The world’s largest freshwater lake is practically on our doorstep, and it’s a lovely destination for a fall car trip to see the colours and take in some unique and fun regional Ontario food. From breathtaking scenery to world-class fishing and hunting, the Lake Superior Circle Tour is something for the Canadian adventurer’s bucket list. I’ve done the whole circle twice, and several parts of it along the north shore between Sault Ste. Marie and Grand Marais, Minnesota, countless times en route to my hometown of Thunder Bay (actually, Port Arthur, but we won’t fight that fight again here…). While we are blessed in southwestern Ontario to have two Great Lakes, Huron and Erie, there is something uniquely special about the dark waters and rocky coastlines of Lake Superior.
The entire tour is 1300 miles long and takes you through Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota on the US section, and then through the vast, unspoiled section of Northwestern Ontario between Pigeon River and Sault Ste. Marie. There are beaches, marinas, parks, waterfalls, and rock cliffs along the way, and the tour varies quite a bit between the south shore (Michigan, Wisconsin) and the north shore (Minnesota and Ontario). For many, the most spectacular views are driving east along the north shore between Grand Marais and the Sault – especially near Grand Portage, Minnesota and Old Woman Bay. But one could spend days enjoying side trips to places like Ouimet Canyon, Lake Superior Provincial Park, and Kakabeka Falls, or visiting an amethyst mine or stopping to pick blueberries. One thing is for certain, you won’t go hungry – especially if you love freshwater fish.
Driving: Cross into the US at Sarnia/Port Huron and take the I-75 all the way up the peninsula to the spectacular Mackinaw Bridge (7 hours). You may want to spend the night on Mackinaw Island at the famous Grand Hotel – but bring your dinner jacket. Enjoy a cocktail in the Cupola Bar, which provides a panoramic view of the Mackinaw Straights.
To begin the full tour, take Highway 2 right off the Mackinaw Bridge and enjoy sensational beaches along the top of Lake Michigan before heading north to Highway 28, which takes you up to Superior. This is the start of the American south shore section of the route. Give yourself a week and enjoy stops in places like Marquette, Michigan, where you can dine and view the impressive iron ore trestles, and Ashland, Wisconsin, with its delicious lakeside restaurants and hotels for fabulous fish dinners. The Hotel Chequamegon has an especially delightful porch overlooking the bay. As you wind your way towards the north shore, you’ll hit the port city of Duluth, Minnesota, which is the starting point for the northern leg of the tour. Plan to only drive in daylight with plenty of time to stop at roadside lookout points. The Duluth tourism centre offers great information and a hilltop view of Lake Superior.
Winding west, a great spot for a fabulous – and sustainable – fish meal is at the Angry Trout Cafe in Grand Marais, Minnesota. Perched over the marina, this former fishing shanty serves organic and sustainable foods, including wild rice and delicious Lake Superior herring. They use wind-powered electricity and support local producers. It closes in mid-October for the winter and reopens in May. Perfect spot for a cold beer and as close to the water as you will ever get without going in. www.angrytroutcafe.com
From Grand Marais, a daylight drive to Thunder Bay is a must, with stops at Grand Portage to take in wide-angle views – don’t miss a single roadside rest stop. From the American/Canadian border, you’ll see the edge of the Great Nor’wester mountain range – and no more water – until you hit Thunder Bay, where we recommend you spend a few days enjoying Northwestern Ontario cuisine.
Thunder Oak Cheese Farm, www.cheesefarm.ca.
Coming into Thunder Bay from the border on highway 61, it’s worth the two-kilometre detour west on Boundary Drive to this small but tasty local producer of Dutch-style Gouda cheese. Thunder Oak is a Shep family business that produces a dozen flavours of Gouda using milk from their own herd of 75 Holstein cows. They also grow their own feed. You can view into the aging room and sample. Make sure you pack your cooler with these cheeses for your road trip. This award-winning Gouda is made with no preservatives or added colouring, although they like to play with natural ingredients to change the colours of the rinds. They have four different ages of cheese and also sell squeaky good curds in three flavours. You can have them ship you cheese – they have customers as far away as the Yukon. Their Gouda has been for sale, on occasion, at The Milky Whey in Stratford. Some big sellers are the extra old and the jalapeño.
The Hoito Restaurant, 314 Bay Street, Thunder Bay. www.finlandiaclub.ca
No stop in Thunder Bay is complete without a visit to the Hoito for Finnish-style pancakes, bacon, and maybe some salt fish. Nestled in the basement of the Finlandia Club, a historic building from 1910 that was originally used as a centre for Finnish bush workers, the Hoito (which opened in 1918) is loved by all ages for its simple and filling Finnish-style food. The pancakes are very thin, have crispy edges and are served in stacks of three. To put their popularity into perspective, the pancake mix is made overnight in 16-litre pails – and they typically use 12 pails every day to keep up with demand! We were lucky enough to be allowed into the kitchen for some rare photographs. Bay Street has several Finnish gift and food shops where you can buy Piirakka (meat pastries) or cardamom bread. A visit to the Finnish Book Store, which is home to the Kitchen Nook, is worthwhile. With every gadget imaginable, this is a culinary browser’s dream. Maybe they can teach you how to make the pancakes?
The Persian Man, 899 Tungsten Street, Thunder Bay, or 400 Balmoral Street, Thunder Bay
The persian, Thunder Bay’s regional treat slathered in a super-sweet pink icing (think lard and sugar) is so popular that ex-pats order these doughy, fried pastries in special packing to take on the airplane. People in Northwestern Ontario love to slice these baked goods in half, spread them with butter and fry them in a pan like a grilled cheese sandwich. The icing melts into a caramelized goo and drips off your fingers as you devour it quickly before you teeth start to hurt! Originally created by Art Bennett of Bennett’s Bakery, the persian was supposedly named for a visiting marine officer friend in Duluth. The bakery was bought by the Nucci family and they have since added chocolate and blueberry icing – but pink rules the day. You need to order ahead if you want a dozen with “icing on the side,” which means it comes in a tub and you can slather it as you wish.
The northern shore tour of Superior from Thunder Bay to the Sault includes great vistas at the Terry Fox Monument, just east of Thunder Bay, and at Wawa, home of the famous goose. The big scenery is from Montreal River Harbour to Pancake Bay Provincial Park, through Batchawana Bay. A breathtaking view is at Old Woman Bay, close to the Sault – also a special place for a swim. Lake Superior is breathtakingly cold but worth at least one dip!
Once you complete the 1300-mile trek, you can actually get a sticker for your car, motorcycle or boat and a certificate! Full details at www.lakesuperiorcircletour.com. The organization also publishes its own magazine. Many think that this would be the ideal trip by motorcycle. But where would you put the cooler?
Jane Antoniak was born and raised in Thunder Bay. She now operates Antoniak Communications in London and makes regular trips home for pickerel, perogies, persians and pancakes.
Bruce Fyfe enjoyed his first trip to Thunder Bay this summer and was thrilled to be allowed inside the Hoito kitchen – and to eat the pancakes.