Updated: Mar 17, 2020
One thing that makes Toronto great is its gorgeous summers. With the vibrancy of nature in full swing, the city comes alive with people enjoying the [limited] warm weather. This also means it’s the season of road trips and exploring the great outdoors of Ontario.
While the Niagara and Hamilton regions are very popular for day trips (and for good reason!), I find myself craving for something different. My prayers were answered in two words: Haliburton and The Kawarthas, okay, technically four words. If you’re anything like me, the only correlation I had to either of the destinations was the delicious ice cream sold in specialty grocery stores – the aptly named Kawartha Dairy Ice Cream. Never did I think of venturing beyond that until recently. If you’re curious to know what these towns have to offer, then you’ll want to continue reading!
A 2.5-hour drive northeast of Toronto, you’ll find yourself in a beautiful green area known as the Haliburton Forest & Wild Life Reserve. When I say area, it’s actually a really big area – the forest itself is comprised of 100 000 acres, 100 lakes and home to a whole lot of nature and animals. One such animal has an entire facility dedicated to it: known as the Wolf Centre. This is where we decided our first stop of the day would be.
A 5 000 square foot complex filled with everything you need to know about the wild canines, including an informational cinema and classroom. Complete with an observation deck, you are almost guaranteed to see at least one member of the resident wolf pack on your visit. During our stay, we sat patiently waiting for about 20 minutes keeping our eyes peeled outside the windows of the observatory and finally noticed one of the wolves perched on top of the hill in the distance. A friendly staff member who was sitting with us speaking about the wolves (knowing each resident member by name) noticed the wolf was a little shy and was keeping its distance. To our delight, he went out to do a howl to see if it would be willing to come down and grace us with its presence. Sure enough, the alpha of the pack came trotting down as we oooh’d and ahhh’d from behind the glass. We were lucky enough to see a second wolf not too long after, trailing behind his mother as they made their way to the watering hole nearby. What a treat!
Speaking of treats, if you are looking for a more interactive experience, the daily Kennel Kisses (at 4 PM) opens its doors to the onsite Siberian huskies giving you an opportunity to get up close and personal with the friendly dogs. I mean, who doesn’t love huskies?! While we would have LOVED to get in a cuddle session with the super cute pups, we had another activity planned for the afternoon.
We decided to embark on a 4-hour adventure tour; scaling the forest among canopy boardwalks 10-20 metres above the ground. At half a kilometre long, it is said to be longest canopy boardwalk of its kind (according to the website). While it did not feel as high up or the track as diverse as the treetop trek I’ve done at the Horseshoe Resort in Barrie (which I also highly recommend), I found this one to be a lot easier to do and a good option for anyone looking to take their time and truly absorb nature. It starts with a quick intro to your tour guides and an ice breaker to get to know the rest of the tour group. Then off we go as we hop into a shuttle for a short drive to the start of our journey. We are given paddles and life jackets as we walk towards a small lake, ready to hop on board our voyageur style canoe for a 10-minute warm-up as we row to the other side of the lake.
Next, comes the most strenuous part of the day – a hike up what the guides like to call, Huff and Puff Hill. As the name suggests, you are surely catching your breath by the end of the steep incline of a walk. We don our harnesses for the canopy trek and are given a safety briefing before we start. The next hour(ish) is spent among the treetops as we trail from one tree to the next. Half-way through the walk, there is a canopy deck where we are provided drinks and snacks as we sit down and get a chance to really appreciate the beauty and views around us. On a sunny summer day, trekking through the shaded trees is the perfect way to stay cool in the afternoon heat.
After the canopy tour, we make our way back to the canoe as we complete the tour in reverse. I really have to give it up to the super friendly and knowledgeable tour guides who made the trip a smooth and educational afternoon. I loved learning about the area – which I knew so little about before this. The Haliburton Forest has a pretty interesting history and it was great getting to know the strides in environmental sustainability the reserve has taken, resulting in a worldwide impact due to its innovative forestry initiatives. The passion our tour guides exude from what they do really makes a difference in the overall enjoyment of the trip.
If you have the time, I would recommend staying overnight at the reserve’s base camp as they’ve got so much more to offer. Tons of onsite accommodations to choose from and you can fill your days with other outdoor activities from 400 km worth of hiking trails to mountain biking, fishing, photography workshops, weekly evening wolf howls (awesome for the kids) as well as camping (all sites are waterfront!). If you’re here in the winter, try dog sledding with the Siberian huskies!
If you are on a tight schedule like we were, we ended our day in the Kawartha region. Only a half hour drive away, we made sure to plan a dinner stop before retiring to our final resting place for the night. Tonight’s dinner destination: The Riverside Inn. A quaint little restaurant with a welcoming vibe; it had a modern look on the outside –painted black exterior contrasted by bright yellow trims and fire-engine red patio furniture. Unobstructed views of the river across the street made dining outdoors very inviting. Inside had a different theme altogether; a cozy pub feel complete with fireplace and wooden decor! It truly had something for everyone. Although it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, when we arrived on a Monday evening, the place was almost full! Despite the volume of people, service was fantastic and hospitable – making you feel at home almost immediately.
