After road tripping more than 100,000 kilometres throughout Canada with our family, I’m often asked for advice on destinations, what to see and do and the ever important – how to keep the kids entertained on the road. But you don’t have to spend days driving to have an incredible family road trip experience. Often the recommendations we make are for what we like to call one-pit-stop-destinations many of our friends have never even considered, which means many of them (and you!) are missing out on some of the best road trip experiences close to home.
Montebello, Quebec is a small town of approximately 1,000 people and is famous for the Château Montebello – the largest log structure in the world which also happens to be a luxuriously rustic Fairmont resort.
Only an hour from Ottawa, this town and the surrounding Outaouais region offers tons for families to do, from enjoying a relaxing pampered vacation at the Château Montebello to staying in a prospector’s tent on the top of a hill after spending the day on a Canadian animal safari at Parc Omega.
The best part, is that once we arrived at Château Montebello, for the most part we felt as though we could park our car and leave it. With so many on-resort activities and the ability to walk into town (yes, even with small children) to activities and restaurants meant that we spent most of our days outside enjoying the fresh air, the unique activities and each other.
The most unique activities that get top marks from our kids include Camp Explora, a family treasure hunt complete with a good dose of historical facts, iPads, gorgeous views and electric quads and Kenauk Nature Reserve. Originally granted by the King of France in 1694, Kenauk is a true wilderness experience. We jumped at the chance to join in on the Wilderness Adventure tour where we viewed bears in their natural habitat including the rare blonde bear.
I highly recommend a trip to the Fromagerie Montebello for the $11 cheese platter with a selection of their cheeses, cured meats and homemade baguette including the popular Tête à Papineau cheese. My husband recommends you get your cheese platter to go and head to the Les Brasseurs de Montebello (http://brasseursdemontebello.com) patio to enjoy your fromage with a side of craft beer. After picking up poutine made with local ingredients at Delice Champetre, the kids recommend you top your evening off with a walk across the street to ChocoMotive for delicious handmade chocolate.
If you’re up for another hour outside of Montebello, the Lac-Simon area is perfect for a relaxing beach vacation. Enjoy the sandy beach, cottage rentals, camping, activities for the kids, a huge lakeside playground with gigantic hill-top slides and the ever-popular “Potion Magique”, a combination of slush, ice cream, flavoured syrup and gummy bears.
Drive Time: Approx. 6 hours from Toronto, Ontario.
Blue Mountain Resort is well known for the ski slopes in the winter, but makes a fantastic summer family vacation getaway especially with their best kept secret – a private beach!
With so much to offer both the relaxer and the adventurer in all of us, you can choose lazy days by the pool or lake followed by thrilling rides on the mountain coaster and challenging yourself on the ropes courses.
The whole family can alternate between swimming, kayaking, mountain biking, golfing (regular or mini), zip lining and hiking. If there’s a rainy day, not to worry! Younger kids will love Plunge! Aquatic Centre, my girls will forever vote to spend some time at Glama Gal Tween Spa and the whole family can paint a memento at Crock-a-Doodle.
Think your kids (or you) aren’t up for a long hike? Choose one of the trails that take you to the top of the mountain and ride the gondola back down. Or simply ride the gondola up, take in the views and come back down the same way you came.
Another not-so-well known fact about Blue Mountain Resort is their summer camps for kids. From tots to teens, there are camps that will appeal to everyone in your family and the best part is that you can register your kids for a whole week or one day at a time.
While the kids are at camp, book yourself a massage and plan for at least 2 hours to enjoy the hot baths at Scandinave Spa. I also highly recommend a cooking class at the Collingwood Cooking Academy where I learned to make Chef Philip’s famous pie pastry.
When it comes to family meals, Blue Mountain does not disappoint. Our favourites are Oliver & Bonacini (the kids’ menu is fantastic!), Tholos for Greek food, Fire Hall Pizza Co. (in a recreated fire hall) and if you’re up for a short car ride outside of Blue Mountain, the Alphorn Restaurant will take you away to the Swiss Alps complete with fondue and schnitzel.
A quick insiders tip is to check the activities schedule at the Activity Centre in the village. There are daily activities, live music, outdoor movies, guided hikes, yoga classes and special events.
Drive Time: Approx. 5 hours from Windsor, Ontario.
Wait! Before you click through to the next destination, I know most southern Ontarians will pass through this section because we’ve been to Toronto, right? Most of us have been there many times, for business meetings, concerts, events and likely one specific attraction. But have you ever really “road-tripped” to Toronto? It’s a short road trip for sure (bonus!) and if you spend the time, Toronto makes for an epic family vacation.
On our last trip to Toronto we stayed at the super family friendly Chelsea Hotel. The large rooms, kids check in (with presents!), the waterslide, kids’ area, bunnies (yes, real ones), outdoor movies and regular surprises in the lobby like fresh popped popcorn and a life-sized robot won my kids over on day one.
While staying at the Chelsea Hotel we also learned they have a beach called Chelsea Beach on Centre Island – a day spent on a Blue Flag beach a short ferry or water taxi ride from downtown Toronto is definitely something we did not expect!
