Punxsutawney has Phil, and Wiarton, Ont., a small town on the shores of Georgian Bay about 250 miles northwest of Buffalo, has Willie. This albino groundhog, and his predecessors, have been predicting the length of winter since 1956.
Every Feb. 2, thousands of visitors rise early to join the festivities, which include fireworks, a pancake breakfast, live music and, of course, the furry rodent himself. We joined the party, and mingled with the crowd whose sense of fun was evident in their get-ups and enthusiasm. Despite the prognosis (six long more weeks of winter), we thoroughly enjoyed the morning’s festivities. But what really makes this trip special is exploring the region’s outstanding natural attractions, which can be enjoyed any time of year. Wiarton is referred to as the gateway to the Bruce Peninsula, a stretch of land that separates Georgian Bay and Lake Huron. It’s part of the Niagara Escarpment, a UNESCO world biosphere famed for its glacially sculpted rugged limestone and rich ecosystem. To put it simply, it’s gorgeous.
After snapping some pics of Wiarton Willie’s sculpture at Bluewater Park, we headed out for a hike on the Bruce Trail. Stretching 560 miles from Queenston in Niagara to Tobemory at the end of the peninsula, it’s Ontario’s longest and oldest footpath.
Zane Davies, our guide for the afternoon, considers the Bruce section to be the most scenic part of the trail. “At any point you have pure wilderness, crystal clear water and rugged escarpment cliffs unlike anything else in Ontario,” Davies said.
As we moved along the path, Davies pointed out evidence of wildlife, such as bear claw scratches on birch trees, as well as interesting geological features. Next, we climbed steadily toward the edge of Malcolm’s Bluff, and carefully made our way onto the ledge. Everyone was suddenly silent. This may have been partly due to vertigo as there’s a 300-foot drop below, but mostly we were quiet because we were awestruck. The views of Georgian Bay from the cliff stretch for miles, and the calm and beauty of the scene touched us all.
“Now you know why I love my job,” Davies said.
Having worked up an appetite, we returned to Wiarton for lunch at the Green Door Café. Considered an institution by locals, this cozy eatery serves up fresh pickerel as well as other favorite dishes like tomato bisque soup and lamb burgers.
Our next adventure took us to MacGregor Point Provincial Park. Located 45 minutes south of Wiarton on the shores of Lake Huron, this all-season park provides habitat to much of the region’s wildlife, including migratory birds. Spring is a popular time for bird-watching, and this year’s annual Huron Fringe Birding Festival takes place May 23 to 26 and May 29 to June 1.
We spent the night in one of the park’s 16 yurts. These eight-sided, 16-foot-diameter tentlike structures are surprisingly comfortable with electric heating and lighting. Outside, there’s a fire pit, barbecue and picnic tables. It’s definitely more “glamping” than camping and we sleep well in our cozy abode. It provides the perfect base to not only explore the park itself, but also other area attractions including:
• Bruce Caves – These caverns formed by post-glacial Lake Algonquin showcase Mother Nature’s artistry. You’ll feel tiny next to these giant rock formations, and it you’re spry enough, you can crawl right into the crevices. Kids can’t resist. (Grey County Road No. 1, 5 kilometers northeast of Wiarton)
• Waterfalls – Because of its geological pedigree, the Niagara Escarpment has more than its fair share of stunning waterfalls. The crown jewel, of course, is Niagara Falls, but littered among the corridor are many others that are well worth a visit. Inglis Falls, just south of Owen Sound, is one of the finest, cascading 60 feet into a deep gorge. Also at the site are hiking trails, an interpretative center, geological potholes and the historical remains of a grist mill. Nearby are Weavers Creek Falls, which has boardwalk access, and Jones Falls.
• Sauble Beach – Voted one of the five best beaches in Canada, it has all the requirements of a perfect beach day with warm waters, four miles of white sands, and a beach town right out of the ’50s with amusement parks, bars and go-karts.
• Grey Roots Museum – Displays offer visitors a glimpse into the region’s history. Particularly fascinating are the exhibits of the First Nations Anishinabe, in which elder Basil Johnson recounts their stories, philosophy of life and connection to the natural world. Also notable is the ‘Saints and Sinners’ exhibition, which looks at how the wild “spirited” days of yore changed with prohibition.
• Cobble Beach Inn – A challenging golf course, spa, accommodations, upscale dining and spectacular views of Georgian Bay can all be found at this property just outside of Wiarton. Accommodations range from standard suites to the ultra-luxurious bridal quarters and self-contained cottages. Or just come for dinner. Sweetwater Restaurant features local cuisine in an elegant, relaxed setting.