For the next chapter in our series of experience-driven stories, Heidi and I wanted to take full advantage of the longer days and warmer temperatures of late winter. All throughout South Eastern Ontario, there is a sense of excitement as the much-anticipated arrival of spring draws ever closer.
Of course, the impending end of winter brings with it a particularly sweet season that is also an authentically Canadian tradition dating back to the earliest days of our national origin. That’s right; I’m talking about maple syrup season. That time of year when we pack up the car and journey out to the sugarbush with family and friends, gorge on pancakes, and of course the sweet syrupy goodness.
We set our sights on Brockville, Ontario and Heidi quickly set to work planning a jam-packed itinerary that would give us an excellent sampling of sights, history, dining and culture in the storied City Of The 1000 Islands.
Explore the Peace and Beauty of Mac Johnson Wildlife Area
A short 15-minute drive North of downtown Brockville will bring you to Mac Johnson Wildlife Area -a truly breathtaking and pristine natural space to explore with several walking or hiking trails. Mac Johnson was the first destination on our trip – and a much-welcomed chance to just relax and take a leisurely stroll amid a beautiful backdrop that only Mother Nature can offer.
As we walked along the main path, to the water’s edge the air was still a bit brisk but was swiftly disarmed by the brilliantly sunny skies above. Everywhere we looked, we could see animal tracks ranging from squirrels, rabbits and even a fox, it’s signature tracks were made obvious by the way the animal intentionally steps upon its own footprints. (Below, left)
As we continued along the pathway, our gaze was drawn upward by the sound of chickadees, and other birds singing to each other. The chorus of their cheerful chirps and warbles, combined with the feeling of warm sunshine on our faces made for a most suiting affirmation that winter’s days are indeed numbered.
Our walk through Mac Johnson was a great way to kick off the weekend and experience the natural sights and breathtaking landscapes that make this part of Ontario so majestic. This public space is ideal for day-trips and casual hikes with friends and family. There is also a rather large outdoor skating rink complete with a communal fire pit and picnic tables.
A Bodacious Brunch in Downtown Brockville
After traipsing about the trails of Mac Johnson we had built up quite an appetite, so it was time to hit the road and head to Brockville and satisfy the foodie within. While planning our trip, Heidi caught wind of a rather legendary brunch being served all weekend at the Georgian Dragon Ale House & Pub.
Situated on King Street, the Georgian Dragon is a quaint little pub right in the heart of Downtown Brockville. What drew Heidi’s attention was that this pub’s waffles, pancakes and French Toast are all served with local maple syrup produced by Gibbons Family Farm located 30 minutes North of the city.
If you are an eggs benedict fan like me, then you will be pleased to know that there are four variations of this revered breakfast dish available on the brunch menu. My mind was made up as soon as I saw the words: Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict. Heidi chose the French Toast, which she was kind enough to share with me.
This wasn’t the run-of-the-mill French Toast, mind you, but rather Texas Toast saturated in a delicious cinnamon egg wash (I think I also tasted a hint of nutmeg). It was also lightly sprinkled with icing sugar, fresh cream and black raspberries. After a generous drizzle of pure, local maple syrup – it became without a doubt the most epic French Toast we have ever tasted. Très Magnifique!
A Scenic Stroll Along Blockhouse Island
With our life’s breakfast goals now fully accomplished, we decided that a walk through Brockville’s iconic Blockhouse Island would be a good move. It seemed that everywhere we looked was yet another sign of the approaching spring. The iconic F-86 Sabre monument, and other items that adorn the waterfront were good reminders of just how soon these pathways would be filled with people enjoying some fun in the sun beside the mighty river’s edge.
In Search of #Local Sweets & Treats
After a refreshing walk, we made our way from Blockhouse Island back to King Street and our next destination: O’Malley Kourt Fudgery. This cute and brightly coloured confectionary is a great place to peruse some interesting local products, and of course, procure some tasty goodies including O’Malley’s famous fudge which is made on-site.
After a browse through O’Malley’s wares, we bought some maple and salted caramel fudge for later on. In addition to the selection of tempting treats, I also noticed several mustards, salsas and other locally produced items on the shelves. There seemed to be an array of items for just about anyone, from kids to adults – all set amid a delightfully nostalgic retail atmosphere.
