Canada’s southernmost region is a vast agricultural landscape crucial for producing a wealth of crops that keep Canadian bellies fed. Its climate is fairer than much of the rest of the country, and compared to the metropolitan areas around Toronto, its real estate is a veritable bargain.
For drivers, though, the trip from the western end of Lake Ontario to Windsor can rival a drive across the prairies for its flat, straight, and deathly boring expanses. It can also be a diabolical journey in the winter with fierce storms whipped up off Lakes Huron and Erie, pelting the region with so much snow that visibility can vanish in minutes.
But for those willing to skip highway 401 and hug the northern shoreline of Lake Erie, Canada’s deep south offers one of the loveliest and most tranquil drives in the country, at least for three seasons of the year. So, with autumn waning, my girlfriend, Allie and I grabbed the keys to a bright orange Toyota GR86 and hit the road.
The Town of Kingsville is situated roughly 40 km south-east of Windsor and would serve as the official starting point of our adventure. Visiting the town was a necessity to catch the ferry to Pelee Island, but we were surprised to find such a vibrant and affluent community ripe with classic inns, restaurants with patios, and little shops bustling with activity, despite our late season visit.
Recent trips on the big and busy ferries to Vancouver Island, Prince Edward Island and Manitoulin Island didn’t prepare us for our voyage on the Pelee Islander II that was laden more with farm implements and transport trucks than passenger cars. Despite being the smallest of the Great Lakes, Erie can generate some notorious waves especially in late fall, enough, as it turns out, to be felt on the modern, 62-metre-long ferry, though mercifully not enough to turn our stomachs. Landing on the island, we learned the recent grape harvest required the steady flow of trucks to transport the vineyard’s bounty to be pressed into some of the region’s famed vino.
With most of the island’s touristy spots closed for the season, we relished the quiet to drive around unencumbered by gawking doddlers, and free to hike in peace to the historic Pelee Island Lighthouse and to Canada’s southernmost tip (a spot that shares its latitude with Crescent City, California). Boasting the warmest growing season in Canada, Pelee Island is home to hundreds of species of flora found nowhere else in the Great White North, not to mention spectacular birds on their migratory path, like the pterodactyl-sized golden eagle we spotted soaring overhead. An afternoon of exploring was just enough, and we caught the ferry back to mainland to enjoy a surprisingly affordable waterfront cottage rental in Leamington.
East Along the North Shore
If you’re forceful with Google Maps, you can place waypoints along the Erie shoreline, ensuring a route as far away from the 401 as possible, in our case resulting in a 4-hour, 300-kilometer itinerary having us visit a few key ports-of-call. It’s a relaxing drive along Highway 3, the cropland sprinkled with a surprising number of modern, stately homes, most backing on to the lake, even in areas surprisingly distant from urban employment centres making us wonder just what it is that those lucky people do for a living. Getting closer to the many port towns, the farms give way to vacation homes and small cottages, many of which appear to be time capsules of holidays spent in the 1950s.
We rolled into the village of Erieau just in time for our morning coffee break, marvelling at how it wraps around the impressive, protected marina filled with fishing charter vessels, sail boats and power yachts. Erieau sits on a peninsula reaching out toward Rondeau and is amidst a regentrification with a strip of cool shops and restaurants along the main boulevard hinting at the potential of further redevelopment to come.
Meanwhile, about an hour east (and just in time for a lunch break), vacationers from London and St. Thomas have kept tight-lipped on a place that’s already fully regentrified, and possibly Lake Erie’s best-kept secret: the town of Port Stanley. The expansive beach rivals Grand Bend or Wasaga, and is clearly the heart of the town, supported by an abundance of restaurants, a fun tourist train and even a local festival theatre. Having earned a reputation as a primo place to retire, developers have taken note and blocks of modern luxury homes have sprung up giving the community an almost southern California vibe.
The wide open, slow meander of Erie’s North Shore begs for a grand touring car, or perhaps a classic convertible to really maximize enjoyment of its sights, sounds, smells, and scenery. To that end, our Toyota’s nimble and playful nature was largely wasted for much of the route. Still, its frugality and amenities like a CarPlay-equipped infotainment system, good sound system, and heated seats for chilly autumn mornings kept us pleased to have its company. But once east of Port Rowan, the route produced more undulating roads that carved through vibrant deciduous forests, presenting a few tight twists and turns to exercise the GR86’s formidable capabilities. This stretch seemed to please both the car and driver tremendously.
As a genuine sports car, its steering is quick and its ride stiff, yet even after a full day on the road, neither of us were tired of being in the GR86. And for such a diminutive machine, its trunk and backseat easily swallowed a weekend’s worth of luggage.
Much More to See
Allie and I are already planning a repeat trip for next summer, but with more time to do the things we didn’t get to do (like explore the HMCS Ojibwa – a Cold War era submarine dry-docked in Port Burwell), most likely on our motorcycles. Two days simply isn’t enough.
Even still, facing the early autumn dusk, we prioritized a stop at one of our regular motorcycling haunts before bee-lining home. Port Dover, famous for its wild Friday the 13th bike bashes also happen to serve up our favourite fresh-caught Lake Erie perch with a mountain of fries ordered from the window at Knechtels on the Beach and enjoyed, bundled up, sitting at a picnic table by the water.
Ontario’s bounty of tourist destinations can spoil a traveller with so many things to see and do throughout the province. This trip reminds us that while Prince Edward County, cottage country and Niagara get so much attention, Lake Erie’s north shore is an easily accessible gem hidden in plain sight.