Plan to spend a whole day on Centre Island and ride the rides at Centreville and find your inner pirate at the incredibly entertaining and hilarious (for kids and adults) Pirate Life where you get to ride a real pirate ship in search of treasure!
If you haven’t been to the Toronto Zoo lately (or ever), now is the time to go. With a polar bear cub, panda cubs and penguin exhibits the kids were entertained for hours. Be sure to pack the kids’ bathing suits too – the huge splash pad is one of the zoo’s best kept secrets.
Our favourite indoor attractions are by far Ripley’s Aquarium, the Royal Ontario Museum, LEGOLAND and the Ontario Science Centre. The CN Tower is a must-do and dinner on top of the tower at the revolving 360 Restaurant is worth the splurge – the food is delicious and the cost of heading to the viewing deck is included.
Drive Time: Approx. 3 hours from Sarnia, Ontario
It’s difficult for me to write or talk about Manitoulin Island without wanting to book another summer family vacation on the shores of the largest fresh water island in the world. There are few places in our part of the country where you can get a glimpse into rural Canada, live a small-town life (even for a short time), learn first hand about the Ojibwe people who still call this island home, meet some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet and enjoy a laid back unplugged family beach vacation like no other place I’ve been. There’s something so peaceful about spending time on the Island.
One of our favourite things about vacationing on Manitoulin Island is getting there! The Chi-Cheemaun (“Big Canoe” in Ojibwe) is the ferry that runs between Tobermory and Manitoulin Island in about an hour and 45-minute crossing. While on the ferry kids can check out the observation deck, hang out in the (small-ish) kids’ area, buy postcards from the on-ship shop and post them on board. They also have a full-service cafeteria but my insiders’ tip is if you’re hungry, head up to the cafeteria as soon as you get onboard – it can get very busy in there on some crossings.
Whether you choose to rent a cottage, stay at a bed and breakfast or camp, be sure to do it lakeside! With over 100 inland lakes and being surrounded by Lake Huron, this isn’t hard to do.
On our last trip to Manitoulin Island we stayed at Hide Away Lodge just outside of the village of Kagawong. These rustic but fully equipped cabins were the perfect place to call home while we explored the Island during the day and came back to Hide Away Lodge for swimming, kayaking and lazy time by the lake or playing board games in the games room.
One of our most memorable experiences was visiting the Great Spirit Circle Trail (www.circletrail.com). Here we had an immersive cultural experience where the kids (and adults) learned about the history of the Ojibwe people – more than they could have ever learned in the classroom. Together with our guide we made teas from ingredients we picked ourselves, baked bannock on the open fire, hand sewed medicine bags and decorated dream catchers then learned how to play the drums while listening to traditional songs and stories from the elders.
Other memorable Manitoulin moments are made swimming under the waterfall at Bridal Veil Falls (bring water shoes because it’s rocky under water), riding a mule at Kicking Mule ranch and playing life-sized board games outside of Bou Bah Lou Candy Cabin in Kagawong.
Drive time: Approx. 3 ½ hours to Tobermory from London, Ontario then a 1 ¾ hour ferry crossing. Alternatively, you can take the long way around and drive approx. 7 ½ hours from London, Ontario.
How we ended up in Sudbury on a family road-trip vacation for the first time was simple – the kids asked to go. Believe me, I was as surprised as you, but after seeing Amazing Race Canada contestants compete in Sudbury, my kids were convinced they wanted to go and experience this Northern Ontario city.
Sudbury is known for being home to the largest coin in the world “Big Nickel” and it’s long mining history, but the experiential learning opportunities and family fun activities make for great “what I did this summer” journal entries.
The kids’ first choice on their Sudbury must-do list is Dynamic Earth. This underground exhibit used to be a real working mine and takes you through the history of mining starting more than 1.85 billion years ago when Sudbury was hit with a massive meteorite. Wearing hard hats, be ready for a guided exploration of mining throughout the last three centuries and learn firsthand what it was like to be a miner in Northern Ontario complete with mock explosions and emergencies that lead you into the Refuge Station. This is where you’ll happen to find Canada Post’s only underground mailbox so be sure to purchase your pre-stamped postcards at reception.
Also at the top of the kids’ Sudbury musts list is Science North a unique science centre experience with too many exhibits to list. Highlights of our not-long-enough-half-day-visit included the butterfly room, the bed of nails, building race cars, Wildfires 4D exhibit, meet and greet with the animals and the IMAX films.
We highly recommend you take some time to hike to the A.Y. Jackson Lookout over the Onaping Falls where this Group of Seven member painted. Maybe even stop at the dollar store for some canvases and paint before you go then spend some time on the rocks by the water letting your kids create their own masterpieces. If your kids love trains, a short drive to the railroad town of Capreol and the Northern Ontario Railroad Museum and Heritage Centre is a must.
