London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Philadelphia, Tokyo, Johannesburg, Moscow, and Barrie.

…wait a second.

Barrie, Ontario Live 8

Live 8 in Barrie.

How does Barrie fit into a list of world class international cities?

Barrie hosted Canada’s Live 8 concert at Molson Park, when Toronto couldn’t handle the last minute capacity due to other festivals and events.  And Barrie was sufficiently far enough away from the Big Smoke that putting “Toronto” down on the list would have been misleading.

That must have felt good, Barrie.  Real good.

Barrie is a suburban community of about 150 000 135 000 (175 000 if you count the greater area) that has the potential to be the next Brampton.

For the geographically challenged, or very narrow-minded, Barrie is considered the start of northern Ontario.  But for everyone else on the planet, it’s completely clear that Barrie is in southern Ontario.  So they’re at a bit of a crossroads.  Barrie is also where Yonge Street ends and the real Highway 11 begins on its route across Ontario.

Barrie waterfront highway 11

Barrie’s waterfront

Barrie used to be a farming, industrial, and brewery town.  But they developed much of the land and Molson’s closed up its operations so now Barrie is a regional centre and a suburb for those who work in Toronto’s suburbs or who are willing to do the commute all the way into the big city.  This means that while it used to have more in common with towns like Sarnia or Stratford, some might say it now has more in common with Brampton.  Barrie is Canada’s fastest growing city, at a whopping 25 percent between 2000 and 2005.

Barrie, Spririt Statue, Kempenfelt Bay Highway 11

Spirit statue near Kempenfelt Bay

Highway 400 to Toronto is congested, busy, and used above capacity.  This is especially true during cottage season and on long weekends.  So be warned.  While they say it only takes 50 minutes to go from Toronto to Barrie it’s usually about an hour and a half.  Barrie has commuter train service via the GO Network, but if I recall correctly the station isn’t downtown.  The government has introduced legislation to keep a belt of land between Toronto and Barrie essentially undeveloped, it is very likely that sprawl will simply hop this area, called the “greenbelt”, and continue to develop it on both sides.

Barrie also gained international notoriety for having one of Canada’s largest drug busts.  Someone had converted part of the old Molson’s brewery into a secret pot operation and it apparently flourished until getting busted.  Everyone was really surprised.

Barrie's "Arch", Highway 11

This is no St. Louis Arch, that’s for sure

To me, a product of the southern Ontario suburbs, Barrie isn’t particularly different…it is a lot like home.  Its population is large enough to give you some stuff to do.  The Barrie Colts are the local junior hockey team.  There are two ski hills in the area (Blue Mountain and Horseshoe Valley), and there are many beaches on Lake Simcoe.  Barrie has a nice waterfront along Kempenfelt Bay, with boating, swimming, and other recreational opportunities.  There are many cottages nearby as Lake Simcoe is a cottagey area. For those who like Art there is the Maclaren Art Centre and the annual Kempenfelt Arts Festival.

The Downtown offers good waterfront access, a fish and chip shop, and a few nice walks along Lake Simcoe.  And there is a Pita Pit.  Any town with a Pita Pit gets points from me. Barrie has made an effort to keep its downtown alive despite the box stores and these new outdoor mall plaza things that have taken over outskirts of every suburban city these days, including their own.  Like any other city of this size, there are the usual indoor attractions, including miniputt, movies, and bowling.

I’ve received a fair amount of emails (okay, six) complaining that I painted Barrie as dry, uneventful and homogenous.  In a sense, it is.  That’s not a criticism; that’s the point of the suburbs, including the one I called home for more than 20 years.  Barrie doesn’t fit into the molds (e.g. rural, or northern, or isolated, or tiny, or non-existent) that apply to most of the towns on this site. So if anyone is from Barrie and thinks this doesn’t do the town justice, I’m sorry.  That was never my intention.  Please add to this – send me an email with your thoughts and tips:  info (at) highway11 (dot) ca

North Shore

Aha!  So you thought that Barrie and Orillia were close by.  Think again!  It’s about 40 kilometres from Barrie to Orillia.

