Heading east of Ottawa
, towns become scarce and French becomes more prevalent as you approach the Quebec border. While many visitors don’t make the trek out to the “Far East” of Ontario, it is more from ignorance of its attractions than inaccessibility as even some of the furthest communities are only an hour from Ottawa.
One of the best finds in Champlain Township is Vankleek Hill
. The self-proclaimed gingerbread capital of Ontario, this is true village living. You can conquer Vankleek Hill in a day: explore quiet streets of Victorian homes, climb to the top of its 175-year-old tower, stay in an executive rental, and having a bite to eat at Vert Forchette, a lovely French café.
Growing from a farm settlement to a fairly prosperous village in the late nineteenth century, Vankleek Hill’s fondness for elaborate Victorian architectural detailing – gingerbreading – is not surprising. With a relatively consistent population since then, there aren’t the big box stores or suburban developments found on the outskirts of many Ontario communities. Instead, the red brick two-storeys, charming community library, and heritage murals are still front and centre.
Walking the streets, you’ll find 250 homes with some form of gingerbreading. These details were manufactured locally at the now defunct Vankleek Hill Manufacturing Company. The homes’ brick is from local clay kiln-fired at several regional factories.
A good place to start a tour of the village is by getting a bird’s eye view of your surroundings at the Higginson Tower. The tower was originally a wind-powered mill and then turned into the first private star observatory in Eastern Ontario. An attractive stone column, topped by a blue aluminum crown, the tower was later used as a look-out tower to spot a potential Fenian attack on its way to Ottawa. (In the mid-1800s, it was thought the Irish might try to gain independence by taking Ottawa as a bargaining chip with the British.)
Next door is the Arbor Gallery, a renovated home with a first-floor display of local artwork and a small gift shop. The main street has a few shops, including a gourmet food shop, fabric store, and kitchen and home décor shop.
The highlight of Vankleek Hill is the Vert Fourchette bakery and café. This French bistro serves gourmet poutine, croque monsieur, and a great assortment of sandwiches from pulled pork to butter chicken. In a break with small town meat and potatoes offerings, Vert Fourchette
helpfully has extensive healthy and gluten-free menu sections. The décor is modern, fresh and bright, and there’s a lovely patio out front. In the same building there is also a bakery with savoury treats (quiche and wraps) and sweets (buttertarts
, green tea brownies, and cream-cheese-frosted cinnamon buns) available to go. There’s also a selection of gourmet food products for purchase, including delicious Pop Culture popsicles from Quebec in flavours such as pineapple rosemary, avocado and lime, and lavender lemonade.
Vankleek Hill is also a good jumping off point for explorations of Hawkesbury and L’Original nearby. If you’re looking to stay overnight before heading off, you can stay at 10 Main Street West, a short- or long-term executive rental. This street-level unit in the heart of the village has exposed stone walls, a Queen bedroom, open concept dining and living room with a TV and pull-out couch, and a full kitchen stocked with items for a light breakfast.
So next time you find yourself in Eastern Ontario, don’t stop at Ottawa, keep heading east to Ontario’s gingerbread capital.
Vankleek Hill hosts several annual cultural events including a Victorian Christmas Home Tour on the first Saturday in November and a fiddling, step-dancing, and square-dancing competition on the Canada Day weekend. The local Doors Open event is on September 28.