The Ultimate Ontario tour

All tours have to start and end somewhere. Mine started at a friend’s place close to the main Toronto airport,  where a lipstick red  MV Agusta Tourismo Luasso was waiting for me. I was asked by the MV rep to drop it off at their HQ in Montreal, so I mapped out a route that would take me due north before swooping through Algonquin Park and then dropping south to Brockville and the dreaded 401 for a quick blast to Quebec.

The Luasso lives up to MV’s tagline relatively well – Motorcycle Art. It’s a gorgeously sculpted machine, tall and taught, with three stacked tailpipes framing perfectly the single sided swing arm and subtly telling the admirer that this machine comes with three pots instead of the usual four. It also comes with the all-important bags, that though oddly shaped, with a bit of coercion held my three days of travel supplies well.

After a dubious meal at Boston Pizza, I slogged north out of Toronto on the busy highway to cottage country. The temperature was falling sharply as the sun had dropped below the horizon around my fifth slice, but the Tourismo offered surprisingly good wind protection along with heated grips and an accessory plug for my heated vest.

Black Donald Road out of Calabogie is all turns
Black Donald Road out of Calabogie is all turns

It’s a tall bike, almost adventure like, save for the 17 inch wheels that keep its road choices to asphalt, though bumpy is not a problem. Despite its height, the pegs are high up and legroom is quite limited, so I found my legs pushed up and then splayed out as they failed to fit within the tank’s exaggerated cutaways.

Sadly, Ontario has a pretty anal side to it too.
Sadly, Ontario has a pretty anal side to it too.

But this is soon forgiven when you work the motor. The inline triple is one of my favourite configurations and despite being only 800 cc, it’s well tuned and can hold highway speed all day long. Alas, I’m also painfully aware that she would prefer to be going significantly faster too – something that I was quickly reminded can be an expensive habit as I counted off the OPP cruisers fishing for fines on the 400.

But I digress. The goal of any Ontario tour is to get away from Toronto and its expanse of flat urban sprawl that choked it off the list of cities that bikers can enjoy some time ago. So allow me to fast forward to the next day and the town of Orillia, on the northern tip of Lake Simcoe and well away from the hubbub of the GTA.

GO NORTH YOUNG MAN

Getting out of the GTA is always an issue. Once north of Orillia some great roads in cottage country can be found
Getting out of the GTA is always an issue. Once north of Orillia some great roads in cottage country can be found

Out of Orillia, there’s a short stretch of Highway 11 to overcome, but it’s not long before Highway 13 swings off to the left and fun begins.

The 13 is devoid of straights and housing. It’s tight curves and high crests — albeit on a slightly bumpy road — wrapped up in fine fiery fall trees. Most important, it avoids towns and drops you out onto the 169 and 118W highways that are a connector to the legendary 7/632 road to Rosseau.

Canadian engineers are masters at finding the shortest route between two points, and they only deviate if mountains or water get in the way.

Alas, there are no mountains in Ontario, no matter what anybody says, but there is water, and plenty of it. The 7/632 squirms its way between Lake Joseph and Rosseau, with just enough room to allow a sportier bike to stretch its legs.

Some great roads just north of Orillia.
Some great roads just north of Orillia.

At Rosseau, I stopped for lunch at the Crossroads restaurant, a rather fancy establishment set up to cater for the city-rich who descend on the area for a weekend’s retreat at their cottage mansions before heading back to the stress and squalor of Toronto. As a result it offers a fine menu, several notches above the usual rural fare, but it doesn’t break the bank either.

Sipping a cuppa at the Crossroads restaurant in Roseau. Photo by Drake.
Sipping a cuppa at the Crossroads restaurant in Roseau. Photo by Drake.

Fueled up, I headed east along the 3 to Huntsville – a decent road, but after the fun of 7/632 it clearly lacks pizzazz. I was headed for Killarney Lodge, slap bang in the middle of Algonquin Park. This had me farther north than I’d normally recommend (you can take the 35 at Dwight for better roads), but I was keen to see the park again because of its great memories from my early years.

It may be difficult for a born-and-bred Canadian to imagine, but where I grew up in Great Britain, space is a real premium. A weekend at the cottage is unheard of except for the elite and very lucky, and a national park means they may not let industry in, but don’t expect much seclusion. To a young ’Arris, fresh off the boat, my first foray into Algonquin Park simply blew my mind.