Checking In at The Sir Isaac Brock Bed & Breakfast
We could have spent the remainder of the day exploring Downtown Brockville, but we had to continue on. Besides, we were super-excited to be staying the night at the acclaimed Sir Isaac Brock Bed & Breakfast. Ever since I wrote about this charming and historic B&B in a previous blog, it’s always been on my list.
The Sir Isaac is a brilliantly constructed Georgian house made of cut limestone. First built in 1824 this remarkable house would have been a rather ambitious undertaking for its original owner: Mr. Sylvester Skinner who was a successful business owner who manufactured carriages and other farming equipment in a nearby waterfront factory.
Today, the house has been lovingly renovated and decorated by current owners David and Ida Duc. The house’s interior boasts high ceilings, bright and inviting decor and a genius marriage of modern and vintage furnishings. Once you make your way from the foyer into the parlour, the namesake of the establishment becomes prevalent.
There is a fascinating collection of military antiquities and curios throughout the common areas, including portraits of none other than The Hero of Upper Canada himself, giving one the impression of being the travelling guest of a commisioned officer during the 19th century. Stepping into the ornate dining area was like stepping through time, and into an unparalleled era of class and hospitality.
The suites themselves follow the modern/vintage fusion, sporting comfortable and intimate seating, vibrant but subtle colours and brilliantly restored hardwood flooring that is original to the home. The telltale creek as you walk across the floor reaffirms that you’ll be spending the night in a fantastic piece of history.
Table for Two at The Mill Restaurant
As the sun began to set we put on our best evening attire and made the short, five-minute walk down John Street to our dinner reservation at The Mill Restaurant. Like the Sir Isaac, The Mill is a building steeped in history. Originally the Robert Shepherd Grist Mill, this impressive stone building was first built in 1852.
Once elemental in Canada’s industrial coming of age, The Mill is now the home of a popular Italian restaurant, and most recently a steakhouse in the downstairs section of the immaculately restored building. Inside, is a mood-setting and cozy dining venue with soft, dim lighting, and a relaxing noir atmosphere reminiscent of a snazzy Manhattan resto bistro.
For her entree, Heidi selected the Pollo di Trento which consisted of a breaded chicken breast stuffed with artichokes, mushrooms, provolone and topped with a rich roasted red pepper cream sauce. The result was a divine coalescence of the artichoke’s distinct flavour and the richness of the creamy sauce. Absolutely lovely.
For myself, I chose the classic Pollo Parmigiano (chicken parmesan) which combines a tenderized chicken breast dusted with bread crumbs, and generously topped with The Mill’s house made tomato sauce, mozzarella and parmesan cheese, with a side of spaghetti. Chicken Parm is a signature dish of any Mediterranean restaurant, and a personal favourite. The Mill’s version is second to none.
Catch an Evening Show at The Brockville Arts Center
The next item on our itinerary was a short walk from The Mill, to the Brockville Arts Centre where a pair of tickets for the evening show was waiting for us. We were going to enjoy the Brockville Operatic Society production of Roald Dahl’s: Willy Wonka. Completely stuffed with our delicious dinner, we had to decline on dessert, but the theme of the classic production would be sweet enough indeed.
I hadn’t read Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, let alone witnessed a live theatrical performance in many years, so this was an absolute treat. The show itself was a triumph, paying loving respect to Mr. Dahl’s original material while of course driving home the underlying message of humility, optimism and decency in the face of adversity.
It was also a reminder of the captivating magic of live theatre, something of which I realized my life clearly has been lacking. There is an intimacy, and connection that you feel during a live performance that you just don’t get during a movie. The rush of the audience, and the spectacular work of the actors and crew, who continue a vital tradition of entertaining audiences that has endured throughout human history.
By the time the last standing ovation ended, and we exited the theatre, Heidi and I were wiped. We returned to our room at the B&B to rest up and get some much-needed sleep before the second day of our Brockville weekend.
A Delicious Start to Day 2
After an amazing night’s rest in the comforts of our lavish suite, we woke up just after sunrise and made our way downstairs to start the day. The air was filled with the scintillating aroma of freshly baking biscuits, bacon and other delicious smells. Hot coffee was waiting for us in the dining hall, and before we knew it, Ida was bringing us a plate of freshly made biscuits and fresh fruit.
