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The Birchwood Haliburton offers the perfect combo of rustic country and away-game luxury.Christy Wright

All my friends are heading south for lazy beach vacations, but I want a break that embraces winter activity … a place that I can drive to, from the Greater Toronto Area, that’s snowy with a real country feel.

Haliburton ticks all those boxes, including being a three-hour drive from the GTA. Just make sure you’ve got four-wheel drive because that country feel you desire manifests itself in many forms, including vertiginous rural roads.

I should mention that I want activities beyond the usual ski slope scene.

You’ll be spoiled for choice. If you do nothing but hike, you’ll be impressed by what’s on offer – from moderate trails for beginners to more challenging treks that cover steep uphills and ridge lines. All trails are pristine and some even overlook marshes, streams and lakes. Bonus: Most lakes are frozen right now so you can walk on them and look back at the surrounds for an interesting perspective on the hilly landscape. It’s often compared to the Scottish Highlands.

Sounds interesting, but what if I don’t want to hike on my own?

This weekend (Feb. 8 to 9) would be the perfect time to visit as the winter edition of the Hike Haliburton Festival is on. There are

20 guided and snowshoe hikes (the hikes are free and you can rent the snowshoes). Spaces are limited and they fill up, so register in advance to be sure (winter.hikehaliburton.com).

Haliburton's winter landscape makes it the perfect place for a snowshoe hike or ice fishing.Christy Wright

You said I’d be spoiled for choice.

Indeed. All you have to do is head to the Haliburton Forest and take your pick of super cool activities. Really, these are the kinds of experiences you can dine out on.

Like what?

Like ice fishing. The Haliburton Forest, also known as “trout country,” is a big draw for frosty anglers and boasts more than 100 lakes, as well as miles of creeks and streams. An ice-fishing experience is $95 for the day and includes a guide and snowmobile, plus fishing gear and hot chocolate. And the challenge is real! This isn’t a trout farm, so congratulate yourself if you’re able to reel one in. (info@haliburtonforest.com).

What if I want to keep moving?

Rent a snowmobile. The Haliburton Forest is also one of the top 10 snowmobiling destinations in North America. It has more than 400 kilometres of perfectly

maintained trails and is committed to offering a quality experience. Read: They don’t oversell passes, so it’s quite possible you won’t see another rider as you explore.

What about something involving wildlife?

I like incorporating animals into my experiences.

You are going to absolutely love the Wolf Centre. As well as undertaking the admirable task of championing wolf ecology, this neat facility features an indoor observatory overlooking 15 acres that are home to the forest’s wolf pack. It sounds kind of touristy – and it is a bit – but how many times have you been just a few feet away from these animals? The observatory is also equipped with speakers that pipe in sound from outside so, if you’re lucky, you’ll hear (and see) the wolves howling.

The Haliburton Wolf Centre overlooks 15 acres that are home to the Haliburton Forest’s wolf pack.Christy Wright

Okay, after any or all of these, I’ll need something to eat.

Head to the Haliburton Cookhouse, which is just down the road from the Wolf Centre. You could possibly be the only person in there not wearing snowmobile pants and that just adds to the charm. The menu is small, but covers the bases, from Brit-style cod with chips to house-smoked chicken clubs and homemade seitan veggie burgers. For something more upscale, drive to Rhubarb in the nearby township of Carnarvon for cuisine crafted with ingredients from local providers. Don’t leave without trying a pint from Boshkung, the on-site microbrewery (the delicious cream ale is an award winner).

What about the village of Haliburton itself?

It’s tiny, quaint and set around Head Lake. Most likely it will be your point of entry to Haliburton from the GTA. It’s definitely worth a stroll, particularly to check out Rails End Gallery. Set in a former rail station, it showcases contemporary art and music from regional artists. For a bite or drink after the drive, check out Mckeck’s, a bar and grill founded by former Toronto Maple Leaf Walt McKechnie.

I won’t be able to pack all this into a day trip. Where should I stay?

For the perfect combo of rustic country and away-game luxury, book the Birchwood Haliburton. It is a proper secluded cottage so that four-wheel drive is a must for getting there. It’s nestled amongst a forest of birch trees and set 120 steps above a pristine (and now frozen over) lake.

While it’s off municipal roads, it dials up city comforts, including Netflix and a newly renovated kitchen that’s fully equipped down to dishes, cutlery, spices and cold drinks in the fridge. The décor balances boutique chic with supreme coziness, thanks in part to the living room’s amply stocked wood-burning stove. And if, after a day outdoors, you can somehow tear yourself away from the fire, the Birchwood’s outdoor hot tub, set to a soothing 102 F, is just steps away. Sitting in it, surrounded by silence and gazing up at an inky star-studded sky, is a nice way to end the day and definitely holds its own against a beach.

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