Booth Newspapers- Grand Rapids Press, Saginaw News
Northern Ontario offers mix of urban and wilderness experiences
SAULT STE. MARIE, CANADA - There was a time when a vacation in northern Ontario meant a float plane, a remote lake, four guys, and all the walleye they could catch. The fish, the planes and the lakes are still here. But increasingly, the vacationers are couples, families, even honeymooners.
"What's happened is the groups of guys are bringing along their wives and their families," says Al Errington, who's operated a resort on Lake Wabatongushi in the Chapleau Game Preserve since the 1970s.
"It's a wilderness vacation instead of strictly fishing," he says. "There's a lot of very nice resorts in this area now."
At Errington's Wilderness Island Resort (www.wildernessisland.com), amenities include comfortable rooms and waterfront cabins, all with hot showers, along with a dining room that serves prime rib and other "really nice meals."
There's no road to the resort, 200 miles north of Sault Ste. Marie. Visitors come by the Algoma Central Railroad, or by float plane. There are no televisions. And largely because the customers want it that way, some of the cabins are lit only by propane lamps. Outdoors, the experience can include fishing, of course, but also swimming, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, or excursions to view moose, bear, loons and other wildlife.
The wilderness is still the major attraction of Northern Ontario. But these days, visitors can decide just how civilized they want their wilderness experience to be. Most North Ontario visitors also get a taste of the cosmopolitan, with one or more nights in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada, or other gateway cities.
Larger cities such as Sault Ste Marie and Sudbury offer a full range of accommodations, fine dining, museums, art galleries, shopping and other trappings of modern life, all within a few minutes of spectacularly scenic wilderness that stretches for hundreds of miles.
Crossing the International Bridge into Sault Ste. Marie, Canada, is generally a painless experience. Because of lower traffic volume, the wait at customs is much shorter than at downstate crossings. Passports are not required for surface travel between Canada and the United States. Customs officials recommend that all travelers carry a birth certificate and photo ID such as a driver's license.
Perhaps the most popular gateway to the Canadian wilderness is the Agawa Canyon Tour Train, operated out of Sault Ste. Marie by the Algoma Central Railroad. The one-day excursion takes visitors more than 100 miles into the bush, stops for two hours in the Agawa Canyon, and then returns to the Soo.
The Agawa Canyon tour leaves the Soo daily at about 8:30 a.m., reaches the canyon for a two-hour layover about noon, and returns to Sault Ste. Marie station by about 5:30 p.m.
Most riders stay in the Canadian Soo for one or two nights. Hotels such as the Water Tower Inn and the Holiday Inn offer packages and will handle ticketing for their guests. The railroad's website, www.agawacanyontourtrain.com, includes a list of hotels and package plans. Phone: (800) 242-9287.
For those who want more than a couple hours to explore Agawa Canyon, the Canyon View Camp Car is a converted caboose that functions as a sort of mobile housekeeping cabin. The car, designed to sleep four people, is hauled up to the canyon, and parked on a siding for up to four days.
Included in the package is the use of two canoes along with
a screen tent, outdoor eating area and campfire pit. Occupants
bring their own food, and are free to explore the area until the
train returns to haul them back to the Soo.
The Algoma Central Railroad, which operates the Agawa Canyon Tour, also runs a passenger train three days a week on the same tracks north to Hearst, Ont., 296 miles north of Sault Ste. Marie. It's that train that serves Errington's Wilderness Island and other resorts along the way. The train operates on a flag-stop system, which means you can get on and off pretty much anywhere.
One popular trip is an overnight excursion to Errington's. Travelers head north on the railroad one day, spend the evening and night at Wilderness Island, and then catch the return train the next morning. Travelers can buy train tickets directly from the railroad, but it's more common for the resorts and lodges to make transportation arrangements for their guests, according to Michael Morrow, Algoma Central's passenger marketing director.
