The Highlands of Ontario: Come Wander
Ontario is a province that's large, diverse, and full of surprises, which is particularly true in the case of Ontario's Highlands. Recently, I teamed up with Ontario's Highlands on their "Come Wander Campaign," which, in my opinion is all about realizing that the Highlands of Ontario have something for everyone, and it's really all about deciding how you want to fit into the fold.
In my case, based on my travel history and general attitude towards exploration, I was pegged as the "Rustic Roamer." On their website, they describe the Rustic Roamer in the following way, " 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."
If you've been reading my website for any length of time, you'll know that Ontario's Highlands actually pegged me very well as, if that wasn't a description for the Rustic Roamer, it could just as easily be my eventual epitaph.
If you want to see what kind of wanderer you are, you can head to the Ontario's Highlands website and take their fun little quiz, by clicking the link. You'll find out whether, like me, you're a Rustic Roamer, or whether you might in fact be a Serenity Seeker, Creative Cruiser, Freedom Finder, or Memory Maker.
NOTE: This post may contain some affiliate links. That means, simply, that I may get a commission at no cost to you. That being said, my opinions are fully my own.
Where are Ontario's Highlands, Anyhow?
When we're thinking about these famed Highlands of Ontario, we're talking about 6 distinct areas which are all worth visiting in their own right, but do contain a certain geographic and cultural thread. Make no mistake, within Ontario's Highlands there are no shortage of Ontario tourist attractions which any Ontarian, Canadian, and tourist in general should take note of. Ideally, I'll be able to help you plan an itinerary that suits your needs.
The Highlands consist of the Haliburton Highlands, Hastings County, Lennox and Addington, Frontenac County, Lanark County, and Ottawa Valley. In participating in the Rustic Roamer Wandering Route, I was focusing primarily on exploring the Haliburton Highlands as well as Hastings County, spending roughly equal time in each region.
That being said, I can speak from experience when noting that the other regions of Ontario's Highlands are well worth exploring. My father grew up in Lanark County's Perth, Ontario, and I've spent a significant amount of time there. It'd be hard to find a more quaint town in Canada as far as I'm concerned. My family also has a cottage not far away, which is, quite frankly, my happy place on this planet.
If you do decide to come wander Ontario's Highlands (and you should), know that you'll be trying to cover nearly 24,000 square kilometres which, for context, is just a little smaller than the country of Belgium. Impressive, right?
Before I diverge too far, let's focus on what makes the Highlands of Ontario special and, in particular, the Haliburton Highlands and Hastings County.
The Top Experiences in Ontario's Highlands
Keep in mind again, that I'll be focusing on the top experiences that pertain to my role as "Rustic Roamer," on the Rustic Roamer Wandering Route. Furthermore, I'll be highlighting experiences focused on both the Haliburton Highlands and Hastings County, which isn't to suggest that other regions of Ontario's Highlands don't have value, but rather this is where I explored and found value myself on this particular trip.
Hawk Lake Log Chute
Personally, I'd never visited a log chute before, as most of Ontario's log chutes are dead and gone. Yet, despite some damage done this previous winter, the Hawk Lake Log Chute still remains. In many ways, its presence is a nod to another time, when tens of thousands of men used chutes like this propel our logging industry forward.
There's been a log chute here since 1861, and it's now the only one its kind in Ontario which, in my books, makes it well worth a visit. It's something to behold, and it's a window into the past, largely because of the small exhibit that's near the Hawk Lake Log Chute which contextualizes the experience. One logger was quoted in 1947 talking about another logger, "I remember the first morning we went up there to start tailing the Hawk river and I said I wonder how we're going to get them logs into the water. You see, I'd never done it before. When we come to the river, this old Sam Whittaker...he went into the river up to his neck and started pulling those logs up and that water was just ice cold. He was so tough, we just went in, too, and never said a word."
You're not coming to Ritchie Falls to be blown away by the sight of an enormous waterfall, but rather to take a pleasant stroll and observe several falls that are all lovely in their own right. The largest falls is right under the bridge near Ritchie Falls Road, and I'd recommend you park around there, then walk down to the other waterfalls.
