All throughout South Eastern Ontario, there is a sense of excitement as the much-anticipated arrival of spring draws ever closer.

Of course, the impending end of winter brings with it a particularly sweet season that is also an authentically Canadian tradition dating back to the earliest days of our national origin. That’s right; I’m talking about maple syrup season! That time of year when we journey out to the sugarbush, gorge on pancakes, and of course the sweet syrupy goodness.

We set our sights on Brockville, Ontario and Heidi quickly set to work planning a jam-packed itinerary that would give us an excellent sampling of sights, history, dining and culture in the storied City Of The 1000 Islands.

Explore The Peace & Beauty Of Mac Johnson Wildlife Area

A short 15-minute drive North of downtown Brockville will bring you to Mac Johnson Wildlife Area. This is truly a breathtaking space to explore with several walking or hiking trails. Mac Johnson was a much-welcomed chance to relax and take a leisurely stroll amid a beautiful backdrop that only Mother Nature can offer.

As we walked along the path, to the water’s edge, the air was still brisk but was swiftly disarmed by the sunny skies above. Everywhere we looked, we could see animal tracks ranging from squirrels, rabbits and even a fox.

As we continued along the pathway, we were drawn by the sound of chickadees, and other birds singing to each other. Their cheerful chirps and warbles, combined with the feeling of warm sunshine made for a suiting affirmation that winter’s days are numbered.

This public space is ideal for day-trips and casual hikes with friends and family. There is also a large outdoor skating rink complete with a communal fire pit and picnic tables.

Brunch In Downtown Brockville

After traipsing about the trails, we had built up quite an appetite, so it was time to head to Brockville and satisfy the foodie within. While planning our trip, Heidi caught wind of a legendary brunch being served all weekend at the Georgian Dragon Ale House & Pub.

Situated on King Street, the Georgian Dragon is a little pub right in the heart of downtown Brockville. What drew Heidi’s attention was that this pub’s waffles, pancakes and French Toast are all served with local maple syrup produced by Gibbons Family Farm.

If you are an eggs benedict fan like me, then you will be pleased to know that there are four variations of this dish on the menu. My mind was made up as soon as I saw the words: Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict.  Heidi chose the French Toast, which she was kind enough to share with me.

This wasn’t the run-of-the-mill French Toast, mind you, but rather Texas Toast saturated in a delicious cinnamon egg wash. It was also lightly sprinkled with icing sugar, fresh cream and black raspberries. After a generous drizzle of pure, local maple syrup – it became without a doubt the best French Toast we have ever tasted. Très Magnifique!   

A Scenic Stroll Along Blockhouse Island

With our life’s breakfast goals fully accomplished, we decided that a walk through Brockville’s iconic Blockhouse Island would be a good move. It seemed that everywhere we looked was yet another sign of the approaching spring. The iconic F-86 Sabre monument, and other items that adorn the waterfront were reminders of just how soon these pathways would be filled with people in the sun beside the mighty river’s edge.       

In Search Of Local Sweets & Treats

After a refreshing walk, we made our way from Blockhouse Island back to King Street and our next destination: O’Malley Kourt Fudgery. This cute and brightly coloured confectionary is a great place to peruse some interesting local products, and of course, some tasty goodies including O’Malley’s famous fudge which is made on-site.

After a browse through O’Malley’s wares, we bought some maple and salted caramel fudge for later on.

Checking In At The Sir Isaac Brock Bed & Breakfast

We could have spent the remainder of the day exploring Downtown Brockville, but we had to continue on. Besides, we were super-excited to be staying the night at the acclaimed Sir Isaac Brock Bed & Breakfast. Ever since I wrote about this charming and historic B&B in a previous blog, it’s always been on my list.

The Sir Isaac is a Georgian house made of cut limestone. First built in 1824, this remarkable house would have been a rather ambitious undertaking for its original owner. Mr. Sylvester Skinner was a successful business owner who manufactured carriages and other farming equipment in a nearby waterfront factory.

Today, the house has been lovingly renovated and decorated by current owners David and Ida Duc. The house’s interior boasts high ceilings, bright and inviting decor and modern and vintage furnishings.  Once you make your way from the foyer into the parlour, the namesake of the establishment becomes prevalent.

There is a fascinating collection of military antiquities and curios throughout the common areas, including portraits of none other than The Hero of Upper Canada himself, giving one the impression of being the travelling guest of a commissioned officer during the 19th century.

Table For Two At The Mill Restaurant

As the sun began to set we put on our best evening attire and made the five-minute walk down to our dinner reservation at The Mill Restaurant. Like the Sir Isaac, The Mill is a building steeped in history. Originally the Robert Shepherd Grist Mill, this impressive stone building was first built in 1852.

Once elemental in Canada’s industrial coming of age, The Mill is now the home of a popular Italian restaurant, and most recently a steakhouse in the downstairs section of the immaculately restored building.

