Whatever your stance on climate change, there’s no debating that Ontario’s winter has been curiously mild this year. For some Canadians, no doubt, snowless streets are a delight; still, for those who have grown accustomed, or even attached, to four true seasons, the warmer weather stifles a deeply ingrained cycle of nostalgia. Those dealing with separation anxiety from Old Man Winter will be glad to know that the gentleman in question is alive and well, hale and hearty in the Almaguin Highlands, an 8000-square km. piece of the province that begins in Muskoka and runs north to Lake Nippissing.
The region — “cottage country” to urban dwellers and “home” to some 14,000 locals — boasts a year-round natural beauty that asks only that its inhabitants dress appropriately. Where summer requires protection from UV rays and mosquitos, the winter season in this stunning area between Parry Sound and Algonquin Park can be pure paradise for visitors willing to layer up. The air is cold and crisp, and blankets of untouched snow line every inch. The Highlands area is largely untouched by the hallmarks of urban life and offers winter at its most idyllic: a Canadian landscape like no other, the stuff of so many iconic Group of Seven scenes.
As country drives go, the scenery truly inspires. Arguably the best jumping-off point for the region’s views and offerings is Fern Glen Inn, a lavishly restored and updated 1880s farmhouse located on a 120-acre plot of land 20 km north of Huntsville. On-site activities include snowshoeing the property’s scenic trails, relaxing in the inn’s homey guest cabin and, of course, fine dining. Jackie Leung co-owns the inn with her husband (and fellow Toronto ex-pat) Jim, and speaks of a great love of feeding people that helped guide her decision to invest in this B&B some eight years ago. That passion certainly shows in the cooking, which blends country charm with city sophistication.
Dining out, Main Street in Huntsville offers some of the best food in the area, including Pie Iron Sandwicherie (79 Main St E), whose memorable gourmet sandwiches sell at remarkably reasonable prices. Nearby, perhaps the most popular dinner spot in the area, the original 3 Guys and a Stove (143 Hwy 60), is a bustling up-north institution that has a second location in Collingwood. The restaurant boasts a range of influences, including Caribbean, Cajun and Californian; suffice to say, the menu does not want for variety.
Between meals, visitors can chart their own course. The area offers excellent snowmobile trails, for those inclined, and skiing options abound. Still, one could argue that the Highlands’ greatest virtue is that it allows its guests to enjoy it as they see fit; travellers can engage in any number of outdoor activities, or they can relax with a book by the fire. (For what it’s worth, one almost gets the sense that there is a local by-law requiring all buildings to have fireplaces, as the comforting smell of burning wood emanates from so many of the area’s homes and public spaces.)
Families, too, will find plenty to do here. Local events take place throughout the season, including the Algonquin Outfitters Winter Fun Day, on Oxtongue Lake, where kids and parents alike can build igloos, take Nordic ski lessons, learn about winter camping and enjoy an outdoor barbecue by the fire. In the nearby town of Kearney, annual dog sled races take place on perfectly crafted trails that were originally established for logging.
Indeed, there is something for snow-seeking people and personalities of all sorts in the Almaguin Highlands. But first and foremost, it is a place where Ontario winter belongs. Better still, it’s a place where Torontonians can actually find winter this season.
For a further look at the Almaguin Highlands, visit DailyXY’s Ontario Almaguin Highlands Facebook gallery.
Image courtesy of Jason Fields.