Words and photography by Jim Bamboulis
Located just over three hours northeast of Toronto and 40 minutes west of Ottawa, Almonte, Ontario is loaded with amazing shops, killer coffee, delicious food, historical genius and some of the friendliest people anywhere. Small town Canadiana, with charm and soul that will make you wonder why you haven’t been here sooner and question why you would ever want to leave.
To me, road-tripping is life. There’s no better way of exploring places than by packing the car and hitting the road. No matter where your home base is in Southern Ontario, there are new experiences to be enjoyed around the corner and in each direction. Ontario in general is definitely a ‘Yours To Discover’ kind of place.
Almonte was on my road trip radar for a while. Gracing the calm and soothing Mississippi River, this gem in Lanark County always seemed to look super charming, even magical no matter the season. And it seems that many others have thought the same.
Over the years, this strong, tight-knit community has come together to work as a team, each doing their part to transform this famous mill and textile town from a stopover spot to a destination haven. Their collective efforts have proudly paid off. Don’t look now but Almonte has now become one of the most desirable weekend getaways in Southern Ontario. This article will give you a solid game plan on how to maximize your time and make the most of this graceful, beautiful part of Canada.
Stroll the Riverwalk
When you arrive to Almonte, your absolute best bet is to start by strolling the Riverwalk. A scenic boardwalk path that’s surrounded by both cascading waterfalls and historic sites, it’s a perfect way to acclimate yourself.
Almonte has been inhabited by the Algonquin Peoples well before it became a big player in the saw, grist and woolen mills in the late 19th century. These days, the mills have been reborn, transformed into residential units, even restaurants. Meanwhile, the big and beautiful Town Hall dominates the skyline. Built in 1884, it’s been home to everything from council meetings and the fire department to musical performances, weddings and, even some local jail cells.
Explore the Town Square
Be forewarned – Almonte is one of the only places that may willingly force you to enter every store. I love towns like this – you can actually see the collective effort from everyone in the community, to beautify the community. Local pride is tangible, everywhere and it shows.
Riverwalk leads directly to Mill Street, Almonte’s main drag. Along the way, you’ll find everything from ice cream outposts, classic diners, reinvented cafes and boutique shops to historic buildings, historic figures, galleries and antique stores.
Public Art. Notable Locals
Three notable people that will capture your attention are located only minutes from each other. For the first one, you have to look up. Oddly enough, you’ll notice a portrait of a Mexican General – Juan Almonte. The story goes that when the overwhelmingly Scottish and Irish residents were submitting town names such as Waterford and Victoriaville, they were all rejected. By the 1840s, Americans were eager to make advances into Mexico which brought back memories of Americans making moves into Canada during the War of 1812.
After learning of a man – Juan Almonte, Mexico’s ambassador to the US – who served in the field against the Americans and fought with courage and valour, the local and loyal British citizens agreed upon a name that has stuck to this day. What better person to name a town after than one who stood up to the big, bad Yanks. And for the record, Juan Almonte never knew that a town in Canada was named after him.
The second is a sculpture of a man seated on a bench on the bend, complete with his famous peach basket. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, was born and raised on a farm near Almonte, and graduated from Almonte High School in 1883. He invented what is today one of the most popular games on the planet in 1891.
The third – Robert Tait McKenzie – was one of Canada’s best-known artists in the early-20th century. A sculptor, you’ll find his exceptional piece – The Volunteer – directly in front of the Town Hall. In Edinburgh, his Scots-American War Memorial displays prominently, while in Philly, his Ben Franklin statue is celebrated. His Joy of Effort statue at the Olympic Stadium in Stockholm, Sweden inspires to this day.
To get a better grasp of the history, journey and internationally recognized accomplishments of both James Naismith and Robert Tait McKenzie, be sure to visit the Mill of Kintail Conservation Area a few minutes from Almonte. Both a 150-acre park, it’s also home to a museum that houses the works of both men.
While you’re at the Mill, experience Soundscaping
Soundscaping? Yes! It’s a thing and you’re going to love it. Especially when you have a guy like Chad Clifford leading the way. Meeting Chad at the Mill and chatting for a few minutes, I realized this super nice genius is a cross between a mad scientist and incredible inventor.
