When more than half of your content is in the travel category and a global pandemic hits, shutting down international and provincial borders and making even something as simple as a weekend hotel stay questionable, you have to pivot. And fast.
Welcome to my pivot: a new summer series focused on road trips from Toronto. Throughout the first half of summer, these will only be easy day trips from Toronto and the GTA (that’s the “Greater Toronto Area” for those of you who may read this down the road when Ontario tourism is back in full swing). If our numbers continue to improve in the latter half of summer — and even into early fall — I may expand this and include some weekend overnighters where there are self-contained lodging options as well. Time will tell.
Be sure to bookmark this blog post — and refresh the page/clear your cache if you don’t see new content since your last visit — because I’ll be updating it every week or two after we’ve completed a new day trip. If you’d also like to follow along in real time, I’ve got a GTA Day Trips highlight reel on my Instagram profile where I’ll post highlights from each of our Toronto day trips.
Our road trips in Ontario will be no more than 2.5 hours from the east end of the GTA, where I live — at least at the beginning. This’ll ensure the “commute” is reasonable for families to manage in a single day.
Pro Tips: Remember that my kids are used to the hustle and bustle of action-packed travel, so use the info below to guide your day trip; don’t feel like you need to hit everything we do! And use the maps to help plot your days as efficiently as possible rather than trying to follow the order in which I’ve listed various activities and attractions.
As much as possible, we’ve scouted out free parking for you. And you’ll also see that in many cases we only splurged for treats along the way, often choosing homemade picnic lunches. This is to keep costs down, making these family-friendly road trips from Toronto extra budget-friendly since I know many of you (me included) are temporarily down to one income. Whenever we come across a gem of an eatery or a local fave, though, I’ve included the details below.
You’ll also see that many, but not all, of these day trips from Toronto include bike trails. If you’re not cycling fans, just swap out two wheels for two legs and hike some of these trails instead! Easy peasy since we aren’t hardcore mountain bikers — all of the bike trails we do are either paved or very hard-packed, fine-ground gravel.
Remember that many attractions and businesses may still have their hours and operations on pandemic-watch and things can change from day to day. It’s always best to check individual websites the day before your day trip to ensure there are no disappointing surprises. And please follow health protocols provided by both your own region and the one you’re visiting.
And, I beg of you, please keep in mind that I’m writing about these after our first-hand experiences on these one-day trips; I’m not just Googling “things to do in XYZ” and providing a list you could quickly curate yourself. So while I’m trying to include as much as possible in each area, there will inevitably be some really cool things we’re gonna miss along the way. I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments if we’ve missed something you think is crucial to a particular area! It’ll help me plan for next time and will inevitably help others plan their own road trips from Toronto and the GTA.
Finally (yes, the intro is finally done!), this post has grown so much during the past few months that I’ve added a table of contents so you can jump to the GTA day trip of your choice rather than endlessly scrolling:
- Click here for the Hamilton-Brantford day trip.
- Click here for the Prince Edward County day trip.
- Click here for the Georgian Bay day trip.
- Click here for the Port Hope & Northumberland area day trip.
- Click here for the Kitchener-Waterloo & Guelph area day trip.
- Click here for the Toronto Islands day trip.
- Click here for the Peterborough & The Kawarthas day trip.
- Click here for the Burlington day trip.
- Click here for the Niagara day trip.
- Click here for the Grey County day trip.
- Click here for the Grand Bend day trip.
- Click here for the Clarington day trip.
- Click here for the Haliburton day trip.
Road trips from Toronto: trip 1
Where this Toronto day trip will take you: the Hamilton-Brantford Rail Trail
Here’s a map to help you plot your adventure:
Note: all attractions, trails, eateries and some parking noted in these day trips are plotted on each area’s map for easy reference. You can zoom in and out of maps and click on them to save, print or get directions.
Things to do near the Hamilton-Brantford Rail Trail:
- First thing’s first: parking. There’s plenty of free parking at Sanctuary Park in Dundas (11 Skyline Dr, Dundas, ON L9H 3S2); drive slowly through the neighbourhood on your way in and gawk at the big century homes and rebuilds on huge properties in this lovely Hamilton suburb. It’s a beautiful drive down to the park. The Rail Trail is a stone’s throw from the parking lot and you can head in either direction on the trail from here. There’s also a Fortino’s along the Rail Trail (11 Skyline Dr, Dundas, ON L9H 3S2) with a huge parking lot in case you have trouble with parking at Sanctuary Park.
- Get on the trail! We turned right on our bikes onto the Hamilton-Brantford Rail Trail, which features a really well-maintained hard-packed fine gravel through the woods. Our kids’ mountain bikes handled this beautifully — no surprise there — but so did our hybrids. The trail is so good that I suspect even road bikes would be OK, but it’s not paved in all sections so keep that in mind. We rode all the way to the end of the trail and alongside a golf club before coming to Dundurn St. S. There was a street sign that told us turning right would take us to the continuation of the trail, while turning left would take us to Hamilton’s Dundurn Castle in 2.5km. Although this wasn’t initially in our plans, we decided to wing it and head to the castle! Now, if your kids aren’t confident riding on a busy city street (which has good bike lanes in both directions), this is probably not the option for you. The entire 2.5km stretch is pretty heavy on the traffic front, but you will be rewarded with a some wonderful history and a great spot for a snack break when you reach Dundurn Castle. We rode around the castle grounds, reading about who lived there and how it was part of The War of 1812, had a snack and simply turned around and retraced our steps (er, ride).
- Picnic in the park. On the other side of the trail, opposite the parking lot, is Sanctuary Park. We didn’t spend much time exploring here but it was a nice place to set up our lunch under tree-covered shade.
- Head to a farm. We pre-booked a time slot at Triple C Farm in nearby Ancaster — a must during COVID operations — and were delighted to learn that it’s a pay-what-you-can entry fee (they recommend $5 per person, but if you can give more, go for it). Families travel together in 15-minute waves so you never interact with another family, and after getting an overview about your visit, including learning more about the farm’s rescue animals, you’ll get to spend time with goats, miniature cows and horses, bunnies, feeding ducks and then watch chickens (and even a Clydesdale mare) freely roam the property. Expect to spend about 30-45 minutes here and have your camera ready for lots of fun photo opps, like your kids holding baby goats.
- Onwards to Grimsby. Of all the road trips in Ontario I’ve done over the years, I’d never been to Grimsby before. In the area, sure…but it was the first time I’d ever plugged Grimsby into my GPS! You’ll need to put “Grimsby Beach” into your GPS to find the Grimsby Painted Ladies, and unless you plan to stay and hit the beach, this is more of a self-guided walking or driving tour, but it’s a great little stop on this day trip. Look for several colourful cottages between Betts and Park Rds, driving along Temple Lane to find Auditorium Circle — a quaint court lined with the Grimsby Painted Ladies; these board-and-batten Victorian gingerbread cottages that date back to the 1800s but are still maintained in all their glory today. Read more about their interesting history here.
- Hit up a farmer’s market. In nearby Beamsville, there are lots of farms and some have onsite markets, while others may also offer pick-your-own offerings. That’s what led us to Hildreth Farm — the promise of pick-your-own cherries. Alas, we weren’t the only family with the same idea and they were picked out by the time we arrived at the end of the day. We popped over to the onsite market instead and bought their cherries that someone else had picked, along with some other produce from the farm (and treats like chocolate chip cookies and tart-cherry-and-amaretto jam). The moral of the story? Keep an eye on the farms’ websites before you go if you’re hoping to do your own picking.
- Grab some grownup juice. Since it’s around the corner from the farms in Beamsville, you might as well make a quick stop at Dillon’s Distillery. It makes wonderful gin (try the cherry gin — OMG) and has a stellar collection of bitters, among other goodies.
Road trips from Toronto: trip 2
Where this Toronto day trip will take you: Prince Edward County
Here’s a map to help you plot your adventure:
Things to do in Prince Edward County:
- Smell the flowers. I’ve been wanting to visit a lavender field for years — with row upon row of purple and photo opps just begging to happen. Googling “Prince Edward County lavender” took me directly to a lavender farm by the very same name, but it’s not the only choice in PEC. We also drove past Millefleurs later in the day and it looked like a lavender dreamscape, complete with a stunning yellow-sided country house in the backdrop. We paid $8 per adult at PEC Lavender to check out the property that lays behind the gift shop; kids are free. There’s a little covered spot where you can learn about bees, but you can also get up close and personal with LOTS of the little buzzers right there in the lavender field. I’m generally not a bug fan, but they’re truly so disinterested in humans because of all that glorious nectar surrounding them that you can walk among them with ease. The flowers are nothing short of gorgeous but beyond making for a really nice photo, there’s not much else to do. But the pics are definitely worth the price of admission. The gift shop has, predictably, a lot of lavender products and you can buy plants and planters there, too.
- Fun with alpacas. Just down the road from PEC Lavender is SHED Chetwyn Farms, which is an alpaca farm and store — not a petting zoo. That said, during COVID Times, you can pay $12 per family for your own 30-minute time slot to see the alpacas up close, ask the owner any alpaca farming-related questions and have time to shop privately for all of the alpaca products you desire. We bought socks. The softest socks ever. Alpaca fleece is softer and warmer than cashmere, and I’m pretty excited to cozy up to a fire in these socks this winter.
- More bees! If your bee encounters at the lavender farm aren’t quite enough, I recommend the Bee Experience at the Curious Goat General Store! For $60, a single family gets an hour-long private bee tutorial — learn about bee colonies and how their hierarchy works, see how honeycombs form and why their shape is so genius, better understand how bees work together to thrive and survive all year long — that includes a honey-tasting and a hands-on activity making a salve out of beeswax and essential oils. You get to make your own label for the salve and take them home. We made some that smell like eucalyptus, patchoulie and Balsam fir! At the end of the day when I asked the kids what their favourite thing was from our PEC adventure, Miss Q didn’t miss a beat and said it was this activity. You need to book this ahead of time and it’s not available every day of the week, so plan ahead.
- You gotta eat here. The Milford as a restaurant has existed at the corner of County Rd. 10 and Bond Rd. in Prince Edward County for a number of years, sporting different names as various owners or chefs took over. But under Chef Scott Gregor’s lead, I have a feeling it’s going to be known as The Milford for years to come. The food is elevated pub fare, most of which won’t require utensils — except perhaps for the fresh, saporous salads like apple fennel slaw or “dog days” featuring ripe watermelon, peppery arugula, local feta, house-grown mint and an unexpected bit of olive. We scarfed down the wagyu burger faster than we could take a photo of it and the “too fat to fly” buttermilk chicken thigh sandwich was everything fried chicken should be. If you like some heat, order the atomic buffalo bombs, which are a take on jalapeno poppers with the added inventiveness of chorizo. I’m not usually ride or die for restaurant fries, but The Milford’s Frenchies are fry-truck quality. Oh, and order the lemonade. Yeah, you can also get a host of delish local beers or ciders (and we did) but the lemonade is hella fine.
- My kids didn’t want me to tell you about the secret beach. But I did, under the condition that you treat it with respect, continue the excellent physical distancing that was in place the day we visited and that you leave no trace you were there. Well, unfortunately, Little Bluff has been overrun with disrespectful visitors and is now closed to anyone who doesn’t hike in. I’ll leave the original description of this gem here in hopes that, in time, they’ll allow cars to park here again and we can start over. For now, here’s the press release with the unfortunate news. You’re gonna want water shoes because this is not a sandy beach but one that stretches from one side to the other (and into the water until it’s deep enough to swim) with rocks. SO.MANY.ROCKS! Bring a blanket to sit on — and, if you plan to stay for several hours, an umbrella — and don’t expect to find anywhere to change into your swimmers. Because Little Bluff Conservation Area is as bare bones as it gets, and it’s perfect. The water in Prince Edward Bay is the most pristine I’ve ever seen in Ontario and is the only lake water aside from nearby Sandbanks that I’ve ever willingly gotten into (I hate lakes; I’m an ocean girl). And, frankly, it puts the water at Sandbanks to shame. It’s crystal clear blue all the way to your toes. Now — aside from the lack of sand, you also need to know about the snakes. YES: SNAKES. We saw three during our two-hour stay, swimming in the water not far from us (nor remotely interested in us either). It’s a tad jarring since I’ve never seen a water snake, and certainly not while I’m in the water with it! But if you can handle knowing you may have a non-threatening snake encounter, you’ll be rewarded with the prettiest bluff-side lake swimming anywhere. There isn’t a ton of parking, but as of this writing it was free. There are, however, paid parking signs that have just gone up, so I expect it won’t be free for long.
