Canadian Staycation: Going Coastal in Northern Ontario, Plus a Recipe for Five Spice Butternut Squash Ravioli
Lookout on Sleeping Giant, Ont. Photo: Courtesy of Destination Ontario
For generations, Canadian road trips have included making memories along the Trans-Canada Highway between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. While quirky roadside attractions keep things interesting, adventures on land and water showcase the rugged, pristine beauty of the Canadian Shield.
While the outdoors beckon, the two cities themselves have become culinary destinations, thanks to an increasingly exceptional food scene. If you’re looking to tantalize your taste buds, take to the trails and burn off the calories — even add a pinch of history and culture into the mix — then a staycation in northern Ontario is a no brainer!
Start in Thunder Bay
A visit to Lakehead is synonymous with vast, stunning landscapes along with adrenaline-filled experiences. West of the city, thundering Kakabeka Falls — the Niagara of the North and Ontario’s second-tallest waterfall — has captivated onlookers for millennia, while 453-foot-high Mt. McKay, on the Fort William First Nation, is the highest of the Nor’Wester Mountains and offers incredible views of the city. Nearby, Fort William Historical Park — celebrating 50 years in 2023 — offers families an interactive and educational experience into all things Indigenous ingenuity, history and culture to science and astronomy. One of North America’s largest living history sites, the park is also a Canadian Signature Experience.
Hop on a sailboat and get to know the city from the water courtesy Sail Superior, or head east and stop at the Terry Fox National Historic Person Plaque, before gazing upon the mesmerizing 150-metre wide Ouimet Canyon. Pack your stamina and hike the ever visible, and eternally magical Sleeping Giant. Take it easy along the Sea Lion Trail to view the unique rock formation, or spend the entire day on the Top of the Giant Trail for iconic views of both the mountain and Lake Superior. The harder the trail, the bigger the reward.
Thunder Bay, Food City
If you can get to Swell Bakery before the lineup starts, you’ve already won the day. Pick up a perfectly flaky croissant, complemented with a delicious java from St. Paul Roastery located next door. If you prefer a sit-down experience, Rooster’s Bistro offers dishes including The Viking Benny, complete with 4 oz of Norwegian Salmon, while Kangas — part ‘Little House of Pancakes’ and part sauna — features private sauna rentals with a delicious side of Finnish pancakes with strawberries and real whipped cream.
While mainstay pubs and diners, including The Sal and The Sovereign Room continue to thrive, Thunder Bay’s food scene has gotten the international recognition it has deserved for decades. A surge in multi-ethnic restaurants have found favourable palates and several more upscale restaurants have finally put the city on a culinary map. Lot 66 Restaurant and Wine Bar prides itself on polished ambiance, with a globally inspired, locally sourced menu, Caribou — open since 1999 — has earned the “Wine Spectator Award of Excellence” every year since 2002 and Tomlin focuses on seasonal ingredients and a more communal dining experience. Of course, for a more casually private experience, Picnicki creates curated picnic baskets loaded with everything from sandwiches and salads to artisanal chocolates and locally made s’mores kits with portable campfires.
Adventures Along the Trans-Canada
More than 700 kilometres separate Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, with plenty to see along the way. Highlights include Pukaskwa National Park, Ontario’s only wilderness park, the Winnie the Pooh Memorial Park in White River, and the 28-foot-tall Goose, Wawa’s long-standing landmark attraction. Further south, within Lake Superior Provincial Park, swimming stops at Old Woman Bay and Katherine Cove are musts, while a hike along on the six kilometre-long Pinguisibi Trail — a designated canoe route that hugs a series of cascading waterfalls — will invigorate your soul.
Timing Is Everything at Agawa Rock
A cultural experience, Agawa Rock involves good timing, strong footing and a storied past. Climb down 100 feet, through rock chasms, sheer cliffs and giant boulders before walking along a narrow stretch of rock, inches from the crashing waves coming from Lake Superior, and enjoy this sacred site that features 35 ancient Indigenous red ochre images, accessible only when Lake Superior is calm in the summer months. Keep in mind that you must always respect the site, and be very cautious of the slippery rock ledge and unpredictability of the waves coming in. Pro tip: Consider walking along the narrow passage barefoot for greater traction.
Finish Strong Closer to Sault Ste. Marie
North of the city, Pancake Bay and Batchawana Bay Provincial Parks both feature long sandy beaches with Caribbean-like turquoise water, while Chippewa Falls makes for a stunning mid-way point of the Trans-Canada Highway. Pro tip: Stop at Voyageur’s Lodge and Cookhouse, a family owned shop complete with general store and a restaurant that features the fan favourite, Reuben with corned beef and sauerkraut on a pretzel bun.
The Agawa Canyon Tour Train, a.k.a. “The Group of Seven Train,” sets off from Sault. Ste. Marie, heads north, deep into Canadian Shield country, and inland to the Agawa Canyon Wilderness Park, about 180 kilometres away. The highlight along the way is the 130-foot-high, 1,500-foot-long curved Montreal River trestle. When the train reaches the park, you have 90 minutes to explore the 250-foot-high lookout and trails that lead you to both the North and South Beaver Falls as well as the Bridal Veil Falls. This backcountry inspired works from the legendary Canadian painters, one of which, J.E.H MacDonald, described the canyon as “the original site of the Garden of Eden.” It’s a must multigenerational experience that combines both adventure and a picturesque beauty only this part of Canada can provide.
