5 Great Lakes Destinations: Explore The Outdoors Through Beachside Forests And Islands

A thick streak of teal striped the water as we crossed over it on the Mackinac Bridge. The Mackinac Bridge connects Lower Michigan and Upper Michigan. The waters I marveled at as we crossed were to my right, making up Lake Huron. Lake Michigan was to my left. I never suspected, until then, that I could see Caribbean blues in the Great Lakes. The drive I made from the Mackinac Bridge to Houghton, Michigan, was filled with detours. I pulled off the road a handful of times to take in the scenic Lake Michigan beaches along the way. The core beauty of the Great Lakes and surrounding areas seems to lie within the pristine nature of the outdoors. If you want to plan an outdoor adventure near one of the Great Lakes this summer but you don’t know where to begin, here’s a list that should help get you started.1. Isle Royale

Lake Superior’s Isle Royale is a rugged National Park. It’s the largest island in Lake Superior at 45 miles long and 9 miles wide. Comprised of 400 small islands in addition to Isle Royale itself, the park’s above-water land is still relatively small at 209 square miles. Wolf and moose populations make Isle Royale a popular destination, particularly because this is the only known place where wolves and moose coexist without bears. The largest trail is the Greenstone Ridge Trail. At 40 miles long, this trail is generally a four- or five-day hike. The island boasts a total of 165 miles of hiking trails. Visitors can also canoe or kayak around the area. A lodge and 36 designated wilderness campgrounds make Isle Royale ideal for a backpacking trip.

2. Hiawatha National Forest

The Hiawatha National Forest is an 880,000-acre forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. With over 100 miles of shoreline, this forest is a great destination for water activities. Steep rock walls create dramatic landscapes alongside tall trees, streams, rivers and waterfalls. Nestled alongside three of the five Great Lakes (Michigan, Superior and Huron), this forest is filled with campgrounds. What’s more, lighthouses, Native American artifacts and archaeological sites make this forest worth the visit for outdoor fun.

3. Apostle Islands

The Apostle Islands are a group of 21 islands in Lake Superior. These islands lie off of the Bayfield Peninsula in northern Wisconsin. Identified as the “spiritual home” of the Lake Superior Chippewa, the islands were originally named after the 12 apostles by historian Pierre Francois Xavier de Charlevoix, despite the presence of 21 islands. White spruce and balsam fir trees dominate the islands. Sea caves throughout the islands feature beautiful arches and chambers. Campgrounds are available on 18 of 21 islands. Scuba diving, kayaking and hiking are all popular activities on the islands during the summer.

4. Sleeping Bear Dunes

Covering a 35-mile stretch of Lake Michigan, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has been called the most beautiful place in America by many, including ABC’s “Good Morning America” in 2011. Forests, beaches, dune formations and ancient glacial phenomena attract visitors to this island destination. Primitive, rustic and even more luxurious (with electricity and showers) campsites are spread throughout the Dunes.

5. Chimney Bluffs State Park

Impressive clay rock formations drop into the shores of Lake Ontario at Chimney Bluffs State Park in New York. The park has only four miles of hiking trails, but the scenery is worth the short trek. Open daily from dawn until dusk, this park is not one for camping or multi-day journeying, but it is a great destination for a vividly beautiful day trip.

Learn About the Niagara Falls

Budget Travel: Toronto


With a metro area of more than 8 million people, Toronto is one of North America’s largest cities. It is the economic and cultural center of Canada and is by far the country’s most international city. Even when compared to New York and LA, it is a culturally diverse place. Nearly half of Toronto’s residents were born outside of Canada. Because all these different cultures have been absorbed into one place, Toronto is unlike anywhere else.

It is also a destination for budget travelers who want an urban vacation but do not want to deal with New York or LA prices.

Getting in

It is easy to get to Toronto by car. Highways 404, 401, 400 and 427 converge on the city. Driving is also advantageous if you plan to explore the outlying areas of this spread out metropolis.

Pearson Int’l Airport hosts a majority of the flights from the US. You might be able to hook into a cheap Air Canada flight, although it is often a better investment to fly into Buffalo and then take a bus to Toronto. Megabus runs regular service between NYC and Toronto via Buffalo. Greyhound also runs the route, as well as connecting Toronto with Chicago and Detroit.
Getting around

The subway is the way to go. Weekly passes cost $32, while daily passes are $9. Buses and street cars are also reliable, but not during high traffic times, when they, like cars, get caught in the rush. Public transit is necessary downtown and in high traffic areas, but if you plan to explore further, a car is the best option as taxis are not cheap.

