PRIYA GANAPATHY goes on a journey across the Canadian countryside to explore popular weekend breaks
“Beautiful day, eh?” smiled the man in the elevator, noting my snug over-the-top preparedness for the famous Canadian ‘wind chill factor’. He was in a tee and slacks. Having just landed in Toronto with a suitcase full of apparel to tackle the year from sun to snow, I looked set to go ‘trudging across the Tundra’, as Frank Zappa sang in ‘Don’t You Eat The Yellow Snow’! Occupying 9.98 million sq km of the world, Canada was indeed the Great White North. And one couldn’t let the cold get in the way.
After two weeks of whirlwind tours within Toronto witnessing street carnivals, festivals featuring local bands, buskers and pigging out at Ribfests, I wanted to do what local Canadians did almost every weekend – drive out to the country. Come spring and the expressways transform into steady lines of vehicles heading out of town, sailboats, cycles, and kayaks in tow. Families, couples and friends planned quick escapes from the week’s drudgery in advance. With tons of B&Bs and villas in the countryside, a love for the outdoors was definitely ingrained in Canadian life.
The dazzling diversity of Canada’s landscape offered a perfect backdrop for big ticket flicks like the Twilight series, Titanic, The Incredible Hulk, Brokeback Mountain, besides several Hindi movies. But I didn’t want to whoosh around its ten provinces and three territories, ticking off an imaginary bucket list or buying ‘Made in China’ souvenirs at malls. I was after the real thing, rooted in ancient histories and rarities. Canada is meant for slow travel and Ontario province presented delightful experiences.
Stoked by childhood memories of playing Cowboys and Indians and learning about Nanook of the North, I took off to Whetung Ojibwa Crafts and Art Centre on Curve Lake, a 1½ hour drive from Toronto via Pickering and Peterborough. Set in the scenic Kawarthas, literally ‘land of reflections’ alluding to its immense network of lakes, Whetung is a fabulous showcase of cultural traditions and arts of the First Nations or aboriginal Canadians. Flanked by gorgeously painted totem poles, the centre has a workshop, Christmas shop and a picnic spot. One can endlessly browse galleries displaying handcrafted canoes, painted oars, birch bark and grass baskets, beadwork, dolls, moccasins, jackets and feathered accessories.
Opened as a fishing lodge in the 1900s, the Whetung family ran steamboat cruises on the lakes. Four decades later they began a grocery and gift store which evolved into an enterprise promoting local arts as a cottage industry. The museum exhibits fabulous Native American collectibles from all over Canada. Superb carvings, pottery, quillwork, vibrant masks, jewellery, bead art and original paintings revealing an intrinsic spiritual connection with nature, keep visitors engaged for hours. I bought leather-strung inukshuks representing stone cairns or friendly spirit guides for safe travel, silver dreamcatchers, Haida art brooches and a scarf with aboriginal artist Ioyan Mani’s (a.ka. Maxine Noel) flowing art.
Another day, we drove to Lake Scugog and Port Perry for the Sunrise Ceremony that kicked off the traditional Pow Wow (gathering of indigenous communities) of the Mississaugas. The unique 2-day festival takes place all year round in different parts of Canada offering glimpses of a heritage long forgotten. Usually free and open to all, powwows are marked by traditional songs, dances, drumbeats and forging friendships, old and new. We sat mesmerised by the resplendent costumes, flowing robes, flying feathers and tassels as archaic ululations filled the air.
We cruised around Port Perry’s charming heritage houses and historic buildings and backtracked to the 19th century on a guided tour around the quaint Pioneer Village of Scugog Shores Museums. Old artefacts, a wigwam, bonfire and a drummer enhanced the ambient setting for a sacred Summer Solstice Ceremony by the waterside, where we received blessings from The Elders and listened to Metis and Inuits sharing their ancient wisdom.
The Town Crier competition provided an odd brush with British tradition. Flamboyantly dressed men and women rang their bells and bellowed in grand old fashion for the title, as elegant ladies in gowns and fussy hats glided around the fair like atmosphere. Evidently, the eloquent art of Town Crying is very much alive and the legacy of the Queen still thrives in Canada!
An easy hour’s drive west of Toronto took us past great fields of green and gold, dotted with distant barns and rustic scenes to St Jacobs. This was pure Mennonite territory where the closely knit orthodox community faithfully preserved the religion and customs of their forefathers. Men in black coats and hats and women clad in apron gowns and bonnets went about their everyday tasks. Founded as Jakobstettel 163 years ago, St Jacobs is a cheery little place best explored on foot, cycle, bike or car. En route horse-drawn wagons and buggies trot along as hand-painted or whimsy metal signs lure you into boutiques with exquisite quilts, crafts, antiques and furniture. Stepping into art studios, theatres, breweries, restaurants and the Maple Syrup Museum, makes you feel like Goldilocks in an Artists’ Village, wanting to try or buy everything!
