In my next life, I’m going to raise alpacas. No, wait — be a beekeeper. No, I know: I’ll have a small farm with an orchard where I’ll make fruit wines and where happy chickens run around beneath the trees and I’ll also have a gift shop there, raise a few free-range pigs and do weddings and keep a couple of bunnies just because they are so cute.
If my long-range plans seem a little confused, it’s because I recently returned from three days in the York Durham Region — just north and east of Toronto — and met the most engaging, fulfilled, and relaxed people doing each of the pursuits I mentioned. And more.
The concept of the staycation grew by leaps and bounds since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and many tourism observers believe the growth of local travel is likely to continue. A brief break from your daily routine without the stress of flying, the costs of a long road trip or dealing with unfamiliar languages. In short: no surprises.
But was I ever surprised during this little trip a short drive from my home. The combination of experiences, the delight in discovering new foods and the genuine warmth of the welcome made it seem much longer — and even exotic.
Summer is the time for flowers in Canada, and that’s when Dutch-born Harriet Drake, a former education assistant, is happiest. The owner of White’s Creek Flower Farm, Drake welcomes visitors to her quarter-acre flower garden, a riot of summer colours, to pick flowers and create their own bouquets. Her self-described retirement project, Drake is happy to provide tips on her lilies and snapdragons, daisies and peonies, and provides a glass Mason jar for your harvesting. Thrice-weekly yoga classes on the lawn, led by yoga, meditation, and breathwork instructor Carly Smith, are also available.
For an overdose of cuteness, you’ll have to go far to beat Sandra Bannon’s Forget-Me-Not Alpaca farm. A “burnt-out project manager”, Bannon decided she wanted to try life in the country and had a big a-ha! moment during an alpaca farm open house. Now into her 10th year at Forget-Me-Not, she is clearly fond of the animals and careful to educate her visitors about do’s-and-don’ts (they don’t like to be patted on their adorable fuzzy little heads, no matter how tempted you are). And how smart is she: There are multiple sources of income from her herd of 36, including farm tours, soft-as-cashmere wool and wool products, and even the sale of alpaca poo — apparently a gentle fertilizer. You must book your visit online and there are maximum of eight guests per one-hour visit ($12 per person).
And what about the orchard–chickens-gift-shop-bunnies experience? That’s Ocala Winery, the domain of Lin Yu, a Chinese-born former civil engineer who brims with enthusiasm and excitement even when she discusses the travails of running her own farm. (“I never used to care about the weather — now I check it every hour!” she beams.) In Canada since 1999, she has owned 52-acre Ocala, the oldest farm in the area, for six years and grows 18 types of apples and the only grapes in the Durham region. Yu is a proud steward of her small holding: “I love the soil and for fertilizer I use crab and shrimp shells, thyme, rice water, cinnamon, and brown sugar.” Ocala hosts an annual harvest festival (September 30 to October 2 this year).
As diverse as Yu’s talents are, those of Brian Hawley are at least as interesting. Looking like the biker that he is, Hawley operates Villa Vida Loca Farm Market with products from his beehives along with those of other local artisans including cutting boards and granola. With tapas bar music in the background, he and his team serve excellent fare on weekends including ribs, chicken, and their best-seller, brisket on a bun. Along with his wife, Ann, and chef Alex Page — himself a farm-to-table teacher at Durham College — he hosts monthly cauldron suppers with live music and a bring-your-own-chair vibe in the summer. The Hawleys are also building a yoga chakra garden, host special events on the rooftop patio of their house, and rent out a new glamping bunkie.
Villa Vida Loca, Forget-Me-Not Alpacas, and White’s Creek Flower Farm are part of the Backroads of Brock collective, a group of artists artisans, and farmers who encourage visitors to experience the beauty and abundance to be found in their lovely region. If all this seems a little too tame and bucolic, and racheting up the adrenaline is more your goal, York Durham can step up to the plate for that, too.
Flying High Near Toronto
Canada’s Wonderland (the most-searched attraction in the country and Canada’s only theme park) covers an astonishing 300 acres and in summer employs more than 4,000. As well as countless food outlets, shops, and a vast waterpark, Wonderland, located in the city of Vaughn, offers rides from the tamest for the pink-knuckled to the Yukon Striker, a 360-degree looping dive roller-coaster. Years ago I declared I would never ride a coaster again after a terror-filled experience in Las Vegas, but I took a deep breath and stepped aboard the Striker. And, yes, it delivered as promised in heart-stopping, gravity-twisting full force, much to the delight of its screaming riders and one ashen-faced, wild-eyed passenger in the back (that would be me). Very satisfying.
Also high on the exhilarating-scary-how-insane-is-this spectrum is iFly Whitby, a chance to experience skydiving without the expense or time commitment. For $75, thrill-seekers from 3 years old to 98 (literally) can experience weightlessness — essentially the feeling of freefall — in a vertical wind tunnel with speeds of up to 300 km/h, accompanied by an experienced instructor to gently nudge them in the right direction and ensure all goes as planned. “Everyone leaves here happy,” Caspar White, one of seven instructors on the team told me. And the experience has given a sense of freedom to clients including amputees and a woman with multiple sclerosis.
If this is all very thirsty-making, you’ll want to head to the postcard-perfect lakefront town of Port Perry where the genial team at the historic Old Flame Brewery will be pleased to pour you a glass of the most-awarded craft lager in Canada.
And if the charms of York Durham have you wishing to spend a night, the Nestleton Waters Inn is the perfect place to park your head. Situated on 93 acres near Port Perry, the inn, which has the vibe of your best friend’s manicured mansion, offers seven guest suites, themed to reflect the African childhood of owner Erika Kiezebrink.
Back at the yoga class in the sunshine at White’s Creek Flower Farm, surrounded by masses of flowers, practising our breathing, my mind wandered. With a background lullaby of birdsong and the distant whistle of a train, a lonely plane producing a thin white line in the deep blue sky above, I had a moment.
Yup, it’s official. In my next life I will be a yoga instructor.