The Lanark Highlands is an invigorating place to discover if you love quaint, small town Ontario. It’s a region in eastern Ontario that’s part of Ontario’s Highlands, just west of Ottawa and north of Kingston. If you’re looking for a getaway in Ontario that offers peace and tranquility, delicious food, welcoming festivals, and something a little out of the ordinary, it’s time to spend a weekend in Lanark County.
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It’s possible to visit the Lanark Highlands on a road trip from Toronto, Ottawa, or anywhere else in southern Ontario. I decided to spend a weekend in Ontario’s Highlands to uncover some gems of small town Ontario, visiting McDonald’s Corners, Lanark, and Perth, Ontario.
Where are Ontario’s Highlands?
Ontario’s Highlands is a pretty massive section of Ontario, Canada. You can see it outlined in orange in the picture above. Essentially, Ontario’s Highlands encompasses a region east of Peterborough, west of Ottawa, and both south and east of Algonquin Provincial Park.
More specifically, it’s almost 24,000 square kilometres of unspoiled territory. There are tiny towns, vast wilderness, and unforgettable spaces to wander and explore.
Ontario’s Highlands is a region that will surprise you. Out of the 13 Regional Tourism Organizations in Ontario, Ontario’s Highlands is the only one that’s completely rural. That means there are no major cities, concrete skylines, or dense smog. This means meandering at your own pace, engaging with the locals, and savouring the enriching and relaxed experiences.
How to Spend a Weekend in the Lanark Highlands
Have you heard of the village of Lanark? How about the hamlets of McDonald’s Corners, Hopetown, Middleville, Watson’s Corners, Poland, Lavant, Flower Station or Elphin? These are some of the places that you could explore when you visit the Lanark Highlands.
There are so many fun things to do in Lanark County. It’s the ultimate destination for local culture, history, and immersive adventures for a couples getaway, girls’ getaway, or family holiday. I spent approximately a day and a half in Lanark County. On my trip to the Lanark Highlands, I explored McDonald’s Corners, Watson’s Corners, and the small town of Perth, Ontario. And I barely scraped the surface – it’s easy to travel to this region many times and plan different activities each time.
For someone living in the Toronto area, southern Ontario, eastern Ontario, or New York state, it’s easy to take a road trip to the Lanark Highlands. If you leave on Friday afternoon, you can spend two cozy nights in the region, exploring for a day and a half before driving back home on Sunday evening.
Circa 1894 B&B and Day Spa
We reached Circa 1894 very late at night, after a treacherous drive through thunderstorms. One of the owners, Donna, waited up for us and made us feel right at home from the moment we walked through the front door. Circa 1894 has a very calming presence, and we settled into our guestrooms for a restful night’s sleep.
If you noticed that the building looks like a church, you’re correct. A renovation dream four years in the making, Circa 1894 is a former United Church completely transformed into a bed and breakfast.
Owners Cam and Donna restored and renovated the church into the beautiful and environmentally sustainable building that it is today. While many of the original windows and wainscoting were kept in tact, other materials were sourced as locally as possible. The home exceeds the Energy Star standards for a brand new home, with an annual heating cost of only $700.
The shower and sink water from the spa is filtered and reused in the toilets. The common room ceiling was recycled from the Royal Ontario Museum. Many fixtures and furniture pieces were reclaimed and re-purposed. From the B&B stay to the spa, it’s a one of a kind personal wellness sanctuary.
Spending the Night at Circa 1894
There are a few ways that you can book your stay at Circa 1894. First, stay at the B&B in the Moon Room or the Rose Room. These rooms are next door to one another, and share a bathroom and common area. It’s ideal to stay in one of the rooms if you’re traveling as a couple, or rent out both rooms if you’re visiting as two couples or a family.
I stayed overnight in the Moon Room. The common area has a couch, a flat screen TV, a kitchen table, and a Tassimo coffee maker with pods. There’s also complimentary WiFi to stay connected. Donna always leaves out fresh mint water and even took extra care to make vegan brownies for me. A place with vegan brownies and decent coffee to drink anytime of day? That’s absolutely excellent!
Staying at the Airbnb Apartment at Circa 1894
You can also rent out the spa suite on Airbnb. When I stayed at Circa 1894, this was the Spa Room. Now, it’s an entire apartment that you can have all to yourself. There’s a queen sized bed, separate bathroom, flatscreen TV, full kitchen and dining area, coffee maker, and access to the saunas and hot tub.
