Photograph by Bert Hoferichter, Alamy Stock Photo
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Swimmers enjoy the Georgian Bay on Ontario's Lake Huron coast.
Photograph by Bert Hoferichter, Alamy Stock Photo

Georgian Bay, tucked into Ontario's Lake Huron, is a bit of a misnomer. At 5,792 square miles it's not that much smaller than Lake Ontario (7,320 square miles), earning it the nickname "the sixth Great Lake." With more than 1,240 miles of grayish-pink granite shoreline, it is part of a UNESCO biosphere reserve and a summer freshwater playground for boaters, anglers, and kayakers.

"One of the things I love about living here is that you can access the water from just about anywhere—and it's access to big water, right into Georgian Bay and onto Lake Huron," says Jennifer McGillivray, lifetime resident of Ontario and former executive director of the area's annual Festival of the Sound.

By early September, when the summer cottage crowd has headed home, the bay is quiet, yet the water and air are still warm enough for kayaking and canoeing. This is the time to rent a canoe from a local outfitter like White Squall and paddle out among the bay's 32 historic lighthouses and 30,000 islands, which form the world's largest freshwater archipelago and Georgian Bay Islands National Park. "Definitely navigate the archipelago to see the islands," McGillivray says. They are accessible by water only, and while you could motor through on a cruiser, gliding ashore silently in a kayak or canoe just feels right.

When to Go: June through August is the busiest tourist season. Beginning in mid-July, the three-week Festival of the Sound classical music celebration is staged on the waterfront at the Charles W. Stockey Centre for the Performing Arts in Parry Sound. For beach-going, try seven-mile Sauble Beach in the town of South Bruce Peninsula; the crescent-shaped Providence Bay beach and boardwalk on Manitoulin Island; or Wasaga Beach at the southern end of Georgian Bay, a nine-mile stretch of white sand that bills itself at the world's longest freshwater beach. For kayaking and camping in the archipelago, plan a late August or early September visit when the water and campsites are quiet. Late September to early October is the best time to see fall foliage. In winter, you can blaze your own trail across the frozen bay via snowshoe, ski, or snowmobile.

Where to Stay: Quiet beaches, challenging hiking trails, and unforgettable sailing vistas are all within easy reach thanks to the many B&Bs, cottages, campgrounds, and resorts that dot the landscape. If you're traveling with your dog and/or kids, the 224-room Westin Trillium House Blue Mountain Resort will accommodate you with upscale rooms and suites that have kitchenettes and gas fireplaces, and sleep as many as ten. Renting a traditional summer cottage is one of the best ways to experience Georgian Bay summer lake culture. Killbear Provincial Park invites visitors to sleep under the stars. This Georgian Bay peninsula park has 882 camping sites, flush toilets, showers, and a general store. Winter camping is available at Cedar Spring and Chimney Bay (primitive) campgrounds on Beausoleil Island in Georgian Bay Islands National Park.

How to Get Around: Take advantage of Georgian Bay's aquatic highway and access the region's top attractions by boat. Yacht rentals are available in Gore Bay, Little Current, Penetanguishene, and Midland; pleasure craft operators must carry documentation that they have a basic knowledge of boating safety (see Transport Canada's website for details). Land travelers can explore by car, RV, or motorcycle.

Where to Eat or Drink: All of the ingredients used to prepare tapas, wood-fired thin-crust pizza, and the local fresh menu items at Haisai are grown or raised on nearby farms, including Eigensinn Farm, part of the culinary apprenticeship program—along with the restaurant—run by Governor General Award-winning chef Michael Stadtländer. His Singhampton restaurant and bakery follows a strict farm-to-table philosophy—the fish is fresh from Georgian Bay and even the whimsical wooden dining room furniture is handmade. Haisai is open for lunch and dinner Friday through Sunday; reservations are recommended.

Year-round, Grandma's Beach Treats in Wasaga Beach hand scoops Kawartha Dairy ice cream like Black Raspberry Thunder and Blueberry Ripple, but it's the homemade Canadian butter tarts—flaky crust with gooey pecan filling—that set this place apart from other lakeside ice cream stands.

What to Buy: Buy handcrafted local collectables such as soft leather moccasins, birch bark, or porcupine quill boxes, pottery, and beaded jewelry from artists on Manitoulin Island or at the Wolf Den in Parry Sound.

What to Read Before You Go: Award-winning Canadian journalist David Macfarlane's debut novel Summer Gone (Anchor, 2001) details three defining Georgian Bay summers in a man's life and offers an insider's look at southwestern Ontario cottage life.

Fun Fact: More kinds of reptiles and amphibians live within the confines of Georgian Bay Islands National Park than anywhere else in Canada. Of the 33 species, the most infamous is the eastern massasauga rattlesnake. Seldom seen, it is the only venomous snake found in Ontario. Travelers can protect themselves by wearing protective clothing and being aware of their surroundings.

Jackie Middleton is an award-winning freelance writer based in Toronto.