Nestled on the shores of the world’s largest freshwater lake, Thunder Bay is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream. The kind of destination that will have you ticking off your bucket list adventure after adventure. From sailing and rock climbing to hiking and mountain biking – there’s an endless variety of epic experiences that await at the Northwestern Ontario gem. The best part? It’s only a two hour flight from Toronto making it the perfect weekend escape…
How To Get There
Skip the gruelling 15 hr drive and hop on a Porter flight straight out of downtown Toronto. But wait, it gets better: did you know that you can build vacation packages on Porter Escapes?! Yup, you can book your flight, hotel AND curated adventures all in one simple reso — cue angel music. A package for two people in August (which included flight, hotel and a sailing excursion) was just over $1000. Oh, and if you haven’t flown with Porter you’re missing out. They’re always my number one choice if they fly to the destination I need to get to. Why? Easy gate access with quick check-in and short lines, roomy seats (no middle seats), free lounge access (snacks, newspapers and WiFi included) and free onboard service (beer, wine and snacks served in real glassware — woot). Needless to say, a flight with Porter is a dream…
Where To Stay
Wake up to the sun rising over Mount McKay at Best Western Plus Nor’Wester Hotel & Conference Centre. The family-friendly hotel has an indoor swimming pool, clean and spacious rooms and is conveniently located (only 7 km from the airport, 15 km from downtown and – more importantly – 10 km from Thunder Oak Cheese Farm). We loved hanging out by the tranquil pond at the back of the hotel – a great spot to enjoy your morning coffee or a glass of vino at sunset…
What To Do
1. Hike n’ Sail At Sleeping Giant Provincial Park
If there’s one thing you MUST do when in Thunder Bay it’s a Hike n’ Sail tour to the world-renowned Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. Known as Nanabijou to the local Anishinaabe, the Sleeping Giant is a large landmass at the end of the Sibley peninsula which resembles a person lying on its back. It’s truly one of Canada’s great natural wonders. A breathtaking sight from a distance, but even more majestic as you slowly approach it via sailboat…
But what makes this journey extra special is the crew at Sail Superior: Greg and his team are expert sailors bursting with local knowledge. They also happen to be some of the loveliest people in Thunder Bay in my opinion (along with the Boake family who we shared our sailing trip with). I highly recommend heading out on a sailing adventure with Greg — and if the Hike n’ Sail is too long/too steep for your budget ($895 for up to 6 people from 9 am – 5 pm), check out their shorter excursions like the Twilight Wine & Cheese Cruise ($149 for two adults which includes a selection of fine cheeses). But if you can, sail to the giant and hike the chest/head (moderate to intense depending on the route you embark on) — the views are worth every penny and step…
2. Explore The Cascades Conservation Area
We always ask locals where they like spending their time — most people in Thunder Bay pointed us to the cascades. We now understand why. A hike around the conservation area will have you climbing large boulders and gawking at the rushing rapids of the Current River. Entrance is free and the experience is incredible. We even spotted some locals jumping in for a swim.
3. Visit Kakabeka Falls
Take a short road trip (appox 30 min) and check out the second highest waterfall in Ontario. Its thunderous roar is invigorating and watching the Kaministiquia River drop 40 metres is absolutely mesmerizing. I tried to imagine how Aboriginal peoples and voyageurs portaged around the steep cliffs for centuries, but couldn’t wrap my head around it. Must’ve been quite the trek! Lucky for us, there are barrier-free boardwalks with lookout platforms so there’s no need to break a sweat. Just park your car and take as little or as long as you’d like to explore the provincial park (there’s a day-use rate as well as an hourly — one hour for $3 was just the right amount of time for us).
4. Taste Local Gouda At Thunder Oak Cheese Farm
I had no idea we made Gouda in Ontario so when I found out about Thunder Oak we just had to drive over. The family-owned farm was established in 1981 by Jacob and Margaret Schep (who come from a long line of cheesemakers in Holland). They now make over 20 different kinds of Gouda (from the traditional cumin seed and nettle to garlic and roasted pepper) and age them anywhere between 1 month and a year. This is a stop you do not want to miss!