Stillness, connection and being one with your surroundings is getting more and more challenging. Soundscaping is a way to quiet your mind and body while being present in the moment, in the forest, listening to the sounds of nature. Using both handheld microphones and others placed at various points along the trail (both of which Chad built himself), the idea is to put headphones on and just listen for everything from amplified sounds of birds chirping in the distance to streaming water hitting a rock.
If your mind is racing or feel like there isn’t enough time in the day, soundscaping will ground you, centre you. I found myself turning off my phone, ignoring the time on my watch and just immersing myself in the experience of sound. Chad’s research and expertise has garnered much attention, as he’s been invited to speak about soundscaping across the country.
After a long day, time for dinner!
An active and productive day deserves a delicious dinner in a beautiful setting. Enter Cafe Postino, a gorgeous Italian restaurant located in the old Post Office, that’s been creating lasting memories for patrons since opening in 2011. European-style ambiance blends with fresh flavours and impeccable service.
Owners Claire and Steve Falsetto know how to run a restaurant. Period! Family recipes from southern Italy, preservative-free homemade dishes, traditional mains and desserts are all coupled with decades of hospitality experience as both have added their lovely, personal touches to make you feel at home.
Claire is the one behind the decor, transforming the space while maintaining its original, classic architectural details. Casual yet elegant, it’s a perfect place for a tiramisu and cappuccino or a formal meal to celebrate a milestone event.
Check in to the Almonte Riverside Inn
There was a very distinct, conscious and overpowering feeling of gratitude that overpowered me as soon as I stepped into the Riverside Inn. To think that we in Canada spend so much time dreaming of European vacations, having the chance to stay in villas and seaside resorts, surrounded by serenity when all we have to do is look in our own backyard to find similar joy.
I’m not comparing Tuscany with Ontario, the south of France with the Ottawa Valley. What I mean is that there’s so much beauty and charm closer than we think, at a fraction of the cost, without the need to check your baggage or fly across the ocean. Stepping inside the Riverside felt like I was transported back to 19th century England, a physical place so close to home, that felt as if I was on a rustic European escape.
Get settled, acquainted and immersed into the Almonte state-of-mind. Unload before you reload. This heritage estate turned boutique inn on the banks of the Mississippi River combines old world, historically detailed class with new world amenities. Each of the six rooms is uniquely decorated, come with king-sized beds, modern bathrooms and stunning views.
Here, you don’t need a key to enter your room. Instead, set your own numeric code to your room for keyless entry. Breakfast comes with a twist, too. Within each room is a card. Fill out the card the night before with your coffee/tea/breakfast selection, what time you’ll be down for breakfast and place it on your door handle. In the morning, your coffee/tea is delivered to your room while the freshly made breakfast you selected is presented for you downstairs at the time you requested it on the card. Simple, efficient and delicious!
These guys don’t only do breakfast. Book a table for dinner at The Lobby Bar and enjoy a memorable dining experience only steps from your room. From their famous Mushrooms on Toast and Meatballs with Jalapeno Bread and Garlic Shrimp Spaghetti, to the maple infused Old Fashioned and Maple Pot de Creme, dining here is equal parts refined and casual.
ATV along the Ottawa Valley Rail Trail
Start the next day with a rush of adrenaline. Strap on a helmet, hop on to an ATV and ride along the Ottawa Valley Rail Trail, formerly a Canadian Pacific Railway Line. It’s part of a 296 km corridor that runs between Smiths Falls and Mattawa but the ATV adventure takes you from Almonte to just outside Pakenham and back.
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Bob Volks is your main man when it comes to your ATV excursion. Starting in downtown Almonte, we embarked north along the Rail Trail, stopping along the way, Bob pointing out several points of interest before arriving in historic Pakenham.
There, you’ll have the chance to see North America’s only 5-arch bridge. Built in 1903 by Scottish masons, the bridge has never been replaced with a newer one but was reinforced to make more room for car and truck traffic in 1984.
The infamous Pakenham General Store is also on the itinerary. Dating back to 1840, this trip back in time creates a WOW factor as soon as you step inside. Victorian Colonial furniture, wood floors, original wooden counters and antiques used by the original owners will astound and inspire your imagination. Even grocery items are antiques dating back a few generations. Look up and see the historic electric train circling the store and browse the in-house art gallery. Oh and make sure you get a Sticky Bun. Get two. Yes, get two Sticky Buns. Trust me!
