Before the pandemic, I had never so much as heard of the township of Haliburton, let alone considered visiting. But with summer travel plans squashed, a staycation started to look like the only way to break from the messed up simulation we were living in from 2020 onwards.
Lake Louise suddenly seemed a suitable substitute for Como, and Wilno (a "Polish" town in Barry's Bay), the best next thing to the country itself. My mom and I had intended to visit both of those places and we decided to honour at least our commitment to spending time together.
We decided to spend days hiking in Algonquin Park and nights at the family-owned Bonnie View Inn. With 28 rooms nestled on the shoreline of Lake Kashagawigamog, it was one of the only bookings we could find on Labour Day weekend that didn't involve pitching a tent.
The place didn't strike me as an ideal getaway destination, but since "getting out of the city" sometimes means escaping one place and not necessarily enjoying another (which I fully understand is the wrong reason to go anywhere) we went ahead and tried our luck.
This place was so charming, and the staff so friendly that it caught me off-guard. We didn't end up going to Algonquin Park the first day, or the next day. Instead, we relaxed and read, rotating between indoor common areas and twenty beach chairs.
When we were cold, blankets were brought out to the patio. They set up a ride on the Sea-Doo. The hotel's servers would smile and nod when I listed off substitutions for everything in the traditional breakfast except for eggs, which is objectively an annoying thing to do at a restaurant.
My mother would ask the owner dozens of questions about the Inn and its history during our stay. Each time, Ryan (who had taken ownership of the inn from a lady named Andrea) would stop what he was doing and answer as if it was the most important thing he had to do.
If you're wondering, it was built over 100 years ago to serve as a rest stop for boaters and became touristy in 1928. Andrea bought the place over 20 years ago with saved wages from working as a server at the Inn, which makes me want to hire her as my financial planner.
After our first breakfast, we started venturing into town for better coffee because we are snobs in that way. Haliburton Village is about two hours north of Toronto and seven minutes from where we were. Once parking in the (only) lot, you can stroll through an exceptionally well-kept park beside the lake and along a "boardwalk" which is actually made of pavement.
There are two options for coffee: Castle Antiques Cafe, which is at the back of a real antique store, and two doors down at Up River Trading Co., a gift store with a Balzaks Coffee bar. At Castle Cafe, I opted for a half-sweet chai latte with oat milk and a book from 1971 about Henry the Eighth.
Across the street, The Ethel Curry Gallery is the spot for pieces and paintings from Canadian artists. I was in a good mood because the owner, Wayne, was playing Hungarian Dance, so I purchased a hand-painted bowl that can't be kept in the same room as a dishwasher. It's pretty small (the gallery), so 75% of their collection is stored in the back for those interested.
For dinner, there are three options close by but the only one that matters is Baked n' Battered, a fish and chips restaurant that has put in a genuine effort to offer healthy, nutritious and gluten-free options even though no one is expecting that from a fish and chips restaurant.
It's surprisingly easy to get into a routine, which for me includes getting up and immediately going for a run because, unlike normal people, I am my best self on vacation. The quiet shifts my body into a steady near-meditative trance. The forest lends its trees as starting and end markers for sprints, and crickets offer what I interpret as quiet cheers. There's no need for music, except to cover the sound of my footsteps, which suddenly seem too loud.
Ever since buying my decorative bowl, I'm determined to experience more of the thriving arts scene here. The Haliburton Sculpture Forest serves as an acceptable alternative to the MoMA, and we walk through a 32-piece collection of unique sculptures by Canadian and international artists.
Inspired, rested and ready by the third day of our "hiking trip," we finally make the two hour drive through Lake of Bays to Algonquin Park. If you only have a day, the Centennial Ridges Trail is the best one, according to literally everyone. It's 13km and takes about 4-5 hours. You absolutely do not need to wear hiking boots but everyone does anyway.
If you are a big cheater, you can start the loop backwards and walk the scenic half twice. And if you are the biggest cheater, you can save this photo so you can pretend you went. For trails closer to Haliburton, the Frost Centre Area came highly recommended by the guy at Algonquin Outfitters who is obviously an expert.
It's a hike that leaves you feeling energized and wanting to come back the next day and do it all over again. We couldn't, but taking it in once was enough; I can't say I've ever experienced a long weekend that genuinely left me feeling rejuvenated.
We live in cities largely because of opportunities to meet interesting people, (hopefully) carve out fulfilling careers, and convenience. They are a place to enjoy the arts, restaurants, nightlife and access to any and all stuff. They are also a lot to handle, even for the most energized.
As exciting as they come, cities take your energy and don't offer many opportunities to re-charge. Haliburton offers a real opportunity to do exactly that. If you're looking to venture out of the city for a day or two, it's an excellent option for anyone who would like to take a well-deserved break.