Algonquin Park's west entrance
Algonquin Park’s west entrance

In England, your biggest threat outdoors is stumbling into a gang of drunken skinheads after pub closing. In Algonquin Park, you could be mauled to death by a bear and your half-eaten remains discovered days or even weeks later. It was an astonishing reality, and as a result, I haven’t slept well in a tent since coming here.

But this trip wasn’t about tents. I’d somehow managed to convince Explorer’s Edge tourism that I should stay at the Killarney Lodge, a village of log cabins of sorts, sitting on a peninsula that dips into the Lake of Two Rivers. It’s owned by Eric and Poppy, with Eric being a fixture at many local track days with his 600 Yamaha.

When we’re looking for places to stay on tours like this and are fortunate enough to work with a willing tourism organization, I state from the start that we do not appraise the places we stay. I find it’s impossible to appraise a motel with any meaning, and awkward to criticize a disappointment when they’ve just been your host, so I’ve found it’s best to not say anything at all.

Roughing it at the Killarney Lodge
Roughing it at the Killarney Lodge

Instead we offer a link to the establishment in the Thank You section at the end of the story. This is sufficient to keep the tourism and hotel happy and we get to do a tour that wouldn’t be doable otherwise. But then the Killarney Lodge is a rather magical place.

As is far too often the case for us motorcyclists, it’s too easy to accept a bland place to stay. All we really need is a clean bed and a solid roof. It’s about the ride, after all, but a ubiquitous motel is an opportunity lost. The Killarney Lodge dances to a completely different tune.

The games room at Killarney
The games room at Killarney

For starters, there are rules: No cell phones in the communal areas and if you want to make or receive a call, please do so in your cabin (mine was on the water’s edge and came with its own canoe). Then there are the meals. They’re all included, fine fare served in a charming dining cabin with your fellow residents.

There’s a communal cabin with a fire, games, books and the inevitable aging copies of National Geographic offering a window on a world that seemed a less depressing place. The door was always open and the lights and heat always on, just in case you want to stroll over for a game of solitaire at 3 a.m.

A fine breakfast at Killarney Lodge
A fine breakfast at Killarney Lodge

If you sat and listened to the voices around you, very few were speaking English. Algonquin Park is an internationally known place to visit — and deservedly so — and the Killarney is a magnet for those looking for the experience with something more than a thin piece of canvas between you and a hungry bear.

Alas, this stuff does not come cheap. My cabin was in the $300-a-night region, though that includes three meals and the big smile you get sitting back in an easy chair and thinking about the ride just done.

“It’s like being in the seventies again,” said one guest. “There’s nothing to do except to be.” Agreed, and thankfully, there were no leisure suits to be seen.

BOOGIE IN CALABOGIE

My route took me on the 60 through Algonquin Park, which is fine, but there is a more southerly option too.
My route took me on the 60 through Algonquin Park, which is fine, but there is a more southerly option too.

My original plan had been to ride a few of the many easy trails that loop off from Highway 60 in the park. You need a pass to use these but a night at the lodge comes with such a pass, so there was nothing stopping me – except the forecast of rain. So I did what any sensible motorcyclist would do: I fled.

Wilno Tavern is a little piece of Poland.
Wilno Tavern is a little piece of Poland.

Highway 60, despite the awesome park it traverses, is not the most entertaining of motorcycle roads. It lacks tightness and threatens speed enforcement; a road that would be entertaining at 120 km/h becomes a little dull at the posted 80 km/h. Once out of the park, nothing much changes except for the sudden arrival of billboards at the side of the road on the way to Barry’s Bay.

But if you can keep on the 60 for a little longer there’s a very cool little town called Wilno. Essentially a bit of Poland dropped into rural Ontario, Wilno also hosts the Wilno Tavern, famous for its perogies and deservedly so. I got there early and wanted to at least sample some, but found it locked and not open for another hour. Oh well – my expanding waistline thanked me.

Wilno also signifies the end of the 60 and the start of the Opeongo Road, which is suddenly tighter, twistier and with much less traffic. It was time for the MV Agusta to stretch her legs at last as I opened up for the last stint to my destination of Calabogie.

Some great roads just north of Orillia.
Some great roads just north of Orillia.

If you live and ride in Ontario, I trust you’ve heard of Calabogie. It’s an epicentre for the region’s marvelous roads and dual-sport trails. It’s also a little odd, consisting more of a clump of businesses scattered around Calabogie Lake than one cohesive village. It has all the amenities of a village, just not all in one place.

