One recent May Friday afternoon, amid the sweetness of much laughter, my friend Val and I put our bikes on my car and prepared to head to the Honey Harbour area of Ontario, one of the major gateways to the Georgian Bay’s 30,000 Islands.
We were on a quest to find the island Val’s mother, Vivian Bremer of Grosse Ile, had visited as a young woman on many summer vacations. The island had belonged to Carlos B. Clark (a.k.a. “Hubby), Controller of the J.L. Hudson company of Detroit and 1921 Chairman of the Taxation Committee of the National Retail Drygoods Association, and his wife, Agnes Clark (a.k.a. “Auntie Clark”). The Clarks were dear friends and informal benefactors of Vivian after she won the 1926 Detroit News Spelling Bee and earned the subsequent trip to the National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C. Here is the Michigan Spelling Bee press photo of Vivian Bremer with her mother in the background:
What a great place for a spelling bee champion — Honey Harbour! Val, herself, had visited the area twice as a young girl, but didn’t know the name of the island.
Before we left, Val carefully slid a large envelope onto the floor of the back seat of the car. In the envelope, behind a piece of cracked glass, was our only clue: a “panoramic” view of the Clarks’ cottage and the beach next to it, created by framing two 5 x 7” black and white photos, taken by J.W. Bald of Midland. If the pencil inscription on the back is accurate (“9/13/40”), this is how the cottage and beach on the island had appeared in the summer of 1940:
And so off we went, the images of the mysterious island we were looking for riding in the dark of the envelope in the back of the car, as the road unspooled before us and the miles melted away beneath the wheels of our conversation, cruising through decades of friendship.
Where We Were Headed
Theories abound as to how Honey Harbour got its name and, not surprising, most involve bees (the Huron tribe and bees, early lumbermen and bees, the crew of a schooner blown off course and bees; you get the idea) If, from the spelling of “Harbour,” you’ve surmised that Honey Harbour is in Canada, you’d be right. Honey Harbour, Ontario is at the southernmost point of the District of Muskoka region, at the southeast end of the Georgian Bay.
This was our route:
The Georgian Bay has sometimes been referred to as a sixth Great Lake, but actually, this huge bay is a part of Lake Huron. Its mouth is between the Bruce Peninsula and Manitoulin Island, an island which can be accessed by ferry from the Bruce Peninsula or by bridge from Ontario’s mainland. Honey Harbour is in a southeast curve of the Georgian Bay:
You may have noticed that this part of the Great Lakes Basin appears to consist of all—and only—islands. If you look at a map of this area, you may find yourself tracing the small strips of land, surrounded by water of the Georgian Bay, with your index finger, trying to find a connection to a mainland, much like you might do in trying to complete a maze puzzle.
Painter’s Hall Bistro
After savoring the unfolding of bands of golden sunset as we headed north from Toronto’s traffic, we stopped in Barrie, Ontario for a late dinner at a place that I’d found online. The Painter’s Hall Bistro bills itself as “serious food . . . serious fun . . . in a very quaint and beautiful bistro sourcing local products for beautiful food” (e.g., the Chef had picked asparagus that morning and by evening it was being featured as the soup of the day as well as being incorporated into at least one entrée’s presentation). You can read my review for this amazing restaurant on TripAdvisor, and here are a few shots of our wonderful meal and the two men responsible for the excellent service and cuisine we enjoyed.
Derek Marshall, waiter (and singer extraordinaire!) & Greg Rennet, The Chef
If you’re fortunate, you’ll discover Chef Rennet’s Butter-Poached Lake Erie Pickerel, topped with his Ramps Pesto (!) and on a bed of his Lentil and Orzo Pilaf on the menu (and if he’s been out wandering the fields, perhaps some fresh asparagus, too!).
To top it off, there was the Chef’s featured special: “Spring Surprise.” (I may have just made up that name, but I’m not making up how spectacular this dessert was!) Rhubarb done three ways—rhubarb jello shots topped with mint leaves and strawberries, rhubarb sorbet (I kid you not), all floating in a rhubarb “soup” with some little slabs of dark chocolate fudge:
Pickerel, ramps, asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries, dark chocolate . . . Oh, my!
Potato, Brandy’s, and Picnic
Back on the road, we discussed how we’d approach our quest and then, of course, there was the project.
Tracing the area with my finger on a map, I had found three small islands, accessible by bridge or causeway, just off the small “peninsula” on which Honey Harbour is located: Potato Island (A), Brandy’s Island (B), and Picnic Island (C). Access to each island is off of Honey Harbour Road, which splits off from Highway 400 (now part of the Trans-Canada Highway) near Port Severn of the Trent-Severn Waterway. A lot adventures lay ahead!
On Picnic Island
We rented a cottage in Picnic Island Resort on the northernmost of these three islands for three nights. Upon our arrival, after midnight, we were greeted by Jason, who basically manages everything that is on Picnic Island, including a a 4,000 square-foot store, a gas dock and boat rentals, a BBQ smoker and fry hut.
On a return trip to the Office (note to self: pack bed linens), we were greeted by a Great Blue Heron fishing by moonlight in the Bay.
Our cottage was cozy and comfortable . . .
. . . and right on the bay!
While we were unpacking our car, we heard a coyote howl (at least we thought it a coyote; since then I’ve learned that since the end of April, someone has reported hearing wolves howling in the Honey Harbour area). We took the howl, to whomever it belonged, as a good omen.
