March Break. Spring Break. The Spontaneous Break I Took After Getting Too Burnt Out at Work to Possibly Function for Another Consecutive Week.
Whatever you choose to refer to it as, the second or third week in March marks a special time in Ontario. It is winter’s last stand; a temporal window where the final vestiges of the year’s coldest season still dominate the province, but signs of the impending thaw abound. There’s a palpable sense of excitement in the air and a tangible sense of brightness (hello daylight savings time!). Making it through the winter is cause enough for celebration, but with St. Patrick’s Day on the docket, this week even gets an added jolt of festivity.
There’s no better way to capitalize on this ‘flip the switch’ moment than by breaking out of routine and escaping for a few days to some less familiar territory. And if you’re looking for a prime getaway destination, look no further than the GTA and its surrounding regions. Just outside the borders of bustling Toronto are pristine trails, dazzling lakes, alluring small towns, and long stretches of scenic farmland that will charm your eyes as you make your way through the southern reaches of this vast province.
The Blue Mountains
Distance from Toronto: 2 hours, 20 minutes
The elongated pastures and rolling hills of Grey County helps riders easily part with their metropolis mindsets as they drive out from the GTA towards The Blue Mountains. This amalgamated township on the southern shores of Georgian Bay draws in thousands of visitors each winter thanks to the public Blue Mountain Ski Resort and the lively village atmosphere that comes along with it—especially around March Break, when visitors can expect to have the chance to partake in live music shows, family-friendly activities, and firework displays.
No mountain range in Ontario offers better skiing and snowboarding possibilities than this one does. Its peak elevation and steepness are unparalleled across the province, as is its collection of open glade runs and the backcountry feel they bring. Less advanced skiers and riders will feel right at home as well, with lots of available runs to suit their skill levels. One area where everyone can find some common ground is at the hilltop BeaverTails station, which dispenses its signature doughy pastries to sugar-craving passersby.
After getting your fill of the hills, head on over to the Blue Mountain village to unwind with some well-earned indulgence; perhaps some retail therapy at one of the many boutiques and apparel shops nearby, or a delightful après-ski at a tavern like Rusty’s or MJ Byrne’s Irish Pub (the place to be on St. Patrick’s Day). Come back once the sun sets to see the lit-up village at its most resplendent and treat yourself to delectable dinner. From casual dining options like the popular Firehall Pizza Co. to the upscale surf and turf specialties at Copper Blues Bar and Grill, there are enough satisfying supper spots to keep you busy for the entire break.
The Westin Trillium House
Lodging at the luxurious Westin Trillium House is the optimal way to experience Blue Mountain. Part of the world-renowned Westin hotel family, the Trillium House boasts a lavish collection of rooms and suites that come fully equipped with gas fireplaces, sitting and kitchen areas, balconies, flatscreen TVs, and more.
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Guests can also take advantage of on-site facilities like a full fitness studio and aquatic centre (note: the soothing outdoor hot tubs are well worth the momentary frigidness before plunging in during winter) or make the five-minute drive to the hotel-affiliated Scandinave Spa for some extensive hydrotherapy and a massage.
Huntsville and Arrowhead Provincial Park
Distance from Toronto: 2 hours, 22 minutes
Huntsville is the rare small town that can lay claim to international fame. Back in 2010, the quaint cottage country outpost played host to an octet of world leaders who convened for the (then) G8 Summit in advance of the larger G20 Summit in Toronto. That it was suitable for the likes of Barack Obama and Angela Merkel should tell you everything you need to know about Huntsville: it is certainly worthy of a visit.
Venturing out there during March will allow you to evade the throngs of tourists and cottagers that crowd the town during the summer. There is something especially peaceful about walking across its iconic Muskoka River bridge crossing when it is draped with snow and the waters below lay frozen and dormant. Power up for a jaunt through Huntsville’s Main Street and its inviting shops (including the outdoorsy hotspot Algonquin Outfitters) with a hearty breakfast at Family Place Restaurant.