We selected our breakfast choices the day before, and Ida had prepared a seriously hearty spread of food to help our day get off to a proper start. Heidi enjoyed a brilliant omelette stuffed with ham, mushrooms, cheese, and green peppers along with homefries. I had a generous pile of scrambled eggs, along with three links of delicious breakfast sausage.
We spent the remainder of the morning enjoying this most gracious assortment of food in the company of David and Ida, talking about our travels, and enjoying a lengthy conversation about David’s intriguing collection of artifacts. I also spent some time playing fetch with David and Ida’s adorable Yorkie: Rocky.
It made for a splendid experience that you just don’t get in a large hotel. I’ve always adored bed and breakfasts because you get to meet the owners, and enjoy a more down to earth and human level of hospitality. In fact, we spent so much time chatting with Ida and David, that suddenly we realized that we were going to be late for our next big destination!
A Visit to Gibbons Family Farm
After packing our things, and saying our goodbyes at the Sir Isaac Brock, we hopped into the car and headed to the very source of the fabled Maple Syrup we had enjoyed the day before. Heidi had reached out to Sarah Gibbons, of Gibbons Family Farm who agreed to meet up and show us how maple syrup makes its journey from the tree, to your kitchen table.
Located in Frankville, Ontario (30 min North of Brockville) this impressive maple syrup producer, provides countless gallons of the sweet stuff to several surrounding businesses and communities. There is also a fun – and educational museum that takes you through the history of maple syrup production in Canada.
The museum has an impressive collection of both old-fashioned and modern syrup making equipment that brilliantly illustrates the sheer scale of the maple industry. For a cool introduction, you can check out this video by the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association.
After exploring the museum, we were more than ready for the next, and most exciting part of our visit. We were going to be heading out into the sugarbush with Sarah, to get a first-hand look at what it takes to produce maple syrup!
Tapping Trees With The Experts
The warm temperatures lately have created the perfect opportunity to start tapping trees. The timing of our visit could not have been better to get a personal demonstration. We climbed into a tractor-drawn trailer, and Sarah drove us out into their sugarbush. Throughout the trees was a series of lines, that would carry the sap through a gravity fed system for collection at specific points.
Once we hopped out of the trailer and proceeded on foot, I realized just how labour intensive tree tapping is. Sarah said that often, the snow is so deep that they need snowshoes just to traverse the dense bush and get to the trees. Fortunately, the only obstacle we faced was the prickly ash shrubs that grew rampant throughout the forest floor.
Still, for my spoiled urban legs, just getting to the trees was a task in itself.
Sarah explained to me that before simply drilling a hole in a tree, it’s very important to ensure that you aren’t drilling close to a previous hole, or you can risk causing a crack, and injuring or even killing the tree. The process of finding a suitable spot to drill involves knowing how to recognize older holes and signs of stress on the trunk. Once a spot is found, it’s then a matter of using a power drill to cut your pilot hole, before gently hammering a plastic tap into the opening, which is then connected to the lines.
It was at this moment that I realized that the act of producing maple syrup, is much more than simply banging a few holes in maple trees and boiling the sap. It is a stewardship of the forest and requires a symbiotic relationship between the farmer and their environment. It was also physically demanding, and gave me a whole new level of appreciation for the hard work of Ontario maple syrup producers!
While finishing this very blog, I got an email from Sarah letting me know that they tapped 1,200 trees that afternoon after Heidi and I left. She also said that they tapped another 1,200 the following day – primarily on foot, and by hand.
I was pretty tired after trudging through the bush to tap five trees.
In a nutshell, Sarah, her sister, her father and a five-person team tapped two thousand, four hundred maple trees before I could finish writing this article.
I need to step my game up.
Parting is Such ‘Sweet’ Sorrow!
Hands-down, this was easily the most authentically Canadian weekend adventure that Heidi and I have experienced. Brockville Ontario is a truly gorgeous city hidden in plain sight. The itinerary for our trip was jam-packed with so many activities and attractions – and we barely scratched the surface!
From a vibrant arts and culture scene to local dining, unforgettable accommodations, fascinating history, sprawling outdoor spaces and everything in between – Brockville is a destination with something for everyone. To make things even easier, we’ve compiled our entire trip in a handy Google Map to help you plan your own adventure!
As always, thanks for reading!
Photos: Heidi Csernak