As a travel writer in the era of COVID-19, satiating my wanderlust has been confined to explorations of my home province. Less exotic than escaping to a Caribbean island, cycling along the Adriatic or meandering along cobblestone streets in Prague? Maybe. But the natural beauty of Ontario cannot be understated. With a quarter million lakes —including all but one of the Great Lakes — Ontario’s waterways provide endless possibilities for swimming, kayaking, and canoeing in summer. And in winter, water may well freeze to ice, creating opportunities to skate. You can also ski or snowshoe through evergreen forest (snow permitting), or cycle and hike if the weather is too mild.
Here are three destinations that will show Ontarians how close they are to the sensation of escape.
MABEE MARSH CABIN, Turkey Point
I was first smitten by this rustic log cabin from photos — both of the inside of the cabin and the region in which it is situated. Mabee Marsh Cabin is part of Long Point Eco-Adventures Wilderness Resort in Norfolk County, located on the north shore of Lake Erie and less than a half-hour drive to Long Point Provincial Park. It is a great area to explore and an ideal place for a family or large bubble to congregate.
When my family went, life inside the cabin revolved around what I would loosely describe as a massive “great room,” with a long wooden dining table and a separate living area — book-ended by a wood-burning stove at one end of the room and a roaring gas fireplace on the other. We roasted marshmallows in the wood stove, played board games and cards, enjoyed big family meals at the table, and sat and drank wine and read by the fire. There are two cozy bedrooms on the main floor, a single bed on either side of the gas fireplace in the main room, and two more bedrooms upstairs, so the place can sleep 11. (Admittedly the one drawback is there is just one bathroom.)
And within walking distance lies 90 kilometres (55 miles) of hiking and mountain-bike trails, most of them taking you through Carolinian forest, and to Burning Kiln Winery down the road and the Marshview Patio for a meal. There is also a volleyball net in the garden out back, and a firepit for late-night s’mores.
The resort has an on-site brewery, and in warmer months features glamping pods and suites, a zipline course, axe-throwing and an observatory. Beyond Long Point, Norfolk County has fun places to visit. The 1.5-km (0.9-mile) beach at Long Point Provincial Park is a beautiful spot to watch the sunset and go for a swim. The charming town of Port Rowan en route to the park is easily accessible for groceries, baked goods, antiques, and gifts. And in the Christmas season, the Panorama light show in Simcoe is a perfect way to get into the holiday spirit.
Getting There: Mabee Marsh Cabin is a two-hour drive from Toronto. Because the weather is moderated by its proximity to Lake Erie, the climate tends to be warmer than other areas of Southern Ontario. That makes it ideal for winter hiking, but less so for more snowy activities like skiing or snowshoeing.
KETTLE CREEK INN, Port Stanley
Although Port Stanley is the hub for thousands of beach-goers in summer, in cooler months this town on the north shore of Lake Erie is a quiet place to escape urban life.
Kettle Creek Inn was originally an 1849 summer home for the Port Stanley Justice of the Peace, but became an inn in 1918. It has since undergone renovations with a parlour, English-style pub, and two small dining rooms in the original inn and two guest houses nestled around a central courtyard. There is also a gazebo, English gardens and patio for outdoor dining. All the suites have private balconies and some of the rooms have porches, with each room named after a local artist.
The inn sits on the main street in Port Stanley, with a spa across the street, along with some excellent vintage shops, boutiques, cafés, and restaurants all within a couple of blocks of the inn. In winter, you can stroll along the beach, and explore the nearby Springwater Conservation Area or Fingal Wildlife Management Area. Although snow is never guaranteed, you can always hike the trails if snowshoeing or cross-country skiing aren’t possible.
Alternatively, take a drive to explore some of the other small lakeshore towns like Port Bruce, Port Burwell, and the historic village of Sparta, with its traditional tea room and artisan candle store. Our favourite discovery a home-cooked country lunch at Pinecroft, a beautiful little oasis in a pine forest in Aylmer, where you can sit outside under trees or head indoors to its Green Frog Tearoom. Pinecroft also houses a 75-year-old pottery studio and a gift shop.
Getting There: Port Stanley is about 2 hours and 15 minutes from Toronto. Because it is on Lake Erie, weather tends to be more temperate so there may be no snow. Pinecroft reopens on March 1, 2021.
COBBLE BEACH GOLF RESORT, Owen Sound
Cobble Beach transforms from golf resort in warm weather to a romantic or family getaway in winter. The Sweetwater Restaurant is on the main floor of the inn, while upstairs are 10 New England-style suites ranging from basic hotel rooms to two-level lofted suites and a bridal suite. The resort also has five contemporary-style two-bedroom two-bathroom cottages separate from the main building. My family chose to stay in one of these. Breakfast was delivered to our front door, and we had a wet bar, microwave, toaster oven and fridge in our cottage for other meals.
The inn sits on an expansive 574-acre property overlooking Georgian Bay on the base of the Bruce Peninsula. In winter, its 18 kilometres (10.8 miles) of trails through the Enchanted Forest and next to the water convert to use for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and fat biking. And complimentary snowshoes and fat bikes are available to guests in the off season.
On a rainy December weekend, we headed into Owen Sound, which is just 15 minutes from the inn. We picked up delicious beef brisket from Casero Kitchen Table for our dinner; shopped at the Artist’s Co-op, which sells locally made jewellery, glassware, and wood products; and visited the Festival of Northern Lights. The festival is an annual event displaying colourful Christmas lights along the Sydenham River in downtown and in Harrison Park, an expansive green space with a full-service campground and bird sanctuary. You can follow the park’s trails onto the Bruce Trail network and to beautiful Inglis Falls. It is the largest of several falls in the area; smaller Jones Falls, Indian Falls, and Eugenia Falls are also worth a visit.
Getting There: Cobble Beach is 2 hours and 45 minutes from Toronto, and 1 hour and 45 minutes from Collingwood. At time of publication, this resort was temporarily closed because of the current provincial lockdown.
Before booking accommodations, check with the resort of your interest for its COVID-19 precautions (most will post updated information on their websites).
Protocols I inquire about:
- How is the hotel or inn cleaning high-touch areas (such as, elevators, lobby)?
- Is your property leaving rooms vacant in between stays?
- Do the windows open to provide fresh air within the rooms or cabins?
- Has there been recent upgrades to the ventilation system?
- Do any of the rooms or suites offer a private entrance?
Depending on the state of restrictions from Ontario’s provincial government, a lockdown may be in place and that would likely prevent travel, meaning a property you’re interested in visiting could temporarily be shut.