What do the Violent Femmes,  Lady Gaga, Samuel de Champlain and Gustave Dore have in common?

In years past we have taken some pretty amazing summer trips, exploring and indulging in the beauty of both our nation’s coasts, this year however it was time to stick a little closer to home (province at least). Think about it; the sun is shining, the lakes are sparkling and our busiest month of the year culturally is in full swing – Ontario is a great place to spend the month of July. Here is how we spent ours.

After falling head over heels for the Ottawa Bluesfest last year we decided to give one of our newer local festivals a shot to see how our city stacked up. The timing of TURF  was perfect for us, a great way to kick off the summer we thought. But Fort York? I won’t name names but both my wife and I had had some not so great festival experiences at Fort York before so we had some hesitations. Alas, the lure of the Toronto Urban Roots Festival’s lineup made it worth giving another shot and I am so glad we did!

Violent Femmes

Violent Femmes at TURF

Upon arriving at Fort York on Friday we both realized something was different about this festival – they weren’t using the lousy oven tray of a location that previous festivals had used right smack in the middle of the historic fort. Yes, it was fascinating for a history nerd like me to be somewhere historic and all but it was hard not to feel like a McCain super fry baking in the summer sun. Turf had it figured out though; why not use the shadier fields behind the fort, and use that hideous cement snake we call the Gardiner as a makeshift amphitheatre to boot (it worked pretty well by the way)? Clever. The front gates were fast and efficient, the staff were all awesome and when we got in we had our second realization – the VIP passes were totally worth it! For a little extra money (especially at the early-bird rate we got ours for) you gained access to a whole flanking side of each of the stages that also led right into the photographers pit at the very front, which after the first 3 songs of a performer’s set, became open to VIPS as well. Toss onto that the VIP portable toilets (ooh!), and our very own beer tent and it was well worth it. I must say though if there was one disappointment to be had with the festival it was with the selection on hand at said beer tent. We all understand the mighty dollar and I know Molson probably offered a lot but being a stone’s throw from Steamwhistle, not to mention a whole slew of other incredible local microbrews and yet drinking Molson products instead was a bit irksome. This is the “Urban Roots” festival after all, and while the food was all from local, independent vendors it was a strange to not find the same when it came to beer. Anyway back to the music, which ran on a great schedule really allowing us to maximize the number of sets we took in. This post would run a mile long(er) if I got into every band we saw so I’ll keep it short, Born Ruffians, Gary Clark Jr, Shovels and Rope, Violent Femmes (being front row for that was one of “those” moments), The Strumbellas, Hey Rosetta!, Sam Roberts Band, July Talk, Jenny Lewis, and Gogol Bordello. Suffice to say TurfTO pulled together a selection of musicians that made it hard to choose which stage and harder to choose when to finally give into aching feet and eardrums – and I mean that as the highest compliment. Well done TurfTO, we’ll see you next year.

Of course our ear drums would only get a mere beat of rest after our long weekend at TURF it was time for something a little different. Lady Gaga different. Right around Christmas we had schemed that the best gift to offer our nieces (9 on her side and 12 on mine) was to take them to their first real concert experience. Mission accomplished. Now to say I am a Lady Gaga fan is a stretch, I recognized only a handful of songs and really in case you couldn’t guess she’s just not a genre I’m particularly into. But I am glad I went – not only to offer our nieces such a spectacle of a show that scale-wise that could give Judas Priest or Alice Cooper a run for their money, but to see someone who wields an immense amount of power and influence and uses it to spread a truly positive message. Fresh off a World Pride that which had the whole city feeling a little prouder of itself for being so accepting it was wonderful to be in the midst of a crowd that reflected so much of that energy, of that acceptance and love. It also happen to be the most painful escape from a concert I’ve had in a long while – exiting the ACC in the height on construction season with kids in tow while a Jay Z/Beyonce concert is letting out almost next door at the Roger’s Centre – super fun! But no time for that, it was off to Ottawa!

The Iguanas

The Iguanas at Ottawa Bluesfest

Last year Bluesfest showed us how a festival could be done right; fittingly military like orchestration (the festival is held on the grounds of the Canadian War Museum), an eclectic and tempting lineup of music (Shakey Graves to Belle & Sebastian to Wu-Tang? Why not?), ice-cold Mill St brew and of course the warm welcome of our nation’s capital city. This year we moved our operation a little closer to the perfectly situated Delta Ottawa City Centre, just a 10 minute walk from the grounds. The lineup was once again perfectly eclectic with a lot more blues brought back into the fold. A few of our favourites July Talk (we did prefer the much more intimate show in Savannah, but it iss great to see just how big they’re becoming), The Iguanas, Sugar Ray & the Bluetones, Thornetta Davis, Snoop Dogg, Said the Whale, The Darcys, Little Freddie King, and a realization of just how old I am in seeing Collective Soul close the festival – some 15 years after I first saw them play in a double bill alongside other 90’s juggernauts the Cranberries. Another jam packed weekend of great music put on by the good folks at Bluesfest, but again I found myself with the same hangup I had at Turf; why no microbrew this year? Especially when just as Toronto has tastier microbrews to offer so does Ottawa and the surrounding area (like oh, say Beau’s?).

The added fun of Ottawa is in-between all the wonderful music that weekend there is of course our very impressive capital to explore. We loved taking walks down by the river and exploring Byward, and this year we decided to sneak in a visit to the National Gallery (having already checked out the very worthwhile Canadian Museum of History and the Canadian War Museum on previous visits). I must say I’m pretty proud of our National Gallery, standing in front of some iconic Canadian paintings was something that defies words but suffice to say had me seriously itching to pick up my paintbrushes again. To boot it just so happened that there was a very moving Gustave Dore Special exhibit on during our visit, one that I’d recommend catching if you can before it moves on in September.

The Pickerel Po Boy from Picnic

A Pickerel Po’Boy from Picnic


Of course that was just the beginning of July, the very next weekend it was off to Prince Edward County to visit my parents for my lovely Mother’s 60th birthday. This would also prove to be a great chance to pop over and try out the county’s new food truck, Picnic at the very adorable Wellington Bubble Festival. It was also a chance to sneak a peak at the soon to open latest – and furthest – offshoot of the Drake Hotel; the Drake Devonshire. After some great time with the family, a quick dip in still frosty lake Ontario and a delicious meal at the Blumen Garden Bistro it was time to hit the road for home.

July still wasn’t through though, last weekend I ran off to an old friends rustic old cottage on the shores of North Horn Lake just north of Burk’s Falls with a bunch of old friends. A swim, a cliff dive or two and a nice toasty camp fire, a typical tough Ontario weekend.

Samuel de Champlain

View from our camp site on the Mattawa River in Samuel De Champlain Provincial Park


Finally to close off our July in proper Ontario fashion we packed up our old beagle and our jeep and headed to our favourite provincial park, Samuel De Champlain on the shores of the crisp, clean Mattawa River. We’ve come here the last 4 years now, with great sites all along the river (especially our favourite spot by the rapids) and jaw dropping hiking trails it’s an easy choice. Top it off with great staff, lots of activities and a sense that you’re with campers who “get” camping and you’re guaranteed to have the perfect camping experience.

Thanks for a great July Ontario.

Photos by Johanna Lankin