Ontario's best road trip: small town escape

Artist Rachel Ryle animates her travels to two charming towns in Ontario.

By Maryellen Kennedy Duckett
Published 7 Dec 2018, 17:20 GMT
Photograph by Rachel Ryle

National Geographic sent illustrator and animator Rachel Ryle on a road trip to experience a unique arts-and-outdoor getaway. Learn about her favourite places in two charming Ontario, Canada riverside towns of Elora and Fergus. Located about 75 miles northwest of downtown Toronto, these historic towns of Scottish heritage boast artist studios, antique shops, and ample opportunities to explore the outdoors. Here’s how to start planning your own Ontario small town escape.

An artistic look at Mermaid in Elora, the specialty shop in downtown Elora.


1. Enjoy a slower pace of life 90 minutes from Toronto.

2. Meet local artisans and shop for one-of-a-kind finds.

3. Learn about Ontario’s rich mill town history and architecture.

4. Play in, on, and around the Grand River and Elora Gorge.

5. Savour the farm-to-table culinary experiences in Ontario’s beautiful villages.


Discover the History of the Elora Mill

Originally hand-built by Scottish labourers between 1851 and 1859 (and rebuilt and restored multiple times since), The Elora Mill on the Grand River is the historic heart and signature sight of Elora. Overlooking the stunning Elora Gorge, the exquisite limestone building—formerly home to a gristmill, sawmill, wool factory, shops, and inn—was reborn as the luxurious Elora Mill Hotel and Spa in July 2018. Learn the history of the mill, gorge, and culturally rich Elora on a self-paced bike tour led by a GPS-enabled audio guide.

INSIDE TIP: “Go to the Elora Mill for cocktails at sunset or for the four-course prix fixe dinner, but dress up. It’s fancy,” says Ryle.

Shop and Stroll

Spend the afternoon strolling and shopping downtown. Mermaid in Elora is a jewel box of a shop chockablock with Canada’s largest collection of door knockers, vintage mail boxes, map art, antique reproduction jewelry, and other uncommon gems. For more one-of-a-kind finds, browse the local shops of Elora Mews, a quaint retail courtyard tucked near the mill and the gorge. Discover old-school T-shirts, collectibles, and other vintage treasures at reFIND Salvage, which also stocks locally crafted and made items, such as Buck Naked Soap Company personal care products and whimsical reFIND wood signs. Soak up more history by overnighting at Elora’s White Garden. The comfortably elegant bed and breakfast is owned by a descendant of the mill’s original owner and features design elements—such as stained glass windows—salvaged from the old mill.

INSIDE TIP: “Stop for lunch or snacks at Elora Brewing Company: great vibe and beer,” says Ryle. “I enjoyed the Elora Borealis Citra Pale Ale [a crisp, light malt beer] the most.”


Experience Elora’s Creative Side

Elora—which Group of Seven artist A.J. Casson famously called “Ontario’s most beautiful village”—is a hotbed of creativity. Meet working artists, view exhibits, and shop for original pieces on a walking tour beginning at the Elora Centre for the Arts. Studio and gallery hours vary, so check online for times. At Marquetry by Stephen Haigh, learn about the ancient art of inlaying different woods to create decorative designs and pictures. Buy handmade glass works—such as wind chimes and ornaments—at Hanscomb Glass Studio. Take a private pottery class at Elora Pottery or bring home a hand-painted platter or other imaginative creation by owner and clay artist Staci Barron. Between studio visits, pick up a takeaway sandwich (try a ham with apple-onion jam, grainy mustard, and cheddar cheese) on fresh, artisanal sourdough from Elora Bread.

INSIDE TIP: Devote extra time to the Marquetry studio,” says Ryle. “I was so impressed with the craftsmanship, and lifelong dedication Stephen Haigh has committed to his artwork, which is similar to the tiny detail and time commitment for my work. This is such a cool space to visit. The gift shop opens up directly into his cosy artist studio, giving the space a real unique feel.”

