“You're not going to take the highway? Are you out of your mind?”
So went most of my conversations with friends as I sought advice on the best route from Toronto to the north shore of Georgian Bay. I was about to embark on a summer road trip to Killarney, a part of Ontario I had only ever seen from the water, not from land.
When I was a child, my family had spent summers traversing the Trent Severn Waterway, a canal route about 240 miles in length, connecting Lake Ontario to Georgian Bay. So while I was very familiar with the lock system and the various bodies of water they connect, I knew almost nothing about the roads which would carry me north.
Except for this one thing: the shortest, most direct route to my destination included 250 km on a highway not exactly known for being scenic, but definitely known for fast, aggressive driving, interspersed with swaths of construction projects and frequent, lengthy cottage country traffic jams.
My response to the idea of driving that far on the 400 alone, as a relatively new driver, ranged from disappointment to boredom to fear. It really wasn't what I had in mind for the only trip out of the city I was going to get during this hot, humid summer.
So, I asked Google Maps for a different route–one that would avoid major highways, toll roads (because I was using a rental car and they levy an expensive penalty on top of the toll), and ferries (I love ferries, but was worried about my ability to maneuver an unfamiliar vehicle into a tight spot). The difference in timing was substantial. If I took the highway, I could be sitting by the water in 4 1/2 hours. Avoiding the highway would add at least 1 1/2 hours. Given my limited road trip experience, I knew that it would likely take me at least an hour longer than Google's estimate.
Did I really want to spend 7 hours or more in the car, just getting to my hotel?
I did. I was prepared to spend the extra time for the trade-off of beautiful scenery, light traffic, and reduced stress. And even though it took me almost 8 hours in the end, I would absolutely do it again. Long stretches through green wooded areas, punctuated by jolts of intensely blue water bordered by white rock sparkling in the sunlight–I'll take that over expediency any day!
Table of Contents
I spent the first night at the Sportsman's Inn and Marina. It is right on the waterfront, so you can watch boats coming and going. After such a long drive, the gorgeous flatbread pizza in their pub really hit the spot (along with some wine to celebrate my safe arrival, of course). I could easily pick out the boaters in the crowd, as they all had that particular glow of people who have spent a very sunny day on the water. Apparently, you can have dinner delivered from the restaurant directly to your boat, but sometimes you want to walk on solid ground at the end of the day.
My room had a balcony overlooking the channel, so I had a nightcap there in the evening and in the morning I awoke to the sights and sounds of the marina coming to life. It was a really lovely place to stay, and the only time I even slightly regretted taking the long way to Killarney was when I first arrived at Sportsman's in the evening and realized that I had missed out on an afternoon of relaxing in a Muskoka chair by the water.
Killarney does not seem to be a town in the conventional sense, but more of a gathering of businesses on the edge of the water, serving customers arriving by both boat and car. You can see it all on a 10 minute walk. One of the highlights is Herbert Fisheries, which lays claim to serving the best fish and chips in the world. It's a pretty bold statement, but it may, in fact, have been the best deep fried fish I have tasted. The day that I visited, they were serving fresh caught smelt and whitefish, which I ordered through a window, then waited with about 20 other customers for my number to be called. They've spent 30 years perfecting their craft, and it was delicious.
The Challenge of Relaxing
I spent the next two nights at Killarney Mountain Lodge, at the other end of the 10-minute walk through Killarney. Spread out over a large property, this is the kind of place that families have been returning to for generations. There are canoes and kayaks for the adventurous, an outdoor pool, and a games room that reminds one of the resort in the movie Dirty Dancing. There is a gorgeous great room perfect for sitting in a big leather chair and reading, as well as the spot where I spent most of my time: a comfortable patio looking out over the grounds, facing the water.
In spite of all of the space and amenities, I found it difficult to relax. As someone who spends most of my days in front of a computer, I am accustomed to my mind being constantly occupied and continually stimulated, hopping from tab to tab, site to site, receiving news alerts, email, and social media notifications throughout the day. And in the evening, recreation often involves yet another screen: either watching a show on Netflix at home, or a movie in a cinema. Killarney Mountain Lodge deliberately provides no phones, television, alarm clocks or Wi-Fi in their rooms. It was very interesting–and somewhat distressing–to observe my own behavior and come to understand how my use of technology has disrupted my concept of relaxation. This is exactly the value of solo travel, though, isn't it? You discover more about yourself with each trip you take.
The patio was also a perfect place to enjoy the food and wine at Killarney Mountain Lodge. I took great pleasure in enjoying as much local fish as possible. From smoked trout to whitefish tacos to grilled pickerel, all of the fish came straight from Georgian Bay. What a treat! They also have a very good wine list, and I found a nice Sauvignon Blanc to complement my meals.
I really wished that I had brought a book with me on this road trip. One thing to know about visiting this area is that there is nowhere to shop, so you need to bring everything with you. There is a little variety store with a good selection of snacks and odds and ends of things you might have forgotten (like a nail file, in my case), but that's about the extent of it. Luckily, I went for a drive one day and found a small selection of books at the office of Killarney Provincial Park. This is one busy office, with a steady stream of hikers, campers, and nature lovers coming through and receiving excellent guidance about exploring the 645 square kilometers of wilderness, including over 50 lakes, from the knowledgeable staff.
Getting Out On the Water
The highlight of my summer road trip to Killarney–and any trip to Georgian Bay, I would say–is getting out on the water. I set out from the Lodge with two couples who had also signed up for a 2-hour tour. It is a gorgeous part of the world. Our guide took us through the channel and out into a tranquil bay where boaters had dropped anchor to enjoy the summer sun. He pointed out different areas of interest, including rock formations and homes set back in from the water. and told us stories about the history and people of Killarney. Just being in a boat on the water was a wonderful treat for me. It made me realize how much I had missed it, and I noted how quickly my body remembered how to stand and balance itself when we headed out into open water and encountered rougher conditions.
This was when I finally relaxed. I could have stayed on that boat all day, breathing in beautifully fresh air, staring at the landscape, feeling the contrast of the hot sun against the spray of cold water on my face, swaying with the movement of the boat as it cut through the waves, chatting with my fellow passengers about our travel experiences. Alas, it had to end at some point. But those two hours made the 14 hours of driving there and back entirely worthwhile.
Lessons Learned from My Summer Road Trip to Killarney
I would happily go on a road trip to Killarney and other areas around Georgian Bay every summer. Here's what I learned to get even more out of future trips.
- Take a book–an engrossing book that you can really dive into and get lost in. How many times have you wished you had quiet, uninterrupted time to read? This will be that time. I picked up this one at the Killarney Provincial Park office: The Backroads of Ontario, so I could dream of future road trips.
- Find as many opportunities as possible to get in, on, or around water. There is a reason the Group of Seven painted these landscapes.
- Enjoy as much local food as possible. On this trip, fresh-caught fish was the focus. Later in the growing season, I would have been looking for local fruit and vegetables.
- If you are able, take a week. Three nights was not enough time for me to settle down and relax, and two 7-hour driving days cut into that.
- Take the scenic route, and take it both ways: don't sully the peace you have acquired on the trip with traffic jams and road rage on the way home.
I want to acknowledge that I was on the traditional territory of the Huron-Wendat, Odawa, and Anishinabek.