A Great Southern Ontario Getaway by Jim Byers
June 28, 2022
A Great Southern Ontario Getaway: Burlington Offers Fab Food, Art And Glorious Nature
We Canadians often take our back yards for granted. We take trips around the world and sometimes forget about the places just down the road, or around the corner.
My wife and I spent a glorious weekend in the Burlington area recently and found a great, new getaway just a short drive from our house in the big city. We explored trails with fabulous on-high views from the top of the Niagara Escarpment, sampled juicy strawberries fresh from the farm, dined like royalty at a posh hotel on the shores of Lake Ontario, listened to live music in the park, and discovered one of Canada’s greatest gardens, with riotous peonies in full bloom.
Here’s a look at some great options in Burlington.
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Mount Nemo Conservation Area
The Mount Nemo Conservation Area is one of the most rewarding walks in southern Ontario; an easy stroll on flat ground to a wondrous lookout from the top of the Niagara Escarpment in north Burlington. It’s maybe 10 minutes from Highway 401 to the Mount Nemo parking lot, just east of Guelph Line on Colling Road. Reservations are required, but I found it easy to get a weekday time in June. There are a series of well-marked trails, some of which are difficult but some, like the main walk to the Mount Nemo lookout, quite easy. The lookout is perched high on a sheer cliff, so be careful about trying for that perfect Instagram post. To your left you’ll see another section of the escarpment snaking off to the north. Below you and straight ahead is the Mount Nemo Golf Course and, in the distance, downtown Toronto and the distinctive outline of the CN Tower. Off to the right is Mississauga, Oakville, Burlington and Lake Ontario. There are trickier trails, and even some rock-climbing areas, for the more adventurous. The conservation area is dotted with lovely forests. In summer, look for sunny, white, daisy-like flowers and tiny pink thistle-like blooms. Butterflies dip and swirl on the breeze, squirrels and chipmunks scamper across the path, and black hawks circle on invisible air currents. There’s also a washroom not far from the parking lot should the need arise. Part of the conservation area is on the Bruce Trail, perhaps Canada’s best-known hiking trail.
Royal Botanical Gardens
I love gardens. I just love them. And I’ve lived in Toronto for 41 years. Yet somehow this was my first visit to what folks like to one of Canada’s most magnificent sets of gardens, the Royal Botanical Gardens. It’s the largest botanical garden complex in Canada and also a national historic site. You’ll find a series of remarkable gardens spread out along Plains Road West, just a few metres from Hamilton Harbour.
Hendrie Park, which is the furthest east, is the largest garden. We found gorgeous, purple alliums, hydrangea, roses and a lily pond with bullfrogs croaking in the reeds and a turtle sunning itself on a rock. They have an amazing 1,500 types of plants in all. There are also lovely woodland trails spread around the nine-hectare (22-acre) property, as well as a sculpture garden. This summer, there’s an augmented reality feature, where you download an app and hold up your phone to see cool, virtual reality displays, including a gilded cage and a snake writhing up a tree.
Just a little west is Laking Garden, which is about 1.7 hectares (4 acres) and showcases more than 2,200 types of plants. They’re most famous for their June displays of irises and peonies. We took a brief tour and found out this is one of the premier peony gardens in North America, and that there are some 300 types of peony around the world. I would’ve guessed eight or ten. They have lovely pinks and purplish varieties here, as well as yellow and some brilliant salmon shades that were absolutely stunning. I took a walk down towards the harbour and gazebo and found a collection of hostas with some unusual names, including “Elvis Lives,” “Guacamole,” “Raspberry Sundae,” “Stilleto,” and, my fave, a spiky, yellow hosta called “Wriggles and Squiggles.”
The Rock Garden opened in 1932 but was given a major renovation in 2016. It’s a stunning piece of land with nice elevation changes and a series of perennial plantings that give it drama year-round. There’s also a large pool and a small waterfall, as well as nature trails and some Japanese design elements. The design is wonderful, with great height, colour and texture changes all around that make for fine photographs. It’s around four hectares (six acres). We had lunch at the Rock Garden Café, with a very nice frittata and a grilled cheese on focaccia that was tasty, but quite light on the cheese. There’s a lovely, quiet patio overlooking the garden, so arrive early for a good spot.