Ice fishing, Lake Simcoe, Highway 11

Ice fishing on Lake Simcoe, just watch out for global warming

As an ignorant southern Ontarian I always grew up associating the two, sort of Barrie is to Orillia what Hamilton is to Burlington.   Well, it’s a mistake that I made countless times – thinking that once you hit Barrie, you’ll hit Orillia about 10 minutes later.  Well no, you won’t.  It takes a while, especially if you think past the distance between the town boundaries and actually are driving from Barrie town centre to Orillia town centre.

This is where the transition begins, southern Ontario slowly blending northward into a no man’s land of cottage country temporariness.  It’s evident in the mix of permanent and seasonal businesses that dot the highway – the junk stores disguised as antique shops, the candy stores for the kids, a Napoleon barbecue outlet, the cottage furniture stores, the old-school huntin’ and finshin’ sporting goods and outfitters, the portable sawmilling service, the ads for timber framing, the cycle of independent burger joints constantly opening and closing juxtaposes against the opening of a new Oliver & Bonacini restaurant to serve the cottage crowd.

Highway 11 near Hawkestone

There are a few towns in between Barrie and Orillia along the north shore of Lake Simcoe but I haven’t profiled them because this section of Highway 11 is more like a real highway – it has four lanes, it has exits, and it completely by passes the area’s small towns in the name of faster travelling.  So I’m sorry, Crown Hill, Guthrie, Oro, and Forest Home, I haven’t visited and considering that this is the last stretch of real highway on Highway 11, I’m unlikely to stop anytime soon.

Additionally, many of the towns are a bit of a detour off the highway, sometimes all the way to the shores of Lake Simcoe.  If it was in northern Ontario I’d probably take the detour, but up north towns are few and far between.  They’re a luxury.  In southern Ontario and especially in cottage country towns are a dime a dozen.  So I’m sorry Shanty Bay, Oro Station, and Hawkestone, I haven’t visited.Church, north shore lake simcoe near Barrie, Highway 11

I’ve always found this bit of a difficult drive.  You go from the 400 series Highways, averaging 120 kilometres an hour over three lanes to a highway littered with fast food restaurants on the side, cars merging and exiting at speeds way too high for the two-lane divided highway that is this part of Highway 11.

So now that you know there is some space between Barrie and Orillia, you may continue your journey to either of those two cities.


Orillia is an interesting town.

A bit of a mix of blue-collar rural town-dwellers, working-class provincial employees, and left-leaning urban-escapee folkies, Orillia is a strange brew – the kind of place where you’ll see a lineup at both the spelt-flour bread stall and the Dairy Queen.  Imagine Guelph without the university.Orillia, Ontario Highway 11My first substantial visit to Orillia came in March. And I must say, even in the drab, dreary days that aren’t quite winter but aren’t quite spring, I was pretty impressed.

Orillia has enacted by-laws to try to keep its downtown quaint and small-towny. And they’ve succeeded.  Downtown Orillia is pretty cute.

There are many independent and specialty stores. We visited a specialty kid clothier. A store that sold upscale pet accessories. Apple Annie’s bakery and breakfast that sold french desserts alongside pancakes and waffles. Hudson’s kitchen store that sold everything from fancy La Creuset enameled cookware to cat-themed soap dishes, where I finally found myself a plastic thing to help scoop chopped and diced vegetables. The main street was pretty full, for a good three blocks. I can only imagine that it is cuter, busier, and even nicer in the summer.

Downtown Orillia, Highway 11

Downtown Orillia is cuter when it’s not winter and when I’m not the photographer

Home of the Ontario Provincial Police, Orillia is a town of 32 000 people about 45 minutes north of Barrie on Highway 11.  One hundred and thirty five kilometres north of Toronto, Orillia has waterfront on both Lakes Couchiching and Simcoe.  Home to the Stephen Leacock Museum, the Orillia Opera House, and the Orillia Museum of Art and History, Orillia also has a nice waterfront park with a boat launch, walking trails, and a boardwalk.

