This story is about the spaces in between.
Having spent most of my life living in either Toronto or Montreal, I have done the tedious drive on Highway 401 between these two cities more times than I can count. But COVID-19 forced me to take a pause on urban travel and redirect my focus to exploring the small towns in between.
Southeastern Ontario became one of my favourite regions of the province to explore because I love water, mountains, heritage inns, and farm-to-table restaurants. And I love meeting residents who have a fierce pride for their home and community. Southeastern Ontario has all these things in abundance. It’s a region completely linked by water — from Cornwall on the St. Lawrence River to Lake Ontario in Kingston to the Bay of Quinte and Prince Edward County. And the area also boasts hundreds of lakes, with the UNESCO World Heritage-designated Rideau Canal winding its way 202 kilometres (135 miles) north through this region, between Ottawa and Kingston.
These towns make for a perfect weekend getaway from Toronto as well as a day trip from Montreal, Ottawa, or Kingston. And they are all worthy stops to break up a long family car ride.
Here is a snapshot of some of the gems.
Located on the Tay River along Highway 7 less than an hour from Ottawa, Perth is arguably one of the prettiest towns in Ontario. Because of the profusion of Scottish stonemasons who settled here following the War of 1812, the town has an abundance of heritage buildings, which have been well preserved as part of a restoration project.
Wander through the beautiful downtown and Stewart Park, visiting the famers’ market there on Saturdays from summer until early October. Rent a kayak or canoe at Perth Major Outfitters to paddle the Tay River. Browse the many boutiques along Gore Street. And enjoy a patio meal at one of several restaurants in town. We loved our first night’s taco dinner at Mex & Co overlooking the water, and then a higher-end meal at The Stone Cellar the next night. Picnic Café and Catering is also a great stop for a healthy and delicious lunch.
For overnight, a fabulous option is the Clyde Hall B & B in Lanark Village, just 17 minutes outside of Perth. Although a bed and breakfast, this felt more like a resort, with an outdoor pool and hot tub, 10 acres of grounds that back onto the Clyde River, and a golf course next door.
For information on festivals and other events, see the Perth Tourism webpage. (Unfortunately the annual garlic festival, Perth Fair, will not be running in 2021 because of pandemic concerns.)
Gaze down at this little village from Spy Rock at the top of Foley Mountain and you will surely fall in love with the place. I did. This quaint village, nestled on the edge of Upper Rideau Lake, is a charming destination for meals overlooking the lake; a picnic, hike and swim at Foley Mountain Conservation Area five minutes away; and boutique shopping and inns.
Despite a mere population of 600, Westport has both a brewery and a winery. On our last night, we had a delicious dinner of wood-burning pizza and grilled steak on the sprawling lawn at Scheuermann Vineyard and Winery. And on our first night, we ate another great meal on a patio at The Cove Inn in town, which has nightly live music. Both had beautiful views of the water.
We then spent the night at the Victorian Luxury Suites, a lovingly renovated heritage home where suites blend modern with vintage details, like exposed brick, rustic beams, and a Victorian tub. All four well-priced suites have a kitchenette, while their premier suite, or “urban loft”, on the top floor boasts a full kitchen.
I will admit to having driven past Cornwall for decades until this summer. Cornwall took me by surprise with 16 kilometres (9 miles) of pristine waterfront along the St. Lawrence, and a rich history that we learnt about on our pedicab tour, thanks to our excellent guides from Waterfront Tours. Cornwall’s designated bike path extends all the way to the Long Sault Parkway, which runs for 10 kilometres (6.5 miles) and crosses 11 islands, with picnic spots, campgrounds and two beaches along the way.
There is a U.S. border crossing in Cornwall. And Cornwall Island — which is part of the First Nations community of Akwesasne — sits directly across the river and straddles both the Canada-United States and Quebec-Ontario borders. There the Akwesasne International Pow-wow draws crowds every September, though unfortunately is cancelled this year because of COVID-19.
If you are seeking a mini Downton Abbey, check in for the night at Chesley’s Inn, the oldest operating inn in the province (it was built in 1814), and a lovely B&B filled with artwork, Persian carpets, antiques, and quirky artifacts from the late 1880s. Charming owner Robert Prowse will regale you with stories of the region, and you will meet his sidekick, the friendly Scottish terrier Hamish.
For an evening out, you can’t go wrong with schnitzel, goulash, and perogies from Schnitzels European Flavours, followed by some fun at Rush Hour Escapes, an escape room a few minutes walk from the inn.
A small community in the Rideau Lakes, Newboro is home to the Newboro lock, one of 24 hand-operated locks on the Rideau Canal system, as well as great cycling and paddling experiences. We did a “Pedal-Paddle-Picnic” with Rideau Tours, which started with a bike ride in the morning along the Cataraqui Trail, followed by a beautiful picnic next to the Newboro lock. (For the picnic, we were given a red-and-white checkered table cloth and a basket filled with delicious local artisan cheeses, smoked sausage and other treats from Wendy’s Country Market.) We then kayaked from Newboro through Indian and Clear Lakes and had a great swim at submerged sand dunes in the heat of the afternoon.
While in Newboro, we also made time to shop at the Kilborn’s, a department store on the main street packed with everything from designer shoes to furniture and housewares. As Newboro House B&B owner Mark Boulanger remarked, “Kilborn’s is like the Saks Fifth Avenue of cottage country.”
Boulanger and his wife, Nicki Doria, have crafted a perfect B&B experience. Just down the street from Kilborn’s, Newboro House is a circa-1861 property — with mansard roof and deep dormer windows — and has three pretty bedrooms (which we had to ourselves — the host couple live in a separate house next door). And Doria served a lovely breakfast at the dining-room table.
Although we didn’t stay over in Brockville, we did stop for lunch, and a quick tour of the Aquatarium, which is an interactive science and education museum with a ropes course and an aquarium. Unbeknownst to me, Brockville — as well as being the “City of the 1000 Islands” — is one of the world’s best freshwater diving sites, with more than a dozen shipwrecks and artifacts to explore and warm waters with no thermocline and good visibility.
It is also home to the Brockville Railway Tunnel. Constructed over almost six years — from 1854 to 1860 — this is the oldest railway tunnel in Canada. And with a colourful light show and energetic soundtrack, and walls adorned with panoramas describing its history and construction, it is well worth a stroll through with the family. How many places can you say you explored in and under the downtown core?