For her entree, Heidi selected the Pollo di Trento which consisted of a breaded chicken breast stuffed with artichokes, mushrooms, provolone and topped with a rich roasted red pepper cream sauce. Absolutely lovely.  

For myself, I chose the classic Pollo Parmigiano (chicken parmesan) which combines a tenderized chicken breast dusted with bread crumbs, and generously topped with The Mill’s house-made tomato sauce, mozzarella and parmesan cheese, with a side of spaghetti.

Catch An Evening Show At The Brockville Arts Centre

The next item on our itinerary was a short walk from The Mill, to the Brockville Arts Centre to enjoy the Brockville Operatic Society production of Roald Dahl’s: Willy Wonka. Completely stuffed with our delicious dinner, we had to decline on dessert, but the theme of the classic production would be sweet enough indeed.

The show itself was a triumph, paying loving respect to Mr. Dahl’s original material while of course driving home the underlying message of humility, optimism and decency in the face of adversity.

It was also a reminder of the captivating magic of live theatre, something of which I realized my life clearly has been lacking.

By the time the last standing ovation ended, and we exited the theatre, Heidi and I were wiped. We returned to our room at the B&B to rest up and get some much-needed sleep before the second day of our Brockville weekend.   

Check out the Brockville Arts Centre website to view upcoming shows happening during your next visit!

A Delicious Start to Day 2

After an amazing night’s rest in the comforts of our lavish suite, we woke up just after sunrise and made our way downstairs to start the day. The air was filled with the scintillating aroma of freshly baking biscuits, bacon and other delicious smells.  Hot coffee was waiting for us in the dining hall, and before we knew it, Ida was bringing us a plate of freshly made biscuits and fresh fruit.

We selected our breakfast choices the day before, and Ida had prepared a seriously hearty spread of food to help our day get off to a proper start.

We spent the remainder of the morning in the company of David and Ida, talking about our travels, and David’s intriguing collection of artifacts.

A Visit To Gibbons Family Farm

Update: Bill Gibbons, owner of the farm, would be retiring in 2020. With the decision to retire (congrats Bill), also came the decision to close the business.

After packing our things, and saying our goodbyes at the Sir Isaac Brock, we hopped into the car and headed to the very source of the Maple Syrup we had enjoyed the day before. Heidi had reached out to Sarah Gibbons, of Gibbons Family Farm who agreed to meet up and show us how maple syrup makes its journey from the tree, to your kitchen table.

Located in Frankville, Ontario (30 min North of Brockville) this impressive maple syrup producer, provides countless gallons of the sweet stuff to several surrounding businesses and communities. There is also a fun – and educational museum that takes you through the history of maple syrup production in Canada.

Tapping Trees With The Experts

The warm temperatures lately have created the perfect opportunity to start tapping trees. The timing of our visit could not have been better to get a personal demonstration. We climbed into a tractor-drawn trailer, and Sarah drove us out into their sugarbush. Throughout the trees was a series of lines, that would carry the sap through a gravity fed system for collection at specific points.

Once we hopped out of the trailer and proceeded on foot, I realized just how labour intensive tree tapping is.  Sarah said that often, the snow is so deep that they need snowshoes just to traverse the dense bush and get to the trees. Fortunately, the only obstacle we faced was the prickly ash shrubs that grew rampant throughout the forest floor.

Sarah explained to me that before simply drilling a hole in a tree, it’s very important to ensure that you aren’t drilling close to a previous hole, or you can risk causing a crack, and injuring or even killing the tree. The process of finding a suitable spot to drill involves knowing how to recognize older holes and signs of stress on the trunk.  Once a spot is found, it’s then a matter of using a power drill to cut your pilot hole, before gently hammering a plastic tap into the opening, which is then connected to the lines.

It was at this moment that I realized that the act of producing maple syrup, is much more than simply banging a few holes in maple trees and boiling the sap. It is a stewardship of the forest and requires a symbiotic relationship between the farmer and their environment. It was also physically demanding, and gave me a whole new level of appreciation for the hard work of Ontario maple syrup producers!

While finishing this very blog, I got an email from Sarah letting me know that they tapped 1,200 trees that afternoon after Heidi and I left. She also said that they tapped another 1,200 the following day – primarily on foot, and by hand.

Update: Bill Gibbons, owner of the farm, would be retiring in 2020.  With the decision to retire (congrats Bill), also came the decision to close the business.

Parting Is Such ‘Sweet’ Sorrow!

Hands-down, this was easily the most authentically Canadian weekend adventure that Heidi and I have experienced. Brockville Ontario is a truly gorgeous city hidden in plain sight. To make things even easier, we’ve compiled our entire trip in a handy Google Map to help you plan your own adventure!

Open in Google Maps

Photos: Heidi Csernak