I stumbled into the Silo Weavers, Conestoga River Pottery and the stunning Thorn Glass Studio. Entering the home of Gerald Ueberschlag and Marlene, I discovered that he was artist Gerry Ueber who brilliantly captured Canada’s landscapes and seascapes, from the Muskokas to his Mennonite surroundings! The Mennonites are rather aloof, so the Visitor’s Centre thoughtfully provides information about their culture. St Jacobs Farmers Market and Flea Market (open Sat and Thurs year-round, Tue in summer) just 3km away, entices visitors with farm produce – vegetables, fruit, meat, cheese, breads and bakes, delicious apple fritters and handcrafted items.
We took a detour to West Montrose near Waterloo to see the last standing covered bridge of Ontario. Used only by pedestrians, buggies and light vehicles, this 198ft wooden wonder built by John Bear in 1880, was reinforced with concrete and squats prettily across the Grand River. Nicknamed the Kissing Bridge, it was a favourite haunt for lovers to steal a peck in the conventional society of yore. In winters, the region turns into a skating and cross-country skiing venue. Fishing and canoeing along the beautiful Conestogo and Grand rivers and numerous trekking and birding trails draw nature lovers deeper into the vistas of Woolwich, Elmira and Elora, a heritage town on the river’s edge.
A day trip to Trent-Severn Waterway regions took us to the wet belly of Central Ontario where boat cruises operate along a 387km stretch of waterway. An extraordinary feat of engineering excellence, it took 87 years to put the whole system of 41 locks, a marine railway and 2 awe-inspiring hydraulic lift locks in place. Astonishingly, aboriginal folk ran boats on these waters 9000 years ago! We floated down lakes and channels, gazing at dreamy riverside villas, flying geese and rowing teams at practice. Soon, we were swept 65ft up in our boat at Lock 21, the famous Peterborough Lift Lock that shunts boats and small ships to the higher canals!
For a taste of rugged county, nothing beats the winding trails along Niagara Escarpment. Our expedition to Rattlesnake Conservation Point, part of the escarpment during the Ice Ages, turned into a day-long picnic in rock-climbing haven amidst cliffs and tall cedars. We clocked another quick getaway to panoramic Spencer’s Gorge and Webster’s waterfall with great hikes around.
The spectacular long drive via Muskoka to Algonquin, Canada’s oldest provincial park was the highpoint. Fall colours burst through in yellow, red, maroon and orange as if the forests and mountains were engulfed in flames. Over 17 well-marked adventure trails are strewn across an incredibly handsome terrain of craggy rocks, glacial lakes, rivers and dense jungle.
Just 1½ hours from Toronto, the bewitching historic city Niagara on the Lake, is an excursion to die for. En route strawberry fields and cherry farms invite visitors to go berry picking as wineries beckon with wine-tasting sessions. A strip of land spanning 6 miles along Niagara’s western bank, bought from the Mississaugas for a mere “300 suits of clothing” by the British in 1781, today Niagara on the Lake is the loveliest corner of Ontario.
Its streets are festooned with flower baskets and romantic lampposts, archaic letterboxes line the sidewalks as horse-drawn carriages clip-clop alongside automobiles. We sauntered around old buildings, the Royal King’s Hotel, Native American boutiques, the Historical Society Museum housing 16th-17th century relics, Fort George and the old Pumphouse overlooking the magnificent Niagara River. Even its parks and cemeteries were picture perfect.
Enthused by the Niagara Parkway route, we drove to Laura Secord’s homestead. Not the chocolate house I imagined but the home of a legendary heroine who undertook a perilous 32km journey on foot to warn the British about a surprise attack by the Americans in 1813! A century later, a chocolate company branded their products in her honour and renovated her house as a gift to Niagara Parks. Our extended jaunt to Queenston Escarpment unfolded a stupendous river view. On the other side, the stars and stripes fluttered across the US border!
Twenty minutes later, we pulled over at Canada’s biggest tourist attraction, Niagara Falls. People surge in daily to get drenched under the world famous horseshoe cascade. I could blow my trumpet about my priceless keepsake – an iconic blue Maid of the Mist raincoat from Canada’s legendary cruise that closed operations in 2013. Perhaps, with the thrilling Voyage to the Falls and Illumination & Fireworks spectacle on the newly introduced Hornblower Niagara Cruises, it was time for an upgrade.
Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the Mar 2015 issue of JetWings magazine.