I’m not the kind of traveler who likes a strict itinerary. I don’t seek out monuments, or museums or have a check list of everything I need to do. Even when I travel with others I prefer to pick 1-3 things that are “must-sees” and then we can negotiate the rest.
I definitely prefer to let a new destination surprise me rather than scour random travel lists for what other people think I should do.
This is why I really enjoyed spending the last week in Ontario’s Highlands. It was a region that I didn’t know existed (oh…we have Highlands?) and one that didn’t need a formal schedule to discover.
Instead it was the perfect remedy for someone like me who adheres to a strict calendar each week to manage everything that happens between writing this blog, managing our restaurant Loka, and trying to fit in time with friends.
Like everyone else, I find my life is too busy.
But Ontario’s Highlands is a respite from all of that. It doesn’t demand that you unplug, simply that you unwind. You don’t have to spend your time waiting in line for some attraction, and rush hour there is…well, non-existent.
I took the quiz at FindYourInnerWanderer.ca to help guide the plan and discovered that I was a Rustic Roamer:
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.
Nearly a four-hour drive, it was just far enough to feel like I had distance from city life, and while I went to check out the food I also wanted to share the other things I discovered in Ontario’s Highlands.
9 Reasons to Wander Ontario’s Highlands
1. Maple Syrup
This is why I came to Ontario’s Highlands. Initially to take the Ottawa Valley Maple Adventures tour and then onto Lanark County, the Maple Syrup capital of Ontario. I learned far more about maple syrup than I thought was possible.
Spectacle Lake Lodge offers a maple cooking class and other restaurants from Fall River in Maberly to Chesswood in Carleton Place incorporate it into their menu while Stone Cellar in Perth offers a 5-course maple dinner.
If you’ve been thinking about heading to Quebec during Maple Syrup season read this post about why you may want to check out Lanark County instead.
As a rural area there are lots of opportunities to go hiking and exploring. I appreciate the small opportunities to go on 1-2km hikes like at Shaw Woods or walking with Don to the sugar shack at The Deakins B&B. The Japanese may have coined the name for forest bathing but I think everyone knows getting fresh air is a good thing.
3. White Water Rafting
I am not an outdoor adventurer or extreme adventurer. And while I would never go white water rafting I know others love it. If you’ve never tried it Ottawa Valley is the place to go white water rafting.
There’s also stand up paddle boarding, mountain biking and many other extreme adventures I’ll never do!
4. Craft Brewers and Distillers
One of my favourite ways to understand a region and its history is through beer and spirits. I know that seems laughable but when you talk to people sourcing local ingredients they begin to talk more about local traditions and history than the act of finding the ingredient.
This was true talking to Chris Thompson from White Water Brewing about sourcing hops in the Ottawa Valley. Perth Brewery and Top Shelf Craft Distillers also focus on using local product from the Ontario’s Highlands and love talking about it.
5. Roadside Stands
City dwellers love farmer’s markets but roadside farmer’s stands are so much better – and without city prices. Ontario’s Highlands are dotted with farm stands, u-picks and country stores. You can find fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables and so many baked goods like those at Coutts Country Flavours.
6. Picturesque Towns
Maybe it’s my age but I really love walking around cute towns without any plans to see something specific. Many times these towns exist only for tourists like Burano in Italy , Caminito in Buenos Aires or even Trinity Newfoundland.
But here towns exist for locals, not just your instagram feed. I loved staying over in Almonte, a former mill town that now has lots of little shops, galleries and the amusing owner of Don’s Meat Market. Carleton Place and Perth, which were once home to Scottish stonemason immigrants, have a surprisingly thriving downtown core for their small population.
7. To Slooooowwwww Down
There’s something really nice about visiting a region that doesn’t have a long to-do list of tourist attractions you have to see. There are no long line-ups, long waiting lists or traffic jams. You can take your time here and just relax.
Don’t get me wrong, there is so much to do – and so much to eat. But if you decide to sleep in that extra hour you’ll be fine. Life here is about enjoying the moment instead of rushing from one place to the next. This was exactly what I needed- distance from the city, not just geographically but also philosophically.
8. Sugar Bushes
I know I mentioned maple syrup but I think sugar bushes (maple tree plantations) deserve their own category. Local maple syrup producers often keep a store open all year round. You can just stop in and buy their product.
Some are smaller producers like Mapleside Sugar Bush where you can stop in for a tasting of maple syrup and others like Wheeler’s Maple Syrup Camp have a full restaurant, maple objects museum a small animal farm and this vintage chainsaw collection. There’s something for everyone.
9. The People
Without a doubt the reason to come to Ontario’s Highlands is to meet the people. I love living in Toronto. But as a former small town girl I miss the hospitality and friendliness of small towns.
I also love the energy of people who want to stay in their town and help it grow by building news businesses like artisan chocolate makers Hummingbird Chocolate, fair trade proponents Equator Coffee Roasters, and Doris and Ed from Healthy Food Technologies who invented a machine to create low-fat doughnuts.
It reminds me that the city isn’t the only spot to create, invent and inspire.
I only spent five days in Ontario’s Highlands but there was so much more I wanted to do. More farms, cheesemakers, breweries, festivals…
If you’re craving a city escape you can take the quiz to find out what kind of wanderer you are for a chance to win a free vacation. I may need Dave to take this quiz because I’m already thinking it could be the right place for a fall adventure.
This post about the Ontario’s Highlands is in partnership with the 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.