Then make your way out to the nearby Arrowhead Provincial Park. Here, in addition to the typical snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, visitors can also go dogsledding through North Ridge Ranch and ice skating down a stunning forested trail that gets illuminated in the evening by hundreds of tiki torches. A top lunch and dinner option is the modestly-named 3 Guys and a Stove, which serves up gourmet North American fare in a cottage-like setting.
Hidden Valley Resort
Tucked just beyond the main strip of Huntsville is Hidden Valley Resort, a tranquil locale that is equally adept at satisfying solitude seekers as it is activity aficionados. It sits on the shores of the picturesque Peninsula Lake and, to the astonishment of many, at the foot of a small ski resort. Weather provided, guests can spend their March Break days skiing, snowboarding, or skating if they are so inclined.
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Walking the scenic, snowy grounds is an activity, and there is also a pool for those who want to be active in the comfort of indoor spaces. The rooms are both classy and comfy; well-suited for anyone hoping to curl up with a good book for a few hours. The highly-rated Birches Restaurant has a wide meal selection and is available for every meal of the day.
Distance from Toronto: 1 hour, 22 minutes
Hardly an under-the-radar destination, Niagara Falls is an astounding phenomenon of both nature and tourism. So many attractions have sprung up around the attraction that started it all that it’s easy to momentarily forget about the city’s original draw. Still, that in no way diminishes the continued awe-inspiring quality of the Falls. In March especially they are a sight to behold, as the whitecap fixtures that hug the Canada-US border year-round are complemented by whatever snowbanks and icicles have held on through the winter. Close-up views can be had by springing for a ride on the Maid of the Mist ship, taking a Journey Behind the Falls, or going on an aerial tour with Niagara Helicopters.
The tenor of a Niagara Falls trip can shift easily depending on the demographics of its participants. Parents chaperoning their kids for March Break have lots of activity options that comfortably straddle the line between educational and unadulterated fun. The enthralling Butterfly Conservatory and Bird Kingdom certainly fit the bill; as does the Niagara Falls History Museum, which runs special March Break programming for kids. The central Clifton Hill is a tourist promenade that resembles every children’s birthday party you’ve ever seen all rolled into one.
Grown-ups can have some fun of their own at either Casino Niagara or Fallsview Casino, the two gambling establishments that lay on the Canadian side of the border. The latter one plays host to 21 Club, an acclaimed joint that cooks steak and seafood to perfection and puts other casino restaurants to shame. Diners willing to venture a little farther from the main strip would be wise to check out Tide and Vine, a delightful oyster bar that was started by a local couple and incorporates local and seasonal foods.
Sheraton on the Falls
There’s nothing quite like waking up, glancing out through a panoramic window, and laying eyes upon one of the largest and most powerful waterfalls on Earth. That’s just one of many perks of booking a Fallsview Room at Sheraton on the Falls. Those who do can also look forward to the fitness centre, pool, and waterpark access, the latter being a terrific option for occupying the youngins.
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Buffet meals are served throughout the day and the greater Sheraton complex houses fun dining options like the Hard Rock and Rainforest Cafés as well as the upscale Windows by Jamie Kennedy—not to mention the newly opened Sweet Jesus ice cream parlour, which serves up some of the most mouth-watering frozen treats around. Come to Sheraton for the views, stay for the frills.
Distance from Toronto: 0 hours, 0 minutes!
Torontonians need not leave the confines of their city for a bona fide March Break escape—they already have everything they need at their fingertips. Toronto has a well-deserved reputation for being a city of neighbourhoods, and even those who have already traversed those many districts extensively can be sure to find exciting changes upon returning.
Start your day in the 6ix with a tasty and cheerful brunch. East End explorers should head over to Lady Marmalade for one of its elaborate and filling creations, while the best in the West can be found either at Emma’s Country Kitchen uptown or at the downtown Saving Grace, which resides at the northern edge of Trinity Bellwoods Park.
