Three days off work, three hours of driving and more than three dollars will get you what? A long weekend out of the region to experience some R&R, beach front lounging, small town charm or urban entertainment in other parts of Ontario. One suitcase and one tank of gas is what you’ll need for a trip away from home, because sometimes a simple change of scenery is as good as a rest. Here are some Niagara Life weekend away suggestions. No passport required.
Concerts, theatre and plenty of brie – London, Ontario
Toronto might be first on the list for some urban entertainment, but change it up and head west to London – it’s easier to navigate, cheaper and no one will ask you which way to the CN Tower. The Budweiser Gardens (formally John Labatt Centre) downtown is host to big name shows year round, and the outdoor plaza nearby hosts annual food and music festivals in the summer. A convenient to stay, especially if you have concert tickets, is Hotel Metro London’s first boutique hotel sporting Braise Food & Wine restaurant that adds a spark of indulgence to the weekend. It’s also across from both Kingsmill’s, the city’s oldest department store, and one of the best farmers’ markets in Southern Ontario.
Covent Garden Market in the heart of downtown London, open seven days a week, is an urbanite’s dream filled with gourmet coffee, homemade scones, artisan cheese, specialty teas, or Asian spring rolls. While there, rub elbows (it’s busy) with locals buying fresh produce, fruit, fish, bread and meats from generations of farm families.
Other city highlights include the Labatt’s Blue factory tour, The Grand Theatre professional company with seasonal runs September to April, and The Banting House National Historic Site that celebrates the career of Sir Frederick Grant Banting who discovered insulin. While downtown, stop by Jonathon Bancroft-Snell Gallery, Canada’s largest private contemporary ceramic gallery, and end your visit, or evening, at the kitschy Fellini Koolini’s on Albert Street, still one of my favourite Italian restaurants ever.
Small Town Sketches – Orillia, Ontario
Subtlety blending boating culture with family fun, Orillia is the kind of gentrified cottage-country town that draws folks out of their urban environment and into something different, but still familiar. Orillia restaurants – and there are many – offer bistro-style dining in a sunny little town environment surprisingly low on burger and fry canteens.
Humour writer Stephen Leacock put Orillia on the map by buying a property along Old Brewery Bay in 1908. It would be from this picturesque summer home overlooking a postcard perfect inlet, the professor and textbook writer penned his first three fictional humour books: Literary Lapses (1910), Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912) and Arcadian Adventures of the Idle Rich (1914). Now his former home is the Leacock Museum National Historic Site.
But during the summer, however, it’s the shoreline and beach along Couchiching Lake downtown that draws people to spend the afternoon in Orillia. Several miles of paved trails meander along the water’s edge making cycling easier. Couchiching Beach Park is suitable for swimming and has lifeguards on duty. There’s free parking, and clean changing rooms, and a small but well-groomed beach.
If the open water does beacon, Orillia’s Island Princess, a double-deck, 200-passenger, riverboat-style craft, is at your call. This family-run operation since 1982 leaves several times a day for a tour around this relatively shallow 16 km lake.
Sand in your shoes – Port Stanley, Elgin County, Ontario
During the 1920s, those who loved dancing the night away to the sound of Big Band music put on their best suits, hats and gloves, boarded a train to Port Stanley’s The Stork Club on a Lake Erie beach. It’s a romantic image of a time long past, but The Stork Club (operating from 1929 to 1979) has a nostalgic place in the hearts of Port Stanley residents.
Port Stanley is no longer the Coney Island of the Great Lakes as it was once known, but it’s still a charming place to decompress and spend the weekend in swimwear and flip flops. The historic King George VI lift bridge (Ontario’s oldest) in the centre of town now opens and closes mostly for pleasure boaters and small commercial fishermen while keeping cars and pedestrians waiting behind a dinging bell. That’s the bridge you’ll have to cross to get to the ‘Big Beach,’ which is the destination of most who drive into town.
