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Ontario: overview

This residential paradise between the Great Lakes and Hudson Bay is the country’s dominant province. With more than 13 million people clustered almost entirely along the southern border, Ontario is Canada’s most populous province – and the wealthiest. It generates some 40 percent of the gross national product from manufacturing, construction, minerals, forestry and agriculture. The vitality of the province has grown with the influx of Italian, German, Portuguese, Caribbean, Indian and Pakistani immigrants, reducing the once-overwhelming British majority to about 35 percent. 

Not only has Toronto supplanted Montréal as the nation’s business capital, its cultural and social life has expanded rapidly. The vibrant modern metropolis has – for the most part – managed to avoid the twin hazards of inner-city blight and violence. As the national capital, Ottawa is the inevitable butt of jokes against federal government bureaucracy, but patriots revere its parliament and the superb museums preserving Canada’s cultural treasures.

Ontario has the best grandstand view of the Niagara Falls – to the chagrin of many tour operators in the US. The countryside in the south of the province is a gentle green delight. Ontario is host to two longstanding theatre festivals, the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Stratford Festival of Canada, with its emphasis on the works of Shakespeare. Treat yourself to a cruise on the Trent–Severn Waterway, try watersports on Georgian Bay, and explore the Thousand Islands or Point Pelee nature reserve.

Ontario’s traditions are perpetuated in villages, forts and re­constructions. The passage of French Jesuit missionaries is evoked at Sainte Marie Among the Hurons; there is a fur-trading post at Thunder Bay; you’ll find military positions at Fort George (Niagara) and Fort Henry (Kingston); and there are reconstructions of the life of the pioneers at Upper Canada Village (Morrisburg) and Black Creek (Toronto).

Places to visit in Ontario

Ottawa

The Canadian capital is home to the nation's parliament and some superb museums. Read more about Ottawa...

Toronto

Canada's largest metropolitan area is also one of its most ethnically diverse. Read more about Toronto...

Niagara Falls

The stunning falls are one of the world's natural wonders. Read more about Niagara Falls... 

Stratford

In the heart of the peninsula, 130km (80 miles) from Toronto, Stratford, named in honour of Shakespeare, whose birthplace was Stratford-upon-Avon in England, is well worth a detour, if only for its celebrated Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Inaugurated by English director Sir Tyrone Guthrie in 1953, the festival runs from April to October, with the emphasis on Shakespeare and playwrights such as Sheridan and Marlowe. The Festival Theatre was opened in 1957 and its apron-stage has influenced a generation of theatre-builders. The festival now includes three other stages, the Avon Theatre, the Tom Patterson Theatre and the Studio Theatre, and features jazz and chamber-music concerts and the work of young Canadian playwrights. Over 500,000 people come here annually.

Every effort is made to sustain an Elizabethan atmosphere. Curtain times, for example, are heralded by trumpeters in Renaissance doublet and hose. Picnic in Queen’s Park and feed the swans on Victoria Lake. The Shakespeare Gardens display flowers mentioned in the Bard’s sonnets and plays.

Lakes Huron and Superior

Ontario’s weekend cottages and marinas hug the shores and islands of the upper Great Lakes, offering many lakeside resorts. Keen campers, hikers and canoeists can explore the national and provincial parks for a taste of the northern interior’s wilderness.

Georgian Bay

Georgian Bay is almost a separate lake. An area that was once the domain of the Hurons, until their numbers were decimated by Iroquois warriors and European disease, is now a popular weekend and summer destination for Torontonians. 

East of the town of Midland, Sainte Marie Among the Hurons is a reconstruction of the Jesuit mission established in 1639. Today, besides some (real) Huron Indians, costumed students show you how the community worked, complete with priests, carpenters, gardeners and blacksmiths. 

The dramatic landscapes of Georgian Bay Islands National Park now attract fishermen, divers and other water-sports enthusiasts. The bay’s islands are said to number 30,000, if you include all the rocky outcrops and tree-clumped sandbanks, and the national park includes some of the most attractive of these islands.

Off Honey Harbour, just outside Midland, is Beausoleil Island, the largest of the national park’s 59 islands. It offers some well-equipped campsites and is the launch pad for exploring the other islands. There are no restaurant facilities on any of the islands.

Midland and Tobermory offer boat cruises and ferry services out to the individual islands that make up Fathom Five National Marine Park. These islands are renowned for their rock formations, most notably Flowerpot, where tall limestone monoliths have been eroded into bizarre vase-like shapes.

Gravenhurst, in the heart of Muskoka and its 1,500-plus lakes, is home to the Muskoka Boat and Heritage Centre, which celebrates the region’s ties to boating. Located in the Muskoka Wharf, the centre showcases life aboard a section of a ‘living’ steamship, complete with interactive exhibits, working engine and steam whistles. You can watch boat restoration and see up to 20 classic Muskoka wooden boats. 

Thunder Bay

Located on Lake Superior’s northwest shore, Thunder Bay is an ideal springboard to the provincial and national parks of Ontario’s interior. It is also worth taking a look first at the impressive port facilities of this western terminus of the St Lawrence–Great Lakes Seaway, which has given Thunder Bay its second name: the Lakehead. Freighters come 3,200km (1,988 miles) inland from the Atlantic to take on grain shipments from the Prairies or bring other heavy cargo to all points west in both Canada and the US. 

Twenty minutes west of the city by car, on the banks of the Kaministikwia River, Old Fort William is the handsomely reconstructed former trading post of the Nor’westers (short for North West Company), intrepid rivals of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the fur industry. Sheep graze on the courtyard lawns, bread is still made in the bakery, and the refectory serves hearty country fare. In the company store you can see the? kind of simple copper and pewter utensils and steel knives that were more precious than gold to the Midéwiwin Indians bringing in their beaver pelts.

Kakabeka Falls

Some 40km (25 miles) northwest of Thunder Bay, in the provincial park that bears their name, the Kakabeka Falls are vaguely reminiscent of those at Niagara, although they enjoy a quiet natural setting. A boardwalk takes you through the woods along the Kaministikwia River to a bridge that allows you to view the falls from both sides. The 40m (154ft) cascade flows at?its fullest in spring and autumn. There are good facilities here for both camping and bathing.

Read more about Canada

Read more about Canada in Insight Guides: Canada

Insight Guides: Canada

Insight Guide Canada is a comprehensive, full-colour guide to getting the most out of one of the world's most beautiful countries. Engaging History and Culture chapters explain the tumultuous histor...

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