Located at the tip of the Bruce Peninsula, an easy four-hour drive from Niagara, sits the small town of Tobermory. And it’s easily one of the prettiest areas in the province. There are shipwrecks to explore, hiking until your feet hurt, boat tours, boutiques, restaurants and the kind of relaxed lifestyle that only seems to exist in towns that sit perched on the water.
Depending on whether you take the direct or scenic route, you’ll be able to check out Lion’s Head (a beautiful little town on Isthmus Bay with a gorgeous sandy beach and a rock formation with a “lions head”…see if you can find it) and Wiarton (you might possibly come face to face with the famous groundhog if he is feeling so inclined). Whatever route you choose, it’s an easy, relaxing drive through long stretches of forest dotted with sporadic towns.
Upon arriving in Tobermory, my friend Tina and I knew the basic things we wanted to see: Flower Pot Island, shipwrecks, Bruce Peninsula National Park and the grotto. Having arrived late afternoon on Friday, we left the adventuring for the next day and decided to get the lay of the town. Our initial impression of Tobermory was that it was delightful; flowers blooming everywhere, most notably lilacs and poppies, the former giving the town a beautiful scent wherever we went. We mulled over the thought of a town meeting at which every resident agreed to plant a lilac bush, so that each June, visitors would happily skip through town due to the sheer loveliness of it all.
Tobermory seems like one of those places not a lot of people know about. It’s almost nice that places like this remain a bit of a secret because nothing ruins a good travel moment quite like a hundred other people experiencing it at the same time. But also…it’s too good not to share.
When we woke on Saturday morning, the weather wasn’t overly promising. It was rainy and windy, so we headed out for breakfast. A waiter at the Fish and Chip Place the night before had mentioned that the weather in Tobermory is never permanent and blows over in a few hours. He told us this as he squirted a seagull with an always-loaded water gun (seagulls in Tobermory will steal the food off your plate with no pretense of politeness). True to form, the weather did blow over, so we signed up to take a boat cruise over to Flower Pot Island. There are a couple of different options available in terms of boat companies, but they all offer the same basic experience: glass bottomed boats or jet boats. The glass bottomed boat ride takes about 40 minutes, and the jet boat about 15. The glass bottom boats make a detour to see some of Tobermory’s famous shipwrecks, so we opted for that, but honestly, the actual glass bottom section wasn’t exactly what we were anticipating. Yes, there is glass at the bottom of the boat, but it’s easier to see the shipwrecks from the top deck (at least that was the experience on the boat we were on). Nonetheless, the boat ride is fun (even for me and I’m prone to sea sickness).
Flower Pot Island
We disembarked on Flower Pot Island (which makes up part of the Fathom Five National Marine Park). After using the composting toilet (I feel like toilet usage isn’t something one would normally note in an article, but this toilet was peculiar, and you should probably check it out just because it’s interesting as far as toilets go and it’s there). The paths on the island are well marked, as are the island’s namesakes: the large and small flowerpots. There are also caves, a lookout point, and hiking paths all the way around the island, if you’ve left yourself enough time. There’s not much to the place, and that’s why it’s great. It’s beautiful for simply being what it is: a job well done by Mother Earth. This place is stunning. The water is a crazy colour of blue, one you normally only find in the Caribbean, and the rocks are bright white. It’s the kind of place you don’t necessarily think you are going to find in Ontario, but low and behold, it’s there.
- Bring some snacks and water with you.
- The two main companies that offer tours: Blue Heron Cruises (blueheron.ca) and Bruce Anchor (bruceanchor.com). Boats leave from the wharf area in Tobermory.
- There is a restored light station on the island, which is maintained by volunteers. Feel free to explore and get an idea what the life of a light keeper is like.
- You can canoe or kayak to Flower Pot Island, but it’s for experienced paddlers only. The water can get very rough with tall waves, and the weather can change quickly.
Bruce Peninsula National Park
Day Two, we set out for Bruce Peninsula National Park, and more specifically, the grotto located there within. It costs $11.70 per vehicle to park for the day, and there are numerous parking lots available. It can quickly become packed with visitors in the summertime, and if you go during peak periods, your car will likely be turned away. Luckily, we visited in June, got up early, and practically had the park to ourselves for a couple of hours. We met some other friendly hikers who showed us the way to the grotto (it takes about a half hour to walk from the parking lot to the grotto, and it’s a hard packed easy path to walk on). We initially had it in our heads that we were going to snorkel in the grotto, so we lugged all our equipment all the way down the path. When we arrived at the grotto, our hiker friends essentially said, “you are crazy if you think you are going to snorkel in there today”. This was due to the fact that not only was the water extremely choppy, but to actually get into the grotto, we needed to climb down a rock wall face. Parts of the climbs are difficult, and the rocks can get slippery, especially when waves are splashing everywhere, so adding the extra weight of a duffel bag full of snorkeling equipment wasn’t exactly feasible. Not without one of us getting seriously injured at least. As it was, the climb down the wall was a bit treacherous, and climbing down with just my backpack was a feat in and of itself. A water bottle and a pair of sunglasses now living in the grotto can attest to this fact.
