Tara McAndrew in front of the tiniest house in Toronto. TARA MCANDREW PHOTO.

Hyperlocal travel: 160 unusual destinations in Ontario

It has been a whole year without travel—who would have thought it would be this long?

I will admit that I have had some longing and melancholic moments thinking about the travel I’ve missed in the past 12 months, but I have a pretty broad definition of what travel means to me and can easily create small travel adventures close to home. Independent travellers are some of the most creative and adaptable people I know. When plans go sideways or weird—like during a pandemic, for instance—you figure it out and go with the flow. 

That’s what Kitchener resident Tara McAndrew did last year as the cancellations for her travel plans fell like dominoes due to the global pandemic.  

“When we hit lockdown in March 2020, all the travel plans for the year went out the window,” McAndrew said. “But I’m not one to sit still!” 

As a language teacher, travel coach and blogger, ongoing travel is a natural part of her schedule. She cancelled a conference in New Orleans, a trip to Poland with her mother to explore family heritage, a side trip to Latvia and her much anticipated first visit to Newfoundland. 

Instead, McAndrew fed her wanderlust with hyperlocal travel. She didn’t have to look much further than her own bookshelf for some travel opportunity and inspiration. 

“I purchased a book at this cute independent bookstore in Toronto early last year [2020],” McAndrew recalled. “I thought it was a catchy title—Top 160 Unusual Things to See in Ontario by Ron Brown. I thought it would look cool on a coffee table or when I’m doing less international travel, I could dive into it, but at the time it was one to buy and set aside.”

By chance, it became the travel guide to her 2020 summer and a series of adventures took shape. McAndrew bought several Ontario maps at a corner gas station and plotted all 160 unusual things with tiny dots to see where they were geographically. She looked at routes wondering if she could visit all of them in one year or whether she could rent a van and travel for four to six weeks over the summer. She started with the sites closest to home that could be reached by day trips, as there were no vans to be rented anywhere in the province; everyone else had the same idea! 

“The very first site I visited was the Waterloo Pioneer Memorial Tower,” McAndrew said. “Ironically, I had been teaching at a house across the street from the tower—for two years—and I had no idea it was around the corner or about its historical significance. And I found out about it in a book?!” she laughed. 

Another favourite site McAndrew visited was the Cryptic Gravestone located in Rushes Cemetery just north of the village of Wellesley.  

“The linguistic side of me was pretty jazzed to find the cryptic gravestone,” she said. “I love codes, puzzles and languages, I was so excited to find and learn about something so unusual right in our own backyard.”

McAndrew’s explorations became more special when she crossed paths with locals along the way. 

“They made the story much richer and expanded my ideas of what makes a site or destination interesting,” she added.

McAndrew doesn’t just visit the sites and snap a photo for Instagram. She dives into additional research and writes detailed blogs on her website Travel with TMc. She visited 24 sites during the summer and fall of 2020 and has seven posts written about her hyperlocal travels.

McAndrew plans to visit more ‘unusual things’ this year, when it’s safe to do so, and wants to get to all 160 destinations in the book in the next few years. 

“It doesn’t replace international travel, but I feel satisfied with what I’ve set out to do. It’s like the sense of travelling; it’s allowed me to see new places, be outdoors and on the move and learn like I would do when I’m travelling anywhere else,” she said.

Latvia, Poland and Newfoundland will still be there when the pandemic ends and McAndrew has every intention of travelling there as she originally planned. In the meantime, she’ll grab the map from the glove compartment and set off down the highway for more hyperlocal travels.