Five things you might not know about Peterborough, Ontario

Disclosure: I travelled to Peterborough as a guest of Peterborough & the Kawarthas Tourism, which neither reviewed nor approved this post.

If you know Peterborough, you may well know about some of these places. However, in my experience, many Ottawans don’t know Peterborough well at all, even though it’s only a three-hour drive away—about the same distance as Prince Edward County or Syracuse. So these five salient facts may well have flown right under your radar. And they might just be enough to spur your next trip to what I think of as the capital of the Kawarthas. (In fact, this post really covers Peterborough and the Kawarthas, because I visited both the city and the wider region on a trip earlier this week.)

The Kawarthas region has a winery

Glass of Marquette red wine with vineyard in background at Rolling Grape Winery in Bailieboro, Ontario.

Rolling Grape Winery’s tasting room and patio are right in the middle of the 10-acre vineyard.

Even many Peterborough residents (Peterboroughians? Peterites?) don’t know about Rolling Grape Winery, because the winery just opened on June 1, 2018. Winemaker Jon Drew has hived off 10 acres of his family’s 100-acre farm in Bailieboro—about 25 minutes from Peterborough—to plant cold-resistant grapes, such as Marquette. He also makes wines from Niagara-grown grapes, such as Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

On my visit this week, I tasted five of his wines—small samples, honestly! To my surprise, as I’m not generally a red wine drinker, I liked the fruity Marquette best. It’s a varietal you might not be familiar with, but be prepared to see more of this grape in the future. Developed at the University of Minnesota to grow well in cold climates, it’s popular among new winemakers in the chillier regions of Eastern Ontario.

You can see (and buy) Zimbabwean sculptures in Bailieboro

Sculpture of a woman's head, titled "Confidence," by Zimbabwean artist Tutani Mgabazi, in the outdoor exhibition at the ZimArt Rice Lake Gallery in Bailieboro, Ontario, near Peterborough.

This piece, “Confidence,” is one of artist Tutani Mgabazi’s favourite pieces in his ZimArt Rice Lake Gallery exhibition—and mine, too.

Curator Fran Fearnley founded ZimArt Rice Lake Gallery in 2000 to show, promote and sell stone sculptures from Zimbabwe. The outdoor sculpture park, a short drive from Peterborough, has a summer show focusing on the work of 2018 artist-in-residence Tutani Mgabazi, a 44-year-old Zimbabwean who started carving at age 7 by helping his artist uncles with basic tasks. Works by a range of other Zimbabweans are also on display in a tree-fringed glade, surrounded by farmers’ fields of soybeans and other crops.

So why Zimbabwean sculpture? Zimbabwe is the only country in Africa with significant deposits of stone suitable for carving, such as springstone. When carved and polished, the stone reveals a wide range of colours, including green, rust and black. Zimbabwe is so famous for its rock that the name of the country comes from the Shona word dzimbadzamabwe, meaning “house of stone.”

Admission to the gallery is free.

Peterborough has the world’s largest collection of canoes

Peterborough, Ontario, is home to the Canadian Canoe Museum.

Peterborough, Ontario, is home to the Canadian Canoe Museum.

If you like to paddle, you’ll love the Canadian Canoe Museum. Currently housed in a converted industrial building, it has some 600 vintage and modern canoes, kayaks and other non-motorized boats in its collection, with about 100 on display. You can learn about the history of canoes and kayaks, from their days as a vital form of transportation for Canada’s Indigenous people and European fur traders to their modern incarnation as weekend pleasure craft. You can also choose from a big list of activities, from pay-by-donation yoga classes next to the museum’s waterfall to craft sessions for kids, paddle-making workshops, paddling courses and canoe tours.

Admission ranges from $9.50 for students and seniors to $30 for a family of up to two adults and four kids, and children under five get in free.

In 2022, the museum plans to move into snazzy-looking new digs next to the Peterborough Lift Lock, which brings me to….

Peterborough is home to the world’s highest hydraulic lift lock

The Peterborough Lift Lock is the highest in the world.

The Peterborough Lift Lock is the highest hydraulic lift lock in the world.

The locks on the Rideau Canal are impressive feats of engineering, but the enormous Peterborough Lift Lock on the Trent-Severn Waterway is something else again. It’s a somewhat surreal experience to lock through this Parks Canada structure and rise roughly 20 metres (65 feet) above the surrounding parkland. I did that in 2015 with family-run Liftlock & the Riverboat Cruises and had a great time.

Even more surreal, I’m sure (I haven’t done it), is the chance to have a gourmet dinner in the dry(ish) space below the raised lock. The dinners started as a special initiative to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. They were so insanely popular that organizers offered them again this year—and the $295 tickets sold out within hours. If you’d like to try the experience in 2019, go to the Under Water Dining at Lock 21 Experience website and sign up for the waiting list. If you snag a ticket, you’ll be in rare company; this year, only 64 tickets were available.

Elmhirst’s Resort has two private airplane facilities—and great food!

Should you have a pressing need for somewhere to land your private plane, Elmhirst’s Resort on Rice Lake near Peterborough has you covered, with both a seaplane base and a grass runway.

The 50-year-old resort has 30 waterfront cottages for rent, each with its own dock, kitchen and barbecue. If you don’t feel like cooking, you can dine like a king in the Hearthside Dining Room or kick back in the more casual Wild Blue Yonder Pub & Patio. You can even get room service!

I didn’t stay at the resort on this visit, but the idea of a cottage with room service and an on-site spa has me thinking seriously about coming back when I’m in the mood for a splurge (resorts with amenities such as a wine cellar and riding stables don’t come cheap).

Jay Nutt, the food and beverage service manager at Elmhirst's Resort in Keene, Ontario, mixes up rhubarb cocktails with gin from the new Black's Distillery in nearby Peterborough.

Jay Nutt, the food and beverage service manager at Elmhirst’s Resort in Keene, Ontario, mixes up rhubarb cocktails with gin from the new Black’s Distillery in nearby Peterborough.

Elmhirst’s is very strong on farm-to-table food, with ingredients such as honey, fiddleheads, jalapeños and Angus beef coming from the resort’s own farm. They smoke their own rainbow trout, too, which was one of the highlights of my lunch there.

The Elmhirst family has long roots in this region; King George IV granted 1,000 acres on Rice Lake to Royal Navy Lieutenant Phillip James Elmhirst in 1818. So ask any of the three generations of very friendly Elmhirsts at the resort your questions abou local history or attractions. I suspect they’ll probably know the answers.

If you go

Peterborough is about three hours southwest of Ottawa. One of the most scenic routes, which takes you through lots of small towns, is Highway 7. For travel information, see the website of Peterborough & the Kawarthas Tourism.

Disclosure: I travelled to Peterborough as a guest of Peterborough & the Kawarthas Tourism, which neither reviewed nor approved this post.

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