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 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.
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.
That’s it for now! Stay tuned each week as we add more fun road trips from Toronto.
- Peterborough & The Kawarthas
DISCLAIMER: I have been researching and booking these adventures on my own (and on my own dime). In some cases, there may be activities that are gifted to facilitate elements 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.