Lately I’ve spent a lot of time discovering Ontario. Like many other Canadians, Canada’s 150th birthday sparked an interest to stay closer and learn about my own country.
Lanark County is part of Ontario’s Highlands and after touring with the Ottawa Valley Maple Adventures tour I stayed in the Highlands because Lanark’s claim to fame is that it is the capital for maple syrup in Ontario.
What Kind of Traveler am I?
I took the quiz on FindYourInnerWanderer.ca and it says I’m a rustic roamer. I was actually surprised at how accurate this quiz was. It described everything I like about travel:
I seek the quiet comfort of charming towns and back roads, and my only goal is to explore. I appreciate the little things, the authentic local experiences, warm hospitality, and humble people with big hearts.
Immersing myself in local culture, and embracing the spirit of the community, helps me escape my daily routine.
After my time in Ottawa Valley I spent the next 3 days wandering Lanark County. While it is not the biggest producer of maple syrup, it is the capital because it has the most small, independent producers.
Maple Syrup in Ontario
Ontario doesn’t produce the most maple syrup in Canada by a long shot; Quebec holds that title with nearly 85% of maple syrup production. It’s big business in Quebec for production but also tourism. Everyone wants to visit a sugar shack in Quebec in the spring.
But what I found in Lanark County was that because it was smaller and lesser known, there were more opportunities to have authentic experiences. In the most popular cafes or pancake houses you’ll find locals and nothing has been specifically created for tourists. The region was beautiful, surprisingly affordable and everyone was so friendly.
Before this trip I wouldn’t have thought it possible to spend 3 days on a maple themed vacation. And then I met so many people doing interesting things and I wanted to share all of them. I must warn you this is a long post. But I think everyone can find a few things in here that would be great for a weekend getaway.
Lanark County – The Maple Syrup Capital of Ontario
Pronounced al-mont, Almonte is a former mill town on the Canadian Mississippi river (not related to the American one). With a population of 5000 it’s the perfect escape from city life as it’s also known as the friendly town and is a great base to learn about maple syrup in Lanark County.
It’s only 40 minutes from Ottawa so it’s a great overnight trip as the town has all the instagrammable charm you want from a small town visit. You can kayak the river, hike to the waterfall or stay in town to shop at the boutiques and visit the tea room.
Where to Stay in Almonte
I stayed at the Almonte Riverside Inn, a historic property with 6 very large rooms. Mine overlooked the river with a view so pretty I didn’t want to go out that night.
It’s not often I stay at a hotel that really makes an impression but this was such a good mix of modern amenities with a small town feel. The rooms are large and you don’t hear your neighbours unless you’re in the common room for free snacks or the restaurant for breakfast.
I also loved that they deliver coffee or tea to your room in the morning and you choose breakfast the night before and what time you’d like to eat so it’s ready when you come down. It’s small touches like this that really make a hotel special.
Almonte Riverside Inn
81 Queen Street, Almonte, ON
Meet The Sausage King
Don may be the unofficial ambassador for Almonte. He’s not from here but he’s one of the most popular characters and often asked to emcee events and do wacky things like pose nude for a charity calendar. For this reason alone you should pop in his shop to meet him.
Although this is a butcher shop, Don is also known for his sausages and sells 250lbs a week. While mild Italian sausage is his most popular, the spicy sweetness of the maple chipotle sausage makes it his favourite.
If you don’t have access to a kitchen there’s also lots of great prepackaged foods and sandwiches. But really you come to Don’s Meat Market for the people. This is the small town experience at its very best.
Don’s Meat Market
126 Mill Street, Almonte, ON
Grab a Maple Latte
Another must visit stop in Almonte is Equator Coffee Roasters. Sure lots of places serve Maple Lattes but this is a local hub with a focus on organic fair trade coffee.
They’ve been roasting coffee since 1988 and I’ve never learned so much about coffee in a single visit. The team here doesn’t just serve coffee, but they’ll explain, in unpretentious terms, how to store it, brew it and whether you need that $750 espresso machine (spoiler: save your money and buy a French press).
I was so taken with their energy, enthusiasm and passion about coffee. They are serious about their commitment to a sustainable model that also supports the coffee farmers but not too serious that they can’t name coffee things like “Freaking Good,” which is the most popular or “Earl E. Bird.”
They just expanded this location so they could host more “cupping” classes, which is a coffee tasting. I’d call ahead and see if you can organize one as you’ll never look at coffee the same way again.
Equator Coffee Roasters
451 Ottawa Street, Almonte, ON
Try a Low Fat Maple Bacon Doughnut
Around the corner you’ll find Ed and Doris at the Healthy Food Technologies factory, which has a storefront where you can try low fat doughnuts.
Yes this is true.
Ed is a serial inventor and patented a new doughnut making machine that flash fries the doughnut and then bakes it. He’s revolutionized the doughnut world and has all the big shops looking to make doughnuts relevant again.
While testing the machine they needed to know if they could produce as much as a machine currently in shops. In the beginning they were just dropping off doughnuts to anyone they could (the police station was wary of the gift thinking it was laced with sarcasm). Eventually the factory opened a storefront that has an on-going stream of people who come from as far as Montreal for these doughnuts.