Orillia was founded in 1867 and has been home to eminent Canadians such as author Stephen Leacock and musician Gordon Lightfoot.  It was the first North American municipality to adopt daylight saving time.  Today Orillia is a retirement and casino community, as nearby Casino Rama draws both gamblers and seniors.  It has almost 20 doughnut shops.  ___Insert OPP police joke here___

The Orillia Opera House is a pretty impressive building. With two turrets, it stands out in downtown Orillia, and is pretty much unmissable. The Orillia Opera House hosts plays, concerts, and even comedy. In the back, the Opera House hosts a farmer’s market every Saturday morning, that runs through winter (we bought some jam.) The morning we were there, there were about five older men and women standing outside the opera house, protesting against war. For no particular reason, as far as I could tell, except that it seemed like something they probably did every Saturday morning since they moved there in the 1960s. Wrapped in wollen blankets, ready with pamphlets, rainbow flags, and thermoses, these grown-old hippies showed pure dedication, even if they were small in numbers.

Opera House, Orillia, Ontario

Every Saturday Orillia’s Opera House hosts a farmer’s market and a protest for peace

Orillia is well known for the Mariposa Folk Festival and less well known for its annual perch fishing derby. There is also a store across from the Opera House that sells bongs, and only bongs. I know that Orillia has the leftover hippie element from its folk music days, but a store specializing in selling technicolour, skull-and-crossbones, flaming ninja bongs? The woman in the store was nice enough to let me take a photo. And this is only one half of the store.

Other than Opera, hippies, folk music and maybe the bong store, Orillia is also known for is Weber’s Hamburgers.  This place is so popular that it built its own pedestrian overpass over Highway 11.  Sometimes the lineup stretches over Highway 11.  This is a popular stopping spot for people on their way to cottage country.  I’ve heard of many people who swear by their burgers but with a big lineup and a Harvey’s in Orillia, I’ve never stopped.

Highway 11 overpass, pedestrian, Orillia, webers

Pedestrian overpass on Highway 11 built to serve customers of Weber’s Hamburgers, near Orillia, Ontario

Best bong store ever, Orillia, Highway 11 Ontario

I’m guessing this bong store serves the folk music crowd more than the opera crowd in Orillia, Ontario.  They told me that people come from as far as Huntsville and that I wasn’t the first to ask to take a photo.

Kahshe Lake / Severn Bridge

MK-05-KahsheLake-SignKashshe Lake is a small cottage community a bit to the east of Highway 11 south of Muskoka Falls about 25 minutes north of Orillia.

Kahshe Lake began as a series of logging camps in the 1860s.  A guy named James Grant soon built a sawmill near the lake and others followed, eventually building a hotel and a general store.  However James Grant died and the rest fell into disrepair.  Kahshe Lake was then abandoned and eventually become a cottage community.

There two ideas of what “Kahshe” means.  Some think it came from an Aboriginal word Kah-she-she-bog-a-mog, which, according to one source, means Lake of Many Ducks and Birds.

This is cooler in person - a solar-heated seedling-starting operation in Kahshe Lake, on Highway 11

This is cooler in person – a solar-heated seedling-starting operation in Kahshe Lake, on Highway 11

Others think that Kahshe means healings waters.  The lake itself is “Tea Coloured”, due to a high level of dissolved organics and is said to have healing properties.

Kahshe Lake Barrens Conservation Reserve is home to numerous provincially and nationally rare plant and animal species. It is ecologically significant because of its large size and lack of habitat fragmentation.

I’ve always just passed it by when driving Highway 11 but one spring I took a mid-day drive up to explore.

Who buys these things?  I'm talking about the bear statues for sale along Highway 11, not the family plots at the Symington cemetery in Kahshe Lake

Who buys these things? I’m talking about the bear statues for sale along Highway 11, not the family plots at the Symington cemetery in Kahshe Lake

There wasn’t much beyond the usual-yet-random highway-facing stores of a cottage country thoroughfare, like an RV dealer, an inflatables repair service, and a store that sells Muskoka chairs and carved wooden bears.  Most notable was the Symington Township pioneer cemetery and the really cool solar nursery setup that one of the local greenhouses has on the east side of Highway 11.

