Situated just off the Ontario coast in Lake Huron, Manitoulin Island, at 2,800 sq km (1,100 sq mi), is the largest freshwater island in the world. A tranquil place of small villages, gently rolling pasture, forest and lakes, its edges are fringed with long beaches and white cliffs.
The First Nations Ojibwa people, the island’s original inhabitants, believed that when the Great Spirit, Gitchi Manitou, created the earth he kept the best bits and made Manitoulin his home. In 1648 a group of French Jesuits became the first Europeans to settle on Manitoulin island, which they named Isle de Ste. Marie. Unfortunately they brought with them new diseases that rapidly devastated the Ojibwa population.
Marauding Iroquois bands then drove out those who remained, leaving the island uninhabited for over a hundred years. During the 19th century, the island’s beauty attracted the attention of white settlers who, after first giving Manitoulin to other native bands, then revoked all treaties and claimed it for themselves. To this day the Ojibwa have refused to sign any treaty, and some 3,000 of them live on an ‘unceded reserve’ in the east of the island.
Today Manitoulin and the waters around it serve as Ontario’s summer playground with boats of all kinds weaving in and out of its many bays and filling its large inland lakes. Hiking is popular and the island has a well signposted system of trails. Every august the Ojibwa band holds one of Canada’s biggest powwows (Wikwemikong or Wiky) a celebration of life through dance, storytelling and displays of arts and crafts.
Population: 12,500 (2004)
When to go: May to October
How to get there: By road-bridge from highway 17 or by car ferry from Tobermory.
Highlights: Ten mile point lookout with its stunning views of Georgian Bay. Little Current-Howland museum – with 10,000-year-old artefacts. Bridal Veil Falls – a popular place for a summertime swim. Mississagi lighthouse – now a museum celebrating the pioneer spirit.
You should know: Manitoulin’s alkaline soil precludes the growth of North American staples like blueberries, but allows the growth of the island’s trademark hawberries – celebrated in an annual festival each august and earning the islanders the epithet of Haweaters.