A Delicious Breakfast
Cam and Donna graciously invited us into their home for a scrumptious breakfast each morning. While there are a few traditional breakfast menus, Donna is highly skilled in vegan cooking and prepared a plant-based breakfast each morning. If you have any kind of dietary restriction or preference, you’ll be able to dine here without any issues.
It’s hard to imagine that this space was once a church. With the addition of a spiral staircase, a second floor, a living space and a grand kitchenette, it really feels like it’s always been a home. On the second morning of our stay, we even met their friendly kitty who seemed to adore posing for photographs.
On the first day, we ate a vegan quiche with a fruit smoothie. For the breakfast on our second day, I savoured my vegan raw wrap stuffed with guacamole and fresh vegetables. There was an ample supply of coffee, tea, and great conversations.
Even though the food was so yummy, I enjoyed connecting with Cam and Donna over breakfast the most. They both have truly intriguing histories and stories about the construction of Circa 1894. Perhaps it’s the #CreativeCruiser in me that loves becoming immersed in personal tales.
Circa 1894 Day Spa
The Circa 1894 Day Spa is open to the public and guests of the B&B can access the spa for no additional cost. Those staying at the B&B can use the spa between 8-10am before it opens to the public, too. It features two hot tubs, one cold tub, three saunas, and a quiet room. Prices start at $20 hourly and the cost is reduced after the first hour, so a 4-hour visit costs only $40 per person.
This day spa truly exemplifies the European experience of alternating between cold and hot to rejuvenate the body and mind. The upper deck features a cool tub, where it’s recommended that you take the plunge between sessions in the hot pools. The middle level has a 6-7 person acrylic hot tub.
Lastly, the lower level has an Amish built, Finnish sauna and a Finnish style pine hot tub. The spa is quite intimate, tranquil, and quiet. Outdoors, you’ll only hear the sounds of nature and you’ll be surrounded by the green valley.
Indoors, you’ll find two infra-red saunas (one cedar and one bassword), as well as a quiet room with spa music and water to stay hydrated. While spending time at the day spa is a wonderful getaway in the Lanark Highlands, I suggest that you spend the night for the full experience. Book your stay at Circa 1894 for a memorable getaway in Lanark County, Ontario. You can also read more reviews of Circa 1894 by fellow travelers who have visited.
McDonald’s Corners Farmers’ Market
My favorite way to explore a new place is to go where the locals go. Where do the citizens of Lanark County spend their time on a summer weekend? Just a short drive from Circa 1894, we visited the local farmers market at McDonald’s Corners. This happens all summer long between 9am and 1pm on Saturdays.
There are lots of local goodies, including fresh produce, locally made pickles and preserves, baked goods, handmade jewelry, and more. I even ate lunch at the market as there’s a community wood fired pizza oven on site. You can request the toppings you’d like on your pizza, and they’ll whip one up for you. I ordered mine without cheese, but with loads of fresh veggies.
We even met a local celebrity – a pet chicken named Dusty. She’s much beloved by her family and everyone at the farmers market as she makes regular appearances around town. Dusty loved wandering about and even trying to steal little bits of pizza crust. She loved all the attention we were giving her!
Lanark Highlands Basketry Museum
The Lanark Highlands Basketry Museum is one of the most interesting small museums I’ve ever visited. The museum displays only a small percentage of owner Ankaret Dean’s basket collection. She only showcases baskets that could be made in this region and Canada, as there simply isn’t enough space to display all the rest.
As a graduate from The School of Crafts and Design at Sheridan College, Ankaret Dean has always demonstrated an interest in basketry, as well as weaving and textiles. As it’s really become a lost art in the age of mass production, Ankaret travelled internationally to perfect her basketry skills. For over 40 years, she’s created baskets out of natural materials that are readily found all around us.
There are baskets made from rushes, willow, pine needles, birch bark, cedar bark, and much more. There’s a studio upstairs with a collection of adorable woven animals. Downstairs, you’ll find the largest selection of baskets, including an impressive array of rare Indigenous baskets. In addition to baskets, there are all kinds of woven items like boxes, birdhouses, jewelry, chair seats, and even an assortment of tiny woven items.