North Kahshe Lake road passes through some year-round houses, ending at a small private marina.  South Kahshe Lake road leads to a small cottage community whose main road peters out into a single-lane gravel path adorned with beware of flood signs.  I didn’t go past that point, though I did stop to enjoy the absolute silence – bullfrogs, bulrushes, leaves, the wind – just five minutes from a bustling, 120-kilometre per hour highway.

Kahshe Lake, at the end of South Kahshe Lake Road, just east of Highway 11 / Yonge Street

Kahshe Lake, at the end of South Kahshe Lake Road, just east of Highway 11 / Yonge Street

Severn Bridge

Severn Bridge, Ontario on Highway 11 / Yonge Street - the town sign, the community hall and the church

Severn Bridge, Ontario on Highway 11 / Yonge Street – the town sign, the community hall and the church

Severn Bridge was named after the Severn River, which divides England and Wales and is criss-crossed by many bridges.  It is on the Severn-Trent Waterway that connects the Trent River to Georgian Bay via the Severn.

Severn Bridge was founded in the mid 1800s as a logging camp.  From there it developed: the post office came in 1861, the railway in the 1870s, and Highway 11 in 1927.  Today it is a town of about 300 half way between Orillia and Gravenhurst.  There is a small hydroelectric dam and otherwise it’s all about cottage country tourism.  And bird breeding.

Severn Bridge - still a southern Ontario town with the agricultural society and permanent fairgrounds

Severn Bridge – still a southern Ontario town with the agricultural society and permanent fairgrounds

Cute but tiny Severn Bridge is one of the first highway-side towns you north of the Lake Simcoe strip of Highway 11 just outside of Orillia.  Severn Bridge straddles Highway 11, with the Rowing Club and the boat dock and the Shamrock Bay Marina east of the highway and the town proper, including a local potter, an independent gas station, two auto repair shops, an old community centre, a really nice elementary school, and an agricultural society on the east side.

Close by there is the Muskoka Wildlife Centre which offers education programs for kids.  Severn Bridge has two bed and breakfasts (Sparrow’s Nest and Severn Shores) and hosts an annual fall fair at the agricultural society grounds.

I can only wonder how many times this street sign has been stolen

I can only wonder how many times this street sign has been stolen from just outside Severn Bridge

Severn Bridge boat launch on the Severn River, right by the rowing club.  If I recall correctly, the dock is not public

Severn Bridge boat launch on the Severn River, right by the rowing club. If I recall correctly, the dock is not public

Severn Bridge's tree of signs

Severn Bridge’s tree of signs


If you’re coming up Yonge Street / Highway 11 from the south, Gravenhurst is the first real town north of Orillia.

And Gravenhurst is one of the first towns to truly straddle the northern-southern divide.Being in cottage country, Gravenhurst is home to all sorts of little things you’d not find in a northern town – a tea shop, two independent cafés, an upscale pub, a resort restaurant.  There is a small arts community – the downtown is littered with murals – and there is even the Gravenhurst Opera House, built in 1901.  The Muskoka Gallery By the Bay displays art near Gravenhurst’s cute waterfront.  The town hosts an annual Music on the Barge festival at Gull Lake Park, with many musicians playing in a picturesque setting.

But you can tell that there’s a bit of north in this town too.  It’s evident in the nature statues and the goofy motels and that one of its best-rated restaurants is a truck-stop.  It’s in the tacky miniputts and the ageing tourist traps and the way a community that essentially hugs a single main road tries to brand itself into two distinct districts (Downtown vs. Uptown).

And it is in the local restaurant rivalries that split long-time residents – the stone hearth knotty-pine rustic welcome of the China House versus the more run-down but all-day dim sum of the Rickshaw, and the Greek-Canadian combo at the Uptown Diner pitted against the Greek-Canadian-Italian of Rombo’s Family Restaurant.

Gravenhurst on Yonge St, Highway 11 Ontario

I’m a little bit country – Fish-and-bear statues, strange motel-restaurant combos, big weird cottage chairs (watch out Callander and Fort Frances), and more bear sculptures…Gravenhurst has touches of northern Ontario

It's not every Muskoka town that has an Opera House and a statue of a communist doctor

And I’m a little bit rock and roll – It’s not every Highway 11 town that has an Opera House and a statue of a communist doctor – Gravenhurst is still a bit southern, too.