Here, in the above photo, Bri is looking upstream towards all three of "main falls." For my money, this is arguably the most picturesque spot on the Rustic Roamer Wandering Route, and you can also imagine that the sounds of nature and the falls only add to the serenity of it all. It's relatively easy to get to which, in my opinion, makes Ritchie Falls a must visit. If you're looking for it on a map, it's not far from Lochlin, Ontario.
A Yours Outdoors Tour
I can't think of a better way to explore the Haliburton Highlands than under the guidance of Barrie Martin who, on the Yours Outdoors website, describes himself as the "owner and experience broker" of the whole operation. His wife, Pat, also joined us for our day of adventuring and it's fair to say they make a dynamic duo.
Yours Outdoors is all about showcasing the Haliburton Highlands in a number of ways, whether that be art, nature, history, or outdoor recreation. I know from speaking to Barrie extensively that Yours Outdoors has many featured experiences but, also, many of the tours he runs are curated to the interests of the participants, as was the case for us. Technically, we did the Stray Cats Tour, but I know that Barrie took the time to put a special twist or two on the tour for us. The tour is all about answering, "what is there to do in Haliburton County?" It was a question I felt he answered very well.
Let's talk about what we did because, whether you're someone who likes to do tours or not, these were interesting experiences that highlight some great spots in the Haliburton Highlands.
E-Biking Along the Rail Trail with Peddle Creek
Getting on an E-Bike is surprisingly enjoyable, I must admit. I know that serious bikers give some flack to the E-bikers of the world out there, but one major benefit is that it allows you to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. Thus, we were able to see a fair portion of Haliburton Highland's famed Rail Trail. As you might have guessed, the old rails were removed and the path became a trail for public use.
Nowadays, it's also popular among those with ATVs, and those with snowmobiles in the winter. Considering I topped out my E-Bike around 30 kilometres per hour, I've really did have a good time. Peddle Creek is a new company that's just getting off the ground, so perhaps look in their direction if you'll be in the Haliburton Highlands and want to do the same.
Singing Dog Studio
Thom Lambert is a man who, when he isn't creating, you get the sense that he's envisioning his next project. In the basement of this house, Thom runs Singing Dog Studio, where he focuses on creating ceramic art that's inspired by nature, and particularly what he sees in the Haliburton Highlands and the Highlands of Ontario in general. He kindly welcomed us into his studio on our "Stray Cats Tour," so we could get a better understanding of the strong artistic movement that's based in Haliburton, Ontario and the surrounding area.
I asked Thom what he enjoyed the most about this impressive creative endeavour and he noted, "I just love clay...I like the way it reacts. I like the way that it records motion. My favourite pots are actually pots where you can see the process of them being made. So, that's what I like about it."
Haliburton Sculpture Forest
My wife grew up going to a cottage that isn't all that far from Haliburton and, when we arrived, she looked around in wonder and said, "I can't believe I didn't know this was here this whole time." I think that experience was replicated a fair amount of times during our discovery of Ontario's Highlands.
The Haliburton Sculpture Forest is located behind the Haliburton School of Art and Design in Glebe Park, and it features over 30 sculptures from both Canadian and International artists, all of which are interesting and thought provoking in their own right. It's a wonderful place to bring a family, or, conversely, just take a nice long stroll on your own and just get lost in contemplation. If you're interested in learning more about what you might see, you can take a peak at the sculpture map before you enter, or even reference it while you're in the sculpture forest.
I'd strongly recommend at least taking a little wander through "the forest that is touched by magic."
Meeting the "Mayor of Essonville"
Albert John Saxby is a singer, songwriter, artist, and likely a few hundred other titles. I can say with relative certainty that he operates and maintains one of the coolest properties I've ever visited. When we arrived, he showed us around, taking note of the stage that would be used to host a small music festival the following weekend. He also pointed us towards his unique art, as well as the adult treehouse/watchtower and vantage point he had built. There's also a stone koi pond on the property, so this place just has it all.