At the end of one of our exciting Sudbury days, when we sat down at M.I.C (Made in Canada) for a truly Canadian meal, I saw a family who I had chatted with at Science North. The mom was on her phone trying to make a hotel reservation and said to me from across our tables “We only came up for the day from our cottage but I had no idea how much there was to do here. We’re going to pick up some toothbrushes and pyjamas, spend the night and stay as long as we can tomorrow.”
Drive Time: Approx. 4 ½ hours from Guelph, Ontario.
Did you know there are Blue Flag beaches only a few hours west from you? If you’re looking for a family friendly beach vacation, Ontario’s Southwest is the place to do it and one of our family’s favourite close to home beach destinations is Grand Bend.
We highly recommend renting a cottage away from the main strip (it gets very busy) as close to Lake Huron as possible or parking your trailer, pitching a tent or even renting a yurt at the Pinery.
Wherever you choose your beach vacation home base, there are tons of options for what to see and do from there!
Spend lazy mornings sitting outside, drinking hot coffee and letting the kids skip rocks along the water.
Head into Grand Bend for shopping along main street especially for new bathing suits and beach toys. Eat at one of the many restaurants our favourites being kid-friendly sushi at Midori and poutine at the Spud Shack. Then order your favourite scoop of ice cream and head over for some mini golf at Village Green.
If you’re looking for a slightly different shopping experience, the Pinery Antique Flea Market is always a fun, family friendly way to spend a few hours.
This summer, we’ve had the absolute pleasure of taking in a few shows at the Huron Country Playhouse for the very first time. Each summer, the playhouse features a Panto that’s perfect for the whole family. This year is Aladdin: The Panto and kids are encouraged to boo the villain, cheer on Aladdin and princess Jasmine and sing along to popular songs.
If you’re up for a bit of adventure, rent a jet ski or try out the water trampoline at Xtreme Water Sports. For those of you who would like to spend a bit more time relaxing than adventuring, rent a canoe, kayak or paddle boat at The Pinery and get out on the water. There are also many great family friendly hiking and bike trails in the park and if you forgot your bike, don’t worry, you can rent those too.
While there are tons of exciting things to do, our favourite family memories have been late nights on the beach – the sunsets on Lake Huron are breathtaking! Then we like to linger on the beach a little bit longer for the stargazing away from the big city lights.
If you you have another late night in you, check out the Starlite Drive-In. There is always a great selection of family friendly movies playing.
Drive Time: Approx. 2 ½ hours from Mississauga, Ontario.
Don’t worry, you do not have to camp. I repeat, you do not have to camp at Algonquin Provincial Park! Although if you love to camp, it’s a great place to do it, but there are many other options for enjoying the great Canadian wilderness without having to sleep in a tent.
Many (many!) years ago, Algonquin was the very first camping trip my husband and I took together (and arguably the first of our many adventures) and it will forever hold a special place in my heart. Whether you choose to stay at one of the park lodges, a yurt or rent a cottage, your accommodations are sure to be one of the highlights of the trip.
While many of you reading this will still be thinking Algonquin means backcountry camping and hours of portaging a canoe, the reality is, it’s often just fun sitting on the deck at the Portage Store, eating ice cream and watching those backcountry campers paddle off after stopping for supplies.
If you haven’t been to Algonquin in quite some time you might be surprised by how it’s changed and all the opportunities there are to sit back and relax as a family while still keeping the kids entertained.
Hiking and canoeing are at the top of my kids’ favourite Algonquin activities as are spending the day swimming in one of the many lakes and participating in the guided walks and
Algonquin for Kids nature programs designed specifically for kids ages 5-12. Led by the Ontario Parks staff at the Visitor Centre, kids can learn about the many animals and plant life in the park taught by extremely knowledgable staff in a fun and interactive way.
There are also guided walks and a variety of evening programs held in the outdoor theatre, especially the ever popular public wolf howl. Here participants learn about wolves in the park and join in a public wolf howl where the wolves almost always howl back!
Before you go, check out the list of activities and events on the Friends of Algonquin website.
Kids can also lead their own learning with the Junior Ranger Program and earn pins for each task they complete.
Did you know Algonquin Park also has an art centre? If your kids love art, there are both drop-in art experiences and workshops you can register for. The majority of which are open to all-ages and perfect for the whole family.
Algonquin Provincial Park also has a hiking trail that doubles as an outdoor museum exhibit. The Algonquin Logging Museum trail is a 1.5km hike with tons of outdoor exhibits that kids can climb, walk through and experience the history of logging in Canada.
Finally, although there are a lot of options for things to do in Algonquin that can keep the whole family busy, make sure you leave time to leisurely walk or drive through the park, especially at prime moose viewing times and of course enjoy a quiet coffee overlooking the lake. I promise, there is no tent required (unless you want one!).
Drive Time: Approx. 4 hours from Kitchener, Ontario.
Maija is a busy mom to three busy children – children who insist on eating every day. Between shuttling kids to dance or cheer practice, tae kwon do, hockey, or baseball, she often finds herself in the kitchen looking at three hungry children (and a husband) and a clock ticking towards dinner time.