In addition to the store they also produce doughnuts for local supermarkets and make as many as 12,000 a week. If you like talking to Don you must ask if Ed is around as he loves to talk and it’s a fascinating peak inside the mind of an inventor.
Healthy Food Technologies
25 Industrial Avenue, Almonte, ON
Sample Maple Chocolate at Hummingbird Chocolate
Cross the street and you’ll see Equator’s original location, which is now owned by new entrepreneurs Erica and Drew. This is such an epic story of entrepreneurship and perseverance.
They met in Afghanistan just over 15 years ago. As foreign aid workers chocolate was one of their few indulgences. In 2010 they were working in Haiti in schools after the devastating earthquake. There they learned about cacao and thought about creating a business that could sustainably support farmers while pursing their other passion.
When they returned home they dabbled in chocolate making. But it wasn’t easy as there were only 4 chocolatiers in Canada and none of them really wanting to share trade secrets. However, they kept at it, researching cookbooks and sites online and eventually turned a hobby into an award-winning business.
Their storefront is lined with awards, most notably Hispaniola, which uses cacao from the Dominican Republic. You can taste a variety of chocolate, using beans from around the world (Fleur de Sel, using Vancouver Island sea salt is my favourite).
The real treat is the tour where you learn how they make the chocolate. With 10 employees and a small batch production it’s not possible to buy the machines that other big chocolate makers use. For example, the cocoa beans are roasted in a rotisserie chicken oven. Drew also constructed other elements of the process with wood, hardware items and a lot of ingenuity.
This means staff have to be on point and really understand the process. It’s not a “set it and forget it” kind of operation. But that’s likely why they won the UK Academy of Chocolate 2016 Golden Bean award.
9 Houston Drive, Almonte, ON
Stop In Carleton Place for Lunch at Chesswood
A newly rebranded restaurant with a fresh new name, it’s worth stopping in to eat at Chesswood before moving onto Perth. They make the maple-bourbon barbecue bacon jam in house. It’s so popular they’ve been asked if they’ll start selling it in jars.
Want something heartier? Also check out the maple bacon-wrapped meatloaf, which uses maple in both the meatloaf as well as the jus.
151 Bridge Street, Carleton Place, ON
Tour Sam Bat – The Original Maple Bat Corporation
As someone who professes to only want to eat and walk I was wary about venturing to an industrial park to learn about baseball bats. But I needed a break from eating and while this wasn’t about maple syrup in Lanark County it turned out to be a fascinating story.
When a baseball scout shared that they were breaking too many baseball bats made of ash he asked carpenter Sam Holden to come up with something better. Living in Almonte where maple was plentiful it made sense to use this hardwood. Blue Jay Joe Carter started using it and now today 75% of bats in Major League Baseball are made with maple.
You can tour the factory and see the custom bat moulds for your favourite players and now it’s become very popular for Bachelor parties to come and get special engraved bats, which make for a nice groomsmen gift (who needs another flask) and also great photos.
110 Industrial Avenue
Carleton Place, ON
Head to Perth
Without mincing words, Perth is gorgeous. It’s a historic town 40 minutes outside Ottawa and so beautiful that many people commute from Perth to work in Ottawa or they retire in Perth. I don’t blame them.
It was originally a military settlement in the early 1800s and many of the early immigrants were Scottish stonemasons and you can see their work throughout town. The town is very pedestrian friendly and there are so many cute cafes, bakeries and restaurants.
It’s surprisingly well stocked with interesting stores with only a population just under 6,000. Although it’s become a very popular location for weddings. There were 4 happening in the park the Saturday I was there. Like Stratford, Perth is the kind of town where you wonder why you’re still living in the city.
Maple Ale at Perth Brewing
A family owned brewery ion Highway 7, using local ingredients including local maple syrup in Lanark County
While you can get some of their beer in the LCBO it’s worth popping in, as all locals do, to sample all the beer and of course try the Oh Canada Maple Ale. It’s not too sweet and I overheard a group next to me say it would be the perfect breakfast beer. If ale isn’t your thing there are also a variety of lagers, IPA and stouts – perhaps the oatmeal stout would also be good for breakfast?
Just as the business is expanding so is the location. You can currently go in and sample beer before buying and now they’re opening up some seating so that you can come in for a flight or a pint.
121 Dufferin Street, Perth, ON
Maple Moonshine at Top Shelf Distillers
Craft distilleries are popping up in Ontario and Top Shelf Distillers receives great reviews for its traditional products like vodka and gin but people come to the distillery to try the more creative offerings like maple or cherry moonshine.
They opened their doors in 2015 using local products, including local maple syrup. They don’t take themselves too seriously, which is evident with an upside down logo on their vodka and the service is refreshingly fun.
Top Shelf Distillers
14 Warren Crescent, Perth, ON
Maple Tasting Dinner at Stone Cellar
The Stone Cellar has been in Perth for years and is a local favourite. They host a number of events throughout the year using local product and pairing Canadian wine and craft beer.
