Cool things to do outside Toronto

Within two hours of Toronto, jaw-dropping natural beauty and varied culture await the adventurous visitor. Set out on one (or two, or even all five) of our top day trips from the city

In my work as a travel journalist, I write about many exotic locales and foreign destinations, but Toronto, the city where I have gone to school, worked and played for many years, is the heartland that I know best. So while downtown Toronto remains my Mecca for dining and culture, come the weekend, the siren call of adventures to be found (all within two hours of the city) becomes irresistible. I like to throw a picnic hamper in the car and head out to the white sand beaches of Lake Erie or the limestone villages of Elora and Fergus. Sometimes I hop on the Bike Train and head down the Niagara Peninsula for a ride along the Niagara Gorge. And there’s always beer tasting in Creemore, antiquing in Port Hope or literary readings in Eden Mills. In fact, the possibilities are (almost) endless… so below, I’ve narrowed the list down to my personal top five.

1. The Stratford Festival

1 The Stratford Festival

Stratford, west of Toronto, is home to the Stratford Festival where stars like Christopher Plummer, Dame Maggie Smith, and William Shatner (aka Captain Kirk, or, as locals call him, ‘The Shat’) have performed over the years. The season always includes lots of Shakespeare, combined with musicals and children’s theatre too.

Last summer I headed out with friends to see a matinée performance. We stopped at the Mennonite farmers’ market in St Jacobs, and picked up goodies for a picnic by the Avon River. Stratford is home to the Stratford Chefs School, so there are good post-theatre dining choices, like The Old Prune or Revival House.

2. Niagara Falls

2 Niagara Falls

South of Toronto is Niagara Falls, the iconic natural wonder on everyone’s bucket list. I’ve seen the Falls many times, but still catch my breath each time. They’re an awesome sight, especially with a ­rain- or sunbow arched over them or when partly iced-over in winter. I like to ride the new Hornblower Cruise boats to get a close-up view of the Falls and then grab lunch at Edgewaters Restaurant. Children will enjoy some fun mid-way on Clifton Hill, at the Butterfly Conservatory and gardens, as well as the White Water Walk which takes you down to the Niagara Gorge to see one of the world’s most intense white water rivers up close.

3. Niagara Wine Country

3 Niagara Wine Country

Also down the Niagara Peninsula is Niagara-on-the-Lake, an historic town in the heart of Niagara wine country. You can take a tour of the vineyards, but I like to do a circuit by bike. Don’t miss my favourite, the Foreign Affair Winery, in nearby Vineland. Their appassimento cabernet franc is downright dangerous. The town is also home to the Shaw Festival. Take in a performance at one of five different theatres, enjoy high tea at the Prince of Wales Hotel and spend a few hours in another era at historic Fort George.

 4. The great outdoors: Muskoka

4 The great outdoorsMuskoka

Head north from the city to visit Ontario’s version of The Hamptons, Muskoka. Towering pines, rugged rock outcrops and clear, clean lakes have drawn people to spend their summers here for centuries. Have lunch in the historic Windermere House or take a steamer cruise through the lakes. For real outdoor adventure, Canadian-style, head a bit farther north to Algonquin Park, where you can camp overnight and canoe the pristine lakes. Drop in to Bartlett Lodge for lunch or dinner or to spend the night in a wooden cabin under the pines.

5. The First Nations

5 The First Nations

The First Nations, or aboriginal peoples, of Canada are central to our history, and you can tap in to some of that tradition with a paddling expedition down the Grand River with Grand Experiences, in Paris, Ontario. I loved canoeing down the river and tucking into a shore lunch of poached salmon, fiddlehead ferns and local wine. A First Nations elder took us to an island in a river that is considered sacred, where we watched native dances and listened to some of the legendary stories. A visit to the Her Majesty’s Royal Chapel of The Mohawks, given to the First Nations by the British Crown and now the oldest Protestant church in Ontario, brings the early days of Canada to life.

Photos by Barbara Ramsay Orr

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