Late spring is the perfect time for a driving tour, so yesterday my co-workers Vanessa, Khurram and I set off to check out the countryside around Toronto. Neither one of my co-explorers has lived in Canada for very long, so they haven’t really had a chance to discover areas outside the Big Smoke. So this was their first opportunity to venture forth into the hinterland that surrounds our big city.
After leaving the 16-lane frenzy of Highway 401 and a brief ride on the 410 we drove into Ontario’s countryside north of Brampton. The landscape started to open up – farms, fields and forest started to appear. The serene rolling hills north of Ontario’s capital have a subtle beauty to them and I started hearing comments like “this is like a picture book”, “this would be a great place for spending a weekend” etc. The scenery around Hockley Valley and the hilly moraines further north offer quite breath-taking views over Ontario farm country.
Our first stop was in the village of Creemore, a little village tucked away in the Mad River Valley, surrounded by the Purple Hills. The village’s history dates back more than a century, originally supplying Toronto with much needed lumber and later supplying hogs. One of the main attractions today is the Creemore Springs Brewery, a very popular Ontario micro-brewery. After a local breakfast with tea and scones we crossed the street to check out the brewery, and even though two of us are not beer-drinkers, we still had fun learning about the brewing process, combining hops, barley and various other ingredients. We admired the large brewing kettles, two made of stainless steel and one made of copper. Creemore Springs makes a premium lager and during the winter season the brew masters also come up with an “UrBock” version for the festive season.
With our knowledge of beer appropriately augmented we continued on with our country drive, slowly approaching the Niagara Escarpment area, Southern Ontario’s highest geological feature. We stopped in the tiny hamlet of Glen Huron (population 51) where we admired the ancient feed mill of the Hamilton Brothers, dating back all the way to 1874. Just a few steps away was a picturesque water wheel (cheekily fed by a water hose instead of a real river…).
On a hilly area just south of Collingwood we stopped to enjoy the sweeping view that stretched all the way to Georgian Bay and then we continued into the Town of Collingwood, a place that has really become popular over the last few years. Collingwood, its adjacent Blue Mountains Ski Hill, Ontario’s largest ski resort, and its location on Georgian Bay make it a four-season recreational destination. In recent years, the ski facilities have been upgraded and a whole European-style village awaits at the bottom of the ski hill. Downtown Collingwood itself features more than 300 shops and restaurants, waiting to serve discerning travelers.
Our day was short so we continued our drive eastwards towards Wasaga Beach, with a length of 14 km the world’s longest freshwater beach. Surrounding this white sandy beach are many kilometers of hiking, cycling, cross-country and snowmobiling trails. In addition, Wasaga Beach is also a favourite destination of beach volleyball players. We got out of the car, and on this breezy blustery day (it couldn’t have been more than 12 degrees Celsius) you definitely needed a warm wind-proof jacket. I admired the para-sailers, daredevils who braved the cold waves of Georgian Bay.
The highlight of our day was yet to come: after a veritable traffic jam in the city of Barrie, we squeaked into the Town of Orillia just in time to make it onto the Island Princess, Orillia’s famous double-decked river-style cruise vessel, capable of holding 230 passengers. On this cold and increasingly rainy-looking day there were only about a dozen of us, but we enjoyed the narrated tour around Lake Couchiching. Lake-front living is popular, and we found out that most of the houses around the lake now sell for C$750,000 and up.
After our hour-long exploration by boat we disembarked and went on a relaxing walk through the parklands right next to the shores of Lake Couchiching. An imposing monument to Samuel de Champlain graces the waterfront parks. Several young children were actually swimming in the cold lake waters, proving again that Canadians do indeed have anti-freeze flowing through their veins.
Our brief waterfront walk was followed by a much-needed stop for ice-cream in one of the lakefront sales trailers. Close by and right across from the Island Princess’ dock is another Orillia attraction: the Ossawippi Express, a seafood restaurant featuring several fully-restored, turn-of-the-century railway cars dating back to 1896 with an outdoor patio overlooking Orillia’s Lake Couchiching. We had a sneak peek at this unique dining concept and all agreed that the Ossawippi Express would be the perfect restaurant for a special event.
Off we were back in the car, driving back towards Toronto on the east side of Lake Simcoe. South of the lake we were back in the hilly moraines and we stopped briefly at a local country store called Hy-Hope Farms to pick up some gooseberry and rhubarb-strawberry pies, a sweat treat to remember our country drive…..