The Weekend Escape: Ottawa Valley

By Laura Byrne Paquet,

You know it when you feel it: that insistent sense that it’s time to hop in the car, leave the office behind and reconnect with towering trees, rushing waters and a world beyond glowing screens. When that urge hits, pack your sense of adventure, aim your car west and head for the Ottawa Valley. Carved by glaciers, settled by Indigenous peoples, and shaped by fur traders and loggers, it’s now a vast playground for hikers, paddlers, skiers and just about anyone else who loves fresh air.

Getaway Weekend Escape Ottawa Valley Ottawa River bridge

Photo via Burst by Bruno Passos

With the Ottawa River to your right and rolling hills—carpeted in glistening snow, spring wildflowers, green farmers’ fields or glowing autumn colours—ahead, the world of dull errands and endless meetings will soon be just a dim memory.

 

Carp

Distance from Ottawa: 42 minutes

The big draw in Carp is the Diefenbunker, a long-secret site built between 1959 and 1961 to give parliamentarians a safe place to hide during a nuclear war. The concrete-and-steel bunker, 23 metres (75 feet) underground, had a staff of 150 people working around the clock at its peak. When it was decommissioned in 1994, the government left just about everything behind. Now it’s an intriguing time capsule of vintage phones, metal desks and tactical maps. It even featured on the Canadian version of The Amazing Race. Check ahead for special events, like escape rooms and Cold War-themed movie nights.

Getaway Weekend Escape Ottawa Valley Diefenbunker tunnel

© 2018 Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership Corporation

For food and wine fans, Carp is also home to KIN Vineyards, where you can sample pinot noir and chardonnay. When you’re hungry, try the Swan at Carp, famed for its desserts and for dishes such as venison osso bucco, or the Cheshire Cat Pub, which offers a wide range of dairy-free, gluten-free and vegetarian choices.

Hosts Debbie and Peter Bernhardt have created a tranquil enclave of three guest rooms at the Windsong Manor B&B. Each room has a sitting area, and one is pet-friendly. Relax by the pond and listen to the frogs filling the twilight with song, or unwind in the four-season hot tub. Indoors, a restful guest lounge and a games room with a pool table await.

 

Renfrew

Distance from Ottawa: 1 hour, 19 minutes

Did you know that Renfrew, Ontario, was the birthplace of the National Hockey League? It all started in 1909, when a local businessman founded the National Hockey Association, which would evolve into the NHL. That fascinating tale is told in the town’s NHA/NHL Birthplace Museum.

If history’s your thing, you can also check out the McDougall Mill Museum (a local history museum housed in an 1855 grist mill) and cross the Bonnechere River on one of Canada’s only swinging bridges. For a tasty meal (think Tuscan chicken or blue cheese-crusted rib eye), take a pretty country drive to the Blackbird Café in the village of Burnstown.

Any true vacation should improve on the everyday. And if your usual morning nosh is a stale granola bar as you run out the door, you’ll love waking up to a leisurely, bountiful breakfast—featuring goodies like mini quiches, freshly baked muffins, banana waffles and a selection of fruit—at the Bide-a-While B&B. The welcoming home is just a short walk from downtown Renfrew.

 

Calabogie

Distance from Ottawa: 1 hour, 21 minutes

With a vertical drop of 238 metres (780 feet), 32 hectares (80 acres) of glittering skiable terrain, four snow parks, three lifts and a snow school, Calabogie Peaks is a favourite with skiers and snowboarders. In summer, you can swim, fish, hike, bike, paddle or golf on the property.

Getaway Weekend Escape Ottawa Valley Ottawa River Calabogie Ontario highway

Photo by St. Jacques © 2018 Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership Corporation

If you feel the need for speed, head to Calabogie Motorsports Park, where you can rent a roaring Mustang and hurtle around 20 turns and along a 610-metre (2,000 foot) straightaway. Later, quench your thirst at the Calabogie Brewing Company, which makes just about every kind of craft beer, from wheat ale to milk stout.

Settle into a colourful Muskoka chair and admire the view of Calabogie Lake from Jocko’s Beach Resort and Motel, nestled in wooded hills. If you feel energetic, borrow a free canoe, kayak, SUP or rowboat. At night, haunting loon calls echo across the lake as you drift to sleep in a cabin, chalet, motel room or three-bedroom house. All accommodations have cooking facilities and access to barbecues and free Internet, so why not look up that special frittata or burger recipe you’ve been dying to try?

 

Fort Coulonge

Distance from Ottawa: 1 hour, 34 minutes

This town in the Pontiac region, on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River, is an adventure sports lover’s dream. Be brave and zipline across the roiling waters of a river canyon, climb up a sheer rock face on a via ferrata or pick your way carefully across a wobbling rope bridge at Chutes Coulonge Park.

