In Northern Ontario, nature is the name of the game. Fresh air, clean water, photo-worthy backdrops, and vast wilderness define the region’s 500,000 square miles. The area is bordered by the province of Manitoba to the west, Hudson Bay to the north, the province of Quebec to the east, and the states of Michigan and Minnesota to the south.
Located on the shores of two Great Lakes—Huron and Superior—Northern Ontario’s water activities are plentiful. Add to that, the region boasts over 200,000 lakes and rivers.
The expansive outdoor setting allows for almost endless itinerary options for tour groups, including a variety of popular attractions that have direct links to the great outdoors.
“To counter the thinking that we are just a big wilderness area, we concentrate on driving/touring routes that link our major cities as well as our unique attractions and experiences,” says Ian McMillan, international marketing specialist at Destination Northern Ontario. “These are good for group travel as well as those in a car or RV.”
A Vast Region
With Northern Ontario covering such a large area, McMillan says one draw for visitors is that the region can offer so much but remain uncrowded. “Being a not-crowded destination allows for social distancing for those still worried about COVID-19,” McMillan says. “But also, the rich history of the region lets people reconnect with the past while enjoying the current modern amenities. Our cities provide a great backdrop to contrast with the outdoors.”
Groups will find diverse offerings in the cities and regions that make up Northern Ontario. Thunder Bay, located in the northwestern part of the region, is known as “Canada’s Greatest Outdoor City.” It’s also an ideal home base for a group. The region’s biggest city, Sudbury, offers fun festivals, outdoor adventure, and the area’s biggest indoor attractions. Algoma Country’s beautiful landscapes are famous for inspiring the famous Group of Seven Canadian artists. Part of Algoma Country, the city of Sault Ste. Marie, or “The Soo” as it’s more affectionately known, is located on the border between Canada and the U.S. The city welcomes groups with modern amenities and an old-fashioned feel.
“For a U.S.-based operator, I always ask them if they currently have Mackinac Island, Michigan, as part of their itinerary, as Northern Ontario/Sault Ste. Marie is only 45 miles farther north on Interstate 75,” McMillan says. “In such a short distance, they can hop over the border and get a very unique and memorable experience.”
Destination Northern Ontario has developed five touring routes to help groups navigate the region.
“We have a great industry web portal, northernontarioitt.com, that tour operators can visit, and it has all the information about the touring routes and accommodations, attractions, and experiences,” McMillan says. “I can also assist them with any questions they may have.”
In Sault Ste. Marie, the Agawa Canyon Tour Train is a group favorite. Visitors journey on a 228-mile round trip along the shore of Lake Superior, through rugged Cambrian Shield to a wilderness park in an actual canyon. The train operates from early June through mid-October.
“A two-hour stopover in the park allows riders to hike along the trails to three sets of beautiful waterfalls, and the dining car serves breakfast and lunch on the train,” McMillan says.
Also in Sault Ste. Marie, the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre is an airplane hangar that features dozens of historic planes, interactive exhibits, and a 3D movie. Groups can explore at their leisure or can schedule guided tours. Located in the same building, Entomica is an interactive insectarium that showcases exotic insects from all over the world. Private group tours are available.
In Thunder Bay, Fort William Historical Park is home to one of the largest living history sites in North America. Fort William was once the inland headquarters of the North West Company, the world’s largest fur trading enterprise. Groups witness the hustle and bustle of an active fur trading post, including artisans building canoes, farmers tending to gardens, and voyageurs loading furs. A nearby encampment shares the traditional lifestyle, culture, and heritage of the region’s Indigenous people, the Anishinaabe.
Sudbury is home to Science North and Dynamic Earth, two interactive science experiences. Science North features an IMAX with laser theater, a digital planetarium, a butterfly garden, a tech lab, science demonstrations, and a special exhibit hall. Dynamic Earth is home to the iconic Big Nickel, an exact replica of the 1951 Canadian nickel, weighing 28,000 pounds. Visitors can walk around and under the coin for fun group photo ops. The science center also features earth science and mining experiences, complete with a guided underground tour.
At Wiikwemikoong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island, groups can immerse in Indigenous experiences and First Nations culture. The territory is home to the largest Anishinabek community on Manitoulin Island.
“Hiking, canoeing, culinary, and history are all part of the experience,” McMillan says.
For more information on Destination Northern Ontario, call 705-542-4142 or go to northernontarioitt.com.
Featured image: Lake Superior; Credit: Destination Northern Ontario