I sensed Ankaret’s great passion for her museum and collection of baskets. She gave us a complete tour of the museum, her property, and a student of hers was even creating her own basket at the time. It takes great skill, practice, and patience to make a basket, although Ankaret does lead classes for those who are willing to learn. I hope to travel back here someday so I can give it a try.
You can visit the museum during its open hours on Saturdays from 11:00am – 3:00pm (May to September), or by appointment.
Visit the Nearby Town of Perth, Ontario
While we only stopped in Perth for dinner, you could easily spend the day wandering around town. There’s a quaint downtown area lined with little shops for some retail therapy. The Perth Wildlife Reserve has a path around the marsh, ideal for hikers and birdwatchers alike.
Lanark County is the Maple Syrup Capital of Ontario, and there’s a maple festival every April in Perth. Perth is also home to a craft brewery and distillery – Perth Brewery and Top Shelf Craft Distillers.
Dine at East Meets West
As for dinner, there are a variety of restaurants offering cuisine ranging from pub fare to fine dining. We chose to eat at East Meets West, with a menu of Indian, Italian, and classic Canadian fare. With a local brew by Perth Brewery, I chose from the Indian and Sri Lankan side of the menu.
I started with vegetable samosas, and my main course was the Sri Lankan Style Paruppu Curry (yellow lentil and potatoes simmered in herbs and spices, served with basmati rice and naan bread). Definitely go here and try the Indian / Sri Lankan cuisine as it’s perfectly spiced and full of flavour.
Update: I’ve discovered that sadly, East Meets West has closed. The same owners have a restaurant in the nearby town of Smith’s Falls called Chuckles Jack that has a very similar menu. I recommend checking it out! This is a short distance from the Lanark Highlands, but worth the drive.
Perth Garlic Festival
While it wasn’t the right time of year to attend the maple festival, thankfully it was garlic season in Ontario’s Highlands. The Perth Garlic Festival is every second weekend in August and it’s truly fun for the whole family. No need to pack the breath mints when everyone has garlic breath, right?
First and foremost, it’s a celebration of all things garlic. You’ll not only see garlic bulbs, but you’ll find things made out of garlic at the various stands lining the park. There were garlic hot sauces, bread dippers, salad dressings, and more. We tried a fermented black garlic that tasted sweet. There were even handy devices to help you peel and chop garlic easier than traditional methods.
Like many festivals, there was live music and performances. It seemed like the entire town and surrounding communities came out for the Perth Garlic Festival. Everyone was walking around, eating, buying things, and having a fantastic day in the sunshine.
We even felt a bit like locals ourselves when we ran into the owners of Dusty (the pet chicken we met the day before at the McDonald’s Corners Farmers Market), and we sparked up conversations with numerous people. Everyone was so friendly and truly made us feel right at home.
In addition to garlic food, we also tried a special garlic beverage… garlic beer brewed by Perth Brewery. Have you ever tried garlic beer? Me either! It actually tasted pretty good, like beer with a bit of a garlicky aftertaste. It’s a seasonal beer brewed specially for the festival, so you’ll have to come out next year and give it a try if you haven’t already.
Along with the beer tasting, Top Shelf Craft Distillers and a local winery provided tastings at a nominal cost. The Perth Garlic Festival is a great place to taste garlic products, and it’s an opportunity to try some of the best beer and liquor of the Lanark Highlands.
Whether you’re roaming around the countryside or touring around the town of Perth, there are always local events and happenings all year long that give you a taste of rural living. Lanark County and the Lanark Highlands are just one area in the tourism region of Ontario’s Highlands. I can’t wait to return to explore even more of eastern Ontario.
If you’re looking for more ideas and ways to explore Ontario’s Highlands, I suggest combining a visit to the beautiful Bonnechere Provincial Park and the fascinating Bonnechere Caves. You can also go whitewater rafting on the Ottawa River.
Looking for More Weekend Getaways Near Toronto?
Justin and I love overnight stays that are within an hour or two from our home in the GTA. It’s always nice to plan little romantic getaways and short vacations between our lengthier overseas trips. We also love exploring more of our province because there’s truly so much to see in Ontario, Canada.
- Hockley Valley Resort near Orangeville
- Ramada Jacksons Point on Lake Simcoe
- Weekend in Tobermory and the Bruce Peninsula
- Perth County
- Ontario’s Blue Coast getaway
- Glamping at Long Point Eco Adventures