Ontario's Georgian Bay and Lake Simcoe are popular for their summer cottages and beaches. Once the snow flies, however, they both attract outdoor winter enthusiasts with ice fishing, skiing, snowmobiling and several winter festivals.
Both are about a three-hour drive from Buffalo and off-season lodging rates apply in these scenic waterfront communities. Here is a rundown of some of the area's noteworthy towns and their cold weather happenings. If you're planning on fishing, you'll need a nonresident fishing license, which costs $16.36 (Canadian) for one day. It's available by filling out a form at any of the outfitters mentioned below.
The small town of Midland, located in a protected cove on Georgian Bay, 180 miles north of Buffalo, has a pretty waterfront with shops and restaurants. The ice fishing season here typically starts earlier and lasts longer than regions south or on larger waters, such as Lake Simcoe, according to Brian Berriault, owner of Backwater Tackle, the town's outdoor outfitter. He rents heated ice huts and fishing gear from his water-view location.
"We are steps away from the shore and shopping," notes Berriault. "If a couple ice fish together and one person then wants to shop or relax at a day spa, it's just a short walk to those activities from their ice hut."
Berriault will do a quick pick-up on the ice and drop-off downtown, if requested. He offers instruction for beginners and will chill your catch until you head home. Sign up for an e-mail update at www.backwatertackle.com and you'll be notified of ice conditions, or call (800) 675-4071 or (705) 527-7351.
The Best Western Midland's ice fishing package, "Huddle in the Hut," starts at $125 (Canadian) per person, which includes overnight accommodations, one day of ice fishing on Georgian Bay in a heated hut, bait, a boxed lunch, and dinner and breakfast at the hotel. For information or reservations, visit www.bestwesternmidland.com or call (705) 526-9307.
While in Midland, don't miss Wye Marsh Wildlife Centre's 3,600 acres of wetlands, woodland and wildlife. Explore by snowshoes or cross-country skis on 10 miles of groomed trails or walk the recently built "boardwalk." Equipment rentals are available daily. Young and old urban dwellers can delight in chickadees eating right from their hand. Ask for bird seed (and free binocular rentals) at the information desk.
Wye Marsh monitors one third of Ontario's trumpeter swan population, estimated at about 400. With a wing span of 8 feet, trumpeter swans are the largest waterfowl in North America. Wye Marsh is one of the few places to view them year round, as the resident pair cannot be returned to the wild. For information, including dates for naturalist-guided eco-tours, call (705) 526-7809 or visit www.wyemarsh.com.
About 30 miles south of Midland and 150 miles north of Buffalo is Barrie, Lake Simcoe's largest community, with a population of 125,000. As North America's largest freshwater fishery, Lake Simcoe is a fisherman's paradise. Barrie, with a busy harbor area, manages to retain the feel of a smaller town.
Joy Canning has been renting ice huts for more than 35 years at Canning's Fish Hut Co., at Minet's Point on Lake Simcoe's Kempenfelt Bay, in Barrie. "I certainly see more couples and families coming here than ever before, in addition to the traditional men's getaway," she notes. For more information, call (705) 721-8500.
The Days Inn Barrie offers an ice fishing package that includes one night lodging, breakfast, heated ice hut rentals, bait and tackle and dinner coupons at area restaurants. For more information on the package, with rates starting at $80 (Canadian) per person, visit www.daysinnbarrie.com or call (705) 733-8989.
For something different, head to the family run Robert Simpson Brewery Company, a small, new waterfront brewery, for a tour and samples. Attend "Beer School" on Feb. 3, when you can spend a full day with the friendly owners to learn about the beverage. The course, which costs $125 (Canadian), includes instruction, a tour, beer samples and lunch. For details, visit www.robertsimpsonbrewery.com or call (705) 721-8989.
Barrie's waterfront comes alive with its annual Winterfest, Feb. 3-4. Featured activities include dog-sled rides, horse-drawn wagon rides, ice carvings, a lumberjack show, ice skating and a blues festival. For more information on the event, and this area's other winter activities, visit www.tourismbarrie.com or call (705) 739-9444.
About 55 miles south of Barrie, Jackson's Point Village on Lake Simcoe hosts the 13th Annual Canadian Ice Fishing Championships (CIFC) on Feb. 24-25. Registrants compete for $50,000 in cash and prizes on Perch Day or Big Fish Day (white fish, trout, walleye, bowfin and pike). Up to 300 registrants, with nearly 10 percent coming from the United States, are expected. The early-bird registration deadline is Jan. 30, and registration forms and complete rules are available at www.cifc.org.
The official host and tournament site for the event, the Lionshead Lakefront Resort and Yacht Club (formerly Georgina Inn) is offering a $99 (U.S.) room rate for American residents including a waterfront location, fish-cleaning services and an outdoor BBQ where guests can grill their catch.
For more information, visit www.jacksonspointvillage.com or call (905) 722-6557. The Georgina Advocate publishes the informative 24-page 2007 Georgina Ice Fishing & Snowmobiling Guide, available at the Lionshead, whose staff will mail copies upon request. Both the Lionshead and the CIFC Web sites offer lake condition updates.
Hitting the trails
Nearby winter activities abound. Zoom along more than 28,500 miles of interconnected groomed snowmobile trails in Ontario. The Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs (OFSC) located in Barrie, publishes two excellent guides, "Mid-Ontario Snowmobile Trails" and "OFSC Top Trail Guide to Ontario." For more information or for trail conditions, visit www.ofsc.on.ca or call (705) 739-7669.
Four ski centers located near Midland and Barrie offer several options for outdoor winter sports. Closest to Midland is Mount St. Louis Moonstone, with 39 downhill runs and award-winning snowboarding. For information, visit www.mountstlouis.com or call (705) 835-2112.
Other nearby ski areas are Hardwood Hills Nordic Ski Centre, for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing (www.hardwoodhills.ca or 705-487-3775), and Snow Valley Resort (www.skisnowvalley.com or 705-721-7669) which has skiing, snowboarding and snow tubing.
Between Midland and Barrie is Horseshoe Resort, featuring 23 downhill ski runs, 20 miles of Nordic cross country ski trails, off-road motorcycling, ATV rides, snowshoeing, Yamaha snowmobile tours, snow tubing and snowboarding.
Here, you can check out Ontario's newest year-round sport -- treetop trekking, with more than 70 games in the trees. You'll complete a safety course and be provided with a climbing harness and all the necessary equipment, like cords and pulleys. Travel through the trees, 5 to 45 feet above the ground on one of five aerial courses, based on age and skill level. There are rope bridges, ladders, Tarzan vines, climbing nets and zip lines.
"This sport has really caught on in areas of eco-tourism, such as the French Alps and Costa Rica," explains David Belsey, Horseshoe Resort's vice president for marketing and sales. "It has created great interest among Toronto-area residents looking for a new adventure outside the big city."
Belsey said that participants remain harnessed the entire time, providing added safety. Kids' Korral has programs for young skiers and snow boarders. There are also chalet style rooms for lodging at the resort. For more information, visit www.horseshoeresort.com or call (800) 461-5627.
If you go
For more information on vacations in Ontario, visit www.ontariotravel.net.