Hastings County, Ontario, Canada
My 82-year-old father is a Michigander through and through. At this stage of his game, it is doubtful that he will change into something other than the practical, no-no-nonsense-man-of-little-sentiment kind of guy that he is. Therefore, it didn’t surprise me that when I asked him if he had ever been to where his grandfather and several generations before had been born in Hastings County, Ontario, Canada, a decisive “why would I want to do that?” was his answer. In my mind, this was an unsatisfactory response, hence, the idea for a father-daughter trip was born.
Going to Canada is no longer the easy process that it was when I was a kid. Back then, you could just cross into our closest neighbor with a wave and a smile. Today, travelers need a passport that will be checked upon entry and return.
The drive to Hastings County from the city of Port Huron, Mich., via the Blue Water Bridge takes about six hours. If you are lucky, here and there you will find the Canadian equivalent to McDonalds, aka Tim Horton’s. Canadians know that you will find cheap food and powerful coffee perking at Timmy’s, so you can count on it being fairly busy. But mostly what you will observe on this drive is corn, wheat or maybe even oats swaying in the breeze while cows of every species imaginable meander from one fence post to another. About four hours into the trip, you will arrive in Toronto, where you veer northeast toward Belleville, our home base while exploring the area.
Belleville sits at the mouth of the Moira River on the beautiful and pristine Bay of Quinte. Originally home to the native Mississaugas, the area was first settled in 1784 by Loyalists who were granted land by the King of England, often for their service to the crown during the Revolutionary War.
Starting in the center of old town, my father and I strolled at our leisure, passing huge stone churches and often just sitting for a spell along the water’s edge watching the boats drift by. If you are lucky, you will be in the area at just the right time to take a Jane’s Walking Tour or the infamous Ghost Walk that occurs right before Halloween. These guided tours take visitors and locals alike down the beautiful city streets, passing along historical information and spooky stories about this beloved city.
Another attraction that we enjoyed was the Farmer’s Market. Operating for almost two centuries, this is where you need to come to experience fresh farm-to-table food like maple syrup, produce, baked goods, and various arts and crafts for sale three days a week year-round. Another much-loved and appreciated tradition is the Empire Theatre. Unfortunately, when Dad and I visited Belleville, tickets were sold out for a concert at the Empire Theatre, but I was told that this is where tourists and locals alike congregate to enjoy live music, plays and musicals from well-known and lesser-known crowd pleasers.
The Glanmore Mansion, also located in the city proper, is worth a stop. It offers ornate ironwork and Second Empire architecture, and the grand interiors will take you back to a time gone by. The staff is knowledgeable and excited to share all the little tidbits that make such a visit worthwhile. But wherever you end up downtown, undoubtedly you will be able to view City Hall with its 144-foot clock tower constructed in the High Victorian Gothic Revival style. Step on in as we did and go up to the third floor, where you will find an ornate stained-glass window designed by Stephen Taylor.
For those seeking indoor sporting opportunities, the Quinte Sports and Wellness Center offers drop-in workouts ($3), ice skating ($3), hockey and swimming. This venue is immense and the people helpful and friendly. Dad declined to lace up the skates, but I took up the challenge … let’s just say the NHL won’t be calling me anytime soon, but I had a blast as my gluteus maximus found its calling “skating” alongside the wall of the rink. Check the internet for times that each sporting activity is available.
Near Belleville, you can explore the Tyendinaga Cavern and Caves. Although the site is fairly small, the guides made the visit interesting, although the experience felt slightly rushed. There are also numerous golf courses in the area for those who can’t leave their clubs behind. If you are looking for a PGA-quality course, I was told that the Black Bear Ridge Golf Course is where you want to play.
But enough of the indoor stuff, for this is a part of the world where the outdoors becomes your own private playground. Belleville has vision with more than 10 miles of multiple-use walking/biking/boarding trails, which Dad and I enjoyed. We spotted mallards, giant blue herons and numerous kayakers (kayaks are for rent!) while crossing through some beautiful wetlands (bring bug spray) and walking alongside the Bay of Quinte.
The next morning of our three-day stay, we hightailed it to the library and visited the small but extensive genealogy center, where we did some ancestral research and then headed off to the village of Stirling, where my second great-grandmother was born. Here, we found a tiny town with vibrantly painted shops and quaint flower boxes lining the street. But the crowning glory is the Rotary Covered Bridge that spans Rawdon Creek. Looking like a miniature copy of the famous bridge in Lucerne, Switzerland, it is a wonderful place to sit down and relax as sounds of the rushing water lull you into a sleepy trance.
Finally, we dropped into the local church with hopes of finding some important records and, while members of the community were extremely helpful, further information was just not to be found. We returned to Belleville via curvy backcountry roads, just enjoying the lush greenery of this part of Canada, stopping at local produce stands along the way.
After a somewhat forgettable dinner at a local diner, Dad and I walked down to Reid’s Dairy, which is known throughout these parts as the place to see and be seen. We stood in line for 20 minutes watching all the patrons leave the ice cream shop with a big satisfied smiles on their faces. And I know why … at least 20 different flavors of generous-sized silky creamy scoops all freshly hand made. Even the cows were smiling with local pride.
The next morning, some new-found friends decided to try their hands at fishing the Bay of Quinte. There are several guides in the area, but Captain Joe P. of PB&J Charters was their pick. The area is home to salmon, trout, walleye, bass and other large fish often weighing in at more than 20 pounds. “The Boys” chose a half-day package and reported that the captain knew exactly where a fisherman’s dreams could be found. When I talked with them later that night, they had an ice chest full of fish and were happy as clams.
If you are a history buff, then you will definitely want to schedule a visit to the O’Hara Mill & Homestead Conservation Area in Madoc. With pioneer buildings such as a blacksmith shop and carriage house, pioneer craftsmen, lush gardens and a great old covered bridge, it’s a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. Tour guides are available during posted hours to help you explore the buildings and provide a detailed history of its use and how everything within it was utilized. Also in the area is Potter Settlement Vineyards. Utilizing its home-grown organic grapes, the winery has created a palate-pleasing Late Harvest Frontenac Gris and, for those who love the reds, the winery’s Cabernet Franc should be a contender for some major awards.
A trip to the area would not be complete without a jaunt to Hastings City, where gazebos line the waterways and cute, inexpensive little Airbnbs can be found. Nearby Trenton is the site of the National Air Force Museum of Canada. With tons of interactive exhibits, memorabilia and retired planes, this was an attraction I literally had to drag my father from. I suspect that if he had had his way, he would still be there reliving childhood memories.
While Hastings County may not have world-class art museums like New York City or a sense of high culture like Paris, there is something about vacationing at a place where the simplicity is decidedly more complex than you first notice. Here in the HC, you will find a heartiness of both the land and her people, which results in a feeling of comfort like that provided by a pair of broken-in jeans. It is a place where you are invited to try your hand at hockey, curling and fishing with a big pat on the back and a friendly smile. In short, it’s a destination to visit that makes you want to sit back a spell, put your feet up and keep your eyes peeled for an elusive moose, all the while contemplating never returning home.