If your summer travel wish list includes an outdoor Canadian escape, set your sights on Northern Ontario. Drive north from Toronto, and as the city’s sprawl gives way to maple forests, crystal clear lakes, and dramatic rocky cliffs, you’ll find plenty of well-known outdoor destinations to explore, from Algonquin Provincial Park to the mountains of Killarney to the rugged shores of Lake Superior.
But Ontario has plenty of less-traveled places where you can get outside. In the province’s northeast, where the Ottawa River separates Ontario from neighboring Quebec, the village of Mattawa is the gateway to a lovely weekend destination: Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park.
And inside the park is a unique place to stay: the Canadian Ecology Centre.
Here’s the scoop:
The Canadian Ecology Centre
The Canadian Ecology Centre is a non-profit environmental organization that operates within Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park. They offer educational programs for schools and other groups, but they also offer accommodations in modern cabins on the park’s forested grounds.
Cabin Accommodations and Amenities
If you’re not a camper, you can’t always find places to stay within a national, state, or provincial park. While I love being outdoors, I’m partial to a comfortable bed and a hot shower, which is why I was excited to discover the cabins at the Canadian Ecology Centre.
Most of the 32 family-friendly units are set in pine-walled duplex cabins (each cabin has two units side-by-side) that can sleep up to five. A double bed has a single bunk above and a second trundle-style double that pulls out from underneath the bunks. Linens and towels are provided.
Each has a bathroom with a shower (and hot water), a long counter with a sink, a mini fridge, and a table and chairs. The cabins have electricity and small fans to cool them on warm days. They’re heated in the winter.
Individual cabins don’t have kitchens, but guests can prepare meals in the shared dining cabin, which has a stove, refrigerator, coffeemaker, toaster, microwave, BBQ, and some cooking utensils, as well as places to eat indoors or outside.
You can pick up groceries in Mattawa, a 10-minute drive east of the park, where you can also find several restaurants if you’d prefer not to cook.
Although individual cabins don’t have TVs, there’s one in the dining cabin if you’re desperate to catch up on your favorite program or watch the nightly news.
Things to Do
Guests at the Canadian Ecology Centre can take advantage of all the activities available in the provincial park. Head for clear Moore Lake to go for a swim or have a picnic on the beach. The park store rents canoes that you can paddle on Moore or Long Lakes.
The Mattawa River, a main trading route for the region’s indigenous people for centuries, became important to the 16th- and 17th-century fur traders and voyageurs who journeyed between Montreal and points west, including French-born Samuel de Champlain (1567-1635), who founded Quebec City in 1608, and for whom the provincial park is named.
The park visitor center has exhibits about the region’s indigenous people and about Champlain and the voyageurs. In summer, park staff take visitors on paddling adventures in traditional voyageur canoes.
The park also has a network of hiking trails that you can follow through the woods and along the river.
Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park and the Canadian Ecology Centre are about a four-hour drive north of Toronto and 3.5 hours northwest of Ottawa. The park entrance is on Highway 17, 35 minutes east of North Bay and 10 minutes west of Mattawa.
Cabin rates at the Canadian Ecology Centre average CAD$150/night. Cabins are available year-round, except during the month of July, when school groups occupy the entire property. The Centre offers special weekend programs throughout the year that include accommodations, meals, and activities; check their website for details. You can also make a reservation on Hotels.com or other booking sites.
Feature by Vancouver-based travel, food, and feature writer Carolyn B. Heller. Photos © Carolyn B. Heller. The Canadian Ecology Centre and Northeastern Ontario Tourism arranged my stay for review purposes.