Hop on a hybrid or mountain bike and hit the Cycloparc PPJ, a 92-kilometre biking route crossing wetlands, valleys, forests and farms. Clamber into a raft and tackle the river’s whitewater rapids with Esprit or HorizonX. When you’re done, head to Francoeur Steakhouse for pizza, poutine and, of course, steaks.

Cyclist friendly and lovingly preserved, the Spruceholme Inn offers a glimpse into the region’s history. Built by George Bryson, Jr., a lumber baron and politician, it is now owned by his great-granddaughter, Jane Toller (Pitfield), who has adorned it with mementoes such as her ancestor’s autographed photo of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. All the B&B guest rooms are furnished with comfortable antiques and have private bathrooms; there’s also a self-catering carriage house for up to four people. The inn’s Bryson’s Bistro, housed in a reconstructed 1850s hay barn, serves delicious meals.

 

Pembroke

Distance from Ottawa: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Thrill-seekers come from all over to raft the world-class whitewater rapids of the mighty Ottawa River. (For less-adventurous types, there are gentler beginner routes, too.) Pembroke is a great home base if you’re setting out with one of the area’s many rafting companies, including OWL Rafting, RiverRun Rafting or Wilderness Tours.

Photos by Goh Iromoto © 2018 Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership Corporation

After a frothy day on the water, catch a play or concert at Pembroke’s Festival Hall Centre for the Performing Arts, or get nostalgic with a movie at the Skylight Drive-In. The next day, hop on a bike and see downtown Pembroke’s historical murals with Valley Cycle Tours. Stop at the Nook Creperie, where the crepes look like miniature artworks.

With its heated indoor pool, in-room refrigerators and microwaves, and complimentary hot breakfasts, the Holiday Inn Express Pembroke is an excellent choice for families. A fitness centre, a business centre and complimentary WiFi make it a convenient choice for business travellers as well.

 

And for a Weekend staycation in the NCR…

 

Golden Lake

Distance from Ottawa: 1 hour, 56 minutes

Weary urbanites breathe a sigh of relief when they arrive at peaceful Golden Lake, where fishers can cast lines for northern pike, muskie, rainbow trout and bass. To get a true sense of the long history of human settlement in the region, visit the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn First Nation’s fascinating museum, which houses archeological tools, locally made canoes and other Indigenous items.

Left photo by RichardBH CC-BY, right photo by Mathew Ingram CC-BY

And if you like underground music—literally underground—check out the concert series at the Bonnechere Caves on select summer nights. Even when there’s no special event, the 500-million-year-old caves are great fun to see on a guided tour. If all of that spelunking (cave exploring) makes you hungry, dig into hearty sausages, rouladen and schnitzel at the Granary Schnitzel House in Eganville.

At the Sands on Golden Lake, every room, chalet and cottage has a view of the namesake lake. The deluxe suite, with its king-sized bed and jetted tub, is a cozy retreat for couples looking to reconnect, while the three-bedroom chalets and cottage are ideal for family holidays and girls’ getaways. Choices in the lakeside dining room include salted caramel apple French toast for breakfast and seared northern pickerel for dinner. And in the soothing spa, guests can unwind with a facial, pedicure or hot stone massage, as a pine-scented breeze wafts through the window.

 

Barry’s Bay

Distance from Ottawa: 2 hours, 26 minutes

Forty minutes from Algonquin Park, Barry’s Bay is a magnet for outdoorsy types who like to hike, canoe, kayak, snowshoe, cross-country ski and just generally explore. They can stop at Barry’s Bay Outfitters or MAD Outdoors to pick up gear, and swing by The Baykery for goodies like warm oatmeal cookies to eat on the trail.

Getaway Weekend Escape Ottawa Valley Ottawa River Barry's Bay highway

Photo by Simpson © 2018 Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership Corporation

A short drive east of Barry’s Bay is the friendly village of Wilno, Canada’s oldest Polish settlement. Members of an ethnic group called the Kashubians settled here in the 19th century, and their descendants now run the intriguing Polish Kashub Heritage Museum, a collection of pioneer homes and family heirlooms.

Fresh-baked bread, homemade jam and locally roasted coffee are on chef Warwick Fortune’s daily breakfast menu at their Madawaska Valley Inn. Other perks include a four-season hot tub, satellite TV and free WiFi. Each of the four rooms has its own bathroom, as well as a refrigerator and coffee maker, and two rooms have electric fireplaces. The crisp linens are line-dried when possible, scenting guests’ sleep with the freshness of the great outdoors.

 

Feature photo by Goh Iromoto © 2018 Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership Corporation