We made it into the grotto, and aside from us, there were only two other people. It was one of the coolest places I’ve ever seen. We dipped our toes in the water, but Georgian Bay is the kind of cold that shocks your system, leaving whatever part of you that touched the water instantly numb. We hung out in the grotto for quite some time, soaking in the beauty of it all. By the time we made our way back out, the area was starting to get busy. While you could easily spend all day hiking through the park, or lazing in the grotto, if you only have a little bit of time, make sure you also check out Indian Head Cove…it’s a beautiful place to sit in the sun and relax. There is also an overlook spot, which gives you a panoramic view of Georgian Bay.
- Bring some snacks and water with you.
- This can’t be stressed enough: get there early.
- Check out explorethebruce.com for extra info on hiking trails, camping and other activities in the park.
- The Bruce Peninsula is one of the only places left in Canada where the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake lives. They are super timid and likely won’t strike unless provoked. If you happen to see one, just leave it be and move away slowly.
After hiking back with our wetsuits, we decided to actually put them to good use, and go snorkeling right off the harbour in Tobermory. There are several shipwrecks located within swimming distance from Little Tub Harbour, and keep in mind, a wetsuit is definitely necessary if you hope to stay in the water for more than five minutes. The shipwrecks are in various degrees of deterioration, and the ones that are closer to shore are a bit more beat up then the ones farther out.
The wind was once again not our friend, and the wavy water made it quite difficult to swim outwards with any degree of efficiency. In any event, we swam around for about an hour (we only had one near drowning), before heading back in. There are a couple companies that offer snorkel and swim tours, which are great if you want a guide with you along the way. But the option is definitely also there to rent your own wetsuit (we got ours from G&S Sports, which is located right on the harbour, and while the “trying on” part was a bit of an interesting challenge, including a curtain that didn’t quite close and getting ourselves stuck in tight rubber suits, they were overall very helpful!). Maps of the shipwreck locations are available all over town. Another great place to snorkel is out by Big Tub Harbour, which we unfortunately didn’t discover until we were leaving, but put it on our list for next time.
- Make sure you get the entire wetsuit (including gloves, headpieces, boots) it will make all the difference.
- Check out diversden.ca or gswaterssports.net for information on renting wetsuits and snorkel/scuba tours.
Because I like to chase sunsets, we scouted out the best places to watch a sunset in Tobermory. One was at the end of Highway 6 (literally the end) at the Bruce Anchor Cruise office. There is a deck and a beach and a picturesque spot complete with a lighthouse in the distance. A waiter at a restaurant recommended we check out the observation tower at the Bruce Peninsula National Park Visitor’s Centre, which is just outside the main part of town. The tower is a bit of a climb, but the view is well worth it.
The rest of our time in Tobermory was spent eating copious amounts of ice cream (the best part of being on vacation is eating ice cream every night like it’s normal. What? We snorkeled AND hiked.) Tobermory is a good wandering town. It’s small, so it takes no time to see everything, and the streets are lined with cute shops, including a book store, gift shops, clothing stores, and the famous (I’m assuming this, in the sense that’s it’s actually impossible to miss) shop, A Mermaid’s Secret.
And there we have it: a weekend in Tobermory. The time flew by, as it tends to do when you’re having fun. But the mark of a good trip is that you start missing the place before you’ve even left, but also knowing that given the chance, you’d return in a heartbeat. So Tobermory, until next time.
Our Host: Little Cove Adventures (littlecove.ca)
We stayed in a cute little cabin at Little Cove Adventures, and this really is a great place to stay during your visit to Tobermory. It’s close enough to drive to town in about five minutes, and far enough away from the hustle and bustle, that you get that nice woodsy experience. It’s perfect for families, as the cabins are nestled in the woods, with each cabin getting its own fire pit for cooking. There is also a larger BBQ available for group gatherings. We kept saying Little Cove reminded us of The Parent Trap (the original, obviously), which is most definitely a good thing.
Bonus feature here is a ropes course you can take part in (prices vary depending on whether you chose to do the high ropes or low rope course).
We did our best to try as many restaurants as we could during our stay in Tobermory, here is the rundown:
This place is amazing and delicious, and you should definitely stop here and eat. The veggie burger was one of the best ones I’ve ever had. It’s also one of the only places you’ll find a good selection of Vegetarian and Vegan food.
If you tend to rise late like we did, breakfast can be challenging to find, but it’s served here until 11am. It’s reasonably priced, and offers great, belly-filling portions.
The Crow’s Nest
This place has live music every weekend, and the largest outdoor patio in the city. We tried the pizza and wings, and being the pizza connoisseurs that we are, we declared it “yummy”.
This is a bit of a cheesy-looking place perched right on the corner in the main part of town. You’ll recognize it by the pirate theme, something they remain very committed to. The servers are super friendly, and it’s a great place to get fish and chips (they have all your can eat). You can eat inside or outside.
The Fish and Chip Place
This was the very first restaurant we ate at, and we basically chose it because it looked colourful, inviting and had a patio. We had the fish taco and the fish and chips, and they were both good. The staff had a loaded water gun that they used to squirt seagulls, so there was a bonus entertainment value here.
Peninsula Supply Ice Cream Parlour
This tiny, unassuming place was one of our favourites in town. The staff was extraordinarily accommodating, and we didn’t detect any judgment in their eyes when they saw us return every day.
Written By: Megan Pasche