Although we travel a lot with the blog, sometimes it’s nice to just hop in the car and take an old fashioned road trip every now and then. With lots of great options around the Toronto area, we decided that we’d visit the diverse and developing area of Kitchener-Waterloo, known as part of Canada’s “technology triangle”. Daniel and I packed up some of our family – his husband and my mother, and headed on our way out of town for a weekend of fun.
We hopped into the 2017 Ford Fusion Energi and hit the road. With a sleek design, comfort and high-tech features, this car is game-changer among midsize sedans. This plug-in hybrid gives you the option of plugging in for a recharge or not. The park-assist feature is like something out of the future. Sensors can assist in identifying a suitable parallel or perpendicular parking space, then calculate the trajectory and automatically steer the car into the space – all you have to do is operate the pedals! But I think our absolute favourite part of the road trip experience was that we were able to get to Kitchener-Waterloo and back from Toronto on a 1/4 tank of gas. This was good news for our wallets and for the environment!
The next morning, we headed to St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market, a convenient five minute walk from the Courtyard Marriott Waterloo St. Jacobs. It had been many years since I first visited Kitchener-Waterloo and St. Jacobs Market. Clearly remembering the Mennonite people who ran the market, I can still picture the horse-and- buggies, the demure women with their caps and long braided hair and the serious looking men with suspenders, beards and black hats.
But what I also remember is the smell of the rustic piping hot apple fritters, the excitement and the feeling that I had stepped back in time. Today, the market (opened in 1975 and rebuilt after a fire in 2013) houses hundreds of vendors selling everything from farm fresh foods to pottery to imported goods and everything in between. Though the Mennonite presence is still visible, St. Jacobs has grown into a world-class market diffused in history, and now accompanied by diverse outlet shops.
After a morning of shopping (at which we excel) and snacking (at which we REALLY excel), we jumped on the Waterloo Central Railway to the Village of St. Jacobs. I must highlight that the railway is run by volunteers, who devote their days to keeping the 1950’s locomotive running from the Market to Elmira and back three times a day, and to running special events such as “The Great Train Robbery” (don’t you wish you were a kid again so you could be robbed at ‘cap’ gunpoint by bandits on horseback?)
The Village of St. Jacobs is a quaint and charming community located along the Conestoga River. As mentioned, we are really, really good at shopping, so we immediately set upon the first arts and crafts store with credit cards in hand (along with every other store on the main street). We bought jams and fresh baked goods, pondered on tartans and quilts, and filled our bags with newly discovered sweets.
Lunch at Jacob’s Grill was epic as well as challenging as we tried to sample as many tastes as possible without crashing the kitchen! The Caesar salad (what a dressing!) is arguably the best I’ve ever had, the burgers are stacked and delectable, and the service was great. We apologized to our server after lunch, as we give Sally (shortly after she “Met Harry”) a run for her money on special requests.
A visit to The Mennonite Story, where the delightful Del greets guests as if they were family home for dinner, enlightened us on the extensive and difficult history of the Anabaptists, founded in the 1500s in the Netherlands. The museum provides visitors with a chronology of the various Anabaptist denominations (such as Mennonite), along with audio and video presentations that personalize their story and faith. Today, there are more than two million Anabaptists of varying ethnic origins in the world, and the “plain people” (Mennonites) are present in eighty-seven countries with the largest population in Canada. The museum is a great way to learn about what the Mennonites stand for, how they have struggled for their faith and remain true to its principles and teachings five hundred years later.
Our next stop was the St. Jacobs & Aberfoyle Model Railway – a O scale (1/4”=12”) model railway depicting Southern Ontario in the 1950s. Hundreds of miniature buildings, cars, trees, lakes, bridges, people and animals adorn this massive scene, while several passenger and freight trains travel over thousands of hand laid tracks. Every forty minutes, the operators (yes, several people spend their days controlling the trains. My mother wants me to sign her up for this job!) dim the lights to create a night scene where visitors can see inside buildings and see who is riding inside the trains! For anyone who grew up with a model train set, this is the place to visit.
But for those of us who prefer beer, like Daniel and I do (as we left Julio and my mother with the train set for almost another 45 mins for them to explore literally every single aspect of it), you can pop in next door to Block Three Brewing. This small microbrewery has great vibes with unique one-off beers as well as communal games tables. We learned all about their love for Belgian beers, but how they also offer a wide variety of styles and brewing techniques including sour, barrel-aged, and casked beers.
After a lovely day in the Village of St Jacobs, we returned to the Waterloo Central Railway to find that we had missed the last train back to the Market (be sure to pay attention to the schedule!) Luckily, the team was training a new driver, so the conductor arranged for us to be transported in a 1950s engine, where we squished in to hear stories of the railway (did I mention it’s all run by volunteers?) and enjoyed the sound of the train whistle up close and personal (reminder: make an appointment to have my hearing tested). Please note that this is not a service that the railway normally offers to visitors, but as special guests of the tourism board, they didn’t want to leave us stranded because we had more plans booked in that evening!
We ended a long and fascinating day with a lovely dinner at Jack’s Family Restaurant (the portions are huge!) followed by a production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” at St Jacobs Country Playhouse. Set in 1922, this musical is non-stop action, dancing, singing and comedy. I hate to admit that I didn’t initially expect such a professional production in St Jacobs, but this is apparently par for the course for Drayton Entertainment. I highly recommend seeing the production (which is touring) when it comes to Toronto, or a theatre district near you! Not to diminish the other performers (who were all spectacular) but Zach Trimmer as Jimmy Smith can serenade me with that stunning tenor voice anytime, and Kristen Peace as Mrs Meers simply stole the show! After the show, we danced our way right next door to the hotel and I dreamt of finding a secretly rich husband all night long… well, not really.
As we checked out of the Courtyard Marriott Waterloo St. Jacobs the next morning and said goodbye to the wonderful staff who provided us with our comfortable and convenient “home base”, we had to dedicate a few minutes (ok, maybe it was more like hours) to shopping at St. Jacobs Outlets right across from the hotel (also known as “The Outlets”) to ensure that our credit card bill next month would raise our pulses like this adventure had! The dangers of shopping with a stylist (Julio Reyes of FASHIONIGHTS) are as plentiful as the benefits.
Of course I would highly recommend exploring the region – that goes without saying. But what deserves a mention is the unique charm of the area and the warmth of the people. Kitchener-Waterloo and St. Jacobs are hidden gems where one can experience amazing music, theatre, shopping and culture. Apparently their Octoberfest celebration and Christmas Markets rival Europe, so count on a few more visits from Do The Daniel in the near future!