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Photos and text: Maureen Littlejohn
On a recent road trip, I had my eyes opened to aspects of Canada’s early history that are often forgotten. This is Canada’s 150th year as a country, but her roots of European settlement go back even further. The colony of New France was established in 1534 and ceded to the British in 1763. And there’s the fact that this land’s true first inhabitants were First Nations peoples who have been here for thousands of years. That is another story. This journey focused on the pre-Confederation British legacy.
My husband and I started our adventure down colonial memory lane when we turned onto Highway 33 and drove through the rambling countryside of Prince Edward County, past small farms, sparkling Lake Ontario and the Bay of Quinte. This stretch of highway, between Trenton and Kingston is known as the Loyalist Parkway. The loyalists were subjects of the King of England who left the United States in 1784, after the American Revolution. They re-established themselves in this region of southern Ontario and cemented Canada’s reputation as a welcoming refuge.
“These small towns and communities measure their time in centuries and their inhabitants by generations,” a friend told me before we left. Looking at the old stone homes and the many roadside historic plaques, I saw that she was right.
We stopped for lunch at the Drake Devonshire in the village of Wellington. A country cousin to Toronto’s hip Drake Hotel, the inn was originally built as an iron foundry in 1860. It was converted into a grand home at the turn of the century and in the 1970s it became a B&B. After renovations and additions, the inn reopened in 2015. Polished floor boards, exposed brick and oodles of plate glass gave it a decidedly upscale rustic feel. We scooped patio seats and did a little people watching as Lake Ontario’s waves broke in the background. Known as a destination for foodies, our lunch was lip-smacking good –crispy fish and chips, a succulent lobster roll and locally sourced salad greens.
Driving to the town of Picton, we passed numerous wineries and stopped into Hinterland to sample sparkling wines. I have a special fondness for this part of Prince Edward County because it is where my husband proposed to me. As we sipped the marvellous vintages, memories came flooding back of how we had celebrated our commitment with a glass of Hinterland bubbly.
The free ferry at Glenora, took a whopping 15-minutes to get across the Bay of Quinte to Adolphus town where we got back on Highway 33 and headed towards Kingston. Once we arrived in the Limestone City (Kingston’s early stone masons were very busy!), we went straight to City Hall, a national heritage building that offers free tours. When the country was still a British colony called the United Province of Canada, Kingston was the capital. A prominent landmark on the Kingston waterfront since 1844, the building was designed by architect George Browne and is one of finest 19th century structures of its kind in Canada. Inside, I gazed at the soft light coming through 12 stained glass windows dedicated to the soldiers that fought in the first world war in Memorial Hall. We also were able to walk around the council chambers which still operate as Kingston’s seat of municipal power. Downstairs, the old jail or gaol with its dark basement cells was a stark reminder of the social hardship, crime and the justice system those first immigrants experienced.
Needing a little refreshment after our tour, we headed to Pan Chancho’s Bakery and Café for melt-in-your mouth cinnamon buns. At nearby Cooke’s Fine Foods and Coffee, an 1865, pre-Confederation provisions shop, I stocked up on their famous, on-site roasted coffee beans. Then it was time to relax in the sunshine at Confederation Park. Once an active train yard, the waterfront park is home to Engine 1095, built in 1913 and a magnet for tourist photographs. Of course we had to snap one, too. The Canadian Locomotive Company operated in Kingston for more than 100 years and produced more than 3,000 steam, electric and diesel engines for the Canadian Pacific Railway, including Engine 1095, also known as the Spirit of Sir John A.
Kingston’s visitor information centre is a good place to get background on Canada’s founding father, Sir John A. Macdonald. Born in Glasgow in 1815, he came to Kingston with his family at age five and went on to open a law office at the tender age of 20. In 1843 he sat on Kingston Town Council and then was elected Kingston’s Member of Parliament, a post he held for 47 years. Macdonald, the country’s first prime minister, was far from perfect, but he was an adroit politician and consensus builder. He served as prime minister for 19 years. Without him, Canada may not have emerged as we know it today.
Ottawa, now the national seat of power, was our next stop. The elegant Chateau Laurier, nicknamed “the castle,” was our home-away-from-home. Opened in 1912, this national historic treasure was named after Canada’s seventh prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier. To get up to speed on its history, we signed out an iPad at the front desk and tapped into an app that outlined the grand hotel’s stately past. To my delight, I found out that the many dignitaries and celebrities who had stayed or dined in the hotel included Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and the Beatles. We were in good company.
A highlight during our stay was tea in Zoé’s Lounge (Zoé was Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s wife), where an infusion master offered us a menu of blends to accompany dainty sandwiches and pastries. I opted for the aromatic apricot white tea. Breathing in its subtle fruit notes, I felt like I was being transported back to an earlier era of gentility and good manners.
The Chateau Laurier is conveniently located next to Parliament Hill and a hop, skip, and jump from downtown destinations including the ByWard Market, the Bytown Museum and the fantastic National Gallery with its towering 9.25-metre bronze spider sculpture called “Maman,” that guards the front entrance. I could have spent hours in the gallery, but there were too many other sights to see.
On our way to the Bytown Museum, we were serenaded by a pipe band in period costume that got us in just the right mood to learn about the city’s early history. Housed in Ottawa’s oldest stone building, artifacts and displays demonstrated the building of the Rideau Canal and an audio guide we picked up at the entrance explained how Ottawa came to be the nation’s capital.
Next up was a stroll through the ByWard Market, one of Canada’s first farmers’ markets. It’s also the name of the entire neighbourhood and we poked our heads into a number of wonderful specialty shops offering handcrafted gifts and locally produced clothing. In the summer, there are more than 175 outdoor vendors at the market selling everything from fruits and produce to flowers and art.
By this time our feet were tired so we decided to take a canal tour by electric boat. Slowly meandering Ottawa’s many waterways, we got to know other parts of the city as we passed colourful cafes, consulates, majestic homes and green parks.
Our evening ended at Parliament Hill where there was a military musical spectacular called Fortissimo in full force. Military bands, pipes and drums marched before us playing a variety of music – one band even played the theme from Star Wars!
Breakfast the next morning was at Kettleman’s Bagels. Baked in a wood oven and served up piping hot, they came in a variety of flavours including my favourites, sesame seed and poppy seed. I added some cream cheese and was in heaven.
There is no better year than 2017 to travel the route from Prince Edward County to Ottawa. If you take a tour of landmark architecture by enthusiastic docents, join a celebration event, and try some tasty local food, you’ll find that Canada’s early history really comes to life