We’re making our way at a brisk slalom down County Road 29, in the heart of the Ottawa Valley. Bruno, in the passenger seat, is snapping photos of staring cows and summer foliage. We have just crossed a one-kilometre stretch of the Ottawa River from Quebec into Ontario aboard the Grant Beattie, an electric-powered cable ferry, and now we’re coasting through a world of cornfields, horse pastures and solar farms.
I point the E 400 Cabriolet through a couple of gentle S-curves, then a stretch of water appears to the left. It’s the disorientingly named Mississippi River (no relation to its southern namesake). As we slow down at the intersection with the CR-20, there’s another incongruous sight: a massive stone bridge that looks like something the Romans could have built. This, as we learn from a plaque in a little park alongside the river, is the Pakenham Bridge, the only five-span structure of its kind in North America – constructed in 1901, refurbished in 1984 and looking like it will be here till the end of time.
The bridge is a soaring example of how things in this part of the world were built with pride and panache. We’ve come to the Highlands – a jigsaw-shaped piece of southeastern Ontario, roughly bounded by the Ottawa River to the north and the St. Lawrence River Valley to the south – to explore the winding country roads that are attracting driving aficionados from far and wide. Already I’ve overtaken a slow procession of motorcyclists, plus a group of car clubbers, and watched them grow smaller in the rearview mirror.
The roads built here over the last two centuries were laid out for practical reasons: to get the area’s rich bounty of lumber and minerals – like gold, graphite, gemstones and iron ore – out of the wilderness and off to waterways and rail lines that would carry them to market. These routes were carved out of bedrock and boreal forest, diverted around hillsides and overtop treacherous muskeg, by dedicated craftsmen (some of whom came from that other Highlands, in Scotland) with artistry and often a contempt for straight lines. The road workers – bearded, suspendered and plaid-shirted in archival photos – look like they could be tending bar in 2016, but their 19th-century axes and saws tell another story.
These routes were carved out of the bedrock by dedicated craftsmen.
Nowadays, the resource boom has waned, but the logging and mining roads these men left behind have become pleasure roads for driving enthusiasts. Which, of course, is why we’re here in the E 400 Cabriolet. The storm we encountered in Quebec has disappeared as if by some interprovincial agreement, a rainbow taking its place, so I lower the convertible top and off we go to explore.
The Highlands are nearly as big as Belgium, so with only three days here we have to be selective. We will limit ourselves to Ottawa Valley South and the Upper Ottawa Valley. This means, of course, there will be plenty of time for impromptu stops – like at the Pakenham General Store, open since 1840 and just down the road from the bridge. I pull alongside the local institution and minutes later we emerge with coffee and freshly baked cheesebread. Already this tour is becoming a lesson on why to choose the back roads.
Fifteen minutes later we’re further down the line in Almonte (a.k.a. Mississippi Mills), where a statue of James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, sits under a maple tree amid the town’s stone and brick colonial buildings. This whole region was defined by the British decision to build the Rideau Canal, linking Kingston to Ottawa, to protect supply routes and inland interests from a possible American invasion along the vulnerable St. Lawrence River following the War of 1812. Happily, such attacks never occurred, but what would have happened if Naismith’s Scottish grandparents hadn’t moved to the safely settled region? Or the Americans had invaded? Well, James himself might not have been born, and America would not have adopted hoops, and… But there’s no room for hypotheticals in history.
This whole region was defined by the British decision to build the Rideau Canal and protect supply routes from American invasion.
We hop back into the Cabriolet and tackle the final 50 kilometres to tonight’s destination, Perth. Soon we join the King’s Highway and are skirting Mississippi Lake and the start of a clay plain that was the Champlain Sea about 12,000 years ago. While the more rugged northern reaches of Lanark County will take you right back to grade six and social studies classes on the Canadian Shield, this is a gentler region, flatter and full of the hardwood trees that initially helped make it rich. And as we reach stately Perth, with its stone mansions and carefully preserved Victorian buildings, I see where that wealth was concentrated. I pull into leafy Stewart Park, beside the very English-feeling Tay River, put the top back up (for rain threatens once again) and stroll among the willows, where soon enough raindrops are bouncing off the dynamic statue of a jumping Big Ben and rider Ian Millar – two more sports heroes. It’s clearly time to check into the Perth Manor Boutique Hotel where, in the Robert Lyon Suite (named after a 21-year-old who, in 1833, when these parts were still very much the Wild East, engaged in a gun fight over a lady’s honour and became the last duellist to lose his life on Canadian soil), I call it a Highlands night.
