Meandering along the banks of the Speed River, about an hour’s drive west of Toronto, Guelph, Ontario is an appealing option for urbanites and visitors looking to hit escape.  This university town blends the agricultural charm of its early roots with a hip sensibility and artsy vibe.  Get your motor running with our first Bag Insider road trip report.

SCENE Lined with limestone buildings, highly walkable downtown Guelph, centred around Quebec and Wyndham Streets, comes chock-a-block with specialty shops and satisfying eateries.  The Guelph-Wellington region is also an off-the-beaten-travel-path destination for its excellent Saturday Farmers’ Market (4 Gordon St.), recreational areas and seasonal festivals.

Blush makes top use of suitcases, hotel luggage carts for displays. PHOTO: BlushShop.ca

Blush makes top use of suitcases, hotel luggage carts for displays. PHOTO: BlushShop.ca

SHOP Blush boutique’s carefully curated and highly wearable selection mixes chic basics and a-list denim with pretty and edgy trends, for covetable style. (It’s owned by a Club Monaco alum.) Their hottest heels and fave girly accessories are also available for online shopping. (38 Quebec St.)   Right across the street,
The Bookshelf is a Guelph institution and one-place fits-all stop housing the expected independent bookstore plus a bar-resto and cinema, showing a mix of non-blockbuster films. The Bookshelf does a number of fun theme events, like live music nights (Flashback Fridays, Salsa), weekend poetry slams, and a Mamma Mia movie screening and lunch for Mother’s Day, so check online for the latest happenings. (41 Quebec Street).

Visit the Guelph birthplace of Lt. Col. John McCrae, author of  "In Flanders Fields".

Visit the Guelph birthplace of Lt. Col. John McCrae, author of “In Flanders Fields”.

MUST-DOS Visit the childhood home of Lt. Col. John McCrae, WWI doctor and author of “In Flanders Fields,” the poem that immortalized the poppy as a symbol of remembrance.  In addition to the prolific writer’s handwritten work and a memorial garden, the 1858 stone house showcases stories ghost-written by McCrae’s battlefield horse and signed with a hoof print, for his niece and nephew back home. The McCrae House National Historic Site opens from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m.; click the website for seasonal closing days (108 Water St.).

English Garden at the University of Guelph Arboretum, a 406-acre, free public-access site.

English Garden at the University of Guelph Arboretum, a 406-acre, free public-access site.

The University of Guelph perches on a crest above the river and is absolutely worth a stop to stroll through its gorgeous Arboreteum, loosely modelled on a 19th century version at Harvard and crisscrossed with 8 km. of serene nature trails (College Ave. E, admission free).

GOOD EATS Artisanale chef-owner Yasser Qahawish, former executive chef at Toronto’s Osgoode Hall restaurant, takes seasonal and local seriously in his Guelph country kitchen inspired by the Loire Valley.  While the menu changes, simple ingredients always shine in classic French dishes like endive tart, roast chicken with fennel and crème caramel.  Family-style dinners are served Tuesday through Thursday in a dedicated dining area, and both Artisanale’s farmhouse lunch selection and $25 prix fixe dinner are also excellent value.  (214 Woolwich St.)

Colourful blackboards match the food at OX Guelph. (Try the ploughman's.)

Colourful blackboards match the food at OX Guelph. (Try the ploughman’s.)

More edible recommends: OX Guelph for gourmet pizzzas and sharing plates
(37 Quebec St.) and The Joint Café for hand-rolled house bagels and the breakfast wrap (43 Cork St. E). If an ice cream craving hits, stop by The Boathouse, where you can also work off your indulgence with a canoe or kayak rental (116 Gordon St.).  Pint fanciers can tap into Ontario craft beers and house brews at the
Woolwich Arrow, affectionately dubbed “the Wooly” and home to live music Saturday nights (176 Woolwich St.).

SEE Each fall, Canadian-born monarch butterflies migrate 4,500 kilometres to gather by the millions in Mexican groves that they have never seen before.  Learn about this epic migration and all kinds of other cool winged things, like the busy blue morpho, while basking in a tropical garden at the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory, between Guelph and neighbouring Cambridge.

This bread alone is worth a visit to the Guelph Farmers' Market. PHOTO: Polestar Hearth

This bread alone is worth a visit to the Guelph Farmers’ Market. PHOTO: Polestar Hearth

INSIDER SCOOP Don’t miss Guelph artisan baker Jesse Merrill’s brick-oven bread. Most of his Polestar Hearth retail deliveries happen just before noon and are snapped up fast.  Hit the online schedule and grab a loaf of your own to take home.

IN THE BAG If scoring a deal adds to your definition of road trip appeal, while you’re in Guelph stop by Wild Rose Consignment Clothing.  Vintage evening bags vie for attention right next to an impressive collection of shoes and boots, most at student-friendly prices (23 Macdonnell St.).

Channel your inner Imelda or Mariah at this Guelph treasure. PHOTO: TheWildRose.ca

Channel your inner Imelda or Mariah at this Guelph treasure. PHOTO: TheWildRose.ca

SLEEPOVER Guelph is mainly a day trip for me.  But, thanks to being a college and conference town, it does offer a larger than usual selection of big box, mid-priced hotels and motels as well a few inns and B&Bs.  The one option I can vouch for personally is a modern and spacious mini suite at the Delta Guelph Hotel, 2.5 km. from downtown and across the street from the university at 50 Stone Rd. W.  (Travelling with kids? Be aware there are pool age restrictions.)  If you do opt to stay in Guelph, check first to make sure you’re not hitting the road on a few major student-parent weekends, like graduation.

BLOG LOVE For more dish on Artisanale French Country Cooking, see this review and drool-worthy dinner close-ups from Francophile foodie Eat Live Travel Write.

DO TELL Where’s your favourite road trip spot close to home?  Have you been to Guelph?   And what are your must-have essentials for a day’s drive?  Please do share in the comments. And check back for the Bag Insider’s latest road trip packing picks, posting soon…