Written by Jim Bamboulis
Road tripping is, by far, my favourite way to travel. Sure, it might take longer to get where you’re going but what’s the rush. There’s nothing like the open road, meeting people along the way and enjoying the sights, sounds and local food delicacies that you’d otherwise overlook and miss entirely if you took the train or plane.
To celebrate my 42nd birthday, my lady decided to surprise me with a road trip. She took care of all the details and simply told me to pack for three days. I insisted that she keep the rest of the trip details a secret. I wanted everything to be a total surprise. We loaded the car with gas and supplies and headed east of Toronto. Hours went by. I kept an open mind before realizing that the towns we were passing through were getting smaller and smaller with fewer street lights. We were headed closer to the Ottawa Valley. But where exactly?
It was late evening by the time we got to our destination. Nobody was walking around, the shops on Main Street were all closed for the night. A few turns later, we were driving along a gravel road on the outskirts of Merrickville, Ontario, a town I had never heard of and was fascinated to find out more about how my lady found it interesting enough to want to stay here. For three nights no less. It didn’t take long to find out.
A very short history
Located about four hours east of Toronto, an hour south of Ottawa and about three hours west of Montreal, Merrickville is a village that sits nicely along the Rideau Canal – a National Historic Site of Canada. In fact, it predates the Canal. One of its first settlers was Loyalist William Merrick Sr. who was given 200 acres here in 1793. By the time the Canal was fully completed, Merrickville became a larger, thriving, industrious small town settled by Irish, Scottish and French builders of the Canal.
However, over the next few decades, railways started to grow and other locations were chosen as divisional junctions. As a result, industry dried up, the population dwindled, and Merrickville became somewhat of a ghost town by the 1960s and 70s. As is usually the case, artists came to town and brought the funk with them. Over the past few years, Merrickville has seen a massive increase in population and plenty of tourism numbers thanks to its unique boutiques, eclectic shops, and great food. Merrickville, Ontario is considered to be one of Canada’s Prettiest Villages, a jewel along the Rideau that’s a must for every road-tripper.
Take your morning walk at the Rideau Woodland Ramble. Declared as one of Canada’s top garden destinations, the Ramble is home to Japanese maples and Rhododendrons to a variety of wildlife and pure woodland. Summertime here is gorgeous but visiting off-season allows for a more serene connection to the natural surroundings.
Head closer into Merrickville and you face history head-on. Home to over 100 historic and heritage properties, it’s not only home to three locks on the Rideau Canal but also home to the Blockhouse, a giant structure built in 1832 to guard the locks against potential American attacks. A National Historic Site of Canada, it’s now a museum open during the summer.
Up the street, on the other side of the canal, you find the Industrial Heritage Complex, home to the original foundry, grist, flour, and sawmill; now ruins from a time long ago.
It may be small, but shopping in Merrickville is an all-day adventure. Renowned for its boutiques that are filled with one-of-a-kind items made by local artists and artisans there’s a shop for you at every turn. One of them is Mrs. McGarrigle’s Fine Food Shop which has so many nooks and crannies, you can get lost in the search and excitement to find that special item for just about anyone in your family. While looking around, make sure you sample some of the famous and award-winning mustards in-store.
The Anarchy Gallery is a stunning shop home to art and fashion, Chaiya Decor specializes in internationally-inspired works of art and design, the Whistlepost Antiques is another gem with plenty of interesting distractions and nostalgic items, and finally, the Merry Christmas Shoppe is the largest year-round Christmas store anywhere near Ottawa. So big, so many things, you may wish Christmas lasted all year.
For a small town, Merrickville knows variety and quality with plenty of food options to choose from. Here are a few to consider.
Hit up Nana B’s first. A bakery off the main drag, it’s a go-to for the freshest bread in town. Open daily at 8am, the breads are usually gone by 8:30. No kidding. Smells so good you want to buy one of each but as a recommendation, get the Cheese Bread – a giant circular loaf with pieces of cheddar inside and make sure you pick up a few of those famous butter tarts on the way out.
If you want to sit and enjoy your meal, a must is the Yellow Canoe Cafe, a quaint and friendly 20-seat spot with a fresh menu and homemade treats. Although the menu changes pretty frequently, one thing remains constant: owner Danielle Moizer is committed to offering dishes that promote local producers, using locally sourced ingredients when possible.
Start with a silky smooth, delicious coffee. No matter what the season, make sure you get a soup and sandwich. Everything is made from scratch, in-house including the fluffiest, lightest focaccia bread you’ve ever bitten into. End it with a home-made scone.
Meanwhile, it’s no surprise that with deep British Isle roots, Merrickville understandably has a proper pub for a pint or two as well as incredible fish and chips. If that’s what you’re after, then Bob’s is THE place to get your fix, be it for breakfast, lunch and/or dinner. The portions are big, the fish lightly battered, not too oily and full of flavour. It’s the traditional Scottish dish done proper.
You scream for ice cream. The Downtowne Ice Cream + Candy Shoppe dreams in ice cream. A family business for nearly 20 years, the shopkeepers decided to invent their own ice cream and gelato flavours a few years ago and the results have been outstanding!
Ever changing, one thing remains certain: everything is made in-house and as often as possible, include locally sourced ingredients such as maple syrup, fudge, spices, and fruit. You’ll find your standard ice cream flavours but look for unique ones as well. In the past, they’ve produced an ice cream called ‘Honey Tarragon Mustard Oh My’ and a gelato called ‘Rosemary Grapefruit Adventure’. A great way to cap the day.
There are several places to rest in Merrickville but if you’re wondering where that gravel road led to when we first arrived, here it goes. Skeptical and a bit freaked out by the remoteness and darkness of it all, I, in good faith, followed my lady’s directions. A few long minutes went by before I pulled into a driveway.
Talk about a light at the end of a tunnel. Little did I know we were pulling into a Roundhouse. Literally.
Listed on Airbnb and owned by Paul Marc, the gorgeous and truly unique seven-acre cord wood Roundhouse is a two-bedroom, two bath home that’s secluded, rural and hippie-chic living at its best! Located on a private nature reserve, this place left me speechless.
Energy efficient, the builders of this home went green before green was fashionable and although the interior is incredibly decorated with everything music, beach, and First Nations culture, there’s as much space to move and get comfortable as there is natural light. Big yet cozy, it’s a perfect place to spend a few days to totally chill and enjoy the Jewel of the Rideau.
Merricktown is located along the Rideau Canal and in the heart of Eastern Ontario. Easy to get to no matter which direction you’re coming from.
Hey y’all. I’m Jim. That kid went on to spend 16 years in the broadcast media world before starting up Travel Mammal, a site dedicated to working with brands to promote travel, food and cultural experiences.
Travel Mammal isn’t about the selfie or checking things off a list. It’s about experiencing both the journey and the destination. To breathe, learn and really absorb what’s around you, in the moment and experiencing in a way that is both memorable and meaningful.
Happy travels, y’all.