From there you could take things in just about any direction. Landmarks like the CN Tower, City Hall, and Casa Loma are always neat for first-timers to take in, but Toronto days are best spent experiencing different pockets of the diverse city and hunting for hidden gems.
Journey to cultural hotspots and off-the-beaten-track neighbourhoods like the Distillery District, Kensington Market, Roncesvalles Village, the Junction, Leslieville, the Annex, and just about any ethnic district ending in -town or starting with Little (Greek, China, Italy, India, etc.). Hike through robust ravines like the Lower Don Valley, the Humber River, Taylor Creek, and—for anyone willing to make a slight trek—Scarborough’s gorgeous Rouge Valley. Try one of the city’s ever-growing unconventional entertainment options like the Rec Room arcade, AT Bubble Soccer, and archery tag at Archers Arena.
Kid-centric programming is easy to find in Toronto over March Break. TIFF’s Bell Lightbox Theatre hosts a DigiPlaySpace with interactive technology-based games and screens family-friendly films throughout the week. The Royal Ontario Museum, Art Gallery of Ontario, and Ontario Science Centre all make for enriching destinations that can more than occupy an entire day. Productions of The Secret Garden and Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat will be running at the Young People’s Theatre and Lower Ossington Theatre, respectively.
Downtown Home Inn
Forego the hotel scene and spend your precious Toronto vacation time lodging in a more intimate and relaxed setting. The Downtown Home Inn is the rare central accommodation spot that has elements of both seclusion and metropolitan flair. Tucked away on a side street in the Church-Wellesley Gay Village, this Victorian-style home allows guests to withdraw from the hustle and bustle after a long day of activity.
Once they’re ready to get back out again, they have the convenience of residing just two blocks from a subway station and within walking distance of Cabbagetown, Yorkville, the Garden District, Rosedale, the Eaton Centre, and the Discovery District. WiFi is included, breakfast is served all day, and the kitchen is free to use guest use as well.
Distance from Toronto: 1 hour, 16 minutes
Paris, ON lives up to its French name in the sense that it is the closest thing Ontario has to replicating a European postcard-worthy village. The town is at its prettiest at the banks of the winding Grand River—especially in the evening when The Lighting of the Paris Falls transforms the historic Penman’s Dam into a brilliant orange spectacle. Riverside patios and lookouts are plentiful, built atop seasoned cobblestone foundations. The scene is punctuated by the presence of a jet black CNR railway bridge that supports cargo on its way across the province.
The relaxed and romantic Paris atmosphere is shaped in part by the abundance of cafés, restaurants, and boutique shops. Blue Dog Coffee Roasters is your best bet for a morning energy jolt, serving up high-quality java in an open concept space. It’ll be easy to pretend like you’re in the more famous Paris by sitting down for some escargots, canard, crème brûlée, or one of the other many offerings on the French Lyonnaise-inspired menu at Juniper Dining Co. Wincey Mills Market is a large community vendor space where goods ranging from specialty foods to locally made arts and crafts are sold.
Though maybe you’re feeling the real Paris this March Break…
Outdoor enthusiasts will want to pay a visit to Apps’ Mill Nature Centre, which is a jumping off point for many local hiking trails, as well as the host of a March Break Adventure Camp that is ideal for kids. History buffs can explore the Penman Textile Mill that served as the flagship plant of Canada’s largest knitting firm and was designated a Federal Historic Site years later.
The distinguished Arlington Hotel is a true Paris fixture. It was built in the 1850s and has been a common gathering site for important town functions. The hotel’s home at the northwest corner of William Street and Grand River Street N puts it square in the heart of town and steps from the banks of the river.
Room décor is inspired by the oeuvres of various writers, such as the gothic space named after Mary Shelley. Arlington’s spa does the same, with a trio of available packages named for George Eliot, Maya Angelou, and Emily Dickinson. Anyone seeking some additional literature references should head on down to the hotel’s Library Bar, which bills itself in Dickensian fashion as “the best of times.”