Gravenhurst was named after a village in England which is mentioned in Washington Irving’s book Bracebridge Hall.  Between 1940 and 1943 it was known as “Little Norway” due to its proximity to the Norwegian Air Force’s temporary training base in Canada.  Today Gravenhurst is a retirement and cottage community.

With a permanent population of 10 000, Gravenhurst is the smallest of the towns that make up the cottage country triangle (Bracebridge and Huntsville being larger) but it is still big enough and touristy enough to have the main food and lodging franchises, as well as other tourist amenities.   Muskoka steamships operate three different ships that give tours of the many picturesque lakes in the area, with dinner and music cruises available.

But what struck me most about Gravenhurst was the pace.

Cars sauntering down the road, none hitting more than maybe 30 kilometres an hour.

Moms chatting along the main street, enjoying a sundrenched May weekday before their kids get released from school in six weeks.

A young family resting in the shadow of the statue of Dr. Norman Bethune, likely oblivious to the fact that he’s the only westerner to have a statue in China (and probably the only communist to have a statue on Yonge Street) taking in the fresh air whilst retrieving the shoes that their toddler had kicked off.

Local kids out for lunch, meandering in their flip flops having jumped at the chance to wear summer clothing in the decidedly spring weather, full of the listlessness of near-freedom in the face of limited opportunity brings after a tiring, cold winter.

Everyone enjoying the space that becomes so competed-for once the cottagers come in, yet likely all-too-aware that none of this would be possible without the annual invasion of busy and bustling out-of-towners that trample this vibe for twelve weeks each and every year.

Gravenhurst Ontario chinese food

Even after all of these years eating at northern Ontario Chinese food restaurants, I have never ordered the “Canadian” food

Downtown Gravenhurst on a warm and sunny May morning

Downtown Gravenhurst on a warm and sunny May morning

More AdirondackoopsImeanMuskoka chairs on Highway 11

More Adirondack oops I mean Muskoka chairs on Highway 11…and another inexplicable Yonge Street / Highway 11 dinosaur sighting.

Muskoka Falls

Muskoka Falls is a village southeast of Bracebridge just a couple of minutes east off Highway 11.

If you need a break from the Raffi and the kids need a chance to do more than just shake shake shake their sillies out, the small beach strip is a good spot – there is swimming, sand, a couple of picnic tables, and the dull roar of the falls in the air – all in an area small enough to be able to keep an eye on the kids while still relaxing.

Muskoka Falls, Ontario on Highway 11 / Yonge Street

If you’re driving from the north, take the second Muskoka Falls/Bracebridge exit (first if you’re driving from the south), turn right, and then take your first left.  Don’t be tempted by the signs pointing to a Subway, a McDonald’s and a Harvey’s just a few kilometres away – that’s the sneaky back route that Bracebridge uses to get you on a long, winding trip that often plunks you down not in the fast food drive-through of your choosing, but right into its downtown instead.

Muskoka Falls was one of the first stops on the Ferguson Road, an old gravel precursor to Highway 11 that was built section by section between 1858 and 1927.  The site of free government land grants to encourage settlement of the Ontario backcountry, Muskoka Falls was intended to be an important agricultural spot but crap soils meant that it never became one.  Lumbering and hydro followed – particularly as sections of Highway 11 were connected and paved – but by and large the area become reforested and overgrown.

Today it’s a tiny village with an elementary school, a boat launch and a small public beach facing Muskoka Falls. The village has a church, Muskoka Falls United Church, and there is a cemetery with some burials from as far back as the 1800s.  There’s a Lafarge Cement plant, the Skyway Motel, and small private airfield just west of the village site, off Highway 11.

If you have photos of or info on Muskoka Falls let me know, post below or email me at info (at) highway11 (dot) ca.

Ontario historical plaque for the Ferguson Road outside the old church in Muskoka Falls, just off Highway 11

Random graffiti at the Muskoka Falls public beach
Random graffiti at the Muskoka Falls public beach
The falls, from the public boat launch in Muskoka Falls

The falls, from the public boat launch in Muskoka Falls