Kagawong: Beachward Ho! Sink your toes into the sands of Mudge Bay on a tour of “Ontario’s Prettiest Village”

The view at the beach at Mudge Bay appears much as it has since Kagawong’s founding. To the left is St John the Evangelist Anglican Church (1898) and on the right is the Austin Hunt Marina. photo by Isobel Harry

by Isobel Harry

Let’s face it, only the hardiest of souls have ventured into the water so far this season. With temperatures fluctuating up and down all of June and nights veering close to freezing, this past month hasn’t exactly screamed, “OK! Bathing suit time!”

But July dawns much warmer for Manitoulin’s many and varied sand beaches, beckoning all and sundry to grab a towel and head to one of these magical spots where there’s nothing to do but relax. The sound of waves lapping, children splashing, maybe book reading or just sunning, sand warming, clouds floating … it’s primal, really, out there in nature’s elements. Communing with the clean air, the big sky, the sun, the ground beneath our towel, the gift of fresh water, and it’s a lot of fun, too—all these attributes are a like an unrelenting siren call to the formerly fleece-swaddled: Hit the beach. 

This week, the Summer Pages hits Kagawong, on Mudge Bay on the north coast, where a drive, walk or bike down through town holds the promise of not one but two beaches overlooking the vast bay.

Of the many sights and attractions in Kagawong, none is more visited than Bridal Veil Falls, itself offering a warm, shallow swimming pool, but not a beach, with the added feature of the massaging effects of the Kagawong River’s 20-metre falls. 

Sided by shady woodland trails, the river burbles over the rocky bottom down to Lake Huron’s shore in Mudge Bay. In spring, the river hosts smelts by the bucketful here and in fall salmon rush upward to the falls to spawn. “Where mists rise from falling water” is the English translation of the original name, Kagawong, given to this place by the first inhabitants, ancestors of the Indigenous peoples of Manitoulin.

As we wend our way beachward, there’s lots to see, do and stock up on in this part of the upper village. At the top of the first hill heading west into Kagawong, the Island’s first drive-in restaurant, the Main Street Café, is perched to offer hot and cold sandwiches, wraps, coffee and cold drinks from their take-out window to your car window. Down the hill is the Bridal Veil Variety grocery and cottage supply store with LCBO outlet and all-day breakfast and pizza, and Dig and Doug’s handmade classic cedar Manitoulin chairs and picnic tables across the road, and we’re just getting started.  

The Kagawong River, before it spills over into Bridal Veil Falls, is crossed by a bridge on this road (Hwy 540); the river winds picturesquely around a bend to the west. The dock below is popular for launching small fishing boats, canoes and kayaks, perhaps followed by favourite snacks and chips at the Riverside Take-Out trailer with tables and umbrellas dotted around the shady lawn.

Kagawong’s beach at the doorstep of the Old Mill Heritage Centre and Museum is a magnet for kids of all ages, and is close to all the village’s amenities.  photo by Isobel Harry

At the highway’s turn to Gore Bay the Candy Corner dispenses sweet nostalgia in a shop full of childhood bonbons and next door is Wild Creations’ large collection of thoughtful, artisan made Manitoulin souvenirs and gifts. 

Two more pit stops are just a few yards up from the turn: the Sugar Bush Coffee House, for specialty coffee, sandwiches on croissants and mocktails at café tables on the spacious verandah, and Bare Naked Beauty, home to their own line of natural beauty products and a long menu of spa treatments from massage to time in the 1,000-litre saline float pod. 

These two businesses are partnering on a venture that will feature a large yurt and other overnight structures tucked in the property’s three acres for the glamping public to enjoy later this summer. Sided with espresso shots and the spa’s sauna, the owners plan a luxury experience for guests. 

The handsomely refurbished Carter House Bed and Breakfast is right on the corner; the grand former home of mill owner James Carter (1899) is an enduring homage to the history of the founders of Kagawong.

Down the second hill, Main Street, the view of the bay is spectacular; along here are the older homes and former businesses of the heyday of the village. The Kuku Hut offers vivid African cotton wearables and crafts, and the Manitoulin Chocolate Works next door is the go-to for Belgian chocolate creations for all occasions. Roadworks along here to improve Main Street and add the first-ever sidewalk mean a detour at the Park Centre at the moment but shops are accessible – check websites for hours during construction.

The Old Mill Heritage Centre and Museum, a former pulp mill built of stone in 1925 on the edge of Mudge Bay, is the place for riveting displays of local history and lore on the ground floor, pending pandemic regulations. Awaiting opening to visitors is a huge exhibit of artifacts commemorating the famous shipwreck ‘Empress of Ireland,’ known as “Canada’s Titanic,” that takes up almost half the museum. 

Follow the Billings Connection Trail to encounter installations like this one on the east side of Mudge Bay. By Hooman Mehdizadehjafari, the stainless steel sculpture entitled ‘The Globe’ overlooks the Old Mill and its small marina. photo by Isobel Harry

Pick up a map in the Museum (if it’s open) of the village’s historical places and the locations of the plaques and art installations in the remarkable Billings Connections Trail. (4elementslivingarts.org/portfolio/billings_connection_trail/)

In the lofty second-storey Edwards Art Studios of Barb and Richard Edwards, the artist duo make and show their accomplished works on canvas and silkscreen, in glass and textiles. 

And here it is, at the museum’s very doorstep: Kagawong’s crescent of golden sand beach. Kick off your shoes and revel in the expanse of water receding to the horizon, take in the clapboard St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church (1898), and the Austin Hunt Marina at the far western end as you wade into the sandy shallows. Hours can be lazed away here, with occasional refreshment runs to the many local options nearby; even in summer’s peak this beach has lots of room for its sun-kissed fans from here and away.

Another delightful sandy oasis reveals itself to those who drive along the lakeshore of Mudge Bay. It’s well worth the drive westward on Main Street, past the marina and the Kagawong Lighttower—first lit in 1894—to discover this lesser-known little treasure. Keep to the right on Maple Drive and follow it until the road ends; here, a sign says, is Sandy Beach. A stunning, long slice of sand with shade trees forming natural sun umbrellas in the background, this is just the place to let the world go on without you for a few hours.

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Plans are well underway for many of Kagawong’s much-loved summer activities. There will be the customary Wednesday open air market up by the Church on the Hill, and a Saturday market outdoors at Sugar Bush Coffee House. 

In the fall, the Elemental Festival, produced by 4elements Living Arts, is a cutting-edge annual outdoor celebration of art, installation, performance and music over three days in September. (4elementslivingarts.org for updates.)

The Younge Street Festival on Labour Day promises old-fashioned fun featuring the Carver Kings in a “chainsaw performance” and a butter tart baking competition. Off Hwy 540, known as Younge Street on the Kagawong stretch leading up to Gore Bay.