Port Stanley is compact and simple to negotiate – most stores, patios and points of interest are within a few blocks of the town’s two cross streets, Bridge Street and Main Street, including the Port Stanley Festival Theatre. This intimate venue seats about 140 people and has entertained visitors (and locals), May to September, for more than three decades.
If you can’t spend all day at the beach (but who can’t?) enjoy the countryside on a one-hour open-car scenic train ride from the Port Stanley Terminal Rail Train Station to St. Thomas and back that includes historic commentary. July to September the train departs three times a day, and the volunteer run organization offers a Thanksgiving and dinner ride in October, along with a Murder Mystery experience at the end of that month. All rides use the same historic rails that once brought dance lovers to The Stock Club decades ago.
The Play’s the Thing – Stratford, Ontario
With the Shaw Festival in the backyard, it’s easy to forget that Southern Ontario is dotted with other fine theatrical towns, including one of the most iconic: Stratford, host to the annual Stratford Shakespeare Festival running May to October in four theatres.
When Stratford is in full bloom it’s one of the prettiest, and most walkable, towns in Southern Ontario. The meandering trail from the Festival Theatre along the Avon River, punctuated by much photographed white trumpet swans, ends at the Shakespearean Gardens. (If you are tempted to feed the swans, first buy feed at the York Street Visitors Centre Kiosk. Volunteers take great care to make sure the swans get a proper diet). Established in 1926 the Shakespearean Gardens started out as an Elizabethan park full of plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. Taking centre stage among the roses is the bronze bust of William Shakespeare added to the park in 1949.
But the festival is the major draw to the city and that was the intention when founder Tom Patterson first developed the idea as a tourist attraction to offset a slump in the local economy as the rail industry waned. As a result, a charming well-preserved historic town grew with Ontario Street -a gift, book, and antique hunter’s paradise – at its core. Here’s a taste of Ontario’s street’s shops: Bradshaws is a 119-year-old icon anchoring the much strolled street, steps from the popular Bentley’s Bar and Restaurant. Gallery Indigena specializes in Native Canadian art, primarily sculpture and painting. And Watson’s Chelsea Bazaar is crammed with two floors of dishes, house ware, and assorted curiosities … Oh yes, Stratford is also Justin Bieber’s home town.
Any WeekendAh Spa, Nordic Style – Scandinave Spa, Blue Mountain, Ontario
At the end of a winding boardwalk through a forest, a red-shingled Hansel and Gretel-like house acts as a gateway between the real world and temporary escape. When you pay for a day at the Scandinave Spa ($48, 10am to 9pm, and $38 on Wednesdays), you get a towel, key to a locker, and quick instructions, then shuffled to the change rooms downstairs. (Robes can be rented or bring your own.) This is one of four Scandinave Spas in Canada; it’s in Blue Mountain ski country. Located on 25-acres of rustic wooded setting away from the nearby sloops, this day resort is designed to recreate the natural hot springs of its namesake countries, and takes advantage of the healing properties of hydrotherapy, or water.
The change rooms lead to the outdoor pool area, a mystical place of wooden decks, Muskoka chairs, steaming pools and Nordic waterfalls, as seen through the floor-to-ceiling windows when you first check in. Follow the instructions near each pool and note there’s a strict order to the experience (which most people abandon after the first or second round). Spend a few minutes in the hot pool bubbling like an unfortunate lobster, then dunk in freezing cold water, and finally embrace down time in the sauna or eucalyptus steam room that will clean out sinuses simultaneously. Eventually most people skip the cold and spend an hour or so basking in the temperate hot tub while cascading waterfalls massage their shoulders. (An actual Swedish message is available in the spa house, and so is a light lunch at the bistro).
Interestingly, the spa is open year round, so you can spend time sunbathing in the summer, or polar bear dashing from pool to steam room in the snow-covered months. Silence is important anytime of the year; anything above a whisper will be hushed by an attendant. Picture it: a full day of no talking, no clocks and no kids.
This article was originally published in Niagara Life Magazine Jan/Feb. 2013