Friday, September 20, 2019

Top Things To Do In Tobermory, Ontario + Our Vacation Video

Every summer we head out on at least one family road trip. We have travelled to Nova Scotia, New York City and Cape Cod in the past. This year we decided to rent a cottage in beautiful Tobermory, Ontario, on the Bruce Peninsula. We figured that Tobermory would provide a good balance of relaxation by the lake and activities to keep the kids (and adults) occupied. In other words, a Tobermory cottage would mean no complaints of "I'm bored" from idle teenagers.

There were seven in our party - my husband and our two teens and my husband's cousin, her husband and their teen. We rented a nice big cottage with four bedrooms, two living areas, two kitchens and two bathrooms, so that everyone could spread out and have comfortable areas to sleep, read and watch TV. Of course, most of the time when we were indoors at "home" we all gathered in the main eating and living space to eat tasty meals, enjoy drinks and watch movies. Outdoors, we favoured sitting on the dock and staring at the beautiful, choppy waters of Lake Huron, as well as kayaking and paddle boating.

The Bruce Peninsula

The Bruce Peninsula is an outcropping of land between Georgian Bay and the main basin of Lake Huron, one of the large and beautiful Great Lakes. The peninsula points northwest from Southwestern Ontario, towards Manitoulin Island. Tobermory is at the end of the Bruce Peninsula, and roughly a four-hour drive from Toronto, Ontario. The Bruce Peninsula is home to a portion of the Niagara Escarpment, as well as several nature reserves and two national parks - Fathom Five National Marine Park and Bruce Peninsula National Park (both very handy to Tobermory).

Places to Stay in Tobermory

We chose to rent a cottage in Tobermory, because our days of camping in a tent in the rain have passed (ever since we woke up to a stream of rain flowing through our campsite years ago). I also like to have my own (fully equipped) kitchen so we can prepare most of our meals ourselves rather than buying at restaurants. (If you are looking to eat out in Tobermory, though, several people recommended Ancient Cedars, which has vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free and meat options.)

The cottage we rented is called Rugged Bay. It was a good size cottage for two families. Visit the Rugged Bay website for details. For other cottage options in Tobermory, visit CanadaStays or Airnbnb or HomeAway.

Besides cottages, there are a multitude of options for places to stay in Tobermory - from camping to motels to bed and breakfasts. You can find a list of Bed and Breakfast options here, many of which have water views and/or a short walk to downtown Tobermory.

Hopefully you don't share my aversion to camping, because camping makes for an affordable vacation option. If you have a trailer you're golden - the forecast won't leave you in fear of campsite streams. There are several campgrounds in the Tobermory area - including three campgrounds on Cyprus Lake in Bruce Peninsula National Park that will put you in walking distance of the famed Grotto.

For a more comprehensive guide of where to stay in Tobermory, including camping, motel, inn and cottage options, visit the official Tobermory website.

Little Tub Harbour, Tobermory

Things To Do In The Village of Tobermory

Tobermory is a pretty little town with a "downtown" set around picturesque Little Tub Harbour. It's fascinating just to walk around and see all of the boats in the harbour - from small to "Is there a celebrity in there?" size. There is a Foodland store right in the heart of downtown for your grocery needs. In summer it can be difficult to find a parking spot. You may have to drive around a bit, swooping down when somebody leaves a spot. And don't forget to pay for parking!

Other attractions: restaurants, ice cream shops, a book store, coffee shop and, perhaps best of all, BeaverTails, the classic Canadian pastry shop, featuring dough hand-stretched to the shape of a beaver's tail, cooked in oil and served warm topped with goodies like chocolate, cookies, icing and pretzels. BeaverTails has several vegan options and they don't just involve leaving off the butter. I actually enjoyed a decadent vegan BeaverTail topped with Oreo cookies and icing! The vegan options were clearly marked on the menu and the guy who took our order was able to explain how the BeaverTails are made vegan - always a comfort.

Singing Sands (or Drowning Sands as we called it) Beach

Tobermory Attractions

Cornerstone Golf (which was for sale when we were there, so check before heading out) offers family mini putt, a 3-hole practice course, a driving range and a newer axe throwing venue. The Ancient Cedars restaurant is also on site.

Scuba diving and snorkeling are popular in Tobermory, although I can't tell you anything about it because we didn't do it. I have heard mixed reviews.

Singing Sands Beach is located on Lake Huron, about 10 km south of the town of Tobermory. We nicknamed it Drowning Sands Beach because the entire beach was covered in water. It would be well worth finding out what water levels are like before you go, because you will pay for parking even on weekdays (close to $12 when we went) and then lug your beach umbrellas, blankets and coolers across the road and down to the beach only to find that the picnic tables are in the water and you have nowhere to spread out your towels. (The dunes are protected so you can't sit there.) The boardwalk offers a nice little walk with a view to the wetlands though. If you have already paid for the Grotto parking that day you can use the same pass at Singing Sands.

