My Big Ontario Affair

In an attempt to uncover the mystery behind Canadian migration up north to cottage country every spring/summer, I decided to trace their movements right from the beginning. My trip from Toronto to Manitoulin Island started around 6am with a light breakfast, extra strong black coffee, last minute packing (think chain-saw parts, propane cylinders and a fur coat – out of a looong list) and setting Google Maps for the road ahead. And what a road! A scenic four hour drive is followed by two breezy hours on the MS Chi-Cheemaun, the legendary ferry that connects Manitoulin Island to the Bruce Peninsula since 1930. Total time from Toronto to the cottage – 8 hours.

Speaking of the trip and duration – Canadian roads deserve special praise. They seem to be improving yearly with picnic sites, beautiful scenery and Tim Horton outlets within an hour of one another. Being used to driving on 6 lanes in one direction with a speed limit of 120 km/h (plus 20) in Dubai, it was challenging to adapt to “one lane for all” highway standards where speed will drop from 90 km/h to 50 km/h around small towns. Plus I had to watch out for horse drawn carriages managed by men in black. In Ontario “Adopt a Highway” is a common traffic sign to which people seem to respond rather positively – no garbage, but flowers, greenery, wind turbines and occasional bear jaywalkers greeted me along the road.

Just right after Toronto, I noticed the disappearance of large glass / concrete condominiums. Houses grew bigger, front lawns lusher and households got busier. The further north I went, the more confusing the Canadian accent – all super friendly comments from folks wearing “I love haters” hats were completely lost on me: “Oh hey, eh”. “It’s really weathering outside, eh”. “Got yourself in a kerfuffle? Go talk to Doug”…  I accidently got myself into further trouble by ordering a cup of tea. “Excuse me, a cup of white tea please”. “Sorry, you want it black?” “No, white”. “No double-double, eh?”. “Just white!” “Oh, boy…”

Charming little towns spread along the route casually feature the usual Ontario architecture (churches, clock towers, barns, brick houses) and the two most successful local businesses: gas stations and Tim Hortons (Always Fresh!). I was never a big fan of the latter until I tasted it in Canada. It was a love from the first sip with a dark roast black coffee paired with Maple Pecan Danish. “Tasty, eh?”

A trip on a local celebrity – the MS Chi-Cheemaun, meaning a large canoe, requires a commitment to show up not later than 1 hour (sharp) prior to the departure. Being late, even for a minute as my past experience has proven, results in loosing the reservation and queuing to be boarded on a “first-come first–serve basis” (not a delight, unless you are a fan of Russian roulette). The queue can be long as well as the vehicles in it. Chi-Cheemaun is capable of carrying 638 passengers and 240 vehicles. However, once your reservation fate is locked – it’s time to discover the little port city of Tobermory.

Tobermory is a fun place to explore, just like Dubai. It’s all about entertainment, shopping, food and the joy of a short stay. Start at Foodland for last minute supplies shopping (avocados, crackers, mature cheddar and marshmallows in our case). Continue with crowd watching from the comfort of the Tobermory Brewing Co. and Grill while sipping Russian Imperial Stout beer and spooning Vodka Smoked Salmon Roulade. That place is seriously delicious and should not be missed. On the way to the car, stop to get a scoop of locally made ice cream, fudge and a serving of beaver tail (delicious, beavers like it too).

Sailing the MS Chi-Cheemaun is an adventure in itself. As passengers are not permitted to re-enter cars during the trip, it’s important to carefully select a pile of layers to snuggle into and remember to carry a camera. I was told that a photo with a lighthouse on the background brings luck. The Chi-Cheemaun proudly features two outdoor decks, an indoor lounge, a playground, an information kiosk, a little museum display, a cafeteria and a boutique. Good news, she’s air-conditioned!

Once the Chi-Cheemaun reaches land and the final round of driving is done, it’s time to open the cottage, turn the electricity and the water on, dispose of spent mice traps and open a bottle of Cab to cheer the sunset on the wooden dock. The overwhelmingly fresh air, edgy smell of a distant fire and 50 shades of red spread across the sky reflected in the waves made me think that the trip is a total success already.

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