5. Take In The Views At Mount McKay
Perched on the northernmost peak of the Nor’Wester Mountain range, we immediately felt a sense of calm as soon as we stepped foot onto Mount McKay. There’s just something so special about the Fort Williams First Nation reserve. The scenic lookout towers 1,000 ft over Thunder Bay and offers incredible vistas of the city. Birds soaring above, the city spread out below and the Sleeping Giant far off in the distance. It’s pure magic…
Walking around the Pow Wow Grounds was one of my favourite memories from this trip…
6. Terry Fox Monument
A trip to Thunder Bay isn’t complete without visiting the Terry Fox Monument. Located just a few kilometres from the spot where he was forced to end his Marathon of Hope (he ran 5, 373 km for 143 straight days despite losing his leg to cancer), the nine-foot-high bronze statue gives visitors a chance to reflect on the true impact of this Canadian hero. We were certainly moved…
Where To Eat
Hoito Restaurant – At nearly 100 years old, this restaurant serves up Finnish fare. Yup, Finnish: Thunder Bay is home to one of the largest Finnish communities outside of Finland. You’ll find Nakki (Finnish wieners), Suolakala (salt fish sandwiches), Viili (Finnish yogurt also known as clabbered milk) and many more traditional dishes on the menu, but it’s the breakfast that has locals flocking to this restaurants every day. Do not leave without trying the Lattyja (Finnish pancakes) — they are incredible!
Bight Restaurant – If you’re looking for outdoor dining, there’s no place better than Bight. Located in the heart of Thunder Bay’s marina, it’s a glorious sun-drenched patio on the lakefront. A modern restaurant with exceptional cocktails (the Watermelon & Chili Margarita is the best margarita we’ve ever tasted) and dishes that showcase sustainable, local produce. We fell in love with the BBQ Pulled Mushroom Sandwich. Made with local oyster mushrooms, a whiskey BBQ sauce, kale & carrot slaw, smokey chipotle aioli and served on a brioche bun it had our taste buds jumping for joy.
Tomlin Restaurant – Put this gem on your must-dine list. The food, the service, the ambiance — everything is spot on. It’s the kind of place where you’ll want to order everything off the menu (and you should: go with a group of friends/fam and share plates). Dishes often change to reflect the season and keep customers on their toes. The food we devoured blew us out of the water: Smoked Cauliflower (brussels sprouts, cauliflower, jalapeño vinegar, remoulade, spicy peanuts), Pork Belly (with West Indies hot sauce, coconut, pickled watermelon rind, yogurt and sunflower seeds), Tomato and Bread Salad (goat cheese mousse, pea shoots, herbs, vinaigrette) and Buttermilk Fried Chicken served on Mac n’ Cheese. Go hungry, eat everything.
Caribou Restaurant + Wine Bar – This restaurant is the perfect date night spot. Dimly lit, polished service and elegant dining in a relaxed atmosphere. The Avocado Tartare (avocado, shallot, parsley, olive oil, green chili and salsa) is mouthwatering and addictive. And the Bolognese is comfort food at its best: a tuscan ragu of veal, beef, pork and sausage simmered in san marzano tomatoes, dried porcini mushrooms and red wine tossed with casarecce noodles and pecorino cheese. Yum!
Silver Birch Restaurant – Don’t judge a book by its cover. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have walked into this restaurant if I hadn’t heard rave reviews. But as soon as we stepped foot inside, I knew we were in for a treat (my food radar was firing on all cylinders). And for good reason: chef Darlene Green is oozing with talent. Her selection of Canadian regional dishes (featuring local produce, meats and cheeses) are prepared perfectly. Every single dish was beautifully-balanced and put a smile on our faces — the kind of place where your neighbours gush about their spectacular meals. The Tarragon Rabbit (braised rabbit in herb mustard sauce served on a baked semolina gnocchi cake), Wild Mushroom Tart (puff pastry topped with ricotta, thyme-scented mushroom medley and aged Thunder Oak Gouda), and Zucchine Fritte (thin ribbons of tempura zucchini with local honey drizzle, herb sea salt and lemon aioli) where all dishes I will never forget. I just wish we had infinite stomach real estate to try the rest of her menu!
Sigh, we had such an incredible weekend escape in Thunder Bay. From a visit to the farmers’ market and sailing Lake Superior to epic hikes and catching a glimpse of the breathtaking sunrises and sunsets at the newly redeveloped waterfront — we were absolutely blown away by the city. Can’t wait to revisit during other seasons!
A huge thanks to Porter Escapes and the City of Thunder Bay for partnering with us. The flights, accommodations, meals and activities were complimentary as part of a press trip to the region. As always, all reviews and opinions are entirely my own.