5 Hidden Gems for Motorcyclists To Discover in Ontario

Ontario is full of surprises just waiting to be stumbled upon. So relax your agenda and hit the road with open eyes. Here are a few favourite stops that have found me.

It is my experience that this applies to touring, too. Serendipity happens when you ride with an open mind and a spirit of adventure that lets you change things on the fly and go where they may. Over-planning, or at least, anal-retentively sticking to your plan, is the enemy of serendipity. It can also be impractical, especially if things happen, both good and bad, beyond your control. In my piece, Motorcycle First Aid and Safety: 12 Touring Tips From a Northern Ontario Paramedic, I wrote, "Be prepared for whatever comes your way… like meeting new friends and getting an invite to dinner…. So relax… and go where your travels take you".

Blue sky, green trees and fields and an open road, seen over a motorcycle rearview mirror
Ontario is built for exploring.

Sometimes they take you to a sight to see or a road to ride. Sometimes it is more indefinable; it is a sense of place or history. Other times it’s about spending time with new friends. For me, new friends trump pretty much everything else. Today, I have lasting friendships because of it. It’s made my life better.

I’ll give you one example. Alone one evening, relaxing by my campfire in a provincial park in Northern Ontario, my neighbour came over with an eighteen-year-old bottle of scotch. His friend had given it to him when he and his wife sold their home and embarked on a multi-year RV adventure tour of North America. So, it meant something to him. Yet, he decided to share it and some stimulating and heartfelt conversation with someone he did not yet know. That was years ago now, and we are still friends.

I often ride the 400 to beeline-it to Northern Ontario, which is ideal when I have limited time. Other times, when I have the time, I take a more circuitous route, like entering Northern Ontario from the east via the Trans-Canada Highway (417/17) to see what I might discover. Here are…

5 Hidden Gems I’ve Discovered In Ontario

a pretty street in Merrickville with old stone buildings and hanging pots of flowers, with the largest building sporting a Baldachin Inn sign.
Merrickville offers pretty sights and a lot of interesting backstory.

1. The Historic Town of Merrickville

Merrickville was a serendipitous find while I was riding in Eastern Ontario. From there you can head up along the Ottawa River and jump onto 17 into Northern Ontario. On my way into Merrickville, I saw the old mill ruins as I crossed the Rideau River. The Merrickville Blockhouse, built circa 1832 to protect the Rideau Canal, was situated along the canal and couldn’t be missed. Diagonally across from the blockhouse, the Baldachin Inn occupied a stone building originally constructed in 1860 to house a department store. The Inn named its pub Harry McLean's Pub in memory of a prominent past Merrickville resident, a rather interesting chap. With Harry Falconer McLean, (1881–1961) it's hard to distinguish between what's true and what's a part of his legend. But, one thing is for sure, Harry was an eccentric character. He was rich, making his money building railways, tunnels, and dams. He was a friend to William Lyon MacKenzie King, Canada’s tenth Prime Minister, whom he’d entertain at his home, a place you can visit if you so choose. And, he liked to drink, once saying, "My only problem is balancing my whiskey with my carbohydrates.”  Whether you want to visit Harry McLean’s pub or just enjoy the beauty and sights of this small eastern Ontario town. It’s worth a visit.

A blue motorcycle parked next to a bright red train caboose car at dusk
The Railway Museum of Eastern Ontario is also a great overnight accommodation.

2. All Aboard! The Railway Museum of Eastern Ontario

While I was out that way, I stayed at an Airbnb located in a bright red-orange caboose at the Railway Museum of Eastern Ontario in Smiths Falls. According to the museum, “Although not steel, the caboose has some modern accessories. One of which is a modern oil stove, rather than a coal stove.” Shiver me timbers, not just a wooden caboose, I was staying in a five-star, modern, 1947 wooden caboose with a modern oil stove. And, with a continental breakfast included, to boot. Living the high life! My stay included a tour of the museum. This was given by John, a long-time railwayman and volunteer at the museum who explained the two waiting rooms in the station, one for the men, where they could spit tobacco on the floor and talk business, and a smaller one for the ladies, where they could mingle and chat—such were the times. After seeing the old railway equipment and learning how railways used to run, we went outside where I got my exercise trying out the railway handcar before being taken for a short jaunt in the 6591, their 1950s engine. I love staying in interesting places. The red-orange caboose at the Railway Museum of Eastern Ontario definitely qualifies. It was a serendipitous find.

the exterior of the Ottawa Jail Hostel; an old stone keep, covered in green vines
The Ottawa Jail Hostel provides a fun and unique overnight experience.

3. The Ottawa Jail Hostel—Go Directly to Jail. Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect $200.

On my list of interesting places to stay but not a place I have yet stayed, is the Ottawa Jail Hostel run by Hostelling International. For those of us who have never spent a night in jail, it’s a neat idea. For those that have, possibly not so much.

a pretty antique stone building with a red door and white-trimmed windows, with a sign that says "Pakenham General Store"
Pakenham is the home of rare architecture, fresh-baked goodies and a lot of character.

4. The Town of Pakenham

In the 1840s, Pakenham was just a new village. Today, it boasts one of only two five-arch bridges in North America. It is also the home to The General Store, opened in the 1840s by Archibald McAllister and Robert Brown, purportedly the oldest continuously operating general store in North America. The aroma of fresh-baked goods greeted me as I walked in. The shop was full of old and new alike, allowing me to pick up some freshly baked goods on the one hand, while seeing the brands of yore on the other. It was worth the visit.

an empty highway through green lake country on a sunny day, with forested foothills in the distance

5. Ontario’s Highlands

I’ve explored a lot of Ontario’s Highlands and each time I find something new. Ontario’s Highlands has some great roads with lots of twists and turns. Ride the Highlands, and you’ll find out that it has great roads and personality: quaint towns, beautiful scenery, and lots of history. Then head north and visit us in Northern Ontario.

Whether you’re taking a circuitous route as I was or heading to Northern Ontario from the east, there are lots of sights to see, roads to ride, and places and events that can give you a sense of place or history. If you stay open to adventure (and altering your schedule) you too will soon have a list of serendipitous gems to add to your touring stories. I hope I see you on the road. If you’re coming from the other direction, I’ll be waving as I go past.

May your travels be safe and full of discovery.

About John Lewis

John Lewis loves telling stories that inform, inspire, and entertain. He writes about motorcycle touring, motorcycle safety, culture, travel, and more. His work has appeared in a number of national magazines including Motorcycle Mojo and The Motorcycle Times, as well as many blogs and websites.

Recommended Articles

Search Motorcycle Touring