Venturing into the brave new world of travelling in the age of COVID-19 makes an outing to a neighbourhood park feel like a rocky crossing to foreign shores. The psychological harm of the virus keeps many of us from heading beyond our backyard, even as businesses reopen and infections slow. For me, there is fear. Since April, my “bubble” has included my parents, who are in their 70s, my two-year-old son, and my wife who has a history of asthma. There are vulnerabilities in our bunch and we have exercised layers of caution as we move from one pandemic day to the next.
With Ontario lifting its restrictions in phases, we are able to explore the province a bit at a time. For those who are still not comfortable with the idea of long leisure trips, locations close to home base are the ones to seek. I am keen to return to places and activities that bring back fond memories. Knowledge of a destination helps reduce the risk we feel and removes some of the stress of our world’s novel predicament.
Here are the five places in Ontario I have recently seen or soon will visit as coronavirus restrictions ease.
Langdon Hall: A great meal is an escape in itself. It relaxes and satiates, and can even transport you with flavours and ingredients. We could all do with some indulgence right now. For those in Southern Ontario, Langdon Hall is as good an option for culinary pampering as you can find. It is busily preparing to once again welcome guests to its restaurant with an experience that ensures COVID-19 protocols to help prevent the spread of the virus. The property’s reopening is scheduled for June 21, according to communications manager Anna Hewat.
“Like many restaurants, we are closely monitoring national and provincial guidelines, as well as building new policies, procedures, and best practices,” Hewat wrote in an email in response to interview questions. “Although specific guidelines for dining-in are not fully developed in Ontario as of yet, we are looking at what British Columbia has implemented and anticipating similar guidelines. This means reduced tables to ensure six feet between tables, reduced staff to ensure fewer touches, and an abundance of hand sanitizer stations for guests.”
Other key alterations include outdoor seating in the conservatory and surrounding grounds during the early days of reopening. The main restaurant and Wilks’ Bar will be closed until restrictions further ease. The property’s memorable morning buffet, the Harvest Breakfast Table, will be eliminated for now while a la carte breakfast options will be expanded. All menus will be single-use and disposable. Face coverings for staff will be mandatory and the entire team is going through training related to the novel coronavirus prior to reopening.
Notably, dining guests will be allowed to pre-order their meals and their wines. The Langdon Hall 90-page wine list, a delight for an oenophile to peruse, will be digitized. Guests can call into the property to order their wine, and meal if they like, to quicken service.
Initially, there will be no walk-in guests. Patrons will be required to make reservations so the restaurant can plan seating “as we get a better understanding of how we operate at the new reduced capacity,” Hewat says.
Langdon Hall is part of the Relais & Chateaux group and has the benefit of gathering knowledge from its affiliated properties who are opening earlier. Montreal’s Manoir Hovey started to greet guests again on June 4 and Tofino’s Wickaninnish Inn on Vancouver Island is scheduled to reopen June 15 to British Columbia residents only. On Monday, Ontario’s provincial government announced it would allow outdoor dining for numerous jurisdictions, but not all. Restaurants in the Greater Toronto Area, where coronavirus cases continue to cause worry, remain closed, which will no doubt convince several diners to head southwest to Langdon Hall.
While the restaurant in Cambridge and its guests will have much to adjust to, what won’t change is the quality of chef Jason Bangerter’s cuisine and the level of hospitality in one of Canada’s iconic properties.
Algonquin Provincial Park: Many years ago, I spent four precious nights at Killarney Lodge in the heart of Algonquin Park. It was a period that rekindled my affinity for Canada (I was living in the United States at the time) and the experience of nature. I saw my first moose and learned black bears can leave “I was here” clues on hiking trails. I finally got the hang of a canoe and realized why it was so important to slow down and appreciate the world we wander through.
Getting back to nature seems like a requisite for finding balance and solace in the year of pandemic and protest. With many wide-open spaces and boundless acres of pristine wilderness, Algonquin is a getaway that offers both a retreat and a release. Nightly rates start at $269 per person.
Niagara’s Wine Country: Some of Niagara’s wineries have adapted to the COVID-19 reality and are offering reservation-only tastings. Peller Estates Winery has limits on the number of patrons at a time and conduct their tastings outdoors on a lovely patio with attractive red umbrellas that shield the sun. The grounds are immaculate, with vineyards wrapping the property. When my family visited on Tuesday, no other group was seated for a tasting. We essentially had the place to ourselves for more than an hour. Tastings are $10 per person and include pours of three different wines (the tasting fee is waived with the purchase of at least two bottles).
Among Peller’s sister properties is Wayne Gretzky Estates, which offers tastings of wine, whisky, and beer. The Great One’s best-seller is the sweet and delicious Canadian Cream Whisky ($34.95). As with Peller, the tastings are conducted outdoors and the server puts your mind at ease by detailing the anti-virus safety measures at the facilities. Next door to Gretzky’s is another affiliated winery, Trius. It has a culinary experience worthy of its fantastic rosé options.
Rouge Urban National Park: Canada’s only national park within the city limits of a major metropolis, Rouge Urban rewards travellers who venture to the far eastern edge of Toronto, beyond The Beach neighbourhood and to Scarborough’s boundary. Filled with wildlife and approximately 225 bird species, the park is a marvellous place to escape into nature. As with other national parks, Rouge Urban reopened to visitors on June 1.
Golf: Infectious disease experts call golf the least risky of low-risk activities, because of the ease of physical distancing and the outdoor setting. It’s a good game to take your mind off of things, as well. Southern Ontario has a number of excellent courses, including the most acclaimed circuit in Canada, Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville. Green fees vary by date and time, and range from $79.99 (twilight) to $175 in June.