Brantford isn’t far from my home, but it may as well be a flight away for all I knew about it before I spent a couple of days there before Ontario was locked down. It is, however, filled with history, culture and nature. Located at Highway 403 and Highway 24, it’s easily accessible from Hamilton, Toronto, London and Kitchener-Waterloo.
The city is known for the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, and the most famous hockey player in the world, Wayne Gretzky, plus businesses like Zamboni and Ferraro Canada (aka the people who make Nutella and Ferraro Rocher). Nicknamed the Telephone City, it is an underappreciated city in Ontario.
It is also known as the Hub of Ontario Trails because three major trails intersect at Brant’s Crossing near downtown. The Great Trail, also known as the Trans Canada Trail, runs 24,000 kilometres across Canada. The trail splits into three in Brantford, from the east, towards the west and heading south toward Windsor.
Brantford hugs the Grand River, a beautiful, wide heritage river that flows near Dundalk to Lake Erie, adding to the possibilities for outdoor activities such as cycling, hiking and noted for fly fishing.
Bell homestead Photo Melody Wren
If there is one thing I couldn’t live without, it’s my phone, even though current phones are far from the one that Brantford resident Alexander Graham Bell invented. Touring the Bell homestead is a must for a fascinating peek behind the scenes where 23-year-old Scottish-born Bell invented the phone. The details of how he came up with the idea are intriguing and give you a sense of the young import’s brilliance. Deeded to the city in 1910, the ten-acre property goes down to the river to a special spot which Bell referred to as “his dreaming place”.
The home has many of the original furnishings, and with attention to detail by the curator, it feels as though a family still lives there. In 1879 the first phone was invented, and his parents bought into it and started Bell Canada, opening on the site in 1877. He even made the first long-distance call from his home to nearby Paris, Ontario. The Historic Site has working parts for school groups to try out.
Do you think kids these days would recognize these devices? Photo Melody Wren
Historical statues throughout the city lend more details to the past of the area, including one of Alexander Graham Bell, Wayne Gretzky and the Mohawk Chief, Joseph Brant, after whom Brantford was named.
With a full kitchen in each suite and an indoor pool to relax and frolic in, staying at the TownePlace Suites by Marriott was a comfortable base to explore the area, and we started immediately by hitting the SC Johnson Trail that runs 14 km between Paris and Brantford. We walked part of it through woods, and if it hadn’t been getting dark, we could have continued through fields, rare prairie grasslands and views overlooking the Grand River. The trail follows the abandoned Lake Erie and Northern Railway bed and was finished in 1998 with a donation by SC Johnson & Son of Brantford.
After working up an appetite, we picked up takeout from La Mia Cucina. With many allergies and intolerances, ordering takeout usually isn’t easy, but Elsa’s menu made it mouth-wateringly so, and the results were delicious. We opted for Chicken Curry, Chicken Pot Pie Crumble and shared Cauliflower Risotto, all dairy-free, and my chicken pot pie was gluten-free as well. Large portions, we both shrieked, “no way can I eat all that”, but the taste forced empty plates.
The second day started with breakfast at local favourite Kingswood’s. Filled with regular locals, they all stopped to look at the strangers amongst them, but we weren’t strangers long as the table next to us regaled us with historic stories and how it’s changing similar to other small cities. Started by a local family in 1934, it is now owned by Lori Misener, who has owned it for five years. Local artist Jack Jackowski has adorned the walls with photographs of landmarks. Full plated breakfasts were flying out the kitchen, coffee pouring quickly, as the regulars kept pouring in.
Lunchtime takeout from the Healthy Rabbit was a huge hit with all levels of the family. Healthy gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan rice, quinoa and noodle bowls can be custom-built or chosen from many options. We devoured them, finishing off with almond balls and chocolate brownies before getting ready for our scheduled pool time.
A delicious salad from the Healthy Rabbit. Photo Melody Wren
With Covid looming way too large, it was a huge treat to be able to swim and play in the pool. Having it to ourselves for a 45-minute time slot meant we weren’t disturbing anyone else, and the pool was sanitized for the next swimmers. After snacking in the hotel room and drawing, the skies cleared after the day of rain, so we bolted to Wilkes Dam to take advantage of the beautiful luminescent sky.
Brantford Wilkes Dam Photo Melody Wren
The dam built in the 1850s by George Samuel Wilkes diverted water into a canal to power the mills downstream. Wilkes was the Mayor of Brantford in 1853. A beautiful forest, tall grasses, and birdwatching made for a lovely few hours. Walking down to the canal, we spotted a female eagle sitting close to a nest. She sat on the branches for ages, longer than we stayed in the area. It was certainly a nice change from urban hiking with the peace of rural quiet featuring many natural wonders. The loop is a favourite among cyclists and joggers. After walking up a set of concrete stairs, a dirt path runs alongside the canal, all part of the Grand Valley Trail marked by white blazes.
A lovely tea tray from Golden Teapot includes gluten-free treats. Photo Melody Wren
The final morning we were back in the pool for a final fun-filled frolic before dressing in our finest to have tea at the Golden Teapot in the historical estate of Glenhyrst. The tea room had beautifully decorated tables for a proper afternoon tea, and the whole room was festively decorated for Christmas. Each person was served a two-tiered platter with scones, tea sandwiches and miniature sweet treats. As soon as it all arrived, the 7-year-old granddaughter said wistfully, “ I think I must be in heaven”, summing up what we were all thinking.
The littles enjoyed every morsel, including four-year-old grandson devouring his cucumber sandwiches with apples cut into snowman shapes. The historic home and surrounded gardens were home to Edmund Cockshutt, a local philanthropist who gifted the property to the city to be a place of art and culture. Taking time for high tea in the Golden Teapot was a high point of visiting, enjoying a proper traditional afternoon tea and all that entails. Young grandchildren enjoyed every bit of it, and we all felt thoroughly pampered.
High Tea for all at the colourful Golden Teapot. Photo Melody Wren
It was a haven of normalcy in a very abnormal time.
On our way out of town, we stopped to see the Wayne Gretzky Sports Center to see “The Great One”, a twelve-foot majestic sculpture of Brantford’s hometown hero, Wayne Gretzky. Cast in bronze, the statue shows Gretzky hoisting the Stanley Cup over his head in triumphant victory. A life-size depiction of Wayne as a child standing in between his parents, Walter and Phyllis Gretzky stand as a family and look on. It seemed a fitting moment to leave Brantford filled with history, delicious food and outdoor trail walks.
Wayne Gretzky statue Photo Melody Wren