Manitowaning, Ontario - Looking out over Manitowaning Bay, just one of the dozens of gorgeous inlets to be found on Manitoulin Island, even the most cynical traveler can feel the presence of Gchi Manitou - the Great Spirit - after whom the island is named. The Odawa and Ojibwa peoples who have lived here for centuries believe that the island is home to this leader of the spirit world, and visitors to this exquisite corner of earth leave without a doubt in their minds that the Native peoples are right.
And although there is no shortage of bed and breakfasts, small hotels, and fishing lodges on the island, none is more comfortable or more relaxing than Manitowaning Lodge Golf and Tennis Resort. If exclusivity is measured in serenity and privacy, Manitowaning Lodge must be one of the most exclusive resorts in Canada.
Featured in publications like Condé Nast, Travel + Leisure, and Bridal Magazine, Manitowaning Lodge offers a level of service and luxury one simply does not expect to find in "the bush." From massages to gourmet meals, from top-flight golf and tennis to single-malt scotches at poolside, this resort has all the amenities of high-profile destinations, with none of the hassles. The solitude is such that there aren't even any phones or televisions in the rooms. And the natural splendor is such that you don't miss them at all. Is it any wonder that frequent guests include diplomats, actors, and athletes who desperately want to reclaim a modicum of privacy, peace, and quiet?
If one equates exclusivity with expensiveness, however, this resort is hardly exclusive at all: Even during the high season (June 27-Sept. 7), as little as $125.00 per night (standard room, queen bed) buys not only one of the best night's sleep you've ever had, but also a wide range of amenities, a huge breakfast, and a superb four-course dinner in the resort's restaurant. Dollar for dollar, this has to rank as one of the best bargains in Canada. No wonder Frommer's Guide recently ranked Mnitowaning Lodge Resort in the Top 10 in the entire nation.
Resort GM Anthony Barter characterizes the Manitowaning Lodge experience in two words: "Relaxed elegance". "This really is the jewel of the north," continues Barter. "It may be a cliché, but people do say that coming here is like coming home."
Without a doubt, one factor contributing to the homey atmosphere here is the fact that the resort really is home to the Barter and Kosoy families during the months when the resort is open (June 1 - Sept. 30). Anthony Barter's brother-in-law, David Kosoy, is Canadian, and had vacationed on the island as a boy. In 1989, he and his wife Colleen bought the 70 year-old fishing lodge for his parents-in-law, who moved to Canada from South Africa when they retired.
The transformation from ramshackle, dark brown fishing cabins to graciously appointed, white English-garden style cottages was a miraculous process, as attested to by the before and after photos taken during the renovations in the early 90s. Today, the resort's lush grounds and comfortable accommodations appeal to even the most refined tastes of the most discerning travelers. And what is truly remarkable is that from the main road, all one sees of the resort are the four quality tennis courts. Walking from the understated parking area through a veil of dense shrubbery back to the resort office is like walking through Alice's Looking Glass.
The resort comprises 13 cottages (1, 2, and 3 bedrooms) and 9 standard rooms (queen bed or two doubles), with room for a total of 55 guests on any given night. The cottages are scattered around the 11-acre grounds, some with screened-in porches overlooking Manitowaning Bay. All of the cottages and rooms are furnished along minimalist lines - tables, chairs, and sofas in just the right places, decorations precisely spaced to catch the eye at just the right angles. The only drawback to the incorporation of the older fishing-camp architecture into the new resort accommodations that I discovered were the tiny shower stalls in the standard rooms. The dimensions of the metal stalls could send a recovering claustrophobe running back into therapy.
Those travelers who simply cannot divorce themselves from the outside world, even for a few days, might find the lack of telephones and televisions in the rooms a bit disturbing as well. However, a TV room is open to guests, as are the telephones in the office. Further amenities, all of which are free of additional charge, are the excellent tennis courts, serviceable workout room, pro shop, outdoor pool and sundeck, 24-hour hot tub, mountain bikes, kayaks, canoes, and nightly live entertainment in the dining room and lounge. Also available for an additional fee are massage therapy, tennis lessons, championship golf across the road at Mnidoo Valley Golf Club, and, naturally, the booze at the well-stocked bar. (If the booze were free, this place would pretty much qualify as Nirvana.)
70% of the resort's clientele come from within Canada, via the ferry to South Baymouth from Tobermory, the single-lane swing-bridge from the mainland to Little Current, daily small-aircraft flights from Toronto, or their own sailing vessels. Another 20% come from the U.S. (cars from IL, MN, OH and MI were in the lot). And the final 10% come from abroad. Traditionally, the resort has been popular with older couples and honeymooners, but recently, according to Anthony Barter, more and more young families with children have discovered the tranquility of "the bush."
Perhaps most memorable - and unexpected - is the exquisite cuisine. The nightly rate includes a princely breakfast and a kingly four-course dinner in the resort's handsomely decorated dining room. How good can the food be here in "the bush"? Jon Morgan, one of the resort's waiters, testifies, "I've worked in some of the best restaurants in Toronto, and we're on par with them. I've never had a dissatisfied guest."