- If water snakes aren’t your thing… I added Sandbanks to this map if you still want somewhere to take the kids swimming. It has the added benefit of a sandy beach and the awesome sand dunes that are etched into my memory from my own childhood. Keep in mind, however, that (a) it’s not free to visit and (b) these days it’s not unusual to see a 4km lineup of cars waiting to get in at any given time.
- Find a lake — on a mountain. Yes, that’s a thing! Lake on the Mountain is a neat lookout point that features a gorgeous lake that doesn’t have any known water source and defies any known geological or geographical theory. Just the drive up to it is a worthy one.
- If you’re into eclectic birdhouses… A drive-by to Birdhouse City is a fun detour on your way to ice cream (see next bullet!). There may be a way to walk through here without traipsing through the long grass barrier from the highway — and with PEC’s well-known tick problem, I wasn’t about to chance it — but I couldn’t find it. Instead, I pulled over and we saw this weird and wonderful collection of birdhouses from the side of the road.
- Ice cream, though. Because I firmly believe that every area should be judged, at least in part, by its best ice cream shop, I will endeavour to uncover local haunts as part of this Road Trips from Toronto series. And PEC has some strong contenders, including Slickers. With locations in both Picton and Bloomfield, this homemade ice cream with unexpected flavour combos, like tart rhubarb and ginger, is a must-visit. Even the straight-up chocolate ice cream has an extra level of creaminess you don’t get from the likes of bigger chains. Be sure to figure one of the Slickers stores into your day trip plan while in PEC.
Road trips from Toronto: trip 3
Where this Toronto day trip will take you: Georgian Bay (Simcoe County)
Here’s a map to help you plot your adventure:
Things to do near Georgian Bay:
Easy family cycling. As bike trails go, the Tay Shore Trail is one of the prettiest — and flattest — we’ve tried to date. We managed to knock off more than 30 total kilometres during our three-hour ride (which included a picnic lunch break en route) as we tried to tackle a huge chunk of this 18.5km (one way) paved trail. Other than a couple of highway crossing points, this is an easy trail with only one small hill to navigate, so even little ones riding bikes without gears would be able to give it a go.
There are many free places to park along the trail, but street parking in the Township of Tay is technically only for a max of three hours, so you’re best to find an actual parking lot. We wanted to start close to the beginning (end?) of the Tay Shore Trail and opted for a free lot we found along Coldwater Rd near Willow Street, just across from the Marshs Waubaushene Marina. I snapped a screenshot of it for you since I didn’t use an actual address to find it. It can only accommodate about five vehicles, but there’s a fairly desolate Legion not far from here with a large lot that might work (though I’m not sure how private parking works while businesses are impacted at present). If you score a spot here, the trail is just a few feet away and you want to head onto the trail that’s on the same side as the parking lot.
We rode until we found Victoria Harbour and took our first snack break here, which is 25-30 minutes into the leisurely ride and offers a pretty view of the boats, a few benches and a gazebo if you need some shade. If your kids usually max out at an hour or so of cycling, this would be a reasonable place to turn around and you can always drive to the next points of interest instead. But if you’re up for it, the longest stretch we did was from Victoria Harbour all the way to the Wye Marsh Wildlife Centre — the trail is so easy to follow and there are plenty of signs to get you there, or you can turn on Google Maps directions while riding since it requires turning left off of the Tay Shore Trail and heading about 450 metres away from it.
Once you get this far, you can turn left again into the conservation area or right to check out Ste-Marie Among the Hurons (temporarily closed, but we biked around it and peeked in and decided we HAD to return once it reopens), then follow the pathway behind it to catch a glimpse of Martyrs’ Shrine, one of only nine national shrines in Canada. I’m not very religious but I love a pretty church and this one, even seeing it from far away since the gate is temporarily closed, is beautiful. From here, we went to Wye Marsh and poked around. No bikes are allowed on the newly reopened one-way conservation trail but you could easily find a spot to lock up your bikes if you wanted to explore on foot; it looked really pretty but we were hungry and still had an afternoon of plans ahead of us so we used this opportunity to turn back. There are benches and picnic tables that line the Tay Shore Trail, so snack and lunch breaks won’t even require a blanket if you didn’t bring one along.
- And, of course, ice cream. You’ve earned it after that ride! Put The Boathouse Eatery in Midland into your GPS after you load up your bikes, and stop for some Kawartha Dairy goodness at the “sweets & treats” kiosk out front. We sauntered down the dock, ice cream firmly in-hand, checking out all of the boats and had a great view of North America’s biggest historic outdoor wall mural by the time we reached the end.
- Murals, murals, everywhere. If you have the energy for a walk through downtown Midland, it boasts more than 40 different outdoor murals (walking map here). Unfortunately, most of the main street — King St. — was under heavy construction the day we were here and it didn’t look like it was going to let up any time soon, but you can drive by a few of these murals on side streets for now.
- An unexpected treat. A drive farther north into nearby Honey Harbour will take you to the Big Chute Marine Railway, which is the only lift lock of its kind still in operation today anywhere in North America. We had no real expectation that we’d actually get to see it operate on a sleepy Monday afternoon, but Lock No. 44 did not disappoint! No matter how many times I’ve seen lift locks along the Trent-Severn Waterway in operation over the years, it’s something I never tire of watching. Big Chute, however, is like no other lift lock! It doesn’t just raise boats up to connect them into different sections of the Waterway, it physically lifts them up on straps and carries them across the road! I’m so glad I caught it all on video because the process is so incredible that trying to describe it couldn’t do it justice. Watch:
Road trips from Toronto: trip 4
Where this Toronto day trip will take you: Port Hope & Northumberland
Here’s a map to help you plot your adventure:
Things to do near Port Hope & the Northumberland region:
- Get yer goat on. Haute Goat has been on my list for a while and it’s SHMURGLES (promise of snuggles with baby goats) was enough of a draw that I was willing to fork over $200 for me and the kiddos. Yes, it’s pricey, but you do get a fun experience that lasts about 1.5 hours from start to finish that involves running around a beautiful farm with dozens of goats — babies included — and hanging out with them in an enclosure where you will (a) get to watch them jump around on their play structures, (b) hold teeny, tiny goat babies, (c) have a goat jump on your back if you happen to bend down to help your child with her baby goat, or (d) all of the above. Our SHMURGLE got cut a bit short because some rain rolled in, which was a shame, but we’d already been there nearly our full hour-and-a-half. We made our way to the gift shop — where I spent a bundle on goat-related products and farm-fresh produce — and we also ordered goat ice cream, which was SUPER yummy (the vanilla bean & lavender was my fave). We’ll definitely return to check out more of Haute Goat’s 200-acre property, the alpacas and wooded trails — all of which is free (donations encouraged) and you can rest easy knowing strict COVID protocols are in full effect.
- To the bridge! [Note that as of July 30, 2020, the Ranney Gorge Suspension Bridge is closed until further notice due to overcrowding.] The suspension bridge, that is. Our first visit to Ferris Provincial Park did not disappoint. Now, you can either go through the main gate for the park and pay the Ontario Parks day-fee orrrr if you’re just planning to stay for a couple of hours, you could also park near the Ranney Gorge Suspension Bridge for free (near Locks 11-12 and there are even a couple of spots right at the bridge) and walk into the park. While you’re there, aside from running across the sturdiest suspension bridge I’ve ever jumped on and taking in the beautiful views of the Trent River, I highly recommend the easy hike through the park that will take you down to the Ranney Gorge below. The day we were there, the water was so low that you could walk nearly from one side to the other. There were people swimming in the shallow areas where the water was only a foot or three high. However, you want to be mindful of where the waterfall is because the drop-off is a fair distance and would be quite dangerous for children who aren’t being well-supervised and/or aren’t in life vests. You can also walk north along the Gorge (or in the gorge while the water remains low) to see a dam as well. That said, I’ve been advised that it isn’t really safe at all to enter the gorge at any time (even though we didn’t see any signs suggesting not to go in). Apparently, the water dam could open at any time; and you don’t want to get caught in that.
- As phony as a $2 bill, they say… But not a $2 coin! Come see the Giant Toonie as you enjoy Old Mill Park in Campbellford, which also sits along the Trent River. Commemorating the local artist who created the iconic polar bear used Canada’s “toonie” coin. It stands a remarkable 27 feet high by 18 feet wide. Did you know the Toonie Bear’s name is Churchill? Fun fact: in my previous life, I worked in public relations and the Royal Canadian Mint was one of my biggest clients for many years. During that time, I was heavily involved in the Mint’s Name Our Polar Bear Contest, which is how he got his name.
- Forget the butter tarts. Although we were initially committed to trying butter tarts from four spots listed in the Kawarthas Northumberland Butter Tart Trail, we discovered that the pandemic has limited some bakery’s products or closed them down temporarily. But fear not: Dooher’s Bakery will save the day. Yeah, yeah…this award-winning bakery has butter tarts. But that’s not what the 25-minute physically distant lineup was waiting for. No. They were in line for the doughnuts. And, my God, I can honestly say it was worth every minute. Thankfully, some guy named Dave never picked up his order, so instead of taking half a dozen of the ONE flavour Dooher’s had left when we stopped by at 1 p.m., we managed to get an assorted mix of — I kid you not — the best doughnuts all four of us have ever eaten. Thank you, Dave! Campbellford is a solid one-hour drive from our house, but we would absolutely commute to buy these again. I should mention here that we bought a package of six butter tarts and six doughnuts for the grand sum of…$13.75. Total. That’s it. Coming from many years of Toronto eating, you’d be lucky to get three doughnuts for that price, so this seems considerably underpriced, but it sure will help balance out the gas it’ll take for our trips back out here to buy them again and again.
- Other good eats… If you’ve neglected to pack a picnic lunch or would just rather have someone else do the cooking and cleaning up, Capers Taphouse (almost directly across from Old Mill Park) has a big patio with tables that are well-distanced and a big, good menu. We loved the calamari and duck breast poutine made with local cheese curds; devoured the bison burger and their signature burger topped with peameal and a fried egg; and the fish and chips were fabulous, with some of the nicest breading we’ve tried. Before you head home, pop into Empire Cheese — they have a huge selection of cheeses and their cheese curds are nice and squeaky (just don’t expect to find much in the way of unsalted butter; but the salted butter collection is strong). Centre & Main Chocolate Co. is another worthy detour on the way home. This local chocolatier uses a unique freeze-drying technique to make many of her drool-inducing bars, set in white, milk and dark chocolate and she also incorporates a lot of local ingredients whenever possible, creating more interesting flavour combos than I have room for here (but honourable mentions go to the bars I purchased: blood orange & rosemary and sesame za’atar); do yourself a favour and grab the dark chocolate-covered orange slices, too. We also nabbed some incredible meat from Century Game Park, which raises both grass-fed bison and elk; this fifth-generation farm asks that you call ahead to find out what they have on-hand for sale, but we bought and highly recommend the bison filets (OMG, to die for), bison pepperettes and bison salami. We had all three eaten inside of a single weekend. If you’re heading west to get home from here and you can still stuff more food into your hollow legs, then I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Yorkie’s B-B-Q in Cobourg, right off of Hwy. 401. For a measly $26.99, the southern fried chicken 9-piece dinner is value central. You’ll get nine pieces of really, really good fried chicken, a tub of slaw and the biggest batch of fries you ever did see. We ate them two days in a row and still didn’t finish all of them! The chicken was so good that I can’t even decide whether I liked it better hot or cold.
Road trips from Toronto: trip 5
Where this Toronto day trip will take you: the KWCG region (that’s Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge-Guelph!)