The next morning we began our quest for the Clarks’ island, where any good researcher would:
Val at the Honey Harbour Public Library, bearing the photograph of the Clarks cottage
And then the magic of a close-knit island community began percolating. Librarian Lorna was interested in our quest and had some good suggestions to make. Her primary one was to make a stop at the Hewitt Marina to talk to Jamie Hewitt, who, she said, with the help of his dad, knew just about everything about and everyone connected to Honey Harbour. He might be able to help.
Feeling like our quest was well underway, we decided to take a bike ride and check out Brandy’s Island, the middle of the three Honey Harbour islands. Little did we know we were about to have two more items to add to our quest-to-do list.
Before heading off on our bikes, we pumped up Val’s bike tires with my new super-duper tire pump. Too bad Val’s tires weren’t super-duper new. After leaving Picnic Island and heading off on the highway, we tried to figure out what that odd sound was. The sound of air leaving Val’s rear tire was not a happy one.
Soon we found ourselves, with our bikes back on the car, at the Honey Harbour Town Center, a combination supermarket, deli, hardware store, and coffee shop (and purportedly, serving the best—maybe the only—breakfast in town). A very helpful woman working there helped us find not one, but a variety of tire repair kits. When we asked if there was anyone around who might be able to help us get a rear tire off, repaired and back on, directed us to Nigel, the youngest staff member, who took us directly to Mike, who unfortunately for us, but probably fortunately for him, never had had to contend with bikes with gears. The one of their co-workers who could have done the job was actually participating in a bicycle race that day. We purchased one of the repair kits and left with their suggestion that a marina might be able to help us make use of it successfully.
There certainly are no shortage of marinas (or “marines”) in the area. We ended up talking to Trudy at CNC Marina & Construction, who suggested Ed might be able to help us when he returned from the dump in a bit.
But we had places to go and people to meet. We checked out the Delawana Inn, which first opened its doors in 1897 and where young Val and her family had stayed with “Auntie Clark” some years after “Hubby” had passed away . Since arriving, we’d learn the Delawana had declared bankruptcy on April 2nd of this year. This is the main lodge, one of many buildings located on fabulous grounds:
We explored the property until Peter, formerly a Corporate Salesman at the Delawana and now retired and serving as Security on the weekends, engaged us in conversation. When he heard what we needed, we soon were following his golf cart to the Honey Harbour Boat Club:
. . . where we found Mitch and Turner:
Having successfully completed both our tire repair kit and tire repair quests, we decided to get on with The Quest and introduce ourselves to Jamie Hewitt at Hewitt Marine Services:
We took the “panoramic” photos out of their frame on his workbench, and Jamie started figuring, on his nautical chart, where he thought the Clarks’ cottage might have been:
He promised to talk to his dad and we headed back out to celebrate the tire repair with an afternoon ride.
Looping Between Islands
We rode on Baxter Loop Road from Picnic Island to Brandy’s Island and stretched the mile and a half ride by exploring all of the side roads along the way as well:
Here are a few of the interesting things we saw on our Baxter Loop Road ride:
Evidence of the Canadian Shield
“Monet” bridges in place of driveways
A pair of goose parents and their brood of goslings
Our favorite sign
Female Snapper laying her eggs (one of many likewise engaged that weekend)
After our ride and at the end of our first day in Honey Harbour, this was the view from the end of the Picnic Island Resort’s sun-warmed wooden dock where we sat and enjoyed wine and hors d’oeuvres:
On our second day, among other trips, we took a trip down a side street just outside of town and came upon Honey Harbour’s Beehive:
. . . with most items for sale, not surprisingly, bee-related:
(Or, as you can see, water-related)
Two sweet staff members, lifelong friends, Lauren and Devan, posed in a sweet pine-scented breeze:
. . . out on their sweet spot for coffee and sweets, with a sweet view:
Day 3. Jamie Hewitt’s dad came through for us! He remembered the Clarks, their cottage, and the “island.”
Except, it wasn’t. An island, that is. Instead, it was a part of the mainland that was only accessible by water. Such is this wonderful water-laced part of the world!
Now we knew the destination; we just needed a way to get their, so we returned to the Honey Harbour Boat Club:
And hired Ian (who turned out to be the father of Mitch and Turner) to take us to the spot:
Our trip past scores of true islands to the “non-island” cottage was simply spectacular:
And then the Clarks’ cottage came into view (it was later owned by the Mitchells, and now it’s the Turnbull Cottage):
So What About the (Real) Three Islands?
Whereas Picnic Island was an island of trailers and cottages . . .
. . . and Brandy’s Island was primarily an island marina . . .
. . . we found Potato Island a place of beautifully built homes for retreat (and to rent!)
If you would like to find out more about the Honey Harbour area, the Honey Harbour Historical Society has published a fascinating book that looks at the history of the community through the families who built it, A Taste of Honey Harbour: The Area and Its People, edited by Su Murdoch (Honey Harbour Historical Committee, 1999):
And, oh, there was another island adventure, but I’ll leave that for another day, another telling, and instead leave you with a few Potato Island memories:
Arrive . . .
. . . Find yourself surrounded by water . . .
. . . Get grounded . . .
And doesn’t that just about describe the perfect island trip?