Summer may be slipping out the back door, but that doesn’t mean the party’s over. There are so many ways to enjoy autumn in Canada, and Ontario’s Southwest offers more than just scenery. It’s only a short drive to Haldimand County, a region where filled with outdoor adventure, farm fresh fare, and agritourism. It’s also one of the few places near the GTA where you can go glamping!
We’ve put together a short itinerary for a 24-hour fall getaway to Haldimand Region. It’s only an hour and a half from Toronto by car, but we recommend staying overnight to fully soak up the region’s offerings. Are you ready to rumble?
10:00am: Kayak on the Grand River
Start your visit by seeing the mighty Grand River…in a kayak. In Dunnville, Ed Sullivan, owner of Grand River Kayak, offers guided kayaking and stand-up paddleboard tours along the river.
“I’m a bit of a paddle snob,” says Ed, chuckling. “I buy new equipment every year, and most of it is top notch.”
It’s because this isn’t like the touristy boat rides at Toronto’s Centreville. Ed has a passion for paddling and takes the sport seriously, teaching his guests the 101 of kayaking. He first started the business ten years earlier, after being laid off from his day job as a result of the market crash. Luckily, his half-time kayaking business was already thriving.
“I decided to give the part-time gig a go,” he says. “I haven’t looked back since.”
Now from May to October, Ed runs daily excursions ranging from one hour in a conservation area or a half day paddle to the mouth of Lake Erie. He even guides school excursions, teaching youngsters how to paddle and spot wildlife.
“Even though I do this every day, no two trips are the same,” he says.
I dip my paddle into the waters, and speed alongside Ed’s kayak. Out on the river, you may see blue heron, snapping turtles, bald eagles, beavers, deer, birds, and fish. I lift my head up to the sun and close my eyes, basking in the stillness and the sunshine.
“That’s the great thing about kayaking,” says Ed. “It’s impossible to paddle and text at the same time.”
Ed’s company also offers some special experiences. There are guided excursions at sunset (“the nicest time of day!”); a paddle during the Mudcat Festival to watch fireworks; and a monthly Moonlight Tour, a quiet paddle through the marshlands while star-gazing. These tours are highly coveted and book up quickly.
12:00pm: Snack Attack at Debb’s Cuisine on Queen
“The town needed it,” says Debb Davies, owner and executive chef. “We’re making scratch-made comfort food. So far, the community has really welcomed us.”
After being in the catering business for 25 years, Davies decided that she needed a home base for her cookery. She found a burnt-out historic building in Dunnville, and renovated it into an industrial-style restaurant with exposed pipes and brick, Edison bulb lighting, and barn doors.
Now, locals gravitate here to feast on her delicacies, such as beef ribs slathered in blueberry barbecue sauce, chicken breast stuffed with herb goat cheese, and meatloaf wrapped in bacon.
“We’re an eatery, not a bar,” she says. “There’s no TV, and there never will be. It’s about fresh, homemade food and a great atmosphere. If we can’t make it, we’ll source it locally.”
Sitting at a table, I gorge on deep-fried olives stuffed with ricotta; handmade pierogis layered with crispy bacon and caramelized onions; and an incredible fettucine with sautéed spinach, scallops, shrimp cherry tomatoes mixed in a light lemon cream sauce. For dessert, it’s a carrot cupcake with a swirl of fluffy cream cheese and mascarpone frosting on top. It’s all too good.
2pm: Hiking in Ruthven Park
It’s time to walk off such a rich meal. A short drive will take you to Ruthven Park, a historic estate overlooking the Grand River. Here, you can walk through the majestic Greek revival mansion of the Thompsons, a prominent family who settled in the area in the 1830s. There are also a slew of trails that you can walk at your leisure.
4:30pm: Get Your Cider On at Bains Road Cider Company
There’s something special about this 14 acre farm on Bains Road. It’s not just the heritage geese running around either. Inside a newly built wooden shop, the McDonalds are making ciders and fruit wines using the mulberry and cherry trees on the property, as well as leftover fruit from local farmers.
“Growing up, my brothers and I made cider,” says Geoff McDonald, co-owner. “We made cider from fruit. Our original product was our pear cider.”
“The cherry wine goes really well with Indian food,” says Geoff.
You can also get your fix at the Caledonia Fair on October 2-3, where Melissa and Geoff will set up shop.
6:00pm: Embark on a Flavour Journey at Twisted Lemon
You can’t go to Haldimand County without indulging at the Twisted Lemon. This celebrated eatery is the love-child of Chef Dan Megna and his wife, Laurie Lilliman. After studying cookery at Humber College and working at Toronto’s legendary North 44, Chef Dan began to search for a restaurant to call his own in Haldimand County.
“I knew this was the place when I walked in,” says Chef Dan. “It called to me.”
Now, patrons travel near and far to taste the kitchen’s gourmet creations or participate in multi-course feast at the chef’s table. The menus are developed collaboratively between Chef Dan and his team, and inspired by what’s available in the surrounding farm fields.
“My food producers are my neighbours,” says Chef Dan. “There’s so much local produce in Haldimand. Instead of the 100-mile diet, we have the backyard regime.”
While there’s a core menu, expect to see seasonal specials coming out of the kitchen every 4-6 weeks. For my tasting, I feast on pan-seared jumbo scallops torched with homemade blueberry barbecue sauce; pulled duck confit served in a wonton taco with salsa; beef carpaccio and beer-battered oyster mushrooms wrapped in romaine lettuce.
And those are just the starters: finding my second wind, I savour the sweet potato gnocchi served in a creamy wild mushroom and sage sauce and the house special, a pan-seared Arctic Char served atop blueberry barbecue sauce with wheat berry croquettes.
Bring a big appetite if you’re fortunate enough to score a spot at the Chef’s Table (reservations essential). You’ll be set up in a private kitchen with 6-10 other patrons, as Chef Dan prepares a feast before your eyes.
“It’s a true chef’s table,” says Chef Dan. “It’s more about attention to the guests and making tailor-made creations. I’ll ask a series of questions to suss out what you’ll enjoy eating. And drinking, too.”
8:00pm: Glamp like a Champ at Oakwood Escape
“In the morning, we provide the eggs,” says Oakwood’s host. “We get them fresh from the chicken coop.”
In case you haven’t done it before, “glamping” blends the best of camping and luxury resorts. At Oakwood, you can sleep in a safari-style tent in a bed that’s semi-open to the elements (with a mosquito net entrance). Outside, there’s a shared bathroom with flush toilet, shower, and kitchen.
There’s nothing quite like waking up in your bed to a gorgeous sunrise and hearing the frogs croaking in the pond. And without having to sleep on the hard ground! What I loved is the convenience – unlike camping, there’s no set up or carting of stuff involved, except for bringing your clothes, a flashlight, and any food. Oakwood offers a rustic retreat for families and a great way to be immersed in the wilderness without all the preparation and fuss.