However, one special dinner is the five-course local maple dinner where you can try seasonal flavours and local maple syrup in Lanark County. You must book this 48 hours in advance. Above is the salmon tartare, maple ricotta with thyme oil. I opted for the wine pairings, which were really thoughtful and worked so well with local flavours.
If you come on the spur of the moment without a reservation for the tasting you can try the maple sweet potato fries that are always on the menu.
71 Gore Street East, Perth, ON
Maple Pecan Cranberry Butter Tarts
Everything is made from scratch in this small bakery in downtown Perth. Although I was in for the very popular butter tarts I was told by a loyal customer that I also needed to try their carrot cake as it was “to die for” and others in the shop nodded in agreement.
I took mine to go so Dave could also try some but I was very tempted to stay and eat on the patio, which overlooks the river. In addition to the sweets you can also find bread, prepared foods, a salad bar and a number of takeaway meals.
Sunflower Bake Shop
100 Gore Street, Perth ON
Take a Sunday Drive and hit Coutts Country Flavours Store
I cannot even begin to talk about all of the different options to taste the local maple syrup in Lanark County inside Coutts. Although the most popular are maple apple pie, maple granola and maple chocolate brownies.
The Store is on Coutts Farms, a 5th generation family farm in Lanark County where they produce naturally raised beef, maple syrup, vegetables, preserves and baked goods.
They also have lots of naturally raised local product from other farmers and fair trade products but what struck me most was that this was a typical country store and they weren’t selling local, organic or natural products because it was trendy or to jack up the price, simply because that’s what they still do.
On a side note, I can vouch for the maple apple pie. I thought it would be too sweet but it wasn’t at all. It’s worth a sample.
Coutts Country Flavours Store
1240 County Road 18, Perth, ON
Have Pancakes with Real Maple Syrup
This is a must-visit stop and don’t scrimp on the time as there is SO much to see at Wheelers Maple Sugar Camp.
I stopped in to try a maple terroir tasting (golden, amber, dark and very dark) and learn a bit more about maple syrup in Ontario and specifically Lanark County. I could have listened to Vernon Wheeler for days. He has big opinions about how to keep the quality of maple syrup production high. You know he puts a lot of thought into what he makes.
Yet I wondered if maple syrup in Ontario had the same issues as honey – were there counterfeit bottles? Is it ever cut with corn syrup? How can supermarkets sell it for cheaper? Vernon shared that this wasn’t an issue, and the worst case scenario for quality is that the supermarket brands cuts an A Grade Syrup (what you get from local producers) with 1/3 of B Grade Syrup (what is used in baking and dog food). So even the worst case is still 100% maple syrup.
You really need 2-3 hours here to get the full experience at Wheelers, including the Guinness world record collection of Maple Artifacts (it will amaze you), visiting the blacksmith who actually works on real projects rather than just for show, and the pancake house where you’ll find all the locals on the weekends (pro tip: sit by the window to watch the hummingbird feeder).
There’s also a shed with an unbelievable number of vintage chain saws and a small area with farm animals, including alpacas. The Wheelers take maple syrup very seriously and locals flock here on weekends so make sure you come early.
Wheelers Maple Sugar Camp
1001 Highland Lane, McDonalds Corners, ON
Maple Baked Arctic Char in Maberly
Continue a bit farther west on Highway 7 and you’ll find Fall River Restaurant in Maberly. Owned by a Dutch family there are little decor touches from Holland that make the dining room charming and homey. If it’s sunny head for the lush patio, you’d never know you were near a highway.
I had the maple-baked arctic char and an amazing bruschetta for dinner. But their monthly dinners piqued my interest, which feature a different cuisine. Lebanese and Austrian nights were huge hits and owners Tess and Jeroen made their favourite recipes for Indonesian night.
There’s also a country store so it’s worth stopping in for a meal or just a look around the store.
Fall River Restaurant
21980 Highway 7, Maberly, ON
Where to Stay in Perth
The largest hotel in Perth is the Best Western, which includes the White House next door. It’s a historical building with 7 rooms but modern amenities like a hot hydro massage therapy tub (which I used and it was incredible).
It’s next door to the Parkside Spa, which looks onto the park, a favourite for weddings. A full service Aveda Spa and salon I was so happy they offered a Maple Mani Pedi package. It incorporates uses maple syrup in the milk bath, maple sugar sand in the pedicure rub, maple sap in the shea butter and body lotion.
I also got the inside scoop on the two person pedicure room. A regular pedicure is $59 but you can get a private room for two people to get pedicures and enjoy wine and cheese for $140 – just $11 more per person.
Best Western Plus Perth and Parkside Spa
82 Peter Street, Perth, ON
If you know of another great place in Lanark County that features the amazing quality of maple syrup in Ontario I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.
Disclosure: This post about maple syrup in Ontario: Lanark County was in partnership with Ontario’s Highlands Come Wander campaign , Ottawa Valley Tourist Association and Lanark County. I was so excited to see such an authentic experience that isn’t just a manufactured product for tourists but something locals do. For all my friends who ask me about going to a sugar shack in Quebec I’m happy to recommend sending them to Lanark County for the real experience.