Here’s a map to help you plot your adventure:
Things to do near the Guelph/Waterloo region:
- Ride or hike another rail trail! The Kissing Bridge Trailway is great for mountain bikes (or running shoes!), but was a bit more difficult on our hybrid bikes than the other non-paved trails we’ve ridden so far. Not impossible — I mean, we rode something like 31km all said and done — but there were patches where I felt more unsteady than usual. But like the other rail trails, it’s quite flat and easy to manage. If you’re not planning to detour to find the covered bridge (see next bullet), kids of any age could handle this trail provided they have thicker tires like you’d find on a mountain or BMX bike. I suggest parking at or near the little gravel lot noted on my map above (just south of the intersection at Wellington County Rds 30 & 39); it’s free, there’s no time limit and it positions you well right at the beginning of the Kissing Bridge Trailway as it heads from Guelph to Elmira. You can decide to simply turn around at any point, though there isn’t much to see aside from a farm or two and an orchard. Our entire purpose was (a) exercise and fresh air, and (b) getting to the West Montrose Covered Bridge, which is about a 2km detour off of the path. As you ride the Trailway, heading west, watch for Katherine St. N. signage and look for the steep set of stairs with a bike rail/ramp on your left. I do not suggest this with small children! There are a lot of stairs and hoisting bikes up was a challenge (our kids couldn’t even manage it without help at ages 9 and 12); coming back down was even harder and I found it difficult to hold onto my bike and not have it drag me down the stairs with its gravitational pull. You will turn left here to go south, and have to navigate a county road that doesn’t have a dedicated bike lane (and, in many parts, is even more uneven and gravel-y) for part of the detour. Don’t make the mistake I did and take a right at Hwy. 86; this is dangerous and unnecessary. We figured that out pretty quickly but it meant hiking our bikes across a very busy highway and cutting back up to the right road. Instead, cross through that intersection and look for Rivers Edge Dr. almost immediately on your right. There’s no bike lane but it’s a quiet street and a very pretty ride. This’ll take you directly to Kissing Bridge!
- Go through the only remaining covered bridge in Ontario. Well, the only one you can DRIVE through, anyway. The West Montrose Covered Bridge is a late 19th-century covered wooden bridge that goes across the Grand River and it’s the second-oldest surviving bridge in the Region of Waterloo. Just be careful: it’s one way and there are cars and pedestrians who use it. Have your camera handy, because she’s a beauty — 200 feet long, painted red with a gable roof. We rode through it and planned to picnic in front of it, but it’s all private property. We found a little parkette (Letson Park) that had a few shaded areas thanks to trees and welcomed picnickers. Not much of a bridge view to speak of from there, but a nice enough spot for a lunch break.
- Find the home of In Flanders Fields. Or, the home of its author, at least. McCrae House is where doctor, poet and soldier John McCrae grew up; it’s maintained as a museum with a small but pretty botanical garden and monument beside it. The day we went, the house wasn’t open but we looked around the grounds and reflected on the meaning of a poem so ingrained in our minds and hearts.
- Do the locomotion. Visit Locomotive 6167 at the Guelph GO Station if you have train-crazy kids. Mine were completely disinterested in a close-up look but 5-year-old K Man would have gone crazy for it. Be aware that the locomotive is being moved to John Galt Park sometime in autumn 2020. Built in 1940, Locomotive 6167 was based in Moncton, New Brunswick and, during the WWII, it hauled troops and supplies to eastern ports. In 1943, though, it was involved in a full-speed head-on collision with another train but — because it was needed for war efforts — was repaired and put back into service until 1960. Finally, from 1960-64, Locomotive 6167 carried some 40,000 passengers on leisure trips throughout Ontario and became known as “Canada’s most photographed locomotive.”
- Ice cream — obviously. The homemade ice cream at The Boathouse Tea Room is even better sitting on the Muskoka chairs along the river just behind the shop, or wandering across another covered bridge only a bit farther on. I had the coconut flavour and the real bits of coconut flakes were a lovely contrasting texture to the creamy ice cream; Miss Q, however, ordered the bubble gum flavour and called it a “scam” because there was no actual bubble gum involved. The K Man tried a version of Moose Tracks and raved about it. The tea room also happens to rent canoes and kayaks by the hour, which is convenient since it sits right on the river. You could actually walk to McCrae House from here and enjoy the Royal Recreation Trail that runs along both sides of the river. I’d like to come back and bike ride the trail one day.
- To the gorge! The Elora Gorge is somewhere I’ve wanted to visit since I was a teenager and heard my friends talk about their adventures tubing down the gorge (which I also knew was not the activity for my young kids since it can get quite rough in spots). I had no idea Elora the town would be so charming and insist that I return another time to spend a whole day there — especially since the Elora Mill appears to have the best view of the Tooth of Time (considered Elora’s most important natural feature). It marks the beginning of the Elora Gorge along the Grand River; it’s essentially a rock that resisted erosion and has water bustling over it like a waterfall. It’s beautiful — if you can get a glimpse of it. Without being a hotel or spa guest at Elora Mill, your best bet is to find a little dirt path that runs west between E. Mill St. and Church St. W. on Price St. (I’ve tried to mark the approximate location on the map above from memory and am kicking myself for not dropping a pin while we were there). Follow the path all the way to the wrough-iron fence on your left and then start walking along the fence and look off to your left for the waterfall. You can follow this fence to Victoria Park and to the Elora Gorge Lookout, which offers a panoramic view of the gorge below; or you can do this in reverse by parking at/near the park (we found a small, free parking area beside Hoffer Park) and doing the Lookout before Tooth of Time. I feel like there’s no way we can appreciate the gorge properly without going down into the caves below (and walking/wading in what was shallow water in the gorge the day we were there, but I imagine rises dramatically with heavy rainfall). Another day…
- Patio dining in Elora. There’s no shortage of wonderful-looking restaurants in Elora, but based on one of my Twitter follower’s suggestions, we visited The Porch Light. And ate exactly what she and her husband ate! (The seafood board and the Cubano sandwich.) Our table was off in a section all on its own so we could continue to take our physical distancing seriously, the cocktails were fantastic — I recommend the Punch Romaine. The aioli that comes with the kettle chips starter is so good I nearly licked the ramekin, and I could have eaten an entire meal of the shrimp crackers that came on my fish board!
- Get some goodies. While you’re in Elora, hit up Sweet Distractions. From gelato to locally made chocolates and ALL THE CANDY, you can even find UK-made Cadbury Fruit & Nut bars here (the only kind worth having, IMO). Enjoy your treats across the street in a green space filled with interesting art.
- Tube the Grand! This family tubing adventure from Canoeing the Grand is a half-day trip all on its own, running from noon until around 4 p.m. — or whenever you float back down to your vehicle after being shuttled up-river. But you could squeeze a shorter bike ride into the morning slot if you wanted, drive to the West Montrose Covered Bridge to save even more time and then head to Kitchener for this fun afternoon activity. Or just come back another day like we did! You’ll want to make sure the water levels are high enough to support comfortable tubing (we only got stuck on rocks once and thankfully accepted the “sticks” the team gave us before pushing off), so if it’s been particularly dry and hot for weeks when you go, this is something to look into lest it be not-so-relaxing a ride. We arrived a few days after some heavy rain, which pushed the water levels back up nicely. The current was slow but steady and we literally just relaxed in our tubes and let the Grand River do its thang. For FOUR HOURS! And I can’t recommend it enough. I mean, when was the last time you and your kids just hung out without any electronics for that long? Talking, laughing, singing, playing games. It was such a great way to reconnect. And then there was the Great Blue Heron, so many Canada Geese, oodles of ducks and ducklings, a couple of otters and even falcons (one had caught a fish in its talons and was screeching overhead as if to warn us that he wasn’t planning to share). Pro Tips: (1) It’s a slow ride without a lot of shade, so you should rent the $25 optional cooler floaty and bring a cooler full of cold drinks and snacks; we brought some bottled water on ice, butter tarts, rice krispy squares, strawberries and grapes. (2) Ask for tethers in case you want to tie your tubes together like we did. (3) Bring lots of easy-to-apply sunscreen (you can order Green Beaver spray-on mineral sunscreen for 20% off using the code Andrea2020) and wear long-sleeved rashguards and wide-brimmed hats. Sunnies are a must. Miss Q was the only one with water shoes, but it was easy enough to get into the water in flip flops and toss them into the cooler floaty once we were on our way. (4) If you can take a weekday off, I suggest this over a Friday-Sunday booking. There was only one other family of tubers but there were quite a few canoes and kayaks on the river and I suspect the weekends get VERY busy. One final note: we loved all of the extra COVID-measures that Canoeing the Grand has in place and felt comfortable borrowing their life vests as a result. If you’re being extra-super careful, you might prefer to bring your own.
- Do some market shopping. My parents visited the St. Jacob’s Farmers’ Market many times as I was growing up, but I don’t think I ever went with them. I can’t really say we’ve “done” the market now, though. We arrived an hour before it closed (great time to score deals on foodstuffs the sellers don’t want to take to the next market!) and only felt comfortable staying for half an hour because many people were NOT physically distancing. Masks are required but not everyone wore them on top of that, either. The indoor market was open but the throngs of people pouring in and out of the doors completely deterred us. We did get some amazing strawberries and peaches & cream corn on the cob but the lack of respect for distancing put my mama bear anxiety on full blast.
Road trips from Toronto: trip 6
Where this Toronto day trip will take you: on and around the Toronto Islands
Here’s a map to help you plot your adventure:
Things to do on Toronto Island:
- First, parking. If you can find any free parking near the Toronto Islands ferry terminal, PLEASE add it to the comments because I looked so, so hard and came up empty. Barring parking on a side street somewhere — and then taking your chances that you’ll be ticketed for staying longer than the three hours the city allows — and finding your way safely down to the Waterfront Trail, you’re just going to have to go into this day trip knowing it won’t be the cheapest one out there. It certainly turned into our most expensive one so far, not only because of the $22 parking lot price and then the cost of the ferry but also because we decided to have a patio lunch instead of packing a picnic lunch. So, one way to help offset the cost of parking/ferry is to come prepared with your own food, snacks and drinks. We ended up parking in a public lot near Sugar Beach and only had to cross the street to get onto the Waterfront Trail.
- Second, let’s be clear: there isn’t really much more than one island. People call it Toronto Islands, plural, often, because it’s actually a group of 15 interconnected islands; but, for tourism purposes, it’s really just one big island for the most part. There are a couple of little offshoot islands worth seeing that I’ll get to below, but once you take the ferry over, you don’t need to worry about ferrying from one outpost to the next; you can easily bike the whole thing using a series of paths and bridges — or walk, if you have the entire day. Here’s a great map of the main island and the little ones, along with all of the sites, kiosks, restaurants and attractions you can discover.
- Take a ferry boat ride. Bikes are free! The Toronto Islands ferry schedule (listed here) goes from early morning to late at night, provided you’re not bent on taking only the Centre Island ferry — which runs only from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. during the summer. Even with the reduced schedule due to COVID, both the Ward’s Island and Hanlan’s Point ferries have much longer hours and you’ll find them far less populated (especially on weekends; not that I recommend doing this day trip on a weekend if you’re trying to maintain physical distancing). Although customers are being encouraged to purchase Toronto Island ferry tickets online ahead of time since there is currently a daily cap of 5,000 tickets being sold, if you do this day trip spontaneously, there is a ticket window with a cashier available once you arrive. Ticket prices are the same either way: around $8 per adult and $4-5ish per child, depending on their ages, a free for babies under two. Remember to bring masks to wear throughout the duration of the ferry ride.
- Start at Hanlan’s Point or Ward’s Island. Not only can you get on the ferry early and tour much of the Toronto Island before more of the masses arrive on the Centre Island ferry, you won’t need to backtrack to explore the whole kit and caboodle. We arrived at Hanlan’s Point, then followed not only the main paths but also dipped into every other path we could find to go off the beaten path; and we ended up discovering so much more than we ever had during our non-biking visits or the ones where we came just to play at Centreville. With much of the Centre Island attractions still closed, walking around might not be the most interesting trip right now — but on bikes, it was awesome! We clocked about 22km zig-zagging through the island paths and “streets,” some of which are nothing more than narrow sidewalks. And if you don’t have your own bikes, I’ve included the location of the bike rental shop on Centre Island. As you can imagine, prices are steep since it’s the only option, but they do have some really cool quad bikes that we’ve rented in the past when our kids were toddlers. Although there are some service vehicles on the island, it’s closed to regular city traffic, making for a safe and quiet way to explore. Well beyond the main attractions of Centre Island, there’s the Ned Hanlan tugboat memorial, The Shaw House and beaches perfect for watching Canada Geese in formation (just look for a boardwalk to Gibraltar Point Beach, east of the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse, and follow it through the brush). On either side of what’s usually a bustling Centre Island, you’ll be able to immerse yourself in island life and learn what it was like when it was first built as a community that housed a movie theatre, one-room school house, several hundred homes and much more.
- Go from A to C. If you want the fastest way to get from one side of the island to the other, go as south as you can until you find Lakeshore Ave (not to be confused with Lake Shore Blvd on the “mainland”) and it’s well-maintained boardwalk trail along the waterfront perimeter. You won’t see much, but if you’re trying to bypass the midsection and just get from Ward’s to Hanlan’s as quickly as possible, this is the most direct route. The breeze from the water doesn’t suck at all on a hot day, either.
