For a fun and economical family day out in the Ottawa country, you can't do much better than a springtime visit to the "sugar bush." Sugar bush is the traditional name for the maple trees that produce sap for maple syrup. In days gone by, most farms around the city collected the sap, which doesn't start running until mid-March and generally stops by the end of April, and "sugared off" in festive atmosphere of hard work and boisterous feasting on syrup and a host of yummy syrup-based treats.
Nowadays most syrup is produced industrially. Luckily though a few farms preserve the old way of doing things, and have even added some thoroughly modern twists. Apart from the chance to watch syrup being made, all of them now offer sleigh rides, a variety of activities for children and hearty pancake breakfasts. Admission and parking at all these farms is free, food costs are reasonable, and the "extras" are minimal.
Proulx Sugarbush and Berry Farm (tel. 613/833-2417; www.proulxberryfarm.com) is an old family farm about 18 miles east of Downtown that produces corn and berries in the summer, and maple syrup and fun in the spring. The old, low buildings where they serve up steaming plates of hearty beans, maple cured pork, and pancakes on paper plates have a casual and homey feel and the folding chairs and rough tables add to the fun by emphasizing that sugaring off isn't something you can enjoy all year round. Next to the cafeteria is the original 1920s sugar shack and wood-fire sap distiller.
Admission (sugar bush and sugar shack) and parking: free. Activities (including 25 minute sleigh ride, small playground, petting zoo, hay barn) C$3; Taffy C$3. All you can eat buffet: ranges C$8 to C$20 (depending if you just want pancakes and beans, or go for the full meal deal of pork roast, vegetables, ham, bacon and sausage) and there is a children's discount of between 20 and 60 per cent depending on age. Hours: Saturday and Sunday 9-5, weekdays by reservation except during March Break (March 16-20th), when they are open 9am-4pm. Sugar bush will be open until April 13.
Stanley's Olde Maple Lane Farm (tel. 613/821-2751; www.stanleysfarm.com) is also about 18 miles from the city, but due south. The original 19th century stone buildings have been preserved and updated as a children's activity center and a museum with a collection of old farm tools. Geared to accommodate weddings and special events in the off-season, Stanley's pancake breakfasts are served in a spic and span 400-seat hall that makes up in comfort what it lacks in character. There is also a newly built tea room with a fireplace that gives adults a quiet place to enjoy the home-baked goodies in peace while the kids run riot across the fields, check out the farm animals in the old barn, or watch the sugaring off in the old sugar shack.
Admission (sugar bush, sugar shack, barn, museum and children's play area) and parking: free. Activities (15-20 minute sleigh ride) C$4; Taffy C$2; bag of maple popcorn C$2. All you can eat buffet of pancakes, waffles, ham, sausage, eggs and beans: C$15 for adults, C$12 for seniors, and children 5-10 C$10. Hours: 9am-3pm weekends until April 19th. Weekdays by reservation except March 18 - 20th, when they're open 10am-2pm.
Fulton's Pancake House and Sugar Bush (tel. 613/256-3867; www.fultons.ca) is the farthest outside the city of these four farms -- reckon on the drive taking about 45 minutes in all -- but half of this is on a big divided highway, and once you're on the country roads the scenery is nice enough to almost justify the trip by itself. Fulton's first opened back in 1969, and has become a favorite of many local families, who head out there every spring. Forty years later, the restaurant has evolved into something that resembles a small town family diner, with big open grills behind the counter and basic but comfortable seating. Fulton's manufactures and sells an amazing line of maple-based products, from candies and syrup, to barbeque sauce, jams and even spa products.
Admission (sugar shack, sugar bush, small playground and walking/snowshoe trails) and parking: free. Activities: sleigh ride (Saturdays and Sundays between 10am and 2pm only) C$2, face painting C$5. All you can eat buffet on weekdays (sausages, pancakes, beans and dessert) adults C$16, children under C$10. Weekend food C$7-10, children C$5.25. Hours: facilities are open 9am-5pm through the week, restaurant 9am-4pm until April 26.
If you're looking for the most convenient sugar bush, however, that would be the Sugar Shack Café (tel. 613/291-5362; www.sugarbushvanier.com) in the middle of Vanier, a neighborhood 10 minutes drive east of Parliament Hill. The original sugar shack was built here by missionaries in 1938. In 1998, local volunteers rebuilt the shack on the original location, which had meanwhile become a park enclosing the old sugar bush, using maple wood from the surrounding trees to panel the inside. It might lack the scale of the other operations, but breakfast is served close enough to the massive distillation apparatus that when it's full the place captures the steamy, boisterous atmosphere of a rural springtime tradition.
For activities other than eating and sugaring off, go down between March 28 and April 6th, which is when they have the Maple Sugar Festival. Activities include sleigh rides, a lumberjack competition, face painting, variety show, medieval combat demonstrations and of course, taffy making in the snow.
Admission (sugar bush) and parking: free. Activities (only during the festival): by donation. All you can eat buffet (include pancakes, pea soup, bacon and eggs) adults C$18, seniors C$16, children 6-12 C$10 and children 3-5 C$6. Cash or check. Hours: 9am-1pm throughout the week (They will stay open later if there are people there, but it's worth phoning ahead to check on hours).
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