Gore Street, writes local author Arlene Stafford-Wilson, was, in the 1970s, the place in downtown Perth to parade your muscle car on a Saturday night. With this in mind, even though it’s a bright weekday morning, I lower the top of the Cabriolet (a quick touch on the console and it unlatches and folds out of sight within seconds) and point the vehicle down the quiet main drag.
“Make haste slowly but surely” is the Perth town motto, but soon we’re off at a good clip on the “Rideau Ridge” trail, piloting through the Rideau Lakes country and the small towns that owe their existence to the canal. In the hub village of Westport, I enter Murphy’s Barber and Sport Shop in search of the morning paper. Behind the counter, Donna Bresee says the place, which caters to visiting fishermen, is “an icon.” And with its pleasing jumble of lures and lottery tickets and a decommissioned barber chair, who could doubt her?
Near Newboro, we manoeuvre crisply around a darting deer, then stop at the St. Mary’s Cemetery, where a plaque pays tribute to the British Army’s Royal Sappers and Miners, who helped to build the Rideau Canal. Many of them paid for their labours with their lives, falling to malaria. We wander among the headstones, with their inscriptions to the very young, reflecting that life in this lush and tranquil region was much harsher in the not-so-distant past.
Just down the road in bustling Merrickville, we drop by Village Metalsmiths, home to the nation’s oldest foundry. The Government of Canada comes here for stately cast signage in rust-proof aluminium – and you can too. I settle for an antique coat hook, probably as old as the canal itself and still doing its job.
Further downstream in Smiths Falls, we raise the Cabriolet’s roof and tour the compact town on foot. This is the heart of the Rideau, graced by a dramatic water tower, the relentless falls (whose combined dozen-metre drop is skirted by the canal) and a visitor centre in a repurposed 19th-century mill. But the town’s not frozen in time: There, down the main street, goes a pretty young woman, amply tattooed and pierced, giving the past the what for.
The next morning we zip up to Arnprior on Highway 508, all mixed forest and “twisties,” and stop by Wes’ Chips for a snack. The landmark chip truck is co-owned by transplanted Dutchman André Post, who happens to drive around the county in an eco-friendly 1982 Mercedes-Benz 300 SD, converted to run on chip oil. Down the road, we buy a dozen fresh eggs from a farmer who is also a drummer in the local pipe band (“Keeps us old guys out of trouble,” says his friend), then push an hour northwest along the Trans-Canada up to Pembroke, near the far reaches of the Highlands. Samuel de Champlain himself apparently lost an astrolabe around here – though he also relied on native guides, the ancient device would have helped him determine the latitude he was at while exploring the Ottawa River. Well, 400 years later, our navigation system has the answer on the on-board display (about 45°N).
Already things are feeling a little more Quebecois as we head back to our home province along the “Curvy Quebecer” trail, which follows the twists and turns of the Ottawa River, especially at the Nook Crêperie, where half the lunch-hour customers are speaking French and eating Provencal crêpes and salade française.
But ours is a country of contradictions, and a few minutes after recrossing the Ottawa River into Quebec and sailing westward down the rock- and tree-lined Route 148 for another hour, I steer the Cabriolet into tiny Bristol, a town as British as the Queen herself. At Coronation Cider Hall Mills, the scent of cinnamon hangs in the air and I follow my nose into the rustic shop. “I’ve been making these all day!” announces Judy Stephens, pointing to a batch of apple pies just out of the oven. “One for me, please,” I say. And so a sweet ride through the Highlands ends on a sweet note.
The sleek, slightly wedge-shaped E 400 Cabriolet that took us through a part of the world where canoe, steamboat, horse-and-wagon and train still prevailed not so long ago was a “convertible” in unexpected ways: almost demure in Tenorite Grey Metallic as we prowled through the Victorian grandeur of towns like Perth, and then an absolute stunner with the top down on the open roads of the Highlands. ECO start/stop meant the car was always respectfully silent when at a halt, while on sublime stretches like the winding Centennial Lake Road, a joyous exhaust note poured out whenever the 329-hp V6 bi-turbo engine was given a little “encouragement.” And the 7G-TRONIC PLUS transmission and paddle shifters made spectacular use of the car’s 18-inch AMG alloys and rear-wheel drive – the ideal propulsion for enthusiasts. Heated leather seats, individual climate control and the pleasure-in-the-neck AIRSCARF were just the thing on crisp top-down mornings, and the harman/kardon LOGIC7 Surround Sound System was music to our ears, whether we were cruising around town or in the country.