- Find the cottages. While it’s pretty unlikely that you or I will ever have the opportunity to own one of the 262 remaining Toronto Island cottages — thanks to a 15-year wait list and 99-year land leases — touring Ward’s Island and nearby Algonquin Island (accessed by crossing a bridge near The Shaw House) is so cool. The cottages range from the eclectic, covered in wild flowers and vines that seem to be swallowing them whole, to the ultra-modern. There’s some construction, but compared to Toronto proper, it’s extremely minor and won’t produce any eyesores on your adventure. The Ward’s Island map point I’ve added above will take you smack into the middle of the biggest collection of cottages (with the next bunch sitting on Algonquin Island); simply start on Sixth Street and wind your way towards First Street, or do the opposite. These streets are more like one-way sidewalks, so be mindful of other guests and residents. Be ready for many, many smiles and hellos along the way from those living here, many of whom were tending their gardens or out chatting with neighbours the day we visited.
- Enjoy lunch with a view. If you forego a picnic lunch, be ready to spend some dineros. The day we did our Toronto Islands day trip, the only restaurant open was The Riviera, and I’m pleased to report that although it was $130 for lunch for a family of four, the food was excellent (save for the Kettle Chips, which were merely potato chips that could have just as easily come from a mass-produced bag at Costco). Miss Q and I shared the gazpacho and Buddha Bowl — both of which I’d order again — and the boys each had a Smash Burger. I stole a bite of The K Man’s and, boy, this was one delicious burger. Patio seating, overlooking the lake, is well-spaced for distancing and we felt comfortable with the COVID-safe measures in place.
- Snack on some wild mulberries. On your way from Ward’s Island to Centre Island, look for St. Andrew’s by the Lake Church — a quaint little wooden church built in 1884 of a Medieval architecture style called “Stick-Style” that’s only been in its present location since the late 1950s. Somehow, they sawed the whole dang thing in half to move it! Anyway, as fascinating as its history is and as charming as the building itself is, I want you to find this spot on your Toronto Island tour because there are mulberry trees nearby. Now, if you’ve never picked and eaten mulberries, be prepared for purple-stained hands, tongues and teeth. But, oh! Those berries are yummy. And free.
- Check out the pier. The Centre Island pier is huge and features a big observation deck when you reach the tip. From here, look out into the abyss that is Lake Ontario.
- Splish-splash the day away. If you have little ones and bring bathing suits and towels, there’s a fantastic splash pad open in the Centreville Amusement Park area. There were only two other kids there when we happened upon it while riding through Centre Island, and it had lots of fun water features that would keep toddlers and younger kids busy for hours.
- Feed the ducks. But, please, only if you bring proper duck-friendly food — you can seriously harm ducks by feeding them bread. (From our experience fostering ducks, they love to eat spinach, romaine lettuce, basil and mint leaves, peas, chopped tomatoes…there are plenty of options.) Duck Island is appropriately named because there were DOZENS of quackers enjoying the pond, and they were none too bothered by our presence. When we return with a picnic lunch, this will be where we pop a squat.
- There’s nothing to see here… No, really — there’s not much to see on Olympic Island, but if you’re on bikes and trying to do every path and bridge in sight, this little island is just north of the duck pond, so you might as well go for it.
- Got more time? We were jonesing for gelato, so after disembarking the ferry back in the city, we hopped back onto the Waterfront Trail and went west toward the Harbourfront Centre to Lick It Gelato. Although the guy working there didn’t exactly dole out the most consistent-sized scoops between our four orders, the gelato was outstanding. The toasted marshmallow — not a flavour I would normally try — was excellent, especially paired with a creamy chocolate gelato. The hazelnut flavour was perfectly nutty, and I loved the Earl Grey tea-infused flavour, which had bits of tea leaves running through it. There’s a parkette with picnic tables directly east of the shop, or you can cross the street to sit on a bench in front of the Simcoe WaveDeck, which my kids have always loved playing on during visits to the Harbourfront Centre.
Road trips from Toronto: trip 7
Where this Toronto day trip will take you: Peterborough & The Kawarthas
Here’s a map to help you plot your adventure:
Things to do in The Kawarthas:
- Just be forewarned… The Kawartha Lakes region is massive and this GTA day trip itinerary came together after two separate trips to the area. So, pick and choose what you want to do most and then consult the map above to see what else you can fit in around that activity/priority. Because you won’t be able to do it all in a single day.
- Yep, another bike ride! If you haven’t guessed by now that we’ve really embraced the family cycling lifestyle, here’s another chance for me to convince you that it’s pretty awesome. Like our skiing adventures in the winter months, our summer bike tours have been a gift. It’s something we do together as a family with no outside distractions, it keeps us active and helps us get into nature. The biggest investment — our bike trailer — has now been used so many times that its “price per use” seems reasonable (thank goodness, because $550 for what amounts to a big metal stick for my vehicle was gasp-inducing at the time). This time, we took on the Rotary Greenway Trail that runs from Lakefield to Peterborough, which is a fantastic ride! You can park for free near the Service Ontario kiosk in downtown Lakefield (as always, pinned on the map above) and ride south or at Rotary Park in Peterborough to head north. This trail is a mix of paved and crushed, hard-packed limestone pathways — all in all, it’s perfectly manageable with mountain and hybrid bikes — with a few spots where you re-connect to the trail through quiet neighbourhoods. There was only one spot that made me nervous with the kids, close to the Trent Environmental Sciences Building, where you have to hop on a very busy road without a bike lane for about 100 metres. We did fine and put the kids in between us single-file, but my heart raced a little. And since most of the Rotary Greenway Trail is partly old, repurposed CN Rail lines, much of it is flat. You’ll pass through the beautiful Trent University campus and ride alongside the Otonabee River quite a bit, go over a few bridges, and have the opportunity to detour into downtown Peterborough and/or stop to see a Lift Lock or two along the way.
- Pop a squat for a picnic lunch at Lock 23. We happened upon Lift Lock 23 during our bike ride and it was a great spot for a lunch break. There are grassy areas on either side of the lock and plenty of trees for good shade. Not only did we get to cross the lock while it was closed, but we also had the opportunity to watch this lock in operation — two boats went through in the time we ate lunch. There were also lots of people fishing on either side and loads of mama ducks with their ducklings. A word to the wise, though: make sure your kids keep their shoes on if they want to run around on the grass; I didn’t even notice Miss Q take hers off and she stepped on something (a prickly plant? a bug? spider?? We don’t know) that left a mark and immediately inflamed the entire ball of her foot. It made for a tough return bike ride and by morning the entire TOP of her foot was red and swollen, too.
- Well, I’ll be “dam”ed. When you’re in Lakefield at the beginning, middle or end of your ride along the Rotary Greenway Trail, make sure you take a walk across the OPG dam near Bridge and Water Streets. It’s open to foot traffic only so you don’t need to worry about cars. But be prepared for the VERY LOUD rush of water! It gets so loud so quickly that Miss Q got pretty scared and had to be coaxed across. It’s a great up-close-and-personal look at the power of water, with calm water on one side and the rush of it cascading through the dam on the other. You can even look down through the grates in one section, which is a bit trippy. You won’t find this listed in Google Maps, so I’ve pinned the exact location in the map above so you can find it.
- Get to the ‘glyphs. Whatever you do in the area, visit Petroglyphs Provincial Park! Between the sacred Indigenous energy flowing through the area — so sacred, in fact, that photography all around and at the petroglyphs site itself is strictly forbidden — to the excellent hiking trails to the ridiculously cool McGinnis Lake, this is a must-visit. Let’s start with the petroglyphs themselves, for which I don’t have any pics because we respected the numerous signs explaining why they’re not permitted. Known as “The Teaching Rocks,” this houses the largest-known concentration of Indigenous rock carvings (petroglyphs) in Canada. My kids were absolutely enthralled with the history and significance of the petroglyphs and we spent quite a bit of time reading about them and taking in the many that are protected here. The pièce de résistance for me, though, was the park’s McGinnis Lake — a meromictic lake that looks super turquoise and is unlike any other lake we’ve seen in Ontario. It’s one of only 8 or 10 in the entire country and the 200-metre hike down to it from the “West Day Use” parking lot is an easy one; ignore the signs that will take you from the parking lot across the street to a hiking trail — instead, walk left from the lot towards the bathrooms and then continue on the path to the right of them. You’ll be fine in flip flops or sandals if that’s all you have, but if you wear good runners or hiking boots, you’ll be able to explore on the rocks around the lake area even more. There are even several picnic tables overlooking the lake if you wanted to have lunch-with-a-view here. But there’s no swimming, so don’t worry about layering your swimsuit under your clothes or bringing towels. Take note: we visited on a random Wednesday and the park entrance was closed by 11 a.m. The park ranger told me he turned away people who’d driven from as far away as Niagara Falls that day. So if you really, really want to see and do everything in this provincial park, you might want to (a) avoid weekends and (b) start your day trip here as soon as the park opens in the morning and do the rest afterwards. Keep in mind you could easily spend a whole day here, making your $15 per-vehicle entrance fee very worthwhile. One other VERY IMPORTANT note about this park — TICKS. This summer, there have been confirmed reports of deer ticks carrying Lyme disease at Petroglyphs Provincial Park. Please consider carrying a Tick Kit with you (we carry this one with us at all times on our bike rides and day trips and, thankfully, in the five years we’ve owned it, we’ve never had to open it…knock on wood), and follow suggested tick-prevention protocols.
- Visit the locks of all locks. That’s Peterborough Lift Lock 21 — the highest hydraulic lift lock in the world. With only 10-20 crossings a day during the week and not much more than 30 on a Saturday or Sunday, you might need to arrive with some extra patience if you want to catch Lock 21 in action. We lucked out and managed to see it open and close both from the top (be prepared for a lot of stairs) and the bottom. In operation since 1904, it’s an interesting and memorable lesson in how hydraulic chambers work and quite a contrast in terms of footprint if you’re used to visiting smaller locks along the Trent-Severn Waterway. My kids say it’s tied for first place with the Big Chute Marine Railway (see my Georgian Bay day trip itinerary above) in terms of the coolest locks they’ve seen.
- Looking for lunch or treats? You’ve got options. Lots of them. In Lakefield, The Nutty Bean Cafe has a cute patio and great coffees with some nice baked goods available, too; the Chocolate Rabbit has house-made chocolates in every shape imaginable (including pizza slices!) and the chocolate is very nice and not just gimmicky; and Stuff’d Ice Cream, Bakery and Cafe has Kawartha Dairy ice cream — which you can also turn into milkshakes if you prefer to drink your calories. In Peterborough, stop by the Kawartha Buttertart Factory for some of my favourite buttertarts in Southern Ontario (lots of flaky pastry and a not-too-sweet filling) and delicious sausage rolls, too (try the maple bacon flavour!). Farther north, closer to Petroglyphs Provincial Park, the Boathouse Cafe onsite at Viamede Resort offers tasty pub fare on a patio that overlooks Stoney Lake.
- Foster some ducklings. Although you can’t just pop in to Critter Visits for a general farm visit, if you’re planning to be in the Buckhorn area during this day trip and you’re looking for a truly wonderful experience to share with your kids, you might be able to arrange a foster duckling pick-up at the tail end of your day trip to Peterborough & The Kawarthas. We loved being foster parents to wee little ducklings and it was a great way to have pets without the long-term commitment that comes with normal pet ownership. You can read more about how fostering ducklings works here.
Road trips from Toronto: trip 8
Where this Toronto day trip will take you: Burlington
Here’s a map to help you plot your adventure:
Things to do in Burlington:
I feel like I need to preface the Burlington day trip itinerary by noting my complete surprise at how robust this city is. We visited from 8:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m. and could have easily spent more time at several of the places noted below. Burlington: you wowed us!
- Find free parking. All municipal lots in Burlington are free on weekends. Locust Street, just a few blocks north of the waterfront, is one such lot and is a quiet enough street that popping kids on the road to bike down to the Waterfront Trail isn’t a concern. I try to avoid weekends like the plague but Big B only has so many vacation days, so we’re stuck doing day trips on weekends now unless we decide to ditch him. The draw of free parking also convinced me to schedule our Burlington trip for a weekend, despite my concern about the trail and other attractions being too busy. They weren’t bad, and the only lineups we faced (at Sunshine Doughnuts and Easterbrook’s) did a great job with physical distancing and limiting the number of in-store patrons.