The best part about this was learning that you too can visit Albert by staying at the house which is adjacent to his. It's all apart of his new Airbnb listing, which he calls the "Hippo in a Birdcage Bed and Breakfast." There's not a whole lot going on in Essonville, Ontario these days and, as such, John colloquially refers to himself as the "Mayor of Essonville," despite not formally being elected. With all that said, I get the feeling that John is more focused on what's going on on his property that anything a piece of paper might say or not say at a desk far away.
Both Bri and I are committed to heading back there, and spending some more time with John, and hopefully to meet his wife Sandra and their kids. This place is truly something else, and it might just be your ideal place to stay in the Haliburton Highlands
Other Highlights of the Yours Outdoors "Stray Cats Tour" of the Halburton Highlands
The Scenery - As you can see now, the Yours Outdoors Tour fit a lot in, and much of what was beautiful was what you could see on the side of the road on the way to different places. It was further proof that the Haliburton Highlands are quite something if you know where to look and that, generally speaking, there's a lot to see in Ontario's Highlands.
Haliburton School of Art and Design - Fleming College's Haliburton School of Art and Design is an interesting building, but its really the effect that this place has on the community that's special. Walking through during summer hours, I could see residents taking part in classes that ranged from glasswork to woodworking and everything in between. Having a place like this in Haliburton, Ontario just ensures that Haliburton will continue to be a creative and interesting place, and I really appreciate that.
Haliburton Highlands Outdoors Association - Randy Charter, the new manager for the HHOA, kindly toured us around the facility of the hatchery, and proudly spoke about all the upcoming events. It's clear this is a beacon for the community, as they offer everything from free archery lessons to big dinners that bring everybody together. To me, the Haliburton Highlands Outdoors Association represented what a tight-knit community Haliburton and the Haliburton Highlands really area.
Bancroft Village Playhouse
Both Bri and I adore live theatre, so when we found out that we'd be attending a performance at the nearly 100 year old Bancroft Village Playhouse we were ecstatic. The Bancroft Village Playhouse is a staple in the community, and it's a place that gives back to the community in a number of ways. It's aligned with several initiatives to support the surrounding community, but, more bluntly, it's also a beacon of culture, where the town (and others) can come to be taken to another world, or another time.
That's precisely the case with Tweed and Company's production of "Hastings: The Musical," which has finished its run now, but was widely celebrated. The story, recounting the birth of Hastings County, was just downright fun to watch unfold, and the cast had an unmistakable connection on stage which just made you want to root for them. I'll be honest, I'm not really someone whose first choice for a performance would be a musical, but I'd listen to these guys sing all day. At the end, a standing ovation was a foregone conclusion, and both Bri and I were happy to be a part of that deserved celebration.
I'd certainly be happy to go back to the Bancroft Village Playhouse for another performance, it's an intimate venue that makes you feel like you're a part of the show, rather than a bystander in the audience. I can't imagine there's a better spot to catch a show in all of the Ontario Highlands.
Ontario Water Buffalo Company
It was fascinating to walk around the grounds of the Ontario Water Buffalo Company, but that was largely due to the fact that our tour was led by Lori Smith. Lori was a picture perfect host and so generous with her time and information. The way that she interacted with the animals, from kittens to buffalo, clearly pegged her as something of an animal whisperer.
She started the company in 2008 with her husband Martin by purchasing just ten buffaloes. Now, they've got nearly 500, and it's quite the operation. The Ontario Water Buffalo Company was home to the first milking herd in Eastern Ontario (and certainly in Ontario's Highlands), and the second in Canada.
If you're driving past, be sure to stop by and get yourself some authentic buffalo mozzarella, or a scoop of ice cream made with buffalo milk!
Exploring the Towns on the Rustic Roamer Wandering Route
While I've highlighted some of the main sights that you could hope to see in Ontario's Highlands, it's also worth your time to take a moment exploring a handful of towns that are on the route, and each have their own charming culture.
Here are the towns I feel you should at least briefly stop in:
Coe Hill, Ontario - It's technically a hamlet it's so small, but it's also technically adorable. Tinhouse Woodworking in particular is a nice place to stop to buy a knickknack or two that might look nice on the wall. I'd recommend parking your car and spending some day walking down the main strip. As the sign says when you enter, "there's no hill like Coe Hill!"
