I spent the weekend wandering the backyard of the 613: Ontario's Highlands. This massive region stretches from the Ottawa Valley to the Haliburton Highlands, and all the way south to Hastings County where I grew up.
Many of us know the familiar waypoints along Highway 7, but til this weekend it had been ages since I turned off the highway to go exploring.
festival of small halls
Thanks to my day job in the arts I'd heard lots of buzz about the Festival of Small Halls. They bring big names to small stages in the countryside: think Basia Bulat in Merrickville, Kathleen Edwards in Winchester, or Barney Bentall in Tweed. They kindly offered up a pair of tickets to see Colter Wall in McDonalds Corners, and I figured it was the perfect reason to hit the road.
McDonalds Corners is just over an hour's drive from Ottawa, so rather than driving out and back for the concert we decided to take our time and make a weekend of it. We found some real gems so here's your travel guide for a weekend in Ontario's Highlands!
We hit the road Saturday morning and headed to Carleton Place. We'd heard great things about Black Tartan Kitchen and what a find! Chef/Owner Ian Carswell once worked at Absinthe under Pat Garland, and he's brought that polished bistro fare to downtown Carleton Place.
Charcuterie boards, steak frites, and even a burger topped with St-Albert's cheese curds. Highly recommend! The staff were welcoming and attentive, and were happy to tell us about their locally sourced ingredients.
While you're in Carleton Place, wander down Bridge Street (so charming!) to Stalwart Brewing Co. and grab some local beer. Pro tip: Stalwart sells YOW Popcorn Co., so grab a bag of truffle parmesan or sriracha lime!
Next we headed to Circa 1894 B&B, a charming bed and breakfast in a former church. Owners Donna and Cam painstakingly retrofitted the building, and made it their mission to prove heritage properties can be eco-friendly.
They installed the first grey water system in Ontario and brought the annual heating bill down form $12,000 to $700. What a surprise in teeny Watsons Corners! Side note: Donna's waffles are spectacular. This is a great place to stay overnight! It was a quick 10-minute drive from the Festival of Small Halls concert in McDonalds Corners - perfect for us.
For dinner we headed to Fall River Restaurant in Maberly, part of a little local hub that includes a post office, general store, ice cream parlour, even a charging station for electric vehicles. Who knew? The Dutch owners were incredibly welcoming, with nods to their heritage throughout the space and on the menu.
I noticed plenty of Ontario wines on their menu and went for Pelee Island Winery pinot grigio -- only $7 a glass! It was perfect with the pasta of the day: fettuccine with pesto, local tomatoes, onions, heaps of shaved parm, and grilled chicken breast. Hubs had their steak special cooked to a perfect medium rare and served with delicious Dutch potato cakes. Fall River Restaurant absolutely blew away our every expectation. Then, off to the concert!
colter wall in mcdonalds corners
When we arrived at the McDonalds Corners Agricultural Hall, plenty of tailgate parties were in full swing and the atmosphere inside was electric.
As a country gal who grew up showing dairy calves in 4-H, I can't think of a better place for a country show than a humble agricultural hall. The MC even mentioned that chickens would take our place the following weekend when the local fair rolled in. This ain't your average concert venue.
Perth recording artist Henry Norwood got the crowd going, opening the show proclaiming "classic country is where it's at!" At just 20 years old, he already has 6 years of songwriting under his belt and recently finished fourth in the national CBC Searchlight competition. We're gonna see big things from this guy.
There was a short break after Henry's set and everyone dug into homemade pizza and desserts made by "Sally and the snack committee", a team of volunteers helping out with the festival. The community feel at the Festival of Small Halls is INCREDIBLE.
Then Colter took the stage and his signature baritone filled the room. Think Sam Elliott or Johnny Cash.
He played the first few tunes alone with his guitar, then invited his Nashville-based band to join him on steel guitar, harmonica, bass, and drums. Oh man.
Feet were stomping, folks of all ages were up dancing... even the 30-degree heat couldn't keep people in their seats. Colter Wall's haunting baritone makes him sound like he's lived an entire lifetime beyond his 23 years, and he's has nailed a musical style that sounds like a freight train charging through the Prairies.
It was one of the most memorable, intimate concerts I've been to in a long time.
purdon conservation area
The next morning we headed to nearby Purdon Conservation Area. Such a peaceful spot! In the 1930s Joe Purdon discovered a cluster of native orchids on his property, and eventually grew the colony to over 16,000 blooms. And he turned it into a conservation area so everyone can enjoy! The orchids typically flower in June but this spot is worth a visit any time of year. Here's why:
- the trail is just 3km long and mostly flat, great for new hikers and young families
- its boardwalk makes it accessible to strollers and wheelchairs
- there's a (very clean) wheelchair accessible port-a-potty on site
- entry is pay-what-you-can via cash donation on-site
- there's a lookout point high atop a beaver pond!
why you've gotta go
I had a blast at the Colter Wall concert (new fan right here!) and you've gotta get out to the countryside while the Festival of Small Halls is happening. The community feel, the chance to see big artists in unique intimate venues, and the affordable tickets at $25-$30 make it a no-brainer.
The Festival of Small Halls runs September 13-30 throughout Ontario's Highlands, click here for the full schedule and tickets! It's the perfect reason to get out of the city and enjoy the backyard of the 613's backyard.
win your way in
Best of luck in the giveaways and I hope to see you at a show.