- Pier it up. We kicked off our day at the Brant Street Pier, which is directly south of the parking lot (Locust St Lot #7). The pier is a stunning piece of architecture on the Burlington waterfront and is far bigger and longer in person than in appears in photos.
- Do more of the Waterfront Trail. Although it looks like the trail runs along the waterfront southeast of the pier, it’s a walking-only section all the way along Spencer Smith Park. Which is confusing since there’s two-way traffic markers on it and an extra pathway right beside it, leaving more than enough room for people to both walk and bike ride, but them’s are the rules. It’s a really pretty walk, even with your bike in tow, but we bypassed it on the way back to the car and used the excellent bike lanes along Lakeshore Rd. instead. The Burlington section of the Waterfront Trail, which runs right into Hamilton, is stunning and one of our favourite rides so far since quite a lot of it runs parallel with the Hamilton Beach, which is teeming with big waves and speedy kiteboarders. There’s a lot to see along the way, even though the ride tops out at less than 25km if you start and finish at the pier.
- Splash and play at the park. Spencer Smith Park is, in a word, incredible. If you let your kids loose here before doing your ride, you may never leave. In what must me a many-multimillion dollar park and splash pad, there are so many play structures here that even on a Saturday, it didn’t look like a germ mecca. It looks brand new with top-of-the-line equipment — including a kid-friendly version of a zipline. We live across from a park and the second my kids saw that park, they asked why we couldn’t move to Burlington!
- See a lighthouse. You’ll be able to spot it from a distance, but instead of simply riding past the long pier that has the Beach Canal Lighthouse at one end, you can ride or walk all the way down to check it out up-close. Yeah, it’s just a little white and green lighthouse, but it’s cute and we don’t usually find that the public can access lighthouses on the rides we’ve done, so why not?
- Cross the canal. The Burlington Canal Lift Bridge is very, very cool. And not just for the kids. There was a huge iron ore vessel coming through when we were crossing from Burlington to Hamilton, so we stayed down at the water’s edge to watch it come through the canal in all its massive glory before heading up to cross the bridge ourselves. The bridge goes up on the hour and half hour throughout the day for recreational boats to pass through but it could be raised at any time when a big commercial boat comes along. If it’s up, you’ll be waiting a good 10+ minutes to cross, but it’s pretty neat so, in my opinion, it’s worth the potential wait.
- Visit a memorial. Once you’re on the Hamilton side, the beach views set in and you can ride all the way to a Waterfront Trail Lookout Point, which I mapped for you but didn’t actually make it to because we saw a sign for the Naval Memorial Garden and turned off the trail. This wasn’t on our original itinerary, and that’s largely because you won’t find it on Google Maps — even when you’re standing right on top of it. I’ve marked it in my map so you’ll be able to find it, and I hope that you take the time to learn about the Hamilton & Scourge ships, two United States Navy War of 1812 schooners that sunk in Lake Ontario on the morning of August 8, 1813. The gravestones are flanked with US Naval Stars and walking through the memorial was especially interesting because of the soldier’s titles (what was a “Boy’s” job on a Navy ship? What’s the difference between an “Able” and “Ordinary” Seaman? Where does a “Steward” fall in the heirarchy?). Miss Q and The K Man spent time quietly wandering up and down each row and we later wondered aloud about those men, talking more about the War of 1812 and connecting it to some of the other things we’ve visited on our day trips.
- Have an a-MAZE-ing time. On your way back to Burlington, you could pass the pier and continue on to Central Park with a connection to the Waterfront Trail that starts again at Martha Street, but we rode back to the car, got the bikes loaded and drove because the rest of our day was a bike-free zone. We didn’t spend much time at the park, because we had a lot to get to, but I really wanted to check out the Labyrinth. It’s an 11-circuit labyrinth patterned after one at the Chartres Cathedral in France. And if you really want to find it, ignore Google and use my map instead. Google sent us to what is actually the exact opposite end of the park and we ended up back in the car to find it. This is the first wheel chair-accessible labyrinth in Canada, and not to be confused with a maze, labyrinths have one way into the centre and one way back out. Walking around a labyrinth is an ancient practise in various faiths that’s supposed to offer spiritual centering, balance and meditative contemplation.
- Stop and smell the flowers. The Royal Botanical Gardens are very much gardens, plural. Instead of just one site full of foliage, these gardens are made up of a series of unconnected sites — so you will have to drive between them if you want to attempt to do the whole thing. But you’ll want to plan a whole day if that’s the case, because the Royal Botanical Gardens is the country’s biggest at 2,400 acres. Among its five cultivated garden areas, there are 27km of nature trails and more than 181,000 individual plants. In other words, the RBG is freaking ginormous. Your admission ticket (which, by the way, is $3 cheaper if you present your free #BurlON Fun Pass) grants you access to all of the gardens and parking at each one, too. Hendrie Park is at the main site and is also one of the most popular garden to visit. There are 12 themed garden areas, including our three favourites here: a big rose garden, the Morrison Woodland Garden and the Dan Lawrie International Sculpture Collection. The latter has a beautiful sculpture called Jardín by a Spanish artist named Lisbet Fernandez Ramos, which displays five child-like figures that represent our differences as individuals within a group. Miss Q and I spent time looking at their different expressions and talking about how they’re analogies for different behaviours. It led to some really interesting insights and a fascinating mother-daughter discussion.
- Scout out baby turtles. If you haven’t had quite enough nature after visiting the Royal Botanical Gardens, or you’re skipping that in favour of a self-guided hike, Kerncliff Park is a pretty stop. It has its own trail system and also connects to the Bruce Trail if you’re feeling really adventurous. But we came for the baby turtles. As soon as you park in the lot off of Kerns Rd., head to the trail on the west side that leads to a boardwalk path atop some wetlands. Take it all the way until there’s a fork in the path and continue west, looking over the north side of the railing once you reach the end of the path. If you look carefully through the reeds during turtle-hatching season (which runs from about May through October), you should be able to spot a bunch of wee baby turtles camouflaging themselves. Head back out to the fork and continue east to take the blue hiking trail through the woods, which is a really pretty, moderately challenging trail completely under tree cover.
- Defy gravity. Gravity Hill (a.k.a. Magnetic Hill) in Burlington is so awesome that we did it four times. There are no official tourism markers showing you exactly where to stop and I had to read through some old newspaper clippings I found online to try and figure it out, but you’ll see I’ve mapped two spots where we legitimately found these magnetic pulls. I suggest driving up King Rd., past both spots, and turn around in the first driveway past the Gravity Hill pin. Once you’re heading south, drive to the pin and find the flattest part of the road, just before it goes back uphill. Put your vehicle in neutral (you can even turn off the engine!), take your foot off the gas, and wait for your vehicle to not only start rolling, but pick up speed and even be pulled uphill. We clocked each time on the speedometer and went anywhere from 7 to 15 kmph (it was different each time!). Continue south, down around the bend that flanks Bayview Park, and after you jog around the park, stop where my second pin is to try it again in a different spot! There are apparently quite a few spots along King Rd, but these were the only two we could find. It was really neat and impressed the kids to no end.
- Eat! I’ve included The Sunshine Doughnut Co., Loch Side Bar & Lounge, Industria Pizzeria & Bar as well as Easterbrook’s Hotdog Stand on the Burlington map above. Boy oh boy, there’s no shortage of places to get nosh! Sunshine Doughnuts sells out EVERY.SINGLE.DAY, so if you have your heart set on these local faves, arrive before noon; it’s in an Insta-worthy shop and the raspberry cheesecake doughnut and apple fritter are both unbelievable (but overall, I still think Dooher’s in Campbellford — featured in the Northumberland Day Trip above — makes a superior doughnut). Loch Side is a nice spot for lunch if you stick with basics like burgers and fries and you know you’re mostly there for the great patio and waterfront views; I ordered a peach salad, assuming since we were so close to Niagara and it was prime peach season that it would be a seasonally fresh salad, so it was a let-down when it arrived plated with canned peaches. My cocktail at Loch Side, however, was excellent and the burgers were big and good (pro tip: the kid’s burger is the same size as the adult burger, so I was glad I made my 12 year old order from the kiddie menu!). Easterbrook’s — one of the oldest multigenerational businesses in town, technically located in Aldershot — had a big line and after trying the ice cream and watching the loaded foot-longs pass by, I’m not surprised. Right across from the Royal Botanical Gardens’ main site, they serve Central Smith Ice Cream from Peterborough, which was founded in the late-1800s. And finally, in our quest to dine only on patios for the foreseeable future, we made our way to Industria for dinner — a very good idea, indeed. Have the beef cheek poutine (loaded with more stuff on the fries than the fries themselves), any of the pizzas (the crust is to die for), the pollo anna parmegiana with its super-cheesy topping, and the tagliatelli ai funghi selvaggi — one of the best truffle pasta dishes I’ve ever had, with noodles dripping in truffle oil.
Road trips from Toronto: trip 9
Where this Toronto day trip will take you: the Niagara region
Here’s a map to help you plot your adventure:
Things to do in Niagara:
I’m going to go mostly “tip to tail” for this GTA day trip; that is, starting in Niagara-on-the-Lake and heading south in a nearly straight line to Niagara Falls. If you have time, I’ve popped something from the Niagara region that’s an hour away from most of these sites and attractions into the list. And also keep in mind that the Hamilton-Brantford day trip itinerary above also has some Niagara region options in it, too, so you could mix and match these two maps. (Because, boy oh boy, are those Painted Ladies in Grimsby worth seeing.)
And if you’re comfortable braving Clifton Hill and some of Niagara’s indoor attractions, here’s a big list of things to do in Niagara with kids. Just note that there may be some overlap with what’s listed here.
- Important parking information! The thing with Niagara is that parking can be (a) hard to find and (b) crazy expensive. If you’re opting to cycle the Recreation Trail (see next bullet), there are quite a few free parking lots in Niagara-on-the-Lake; I’ve pinned a couple on the map but there’s also one just a hair north of McFarland House or you can park for free on just about any side street in NOTL for up to 12 hours (as long as it doesn’t have a paid parking sign on it). However, if you’re thinking of driving from one attraction to the next, you’re going to pay one billion dollars to park over and over all the way down to the Falls. Your best bet would be to park in the Bird Kingdom lot — which is the cheapest option in the heavily touristy Niagara Falls core — and use the WEGO bus that runs up and down the NOTL/Falls “strip” and stops at MANY convenient locations
- But…if you’re cycling — Peller Estates has a huge, free parking lot and is a quick, easy ride to the Niagara River Recreation Trail. We planned our day around having a late lunch back at Peller Estates so I didn’t feel even a little guilty about using its parking lot. And I certainly recommend this to anyone because our lunch was awesome! Peller has an enormous patio at the back of the estate, which overlooks the vineyard. The food was excellent and both the cocktails, mocktails and local Gretzky beer earned rave reviews from all four of us.
- And about that ride… If you do decide to cycle from NOTL to the Horseshoe Falls, please note that it can be very hilly and challenging in spots (cough, cough — Queenston Heights). We all managed but it is, bar none, the toughest ride we’ve all done and marks the first time my thighs burned with lactic acid for two days. But the ride is so worth the effort, meandering through the stunning properties that back onto the river, fruit stands, wineries and so much green. When you reach the Queenston-Lewiston bridge and realize it’s the first time you’ve been UNDER it, that’s your queue that the Falls are near. We hopped up on the sidewalk once we were on the busiest stretch of the Niagara Parkway because it just seemed a lot safer with the kids; and we weren’t the only ones — many adults without kids in tow were doing the same thing. I think we did about 50km roundtrip, so this is not just a leisurely ride. You’re going to need gears in good working order for this ride!
