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Travel: Green and secret haunts of Ontario

Get off the tourist trail in southern Ontario, and find a wealth of interest in the landscape and history of Georgian Bay. By Margaret Campbell
THE NIAGARA Falls are breathtaking - and surrounded by throngs of tourists. Toronto is cosmopolitan, fast-paced - and in summer so humid and hot that you scamper for relief from one air-conditioned building to another. For a different view of southern Ontario, do what Toronto residents do, and head north to the area around Georgian Bay, known as "cottage country".

City-dwellers flock to this region for their holidays, and you don't have to travel far to understand why. Wide open skylines form a canvas for spectacular sunsets; rolling fields and agricultural land give way to woods, rivers and lakes, the spacious and rugged setting for provincial and national parks - all easily accessible from Toronto in a rented car.

Georgian Bay itself is on the south-eastern shore of Lake Huron, bordered by the Bruce Peninsula and the regions of Huronia and Muskoka. The whole area was a key inspiration for the Group of Seven: not economically muscular nations, but a band of pioneering artists who worked at the beginning of the century to bring fresh expression to the Canadian landscape.

Wasaga Beach is the closest resort to Toronto, with a beach that runs for nine miles. You could stay here, and settle for one of the many cottages and camping areas along the lake shore. But more distant towns such as Owen's Sound and Port Elgin are worth the extra travelling time, and the journey through constantly changing countryside is a treat in itself.

I travelled in the area between Barrie, on the edge of Lake Simcoe, and "the Bruce" during the Victoria Day weekend in May; one road sign announced "Welcome Home Heidi". As high summer takes hold you can go canoeing, swimming and fishing. Or wait for the beautiful foliage display in autumn, or go skiing in the Blue Mountain resorts near Collingwood and in Horseshoe Valley. Age is no barrier - a lady in Shelburne proudly informed us that she had learnt to ski at the age of 62.

There are constant reminders of the region's varied culture and history, not least in the place names: Penetangulshene, Tobermory, Wasaga Beach, Hanover. The immigrant past is remembered in pioneer graveyards at the side of main roads, gravestones collected from old farmsteads and arranged in tidy little squares or semicircles - and in murals such as the one in Durham commemorating Archibald Hunter, founder of the town's first school and church.

Museums and festivals pay tribute to this history, covering the Native American past and more recent settlers. A rich musical tradition is reflected in the annual fiddlers' contest in Shelburne, a music festival in Owen's Sound and an annual banjo contest in Durham.

For more active recreation, you can go scuba diving around the Bruce Peninsula (equipment can be hired in Tobermory), hike along the steep cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment, swim, and go boating to Flowerpot Island.

There is so much to look out for, even before reaching the Bay: the contrast between the white picket fences and verandas and the rustic wooden fences in the countryside; mailboxes at the end of driveways, carefully crafted and representing miniature tractors, ducks and houses; garage sales selling off pickling jars, old ice-skates and entire record collections; and the road signs: "Asparagus for sale", "Diet - 30lb, $30, 30 days" and "Live worms and spawn - $2 a dozen'.

More appealing purchases can be made from produce and bakery sales at the end of farm roads, where you may find yourself meeting Mennonites, members of a community that rejects many aspects of modern life but whose traditional needlework and baking skills are much in demand from town dwellers. Their beautifully crafted quilts and dolls are sometimes available from weekend markets.

The area is dotted with small towns, so there are plenty of places to stop off and eat. Many parks have an area for barbecues: bring your own food and charcoal, and enjoy alfresco meals the North American way.

The closest airport is Toronto, served by daily scheduled flights from Heathrow (Air Canada/British Airways), Birmingham (BA), Glasgow (AC) and Manchester (AC). In June you can pay around pounds 350 through discount agents; in July and August pounds 500. Charters from various UK airports are available; Margaret Campbell paid pounds 225 return on Canada 3000 from Gatwick, through Canadian Affair (0171-385 4400).

Accommodation choices include camping grounds, motels and cottage rental. For further information on south Ontario, including accommodation, try the Ontario Ministry of Tourism's web site at http:// www.travelinx.com/