of the North West Company who, denied interior access via Hudson Bay, had to travel inland from Montreal by canoe.
Thunder Bay became the inland headquarters. Except back then it was called Fort William, and part of it still is. The 100-hectare Fort William Historical Park, just west of town on the Kaministiquia River, is home to dozens of historical buildings and 15,000 objects like birch bark canoes and tools that harken back to the mid-1800s.
Back in town, get a sense of what it would have been like for voyageurs plying Lake Superior in a canot du nord by taking an evening, two-hour Big Voy Harbour Paddle with Such A Nice Day Adventures. The 10-metre canoes are a perfect way for families (up to 14 people) to get out on the water together and see the “Lakehead” from the lake ($25 per person).
Half an hour’s drive west of Thunder Bay you’ll find the “Niagara of the North” where the Kaministiquia River flows over the stunning Kakabeka Falls. The encompassing Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park has a viewing boardwalk that wraps around the top of the gorge and 40-m waterfalls (second-highest in Ontario). The main attraction here is the falls, but there’s also a swimming area, a 4-km hiking trail, and two campgrounds.
After you’ve feasted your eyes on the falls, enjoy a feast of another sort at The Eddy restaurant. This gastro pub is just 2 km east of the falls (4744 Trans-Canada Highway) and serves the kind of satisfying comfort food that the whole family can enjoy.
Smart planning with fun-filled, budget destinations is a better approach than just throwing money at overpriced destinations. Because if your kids don’t like your vacation, that’s when you’re really going to pay for it.