by Isobel Harry
The horseshoe crescent of golden sand beach in Providence Bay on the south coast is one of the Island’s top natural attractions, rated the “best” and the “longest” in Northern Ontario, stretching as far as the eye can see to the east and west of the wide bay. In the hot summer months, brightly coloured umbrellas shade the prostrate bodies that have travelled from near and far just to collapse here in the warm embrace of the sands, a kind of communal ritual that involves exhaling and sighing deeply upon arrival.
A family gathers round a blanket and a picnic basket, little kids squeal in wild abandon as they run in and out of the shallow waves, a solitary walker and dog amble the length of the curving arc of the ancient strand. One can imagine similar lakeside scenes when hundreds of Odawa lived and fished here in the 1600s, naming it G’Chiaazhwiyiing, or Sand Beach in English, according to historian Shelley Pearen, or Mindimoiesibing, Old Woman River.
The Mindemoya River, a major salmon spawning waterway, flows down from Lake Mindemoya to the shore at the beach in Providence Bay; for the small group of Indigenous inhabitants that lived here until the 1870s, the river was the transportation route to and from the lake and West Bay.
When the Island was opened to settlers as a result of the contentious treaty of 1862, the river became a critical component in the saw- and grist-milling operations that were built here and the settlement that grew around them. Soon, there was a post office, store, hotel, boarding house, church and a dock from which to ship grain, produce and vast quantities of lumber. Providence Bay’s centre was an important commercial hub until the old McDermid’s hardware store, a community mainstay for many years, closed in 2010.
Today, tourism is the economic driver, a trend started when the first tourist laid eyes on the swoon-worthy beach, in the early 1900s sometime. Little rental cottages popped up around the bay, some still in operation today, and campgrounds flourished; cedar shingle (or cedar shake) homes still give the village a distinctive air.
The Providence Bay Fair, instituted in 1884, has always seemed to be there, always offering the best of the area’s skills in ‘animal husbandry and home economics,’ as they used to say; in other words, great competitions in everything from baking to jam making, vegetable growing and horse pulling, and a raucous midway with all the usual sinful snacks (except during the pandemic, when the fair has gone virtual: providencebayfair.ca).
A beachgoer is only a few steps from any of the village’s accommodations and places to eat. For barbecue ingredients, there’s the Manitoulin Meat Boss a little farther up at the crossroads of Highways 542 and 551; across the road, there’s Clyde’s Cookhouse and chip stand. In the village proper, stop at Huron Sands Motel and Restaurant for Russian specialties and a small convenience store. The Mutchmor’s barn-sized artisanal gift shop and art gallery in the old McDermid’s store is fronted by the Peace Café for espresso and homemade bites and topped by their rental lofts. Just a block away, Huron Fish and Chips also makes burgers, including a vegetarian version. Other accommodations around here include cottages, private rentals, B and Bs, like On the Bay just steps from the beach, and the Providence Bay Tent and Trailer Park, a favourite home away from home for many repeat campers.
At the beach, the Interpretive Centre hosts Huron Island Time, serving roti, patties and over 20 flavours of Farquhar’s ice cream among local art, clothing and gifts. Every Friday at 6:30 pm throughout the summer, their Sunset Music Series on the boardwalk presents local musicians and talented guests versed in country, folk, jazz and ‘50s and ‘60s rock. Check them out on Facebook.
The view from here is magnificent: the immensity of sky and water stretching toward the seemingly infinite horizon is breathtaking. On the far left shore can be spotted the red roof of the marina, tiny from this perspective, and, still far in the distance, the beginnings of the beach on the east side and the mouth of the Mindemoya River where it joins Lake Huron.
On the right, or west, side of the bay, the beach goes on and on until it is but a tiny speck at the tip of Simcoe Point; all along here, behind the thick covering of coniferous trees, are the private cottages of Woodside Beach and the rental operations of Woodside Beach Cottages and Sullivan’s Cottages.
The beach is diverse: at this end, it’s sandy and a little more secluded; returning to the centre of the horseshoe beach, this is where the action is. The equipment in the generously outfitted playground gives kids a good workout; just behind is a parking area and a shady little park with picnic tables; here also is the Interpretive Centre, with washrooms. The village centre and its amenities are just a block away.
Up the beach near the marina end, there are flat rocks above and below the water where stand-up paddleboards and kayaks are parked today; further along, a group readies to take Sea-Doos out on the water. The wooden boardwalk starts here, playing a vital role in the preservation of the dune ecosystem and offering lovely walks and vantage points.
It’s heavenly down on the beach—the sand and water, sun and sky shimmering like a mirage, like a dream of a perfect summer’s day.