I’ve been here a few times before, but had never stayed at the oddly-named Fans of Calabogie bed and breakfast. I’d assumed they were supporters of the local Calabogie race track, but the “fans” actually refers to oriental fans for cooling oneself in polite company. This was explained when I met the owners, Catherine and Byron, who have  spent much of their lives in Taiwan.

If you don’t like bed and breakfasts, then don’t write this one-off. Each room has an en-suite bathroom and there’s a communal area for TV and eating. Byron also owns the local bar, The Valley Food and Drink Co., which is a little oasis with excellent food and a good selection of craft beers (good job Byron).

Karaoke night ... The crowds went wild!
Karaoke night … The crowds went wild!

Sadly, I hit it on karaoke night. Byron introduced me to the locals, who then forced me to put on my stern “I don’t sing” face before another guy stepped up and belted out Born To Be Wild in my honour. Life as a motorcyclist doesn’t get any more clichéd, but I appreciated the sentiment and although it was a far cry from the Killarney Lodge, it was another memorable and surprisingly enjoyable night.

Stern faced non-singing aside, much of my night was spent chatting to Byron about ideas to get more motorcyclists to visit the area, and the realities of running a small business. He’s a very affable guy, a doer and a chance-taker, not just for potential pay-off but for the sheer joy of it all – the world needs more Byrons.

BLACK DONALD AND WESTPORT

The eastern edge of Ontario collapses into a flat flood plain. The trick is to stay out of it for as long as possible.
The eastern edge of Ontario collapses into a flat flood plain. The trick is to stay out of it for as long as possible.

I hadn’t really absorbed this until this tour, but the really fun motorcycle roads in Ontario are all within a fairly small area between Calabogie and just north of Kingston. I’m not knocking the rest of Ontario but I don’t think it’s blessed with the world’s greatest roads; it has some good offerings, but just not generally all in one area.

Black Donald Road out of Calabogie is all turns
Black Donald Road out of Calabogie is all turns

This slice of eastern Ontario, on the edge of the Ottawa River/St Lawrence floodplain, is where it’s at, and I’d planned a circuitous route that zig-zags west, south and east to the town of Westport. First off was the Black Donald Road, running west of Calabogie. It takes a short bit of so-so road to get to, but turns into a classic highlands byway, rolling over exposed Canadian Shield, between a myriad of lakes with nary a soul to be seen.

I’ll admit I may have enjoyed this road at a rather quick rate of knots, but, like so many of the roads around here, it pulls you into a semi-hypnotic groove. Your mind releases its burden and automatically pulls all the mental levers into sync to guide you and machine effortlessly through the landscape.

Crow Lake Road colours
Crow Lake Road colours

This was pretty much my day, interrupted only occasionally when I found myself on a more populated section of road that would then deliver me to gems like the 509 and Crow Lake Road, before swooping down into the town of Westport.

My bed for the night was at local hot spot The Cove. It was a new one to me, but I was looking forward to it after Byron in Calabogie waxed lyrical about its fine music nights. And I was in luck, because a local band that specialized in east coast music was due to play, and as an east coast transplant I figured a night of Celtic music was overdue.

The Cove is a great pub. As an ex-pat Brit, I think I know a thing or two about great pubs and the Canadian tradition of slapping an Irish-sounding name onto a space that’s more like a warehouse than a cozy hole for good times has been one of the few disappointments of my life transplant. The Cove, to put it succinctly, gets it right, and made my accommodations for the tour three for three.

EAST TO BROCKVILLE AND BEYOND

This is the big curve just out of Westport.
This is the big curve just out of Westport.

Touring in eastern Canada in October is a risky affair. You can be rewarded with bright chilly days that make the flaming trees just pop, or damp, cold, miserable episodes that make the ride a slog and have you counting down the kilometers to the next coffee stop.

More Desert lake
More Desert lake

Today was that less-rewarding day. At start-up the Tourismo’s dash displayed the snowflake symbol and warned of ice, showing a temperature of 2 degrees C. For once I’d had the foresight to make each day relatively short, just in case I needed to wait out half a day or make a dash through some miserable October weather, so I turned it off and went back to my cosy room.

Unfortunately, this day was not only the coldest, it was also the longest. There were some more secondary roads to be enjoyed, but then I had to ride on to return the bike in Montreal and that would mean a slog up the heinous Highway 401 multilaner – a prospect even the Tourismo could not make pleasant.