- Grab some nosh. Treadwell Bakery (122 Queen St, Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON) is the brainchild of nearby Treadwell Cuisine, which is my favourite restaurant in NOTL. The bakery lives up to the hype and I’ve literally never had anything from there I haven’t loved — and I’ve visited numerous times. Their commitment to freshness and a farm-to-table sensibility shines through beautifully at the bakery where you can eat for far, far less than you will at the restaurant. Grab some goodies here for the day before you set out on the rest of your Niagara day trip
- Come for the important memorial, stay for the ghosts. We heard about the Voices of Freedom Memorial from my friend Yashy at Parenting To Go and decided to check it out. It commemorates the silenced and forgotten stories of people of African descent — whether enslaved, freed or free — and recognizes their sacrifices, labour, skills, talents and contributions to the development of Niagara-on-the-Lake. It’s got a lovely pathway that leads to a garden intended for silence and reflection, and the entire space marries historical narrative with a permanent art installation of steel figures. As I was reading aloud to give my kids context, they started up the path. They hadn’t gone 10 feet when Miss Q turned around and bolted toward me. “Mom, did you see her?” See who, I asked, because we were the only ones there. She described what can only be a paranormal event, with an older Black woman embracing her in a protective, warm, grandmotherly way. It was just for a brief moment, but she could describe the way she looked and felt with quite a bit of detail. Neither of my kids has ever had an encounter with a spirit before, so this was pretty neat and less creepy than perhaps it reads here. And that it happened in NOTL doesn’t surprise me in the least since it’s often called Canada’s most haunted town!
- This is a must-do picnic — at McFarland House. The gourmet “Picnic in the Park” lunches available are ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC! Plan to be here at lunch time to pick up your beautiful lunch, all packed in a reusable cooler that you get to keep. It’s $76.99 per basket, which comes with two servings each of: egg salad sandwiches, tuna salad sandwiches, oven-roasted turkey sandwiches, and cucumber and herb cream cheese sandwiches; then there are also two massive freshly baked scones that come with local jams and whipped butter; a whole bunch of homemade miniature pastries and/or cookies; a big serving of seasonal fresh fruit (ours had Niagara peaches, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and grapes); plus two beverages — we chose the freshly made lemonade and a house-blended lavender Earl Grey tea. This is supposed to be a “picnic for two” but my kids and I were quite satisfied sharing it. We grabbed a blanket from the car and popped down right beside this historical home that was built in the year 1800. There are nearby picnic tables and a small park, and it all sits right along the Niagara River Recreation Trail, too
- Go back in time — to Laura Secord Homestead. Tell your kids about the War of 1812 while you show them where the brave Laura Secord lived at the time she made the 32km walk to warn the British of the U.S.’s impending attack
- Visit the home of Toronto’s first mayor. William Lyon Mackenzie’s printery is an historical site now, and although we didn’t go inside the Mackenzie Printery, we were riding past it and stopped to learn more about this beautiful property perched at the top of Queenston Street. This was home to The Colonial Advocate (a weekly political journal that started here in 1824), which helped Mackenzie become an important figure in the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837
- Get some local produce. There are quite a few market stands all along the Niagara River Recreation Trail, and if you’re riding your bike, you could attach your new cooler from your Picnic in the Park lunch to your bike rack and grab some Niagara peaches or whatever happens to be in season when you visit. We hit up the Van de Laar Orchards road-side kiosk on our way home and the peaches were half gone by the time we got back home. So good!
- While away the time with some flowers. Did you know there’s a Floral Clock in Niagara? In the 43 years I’ve been making at least an annual pilgrimage to the area, I had never heard of it until our day trip. What a neat spot. Just off the Niagara Parkway near a huge OPG hydro-electric power plant, the Floral Clock changes twice a year and features as many as 16,000 plants on its big face. Be sure to stay for the loud chime — it goes off every quarter hour
- Climb away. I’ve been wanting to try the WildPlay Niagara Falls Whirlpool Adventure Course for a while, and – WHOA — even the smaller kids’ course is pretty high off the ground and nerve-wracking! We appreciated the timed entry, sanitation protocols and that parking here is included if you’ve paid to climb. We didn’t try it, but part of the bigger course actually overlooks the Niagara gorge, which would be terrifyingly awesome
- Take a ride from side to side. Soaring over the Niagara gorge, the Whirlpool Aero Car will take you from one side of the gorge to the other (right to the Whirlpool Adventure Course, actually). This antique, suspended cable car has been taking guests across this spectacular expanse since 1916 and provides a bird’s-eye view of the Class 6 rapids below. My kids love knowing that although they’re going from one Canadian point to another that we technically cross the U.S. border during the journey — no passports required
- Do the White Water Walk. We love, love, love this self-guided nature walk, which puts you within mere feet of those Class 6 white-water rapids you could see swirling from above on the Aero Car. There are several points along the way where you can learn about the geology of the Niagara Gorge and its plant and animal life, too
- Get into the mist. Remember Maid of the Mist? Well, it’s not called that anymore. Now it’s Hornblower Niagara Cruises. With timed entries and running at less than 15 per cent of its total capacity to ensure guests can physically distance throughout the boat ride, Hornblower is doing an outstanding job of making guests feel safe. Even our elevator ride was reserved just for my kids and me. It had been so many years since we’d taken a ride into the Horseshoe Falls that my kids didn’t even remember it (not a surprise since Miss Q was still in a baby carrier at the time). I’m not sure there’s anything better as a parent than re-living an experience through your child’s eyes — so it was like another first for all of us. If you want a snapshot of what this 20-minute ride into the mist is like, along with some of my top tips, check out the video I made during our visit:
- Stand at my favourite spot in Niagara Falls. Table Rock. Named for a long, flat slab of rock that juts out from the top of the gorge wall of the Horseshoe Falls — which partially collapsed in 1818 — this is, for me, the most mesmerizing place from which to watch all that water flow over the side of the falls. It’s almost hypnotic if you stand and stare long enough, and I feel cheated if I don’t get at least five solid minutes to do just that when we visit
- Patio dining with a view. Hit up Queen Victoria Place Restaurant for lunch or dinner and ask for patio seating along the railing for the best views of both the American and Canadian Falls. My kids devoured the milkshakes and Miss Q’s pizza bites were so yummy I wished they were an app on the adult menu. The K Man raved about his Caesar salad and I inhaled the soup of the day and a fabulous burger. I’d skip dessert here, though — it’s really hit and miss
- Wander the Dufferin Islands. WOW — we simply loved this little collection of “islands” connected by bridges and paths. I only discovered this hidden gem when I was creating our day trip map and happened to scroll past the Horseshoe Falls to see if we should keep biking the Recreation Trail. There are waterfalls, lots of wildlife and a serenity that you won’t find elsewhere on the main Niagara strip. With 10 acres to explore, you could easily grab your picnic lunch from McFarland House and drive down to the Dufferin Islands to eat. It’s $20 to park here and only about a 20-minute walk to the Horseshoe Falls, so this is another “cheaper” parking option, too
- Booze up. OK, OK, so Wayne Gretzky Estates isn’t exactly family-friendly but I have to give it a shout-out because it’s the home of my favourite coffee pairing — Canadian Cream Whisky. It’s the same price here as the LCBO, but at least here you can also layer on a tasting
- Are you Ostrich crazy? Then perhaps a visit to Ostrich Land Ontario is for you. It’s truly in the middle of nowhere and isn’t so fabulous that I’d ever suggest a special trip just for this place, but if the idea of feeding baby ostriches and big, teenage ostriches, and learning everything you ever wanted to know about ostrich oil seems like your jam, this could be a fun add-on. My kids and I didn’t like seeing animals like bunnies and ducks in small cages, but the ostriches seem to have a fair amount of space to roam. Many parts of this place could use some serious TLC — like the tables and chairs where you’re invited to stay and have a bring-your-own picnic lunch, for example — and I certainly wouldn’t be keen on sitting in the cramped space with a bunch of strangers, where the tour begins with a video, but if you’re there just to get close to ostriches, that part is definitely the best
Road trips from Toronto: trip 10
Where this Toronto day trip will take you: Grey County
Here’s a map to help you plot your adventure:
Things to do in Grey County:
We’ve been visiting Grey County and Collingwood for many years, and we still haven’t uncovered every stone. This outdoor paradise covers a lot of ground! I’ve done both girlfriend getaways in Grey County and romantic escapes, but it’s also super family-friendly. However, we made Grey County our first kid-free overnighter last week since the you-know-what started and, as usual, it provided opportunities to get active, relax and — my favourite — EAT.
- I’ve had the incredible pleasure of being treated to a tasting menu by Chef Zach Keeshig before. It ranked as one of my top five favourite meals of all time, but his Indigenous-inspired nine-course tasting dinner this time around — which is available through October at just $100 per person, plus gratuity — usurped it. This rising culinary star, who studied under Chef Michael Stadtlander, forages or grows much of what you’ll eat during one of these intimate dinners hosted at Riverstone Retreat. Taking on Stadtlander’s idea of forest dining, depending on the weather, you may dine outdoors along the Saugeen River near a clay oven built by puppeteer squatters (I could not make this stuff up!) who used to roam the property when the previous owners ran Riverstone. Or you may find yourself among a few physically distanced tables in the EcoNest, a charming little two-storey cottage that sits isolated on the 136-acre property. Made of straw, clay and water using construction techniques dating back 1,000 years in Europe, the structure is the first-of-its-kind that’s been built in Canada. Between Chef Zach’s storytelling, intricate and thoughtful plating and unique approach to cooking, you’ll find yourself wondering why there isn’t a film crew from Chef’s Table at your dinner. Each of the nine courses was tastebud heaven, but I have to make a special mention of the duck egg yolk ice cream with sweetgrass, dusted in a carmelized chocolate crumb. I’ve eaten a few desserts in my time (just a few…) and this is a very, very special standout. In any fine dining restaurant, this dessert alone would be $20. And it would be worth it. Please do yourself a favour and try to book this tasting dinner while it’s still available. All proceeds benefit Elephant Thoughts, a registered Canadian charity (see the next bullet!)
- Riverstone Retreat is a spectacular eco-property. Perfect for weddings or family reunions during “normal times,” there’s enough room for a group to host 120 guests in everything from basic campsite accommodations to a luxe timber stone house with seven bedrooms. The catch is you have to book the entire property. Aside from the riverside views, gardens, hiking trails, sanctuary-like spaces such as the stone labyrinth and features like an outdoor wood-burning sauna, Riverstone is more than just a beautiful place to spend time in nature; it actually provides charitable funding for Elephant Thoughts — founded in 2002 by a group of teachers, principals and professional educators — which helps teachers create sustainable change in education, both among its 100 Indigenous school communities here in Canada and around the world. From its Child Freedom Project to the Kimbercote School in Nature and beyond, this charity does amazing work. We got to stay in one of the two onsite Cabooses! Though I don’t recommend these kitschy self-contained units for tall people, the average family of four with younger kids will find it perfectly suitable. Big B couldn’t stand completely upright inside and I was the entire length of the bunk beds in the back (did railroad engineers have height restrictions in their job description knowing how small their beds would be?!), but it didn’t matter because WE SLEPT IN A CABOOSE, y’all!
- Nearby Thornbury is a foodie goldmine. I recommend stops at the Thornbury Bakery Cafe for beautiful baked goods (including cinnamon buns that would make Princess Leia jealous) or a hearty breakfast; The Cheese Gallery for a huge selection of gourmet cheeses and charcuterie accompaniments, plus gorgeous sourdough baguettes that sell out every day; the Thornbury Village Cider and Brew House, which has a large patio currently set up where you can enjoy its beer or cider flights (the blood orange cider is my fave); and The Mill Cafe, which we’ve been to for both lunch and dinner and has a good amount of patio seating, provided you reserve it ahead of time
- We brought our bikes in anticipation of cycling the Georgian Trail from Meaford to Collingwood. At 34km each way, it would have been our biggest ride yet, and we were excited to really move since we were sans kids, but my body had other plans. Recovering from a migraine the day before, I simply couldn’t squeak out more than 20km. We started in Thornbury thanks to some free parking, which I’ve plotted on the Grey County day trip map above, and called it a day. Since it’s a rail trail, it’s mostly flat and though you do have to cross some busier roads, there wasn’t much road riding to stay on the trail — at least on the 20km stretch we completed. We’d definitely come back and try again another day
- If you’re in the area and love a good waterfall, Inglis Falls in Owen Sound is one of the prettiest waterfalls in Ontario and is the heart of the 200-hectare Inglis Falls Conservation Area. Its 59-foot cascade billows over the edge of the Niagara Escarpment with incredible power. You can check it out from a viewing platform or take on one of the hiking trails through the conservation area
- Some of my favourite things in Grey County (like downhill mountain biking at Blue Mountain) are closed this summer, but the Scenic Caves Nature Adventure is open for business! And you should take the whole family, because this is an attraction that my kids still talk about even though it’s been a few years since we visited with them — and not just because they loved running across the longest Suspension Bridge in Southern Ontario! As one of Canada’s 18 biosphere UNESCO sites, the reserve dates back a jaw-dropping 450 million years. Its network of hiking trails, caves and caverns provides hours of adventure (even if you don’t take the kids after all); make sure you get into the “Refrigerator Cave” while you’re there! Brrrrrrrr…
- On our way out of town, we didn’t want to head all the way back to Thornbury to grab a coffee. We found Highland Grounds on the map as we drove through a little spot called Flesherton. What a random little store with so many goodies! Not only did we get a delicious slice of home-baked lemon loaf and some yummy muffins along with our artisan-made coffees, but I also picked up a pound of coffee beans and some homemade marmalade, too!
