I’ve been to Niagara-on-the-Lake and Prince Edward County. Where should I go next for a quick escape in Southern Ontario?
Elora, especially if you’re planning to check out the fall colours.
That’s the spot with the gorge, right?
Yes. It’s also the place that Group of Seven painter A.J. Casson called the most beautiful village in Ontario and that Chevrolet dubbed the “Most Road Trippable Town in Canada.”
I like road trips.
Perfect! Elora, a community of about 7,500 people in the township of Centre Wellington, is well situated for those. It’s a 90-minute drive from the Greater Toronto Area and London, and just less than two hours if you’re heading out from the Niagara region.
That’s definitely doable. What’s on offer when I get there?
Firstly, there is the impossibly picture-perfect centre of Elora. The streets are dotted with preserved 19th-century limestone buildings the colour of honeycombs: independent shops (many painted zingy hues such as bright purple and yellow), art galleries and all sorts of places to eat. A stroll around Mill and Metcalfe Streets when you arrive (it’s a small radius – just a few big blocks) is a great way to start your visit. And, if you meander off the main roads, you’ll spy some of the quaintest and most impeccably maintained 19th-century houses and churches, many with enviably lush gardens.
I like the idea of strolling but I’m not a big shopper.
That’s fine, but be warned: Even the most jaded will find it hard not to point and click at the shop fronts, which are made for Instagram. And then there’s the art. The Elora Sculpture Project is an innovative yearly outdoor exhibition that runs from spring till October (so don’t delay!). It pays homage to Elora’s artistic heritage – the area has been a haven for creative types since the 1970s – and layers in some unexpected inspiration by dotting public spaces with sculptures made by Canadians. Most of the pieces are for sale on a commission-free basis, allowing artists to receive 100 per cent of their proceeds. Every May a new exhibition is revealed, so there’s always a reason to return.
Strolls and art are nice, but I also like some activity on my trips.
You’re in luck. You can hike the Conservation Area, tube down the Elora rapids or arrange for a more leisurely raft ride. If you’re a bit of a daredevil, connect with One Axe Pursuits. They offer a slew of outdoor activities centred on the gorge’s vertiginously steep limestone cliffs, including a 60-metre zipline jump followed by an 25-metre rappel down to the river.
You mentioned plenty of places to eat. What’s the food scene like?
It’s pretty diverse for such a small spot. For a sit-down meal, the Evelyn channels French flair (think cassoulet and buttered baguettes sprinkled with fleur de sel). If you prefer a picnic, check out the Mercantile, a treasure trove of homemade food, local products and all the cheese and charcuterie needed for fab grazing. For dessert with a conscience, try Café Creperie. Every Monday, this sweet spot closes to the public to prepare lunches for those in need. The meals are made using food donated by local restaurants and residents. They shun the soup-kitchen formula with vegan offerings and dishes such as deconstructed pad thai.
No, but this is the home of the Elora Brewing Company so don’t leave without trying a pour of their award-winning Elora Borealis pale ale. The Porch Light is also worth checking out. They make Elora’s best Caesar and really do have a porch that is the best seat in town for people-watching on Metcalfe Street. The Elora Mill Hotel and Spa (the place to stay – more on that later) has a perfectly edited wine list with strong Canadian content. It also offers great value: A bottle of the Farm “Black Label” Pinot Noir, a single-estate beauty from the Niagara Peninsula, punches in at $62. The cocktails here are a must as well – they make their own basil honey syrup to kick up the house margarita.
It sounds like I’ll want to spend a night or two here.
No question –and the aforementioned Elora Mill Hotel and Spa is the place to stay. For almost 200 years, this original grist mill has been a part of Elora’s community and now it’s attracting visitors in droves thanks to a $27-million, six-year-long renovation that began in 2012. The Inn is perched directly above the water for an unrivalled view of the Grand River as it falls and tumbles into the gorge. Blue herons catching fish for breakfast and minks foraging the river bank are common sights from the glassed-walled dining room. There are only 30 rooms and they seamlessly meld historical elements, such as limestone posts and wooden beams, with modern amenities such as Dyson hairdryers and Frette linens.
It’s the kind of hotel you never want to leave and you really don’t have to. The food alone is reason to stay – everything from the casual comfort of burgers and fries to chef’s tasting menus replete with foraged ingredients and local produce. Most rooms have wood-burning fireplaces and yawning tubs that encourage lazing. There’s a gym, spa, sauna, Jacuzzi and heated outdoor pool. Open year-round, the pool is cantilevered over the gorge and lit red on Valentine’s Day. Tip: Splurge one of the solarium suites. They feature a floor-to-ceiling glass wall that showcases some pretty spectacular views of the surrounds.
The Explore Package (available Oct 1 - Nov 30; from $600) makes it easy to enjoy some of the best of the area. It includes one night accommodation for two guests, a tasting at Elora Brewery Company, mulled cider and housemade snacks to fuel a hike and a Red Hot Apple Toddy Hand and Foot treatment for two at Elora Mill Spa. What better way to ease into fall?
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