Canada Georgian Bay, ON
Destination: Call of the North
Savvy Torontonians have long considered Georgian Bay their private playground. We’re letting the secret out of the bag
BY CAROL PEREHUDOFF
Crowds gather for live music in the Village at Blue; Oliver & Bonacini Café Grill.
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 (bluemountain.ca), 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 (activitycentral.ca), 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 (190 Jozo Weider Blvd.).

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 (16160 Hwy. 12 E.; 705-526-7809; wyemarsh.com; adults $11), 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 in 1639 (705-526-7838; saintemarieamongthehurons.on.ca; adults $11.25; opens April 25). Established as both a religious retreat and a community for their flock, the newly converted Christian Huron, it was a precarious sanctuary. Disease and Iroquois attacks were ever-present threats, and after a scant decade the residents fled for safer climes, burning their mission behind them.

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 (705-526-3788; $4; opens May 14). Erected in 1926, 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.

The church’s interior appears oh-so-Canadian—in the nave, there’s a curved, wood-paneled ceiling that resembles an inverted canoe. Relics of the Jesuit martyrs are honored here and a number of miraculous cures have been attributed to this spot. The collection of crutches and canes left by the healed is a moving testament to the power of faith—and one reason why pilgrims of many religious persuasions journey here.

SWING WEST
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 (12 Bruce St. S., Thornbury; 519-599-3311). And if a souvenir mug isn’t enough to take home, the landscape paintings at Loft Gallery (loftgallery.ca) 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 (705-446-0256; sceniccaves.com; adults $20.80; opens May 1). 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 (152 Grey Rd. 21; 877-988-8484; scandinave.com; packages from $46) 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.


EAT

CAFÉ CHARTREUSE
The menu changes daily at this popular
Euro-chic café. 70 Hurontario St.,
Collingwood; 705-444-0099; lunch
for two, $40*


HAISAI
Open only Friday and Saturday nights
for dinner, Haisai serves Ontario wines
and a multi-course tasting menu.
Reservations essential. 794079 County
Rd. 124, Singhampton; 705-445-2748;
prix fixe dinner for two, from $300,
including wine


OLIVER & BONACINI CAFÉ GRILL
This brasserie in the Village’s swankiest
hotel serves fire-roasted pizza and Angus
strip steaks. 220 Mountain Dr., Westin
Trillium House, Village at Blue;
705-444-8680; dinner for two, $105


*Prices throughout have been
converted to U.S. dollars.
Unless otherwise stated, meal prices
do not include drinks, tax or tip.



STAY

RCI affiliated resorts around Georgian Bay include:

THE GEORGIAN MANOR
RESORT & COUNTRY CLUB

This resort caters to groups of all sizes,
who come to enjoy the beauty of nearby
Wasaga Beach and the Blue Mountains.
Facilities include a restaurant, sauna, pools
and 18-hole pro putting golf course.
10 Vacation Inn Dr., Collingwood


Member Reviews:
“Great place to vacation, with swimming,
golf, skiing, horseback riding and hiking.”
“Beautiful beaches between the resort and
Meaford.”
“I enjoyed a massage at the on-site Utopia
salon and spa.”

CLUB CRANBERRY
The resort has a recreation center, 18-hole
golf course, full-service marina, tennis courts,
three swimming pools and a network of
cross-country ski and hiking trails.
19 Keith Ave., Collingwood


Member Reviews:
“The golf course was spectacular and the
resort offered a discount for RCI guests.”
“The kids were never bored as there is so
much to do at the resort and around Collingwood.”

MOUNTAIN VIEW VILLAS AT CRANBERRY
One-bedroom units on Georgian Bay, with
full kitchens and fireplaces. The villas share
the amenities of Club Cranberry (above).
19 Keith Ave., Collingwood


Member Reviews:
“Nice drives up the Bay. Nice walks in
the area.”
“Good restaurants and golfing are a few
minutes away.”
“Visit the Le Scandinave Spa, a 15-minute
drive towards the Village at Blue.”

CLUB INTRAWEST–BLUE MOUNTAIN
Near Georgian Bay, with a pool, hot tub and
games room. All the cottage-style studios,
one- and two-bedroom units have fireplaces.
276 Jozo Weider Blvd., Collingwood


Member Reviews:
“Sitting on the veranda looking out at the
lake was very relaxing.”
“Fantastic hammock for relaxing.”
“Adults have their own workout facilities,
hot tub, pool and lounge.”
“Yoga classes on the dock overlooking the pond.”

For more information, including complete member reviews
(as member reviews have been condensed),
visit
RCI.com or call

Weeks: 800-338-7777
Points: 877-968-7476

Club Members, please call your specific
Club or RCI telephone number.


NON-RCI AFFILIATED RESORTS:

WESTIN TRILLIUM HOUSE
Evoking the grandeur of Georgian Bay’s
stately lodges, the Westin overlooks Blue
Mountain and offers suites with fireplaces,
balconies and full kitchens. 220 Mountain Dr.,
Village at Blue; 705-443-8080;
starwoodhotels.com; doubles from
$159 per night


MOSAIC
With 163 suites ranging from studios to
three-bedrooms, this is the Village’s newest
condo-hotel, right in the heart of the action. Jozo
Weider Blvd., Village at Blue; 877-445-0231;
bluemountain.ca; doubles from $169 per night

GRAND GEORGIAN
Designed to resemble one of Canada’s historic
railway hotels, the Grand Georgian has 203
suites, ranging from studios to three-bedrooms.
Jozo Weider Blvd., Village at Blue; 877-445-0231;
bluemountain.ca; doubles from $159 per night

GEORGIAN MANOR BED & BREAKFAST
This 19th-century Georgian–style manor has
Victorian touches and extensive perennial gardens.
36 Elma St., Thornbury; 519-599-3999;
bbcanada.com; doubles from $140 per night


NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
Published: Spring 2011 
Photos: The Village at Blue Mountain; Jo-Anne McArthur
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