For its small-town vibe, the menu was quite extensive! We decided to start off with a couple of appetizers: haddock sliders and bacon wrapped pickles (amazing, right?!). After an eventful afternoon of hiking, rowing and trekking, we were starving! The haddock sliders hit the spot with each substantial bite. Crispy, golden fish topped with fried onions, creamy coleslaw and tartar sauce sandwiched between two soft – but not too soft – buns. Basically fish and chips in a mini sandwich form, yum! And just the right amount without getting you too full for the next dish.
Our second starter of the evening was a generous portion of thick cut dill pickles wrapped in perfectly cooked bacon. A slight crunch on the edges of the bacon made for a nice crisp shell around the juicy pickle but not too crispy where you lose the taste of the pork. The side of chipotle aioli was absolute heaven in combination with the sour and savoury flavours. I don’t recall if this was my first time having bacon-wrapped pickles but this was definitely the first time I enjoyed it to the extent that I did. I don’t think I can go back to having pickles any other way at this point!
For our entrée we decided to share the Riverside Sizzler – peppers, onions and your choice of protein (chicken, beef or shrimp) piled high on a sizzling hot plate with a side of guacamole, sour cream, salsa, shredded cheese and warm tortillas. A decent price for fajitas considering all the fixings you receive (C$19.75) – I was impressed with the first bite of my wrap as the end pieces of steak were cooked just right – nice and tender and melted in your mouth. As I got closer to the middle of the steak however, I found the cut to be chewier and harder to bite. The flavouring of the dish itself was also a little more on the bland side with only a hint of smokiness. The guacamole also seemed to lack flavour, and colour, as it looked more pale than it did rich green. Overall not the best fajitas around but I would go back to try out the other entrees on its eclectic menu as I was very satisfied with the first two dishes.
On a full belly, we decided to walk off some of the calories by taking a stroll along the riverbank. A big grassy area laid next to the water with multiple park and picnic benches which were perfect for enjoying the views on a warm summer evening. The tranquil waters added to the relaxing atmosphere as you watched the skies turn a golden orange hue while the sun made its way down the horizon. By the time we arrived at our accommodation for the night, it didn’t take very long for us to fall fast asleep.
Our next day of adventure starts off with a big breakfast to fuel us for the activities ahead. We opted to check out the Durham Café; it has your neighbourhood corner vibe (as it was literally on the corner of a residential neighbourhood); one where the server would know your name if you lived in the area. And evidently so as the server was having conversations about her kids, summer plans and the like with a few of her tables. It was reminiscent of something you would find in a Gilmour Girls’ episode. A homey breakfast joint with GENEROUS portions at a great value. Everything on the menu seemed homemade – I love these kinds of places! I also appreciated the fact that for a breakfast place, you also had access to non-breakfast foods (personally I’m not big on eggs and pancakes so it was perfect for me!). It would be hard not to find something to your liking at Durham Cafe as it had everything from conventional breakfast foods to sandwiches, full salads and entrees.
After a delicious meal we were ready to tackle the day! In under 10 minutes we arrived at the Ken Reid Conservation area. With a few well-maintained hiking trails at our disposal we decided to go with the longest one – Point Loop (2.7 km round trip). This trail takes you along the edges of Sturgeon Lake with views of water and marshlands. Pros of this trail in my experience: there was no one else on the it; it was as if you had the whole place to yourself – giving you the opportunity to really feel one with nature with no distractions. Second pro was also a con: it was a super easy walk, with no uphill required; maybe a little too easy and monotonous for my own liking. Word of advice: make sure to pack mosquito repellent. I decided I would be a hero and brave it out – boy was that a mistake! I practically completed the last 500 metres of the trail running away from the little buggers and came out with tons of battle scars. Needless to say, the hike ended after that first loop. Had I been better prepared maybe we would have attempted a few of the shorter trails as it is said that you can catch tons of wildlife on your outing including snapping turtles, leopard frogs, red bellied snakes, osprey, deer, fox and many other animals!
To soothe my wounds after the hike, we treated ourselves to some Kawartha Dairy ice cream! No trip here would be complete without its infamous homemade treats. With tons of flavours to choose from in its 9 retail locations, it’d be hard to miss no matter which direction you go. It may just be me, but the ice cream tastes that much better when it’s coming straight from the source!
Finally, enough time to include one last stop before battling traffic into the city. And what better way to end a couple days of exploring nature and wildlife than by petting some alpacas?! Make sure to add Salem Alpacas to your itinerary if you’re in the area and looking to get a piece of that action. Although typically closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, we had contacted the farm a few weeks ahead to ask if we were able to come for a short visit and luckily, they were nice enough to accommodate our request! Not only did we get a private tour with the furry cuties, but we got to learn so much about them in such a laid-back environment. Only a small donation of C$2 is required for the tour – so worth it!
I am constantly amazed by how much there is to do and still discover about my hometown. So many hidden treasures in our own backyard if we know where to look. Many times, you don’t have to travel very far to get a completely different experience of somewhere you thought you knew like the back of your hand. I highly encourage everyone to go out and seize the opportunities and get to know more about your own country. What are some of your favourite places to road trip to from the city? Comment below with your answers
If you need help or ideas, you have me – your lifestyle travel planner – to reach out to here. I’d love to help put together your next getaway, near or far!