Country mouse or city mouse? Why not both? True, Ontario is known for its big cities: Toronto, Ottawa, London, Niagara-on-the-Lake. But there is just as much to see, do, and savour outside them. After you’ve done up the big city, head out on a weekend getaway for something different.
First, choose a city and region, then match it to what you like to do — read a novel by the lake, go paddling, join a foodie tour, try canoeing, or relax at the spa?
Taste and tour
Sipping and swirling is a must in Ontario’s wine country, famed for its rieslings, cabernet francs, and signature ice wines. If you’re looking for a romantic escape, this place fits the bill with its cosy inns and quaint Victorian architecture. The luxurious Prince of Wales Hotel is a classic. Stay or just enjoy the setting for afternoon tea and scones. Cycling between wine and cheese pairings is a novel way to tour. Stop in at Balzac’s café in the charming Historic District for a local roast and homemade goodies. For dinner, Treadwell is the go-to for its quality family-run suppliers and — no surprise — a superb wine list. If the timing is right, catch some top-notch theatre at the famed annual Shaw Festival.
Meet the new Hamilton
In southern Ontario near London, Hamilton is a port city on Lake Ontario divided by the forested Niagara Escarpment ridge with pretty architecture and leafy parks. Having shed its reputation as a gritty steel town, Hamilton is mid-renaissance, though still refreshingly real. Expect trendy galleries and cafes, bike sharing, and yoga, but also an artsy downtown where people live, work, and play. Of course, the dining scene is going off, too: visit a pop-up dinner or Jonny Blonde’s food truck. See some of the town’s 100 waterfalls, especially lovely lit up at night. Tew Falls on the Bruce Trail is a favourite. Tour the 1,092-hectare Botanical Gardens (Canada’s largest), then meet the locals at the year-round farmers’ market.
Muskoka and chill
There’s a reason Canadians call Adirondack chairs Muskoka chairs. Muskoka is Ontario’s beloved Cottage Country outside Toronto, the place urbanites go to play and relax by the 1,600 lakes, plus rivers, and beaches, in the green rolling countryside. Choose a funky lakeside cabin, upscale dockside retreat, or vintage inn, then grab a craft brew and pull up a lounger. Rent a boat, beachcomber, mountain bike, or canoe. Feel like learning? Take the free tour of Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh to find out how farmers grow and harvest the little reds. (Hint: It’s not what you think. They flood the bogs the night before, then use an eggbeater-like contraption to loosen and reel in the floating berries.)
Prince Edward County
Prince Edward County is Ontario’s gastro capital, so loosen your belt buckle and prepare to eat your way through. Get a map and meander the pretty country roads, past gabled barns on rented bikes or via car, stopping in at farms, artisan, and antique shops, galleries, craft breweries, ice creameries, cideries, and wineries. Or follow the Taste Trail, which details key stops, such as The County Cider Trail, Hillier Creek Estates, and Slickers County Ice Cream. Check the festival schedule to see what’s on while you’re there. Pack a gourmet picnic and find a spot on the white sand dunes at Sandbanks Provincial Park near Picton. If you like, take up temporary residence at a working organic farm/B&B for the bona fide experience.
Get into nature
Though only three hours from Ottawa, iconic Algonquin Provincial Park is wild and beautiful. In fact, the only way to explore it is by foot, canoe, or horseback. Hike one of the well-signed woodsy trails — fall foliage is spectacular — or try your hand at trout fishing (May is the best time). Don’t be surprised if you spy a shy moose among the maples, lakes, and craggy ridges or hear a wolf howling. The top three-day hikes are the easy four-mile Bat Lake Trail, seven-mile intermediate Mizzy Lake Trail, ideal for wildlife spotting, and advanced, multi-day Highland Backpacking Trail (choose the 19- or 35-kilometre route), according to Explore Magazine.
Thunder Bay is all about water. After all, it’s on the northern shore of the world’s largest freshwater body, Lake Superior. Rent a sailboat, learn to sail, or hire someone to take you out for an hour or three. On the tour, you can enjoy an al fresco picnic while learning a bit about the area and its hundreds of volcanic islands. Locavore? Drive to Thunder Oak Cheese Farm to sample gouda or watch cheese making (Mondays). Wrap in a stop at Niagara North, aka Kakabeka Falls. If outdoor adventure is your thing, you’ve scored: kayaking, hiking, single track riding, hunting, flightseeing in a converted WWI Otter float plane, and fly fishing on the Nipigon River; and in winter: skiing, snow shoeing, dog sledding, and ice climbing. The only problem: which one to choose?
To find more top getaways, visit the Ontario Travel website.