“Get your motor runnin’, head out on the highway…”
We’re closer than you think. The drive between downtown Toronto and downtown Montréal clocks in at around only 5.5 hours of highway time on the 401 if you take the straight, point A-to-B route with one or two quick stops along the way. Or you could take your time and enjoy the ride a bit more by exploring alternative routes and taking in some of the one-of-a-kind sights. Either way, when it comes to road-tripping between Canada’s two biggest cities, especially in the current safety-minded environment, there are a few things you can do to make the drive seamless and enjoyable.
First off, if you’re anything like yours truly, you will want to get your road-trip ducks in a row before you leave by prepping the obvious stuff: an easy-to-reach tote bag with food (a packed lunch and handy snacks), water bottles, coffee thermos, fully charged phone, sunglasses and PPE (masks and hand sanitizer). The less obvious stuff: bring disinfectant wipes and a roll of toilet paper, both of which can bring great peace of mind during those, let’s say, unanticipated stops.
Secondly, and again this may seem obvious, leave Toronto with a full tank of gas. Most cars these days can hold enough fuel to make the journey on one tank, which is an important consideration if you’re trying to minimize in-person interaction with the thousands upon thousands of other travellers using the same gas stations and other facilities along the 401 corridor. Chief among these are the ONroute service centres (or plazas, as they call them) that dot the highway.
ONroute: Plazas, picnics and pets
Although well-maintained and COVID-protocols conscious, ONroute plazas are nonetheless hubs for enormous numbers of truck drivers and regular folks looking for food, fuel, bathroom breaks and respite from the road. Fortunately, they have a really cool feature that isn’t always obvious, yet is ideal for physically distanced travelling: large picnic and pet-friendly areas where you and the family can spread out. Typically located at the rear of the plaza, behind the big-rig parking lots, these spacious park-like areas are easy to overlook, but represent an oasis of calm where you can enjoy your packed lunch and/or take your pooch for a run. Picnic areas, closed for the winter, re-open on the Victoria Day weekend (National Patriots’ Day in Québec), which begins May 22 this year.
Although ONroute plazas are, on average, spaced about 80 km apart from each other, it wouldn’t hurt to plan out any potential roadside pit stops along your journey… If only there was a map of all the ONroute locations between T-O and MTL. Drivers of electric vehicles will want to note that, currently, ONroute doesn’t offer EV charging stations, though Petro-Canada does at five locations alongside the 401 between the two cities.
On the road again
One of the nice features of the drive from T-O to MTL is its simplicity: turn onto the 401 east and drive straight until you get to downtown Montréal… voila! Once you’ve cruised through the burbs of the GTA (Markham, Oshawa, Ajax etc.), almost immediately after Cobourg, the three lanes of the highway relax into two and the smooth sailing begins. At this point you’ll want to keep your eyes on the right for The Big Apple: a giant red, happy-faced, apple-shaped structure (which has been responsibly wearing a mask throughout the pandemic). Pick up one of the amazing apple pies from its adjacent country store, or some onsite-made 401 Cider to celebrate your arrival in Montréal.
Belleville is the next whistle stop en route to Kingston, which marks the halfway point between Toronto and Montréal. If you’re anything like yours truly, by the time you’ve motored around Kingston and its several cleverly hidden speed traps where the highway divides, the 401 might be taking a wee bit of a toll on your soul. This, you’ll be happy to note, is easily remedied.
Drive the islands
The next big town is the nearby Gananoque, which is where highway-weary drivers can slide off to the right as they pass by and ease onto the well-marked, ridiculously picturesque Thousand Islands Parkway. If you’re one of those folks who likes to document the many over-sized odes to Canadiana that are found on highways across the country (like the aforementioned Big Apple), then pause for a break in Gananoque to take in the Leaping Muskie Fish Statue in all its concrete glory. Or not. The Parkway offers a bounty of scenic eye candy at a much more relaxed pace. You can take the Parkway all the way to Butternut Bay, just before Brockville, where you can seamlessly re-merge with the 401 on your way to Cornwall, the last large-ish Ontario outpost before the Quebec border.
© Hôtel Bonaventure Montréal
Bienvenue au Québec!
Once past Cornwall, you can practically catch a whiff of the smell of fresh bagels wafting out of Montréal with only about an hour to go before arrival. It’s a very straightforward drive with only a few things for drivers to keep in mind:
- Once across the Quebec border, the 401 becomes highway 20 – nothing to get excited about, just a change in name.
- Unless you happen to be going to north Montréal, as you approach Vaudreuil-Dorion, do not be tempted to exit onto highway 30 going north. Just keep going straight. In a matter of minutes, the highway will transition into a large residential boulevard with stop lights as you pass over Île Perrot and onto the Island of Montréal.
- You might expect some construction (the result of a years-long road improvement project), but for the most part east/west work on the 20 has been completed, so again just keep going straight, following the signs that say “Centre-ville” (downtown). And that’s it — congratulations on a successful road trip to Montréal!
And stay tuned for a Montréal Drivers’ Survival Guide: How to navigate the quirks of the city’s roads and rules once you’ve arrived here, coming soon.