Eat The Soo
Over the past few years, The Soo’s taste buds have exploded with locals eagerly proud to support them. Beloved for over 40 years, Ernie’s Coffee Shop serves everything from burgers to borscht, while Angela Caputo’s award-winning ’The Breakfast Pig’, will bust your belly with her Mac & Cheese Skillets. while Low & Slow Smoked Fusion BBQ satiates Southern cravings, Peace Restaurant’s Asian fusion goes exotic, while The Taj Indian cuisine ranks near the top year after year.
While the city has seen a welcoming surge of new, international flavour favourites, it’s decades-long Italian population still holds a place in the hearts of diners. Fratelli’s Kitchen, Giovanni’s, Arturo’s, Antico, and Quattro Vinotecca are among many eateries creating everything from Lobster Saffron Risotto to Rapini and Salsiccia Pizza, and continues to build on a deep and trusted connection to the community, with a side of vino from Italy’s most renowned wineries, of course.
A Taste of The Soo, Courtesy of Chef Goodall, Peace Restaurant
5 Spice Butternut Squash Ravioli With Brown Butter and Sage
Yields 6 portions of 3 large raviolis per serving
(make 3 batches for this recipe)
2 cups all purpose flour
3 large eggs
½ tsp kosher salt
½ tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- Place the flour on a clean work surface and make a nest. Add the eggs, olive oil, and salt to the centre and use a fork to gently break up the eggs, keeping the flour walls intact as best as you can. Use your hands to gently bring the flour inward to incorporate. Continue working the dough with your hands to bring it together into a shaggy ball.
- Knead the dough for 8 to 10 minutes. At the beginning, the dough should feel pretty dry, but stick with it! It might not feel like it’s going to come together, but after 8 to 10 minutes of kneading, it should become cohesive and smooth. If the dough still seems too dry, sprinkle your fingers with a tiny bit of water to incorporate. If it’s too sticky, dust more flour onto your work surface. Shape the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
- Dust 2 large baking sheets with flour and set aside.
- Slice the dough into four pieces. Gently flatten one into an oval disk. Run the dough through the pasta roller.
- Attachment three times on Level 1 (the widest setting).
- Set the dough piece onto a countertop or work surface. Fold both short ends in to meet in the centre, then fold the dough in half to form a rectangle.
- Run the dough through the pasta roller three times on level 2, and twice each on levels 3, 4, 5 and 6.
- Lay half of the pasta sheet onto the floured baking sheet and sprinkle with flour before folding the other half on top. Sprinkle more flour on top of the second half. Every side should be lightly floured so that your final pasta noodles won’t stick together.
- Repeat with remaining dough.
3 llb (or 2 medium) butternut squash
1 large white onion
10 cloves garlic
1 ½ tbsp honey
1 tbsp Chinese 5 spice
Salt, to taste
½ tsp black pepper
6 sprigs sage leaves
½ cup mascarpone
Butternut Filling Method:
- Peel and chop butternut squash and onions into thick cubs and toss with garlic, honey, Chinese 5 spice, salt, pepper and enough canola oil to coat thoroughly.
- Place all ingredients on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and cook at 375 for 45 minutes or until tender and slightly dark.
- Place mixture in food processor along with the mascarpone cheese. Whip until filling is smooth.
- Chiffonade the fresh sage leaves and fold into your ravioli mixture.
5 Spice + Brown Sugar Roasted Pine Nuts + Pumpkin Seeds
Roasted Butternut Squash
- Fry sage in 350 degree oil until bubbling stops. Reserve on paper towel for plating
- Mix 1 tsp Chinese 5 spice with 1 tsp brown sugar and toast pine nuts and seeds in spice mixture. Reserve for plating
- Chop butternut squash into small cubes and roast with a pinch of salt and canola oil until tender. Reserve for plating.
Full Preparation method:
- Whisk one egg and set aside for your egg wash
- Take your finished pasta sheets and lay out beside one another.
- Pipe or scoop a tbsp of filling on half of your sheets approximately 4.5 inches apart from each other.
- Egg wash around each blob of filling.
- Lay out your second sheet of pasta on top of your first and press down lightly on top of each pile of filling.
- Then proceed to press firmly around to ensure there are no air bubbles and the ravioli has a nice seal.
- Take a 3,5-inch cookie cutter and cut out perfectly round ravioli.
- Pinch all the sides with your fingers or a fork to ensure they are sealed.
- Repeat until you have finished all of your raviolis.
- Bring a pot of salted water up to a boil and gently cook your ravioli until they float. (Do not overcrowd your water, so you may need to do this in a few rounds.)
- While your ravioli are cooking, put ¼ lb of butter on medium heat, stirring frequently until it becomes frothy and brown bits start forming.
- When your ravioli is done cooking, transfer into brown butter with a slotted spoon and gently toss until ravioli are coated.
- Place your ravioli in a dish and top with all garnishes.
- Enjoy your beautiful homemade raviolis with friends and family!