Hike, Float, and Play Outdoors

Make Elora Gorge Park your home base for an afternoon of outdoor adventure. Open May to October, the park offers multiple ways to explore in, on, and near the water. Hike the nearly two miles of riverside trails for unobstructed views of the gorge’s 22-metre (72-foot)-high cliffs. Rent a tube to float down the Grand River and through the gorge. More water adventure awaits in the calm waters of the Elora Mill dam where you can pilot your own English punt boat or join a guided ride from Elora Raft Rides. June to Labour Day, cool off in an old-fashioned swimming hole—the two-acre limestone namesake of Elora Quarry Park. End the water-filled day with dinner on the open-air Riverside Patio at The Cellar Pub and Grill.

INSIDE TIP: “One of my favourite things is the punt boats,” says Ryle. “It's obvious that the owner Ken Thompson loves what he does and is proud of his hometown; he shared many stories and tidbits as we floated down the river. After he fell in love with punt boats during his time in Europe, he came back to Elora and built his beautiful punt boat by hand.”

Rachel Ryle cruises the Grand River in a custom built and locally fabricated watercraft Punt Boat for an authentic and memorable river experience.
Photograph by Susan Seubert


Celebrate Scottish Heritage

Rent a bike and cruise the Elora Cataract Trailway 3.5 miles east to Fergus, home of the annual Fergus Scottish Festival and Highland Games. Held every August since 1946, the three-day festival of all things Scottish kicks off with a Thursday evening 'Pipes, Plaid, and Pageantry' parade. Learn about the Scottish and Irish immigrants, and freed slaves from the United States, who settled Fergus by touring the Wellington County Museum and Archives. The National Historic Site—built in 1877 as a House of Industry and Refuge for the poor, homeless, and indigent elderly—features indoor and outdoor exhibits, including gardens and a restored 1877 barn.

INSIDE TIP: The Vault Coffee and Espresso Bar [housed in a former Imperial Bank of Canada building] in Fergus has great pour over coffee,” says Ryle.

Kitras Glass Studio is family run and is Canada's largest hot glass studio.
Photograph by Susan Seubert
You can watch beautifully hand-blown glass at Kitras Glass Studio-a 1,000 square foot gallery that showcases all of its collections.
Photograph by Susan Seubert

Capture Scenic Views

Walk through Fergus history at the town’s signature cultural heritage landscape, Templin Gardens. Carved into limestone walls of the river gorge between 1920 and 1934, the public park and tiered landscaped gardens extend from street level down to the river. Paved trails wind through the gardens and connect to the longer Templin Garden Trail and Riverfront Trail. The compact (less than a quarter acre) park-gardens site is packed with Instagrammable sights, such as spiralling cut-stone steps crafted by Scottish master mason Roger Bricker, river rapids, and a stone archway framing a scenic vista trifecta—the Grand River, the gorge walls, and the Tower Street Bridge. End the day on an artistic note by shopping for Fergus-made blown glass ornaments, vases, and other handcrafted glass pieces in the shop at Kitras Art Glass. The family-run hot glass studio is the largest of its kind in Canada and has been rooted in Fergus since 1988.

INSIDE TIP: “Fit in a stop at I Love Chocolate, my favourite specialty gift shop in Fergus that sells delicious handmade chocolates.”

Photograph by Cartography By Martin Walz


It's an easy drive to Elora & Fergus from downtown Toronto. Start out on the Gardiner Expressway West and follow the signs for ON-427/ON-401/Airport. Continue along ON-427 North to the ON-401 West exit. Travel along ON-401 West to exit 295 ON-6 North towards Guelph. Continue north along ON-6 all the way to Fergus. Elora will be about an eight-minute drive west of Fergus on Wellington County Road 18. It's a short distance between towns so you can easily go back and forth to experience all that these two charming towns have to offer.


Luxuriate in the splendour and embrace the history of the 27-room Elora Mill Hotel & Spa. Choose a Terrace Suite in the original mill for the private patio (with fire pit) overlooking Elora Gorge. In Fergus, immerse yourself in local Scottish heritage at The Breadalbane Inn. The well-appointed, 11-suite bed and breakfast primarily is housed in an 1851 stone structure built by George D. Fergusson, a son of the town’s co-founder.

The Wellington County Museum and Archives in Fergus is a National Historic Site located in the building that stands as the oldest remaining House of Industry and Refuge in Canada.
Photograph by Susan Seubert
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