A brand new cultural attraction, tentatively set to open June 4, is Eagle's Earth Cree and Ojibway Historical Centre, at Constance Lake First Nation near Hearst. The center will provide access to kayaking and rafting trips on the area's wild rivers, as well as a restaurant serving authentic native cuisine, a re-creation of a native village as it might have appeared 7,000 years ago, an RV park, and overnight lodging in cabins or teepees.
Shuttle service will be provided between Eagle's Earth and the Algoma Central station in Hearst. The centre can also be reached by automobile on Highway 11, the northern branch of the Trans Canada Highway. Eagle's Earth is expected to be open year round, with winter activities including dogsledding, snowmobiling and cross country skiing.
Northern Ontario is so vast that it's impossible in a short article to even hint at the number of lodges, resorts, outfitters, attractions and float plane operators.
Here's a quick guide to major attractions and contact information for the region's major gateway cities. Another useful contact is Ontario Tourism, at (800) 668-2746 or www.ontariotravel.net.
# A guide to plane services, cabins and other outdoor attractions is available from Nature and Outdoor Tourism Ontario, at www.noto.net. Sault Ste Marie, across the International Bridge from the Michigan city of the same name, is the favorite entry point for Michiganians driving to Northern Ontario.
The Canadian Soo is a pleasant town with a riverfront boardwalk, several fine hotels, parks, and such attractions as the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Center (see accompanying story). The town has welcomed a number of Italian immigrants over the decades, and has a number of highly regarded Italian restaurants, including the New Marconi. The best known attraction is the Agawa Canyon Tour Train, which departs daily in summer from a downtown station.
A new Website, www.northernontario.com, gives potential travelers an introduction to the Soo and the surrounding area. The Algoma Kinniwabi Travel Association publishes on-line and printed guides to the region's attractions: (800) 263-2546; www.algomacountry.com.
# Greater Sudbury, just north of Lake Huron's Georgian Bay, is a historic mining town. With 150,000 residents, it is the largest city in Northern Ontario. Sudbury's popular dual attraction, Science North and Dynamic Earth, includes a science center, underground mine tours, an IMAX theater, a butterfly gallery and more. (www.sciencenorth.ca or 800-461-4898) Sudbury also has art galleries, museums, a harness racetrack with slot machines, shopping centers and a full range of accommodations.
# The popular Killarney Provincial Park is nearby. For more information on Sudbury, call (877) 304-8222, or visit www.sudburytourism.ca on the internet. Or, contact the regional Rainbow Country Travel Association: (800) 465-6655 or www.rainbowcountry.com.
# Thunder Bay, near the west end of Lake Superior, is a major stop on the Lake Superior circle tour. It's home to the Fort William Historical Park, where costumed interpreters tell the story of a French trading post of the early 1800s. Natural attractions in the region include Kakabeka Falls and the Sleeping Giant, a rock formation that, according to legend, represents an Ojibway chief turned to stone. For information, visit www.thunderbay.ca on the internet.
# Timmins, 180 miles north of Sudbury, is located in the midst of a huge forest and mining region. It offers wildlife viewing, an underground gold mine tour, and the new Shania Twain Center, a tribute to the home-town girl who grew up to become one of North America's most popular entertainers.
# About 50 miles north, at Cochran, is the station for the Polar Bear Express, a tourist train that takes excursions to Moosonee, on the fringes of James Bay. For information on the Polar Bear Express visit www.ontarionorthland.ca. For more about Timmins, call (800) 387-8466 or visit www.tourismtimmins.com.
# North Bay, on Lake Nipissing near the Ontario-Quebec border, was home to the famed Dionne quintuplets, born in the 1930s. A museum captures the story of the five babies who were an international sensation in another age. North Bay's bustling waterfront includes a dock for the Chief Commanda II, a 300-passenger Lake Nipissing Tour boat. For information on North Bay, go to www.visitnorthbay.ca on the Internet.
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