Admission is $19.50 for adults for all gardens,, or $10 for a single garden (Rock Garden or Laking). Discounts for seniors and students. Kids under four years of age are free.
Mount Nemo Golf Club
Formerly known as Indian Wells, the Mount Nemo course is nestled directly below the Mount Nemo Conservation Area, with views of the powerful, grey, rocky Niagara Escarpment from almost every hole. One of the senior golf course officials toured us around the course, which has nice elevation changes and is kept in good condition. “This might not be the best golf course in the area, but it’s the most scenic,” he said. And he’s right. The views are absolutely fabulous, and the course looks like a ton of fun to play. It’s a par-71 affair that’s ony $59 for 18 holes on Monday and Tuesday, $62 on Wednesday and Thursday $65 on Friday and a very reasonable $68 on weekends and holidays. Tremendous value. Burlington is home to nine golf courses, eight of them open to the public.
The Burlington Waterfront
Burlington has done a tremendous job with its waterfront. Spencer Smith Park stretches on for several blocks and has plenty of space for picnics or a game of football, as well as a large playground with water sprayers for the kids (okay, and some of the adults.) There’s a great waterfront walking area and a small, sandy beach that’s great for suntanning or splashing about in Lake Ontario. There’s also a large pool in front of Spencer’s at the Waterfront restaurant, where toy boat owners can send their watercraft zipping about. Lots of fun to watch. Closer to the Pearle Hotel and Spa, the Brant Street Pier is a lovely place to take a stroll, and offers great Lake Ontario and Burlington shoreline views.
Springridge Farm is a delightful family spot nestled up against the Niagara Escarpment, just outside of Burlington in Milton. It’s a fourth generation farm that’s still in the Hughes family, and you can feel the sense of pride. Kids will love checking out the goats, bunnies and other animals. (When we there they had a two-day-old goat scampering about.) They also have slides, a massive, covered sandbox with dozens and dozens of bright yellow trucks, rubbery animals the kids can bounce on, an Escarpment viewing platform, pedal tractor rides for the kids, and wagon rides for just about everyone. They’ve done a great job restoring old tractors, and several of them are on display, including a steam tractor that the kids can crank up to produce real steam. “We call these ‘shoulder droppers,” said Farmer Tom Hughes, one of the younger farmers in the family. “People come out here and they just relax.” They grow mostly strawberries (maybe the ripest, most juicy ones I’ve ever had) and pumpkins, but they also get peaches and apples (specially grown for them) from another farm. The farm store sells delicious pastries, such as strawberry muffins and chocolate croissants, and there’s a snack bar that serves healthy sandwiches instead of greasy hot dogs and fries. They sell a huge variety of packaged foods, including lasagna, apple-curry sausages, butter chicken, and much more. The home décor shop looks like something out of a magazine, with books, pottery, candles, jam picture frames, jams, maple syrup and local honey. If you don’t walk out of her with a basket full of goodies, there’s something seriously wrong. Farmyard admission is $9 for ages 2-92 on weekdays, $12 on weekends and holidays.
A PLACE TO SLEEP
The Pearle Hotel and Spa is a real gem. Located in the heart of the city and on the shores of Lake Ontario, it’s a Marriott Autograph Collection property with tons of style. It’s built to mimic the feel of a sunny lake house in Canada, and you’ll find glorious rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows. The views of the lake are terrific, especially early and late in the day. Bathrooms are spacious and well-designed. Our room (724) had a massive shower and a small refrigerator and a Nespresso coffee maker. There are also plenty of charging plugs for your phone and other devices. We didn’t get a chance to try it, but I’ve toured the spa and it’s outstanding. It’s a very popular spot for weddings and special events, too. It’s part of the Marriott Autograph Collection and it’s the first hotel in the province to earn that designation. A real game changer for Burlington, and an outstanding retreat.