Haliburton, Ontario - Haliburton is, in many ways, the hub of the area, particularly on the route that I did. It's the quintessential cottage town replete with a burgeoning art scene, great restaurants, and a vibe that anyone can appreciate. Any summer afternoon would be well spent in Haliburton.
Madoc, Ontario - Madoc has a rich mining history which has continued almost up the present day. If you're a photographer, both Durham and St.Lawrence offer a good opportunity to capture the small town Ontario feel, especially in the warmer months. Again, it's a nice place to park your car, and walk down the main strip.
Bancroft, Ontario - It's known as the mineral capital of Canada and, as such, the town has quite an illustrious history. I still maintain that the real gem (no pun intended) of this town is the Bancroft Village Playhouse. If you get the chance, go and catch a show here and support the local community. Also, if you want a vantage point of the town, head to the "Eagle's Nest," which is just a 5 minute drive out of town. It's actually on Google Maps, so it's not hard to find.
Minden, Ontario - Like the other towns listed here, Minden is small but pretty, and a nice place for a stroll in the summer. If I were you, I'd park my car, then walk down one side of the Gull River, and back up the other side, it's as nice a walk as you'll find.
The Top Accommodation in Ontario's Highlands
Now, considering the time that I was actually in the beloved Highlands of Ontario, I only got the chance to stay at two different establishments, but I've researched the region enough to know that these two places are special. In light of that, I'm comfortable giving both of these places my blessing, and strongly recommending them.
Sunny Rock Bed and Breakfast
For me, Sunny Rock Bed and Breakfast offered the break I never knew I needed. It begins and ends with Sally at Sunny Rock B and B, as far as I'm concerned. While her partner wasn't there to share the load, she managed perfectly, and you could just tell that her heart was in it. One minute we were getting a tour of the beautiful property, and the next I was seated beside her at the player piano bellowing out tunes.
We arrived back to Sunny Rock a little late, and she was up, being sure to offer us just a touch of some Kawartha Dairy Ice-Cream, and an exclusive flavour at that. In the morning, she made breakfast for Bri and I, and made sure mine was a touch more savoury and Bri's was a little more sweet (our preferences) - that's the sort of host that Sally is. Sally has been running this place with her partner for quite some time, and with her camp and education background, it really felt like a sort of camp for adults. When we did leave the next morning, we left with our bellies full, and unmistakable smiles on our faces. It's very much a home away from home.
Sally scouted 450 properties before deciding to make this the home of Sunny Rock Bed and Breakfast, so you can feel the pride she has for this place, and it's well deserved. If you’re interested in booking a few nights at this charming property, I would highly recommend it.
Benaaron Guest House
Bri and I arrived well after dark, and Ron and Elaine stayed up to greet us because, honestly, you just couldn't find more caring and kind hosts. We felt at home right away, and our room and the overall property was just stunning. The view from our room in particular was something you'd think you'd find in Switzerland as opposed to Ontario's Highlands. I woke up early to catch the sunrise, and I can rarely recall a more serene experience.
In the morning, breakfast was superb. We started with a banana coconut load and homemade granola, and then I'm fairly sure I blacked out because it was so delicious. In my dreamlike state, I do remember something about homemade french toast made from baguette and crisp bacon. After breakfast, we took a tour of the house, and you can see how carefully Ron and Elaine designed Benaaron Guest House to the very last detail. I was personally a fan of the theatre room, which seemed unparalleled for watching a Maple Leafs game there in the future.
Plain and simple, Bri and I loved this place, and I just couldn't recommend a place more because if you book a few nights to stay here, with Ron and Elaine, you're in good hands.
The Top Restaurants in Ontario's Highlands
Below, I want to highlight the restaurants that I found to be worth the visit while I was on the Rustic Roamer Wandering Route in the Ontario Highlands. You'll note that they aren't all bunched in one town, but rather spread fairly nicely across the region.
