Island of tranquillity

MANITOULIN ISLAND, Ontario -- Summer holidays get more complicated every year as vacationers fight for walking space and breathing room at popular resorts. Traffic and crowds, long waits and no vacancy signs can make a vacation more trouble than it's worth.
If you long for the old days, when a vacation meant a relaxing trip to a sleepy little resort with old-fashioned amenities, Manitoulin Island is a good choice.
"The undiscovered country" is a perfect description for bucolic Manitoulin, the largest island in Lake Huron. It's actually the largest freshwater island in the world, but few people seem to think that's remarkable or worthy of a visit.
Even Canadians spend their vacations on the coast instead of at Manitoulin.
Attractions: The island boasts sandy beaches, quaint villages, a strong sense of history, and miles of winding country roads.
What it doesn't have are crowds, traffic, lines of condos, upscale shopping or frantic amusement parks.
The island was settled by farmers and loggers who joined the native Indians to form an insular community that resists modernization to this day.
Driving off the ferry at South Baymouth, one gets a distinct feeling of driving back into the '60s.
The lack of condos is the first clue. There are a few independent motels and resorts on the island, but most accommodations are in bed and breakfast inns, campgrounds or tiny wooden tourist cabins with slate chimneys. There are no national or international motel/hotel chains on the island.
Esso gas stations are plentiful, but they're called gas bars and usually consist of two pumps in a gravel lot with no roof overhead.
Instead of convenience stores there are general stores, the kind with two steps up to a porch and a wooden screen door that bangs shut on a spring behind you.
Nightlife on Manitoulin consists of walking up the road for Farquhars, the locally made ice cream, or enjoying the ambience at the 1888 Anchor Inn in Little Current, watching homebound sailboats glide into the marina.
Towns: More than two dozen communities dot the island, from the tiny crossroads of Hilly Grove to the bustling coastal town of Gore Bay.
One of the most interesting towns is Little Current, home of the Swing Bridge. From the Visitors Center, you can walk down the hill to a picnic ground overlooking the North Channel, which separates Manitoulin from mainland Ontario. It's a good spot from which to watch the 1913 Swing Bridge do its stuff.
From a distance the bridge seems very efficient and capable as it swings sideways in the channel on a central pivot to allow tall ships to pass. It's only when you cross the bridge yourself that you notice how rickety it looks, with worn-off macadam and flapping wooden planks. But it's been carrying heavy traffic for years, and must be safer than it looks.
Sheguiandah is another interesting town, if you can find it.
Locating the little hamlet can be as challenging as pronouncing its name. "According to my grandpa," a waitress told us, "there are three ways to pronounce the name of the village "She-gwan-dah‚ is one, "Shih-gin-duh‚ is another" and I forget the third."
Sheguiandah has a nice walking tour, on which visitors can see a rebuilt sawmill on a picturesque creek, and other noteworthy historic spots. The town's only restaurant, Green Acres, is right on Highway 6 and serves mouth-watering homemade pie.
Meldrum Bay, on the west end of the island, is home to the 115-year-old working Mississagi Lighthouse, now a museum and restaurant.
On the way to Meldrum Bay, visitors can stop at the Hawberry House at Dryden's Corners to sample the island's signature hawberry jelly.
If you're looking for a vacation during which you can actually relax and let the world pass you by, check out Manitoulin Island.

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