Road trips from Toronto: trip 11
Where this Toronto day trip will take you: Grand Bend area
Here’s a map to help you plot your adventure:
Things to do in Grand Bend:
If you do this as a day trip like we did, plan to arrive early and stay late — I’ll explain why below.
- Pinery Provincial Park has been all over the ‘gram this summer, but I won’t lie: it pushed the limits of what we could do in a single day. With a three-hour one-way drive from where we live, it made for a pretty exhausting drive home. Was it worth it? HECK, YES. Just plan to get there early because Pinery is one of the more popular provincial parks in Ontario, and you don’t want to go all that way only to find out it’s full. We visited on the Saturday of Labour Day weekend and were advised to arrive before 11 a.m. Just to be safe, we got there at 9:30. Yep — we woke everyone up at 6:30 a.m. to get on the road! Success. And, considering we went on arguably one of the busiest weekends of the year, it didn’t feel crowded. There were times on narrow pathways that we had to turn our backs to others passing at the same time since we couldn’t stay six feet apart, but it only happened a few times. Even the beach had lots of space and most visitors were respectful. One of the best photo opps is on the Cedar Trail; but you need to take the 850-metre extension to find it. Once you reach the viewing platform for Lake Huron, get ready for a clear, blue water backdrop. We much preferred this trail to the Bittersweet Trail, which we did first, since it offered a wider path and more to see. Keep in mind that Pinery is absolutely MASSIVE, so you’ll need to park in two places if you want to do both of these trails (of course, I added them to the map above for you!). I’ve also pinned the location of the ice cream shop where you can get a scoop of “unicorn poop” — Miss Q was in heaven. We spent most of our day hanging out on Dog Beach, though, because the weather was amazing and I’m the only one in the family who can’t handle cold water (and, make no mistake, Lake Huron is COLD). And it’s too bad I’m a total wimp because it was soooo blue and clear and exactly the kind of lake water I’ll agree to otherwise. Parking Lot 1 for Dog Beach was pretty full so we drove on down to Parking Lot 2 and it had plenty of room. It’s then a quick walk to the beach, but I’d recommend turning right and heading back in the direction of parking lot 1 because the beach is flatter and sandier up that way. That said, I highly recommend bringing water shoes (at least for the kids) because it’s a very pebbled beach; the rocks are smooth overall but there are a lot of them. Next time, we’ll stay and watch the sunset from Dog Beach. Pinery is one of those parks we could revisit 15 times and still explore new ground — I just may spread those visits out so I’m not doing six-hour roundtrip day trips too frequently.
- Long before social bubbles, I loved the energy of downtown Grand Bend. Now, it’s just too busy for me to visit on a weekend. Perhaps weekdays are different, which is why I left this on the map, but the Saturday we went, we didn’t even park because the crowding was insane. I counted four masks as we drove up and down the strip and there was a very serious lack of physical distancing. There are lots of places to eat along here, cute shops and there’s a public beach right at the end of the main drag (which was also very busy). Worth a quick drive to check it out in case it’s a low-crowd kind of day.
- The Bad Apple Brewing Company Ltd is in a little Grand Bend-area town called Zurich; we happened upon it on our way to Bayfield and Big B is a sucker for craft brewers. It was the renovated century barn that caught my eye from the two-lane highway, and they even had a Patio Bar, beer garden and — get this — a licensed orchard!
- Bayfield Brewing Company & Public House wasn’t originally part of our plan for the day, but between my friend Solmaz from The Curious Creature telling me we had to head to Pioneer Park in Bayfield to watch the sunset and downtown Grand Bend looking too iffy for patio dining, we quickly changed gears. Not only is downtown Bayfield one of the most charming little spots in Ontario, it was also significantly — and I mean really, really significantly — more comfortable for current times. Fewer throngs of people swarming the sidewalks, people respectfully moving away from each other as they passed one another, and just more peaceful. We managed to get the last available patio table, and dug into all kinds of yummies (have the Korean Fried Chicken and Public House Perogies, but skip the Lobster Sliders if you’re expecting a lobster roll-worthy amount of seafood). I’ma give a special shout-out here to the Crunchy Chicken Buffalo sandwich, the Perch & Chips and the cocktails — I may have imbibed a little — which were all so good that my mouth is watering as I remember them and write this.
- Pioneer Park was just a hop, skip and jump away from the restaurant, and I suggest timing your dinner with sunset, because you don’t want to miss a drop of it. When National Geographic calls this sunset one of the 10 best on the planet, listen. You know, I’ve seen some pretty beautiful sunsets in my life, all over the world. But I’m with NatGeo on this one; it’s just staggeringly beautiful. When you arrive at the park, you’ll see about a dozen park benches, all facing the lake. This is great and all, but the money shot is down closer to the water, so walk to the “sunset lookout” area I’ve pinned on the map and you’ll find a lovely set of steps leading you down from the park to the edge of Lake Huron. There are three or four viewing platforms on the way down, each offering a unique vantage point from which to watch this spectacular sunset — keep going until you reach the last one, just one set of steps from the beach. There were quite a few people swimming as the sun went down, so bring your swimsuits and towels if you can handle the chill. We sat for an hour as the sky turned from vivid hues of yellows and oranges and danced into to reds and pinks, then blues and purples. This is the first time I’ve been nearly moved to tears by a sunset, and I’m so grateful I was able to witness that kind of perfection.
Road trips from Toronto: trip 12
Where this Toronto day trip will take you: Clarington (Courtice, Bowmanville, Hampton, Solina, Newcastle & Orono)
Here’s a map to help you plot your adventure:
Things to do in Clarington:
Alright, you guys — this is where I live! And, more often than not, we forget to explore what’s right in front of us. In our case, we’re sharing some of our long-time faves alongside fun stuff we’ve just discovered this summer. I’ve lived here for 10 years and there’s still so much I haven’t seen or done. Dig in, because there’s a heap of things to do in Clarington.
- Clarington’s Waterfront Trail section has a lot of variety, a couple of hidden gems and lots of places you can park to make it as long or short as you like. Between the Bowmanville Off-Leash Dog Park parking lot in Bowmanville to Bondhead Parkette, across from the marina in Newcastle, this ride will take you along the Lake Ontario waterfront, through forested areas where you can go in search of a little gnome and fairy collection, on quiet side streets, across bridges and alongside ravines. We especially love riding up the Port of Newcastle road and then down Mill Street towards the lake; the century homes on Mill Street are gorgeous! Bondhead Parkette is a lovely spot to stop for a snack or picnic lunch. If your kids are older and/or you’re extremely comfortable with them on busier roads, you can continue east along Boulton Street from the Parkette and connect to Lakeshore Rd and find your way back to a quieter section of the Waterfront trail, but we’ve never tried it because it’s too busy for our liking.
- If you didn’t pack a picnic lunch, or you’d rather not go all the way to Bondhead Parkette, the Newcastle Marina is a fun stop. You can check out all of the boats, grab a packaged ice cream treat or even stay for lunch on their patio while the weather co-operates. The lunch menu is basic, but inexpensive and pretty good — and you can’t beat the scenery, with fishing boats coming and going, lots of geese and even swans if you’re lucky.
- We’ve gone to see the salmon swim upstream along the Bowmanville Creek before, which in and of itself is a pretty cool experience, but we found the Fish Ladder this year and that’s where the money shot is, baby! The K Man described it as a “salmon lobby” because there are sooooo many of them just chilling before they go make the plunge and jump up and into the waterfall pouring out of the dam to make it to the next section of the creek. This is very cool to watch and we sat on the rocks the other day for about 15 minutes and saw no less than a dozen fish successfully scale the waterfall. You’ve got to visit while the salmon are spawning — usually September and October. You can either park at the Bowmanville Creek south parking lot that I’ve pinned on the map and ride your bikes down (it’s paved) or you can turn down Roegnik Drive and park here if you want the closest spot from which to walk. Please note: if you put “Bowmanville Creek Fish Ladder” into Google Maps, you will drive to a retirement home parking lot. Instead, please use my map above and park in the spots I’ve mentioned.
- Archibald’s Orchard Estate & Winery – I was in university the first time I visited Archibald’s with my own parents. We didn’t pick apples together, though…we did a wine tasting and took home quite a few more samples. (Quality control is so important, right?) Ever since we had kids, apple picking at Archibald’s has been an autumn tradition. We love being able to drive right into the orchard and park near the apples that are ready to be picked, and we love that they encourage sampling while you pick! We’ve already picked Silkens (my kids’ new favourite variety), Cortland and Gala and those famous Honey Crisps are just about ready (don’t worry, Archibald’s doesn’t charge extra based on an apple’s trendiness). Make sure you hit the onsite market shop and get some treats before you leave; we are OBSESSED with the apple cider! Other must-haves include the sparking non-alcoholic “wines” safe for kids and those who are expecting — the apple raspberry is our kids’ favourite and we serve it in wine glasses so they can feel fancy. The homemade apple crisp is also incredible and everything made by a local chocolatier gets two thumbs up from all of us.
- Watson Farms PYO is fun for little ones during apple-picking season and has a great photo opp area with a little red tractor set up just as you go through the hay-lined lineup to pay for your bag. There’s a tractor on weekends that drives around the orchard, which you can ride just for fun but also let it take you farther out into less-picked areas where you won’t need a ladder to get some prime apples. Watson’s Honey Crisps are a slightly different variety and may be ready earlier than many of the other area orchards, but the real star to watch for next season is the new Rave apple. Honestly, it has ruined me for apples! I’ll still eat any variety in baked goods but for my raw apple-eating desires, it’s Rave or bust. They’re gone for this year since it was just a test crop but I already have their August 2021 public debut in my calendar.
- Pingle’s Farm Market always seems to have something fun planned, like the Pingle’s Picnic we enjoyed this summer, which was truly one of the most COVID-friendly ideas I saw come together. Just check out its website regularly for what’s coming next. If nothing else, you absolutely must drop into the Farm Market — amazing produce, excellent ready-made meals and frozen foods, beautiful jams and (my personal favourite) the yummiest-in-the-whole-world onion dip. Buy the kettle chips to go with them; you won’t be sorry.
- Tyrone Mill has been running since 1846 and has been the most consistent place to buy good-quality flour since mid-March. When I dove into crazy amounts of stress-baking, Tyrone Mill’s 10kg bag of all-purpose flour for $18 was my go-to. When I moved into sourdough, its organic flours (hard white bread flour, whole wheat, spelt and Ezekial) became pantry staples. And once I started making fresh pasta, I also added its durum semolina flour to my Tyrone Mill shopping list. Even if you’re not a baker, it’s pretty neat to visit a mill that’s been operating since before Canada’s confederation. The cinnamon doughnuts sell out for a reason so pay attention to Tyrone Mill’s hours and get there early.
- The Enniskillen General Store is even older than the mill, though not far away. It’s been around since 1840, making it one of Canada’s oldest general stores. There are now a few locations, but the one I’ve mapped is the original and it’s the one we like best. Truth be told, we’ve never gone here for anything but the Kawartha Dairy ice cream — and we go with very empty stomachs because even the BABY cone size is freaking enormous! If the weather’s nice, there’s a bench in front of the store and an area around the side near the parking lot with some tables under tree shade.
- My memories of Darlington Provincial Park are…hazy. My friends and I camped there several times during high school and that’s about all I’ll say about that. So it was such a pleasure to explore this local gem of mine with Miss Q. We spent a wonderful girls’-day-out hiking all but one trail and had a picnic lunch by the beach (it was too cold to swim). We meandered through Golden Rod-laden trails that had swarms of Monarch butterflies and dragonflies dancing above, found orange-spotted Snap Dragons, watched a hummingbird scoot from flower to the flower, heard a falcon and too many tree frogs to count and — the best surprise of the day — discovered a pioneer cemetery and learned about the area’s first residents who came from New York State in the late 1700s. The trails are short and easy and perfect for little legs. Make sure you pick up a map from the main office, and if you have an Apple Watch with a compass, you may need to use it if you’re like me and terrible with direction!
