TYPICALLY, when you are driving somewhere in a car, you are looking for roads that offer the most efficient route, as direct as the crow flies. Motorcyclists are a rare and different breed however. For us, the roads are the destination. We are constantly in search of the least direct routes with the most curves. With an abundance of smooth asphalt that winds and meanders through beautiful scarcely populated scenic landscapes and quaint small towns, Ontario’s Highlands were made for motorcycles.
Many riders are intimidated by the distance required to get to the area, which is strange. Would you rather stay close to home sitting in stop-and-go gridlock between traffic lights for hours on end, or ride to an area where the roads are clear and the air is fresh? Seems like a no brainer to me.
Leaving the office at 5pm on the Friday of a long weekend, I was worried about hitting holiday traffic. With the new extension to the 407, I was out of Mississauga and on to two lane country roads in under an hour en route to Haliburton by way of Lindsay, Bobcaygeon and Kinmount. I made it to Bonnie View Inn with enough time to unpack and enjoy the sunset down by the dock. After enjoying an amazing meal served by friendly, smiling staff, we enjoyed a few beers by the campfire with fellow guests from all over Ontario. Not far from the city, it is amazing how much more vibrant and clear the night sky is. When you travel often, hotels really do blend together. It is truly only the terrible and exceptional places that stand out. Bonnie View is a great little place with comfortable beds and a host of amenities and activities to enjoy if you’ve got the time and interest. There’s a good reason people keep coming back year after year.
Given the enviable opportunity of trying out a new 2016 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R for the weekend, a tank bag and tail pack were enough to hold everything I needed. Totally manageable as a sport touring mount if you were to strap on a couple saddle bags, the ZX-10R isn’t high strung or twitchy like some litre bikes. When you twist the throttle up past 8,000 rpm you’d better be damn sure you’re pointed in the right direction and know where you are going though, because you’re going to get there in a hurry.
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With nothing specific on our itinerary other than exploring new roads and no particular agenda in mind, we spread a map out on the breakfast table and just randomly started picking out loops to ride since you really can’t go wrong in the Highlands. Featuring great roads connecting unique little towns with their own character and flavour, you’re bound to discover something new and interesting.
We started off with a spirited loop from Haliburton that took us up 118 to Haliburton Lake Road (Highway 14) to Harburn Road (Hyw 19). Covered in a canopy of trees, each turn varied in camber, angle, and elevation from one to the next. It definitely got our pulses racing. We would have turned around and done it again, but there were plenty of other roads to explore and it wasn’t even 10am.
Turn after glorious turn, there was little to complain about on a day of riding a sublime sportbike when it was 27 degrees Celsius without a cloud in the sky. Riding across Loop Road, we turned up Elephant Lake Road but made an immediate detour. Witnessing the smokers going at Olde Ridge Authentic BBQ, our mouths started watering. We stopped in to see Bobby who was just prepping some of his world-class ribs and brisket for the lunch crowd. Loyal to southern smoking techniques but specifically catered to the Canadian palette through the use of local wood and ingredients, the parking lot was proof that word is getting out.
With full bellies and giant smiles, we once again headed up Elephant Lake Road towards Maynooth where we’d heard there was a place not to be missed. Stopping in to get gas anyway, we walked across the street to Algonquin Gourmet Butter Tarts for coffee and a snack. As someone who doesn’t have an affinity for sweets I was blown away, so I can’t even imagine what a sugar fiend would think. Since opening in 2008, they’ve served over 308,759 butter tarts, so clearly they’re doing something right.
Continuing up Highway 127 to Madawaska Road (Highway 523), we then took Highway 60 into Barry’s Bay where we filled up with fuel then an ice cream at Charlie D’s. We then took Siberia Road (Hwy 69) south, detouring slightly down River Road to see what the Madawaska Kanu Centre was all about. Managed by three generations of paddlers, the canoe centre was opened by Hermann Kerckhoff who competed in the 1972 summer Olympics in Munich. Stopping in to enjoy a brew from the Madawaska Coffee Co., we didn’t have the time to take in a white water kayak, but we’ll definitely be back.
From there we continued down River Road to Highway 62 where we took in the beautiful view of the sun setting over the Madawaska River as we rode towards Combermere. Dropping the kickstands at Hush Lodge and Cottages, we were both looking for a cold beer and a shower, not necessarily in that order. Like many people who populate this area, Hush owners Corinne and Gord Evely were looking to escape the city and embrace their hobbies rather than be consumed by their careers. Offering the hospitality of a bed and breakfast, they greeted us like family and made us dinner reservations at the nearby Bent Anchor Bar & Restaurant. We could have ridden or taken a cab, but Gord is a fellow rider and offered to drive us over himself so the bikes could stay parked for the night.
A random little place on the river that we never would have found on our own, the atmosphere of the Bent Anchor on a hot summer night felt like being on the bayou. With a friendly cast of characters serving up good food and drinks, the relaxed atmosphere became more vibrant and festive as the drinks flowed and a live band took the stage. Well known to locals and visitors alike, an older lady named Mary helped lead the staff and lit up the dance floor. Word has it that she used to spend the night behind the bar in a tent during the summer. Again, rather than let us wait for a cab, one of the bartenders drove us back to the lodge on his break. That’s the kind of hospitality you get from a small town like Combermere.
The next morning, we once again planned our day with a map on the table and coffees from the Madawaska Coffee Co. We topped up with fuel in Barry’s Bay and continued along Highway 60 to Wilno. It wasn’t open yet for the day when we passed by, but the Wilno Tavern is a great spot to stop for lunch or dinner when you’re in the area.
We then headed south down Opeonogo Road (Hwy 66) based on suggestions from local riders, which once again did not disappoint. We then took Highway 512 to Foymount, which holds an interesting bit of history as an Armed Forces radar base during the Cold War era. Some may tout it as history—while others as urban legend—we followed Highway 515 down to Quadville where we were told we would find a remote cabin in the woods once owned by Chicago’s most infamous gangster, Al Capone. Details and directions were sketchy, so we didn’t actually find it, but we did stumble across a chip truck called Country Fried that served great poutine.
We then rode through Bancroft then down to Coe Hill where we met up with a couple old friends at the Hideaway Primitive Grill. Mandy and Dave are avid sportbike riders and we’ve been trying to coordinate a trip together for the better part of a decade now. They live in Oshawa, so spend most weekends exploring the Highlands and were eager to show off their favourite routes.
Spending the better part of the day exploring the region, they set off back down south for home but I wasn’t done for the day. I opted to once again take the long way by riding the legendary 507 North to Highway 3 then across 118 to Highway 11 before turning towards home as the sun set. Definitely not the most direct route.
Normally in life you’re forced to choose between quality and quantity, whereas in Ontario’s Highlands you can have your cake and eat it too.
The only question is how much time you’ve got to spend exploring.
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