The fabulous Desert lake Road
The fabulous Desert lake Road

I’m always surprised by how few motorcyclists know the roads in this area. There are two gems, Desert Lake Road and Burnt Hills Road. The road out of Westport isn’t at all bad either, kicking off with a near-360 degree turn around the edge of Wolf Lake, but the craziness starts at Desert Lake Road. It’s the kind of road that makes your bars go loose and your engine wail over the multitude of hilly crests. The reckless will get a well-deserved slapping with a tree, because many a crest is followed by a sudden and unforgiving right-angled turn. It’s a technical ride but a rewarding one too, even when it’s only a few degrees above freezing.

Even when you leave the highlands, Ontario farmland has some lovely elements to it
Even when you leave the highlands, Ontario farmland has some lovely elements to it

Next up and a little to the east is Burnt Hills Road,  which is a lighter version of Desert Lake and worth the anti-climactic section of road you need to traverse to get there. It’s the last hurrah before you slide out of the Highlands and onto the floodplain of the far eastern wedge of Ontario.

I was going to end this account here, but the final few kilometres to Brockville have a certain charm that is uniquely Ontarian farmland. It serves as the cool-down lap after the jollities of the three days prior, especially when the 5 degrees C high of the day is already passed.

Despite being on the chilly side, a tour that had started with some trepidation ended up being a really wonderful three days. Great roads, superb places & people and the Tourismo … Yes, a little tight ergonomically for me, but there’s nothing like a taught and feisty triple to explore these roads on and the MV delivered, wrapped up nicely in a lipstick red dress that dropped jaws and impressed the rider.


THE MAP

Here’s the route on Google Maps. If you click on larger map view, you can copy/duplicate and adapt it to your needs as well as download as a KML and convert to GPX for your GPS device.


GALLERY

Check out all the pics that go with this story! Click on the main sized pic to transition to the next or just press play to show in a slideshow.


THANKS

In order to make a trip possible, we often rely on others to make it come to fruition. At all times we draw our own conclusions on what we have experienced and relay that on to our readers in the article. The following organizations assisted us to come up with the route, things to see and/or places to stay but it’s important to emphasize that they did not purchase the editorial.

Killarney Lodge – located just off Highway 60 in Algonquin Park

Fans of Calabogie – Bed & Breakfast within stumbling distance of The Valley Food and Drink Co. (beware of Karaoke night).

The Cove – Pub and Bed & Breakfast in central Westport.

Ride the Highlands – Tourism for the Highlands area of Ontario (the great bit that includes Calabogie). Looks like they have just about all the really good roads covered as well as ideas for food and lodgings.

Explorer’s Edge – A more generic tourism site for cottage country north of Toronto, the Explorer’s Edge does give a nod to some great motorcycle suggestions too.

10 thoughts on “The Ultimate Ontario tour”

  1. The Killarney Lodge is a great place to stay. Yes it’s expensive but aside the meals being included and the park pass for the duration of your stay you also get a canoe for each cabin.

    There are no TV’s or radios and cell reception is so-so at best. And all this makes the experience that much better.

    Nice route. I’m downloading it for next season.

  2. 1. The map isn’t appearing, at least not in Chrome.
    2. A black bear has not eaten anyone in Algonquin Park since 1991. The risk is minimal to nil. Yes they can cause havoc to the careless who don’t practice proper food management, but don’t let it dissuade you.
    3.While it is pretty much flat as a pancake, there are nicer ways to ride through Eastern Ontario. to Montreal, or close to it. Highway 2 is a pleasant amble along the St. Lawrence if you don’t want to navigate. But if you follow the roads north of the 401, south of the 417, there are a series of them that follow the tributaries of the Nation river, and the Raisin river. Nothing like the Calabogie area, but not a slab, and pleasant enough.
    4. Sorry to have missed you on the way through.

    1. Hi Matt,
      1. Not sure why it wasn’t showing up – odd.
      2. True dat, but for a young lad from Yorkshire, the fact that it had happened at all was mind blowing
      3. Hmhhh. I spent a lot of my riding time between Montreal and Toronto back in the day trying to find such options. Yes, there are ways through that are not bad but the additional time they take made them hard to justify for the minimal gain IMHO.
      4. You too. I didn’t make it to Ottawa but when I was Facebooking my trip I got so many requests to drop in from my Ottawa friends that I have to include that in my next Ontario excursion. Sadly, not a peep from anyone in Toronto 🙂

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