The top 10 cheap weekend escapes from Toronto
The top cheap weekend escapes from Toronto are perfect for those of us with plenty of stress and not a lot of money. While nothing comes even near-free these days, if you've got a couple hundred bucks lying around, you can be one of the privileged cavalry stuck on a 400 series highway on a Friday afternoon, too. Yippee! More seriously, we live in a ridiculously beautiful province, and why should this rugged, lake-dotted landscape be reserved for those with deep pockets? It shouldn't. So go to the Falls (so cheap and so good), do the cottage thing like you own one (thanks Ontario Parks), or pitch a tent under the stars.
Here are my picks for the top cheap weekend escapes from Toronto.
Go camping at a Provincial Park
This one is a no-brainer. Provincial parks are the poor person's cottage, and in many cases, every bit as fun. Prices typically range between $25 and $50 a night depending on the location of one's camp ground and what amenities it has to offer (showers, electricity, etc). What park you choose will, of course, be determined by a number of factors, but personal favourites include Balsam Lake (relatively close to Toronto, nice beach), Killbear (rugged Canadian landscape and lots of private camp sites), Sandbanks (in Prince Edward County, great beach), and, of course, Algonquin for its true wilderness experience (note: backcountry camping rates are much lower than car-camping rates).
Be in awe of Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls is one of the best cheap weekend getaways in the province. Just over an hour away from Toronto, you can get there cheap if you hop on the Megabus for less than 20 bucks, stay at one the city's many cheap motels (top picks include the Advance Inn and and the Cadillac), and skip the Keg in favour of the Flying Saucer, a true gem of kitsch in a city that's known for such things. While there, you can people watch along Clifton Hill (don't bother with the attractions except the Ferris Wheel), hit up the Butterfly Conservatory, and fall in love (once again) with the Falls.
Rent a cottage or cabin through Airbnb
Although nowhere near as robust as its urban listings, Airbnb does have a selection of cabins and vacation properties on offer throughout Ontario, some of which look absolutely fantastic. There are roughly 230 current listings for vacation-type properties on the site, a number which is split between rooms for rent (kinda creepy) and entire buildings (much better. One of my personal favourites is this rustic treehouse-like space in Plantagenet, which comes in at roughly $75 a night.
Hit the beach at the Breakers
The Breakers is one of the resorts that you count yourself lucky to have come across. It's clean, the accommodations are nice (if basic), it the resort is based right on one of Ontario's nicest beaches in Cobourg. The resort offers both motel-style rooms (though they're typically a bit nicer than what you might associate with motels) and two-bedroom housekeeping cottages complete with gas fireplaces and jacuzzi tubs. Rooms (with kitchenettes) start at $105 in the low season, while cottages start at $150.
Go camping - but with a roof
Here's a confession: I hate sleeping in tents. In mid-summer, they get brutally stuffy and I never wake up without some ailment or another from sleeping on the ground. I'm just prissy that way. This is why the roofed accommodations at Ontario parks are so appealing. Almost invariably cheaper than renting a private cottage, the many cottages and cabins offered at provincial parks are a step above car camping that still won't blow the budget. Rates start at $55 for a ranger cabin in Algonquin Park and go up from there depending on how much space you need. Note well: you need to book early to have any chance of securing one of these places.
Try out an oTENTik
If you're not into the tent thing, but you also don't need much by way of amenities, another option is to try out one of Parks Canada's oTENTiks. These structures are a combination of a cabin and a tent, and make rainy days and snooping bears way more bearable than paltry tent. For now these hybrid structure can be found at Thousand Islands National Park, though our fingers are cross that they're coming to Rouge Park in the near future. oTENTiks are $90 a night.
Do Muskoka on the cheap
The rugged beauty of Muskoka will generally cost you an arm and a leg, but there are a few exceptions to this rule, one of which is the above linked Spring Lake Resort. Something between a motel and a bonafide lakeside resort, it's a way to partake in cottage country without going broke. A standard room starts at $109 in high season ($79 if you don't mind cool weather), and offers you access to the lake, AC, an extra bed, and WiFi. This ain't the Ritz, but the setting is beautiful and you can drink until your heart's content. Sold.
A few years ago, the average Torontonian looking to get away for a weekend would look at Hamilton as a smoggy roadside vista while crossing the Burlington SkyWay on the way to Niagara Falls. Not so anymore. Hamilton is a contender. While an NHL team might not be in Steeltown's future, the food scene is booming, live music ain't no slouch, and West Queen West could learn a few things about how to foster a gallery scene. You know, Hamilton is also kinda beautiful, located, as it is, on the edge of the Niagara Escarpment. Go, enjoy -- you might buy a house there when it's all said and done. In the meantime, rent a cheap motel or B&B as par of your reconnaissance.
Witness the rebirth of Detroit (before it all changes)
Depending on how (un)sanitized you wish your vacation to be, Detroit might be the three-hours-from-Toronto destination for you. Here you can explore the ruins of the US industry and the burgeoning spirit of a America, one that's driven by the an enterprising drive that delights in opportunities like a bankrupt city. Sure, the rebirth of Detroit (tenuous as it is) ain't built off of the egos of the city's fore-bearers, but maybe there's such a thing as second chances? Go super-cheap at the Detroit Hostel or hit up the St. Regis (it's not quite as nice as it sounds) for something budget but not cheap. The Airbnb options are plentiful as well. I hear the food scene is on the serious rise.
Plan a staycation
This isn't a cop-out. Playing tourist in one's hometown is amazing if you know what you're doing. Toronto hotels aren't generally cheap, but there are exceptions to every rule. And if you're looking to spend a bit because you're saving on travel costs, two solid local options worth noting are One King West (oh, the view) and the Gladstone. When was the last time you looked at this city with strange eyes? Explore our top notch beaches, hang around the lake, have a picnic in a ravine (don't forget a knife), or dine at a new restaurant. Toronto - it's yours to discover. Do it.
Photo of an oTENTik