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Exploring St. Jacobs And The Waterloo Region
By Jamie Ross
For Travel Writers' Tales

I remember as a young boy when my father, during the weeks leading up to one particular Christmas, had ensconced himself in our basement for hours on end. I was warned that the depths of our home were temporarily out-of-bounds, so I sat upstairs and listened to the strange sounds from below, with an over-powering sense of curiosity and wonder. On Christmas morning I was invited down. He had built a wonderful model railway that would eventually take up the majority of my bedroom.

Replica of a Canadian National passenger train rushes past a station.

All Aboard

I suppose that is why I was so excited to visit the St. Jacobs & Aberfoyle Model Railway, a delightful museum that recreates the great rail era. I entered with a sense of anticipation similar to that December morning long ago - but nothing could have prepared me for this magnificent display. Here, in an elaborate layout that covers 279-square metres, stood an overwhelming scene of amazing detail, replicating Southern Ontario in the late 1950's. Both of Canada's major railways, the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific, are here running on separate rights-of-way. Models of late steam locomotives and first-generation diesels, authentically detailed for specific prototypes, provide the power. There are more than 250 freight cars and it takes six operators in a control tower above the viewing floor to run everything. The trains travel through scenic countryside, passing over bridges, and through tunnels, fields, towns and the Niagara Escarpment. A crowd pleaser is the night scene, when the room lighting dims and hundreds of tiny lights come on inside the buildings, houses and rail cars. You can hear the lonely whistles of the trains passing through the darkness.

Old Order Mennonites are often seen in St. Jacobs, in horse-drawn wagons

St. Jacobs

As the model railway invokes a hint of nostalgia, so does a visit to the charming village of St. Jacobs, 15 kilometers north of Waterloo. It is like stepping back in time, seeming as though nothing much has changed since the town's Old Order Mennonite settlers arrived here in the early 1800's in Connestoga wagons from Pennsylvania. The jingle of horse tack and the clip-clop of hooves on pavement can still be heard. An open buggy comes into view, driven by a young lady in a long-sleeved print dress, apron and bonnet. In another enclosed horse-drawn wagon sits an old man wearing a wide-brimmed black hat and a small boy in white shirtsleeves and suspenders. The Mennonite farmers pride themselves in maintaining their unique traditions and culture.

Old Silos have been converted to crafty boutiques

While most visitors are drawn to St. Jacobs for its famous market, antiques, quilts and furniture shops, many are also intrigued by its history. St. Jacobs is one of the original Mennonite settlements in Ontario. The "Mennonite Story" at the Visitor Centre houses a Mennonite provides fascinating insights into the history, beliefs and lifestyles of the Mennonite people. The many heritage buildings that line the main street are now upscale boutiques, craft shops and art galleries. The Quilt Gallery showcases beautiful examples of quilting featuring the work of individual artists, as well as groups and guilds. You'll see why this region has become known as "the Quilt Capital of Canada." Work up a thirst from shopping? Drop into Block 3 Brewery to sample some delectable craft beer.

The St. Jacobs Farmers' Market.

To the Market

A short drive south of the village brings you to Canada's largest year round farmers' market, a festival of sights, sounds, and tastes. Local Mennonite and Amish farmers sell their wares; fruit, vegetables, fresh baked bread, cookies, homemade jams, cheeses, meats, clothing and even livestock. At its peak in the summer, the market has over 600 vendors.

Butterflies are Free

"Think of the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory as a tropical escape," says conservatory board chair, Doug Wilson. With some 2,000 free-flying butterflies imported from Costa Rica and the Philippines, the inviting enclave is indeed an escape. With its cascading waterfalls, 75 species of plants and plenty of birds, bugs, turtles and parrots, the conservatory is a nature lover's dream.

The Butterfly Conservatory

On Safari

Also for nature lovers, there is no need to head to Africa to enjoy a safari; the African Lion Safari outside Cambridge allows visitors to view its collection of over a thousand exotic birds and animals from a hundred different species; including lions, elephants, cheetahs, giraffes and white rhinos. The animals are housed in many unique and naturalized environments, including the drive through game reserves. The safari park has also earned an excellent reputation for their breeding, management and care of endangered species.

All this can be found in the Waterloo region, just a short drive from Toronto - where history meets technology, and preservation meets innovation.

Historic Langdon Hall Country House



Langdon Hall Country House -
Waterloo Conference Hotel -
Four Points by Sheraton -


Model Railway Museum -
St. Jacobs -
Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory -
The African Lion Safari -

PHOTOS by Jamie Ross

1. A replica of a Canadian National passenger train rushes past a station.
2. Old Order Mennonites are often seen in St. Jacobs, in horse-drawn wagons.
3. Old Silos have been converted to crafty boutiques.
4. The St. Jacobs Farmers' Market.
5. The Butterfly Conservatory.
6. Historic Langdon Hall Country House.

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