After a stop in Pakenham, your ATV adventure continues off-road and into the hills. There, out of nowhere, appears an oasis. And its name is Cartwright Springs Brewery. Craft beers are created by Owner/Brewmaster André Rieux, who, I feel, never gets tired of telling you the incredible story of how he found this property. Book in advance for a tour and learn all about how his passionate environmentally-friendly initiatives allow him to brew amazing beer all while doing his part to save the planet.
Spring water located only 15 meters away from the brewery is used to make every brew, including several seasonal styles to a level of perfect deliciousness. The tasting room is a lovely and inviting introduction to a tasting experience that will make you feel as if you’ve discovered the region’s best kept secret.
Book a spot on The Good Food Tour
Almonte is at the centre of Lanark County’s Maple Trail. That said, your weekend must include as much consumption of maple as possible. Do yourselves a favour, book a spot on The Good Food Tour.
For me, a beautiful place is nothing without kind people. Almonte is known as “The Friendly Town”, so expect to be greeted, smiled at, spoken to politely and treated like a human being in Almonte. And on The Good Food Tour, you’ll experience quintessential Canadian soul from your Guide, Cathy Reside. She’s an incredible person, passionate about her region and your ticket to truly tasting the best Almonte has to offer.
We stopped at several hot spots including Equator Coffee for a Maple Latte. Passionate about fair trade organic beans, roasting here has ethical roots embedded in the culture and taken seriously. Further, their coffee making methods are super meticulous and perfected meaning you get a perfect cup of sourced, produced and consumed coffee every time!
Hummingbird Chocolate Maker produces small batches of chocolate in-house and, visible from inside the shop. The difference? Erica Gilmour, her partner Drew and the rest of the staff make chocolate straight from the giant cacao beans and like Equator, believe in ethical sourcing of beans from around the world. Their consciously tireless efforts to do things right from the start has paid off with several international awards recognizing their products which include dark, and of course maple infused chocolate!
Hopped up on caffeine and chocolate, we naturally head to Crooked Mile Microbrewery for award-winning, British-inspired craft beer. Although flagship ales such as Highland Hillwalker – a Scottish Export with hints of butterscotch, Druid’s Dusk – an Irish red with hints of cherry, and Crow’s Castle – a Welsh bitter with toffee notes are standards, seasonal brews such as the Lanark Maple Brown reflects the taste of the region.
Vodcow? If you don’t know, you’ll find out soon enough. The good people at Dairy Distillery are making vodka from milk permeate, you know the sugars that are filtered during the milk making process. Farmers just get rid of that stuff, making one man’s trash another man’s vodcow treasure! Clear like vodka, it goes down much easier and thanks to improved liquor legislation, this little micro-distillery got the go ahead to call their product vodka, meaning their vodcow will be available in liquor stores across Ontario.
Filled with gadgets and linens, Pêches and Poivre is also a fine foods shop. In the back, this charmer features several local sweet and savoury artisan cheeses and charcuterie. And of course, maple is always front and centre.
Finally, Mill Street Crepe Company is a super cute lunch spot where the crepes are both sweet and savoury all in one. On this day, along with their soup of the day, we were treated to the Maple Pulled Pork made with caramelized onion, house made BBQ sauce, maple syrup. So good that if it was socially acceptable, I probably would have licked the plate clean.
On the way back home…
I know. By this point you might be too full to digest much less think about more food. Regardless, one more stop is in order before heading out – Healthy Food Technologies.
Despite being off the strip with a super unappealing (and somewhat misleading) store name, this is actually a doughnut shop where deep-fried donuts are made with 50-70% less fat! They started selling the new doughnuts for a few hours on Fridays only a few years ago but when word got out about how awesome they were, demand soared and has been soaring since. When you make a doughnut at a fraction of the guilt, expect lineups daily. Stop, get a few, eat at will. It’s worth every minute you wait and every bite you take.
Friendly, delicious, proud and close to home. Almonte is quite literally a perfect weekend getaway any time of the year! HUGE shoutout to Lanark Tourism for setting up our weekend in Almonte! Thank you so much for giving us the chance to explore your small, beautiful and uber charming corner of the planet! We’ll. Be. Back!
Hey y’all. I’m Jim. I spent 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.
I’ve created content and collaborated with everyone from Chevrolet, Lonely Planet, Trivago, Nevada Tourism and The Weather Network to New Brunswick Tourism, Yellow Pages, Tourism Toronto, and Airbnb. Safe travels, y’all.