Wanna hear a funny story? I'm constantly poking fun at Brent for being from and even smaller town than I am. When we first met, he seemed so worldly so I was surprised to discover that he was from a town of just 1200 in Ontario. Imagine our delight when the OHTO invited us to explore Ontario's Highlands and pass right through Brent's hometown!
To tell you the truth, I'd never even heard of Ontario's Highlands before meeting Mr. Dashboard but the first time he took me home, I took notice and was immediately connected to this spectacular part of our home country. For the last 5 years we've been visiting to explore this incredibly diverse and astonishing part of Ontario and you, dearest blog reader, should start planning your trip. Trust us, it's worth it.
WHERE ARE ONTARIO'S HIGHLANDS?
Ontario's highlands are made up of 6 distinct regions just West of Ottawa including Haliburton County, Hastings County, Frontenac County, Lanark County, Lennox & Addington, and the Ottawa Valley. OHTO has done an outstanding job of developing 5 different “wandering routes” based on the different traveller types to take you on a journey through all of these regions. In fact, if you need help deciding on your own trip can take this fun little quiz on their website to determine which road trip best suits your style and then customize that trip to your liking – genius, if you ask me!
WHAT TYPE OF WANDERERS ARE WE?
We took the quiz (twice each) and it won't surprise you to learn that we fall somewhere between Freedom Finders, Creative Cruisers & Rustic Roamers. Hey, we just can't be put in a box! There's also the Memory Maker route (great for families) and Serenity Seekers route (fabulous for those who like a slower pace).
In our case, if you HAD to stick us in one category it would have been “Freedom Finders” which is described as someone who loves to explore, blaze new trails and reach new heights while also craving excitement, adrenaline and new adventures (sounds like us right?). However, because we also love to experience new things and because we've actually done much of the Freedom Finder route last year we opted to explore Ontario's Highlands using the “Creative Cruiser” wandering route.
COME WANDER WITH US
DAY 1 – Arriving at Bon Echo
To date, my only experience with Ontario's Parks was in Algonquin Park and I was certain that nothing could knock it off of the pedestal I'd put it on. And then, we arrived at Bon Echo Provincial Park in Cloyne (just about an hour from our starting point in Barry's Bay). This was a first for both of us and we were equally blown away by the beauty of the Park.
We got a quick tour from Lisa who showed us the visitors centre and gave us the low down on the main highlights of the park, including Mazinaw Lake which is Ontario's 7th deepest lake and is home to the famous Mazinaw Rock. This giant cliff stands over 100 meters and contains over 260 indigenous pictographs as well as an ancient ceder tree that's documented to be more than 1,000 years old!
We rented a canoe from Bon Echo Outfitters and travelled through the narrows out into the lake to get up close to the rock and explore the pictographs and various carvings further.
Cliff Top Trail
Obviously, I can't pass up a hike so when Lisa told us there was a “short, 1km trail” to the top of Mazinaw rock we quickly added that to our list. The trail is accessible only by boat and is, essentially, a series of stairs and steep climbs to reach the top. It's a short but challenging hike to the top but it's oh-so-worth it when you stand at the look-off's and marvel at the view!
Checking In: Camp Cabins at Bon Echo
Bon Echo park has a variety of accommodation options including some roofed options, which is what we opted for. The cabins are super cute & rustic but have everything you need. We loved the screened in porch and the privacy that each lot offers! After checking in, we followed the trail down to the lake (bonus photo ops there) and rather than going off-site for a restaurant meal we took full advantage of the BBQ and fire pit for a home-cooked meal under the stars.
For reservation information on the camp cabins, visit the Ontario Parks reservation page.
Lennox & Addington Dark Sky Viewing Area
After waiting for the sun to set (and the clouds to clear) we drove about 40 minutes south to the L&A Dark Sky Viewing area which is Ontario's most southerly dark sky site. If you've never visited a dark sky preserve or viewing area or if you've lived in the city your whole life and never seen the unpolluted night sky – YOU MUST!
Lucky for us, the clouds that had us worried, stepped aside just long enough for test our hand (for the first time ever) at night sky photography. The sky was amazing, as usual, and it gazing at the stars really does feed the soul.
There is no cost to visit the dark sky viewing area but they do offer workshops which we would highly recommend and you should review the dark sky viewing guidelines before arriving on site.
DAY 2 – Caves, Forests & Full Bellies
We just couldn't resist a little golden hour exploring in Bon Echo Park before we checked out so we set our alarms and headed back down to the narrows trail at sunrise for far too many photos before we packed the car and hit the road for Eganville. We're not big breakfast eaters so we made a quick stop at a cute little cafe before making our way to the Bonnechere Caves.
I've been begging Brent to take me to these caves for four years so, as you can well imagine, I was ecstatic to see them on our itinerary! The Bonnechere Caves are subterranean channels and passageways called “solution caves” which just means that these caves have been formed by the dissolving action of water over the last 10,000 years.
Our guide (and owner) Chris was a wealth of knowledge and it was fascinating to hear him tell the stories of the caves, how they were discovered by Tom Woodworth (former owner), and what makes them unique. We learned all about fossils (Bonnechere caves house the largest known Cephalopod), Stalactite and Stalagmite formation and even the tiny bats that call the cave walls home.
Guided tours of the caves cost $19 for adults (senior & child rates available) and run about 1 hour in length.