Distance from Toronto: 1 hour, 15 minutes
In some ways, Barrie is a lot like Toronto. Both cities extend outward from a lake, have adapted to rapidly growing populations, and can lay claim to major chunks of Yonge St. But Barrie’s proximity to cottage country and less urbanized landscapes makes it a convenient destination for outdoor March Break fun.
Ski resorts like Mt. St. Louis Moonstone and Horseshoe Valley—the latter of which also boasts an exceptional snow tubing track—are less than half an hour from the city centre. Ice fishing stations can be found all around the edges of Lake Simcoe, including the Kempenfelt Bay area adjacent to Barrie. The nearby Tiffin Centre for Conservation is a snowshoe site and hiking haven that will be running a special maple sugaring program for kids on the March Break Monday. Those looking to head indoors for a change of pace should spend a day at the Vertical Zone Trampoline Centre and hop around on its competition grade trampolines.
As a thriving city, Barrie is not short on dining options. Casual meal seekers can warm up with some delicious but reasonably-priced Viet Thai cuisine at Pho Mekong, a local favourite. A go-to spot for more upscale dining is Urban Dish Grill and Wine Bar, where customers can pick from an extensive selection of tantalizing tapas and succulent meats. Head to Donaleigh’s Irish Pub on St. Patrick’s Day for some authentic celebrations.
With spacious grounds and ivy draped around its Victorian walls, Richmond Manor Bed & Breakfast is a beautiful property upon which to hunker down for a little while in Barrie.
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It is just steps from the shores of Kempenfelt Bay and a short walk from the downtown core. Hosts Pam and Bob have decorated the house with tasteful antiques and prepare daily gourmet breakfasts featuring homemade baking.
Distance from Toronto: 0 hours, 46 minutes
Hamilton has recently received a lot of buzz as a living alternative for buyers who have been priced out of the Toronto market and don’t want to stray too far from the GTA, but the city is enticing enough in its own right—certainly a no-brainer choice when it comes to picking a March Break-escape destination that’s suitable for everyone.
Parents are in luck, since just about every museum in the city—the Hamilton Children’s Museum, the Hamilton Museum of Steam, and Technology, Fieldcote Memorial Park and Museum, the Dundurn National Historic Site—is running some sort of kid-friendly program during the week. Sports enthusiasts can take in an OHL hockey game at the Hamilton Bulldogs’ home arena, which happens to be just a few short blocks from the CFL Hall of Fame. Speaking of sports, the very first café named after Maple Leafs legend (wait for it) Tim Horton (!!!) can be found in Hamilton as well, and makes for a fitting Canadian bucket list destination.
Visitors looking for their fill of arts and culture can take in a concert at one of the city’s ever-growing venues (Matthew Good, Our Lady Peace, Born Ruffians, and local artist Terra Lightfoot are all set to play over the course of the March Break Week), visit the Art Gallery of Hamilton, or visit an independent bookstore or theatre. And of course, as always, visitors can venture out to the wide network of waterfalls that runs throughout the city and get their daily exercise in front of some of Ontario’s most Instagram-able backdrops.
Hamilton has also turned into an incredible environment for food, drinks, and adult fun. Visiting the local Collective Arts Brewery makes for a nice happy hour treat late in the afternoon. Follow that up with a greasy meal at Jack & Lois, where you can choose from a menu of audacious sandwich stylings with equally audacious names (Black Mamba, John Candy, and Mona Lisa, to name a few).
This endearing bed and breakfast sits in a residential neighbourhood just outside of the Hamilton downtown core, giving guests a relaxing fort they can retreat to after soaking in the city. Not only that, but the neighbourhood’s slight elevation gives guests a prime perched view of the urban scene below.
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Two of the rooms feature en-suite bathrooms while the third is just down the hall. Breakfasts are cooked every morning and all dietary requests are accommodated.
Do you have your March Break 2018 plans set? Let us know where you’ll be heading!