Indian Head Cove

Indian Head Cove/The Grotto

The Grotto - a water-carved scenic cave containing gorgeous blue waters - is one of Tobermory's prime attractions. Be sure to book your parking ahead - it can fill up quickly at busy times in summer. You can also walk in if you camp at Cyprus Lake. The only other way to get there if you don't have parking is to hike the trails in - I think it takes about five hours. We definitely weren't into that. When you book parking, you get a 4-hour stretch to enjoy the trails, the views of the Grotto and Indian Head Cove.

On the way from the parking lot to the Grotto you'll find Indian Head Cove, the gorgeous spot pictured above. With its stunning blue, crystal clear water it's not a place you expect to find in Canada. (And beware, the water around Tobermory is pretty chilly, even when tropical in colour.)

I wish I could tell you definitively what to wear on an expedition to the Grotto. The government park website cautions about hiking safety, proper footwear and the difficulty of climbing down to the Grotto. We took them seriously and then were surprised to see children and adults alike walking the trails in swim suits and flip flops. Despite that, and the bikini-clad young women poised at the edge of alarmingly high rocks taking photos (presumably for Instagram), I (in my sensible shoes) was the one to actually fall and hit my head on a rock trying to climb down the rock face to the Grotto. (We left pretty quickly after that.) So yeah, I can't tell you how to dress. I would say make sure your sunglasses aren't too dark - I think that's what did me in - I underestimated the distance between my foot and the ground.

The Grotto

The website notes that you can either descend into the Grotto via the 40-foot open cliff face or through "the chimney," a small rocky tunnel that allows you to cork screw your way down to the Grotto opening. Some say the latter is the easier option but a) the chimney isn't easy to find. There's no big arrow pointing to it. And b) comparing it to a chimney isn't actually an exaggeration. It's pretty small and not for the claustrophobic. Nevertheless, a visit to the Grotto can be enjoyed without actually descending down into the Grotto. The trails are pretty and the views are exquisite.

Flowerpot Island

The day after we visited the Grotto, I ignored the bumps and bruises on my head and soldiered on, because we had already pre-booked a boat cruise to Flowerpot Island. Find information about boat tours and cruises here. Many of the boat tours are conducted via glass-bottom boats and visit shipwrecks on the way to Flowerpot Island. You can't see a whole lot though - it kind of just looks like brown wood) so I would say this is optional and you wouldn't be missing much if you missed that.) When booking your boat tour, think about how much time you want to spend on the island. We had a couple of hours and I didn't find it was quite enough. If you want to go swimming, photograph the flowerpots and visit the lighthouse keeper's cottage, you'll need a bit more time, as there is some trail walking involved. Explore the Bruce recommends five hours.

In 1897, the Department of Marine built a lighthouse on the northeast point of Flowerpot Island for the safety of large steamers entering Georgian Bay. J.C. Kennedy of Owen Sound was paid $1,137 for construction. Donald Smith, the first lightkeeper stationed at Flowerpot Island lighthouse, was paid $300 a season.There's now a museum in the lightkeeper's home and you can purchase snacks and drinks inside.

Our kids took a dip into the cold waters and we adults enjoyed the views from the beach. I highly recommend visiting Flowerpot Island, which is located at the tip of the Bruce Peninsula in the Fathom Five National Marine Park, 6.5 km off the shore of Tobermory.

Flowerpot Island is famous for its natural flowerpot-shaped rock pillars, although my mom saw an owl in my photo of one of the flowerpots (above) and I absolutely see it too now.

We didn't end up going over to Manitoulin Island because we didn't want to squeeze too much into one trip, but that's certainly a great option. The large Chi-Cheemaun (Ojibwe for “big Canoe”) Ferry travels from Tobermory to Manitoulin Island, making numerous daily trips between Tobermory and South Baymouth from May to October.

Tobermory Weather

Tobermory weather (probably like weather in most areas of Ontario) can run the gamut from sunny and hot to chilly, rainy and windy in summer. We lost power one evening at the cottage during a storm - be sure to locate candles and flashlights before this happens (lesson learned). Pack a swimsuit and shorts, plus sweaters and jackets (think layers). Oh, and bring water shoes! I pride myself on having walked barefoot down the rocky beach at our cottage for many years as a kid. But yeah, you need water shoes to even think about swimming in some areas (like at the cottage we rented) of Lake Huron. We had to buy water shoes for the kids at local shops.

A Word About Snakes

I'm accustomed to coming across the occasional garter snake in our yard, but in Tobermory there are actual Massasauga rattlesnakes, Ontario's only venomous snake. The Massasauga rattler is active on the Bruce Peninsula from early spring until late fall. These snakes are about the length of your arm and they have a thick body with a diamond-shaped head. My husband's cousin actually saw one on the roadway near our cottage. Massasauga rattlesnakes prefer to hide rather than attack but you might encounter one sunning himself on a rock, so be on the lookout when walking on trails. More about that here

Our Vacation Video

Now for the fun part. Get a good look at beautiful Tobermory and some of its highlights, through our vacation video:

Have you been to Tobermory? If not, would you like to go? Are you a road tripper or do you prefer air travel?


  1. What a great post and video! Can’t believe that was over 2 months ago already. 😲

    1. Thank you my friend! I know, the summer just flew by! Planning for next summer must begin so I can get through winter. ;)