The Granary Schnitzel Haus
After our morning of exploring we were ready for a meal and made our way to the Granary. We both love schnitzel so this was an easy sell for us. Brent ordered the Parmesan & I ordered the Carbonara. Although both were good, I would caution you to ask questions about what you're ordering if you consider yourself a foodie (like me). I was expecting (as you would), carbonara sauce, cheese, bacon and perhaps pepper but what I got was more like gravy & mushrooms. When I inquired, I was told “this is our Carbonara”. It was still good, just not what I was expecting!
Checking In: The Deakins Bed & Breakfast
This was actually really special for Brent because Don Deakin (our host with his wife Mary Helen) was Brent's high school basketball coach, whom he hadn't seen in more than 20 years! Small world right? We checked in to our room and spent some time chatting with the Deakins who were just lovely.
That particular afternoon, we had some rain (a welcome reprieve from the heat of the week) so we ended up shuffling our schedule around a bit but I'll give you the run-down here in order of what it would look like if YOU ever visited.
You can book your own stay at the Deakins Bed & Breakfast right here.
Forest Tour: A Forest's Story
Don and Mary Helen have really created an extraordinary experience for their guests that goes far beyond anything else we've experienced at a B&B in our travels. The forest tour (which admittedly I wasn't convinced would be that interesting because, hey, I basically grew up in the forest) actually ended up being one of my favourite things we did all week!
Don walked us through his maple forest and explained all about the different trees, what makes a healthy forest, how the trees all contribute to one another and even introduced me to what is now, my favourite tree I've ever met (to date). Get ready because this next part is pretty “wooey”.
Trees, I think, have amazing energy! Each one tells a different story and personally, I find them so comforting and stoic. This particular tree is over 150 years old and I found myself crashing through the forest to get up close and wrap my arms around her. I know, I know… it sounds silly but if you've never actually hugged a tree – you really should give it a go!
Maple Syrup Workshop
Don showed us how to tap a tree and collect sap (which we got to taste) and then we took to the restored sugar shack to actually see (and participate in) the process of taking sap all the way to maple syrup. As a guest, you actually get to complete the process and then take home a sweet gift that you've bottled yourself.
After you return from the forest, Mary Helen is ready for you with fresh scones, maple devon cream, maple jelly and … you guessed it… syrup. Don walked us through a tasting of the different colours of syrup and then we enjoyed the treats.
The Wilno Tavern is just a few minutes down the road from the B&B and is THE place to go for traditional Kashubian Polish style grub. This wasn't our first visit because Brent loves Perogies and, to him, the Wilno Tavern is the ONLY place to get them. The vibe in this tavern is homey, welcoming and warm. They serve local craft beers and a nice variety of hearty eats to fill your belly. Brent ordered the daily special which consisted of Perogies, Sauerkraut and Polish Sausage and I ordered the Kashub Burger.
DAY 3 – Rock Hounding & Homeward Bound
Maple Breakfast at Deakins Bed & Breakfast
Remember when we said we're not much for breakfast? The only acceptation to that rule is when we're at a B&B because they rarely disappoint! On the morning of our last day, we made our way downstairs to the formal dining room to find the table beautifully set with fine china & crystal. As the breakfast items began to fill the table, we immediately noticed the attention to detail and care that had gone into every single item.
The table was filled with local ingredients, fresh fruit, maple inspired jams, jellies and butters and fresh juices. The options were endless! We also noted that the Deakins made a point of providing only the best to their guests, including options for gluten free, vegans & vegetarians. Every detail was accounted for and the breakfast was outstanding.
We sampled the products on the table, enjoyed the fresh fruit and yogurt and then devoured the orange zest french toast that was served with, of course, Don's maple syrup.
Exploring Barry's Bay was a little funny for us because it's just “home” to Brent so we put on our “tourist hats” and decided to tackle this part of the experience as if we'd never been before. We started at Grumblin' Granny's which is an impressively eclectic shop right in the heart of town. This is the perfect place to pick up any gifts or souvenirs because, as you can see, they've got a bit of everything.
After some shopping, we made our way to the Madawaska Coffee Co. which neither of us had ever been to before. This little coffee roastery has a super cool vibe and the cutest little patio where we enjoyed our maple lattes before lunch.
Do you love Poutine's as much as we do? If we're being honest – this was my FOURTH poutine of our trip but I wasn't over them yet. Charlie D's is literally steps away from where Brent grew up so we've driven past many times but this was our first official visit. Brent ordered the Canadian which is just cheese curds and gravy and I ordered the Polish Poutine which also has bacon and fried onions. Let's be honest, bacon makes everything better! They were amazing but a word to the wise, order the small – they're huge!
Aqua Rose Gems & Minerals
Our final stop was to a rose quarts pit and we were really interested to know what “rock hounding” was like. We met Dave on a street corner in Quadeville and then followed him (along with two other guests) about 20 minutes to their Rose Quarts pit where we learned all about rock hounding.
Interestingly enough, Dave had just returned from a trip to our home province of Nova Scotia for a gem & mineral show! The pit tour was interesting and it was fun exploring the stones beneath us. Will we become rock hounders? Probably not, but I'm really glad this was part of the tour because we loved learning about something completely new.
Pit tours cost $20/pp and can be booked by emailing Dave & Renee.
From ancient ceders to spelunking and everything in between, this route left me feeling totally connected to the natural history that runs through Ontario's highlands. After last year's adrenaline filled adventure in Ontario's Highlands, this was a wonderful contrast.
There's always something really fun about following an itinerary that someone else wrote. We're typically the ones who do the writing but in this case, we followed the Creative Cruiser route to the letter and can't wait to tackle some of the other routes at comewander.ca
This trip was sponsored by Ontario's Highlands Tourism Organization. As always, all opinions and far too many photos (aside from the map they provided us) are our own.