Autumn travel: Don’t let COVID keep you confined

| October 31, 2020 | 0 Comments
The Kingston Penitentiary, a former maximum security prison, is a place you can visit, though it's doubtful you’ll want to move in. (Photo: kingston penitentiary)

The Kingston Penitentiary, a former maximum security prison, is a place you can visit, though it’s doubtful you’ll want to move in. (Photo: kingston penitentiary)

Few of us are about to hop on a plane for a far-off vacation, but that doesn’t mean we need to put travel on permanent lockdown. There are plenty of places to visit and things to see within easy driving distance of home, and autumn, when the weather is cooler and crowds smaller, is a great time to do it. We’ve come up with nine suggestions to keep you busy this fall.
Make sure you check before heading out, in case a COVID flare-up has forced the closing of an event or location. And remember to bring your mask and hand sanitizer.

Wine country: Thanks to the introduction of cold-climate hybrid grapes, which survive our brutal winters, Eastern Ontario has become a wine-producing area with its own unique vineyards and tastes. A day visiting some of these wineries means you not only get to load up on products not usually available in provincial liquor stores and restaurants (blame bureaucracy), but you can also drink in the region’s gorgeous fall countryside. What’s available? Everything from Merlots and Rieslings to rosés and Viogniers, some of them Canadian and international award winners. Some vineyards also offer ciders and other specialty items, tastings, tours and even areas where, in more clement weather, you can picnic. These are family-owned vineyards and sometimes part of larger farm operations, so you also get a highly personal touch and a good sense of Ontario agriculture when you visit. Check for a list of local vineyards.

Above and below: Arbraska Laflèche (The Arrow) Park in Val-des-Monts, Que., about 40 minutes north of Ottawa, has ziplines high in the air and caves deep underground. The ziptour is 67 metres high and runs across a lake, while the cave involves an expert-led trek through caverns in the Canadian Shield where the temperature averages 4 C. The park also offers aerial games and hiking trails. Children as young as five can participate, making it a good family outing.

The big house: It’s a place you visit, but would never want to live in. Kingston Penitentiary — generally known as the Kingston Pen — is a former maximum-security prison built in 1835 and closed in 2013. Forbidding on the exterior, grimly utilitarian on the interior, it once housed prisoners as young as eight years old, but received praise when Charles Dickens visited it in 1842, which may tell you something about how bad things were in his own country. You can tour Kingston Pen, which has been declared a National Historic Site, until the end of October, visiting a cell range, a metal shop, the recreational yard and other spots within the grim walls. The pen is wheelchair accessible, although some areas will be difficult to reach. Visitors must remain masked and respect social distancing regulations, which is still better than being an inmate in the penitentiary’s early days when prisoners could get the lash if they winked, laughed or even nodded at one another.

More than one way to travel: Just because we’re keeping close to home these days doesn’t mean we can’t venture into new territory via books and authors. The Ottawa International Writers Festival is the ticket, thanks to its Virtual Season running until the end of November. The festival has a mix of podcasts, live online events and other treats. They include an interview with esteemed historian Margaret MacMillan about her new book, War: How Conflict Shaped Us; a podcast titled Lies That Tell Us Truth featuring novelists Farzana Doctor (Seven), Shani Mootoo (Polar Vortex) and Mona Awad (Bunny); and a live online session hosted by CBC’s Shelagh Rogers speaking with acclaimed writers Jesse Thistle (From the Ashes) and David A. Robertson (Black Water).

The Canada Aviation and Space Museum has well-planned exhibits and the last hour of each day is free, but you need to get a timed ticket online. (Photo: NASA)

The Canada Aviation and Space Museum has well-planned exhibits and the last hour of each day is free, but you need to get a timed ticket online. (Photo: NASA)

Human futility and a woodsy hike: If Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1818 poem Ozymandias is a literary testament to the inconsequentiality of humankind’s endeavours, you could think of the Carbide Willson Ruins in Gatineau Park as a kind of local industrial equivalent. Willson, an ambitious and reportedly paranoid inventor, built a fertilizer production complex beside a waterfall near Meech Lake in 1911. The complex, including a power-generating station, was abandoned four years later when Willson was felled by a heart attack. Part of the complex burned down and the rest is slowly being taken over by forest — kind of the way a pedestal and a shattered visage from Ozymandias’ statue were all that remained amid the “lone and level sands” of Shelley’s landscape. The Carbide Willson Ruins and adjacent waterfall are a photographer’s delight and a great spot to hike to from the P11 parking lot.

Up, up and away: It’s not exactly a best-kept secret, but the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in east-end Ottawa is just far enough off the beaten track that many of us never visit. That’s a shame. Its well-planned exhibits tell the story of Canadian aviation from early days through to the Cold War and beyond, including the space shuttle’s Canadarm and a nod to one of our specialties: bush flying. You can get up close and personal with the gleaming aircraft, which — even if we learned the physics of flight in high school — inevitably prompts the old question, “How the heck can these things get airborne, let alone stay up there?” There are also interactive exhibition galleries and flight simulators at the museum. The last hour each day is free, but you still need to get a timed ticket online in advance. Tip: The museum is on the Aviation Parkway and close to the Ottawa River Pathway, which is a lovely walk any time of the year, but especially in the autumn. Check Google Maps for parking lots near the pathway.

The Carbide Willson Ruins represent what's left of a fertilizer production complex beside a waterfall. (Photo: National Capital Commission)

The Carbide Willson Ruins represent what’s left of a fertilizer production complex beside a waterfall. (Photo: National Capital Commission)

It’s all about the colours: Among the lessons learned during the pandemic: The out-of-doors is not just an enriching place to be, it’s safer than many indoor spots. Fall Rhapsody –– the annual celebration of autumn’s splendour in and around Ottawa –– is a guide to urban and rural places to enjoy the changing of the leaves, fall-themed flower beds and the soft air of autumn. Some you’ll already know, such as waterside Rockcliffe Park (an idyllic location for a late-season picnic) and the Gatineau Hills. Others might be new to you, such as Stony Swamp in southwest Ottawa, described by the National Capital Commission as the most ecologically diverse protected area in the Ottawa Valley and home to a sugar maple forest, wetlands and more. Strap on your walking shoes; you’ll be glad you did.

Apples and shrieks: Continuing with the Halloween theme, Cannamore Orchard, near Crysler and about 40 minutes southeast of downtown Ottawa, offers Acres of Terror — “Eastern Ontario’s Most Terrifying Halloween attraction” — until the end of October. The Spooky Wagon Ride, the House of Terror and other horrors are on the bill, with COVID-conscious witches and warlocks guiding masked groups of up to 12. The location is wheelchair accessible, and on weekends, the terrors are toned down during the day for young children. Being an orchard, Cannamore sells fresh apples and pumpkins (you can pick your own pumpkins on weekdays after Thanksgiving). There’s also fudge, honey and other treats from local producers.
Tip: If you visit Cannamore on a Sunday, go by way of the village of Russell. Its small but sweet Keith M. Boyd Museum is open most Sundays and features exhibits such as Dr. Proudfoot’s Dental Office and Loucks’ Barbershop, established in 1913. (Haircuts were 25 cents back in the day.) Call ahead to ensure the museum is open. Visit and for more.

Patrick Langston is an Ottawa writer who refuses to let COVID-19 derail his travelling ways.

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