Huronia (or Simcoe County) takes in the area extending north to south from Awenda Provincial Park off Georgian Bay to the rural farmland just 36 mi (58 km) northwest of Toronto. West to east it covers the land extending from the Nottawasaga Bay town of Collingwood to Lake Simcoe (excluding the bottom half of the lake’s eastern shoreline). Not surprisingly, both the Georgian Bay (including Nottawasaga Bay) and Lake Simcoe shorelines are the main drawing cards in the region. On a good day the Expressway 400 will take you straight north from Toronto to the city of Barrie in 1.5 hours. From here all the desirable lakeshore attractions can be reached in 30-45 minutes along the major highways.
If not so anxious to reach water, the agricultural territory to the west of Route 400 offers scenic pastoral roads and charming country towns. Hwy 89 turns west oft of 400, some 12.5 mi (20 km) south of Barrie and passes through two of the more engaging towns, Cookstown, a restored 1830’s village and Alliston, “the Potato Capital of Ontario.” About 9 mi (15 km) west of Cookstown is the Earl Rowe Provincial Park. With its heavily forested riverine landscape, the park offers first-rate camping, canoeing, fishing, hiking and swimming. Backtracking a few kilometers east on Hwy 89 is Route 10. It travels all the way north to Wasaga Beach Provincial Park. Along the way, to your left and just beyond Brentwood, which is north of Angus, are riding stables and the New Lowell Conservation Area, which also offers camping, canoeing, and fishing.
Wasaga Beach is, of course, the main attraction at the Wasaga Beach Provincial Park. Along with the beach front, however, the park system includes the Nottawasaga River, a flood plain, sand dunes, and a lagoon. The dunes in particular are of interest. Shaped by northwest winds into fragile parabolic and Ushaped figures, they are a relatively rare geological formation.
The short Blueberry Plains Trail provides an excellent hike through their system. The beach itself, at 9 mi (14 km), is the world’s longest freshwater beach. The waterfront is a vacationer’s paradise, whether for recreation or for peoplewatching. The park lends out sports equipment at very reasonable fees (if any at all), leaving the entire area buzzing with cyclists, boaters and volleyball players. Sunbathers – and there are many of them – be warned. This is not the beach for peaceful relaxation.
Farther north up the Nottawasaga Bay shoreline there is a series of tiny beaches which offer a greater possibility of peace and quiet. This area is dense with private residences but there are cottages and resort homes available for rental at almost any budgetary level. A narrow road hugs the shoreline – unfortunately with a row of cottages between it and the lake which permits the water lover to sneak down to the bay and choose a beachfront to his or her liking. Some are developed with parks and food kiosks, but others are completely undeveloped, with no distractions from the awesome expanse of lake stretching to the horizon.
To the east of these tiny beaches, off the Georgian Bay Inlet, are the two major resort towns in the area, Midland and Penetanguishene (a hill town with gorgeous views) and . Just a five minute drive from each other, both can be reached turning east off Hwy 93 (if you’re traveling north).
The town of Midland is situated on the site of one of the earliest white settlements in Canada. In 1639, French Jesuits built a self-sufficient mission community, Sainte-Marie, in what is now Midland, in an attempt to convert the Wendat peoples who resided in the area. They were successful for some time but the Jesuits brought, along with their European customs, European diseases which the Wendat had no inborn immunities to. The situation was further aggravated by an on-going rivalry between the Wendat and the Iroquois, who also lived in the region. In 1648, fearing an Iroquois attack, the French and a group of Christian Wendat prophylactically burnt down Sainte-Marie and retreated back to Quebec.
Today in Midland an almost identical replica of this community, built from the actual plans of the original. It can be visited from late May to mid October. It is a rare to actually feel transported back to another time in a reconstructed historical site, but Sainte-Marie, with its Wendat longhouse, Catholic Church, blacksmith shop and 300-year old graveyard, succeeds marvellously in this endeavor, and offers a glimpse into the lives of these two very disparate peoples. Both towns also have a number of other historical sites worth visiting. Most noteworthy are a reconstructed Huron village at Midland’s Huronia Museum; and Penetanguishene’s Historic Naval and Military Establishments, which recreates, at the actual site, a 19th-century British naval base and military garrison.Both are open from May to October.
Boat cruises leave from Midland and Penetanguishene to the nearby 30,000 Georgian Bay Islands. The area’s rugged scenery is breathtaking. If touring the evening cruise, in particular, should not be missed. Marinas in Midland and Penetanguishene also offer boat rides to the Georgian Bay Islands National Park, which consists of 59 islands and covers approximately 4.5 sq. mi (12 sq. km) of land. Like so many national and provincial parks in Ontario, it offers excellent camping, fishing and hiking, but its most characteristic features are its pristine beauty and extreme isolation. The northern islands and northern Beausoleil Island, which is the park’s center of activity, are dominated by barren glacial rock and sturdy pine trees, while Southern Beausoleil is dense, embracing hardwood forest territory. There is no opportunity to purchase supplies or equipment of any kind at the park, so, if you do go, be sure to stock up before you leave.
As for the other shoreline in Huronia, Lake Simcoe’s can not be given as strong a recommendation as the Georgian Bay’s. For such a large lake Simcoe is frustratingly difficult to approach. Along its eastern and northwestern shorelines there are few good scenic routes. The occasional side road will take you down to the water but generally the beaches are inferior in size and comfort to the real prime beaches in the rest of Ontario. Lodges and cottages are scattered around the lake providing enjoyable overnight vacationing, but the Muskoka area, to the north, is definitely the place to go for a better touristic infrastructure.
What this part of Huronia does offer are three excellent provincial parks: McRae and Mara, which sit on Lake Simcoe, and Bass, which is west of the town of Orillia. All have excellent fishing – smallmouth bass, lake trout, and muskellunge being the most common species.
Orillia, with a population of 26,000, is the major agglomeration in the area. It is worth visiting if you’re tiring of natural beauty or would like a taste, just a small one, of the urban. The town, with its restored and gentrified downtown, offers excellent shopping and dining, as well as frequent festivals and on-going markets. Live theater is to be had in the old (1895) opera house, and the Stephen Leacock Museum, a 1928 mansion built as a home by Leacock himself, affords an engaging view into the life of Canada’s best known humorist.