If I were given free reign to design the perfect motorcycle route to suit my riding style and personal travel tastes, it would include wide-open roads free from traffic and stop lights, with each unique route connecting distinctive small towns with local charm and friendly people with a total lack of pretension. Well, lo and behold, I recently discovered that such a place actually exists – less than three hours from my home in the mind-numbing colonial grid of southern Ontario that often proves to be a frustrating experience for a motorcyclist.
Whenever and wherever bikers congregate, rides are recounted and tales are told of routes where smooth, serpentine roads can be found and enjoyed. I had often heard of the legendary 507 and ridden it several times, but little did I know that it was just the tip of a massive iceberg.
Located at the bottom of an area known as Ontario’s Highlands, the region is made up of six unique districts: Comfort Country, Haliburton Highlands, Land O’Lakes, North Hastings Ottawa Valley South and the Upper Ottawa Valley. Presumably carved out of the dense rock formations and vegetation by forestry workers with imagination and foresight, the roads through the region are more than suitably crafted for the dynamics of the 2015 Harley-Davidson Road Glide Special I recently piloted through the area.
Getting out of Toronto proved to be the most stressful and challenging part of the trip. Exercising the dexterity of my left hand by giving the Road Glide’s new hydraulic clutch the ultimate test, the city gridlock meant that I didn’t even see second gear until I got to the top end of the Don Valley Parkway. Getting off Highway 404 at Highway 8, I left the traffic behind and jogged across 8A, to 48, 12N, then 48 again to 35N to Norland where I stopped for a bite at Café Diem, a unique coffee shop that is just on the edge of the Ontario’s Highlands.
Continuing north on Highway 35 toward Minden, I couldn’t resist stopping at the Carving Gallery since they had a giant motorcycle sculpture out front constructed of reclaimed materials called The Motorcycle Mama. Owner and talented craftsman Walter VanderWindt has painstakingly created a fascinating gallery of wood carvings and a mystical playground to entertain the kids if you happened to be travelling in a minivan rather than on two wheels.
The first night was spent just outside of Haliburton in a family-owned and operated resort called the Bonnie View Inn, a lakefront haven that blends traditional charm with modern amenities. The ever-exuberant and hospitable owner Andrea Hagarty started working there as a 19-year-old student and fell in love with the place, returning every summer in between semesters until finally purchasing the place herself and running it with her family. The traditional country resort on Lake Kashagawigamog offers modern lake-view rooms, great food, extremely comfortable beds, a fire pit and a licensed lakeside patio that features live music on weekends, so once the kickstands are down they’ve got everything covered that you could possibly need.
Smooth, predominantly traffic-free roads meander and snake through wide expanses of scenic landscapes as you travel between quaint little townships that each have their own unique flavor and heritage. Unlike the more densely populated areas of southern Ontario, you won’t find constant and ubiquitous eyesores like big-box stores, strip malls and franchise chains like Home Depot or Starbucks every 100 metres. What you will find are interesting heritage sites that chronicle the history of each region.
The native Algonquin Nation make up a great deal of the Highlands and are known for their harmonious interaction with nature, before the European settlers arrived. Paying homage to the past is an important aspect of the community’s heritage, visually demonstrated by visiting Zurakowski Park – a moving tribute to Avro Arrow test pilot Janusz Zurakowski that features statues and monuments and is highlighted by a scaled-down replica of the brilliant but ill-fated jet.
Ontario’s Highlands by the numbers:
- 23,840 square kilometres of unspoiled awesomeness to explore
- 7,000 lakes and rivers
- 618 heritage sites & buildings
- 9 provincial parks
- 1 Starbucks
Touring Ontario’s Highlands can occasionally cause you to feel like you are traveling back in time due to the historical architecture, traditions and pace of life. Faithful to the customs of their ancestors, many people live a far simpler, less stressful lifestyle than city folk do. Offering some much needed perspective, your shoulders can’t help but relax after spending a few days in the region.
I met up with Madawaska Valley Councillor and fellow biker Carl Bromwich while checking out the Barry’s Bay Visitor Centre which happened to be hosting a weekly farmer’s market. When asked why the area is becoming popular for motorcyclists, he responded by saying, “The natural scenery we have here, the roads that match a motorcycle’s desire for twisties and turnies and the history of the area that we are still living. This is not a fake history we’ve assembled for show. People live history here.”
A surprising amount of cultural diversity is present in the area which harkens back to these settlement days. Who would have guessed that the best Polish cuisine I have eaten in my life up to this point would be at the highly recommended Wilno Tavern just outside Barry’s Bay. Speaking with friendly and hospitable locals in each area to find their favorite places to eat, stay and visit was part of the fun. Bromwich directed us to Old Barry’s Bay Road, a favorite route of his featuring 78 turns in 11 kilometres which he has adapted into his daily commute. My most difficult decision over the course of this excursion was whether to stick to the main roads which were good, or go off the beaten path to find the great ones – of which there were many.
Arriving after dark at Spectacle Lake Lodge after another full day of exploring, it wasn’t until I awoke the next morning that we recognized the true beauty of the establishment and its surroundings. Not surprisingly located on Spectacle Lake just outside Barry’s Bay, the Lodge is well known by snowmobilers in the winter but is just now being discovered by motorcyclists. The lovely owner Sharon Mahussier does her best to source local ingredients for the kitchen.
“I like to help support local farmers, but the added benefit is that we are also able to get the freshest milk, meat and produce because it came from our neighbor,” says Mahussier, whose restaurant also offers Muskoka craft beer and coffee from a local aficionado who delivers the beans the same day he roasts them. That’s fresh!
From there I headed down to Maynooth since I was told I couldn’t come to the area without visiting Algonquin Gourmet Butter Tarts. Afterward I headed down Highway 62, made a right onto Peterson Road which turned into Elephant Lake Road – yet another must-ride route if you happen to be anywhere near the area.
From there I met up with Loop Road and stopped in to Olde Ridge Authentic Barbecue – a classic southern-style smokehouse that is well worth the visit. Owner Bobby Turner has been painstakingly refining his craft for years. Using local ingredients not only means that the freshness is unparalleled. I don’t often throw around such endorsements easily, but the slow-smoked, rubbed and sauced ribs were the best I’ve ever had in my life, period. Truly.
With a satisfied stomach, I pointed the bike south down to Gooderham and then continued south on legendary 507 to Flynn’s Corner’s where the gas station there has become a popular staging area for riders coming and going from the renowned stretch of road. It is common to see bikes and riders of all shapes and sizes coming and going all day long, each sharing their favorite routes.
Boasting a simpler, more relaxed and rustic way of living, people were friendly and happy to offer directions and suggestions for wining and dining without a hint of pretension. As the Muskoka and Kawartha regions fill up and become unattainable to those of us without trust funds, Ontario’s Highlands are currently the province’s best-kept secret. Considering all of the value it offers to those who visit there, I don’t see it staying that way for long.
For more information, visit: www.ridethehighlands.ca