Isabelle, the main restaurant at The Pearle Hotel and Spa, serves up outstanding food. The labneh comes with roasted cherry tomatoes, basil and Urfa chili. I love, love, love the cacio e pepe. The lamb shoulder is a massive serving that comes wrapped in grape leaves with roasted red grapes on top. The King Ora Salmon was perfect when we visited in a few months ago, but a bit undercooked this time around. The Brussells Sprouts with kimchi are outrageously good. The patio is outstanding, definitely a place to see and be seen, with marvellous views of Lake Ontario. Try the “Caught in the Rain” cocktail, a fresh take on a Pina Colada that has a splash of absinthe for added depth. Bread Bar is their casual and breakfast spot, with great coffee lattes, yogurt parfait and other dishes. It’s not cheap, but the eggs and bacon/sausage breakfast ($22) comes with a massive serving of perfect eggs, two tasty sausages, two slices of bacon, heavenly fingerling potatoes and a slice of toast.
Lowville Bistro is a fun spot in the small village of Lowville in north Burlington. The patio is shady and terrific. We enjoyed an excellent chicken club sandwich on a fresh baguette, as well as a good penne arrabiata that wasn’t at all spicy. There’s a pretty park across the road, with picnic tables, a kids’ playground and a wide, gentle stream.
Located on the main drag, Lakeshore Road, Pepperwood Bistro Brewery and Catering has a great patio out front and serves very good food. We enjoyed a terrific pasta with tons of seafood as well as a first-rate salad with strawberries, pickled onions, fresh greens and pepitas. They also make a variety of nice cocktails.
We didn’t get a chance to try the restaurants, but we had a beer on the patio at Rayhoon Persian Eatery in Village Square, a fine collection of shops and restaurants in downtown Burlington. It’s a charming, quiet spot with cobblestone walkways and a European feel. I highly recommend a visit.
Sound of Music festival
The Sound of Music festival, billed as Canada’s largest free music festival, has been a fixture in Burlington for decades. It runs at Spencer Smith Park on the waterfront until June 19 this year. We attended on a recent evening and watched southern Ontario’s Tim Hicks perform some rocking country numbers in front of a good-sized crowd. Folks milled about on the grass in front of the stage and danced, while others watched from the large rocks that line the Lake Ontario shoreline. The first night (June 9) was a ticketed event, but the rest of the shows are free. There are two stages, so you have your choice of music. There’s a free shuttle from the Burlington Centre.
Joseph Brant Museum
The Joseph Brant Museum is a lovely facility alongside Brant Hospital and next to Spencer Smith Park that helps tell the story of the region. The museum was originally built in recognition of Joseph Brant “Thayendanegea,” the Mohawk and British Army captain known as Burlington’s first citizen. The first one opened in 1942, and the current building opened in September of 2019. Visitors will find compelling stories about Brant, as well as European settlers and local industry over the years. The display about the old Brant Inn club/restaurant is terrific. This was THE place to go in the region for many years, and the club attracted some of the best talent in the world, including Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller and Ella Fitzgerald. A second section of the gallery is currently featuring a display on extreme sports. The museum also has a nice rooftop terrace. https://museumsofburlington.ca/visitor-information/joseph-brant-museum/
Art Gallery of Burlington
Located across the street from Spencer’s on the Waterfront, the Art Gallery of Burlington is a terrific spot with a wide variety of art to admire. The main space displays everything from dreamy nature paintings to wild abstracts. When I was there the other day there was also a great piece that mocked a certain former U.S. president and his views on how to beat COVID-19. The Lee-Chin Family Gallery is a beautiful room with exposed wooden beams and several cool works of art on display, including small stone figures on an old green tricycle and a large, whimsical piece called King Cow, which shows a crazed-looking black and white cow standing atop a house, with firefighters coming up a ladder and policemen on the ground. It’s truly fantastic. They also have revolving exhibitions. When I popped in the Garden City Orchestra was playing a live concert, which was wonderful. The gift shop is a great place to buy scarves, jewelry, pottery and greeting cards. There’s also a small courtyard with a garden and tables and chairs. Admission is free.
For more on Jim Byers and his Travel blog visit his website.