- There are so many great spots to eat in Clarington, but we’re still only doing takeout or patio dining, so I’m leaving out some of our go-tos. Here’s where to eat in Clarington when you’re trying to do the same:
- Food Truck Alley in Solina is one of our favourites because we can all get something different. I love the oxtail stew from King’s Finest Food; The K Man says the poutine from one of the newer trucks is the best-ever; Miss Q goes crazy for the quesadillas from Cantina’s Mexicano; and Big B likes just about everything from both Cascone’s and Opa’z
- Wayne’s Mediterranean is a newer restaurant in Bowmanville and we’ve already gotten takeout from them so many times. The hummus is amazing but don’t leave without the best pita chips in the world; we also highly recommend the eggplant salad (which is even better the next day as leftovers if you have any) and any of the combos.
- Burger Delight is the best burger joint in town. The patties are fresh, not frozen, and the buns come in every morning from a bakery en route from the owner’s home. I started with the spicy burger the month they opened and, years later, it’s still the only thing I’ve ever eaten there. That is, aside from the funnel cakes. In the last year or so, they also introduced kids’ meals and these are a good size and great value. If you ask my kids what kind of takeout they want on any given day, Burger Delight is either at or near the top of the list every time.
- Mito Sushi is, handsdown, the best sushi restaurant we have in all of Clarington. I know this because I’m pretty sure I’ve tried them all. Even as a takeout option, it travels well all the way home and I purposely order extra to keep in the fridge overnight to have for lunch the next day (but keep in mind that you shouldn’t keep sushi in the fridge for more than 24 hours). We are consistently wowed by Mito’s spicy salmon pizza, spicy tuna rolls, unagi dynamite rolls and the gyoza is even still warm and crispy by the time we plate it, which is impressive.
- The Bittmore Tap & Grill has our favourite wings in town (honey-hot forever!), and we’ve even had luck ordering our beloved fried pickles and getting them home without too much condensation from takeout packaging messing with their crispiness. Miss Q, without fail, orders the cheese cappalletti every.single.time.
- If you’re craving a scone or butter tart, I want to point you in the direction of The Toasted Walnut. In normal times, it’s one of my spots for a lunch meet-up with friends or for a local lunch with my kids. The food is ALWAYS excellent and the prices are so good, but since they don’t have a patio, we haven’t been since March. Except for scones and butter tarts, that is! The herb and cheddar scone is the best and, I swear to you as a butter tart afficianado, The Toasted Walnut’s butter tarts should be award-winning.
Road trips from Toronto: trip 13
Where this Toronto day trip will take you: Haliburton
Here’s a map to help you plot your adventure:
Things to do in Haliburton:
I spent two incredible summers in Haliburton during university — as a camp counsellor and riding instructor at Camp White Pine. The camp, in and of itself, offered such an abundance of activities that were new to me that I even spent many of my days off onsite. Embarrassingly, I rarely explored the greater Haliburton area. I knew it was beautiful. I knew it was nature heaven. What I didn’t know is that we’d fall in love with it so completely that we scheduled a return visit the following weekend and are already planning our third return.
- If you make it to Haliburton and don’t spend a big chunk of time at the Haliburton Forest & Wild Life Reserve, you’re missing out on one of the most spectacular places to get into nature. There have only been a few places we’ve gone to as a family and had an instant connection that feels like a homecoming — and Haliburton Forest joins the ranks of Tremblant and Smugglers’ Notch in this regard. There is an undeniable charm as you walk through the main camp area that’s got cabins for rent, free firewood, remnants of the Forest’s original logging days, a restaurant and the long road that will lead you to 100,000 acres of scenic drives, 100 lakes and an enormous network of hiking trails. On our first visit, we stayed overnight in Camboose No. 3, a basic but clean and nicely equipped cabin with two entry points (one of which doesn’t require walking through a shared hallway with Camboose 1 and 2 guests). This was our first overnight stay anywhere since March, and I agreed to it because it was self-contained. It turned out to be a wonderfully rustic space with comfortable beds — but bring your own pillows — and enough of a kitchenette that we could bring some food from home and cook onsite to save money. At $125 per night, this pet-friendly, two-bedroom cabin located close to the registration office and across from the restaurant, was the perfect spot for us to call home while we spent two days barely making a dent in our Haliburton Forest exploration.
- The biggest highlight for us at Haliburton Forest was the Husky Hike; and it was so freaking great that when we got home a day later, we immediately booked another hike for the next weekend. I’m very seriously about to pull the trigger on a third before they shut this activity down later this fall to start preparing the huskies for dogsledding this winter. One of the biggest things we teach our kids about animal encounters is that they have to be ethical. These dogs are happy, healthy, well-fed and extremely well-socialized; they were excited to meet us and go for a walk. They’re kept onsite in spacious pens and given lots of freedom each day to move about, play and interact with each other and humans. Old or retired dogs are either adopted out to forever homes or kept in the family to ensure they live out their last years happily. I didn’t have a single hesitation paying for this experience. Our two hikes were different, so your experience may be different from ours, too. On our first Husky Hike, each of us had our own dog (which is attached to you, anchored from your hips to your husky’s chest harness to provide as much stability for you as possible); my kids had older, retired dogs who were easier for little bodies to manage, while I had a very spirited nine-year-old who took ME for a walk. She was powerful and so much fun to run with, and even after our 6km hike could have easily gone right back out on the trails. It was a welcome workout. Our second experience was no less of a workout and the huskies who came out with us were younger, stronger and faster, so Miss Q and I were tethered to the same dog and The K Man and Big B shared a dog as well. We also stopped for a picnic (you can bring your own, like we did, or pay $10 per person for what looked like a pretty yummy packed lunch). It was a cooler day so our hike was longer and more intense, clocking in at around 10km. I think the $75 per family cost of the Husky Hikes is excellent value, considering it’s a few hours. I can’t wait to do it again!
- We had a Kennel Visit the first time, too, and really missed that the second time around, so for the extra $16, I’d definitely recommend adding this to your day at Haliburton Forest. All the huskies come out for a visit and just want all the love and belly rubs you’re willing to give. It’ll take everything in you not to try to sneak one out to take home. They were amazing with my kids and we were able to ask a million and one questions about all of the beautiful dogs.
- Hiking at Haliburton Forest will take you a lifetime because its trail system is extensive. And that’s an understatement. But at check-in, when I asked what hike we absolutely shouldn’t miss, I was told to do “The Lookout.” This came with a map and some basic directions. Well, I am directionally challenged so I did a test-drive to the start of the trail the day before we actually planned to tackle it. It was a 30-minute drive from base camp, but the signage is pretty good, so I figured I was in good shape for the next day. But I missed the first road I needed (East Rd) and when I checked the map, it looked like if I just stayed on North Rd long enough, it would loop me back around to The Lookout Trail, so I kept going. Except the trail marked on this side of things was completely different. But I had faith that, since the markings were so good the day before, I could just keep following them. Let me be a lesson to you: DO NOT FOLLOW SIGNS TO THE LOOKOUT FROM NORTH ROAD! And certainly, once the “road” becomes a one-way lane with merely tire marks, stop and figure out how to go back. I naively believed that I’d find the same start to the trail, so I kept going. DO NOT DO THIS. When I got to a spot where I had to physically get out of my vehicle to move a fallen tree, I knew I was in trouble. This stretch was not meant for vehicles — much less SUVs. It was a precarious situation, especially after a morning of torrential rain that made the sides of this trail so wet that we risked getting stuck trying to do a three-point turn. So, I hit reverse and backed out. For 12 minutes. Stepping out every once in a while to see how mucky the sides were when there was a slight clearing. I finally managed to do a nine-point turn. Make no mistake: I was white-knuckled and riddled with concern about getting stuck here, where there’s no cellphone service. And I am NOT a nervous driver. So, my advice to you is to follow these directions to reach the trail (which we reached on our subsequent visit):
- As you head north from base camp and pass the gates, look carefully for East Rd. Turn right.
- Follow this for quite some time until you reach the Blue Post — an actual blue post with signage on it. Turn left toward Black Lake Cabin.
- Although you will come across signage on the right pointing uphill for The Lookout Trail, keep going straight until you reach signage on the right for Black Lake Cabin — turn right and park here:
- Now you’ve reached the best spot to safely park your vehicle and start your steep hike up to a spectacular view. It’ll take about 30 minutes in each direction and is a challenging climb, but the lookout is worth the effort!
- Before you leave, if you have a wolf-lover in the family (Miss Q’s fave animal), check out the Haliburton Forest Wolf Centre — but book ahead and bring your masks. Although it’s an indoor experience, we felt the protocols in place were quite good and we were able to distance well from the other guests. I did find this activity on the expensive side for what you get, which amounts to a DIY tour with some access to an employee who will answer questions. We got to see about a dozen different wolves from behind the glass and I loved hearing that they have 15 acres of property to roam freely, but even though my kids were both super interested in watching the wolves, by the 45-minute mark, they were ready to leave. For about $30, I admit I expected a bit more, but Miss Q squealed with delight being able to see a couple of the wolves within mere feet of us, which is pretty unique.
- Oh, how we LOVED the Haliburton Sculpture Forest! What a very ecelctic kind of nature walk, which is exactly what it sounds like: a forest full of sculptures. Created by both Canadian and international artists, you can meander through the sculpture forest at whatever pace suits you and discover pieces that seem hidden, interpretive and even experiential. When you arrive at the parking lot, you can take a quick detour to the left before heading into the forest path to see some historical cabins that have been set up to resemble a centuries-old village, too.
- After grabbing a bite to eat in downtown Haliburton (more on that below), we set off for home and noticed a big train on the side of the road. I mean, literally beside the sidewalk. So we pulled over and went to take a closer look. Turns out the Haliburton Rotary Locomotive has been there since 1960. It’s huge and the kids loved getting on and climbing all over it, and asked to return the following weekend when we went back to Haliburton Forest for our second Husky Hike.
- If your kids are into planes, the Royal Canadian Legion Avro CF-100 is right beside the train — you can’t miss it. It’s not nearly as cool because all you can do is look at it, but it was neat to learn that “the Clunk” as it’s nicknamed was the first 100 per cent Canadian-designed and -built all-weather interceptor, which took flight in January 1950. Now, mind you, I had to look up both the plane AND train on Google to find out more about them because I couldn’t find a plaque anywhere in the vicinity — which is a miss by the city, IMO.
- Eating. Because you know we done did some of that! While at the Forest, if you’re not bringing a picnic or staying over and using your own kitchenette, we were really impressed by our lunch at The Cookhouse, which had the most delicious brussels sprouts dish and a really tasty roasted cauliflower appetizer; we also all had outstanding sandwiches (the brisket one I had was huge and OMG-good) and shared a lovely homemade chocolate cake for dessert that even won over Miss Q, who is typically not hot on chocolate things. We thought breakfast was fine but not nearly as standout as lunch, so keep that in mind. If you’re ANYWHERE in Haliburton, make your way to The Little Tart for hot-of-the-press baked goods that are so hotly in demand that a lineup forms before the doors open and the place sells out completely every day. Everything we tried was incredible, but I think the lemon curd tart and the pecan tart were our collective favourites. Baked & Battered, in downtown Haliburton, had some awesome fish and chips, excellent seafood chowder and phenomenal calamari. Then there’s the Kawartha Dairy in Minden, not far away, which is what I think of when I think “Kawartha Dairy” because it was the first place I ever had the stuff. And I know it may seem very, very odd to add a Tim Horton’s to this list since I generally want to promote independent restaurants and treat shops, but we stopped to grab a coffee for our 2.5-hour drive home at the end of our second visit and, I have to say, this Tim’s that I’ve pinned on the map has the coolest drive-thru ever: right alongside the Canadian Shield! It’s the little things…
- If Fenelon Falls is on your route to or from Haliburton like it is for us, I highly recommend a quick stop to take in the Falls themselves (which I’ve pinned on the map; park at the adjacent restaurant). They’re gorgeous. That’s it!
That’s all for now, folks! Please check back again soon for more road trips from Toronto — and don’t forget to refresh the page and/or clear the cache if you don’t see new content.
DISCLAIMER: I have been researching and booking these adventures on my own (and on my own dime). In some cases, there may be elements/activities that are gifted to facilitate various parts of this post — as always, I will be upfront and honest about our experiences no matter what. As time goes on and this series grows, there could be tourism boards who assist but no part of this is compensated. I am merely hoping to encourage local tourism at a time when I believe travel that takes us too far from home during a pandemic is irresponsible.