Photos by Dori Arrington
Tobermory, Ontario is more than just the end of the road: It’s the beginning of an adventure.
You’ll know you’re there when the road ends. But arriving in Tobermory, Ontario is more than just the end of the road: It’s the beginning of an adventure. Tobermory is located at the tip of the Bruce Peninsula, a narrow finger of land separating Lake Huron from Georgian Bay. The bay could easily have been called the sixth Great Lake, but Samuel de Champlain, the first European to explore and map the area in 1615, saw it as a bay of Lake Huron. He called it “La mer douce”—the calm sea. Boaters have been working and playing on that “calm sea” ever since.
Tobermory is one of the premier towns on Georgian Bay, with the good fortune of being home to two national parks—one above the water and one below. It is also set in the heart of a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.
The natural splendor of the area is protected by the Bruce Peninsula National Park. The park contains an ancient geological ridge called the Niagara Escarpment, which extends from New York State through Michigan and Minnesota, creating the shoreline of many of the Great Lakes. Along the Bruce Peninsula, the Niagara Escarpment forms dramatic cliffs rising out of the sparkling clear lake. Tobermory is also the terminus of the Bruce Trail, a popular 550-mile-long footpath beginning in Queenstown, Ontario. The trail follows the Niagara Escarpment along the length of the peninsula.
Tobermory’s year-round population of approximately 4,000 grows substantially in the warmer months, as summer tourists and boaters are drawn to the area’s pristine beauty. The two primary harbors are Little Tub and Big Tub, with the town’s business area centered around Little Tub Harbor. Big Tub Harbor is the largest natural freshwater harbor in Canada. The area’s commerce thrives on seasonal boaters and scuba divers who come to enjoy the area’s unique treasures. Boaters can stay at the Tobermory Marina in Little Tub Harbor or at Big Tub Harbor Resort Marina. Those looking for more seclusion can easily find empty coves in which to drop anchor, with unspoiled shorelines only a short dinghy ride away. Visitors by land will find no shortage of hotels, bed and breakfasts or cabins to rent.
There are several ways to approach Tobermory by water: from the south through the Trent-Severn Waterway and Georgian Bay, through the North Channel and Manitoulin Island or across Lake Huron from Michigan to the west. However you approach, it is a breathtaking experience. Another memorable way to arrive in Tobermory, if you’re traveling by car, is aboard the MS Chi-Cheemaun ferry from Manitoulin Island. A trip aboard the Chi-Cheemaun has been a Great Lakes tradition since the first recorded crossing in the 1930s. The name “Chi-Cheemaun” translates from the local Ojibwe language as “Big Canoe.” It is one of the most beautiful ferry crossings in the world.
Gallery: Tobermory, Ontario
Tobermory was a Great Lakes shipping hub for hundreds of years. Ships offloaded the lake’s seafood and took on lumber. Over the centuries, the region’s uncharted rocks and reefs took their toll on many of these ships. The shipwrecks, having been preserved in the cold, fresh water, are now a scuba diver’s paradise.
Fathom Five National Marine Park protects the area’s rich maritime history, with Tobermory known as the “scuba diving capital of Canada” and the “freshwater scuba diving capital of the world.” Many of the shipwrecks are in such shallow water near shore that they can be enjoyed in a brisk snorkeling excursion. In addition to protecting the shipwrecks, the Marine Park also protects the region’s lighthouses and island ecosystems. The islands surrounding Tobermory hold some of the world’s most picturesque harbors and coves. Flowerpot Island, with its signature, sculpted limestone shorelines carved by wind and water, is one of the most photographed islands in the Great Lakes.
Many boaters dream of cruising through the Great Lakes, whether as part of the Great Loop or as a destination unto itself. If you are not lucky enough to live in the area, or do not have the time to get your own boat here, charter boats are available on nearby Manitoulin Island. A two-week charter will give you ample time to explore the Tobermory area, as well as the renowned North Channel.
The region’s magnificence and seclusion are second to none, but it comes with some navigational challenges. The dramatic, rocky shoreline descends beneath the water’s surface, creating unforgiving obstacles for the inattentive boater. However, one of the benefits of a rocky bottom, unlike a sandy one, is that once the area has been charted accurately, it changes very little. As long as careful attention is paid to the charts and local cruising guides, a boater will have little problem navigating the area.
Tobermory is a three-season destination. Many businesses close December through March. The region is uniquely situated to be a northern boater’s paradise, where uninhabited islands and fresh, clear water combine to make one of the world’s most beautiful cruising grounds.