© Gary Cralle
Bright water, happy days
Summer vacation in and around Ontario’s Kawarthas
Water made Peterborough. Native People first arrived in the Kawarthas region about 2000 years ago, settled here among the rivers and lakes. Many centuries later, the Iroquois and Mississaugans floated in, and started building canoes. Then, in 1615, the first European, Samuel de Champlain, set his own canoe down on the Otonabee River after portaging south on a trail that is now Chemong Road.
About 300 years later, in 1892, Edison General Electric set up hydro generators on the river and made Peterborough the first city in Canada to boast electric streetlights. “The Electric City” now also headquarters Parks Canada’s Ontario Waterways, appropriately given its location on the Trent–Severn Waterway, a 386-kilometre-long system of canals, rivers and lakes that connects Lake Ontario’s Bay of Quinte near Trenton to Lake Huron at Port Severn. Built at the end of the 19th century and one of the longest such routes on the planet, it was intended to carry freight, but was superseded by the burgeoning railway shortly after completion.
Shipping’s loss was pleasure boaters gain. With passages cut through the granite of the Canadian Shield, the waterway offers spectacular scenery not the least along the more than 50 lakes in cottage country northwest of the city. Getting there, in this case, really is half the fun. Peterborough’s Lift Lock, number 21 on the waterway, is a dual hydraulic lift locks that hikes boats almost 20 metres and is the highest ever built. The Peterborough Lift Lock Visitors Centre (pc.gc.ca/eng/lhn-nhs/on/trentsevern/visit/visit12.aspx), will be joined by a spectacular new building to house the Canadian Canoe Museum (canoemuseum.ca; adults $10.50, students five to 17 $8.25), which is now down the street.
Before jumping into a canoe and paddling away to a nearby provincial park, stick around for a while — this is a town with more to see every day. The whole region is in the midst of a major tart up and Peterborough is plum.
Eat, walk, eat
From creative tourism, like the highly competitive Kawarthas-Northumberland Butter Tart Tour (kawarthasnorthumberland.ca/experiences/butter-tart-tour), to a larger homegrown food culture, city and region are revelling in a coming out party. Peterborough’s culinary delights are becoming a trademark of note as the city reinvents its charms.
Lil ol’ Peterborough has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of eateries per capita, with a surprising variety of international foods, artisan chocolates, breads, pastries, brews, fruit wines and an energetic farm-to-table culinary culture including locally sourced meats and dairy.
Donald Fraser offers an insider intro to wholesome edibles — with samples! — on Downtown Culinary Tours (ptbolocalfoods.ca; $35 per person, June 22 through September 21). All tours leave from the Farmers’ Market (ptbodowntownmarket.com); Wednesdays from May to October) and include stops at restaurants, bakeries and cafes that are sprinkled like surprises on a birthday cake throughout the city and beyond.
At NaKed Chocolate (nakedchocolate.ca), chocolatier Warren Eley imports his ingredients from France to create shoes — quite a feat! — and other shapes. Over at Sam’s Place (downtownptbo.ca/business/sams-place), Sam Sayer considers herself neither a butcher nor a chef “just a lover of food.” She uses humanely raised livestock to make her extra-tasty deli sandwiches.
Chef Lindsey Dupuis, the owner of Brio Gusto brasserie (briogusto.com), says she prefers being in the kitchen where she humbly creates dishes for sophisticated palates. At the Olde Stone Brewing Company (oldestone.ca), brew master Doug Warren limits his inventiveness to five types of ale, the most popular being pumpkin, which many call pie in a glass.
For fine dining within an hour’s drive from the city centre, there’s Elmhirst’s Resort (elmhirst.ca), a century-old family property on Rice Lake; Viamede Resort’s (viamede.com) features a wine tasting menu at Mount Julian, Stoney Lake; Lantern Restaurant & Grill (lanternresto.ca) also on Stoney Lake, run by husband and wife chefs Geoff and Lesley Kirkland, offers three varieties of local mushrooms, and fries served with truffle oil and black pepper (and salt too).
Get out of town
Even the finest of fine dining must come to an end, especially if you came here for what has been attracting visitors since the 19th century: the provincial parks. Established in 1893 because the land wasn’t good enough for farming, Algonquin Provincial Park (algonquinpark.on.ca; $17 a vehicle per day) is the Grand Dame of the system, bigger than Prince Edward Island, and only an hour’s drive north of Peterborough.
The park has wildlife galore — 279 species of birds, 45 types of mammals, 15 different reptiles, 17 amphibians and 56 varieties of fish. There are 18 known Eastern Wolf packs in Algonquin, possibly the park’s most famous residents. Organized wolf howls, especially in August, are enormously popular with visitors.
Near the East Gate, you’ll find an outdoor Logging Museum at the 55-kilometre mark. The visitor centre, at 43-kilometre mark, features lots of free displays. Canoeing is the top activity on many bucket lists, followed closely by fishing, and four outfitters and three historic lodges (algonquinpark.on.ca/visit/park_lodges_outfitters) are there to see that visitors get to do that as well as other activities in rugged luxury that includes gourmet cuisine. The park also has six summer youth camps and the Algonquin Art Centre (algonquinartcentre.com) hosts informal art classes.
Much of the park is unreachable except on foot or by canoe. These backwoods were the adopted home of Canada’s iconic landscape painter Tom Thompson who died in the park under mysterious circumstances, (likely drowning) in 1917. He was 40 years old.
It’s easy to see why Tom favoured the park as a place of beauty to replicate on canvas, especially in autumn when the landscape blazes with colour. The trees turn early in the park which sits on an elevated bump of Canadian Shield granite in a unique transition zone between northern and southern Ontario.
For GTA residents without a car, Parkbus (parkbus.ca) will bring you to and from Algonquin. The concept fittingly grew out of a campfire discussion by the owner operators. Private lodging within the park is generally available mid-May to mid-October at Arowhon Pines Resort (arowhonpines.ca), Bartlett Lodge (bartlettlodge.com) and Killarney Lodge (killarneylodge.com).
Petroglyphs Provincial Park (ontarioparks.com/park/petroglyphs); from $11.25 a vehicle per day) is a small, day-use park with Algonkian rock carvings plus an interpretive centre, located one hour northeast of Peterborough. Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park (ontarioparks.com/park/kawarthahighlands) is the new jewel in the Ontario Parks system.
Located 50 kilometres north of Peterborough, this is semi-wilderness for cottagers who live in the area and the urban crowd who visit. Not as established as Algonquin, it’s a park born of controversy, pitting established rural communities against the surging demands of an urban populace.
I explored the park on a three-day canoe trip paddling and portaging with four expert woodsmen. Aside from an involuntary contribution to the mosquito blood bank, the experience proved its worth as a fine tonic to counter my excess urbanities. At journey’s end, we drove to Lakefield to celebrate paddles and portages well done at the appropriately named Canoe and Paddle gastropub (facebook.com/canoeandpaddle). The Group of Seven should have had it so easy.
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