Where to stay

Global Village Backpackers and the downtown Hostelling International are both good bets for those who travel light and want to keep their hotel fees light as well. Spartan accommodations are the name of the game at both these venues, but if you don’t care about noise and luxury, you’ll be good. Another hostel is Kensington Castle. It offers much more personality than the previously mentioned pair, but the accommodations are pretty much the same. You will be within walking distance of Kensington Market and downtown Toronto.

There are some good two-star inns right downtown. The Bond Place Hotel is definitely a good value as is the Best Western Primrose.

Being a large city, there are plenty of mid-range chain hotels. Holiday Inn Express and Best Western usually offer decent value for the price.

What to see

Toronto Music Garden is designed by famed cellist Yo-yo Ma. It is meant to represent Bach’s First Suite for Unaccompanied Cello. It is a haven of green in the center of the city (and admission is free).

The CN Tower
is one of Canada’s iconic landmarks. It is one of the seven modern wonders of the world. Standing at 1,815.39 ft, it is the tallest free-standing structure in the Americas.

Central Toronto is also home to the Wednesday night art crawl. Unlike some cities, where art galleries open their doors to the public once a month, it is a weekly occurrence in Toronto.

Take the ferry to Toronto Island Park. There are several miles of bike trails and the shoreline offers superb views of the city skyline. Also, there is Hanlan’s Point Beach, where you don’t even have to own a swimsuit to take a dip in the lake. That’s right: clothing optional.

The Kensington neighborhood is easily accessible by public transit as it is directly adjacent to Downtown. This neighborhood offers a rather bohemian vibe. It is full of bistros and cafes serving good food for good value. There are also plenty of thrift stores, if you are looking for a bargain but weren’t able to find anything Downtown. Kensington Market offers interesting and eclectic shopping and eating options. Russian bakers, Vietnamese food stalls and vintage clothing booths sit side by side.

Toronto’s Chinatown is one of North America’s biggest. More of a pan-East Asian town, there are plenty of eating opportunities and, though most of the shops are aimed at Asian clientele, anyone can find good deals by simply wandering down the narrow market aisles.

There are beaches all along the strip of land where Toronto and Lake Ontario meet. Though a majority of the year brings cold temps and, therefore no swimming, the summer means that many locals are out taking advantage of the sun and warm weather. The lake is not the best place to swim however, so swim only in marked areas to avoid currents. Authorities test water for pollutants daily in swimming areas.

The Toronto Zoo is definitely impressive. A $20 admission might seem expensive, but there is enough to keep you busy for an entire day. This is a solid investment if you have kids.

Oswego, New York. Historical for Two Reasons

Snow is dumping on Oswego, New York. Five inches by the hour. When I heard this on the news, I perked up. I used to live there, and I haven’t lived in that much snow since. If anything, it’s been the opposite. From time to time I’ve even lived close to the equator. I don’t know if it’s the snow that chased me south.

I’ve thought about the Oswego snow from time to time, though. From where it sits next to Lake Ontario it can’t help but get snow. It’s called “lake effect.” Whatever it’s called, it’s a sight. Snow plows have some sort of contraption that throws snow into dump trucks so it can heaved onto the lake. The result is that streets look more like corridors that can reach chest high and the lake has mini-mountains. Cars sometimes put orange flags on the antennas so they can be seen at crossroads.

Although Oswego’s snow puts it in the national and local news across the U.S. from time to time, there is another claim to fame that not many people know about. It’s not as flashy as the snow, but it’s interesting to note just the same. During World War II almost 1,000 Jews were allowed to “temporarily” enter the United States to escape the Nazi regime in Germany. They were housed at Fort Ontario which just happens to be in Oswego.

Fort Ontario is the sight of a battleground bonanza. First built by the British in 1775 it was destroyed by the French only to be built again by the British, to then be destroyed by the Americans during the American Revolution and again destroyed again by the British in the War of 1812 (Are you keeping up?). Eventually, after wars weren’t fought in upstate New York anymore, the fort had some more incarnations until its rare use as a refugee camp between the years 1944-1946. This was the only place in the U.S. that served as such a haven and the only organized U.S. effort to bring Jews into the United States. There was fear that once people were allowed into the U.S., they wouldn’t leave. For awhile, the people who were housed at the fort had to stay there 24-7. After awhile the regulations lifted so the adults could get jobs and kids could go to Oswego’s schools. The kids going to school happened first. It wasn’t, I think, until year number two when the adults could leave for longer periods of time.

Today the fort is open as a tourist site. I’ve been there but I can’t recall how much information is on display about the fort’s role during WWII. I didn’t find out about this bit of history myself until after I had moved away and saw a program on educational television.