It’s a fast drive to Ottawa from Toronto, around five hours and 450 kilometres on multilane, controlled-access highway all the way. If you have a little time to spare, however, there are other routes or detours that will turn the drive into a true (and pleasant) road trip through Eastern Ontario
The Thousand Islands
This is the easiest detour, and just an extra 15 minutes without any extra distance. Take Highway 401 east to Kingston, keeping an eye out for the cheapest gas prices beside the highway – you’ll probably need to stop for fuel on the way home. Kingston is an old university town and an excellent place to find an interesting restaurant for lunch if you want to avoid franchise food.
Continue east for about a half-hour on the 401 past Gananoque, and then take the exit for the Thousand Islands Parkway. This is 40 kilometres of federally-maintained parkway – a smooth and wide two-lane road with an 80 kilometre-an-hour speed limit – that runs right beside the shoreline of the St. Lawrence River. It’s not the same scenery as in the summer, but the scattered islands in the river are no less appealing.
There are no services along the way in the off-season, but you’ll be back on the main highway in 30 minutes. Continue east on the 401, then turn north on Highway 416 and you’ll be in Ottawa in an hour.
Short-cut through Westport
If you’re somebody who enjoys, shall we say, “spirited” driving, then take Highway 401 east to Kingston but turn north just before the city on Highway 38 to Harrowsmith. If you’re clever, you can shave a little distance by turning off earlier at Napanee or Odessa and jogging up to Harrowsmith on more direct, paved sideroads.
Drive through Harrowsmith – don’t blink or you’ll miss it – and stay headed north for about 15 minutes until you reach the few houses at Godfrey. That’s where you turn east on Highway 8, which is also called Westport Road.
This lovely road takes you right along the southern shore of Wolfe Lake, with some hairpin turns next to the water’s edge. You’ll end up in Westport, which is a beautiful country town nestled in a valley between two lakes. Some stores will be closed for the season, but lunch at The Cove Country Inn is highly recommended.
Head north to Perth from Westport, where you’ll join Highway 7, which will take you to the edge of Ottawa. This route will cut 25 kilometres from the fast highways, but add 30 to 60 minutes for the slower roads and extra stops.
The old route on Highway 7
Before multilane Highway 416 was completed in 1997, Highway 7 was the main route to Ottawa from Toronto. It’s still part of the Trans-Canada Highway network, but it’s up to an hour slower because most of its route east of Peterborough is two-lane highway. There are some wide stretches with an overtaking lane, but not many. Get stuck behind a truck and you’ll just settle in for the drive.
Take Highway 401 east for an hour to Highway 115, then branch north-east through the Durham farmland to Peterborough. The highway stays to the south of town before narrowing and slowing down into the Haliburton Highlands.
Like many roads bypassed by the interstate, there are some abandoned motels and gas stations beside the highway, but there are half-a-dozen small communities along the way, including Havelock, Madoc and Kaladar, with coffee shops and services. The route enters the Canadian Shield and the smooth road curves gently through rock cuts and past lakes.
There’s an 80-kilometre stretch of highway with blueberry stands (closed for the season) that hugs the shore of Silver Lake for a while, which ends to the east at Perth. This is a lovely, well-established mill town on the river – stop there for a break before the final hour’s drive into Ottawa.
Take the ferry
This is a true detour that will add at least an hour to your drive, but if you believe that every good road trip must include a ferry, then it’s well worth it.
Take Highway 401 east, then turn south to drive into Prince Edward County at either Trenton or Napanee. The Trenton turnoff will take you down beside Lake Ontario and close to Sandbanks Provincial Park, while the Napanee turnoff will save 10 minutes. Head to Picton, where you can stop for lunch or pick up a coffee, then drive 10 minutes east to the Glenora Ferry.
From now until Victoria Day, the 21-car open ferry sails every half-hour, taking about 10 minutes to cross the narrow gap back to the river’s main shoreline. There’s no charge, and it’s a respite of calm in the drive before dropping you back on land at Highway 33. It’s a 45-minute drive from here to Kingston, right beside the St. Lawrence, and you’ll pass the recently-closed Kingston Penitentiary on your way. If you still have extra time, visit the Penitentiary Museum in the old Chief Warden’s house – it’s an unforgettable stopover before hitting the fast highway to Ottawa.