Canadian Canoe Museum Peterborough, Ontario
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Peterborough and the Kawarthas: Family Play Vacation

Canadian Canoe Museum Peterborough, Ontario
Canadian Canoe Museum Peterborough, Ontario

It’s less than two hours drive from Toronto to the heart of the Kawarthas, the lake area (or ‘cottage country,’ as it’s called) just north of Peterborough. And Ontario, Canada, is practically at the doorstep of families in the United States’ East and Midwest regions. So the vacation district of Peterborough and the Kawarthas offers a great opportunity to line your kids up with passports, travel to a ‘foreign’ land, and then have all the freedom and security of romping around in the national parks – where English is spoken.

The outdoor experience is yours for the taking, with boating, fishing, and hiking available everywhere, plus exploration of caves, canals, and First Nation native history available to the inquisitive. Here are some suggestions for starters:

Stoney Lake at Dawn, the Kawarthas
Stoney Lake at Dawn, the Kawarthas

Peterborough, the jumping off point for the Kawarthas, sits on the important Trent-Severn Waterway that connects Georgia Bay (the large bay on the northeast side of Lake Huron) to Lake Ontario. With a population of 80,000, the town is big enough to support summer concerts and theater, a year-round free zoo at the inviting Riverside Park, a series of bike trails, scenic cafes and resting places, and water sports equipment rental for use on the rivers and canals. A please-all family vacation could be based in a hotel right here.

Another half-hour drive from Peterborough, options include camping at the Warsaw Caves, or staying at one of the area resorts. Warsaw Caves Conservation Area offers over 50 campsites and acres of playground. With headlamps, kids are in discovery heaven, and likely to ‘get lost’ for hours, exploring the nooks and crannies formed thousands of years ago by rushing rivers left behind by receding glaciers. For parents, it’s like being on a cruise ship: everyone can be on their own, enjoying their favorite pastimes, but in a contained environment. Guides to the caves are available, as are beaches, picnic areas, canoe rentals, and access to the Indian River. What’s not to love?

Cave Playground in the Woods, Warsaw Caves, Ontario
Cave Playground in the Woods, Warsaw Caves, Ontario

Of course if you aren’t into camping, resorts abound for living it up–and you can still visit the campgrounds and trails. Viamede Resort, for example, ‘The Grand Lady” of Stoney Lake, is an historic site reborn from an old trading post along the lakes and canal commercial routes. Boats, canoes, and kayaks are available to guests. Just off the docks, sunfish are easy to catch. A Frisbee Golf course and hiking trails lead through the woods. The resort raises it’s own ducks, quail, herbs, and vegetables, and is home to a few pigs that are likely to come to the fence to have a closer look at the lookers. All this local produce makes its way in the outstanding international cuisine served at the resort. Oh, and Maggie the resident dog has her own Twitter account.

Osprey's nesting on island, Stoney Lake, the Kawarthas
Osprey’s nesting on island, Stoney Lake, the Kawarthas

Paddling around Stoney Lake, you can gawk at the fine homes of celebs, explore the little islands dotting the lake, and discover loons, gulls, and osprey nesting. The shores of the lake are a wonderful hodge-podge of isolated island cabins, old cottages converted to year round homes, new glass houses cantilevered over the clear water lake, and wilderness.

Ojibwa Crafts with Porcupine Quills, Whetung Gallery
Ojibwa Crafts with Porcupine Quills, Whetung Gallery

Nearby Curve Lake First Nation Reserve was established in 1829, and is home to about 1500 native Ojibwa people. Mike Whetung, owner of the Whetung Ojibwa Arts and Crafts Gallery, is ninth generation on the Reserve, and third generation operating the trading post. The property has grown into an informal community center, too, where school children gather to plant vegetables or experience the art of teepees, totem poles, or native crafts. The store is a museum of family photos and antique tools, contemporary art and sculpture, and handcrafted items made of porcupine quills, reeds, hand-tanned leathers, beads, stones, and more. Sometimes artists are on hand to talk about their work and inspiration.

Other highlights around Peterborough include the Lift Lock (especially if you can manage to figure out when it might be in operation), and the Canadian Canoe Museum. Both offer great insight as to Canada’s history of commerce and recreation on its waterways.

Kristin Henning is traveling full time now that her kids are grown. She found the Kawarthas of Ontario to remind her of family vacations to the Boundary Waters when she was young. Read about her travels with her husband, Tom Bartel, at Travel Past 50.

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