We wanted to get away and had a week of vacation banked. But the mediocre resort (at a Cadillac price) wasn’t sitting right with me. I wanted to do some local exploring and teach our kids about the wonderful things our province has to offer. My husband, who already had a pina colada in hand, slowly came around and agreed that we needed to take advantage of what little show we had left this year. And so we launched on a winter road trip to Ontario’s Highlands with adventure on the brain.
The Haliburton Highlands are comprised of over 4000 kilometres of trails and over 600 lakes, rivers and streams. Come wintertime, this natural playground is equipped with snowmobile trails, nordic trails and downhill runs. We’re not big skiers, but we were excited for snowshoeing, snowmobiling, ice skating and possibly an epic snowball fight.
Given early Spring means the annual “sugaring off” in Haliburton County, our first stop was all about maple syrup. The grey barn with the red roof let us know we’d arrived at the Wintergreen Maple Syrup and Pancake Barn, which is just north of the village of Gelert. We were greeted by the owner Diane, and her husband Tom, who shared some homemade taffy with the kids (maple syrup that’s been dripped and frozen on snow).Despite the popularity of the restaurant, the relaxed and cozy atmosphere (complete with board games and hand crafted sets of x’s and o’s), made one feel as if they were welcome to stay all day.
The gift shop has thousands of preserves for sale, along with syrups in many flavours, bbq sauces, jams, jellies, mustards, relishes, and marmalades. It also showcased hand-turned bowls made from a variety of woods selected from their forest.After lunch, we were treated to a custom sugar bush tour of the maple syrup operation. Tours are offered to guests “by appointment or by chance”, and the owners really take the time to get down to the nitty gritty of maple syrup production.
The sun was pouring down and our kids loved running through the trails and being the first ones to break into freshly fallen snow. We returned from the hour long tour with pink cheeks and a little out of breath.On the drive to our accommodations, we stopped at the Minden Wild Water Preserve, sight of the canoe / kayak competitions during the 2015 Pan Am Games. Built in 1972, this stunning sight is considered one of the best whitewater runs in the world, and is well worth a stop and a few deep breaths as you take in the rolling rapids.Our tranquil lakeside accommodations at Ogopogo Resort on Mountain Lake were straight out of my movie-derived notions of a winter cabin. Located just north of the town of Minden, the four-season resort offers limitless winter fun for the family: snowshoeing on the lake, cross country ski trails, dog sledding packages and ice fishing. We were greeted by owners Katherine and Todd Wootton, who helped load our luggage onto sleds and our kids onto a snowmobile (Todd saw the colour drain from my cheeks so promised to go slow!).With that ticked off their toddler bucket list, we got settled into our cabin – a simple yet elegant 2-bedroom cottage that had a fireplace, bunk beds for the kids, a fully equipped kitchen, and a Jacuzzi. We’d had a long day so spent some time relaxing by the fire with a movie and some snacks until the sun started to set. Despite the owners spending several days flooding the ice rink on the lake, the mild temperatures caused the surface ice to melt and crack. The ice was still very safe though, and so we headed out with our boots and had a very Canadian game of ice hockey under the stars and the twinkle lights that lined the rink. It was one of those family memories none of us are likely to soon forget.
After a solid sleep to the sound of…nothing, we woke refreshed and ready to hit up our next stop. Molly’s Bistro Bakery fueled us up with breakfast sandwiches prepared on in-house baked breads.
Chris from the Frost Centre Ski and Snowshow Trails greeted us when we arrived. We were fitted with snow shoes in a “warm up cabin”, complete with a wood burning fire. Chris explained the different options within the 16 km of trails in the Algonquin Highlands, which includes rugged Canadian Shield and hard wood forest. It was the first time snow shoeing for all of us, so we wisely chose the Bunny Trail. We lasted about an hour until the effort overtook the excitement, but the kids loved the adventure and trying something new.This region is perfect for families who want to get away and connect in the fresh air. There’s so much to see and do for all ages. The trip would also be perfect as a romantic destination, for couples who want to get away from it all and cozy up by the fire for a few days.
If we could change one thing, it would be to ignore our GPS and rely on the good ‘ol Ontario Official Road Map. We got lost a few times (often by 10 km or more) due to an overreliance on technology.
The writer was a guest of Ontario’s Highlands. The tourism board did not review or approve this article.