A holiday getaway not so far from home

Langdon Hall in Waterloo. MELODY WREN PHOTO

For a midweek or weekend getaway, there’s a lot to see and do in Waterloo Region in Ontario, not far from Toronto, an area encompassing three cities, Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge.

I make my home in the area, but a three-day visit provided a real holiday break, with time to relax, cover many of the gems in the area, read and walk on area trails.

Even though they had the choice of opening in large cities, the Fashion History Museum owners chose the small historic town of Cambridge and opened in the restored post office there. Owned by Ken Norman and Jonathan Walford, the museum is the culmination of a lifetime of collecting. Walford started in high school, and has written six books on the historical evolution of fashion. Norman worked in textiles. The details in the museum reflect both of their passions, backgrounds, insights and humour.

That holiday feeling was enhanced as we drove through stately pillars opening onto a winding driveway when we arrived at Langdon Hall, a quintessential country hotel. It is well hidden, yet not far from the 401 and only 45 minutes from Toronto, 25 from Guelph. Valet parking – don’t mind if I do. We were ushered into a comfortable, elegant lobby and checked into our suites, each with wood-burning fireplace, enormous marble-lined bathroom and enough space to live in, definitely filling the “getaway treat” requirements.

The treats continued as we dined in Langdon Hall’s main restaurant, and we were spoiled by the choices. After speaking at length to executive chef Jason Bangerter, with his enthusiasm, pedigree and experience, it was clear that dinner would be sumptuous, and it was. The chef spoke of the riches of the garden at Langdon and of foraging for wild leeks and morels on the property, which grow happily in the Carolinian forest.

The menu illustrated the passion and creativity behind the operation, culminating in the dinner that walked us through local farms, gardens and woods. I recognized pieces of juniper bush and hawthorn leaves as the tiniest jewels of decoration on my plate. My colleague and I could barely carry on a conversation during each course over the sighs of pure enjoyment. I have eaten in many fine establishments all over the world, but this surpassed many, and I cannot wait to return, as the menu changes seasonally and reflects whatever has been gardened, foraged or shown up at the back door.

Chef Jason is rising quickly through the ranks of celebrated chefs, and is definitely one to keep an eye on. Allergies and intolerances are addressed at each course, a service that is unprecedented. The gluten-free bread, thick and toasted, made on the property was incredible, and I practically begged for a loaf to take home, along with a wrapped chunk of homemade butter.

On Day 2, following a sumptuous breakfast buffet at Langdon, we went to the St. Jacobs market, a must for all foodies and anyone who loves a bargain for household finds. The market began in 1975, starting as an adjunct building to the livestock exchange. The farmers would throw in extra carrots and potatoes to sell.

The new building was extensively renovated after a fire, and now has more than 400 vendors. The food vendors are all in one enormous space, where you can easily pick up breakfast, lunch or dinner as you saunter through. Stalls sell  freshly baked goods, handmade potato chips, gluten-free sweets and flowers. I scooped up three bouquets of tulips for $10, adding to the treat myself component. Come prepared with shopping bags. We ran through torrential rain to the next building filled with home products, glasses, shoes, clothes, beautiful woodworking items, all a definite must see.

A short drive from the market took us into the town of St. Jacobs to tour The Mennonite Story, an interactive multimedia centre. Started by the Central Mennonite Committee, it serves to educate people about the Mennonites living in the area. The modern Mennonites came to the conclusion it was needed because of lack of knowledge and respect. The lower level houses a small theatre with photos of area Mennonites, mostly children, all photographed by Canadian photographer Carl Hebert. A short film tells viewers who they are, why they are here, where they live and how they live. It is simply done and a fascinating peek into a world we are often curious about. The first Mennonites came here in 1863, many arriving from Pennsylvania to avoid civil war. Others came from Russia and Prussia.

As you walk through several rooms of displays and more short films, the group’s history unfolds, including a replica of a simple meeting hall with plain benches and no adornments. This is an important place to visit, especially for anyone interested in the Mennonite life. Admission is $5 for a self guided-tour, but a guided tour highly recommended – call ahead.

I would be remiss if I didn’t suggest that you feast at the Cambridge Mill. The 19th-century building that houses the restaurant is one of the oldest surviving industrial buildings in the area. As you take in the view of the Grand River, the local and seasonal menu allows you to taste foods the surrounding farmland have to offer.

Well-fed at the mill, we next enjoyed a showing of Mama Mia at the nearby Dunfield Theatre. Alex Mustakas, the director behind the Drayton Festival Theatre, now owns seven theatres in Ontario including the Dunfield. He puts together a show in one community, tears it down, and it travels to each community.

The next morning, we stopped at the Butterfly Conservatory, tropical and humid, similar to a greenhouse environment. There are about 2,000 butterflies, with 35 to 50 species, some from a Costa Rica butterfly farm, some from the Philippines. The day we were there, 1,200 chrysalides had arrived, and we watched as a naturalist glued them to a stick to hang for a few hours, where visitors could watch them emerge. Deliveries are every Friday, so that’s a good day to visit. Lucy, the botanist cares for 125 plants and tends to hanging fruit trays to attract the butterflies. Regular Facebook updates let people know when special butterflies have arrived.

The brief mid-week holiday over, I had only a short drive home, with no airports to deal with and very little traffic. This could be the start of a new way of travelling for me.

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If you visit the area, you might want to stop in Kitchener.

A city rich in history, Kitchener was previously known as Berlin. The first known Jew to settle in Berlin was Samuel Liebschewitz. In the early years, there was little organized religious life. Services were held in people’s homes, and the Jewish education of children was left in the hands of their parents.

In the 19th century, the Jewish community in Berlin and Waterloo remained small, with an occasional solitary peddler or craftsman, none staying long. In 1891, there was only one Jewish family in the area, and 10 years later, there were only four. By 1907, there were about 10 families living in Berlin (Kitchener), and the community came together to form an Orthodox synagogue called Beth Jacob, built in 1924. True to classic Jewish sanctuary architecture, the bimah was in the centre and the stately building was adorned with beautifully carved wood and stained glass windows.

Beth Jacob Synagogue is still a thriving centre for the local Jewish community today.