Rhubarb (Minden, Ontario) - With Rhubarb, you've got an upscale option with a menu that reflects what can be sourced locally. Bri had a piece of rainbow trout that was sensational, and their in-house desserts were scrumptious - I had a slice of caramel pecan cheesecake that was beyond decadent. Not to mention, there's a brewery right next door, so that never hurts. It's a good spot, plain and simple.
La Luna Del Nordo (Haliburton, Ontario) - Since I ate there, I've had several dreams about the veal sandwich, and I wish I was kidding. I'm a fan of La Luna Del Nordo simply because of the size of their portions. I regularly leave restaurants wishing I'd had a little bit more, but I left La Luna Del Nordo with leftovers, and that's truly something. It's solid Italian cuisine in the heart of Ontario's Highlands. Don't forget to bring your appetite.
Bancroft Brew Pub (Bancroft, Ontario) - When we arrived, the Bancroft Brew Pub was jam-packed, so I can definitely tell you that it's a crowd favourite in Bancroft and the surrounding area. It's also conveniently located across the street from the Bancroft Village Playhouse, so it's a good spot to get a bite before a show. They've got good pub food and a fair amount of beers on tap. If you go, you've got to promise me you'll get the dill pickle fries as an appetizer, they rocked my world.
Baked & Battered (Haliburton, Ontario) - On one side, you've got salads and your healthier options (hence baked), on the other side it's all about the fish fry (hence battered). I couldn't resist, I went straight to the battered side of Baked & Battered, and I've got precisely zero regrets. Do the right thing, get the fish and chips. They'll have several options on the menu, typically halibut, pickerel, and Alaskan halibut. Go for the Alaskan halibut - trust me on this one.
The Barn Chefs (Coe Hill, Ontario) - The Barn Chefs describe themselves as a "taste of Italy in Coe Hill," and I'd say that sums it up pretty well. I had the pleasure of meeting Luca, a fourth generation chef who is from Italy and you can tell that this place is his pride and joy, and the same goes for his wife Sarah. I went on Friday because they serve pizza on Friday with some of the meats and cheeses that they sell. The pizza cooks in just a matter of minutes in a 700 degree oven, and I would drive a fair distance to make sure I get back there on another Friday. Regularly, it's a specialty meat and cheese shop, so just remember that Friday is your only day to dine on this pizza - plan accordingly!
Hidden Goldmine Bakery (Madoc, Ontario) - If you want to get your rural Ontario butter tart fix, then you likely won't find many better spots than Hidden Goldmine Bakery. Their selection of desserts (particularly the fudge), is astonishing, and if you've got a sweet tooth, then I'd head straight for this place. I had a cup of coffee and a pecan butter tart, and I'm quite certain it improved my quality of life a couple of percent.
So, Why Come to Ontario's Highlands?
The detailed post that you've seen above follows a route that really emphasizes what makes both the Haliburton Highlands and Hastings County special, but the region at large has some impressive accolades. Ottawa Valley is the whitewater capital of Canada, Lanark County is the maple syrup capital of Ontario, and the Highlands East is the geocaching capital of Canada.
What I hope to emphasize with this post is that there's something for everyone in Ontario's Highlands, whether you like dramatic views looking over Bancroft from the Eagle's Nest, or just want a Sunday afternoon butter-tart.
Part of the reason I've relished the opportunity to be back in Ontario, and ultimately write about it, is I feel so much of these regions just aren't known about. I mean, Bri grew up going to a cottage near Haliburton, and she never even knew the sculpture park was there. In producing more content about Ontario, I've been floored by the positive response from people who are looking to explore this province more intentionally.
And, with this post, I hope you realize that it's worth turning your gaze towards Ontario's Highlands, a region with warm people, cool rushing water, and endless views.
I want to humbly thank Ontario's Highlands for hosting me. All opinions are my own. I want to hear from you guys. Have you been to these areas before? Is there any one place that you loved? If you haven't been, does this article make you want to go? Are you from the region and did we meet? If so, throw a story in the comments and I'd love to get back to you. Anything and everything is welcomed!
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