TOBERMORY, ONTARIO is located at the tip of the Bruce Peninsula, a narrow finger of land separating Lake Huron from the Georgian Bay. The Georgian Bay, in many people’s opinion, should have been designated 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 and 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 the Georgian Bay and has 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 World Biosphere Reserve. Tobermory is uniquely suited to be a northern boater’s paradise. The numerous islands and fresh clear water combine to make this area one of the world’s most beautiful cruising grounds.
There are several ways to approach Tobermory by water: from the south through the Trent-Severn Waterway and the Georgian Bay; through the North Channel and Manitoulin Island; or across Lake Huron from Michigan to the west. However you approach it, it is breathtaking. Another memorable way to arrive in Tobermory, if you’re traveling by car, is aboard the MS Chi-Cheemaun car-and-passenger ferry, which connects Route 6 from South Baymouth on Manitoulin Island to Tobermory. It has been a Great Lakes tradition since the 1930s to travel across this ferry route. The name “Chi-Cheemaun” translates from the local Ojibwe language as “Big Canoe.” It is a trip to remember.
The two primary harbors in Tobermory are Little Tub and Big Tub, with the town’s business area centered around Little Tub Harbor. The town’s commerce is based on the seasonal boaters and scuba divers who come to enjoy the area’s unspoiled beauty. The year-round population of 1,200 grows substantially in the warmer months. Boaters can stay at the Tobermory Marina (519-596-2731) in Little Tub Harbor or at Bug Tub Harbour Resort Marina (519-596-2219, www.bigtubresort.ca). If you’re looking for more seclusion, you will find many empty coves in which to drop anchor and enjoy pristine shorelines. Visitors by land will find no shortage of hotels, bed and breakfasts and cabins to rent.
The natural splendor of the area is protected by Bruce Peninsula National Park. The park contains a unique geological ridge called the Niagara Escarpment, which extends from New York through Michigan and Minnesota and comprises the shoreline of many of the Great Lakes. Along the Bruce Peninsula, the Niagara Escarpment forms dramatic cliffs rising out of the sparkling lake water. Fathom Five National Marine Park protects the area’s rich maritime history. Tobermory has been an entry point for shipping for hundreds of years. Over the centuries, the region’s uncharted rocks and reefs have taken their toll on these vessels, and the shipwrecks preserved in the fresh cold water are a scuba-diving history lover’s wonder world. Tobermory is known today as the scuba-diving capital of Canada. In addition to protecting the shipwrecks, the 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.
It is many boaters’ dream to cruise through the Great Lakes, whether as part of a Great Loop adventure or as a destination unto itself. If you are not lucky enough to live in this beautiful area or do not have the time to get your own boat here, you will find several charter companies ready to help you plan a cruise. Two weeks aboard a charter boat—sail or power—will give you ample time to explore the Tobermory area as well as the renowned North Channel.
The region’s magnificence and seclusion is second to none, but it comes with some navigational challenges. The dramatic rocky shorelines descend beneath the water’s surface, creating unforgiving obstacles for the inattentive boater. But one of the benefits of a rocky shoreline, unlike a soft sandy bottom, is that once it is charted accurately, it changes very little. As long as you pay careful attention to the charts and local cruising guides, you will have little problem navigating the area.
Tobermory is a three-season destination. Many of the businesses close in December and open again in March. This spring would be an excellent time to plan a summer cruise to remember. Photos provided by Dori Arrington.