These are cities that I had long dreamed of visiting. Far away from my home in Toronto, Canada, they seemed interesting, exciting, full of food, art, and culture that I wanted to see, taste, and experience.
But Woodstock, Ontario? Ingersoll? Could these places, just an hour and a half down the road, hold my attention?
Well, yes, as it turns out.
On a short road trip, I experienced–you guessed it—great food, interesting art, and a bit of the history and culture of the area. I was exploring the Oxford County Cheese Trail, a self-guided tour of Canada’s Dairy Capital. You can read all about the various stops I made along the way in The Oxford County Cheese Trail: A Photo Tour.
You’d think I’d be over this impression that further away from home is somehow better. As I shared in a post about my trip to Abitibi-Temiskaming in Quebec last summer, there is a tendency for those of us who have all the advantages of living in a big city to think that we will not find anything as good in the smaller towns and cities surrounding us.
It wasn’t true in Quebec, and it’s not true in Ontario.
I had wonderful food in Oxford County. From decadent chocolates and aromatic teas served up by the passionate tea sommelier at Chocolatea in Ingersoll, to the art on a plate that was my lunch of steak tartare and handmade pasta on the summery patio at Sixthirtynine restaurant in Woodstock, to grilled striploin and red wine risotto at the Elm Hurst Inn & Spa, everything I tried was wonderful.
Meeting the cheesemakers of the area was a lesson both in food and culture. Having visited cheesemakers in Italy, I noticed a distinct difference in the way that the flavors of the cheese were described in Oxford County. In Italy, the description is almost poetic. They will mention the breeze blowing over the Alps, the grass that the cows were eating, the wild flowers growing in the fields – all contributing to the final product. In Oxford County, there was none of this romantic talk. They were just as passionate about their process and their products, but something was missing.
At Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese the mystery was solved. Shep Ysselstein explained that the cattle were kept in large, open barns rather than out in the fields. In this part of the province, the soil is very fertile, and therefore, very expensive. It doesn’t make economic sense to dedicate acres of land to grazing, when it can be used to grow food. Keeping the cows under a roof also protects them from weather extremes and disease (and ensures the milk is more consistent in quality and flavor), as well as making it easier to round them up for twice-daily milking.
I grew up in rural Ontario, and I was somewhat skeptical of this explanation. As a child, I was surrounded by fields of cows grazing, so when I hit the Cheese Trail, I had just expected them to be part of the landscape. Shep advised that in the area where I had lived, a few hours northeast, the soil was clay-like and not suitable for growing food, and so I would naturally find more cattle on the land. I have lived my entire life here, and this was news to me.
As for art and culture, both the Woodstock Art Gallery and the Ingersoll Cheese & Agricultural Museum had lots to offer. Home to over 1,000 pieces, and operating for close to 50 years, the gallery features the work of local artists as well as those from across the country, all housed in a beautifully renovated historic building. By opting for a guided tour at the Cheese Museum, the history of my own province came alive and I learned more than I would have thought, proving that your own history can be just as interesting as that of other countries.
Sometimes we think that travel has to involve long journeys to exotic locales. That is simply not true. Surprising destinations can be found just about anywhere. Not every trip has to be to another country. Not every trip has to involve boarding a plane or spending a lot of money. So if you can’t take a big trip at the moment – due to financial constraints or currency rates that are not in your favor, or because time is limited—try looking a little closer to home for your next destination. You might be pleasantly surprised at what you find just a short distance away.
What surprising destinations have you found in your backyard? Please share your story below, or consider submitting a Solo Travel Destination post here.