The breakfast menu includes homemade pastries and locally baked breads to accompany all of the old stand-by favorites. In addition, each morning has it's own daily special, such as banana pancakes (thick with banana slices and dripping with Manitoulin maple syrup) or baked eggs feta cheese and roasted home-grown red peppers.
As good as the breakfasts are, it is the dinner menu that truly stands out. Chef Bryn Williams (from Wales via the Toronto Four Seasons Hotel) has been a chef since he was 16, and Head Chef here for the last three years. His creations incorporate the freshest local ingredients (most of the vegetables are grown in the resort's own gardens) and the rarest of imported delicacies.
Each dinner comes with choice of soup, appetizer, main course, and dessert. On the night of my visit, I had the carrot and orange soup with toasted walnuts. Amazingly, it tasted like neither carrots nor oranges, and was utterly delectable. As an appetizer, I tried the oven roasted boneless quail with balsamic marinated vegetables. Aside from the vaguely disquieting feeling that I was devouring Tweety Bird, it was sumptuous. If they could breed birds the size of turkeys to taste this delicious, every day would be Thanksgiving.
For my main course, I chose a local specialty done with a Japaneseflair: Pan seared Arctic char with crisp rice cake, spaghetti vegetables, and soy butter sauce. For those of you unfamiliar with char, it is a firm, pink fish akin to salmon and locally farmed. The combination of this staple fish with the delicate tones of soy and finely-cut vegetables was pure genius. And the South African sauvignon blanc recommended to me by my server was the perfect companion to the meal.
And finally, as house musician Jack Bond crooned in the adjoining rustic lounge, and the cedar logs crackled in the high fieldstone fireplace, I dove headlong into the sinful dessert menu, which consisted of delights ranging from blueberry crumble and strawberry-rhubarb pie to almond-vanilla torte with a chocolate fence.
As noted, resort guests receive all of this as part of the cost of their rooms. Non-guests are welcome as well (with reservations) for the relatively nominal fee of $45 (Canadian). A better meal and a better deal is not to be found anywhere in Northern Ontario.
As the largest fresh-water island in the world, Manitoulin Island is a natural wonder: The fishing, hunting, hiking and boating are second to none. Sailboats and luxury cruisers journey to these waters during the summer months all the way from the Caribbean. Old salts (and wealthy, young dot-commers) have told me on more than one occasion that they would sail here year-round, if not for the frigid winters.
Manitowaning Lodge is ideally located for guests to explore the entire island. The resort can arrange fishing charters on Lake Huron (possibly the most underrated of the Great Lakes with respect to sport fishing). The resort's tennis courts are the best on the island, and Mnidoo Valley Golf Club, the island's only 18-hole course, is right across the street (two nine-hole courses are also located on the island).
Yet as naturally blessed as Manitoulin Island is, it is the history and cultures of the people who call the island home which make it a truly singular vacation destination. The island is home to many First Nations bands, whose reserves are clearly marked on island maps. The largest of these, Wikwemikong, is only a 15km drive from the resort. Wikwemikong (Wiki, for short) is the only unceded native land in North America. This means that the tribal leaders here never signed over their home to the Canadian (or United States) government. They agreed to stay, but not to relinquish any rights at all to the land. During the summer months, the residents of Wiki host tourists from all over the world who want to learn more about Native culture, language, art, and history.
Native art galleries abound on the island, as do more traditional galleries - there must be something about the air or water here, because I've never been anywhere in the world with a higher concentration of genuinely gifted artists. Even the resort's co-owner and matriarch, Gloria Barter, is exceptionally talented. Collectors routinely make offers on her floral paintings, which adorn the resort's office.
Perhaps the most notable artist on the island is James A. Simon, or Mishibinjima, whose gallery and studio is found off the main road between the resort and Wiki (mishibinjima.isys.ca/james.html). Mishibinjima's paintings hang in galleries and museums around the world, and his work has been featured in National Georgraphic. He recently told me that he is actually one of only two living artists whose work is collected by the Vatican. And best of all, he loves to chat and show visitors his work, so it is well worth stopping by, even if your art budget doesn't quite match the Pope's.
Simply put, Manitowaning Lodge Golf and Tennis Resort offers a blessed respite from...everything. How tempting it would be - especially after the horrendous events of 9/11/01 - to retreat here permanently, and let the world carry on its sad business without you. Gazing out over Manitowaning Bay through the windows of the cozy, secure dining room, it was hard for me to believe that God's sparkling creation can contain such profound suffering, such unbridled evil.
Yet these are the times when we most need places like this: They rejuvenate our bruised spirits and provide inspiration for us to return to our lives, where the best we can hope to do is impart to others even the smallest taste of the beauty we know the world possesses.
Manitowaning Lodge Golf and Tennis Resort
Manitowaning, Manitoulin Island
Ontario, Canada P0P 1N0
Tel: 705-859-3136, Fax: 705-859-3270
General Manager: Anthony Barter
Open from June 1 - Sept. 27; High Season from June 27 - Sept. 7, Low Season from June 1 - June 26 and Sept. 8 - 30
Rates (per person):
High Season: 1-bedroom cabin $165/night, 2/3-bedroom cabin $145/night, Room $125/night
Low Season: $135, $120, and $105 (respectively)
Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Illinois. Read his golf blog here.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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