Taking a train for the journey itself with no particular destination -- is one of the best travel experiences there is. The Credit Valley Explorer Tour is not a long train ride but it has the most important prerequisite for a memorable one -- stunning, ever-changing scenery.
Tours begin in the historic town of Orangeville, Ont., approximately 125 miles northwest of Buffalo. The ride follows a 130-year-old route along the Niagara Escarpment's Credit River, through rural farmland and wilderness, past historic sights and waterfalls.
"It's never boring," says Heather Graham, who has taken the excursion on three occasions. "Every season's different; fall is beautiful with the colors, but winter, especially if there's snow, is really something."
The railway was constructed between 1874 and 1881 to access central Ontario's resources and ran from Streetsville in Toronto into Orangeville, and was operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway until 2000, when it was bought by Orangeville Rail Development Corp. The new owners, recognizing the scenic appeal of the route, began to offer sightseeing excursions, which quickly became one of the region's most popular attractions. (Find out about tours at www.creditvalleyexplorer.com; sample fares for weekend trips in May are $46.50 for adults; $34.50 for children, including meal service.)
Twilight dinner trains in summer, foliage tours in autumn, Santa Trains in December and weekend Snow Trains in February are some of its offerings. Meals are served on board, but it's the scenery that's the main attraction.
An undisputed highlight is the Cataract Gorge. The train slows to a crawl so passengers can take in the ruins of a 150-year-old industrial complex (a grist mill converted into one of Ontario's first power plants) alongside a 50-foot waterfall. Other grist mill ruins can be seen in villages the train passes through, a reminder of the thriving industrial past that seems out of place and far away from the sleepy villages of today.
Other photo opportunities include the 1,146-foot-long trestle at Forks of the Credit and Inglewood, where the train makes a brief stop so passengers can explore the village, and perhaps make a stop at the 120-year-old General Store, first built as a railroad hotel and now operated as a deli, ice-cream parlor and gift shop.
The round-trip takes three hours, but once back in Orangeville, there's plenty more to do, both in and out of town.
Walk down Broadway
The town's main street, Broadway, is ideal territory for strolling and browsing with one-of-a-kind boutiques and independently owned restaurants and cafes, many in restored original buildings -- a contrast from the big-box stores and new subdivisions that surround the town. Lining the street are more than 50 sculptures that artists have carved out of tree trunks.
There is a theater, too. The Orangeville Theatre Company, 87 Broadway (www.theatreorangeville.ca), is well-respected in the community and beyond, and performs at the Town Hall Opera House, now fully restored with a history that dates back to its days as a market when the town first formed.
Restaurants to try include Bluebird Cafe and Casa Del Gelato, an Italian eatery that features authentic Roman thin-crust pizza, homemade gelato and specialty coffees. We stumbled upon this gem on our first night in town and had no choice but to return before we left.
A walk in the woods
Less than 10 minutes out of Orangeville, there are protected tracts of a wilderness, where hikers can appreciate the unique geological features and grandeur of the region.
Island Lake Conservation Area (673067 Hurontario St. South) includes a lake, wetland, meadows and a forest. The area plays an important role protecting the fish, birds and other wildlife population, and offers numerous recreational opportunities including fishing, kayaking, hiking and picnicking in summer; skating and cross-country skiing in winter. It is open weekends until May 10, then every day until 9 p.m. through Sept. 3.
Hockley Valley Provincial Park has numerous trails to hike or snowshoe. The system connects to the Bruce Trail that traverses 500 miles from Queenston in Niagara to Tobemory in Georgian Bay. It's here that the Niagara Escarpment, designated a UNESCO World Biosphere, meets the Oak Ridge Morraine, and its hilly landscape provides vistas of the edge of the rocky escarpment.
Like the train ride, it's not about going anywhere, but appreciating the natural beauty that surrounds you.