When you think of long sandy beaches, perfect blue water, bikini’s and ice cream stands, Canada may not be the first place that comes to mind, after today it will. We are off in search of sun, water and relaxation, our destination: the western shores of Ontario, Canada. Never ones to miss the opportunity for a scenic drive, our journey begins in Algonac MI, it is here we board the Walpole-Algonac Ferry. Relieved to find only a few cars ahead of us, we are immediately guided onto the ferry, with the engine off and windows down we sit back and enjoy the ride. This ferry line has been crossing the St Clair River for over 100 years, today $7.00 buys us a ride to Canada. After pulling onto shore each car must pass through customs; be sure and have your enhanced driver’s license or passport ready. Once on Walpole Island, Kris has a regular route he follows, within minutes we are following the shoreline of the St Clair River, the view is breathtaking, there are no obstructions, just turquoise water as far as the eye can see. We pass through the tiny towns of Port Lambton, Sombra and Corunna, never without a river view, houses and businesses are situated on the other side of the road. Sarnia is the largest city of the bunch, we stop in at the visitors center to exchange our money and pick up a current Ontario map; there is a wealth if great tourist information, I always end up with an armload of travel guides, maps and brochures! Kris points the car northeast on highway 7, our vacation has just begun.
The drive is easy; not a lot of traffic and good scenery, our first stop is Ipperwash Beach. Unlike any other beach I’ve ever been to, here cars are as much a part of the landscape as people. We follow the road right down to the beach, make a left turn and drive onto the hard-packed sand. Vans and sport utilities are backed up to the shoreline, making easy work of unloading coolers, folding chairs and umbrellas. It is still early in the day, so it is not crowded yet; children and dogs run up and down the sun drenched beach, sunbathers are stretched out on blankets. The thing that may surprise you is the amount of vintage tractors parked on the sand, Farmall seems to be the favorite brand. Used by locals as tow vehicles, they trailer their boats and jet skis to the lake; it’s really quite a sight! After driving to the end and back we jump on Hwy 21 and on to Grand Bend.
The day is becoming hot and hazy, we take the left off of 21 onto Grand Bend’s Main Street, if you did not know better, you’d think you were somewhere on the Atlantic coast. Both sides of the street are lined with shops selling swimwear, sunglasses, flip-flops and souvenir t-shirts. After snatching one of the last open parking spaces, we make our way toward Lake Huron. We pass by stands selling ice cream and fries, racks of sundresses and cover-ups are out on the sidewalk, cafe tables are full of summer tourists. At last we reach the beach, the view is picture perfect. Folks have been coming here since the 1800′s, many Americans own cottages in the area. Recently, the city has spent a bunch of money on landscaping, making Grand Bend even more tourist-friendly; a new boardwalk lines the wide sandy beach, new street lamps and stone sidewalks have been installed. Picnic tables and benches rest in the warm sand, patches of dune grass are protected by small wood fences. The “beach house” is home to washrooms, refreshments and a viewing deck that provides a spectacular overlook of the lake. We climb the concrete stairs to the top, the sun sparkles off the waves as if someone has thrown glitter across the surface, from this height depth changes of the lake are clearly visible. Below, small children are building sand castles while the older kids play beach volleyball, in the distance a boat pulling a parasail streaks by, it is all fun in the sun.
Time for lunch; the Growling Gator restaurant is located beachside, we score a table on the patio with a panoramic view, it doesn’t get much better than this! The menu has a wide variety of items, our waitress is friendly and attentive even though the place is swamped. There is plenty of activity to watch while we wait for our meal to arrive, I hear laughter drift over as kids play in the splash park, groups of bikini-clad girls walk out to the lake. Our meal arrives, our attention now focused on the food in front of us; a crispy green salad with the house dressing and a Canadian Club sandwich made with a chicken breast and peameal bacon are simply delicious and consumed far too quickly. We stroll through town on the way back to the car, stopping in to shops, enjoying the reprieve the air conditioning offers. Main Street is now lined with cars, our parking space is filled as soon as we pull out.
In under a half hour we arrive in the quaint village of Bayfield. The town is one of those sleepy little villages that just ooze charm; weeping willows sway lazily in the gentle summer breeze, patios, decks and porches provide visitors with food, drink and respite. Buildings that house shops look timeless, as if they were planted here long ago and have grown to be part of the natural landscape. We wander in and out of shops selling items that are whimsical and artistic, passing by planters stuffed with bright green sweet potato vines, petunias and lobelia, the sweet scent of flowers carried on the gentle wind, there is a short line of people ordering ice cream cones, so many flavors to choose from. Near the end of the street we pop into a cute little bakery called The Pink Flamingo, a glass display case is filled with tempting homemade treats; Kris and I have an iced coffee and something chocolaty and delicious!
Kryart Studio has taken an old barn and created a psychedelic masterpiece, art flows from the outdoors to the indoors, an artist is busy at work in the yard. Further on brightly colored baskets lean against the front of a store, we browse the pottery shop, then the outdoor sculptures next door. My favorite of the galleries is JMR Art Gallery, home of the Ontario artist. The selection of pieces range from glass and photography to paintings and original jewelry made by the owner herself. Here we discover an artist by the name of Catherine Shane, her vibrantly colored paintings immediately grab our attention, her work is imaginative and fun, depicting fairy-tale like places that I’d love to visit. This is the last shop open this evening, most close around 5 pm, even on weekends. We take a short drive over to the park for one last look at the lake before heading inland. The sun is starting to set, the last of the sunbathers have gone home for the night. A wooden staircase takes us down the steep bluff, past wildflowers in bloom to the empty beach below. It is quiet, peaceful, it’s just the water and us and a few other folks, enjoying the moment.
The day has passed quickly, we are staying in London, Ontario for the next two nights, time to get a move on. Darkness has fallen, nothing left to see, so Kris gets on Hwy 4 and takes us into London. We have been coming to this city for over 20 years now, though things have changed, businesses have come and gone, one of our favorite places to eat still sits on Albert St downtown; Fellini Koolini’s. With the car parked on the street, we make our way inside, it is late, but they are still serving dinner. After making a quick decision we nibble on homemade breadsticks from a jar on the table, they are even better dipped in the seasoned olive oil, the table is covered in brown paper, Italian music, or songs sung by Italians, plays quietly in the background. I look around to see if anything is different since our last visit; Chianti bottles are still strung from the ceiling, a photo of Dean Martin hangs on a wall adjacent to a copy of the Mona Lisa, it’s still the same. Our meal arrives; the Mediterranean salad is wonderful, I love the combination of artichokes, pine nuts and chevre cheese, the dressing perfectly compliments the vegetables. The Quattro Formaggio pizza has a crispy thin crust, the mix of cheeses salty and flavorful, supremely yummy! We chit chat a bit with our waiter, he gives us a few ideas of places to check out over the next two days, I can hardly wait!