Two Great Days In And Around Port Dover

I’m feasting on a trio of fine tacos on the sunny patio at Burning Kiln Winery, a few minutes outside of this city.

Dusty Zamecnik of Hometown Brew Co., who I met during a tour of the area last year, spots me and comes over to shake hands.

“Welcome home,” he says.

I’ve taken trips to the north shore of Lake Erie almost every summer the past few years and I definitely feel at home. I’ve grown to love the towns and the rich farmers’ fields and the beaches, not to mention the great food and wine and craft beer. But I think it’s people like Zamecnik – friendly, outgoing, no-nonsense small-town folks – that seal the deal for me.

It’s hard to beat an outdoor lunch at The Beach House in Port Dover. Best palm trees in the province!

I started my latest visit at The Beach House, a fun spot on the beach in Port Dover. Over a fine and substantial lunch of fresh perch tacos, owner Peter Knechtel tells me about the famous palm trees that tower over the beach in front of his restaurant.

“A builder in town years ago was trying to draw attention to his business and put one out in from of his place. I thought it was a good idea, so I had four of them brought in for the summer.

“My Dad hated them. He said they were phony.”

Then one year the trees were late being delivered. Knechtel’s Dad turned to him and said, “Where the heck are those trees?’”

“I thought you hated them,’ Knechtel replied.

“Well,” his father answered. “You can’t get rid of them now.”

Port Dover’s beach is wonderful; a deep stretch of sand near a quiet harbour with a pretty lighthouse. The town has tons of t-shirt places and shops selling inflatable surf toys, sandals and other summer necessities. There’s a steady stream of folks heading from the beach to The Arbor, a long-time fixture in town that sells burgers, hot dogs, fries and an orange-flavoured soft drink called a Golden Glow.

(I spotted someone’s TripAdvisor review the other day that said if Richie and Fonzie from “Happy Days” ever visited Port Dover, this is where they’d come. And that sounds about perfect to me.)

We drive (Norfolk Tourism was kind enough to get a driver for me on my visit) through fields of asparagus, soybeans, knee-high corn, blueberries, raspberries, ginseng, tomatoes and more as we head to Charlotteville Brewing, a stylish craft beer spot that’s housed in an atmospheric old barn that the owners had brought in from near London. Their retail space opened only a couple of months ago.

Melanie Doerksen and her husband, Tim Wilson, make excellent beer, including a fun IPA called Hopsy Dazy. Their place is decorated with flowers, antique chests and telephones and a beautiful bar top fashioned from a fallen tree, plus other bits that make the place feel more like a boutique winery than a beer place. There’s also a beautiful loft that they use for meetings and even yoga.

From there it’s over to Ramblin’ Road Brewery Farm in the village of La Salette, where they make a variety of tasty beers, including one where the beer is washed over sliced, local potatoes, which they also use to make kettle chips. It’s a light beer that tastes almost as much as wine as it does beer.
They also make a true red beer and a fun apple wit beer.

Owner John Picard, who started off in the peanut and snack business, tells me he enjoys making interesting brews.

“Craft beer is all about being a little off the wall,” he tells me.

Picard said tobacco was once the king crop in these parts, but that places like Ramblin’ Road and Charlotteville Brewing are putting Norfolk County on the map these days and helping rejuvenate communities.

I didn’t get a chance to try one, but there’s also an on-site restaurant with a series of burgers on the menu. Come to think of it, I forgot to pick up a bag of kettle chips.

A few minutes away in the city of Delhi is the Second Mouse Cheesetique, where owner Teresa Wybo sells a variety of excellent cheeses, as well as olive oils and other gourmet delights.

“Folks told me the shop wouldn’t work in Delhi but here I am,” Wybo tells me. “I thought if I was good enough and unique it would work. People come from all over to shop here.

New Limburg Brewing Co. is another fine beer spot in the area; a fun and tasty brewery that’s housed in an old school. You’ll find old blackboards in the tasting room, as well as games and Dutch foods, the owners have moved to Canada from Holland. The emphasis here is on Belgian beers, but they also made a spiffy maple beer for Canada Day. In addition to fine beer, they have live music nights, as well as karaoke, trivia and movie nights.

The highlight of my Port Dover visit is an afternoon bike ride and food tour with Red Apple Rides, a leisurely ride of roughly 16 km’s that took us to the Frisky Beaver Winery, a stunning hillside B&B and along the coast of Lake Erie, where we sampled some Burning Kiln wine on Muskoka chairs overlooking the lake.

Owners Phil and Marie Poss give us hot dogs to sample from The Arbor, adding fresh locally produced cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and other bits. From there we cycle through a pretty municipal park and take in a small waterfall before stopping at Frisky Beaver, a fun (there’s that word again) winery where they avoid taking themselves too seriously. In addition to the Frisky Beaver blend, they take leftover grape juice and bottle it under the label “Crappy Wine.”

Frisky Beaver makes fun, approachable wines in Port Dover.

It’s actually pretty decent stuff, and they do a nice job with their higher-end label, called Smoke and Gamble Cellars.

We nibble on crackers, grapes and local cheeses as we sample the wines. But not too much, given we’re on our bikes.

From there it’s over to Clonmel Castle, a historic home that’s been turned into a B&B with a massive lawn and lovely, distinctive rooms. One room is done up as a bit of a “Fifty Shades of Grey” theme, with a feathered boa, a book of erotic photographs and a set of toy handcuffs. Another room has a bust of Elvis Presley and a full-size suit of armour.

It’s an utterly delightful spot with a wonderful owner, Lynneee Chatelaine. We sit on the side porch and nibble on little sandwiches and cookies with tea and iced coffee on a hot July day. I make a note to stop in and chat with Chatelaine next time in the area, as she strikes me as someone with great stories to tell.

Phil and Marie tell us stories about local history as we roll along, soaking in views of lovely, deep green fields and rich farms as we make our way south to the lake. We pull up our bikes outside David’s Restaurant, a lovely spot overlooking Lake Erie. There’s a beautiful garden and seating area out back with Muskoka chairs and a glassed-in patio for windy days.

Phil and Marie have arranged steak skewers and glasses of rich, red wine from Burning Kiln for us at David’s, where we sit outside and gaze on the wide, blue expanse of Lake Erie. We ride past beautiful, tidy homes and farms on our way back to town, where our final stop is for fresh perch and cold, local beers at the Erie Beach Hotel, where they were putting the finishing touches on a rooftop bar that promises to add another great element to a wonderful Ontario beach town.

I spend the night at Long Point Eco-Adventures, where they have marvellous tents done up in fine style, with comfortable beds and all the other comforts of a hotel room, including free Wi-Fi. They have several cottage-like units as well, and a new breakfast room with fine views out over Long Point and Lake Erie.

There’s an on-site planetarium, as well as a zip line course, axe-throwing and other activities. I’ve stayed there on both my recent visits to the area and always look forward to it.

Long Point Eco-Adventures is a lovely spot to stay the night and enjoy nature, or maybe check out the stars at their planetarium.

The next morning is a huge treat; a Lake Erie and Long Point tour with Graham Ferguson, who used to work the pontoon boats at the JW Marriott in Muskoka and now runs Long Point Island Hugger Tours. Ferguson takes a group of us out to a lovely marsh and a quiet canal lined with modest cottages, explaining the geography of the area as we go.

We also dock at a hidden beach out on the point, dipping our toes in the warm water and enjoying the solitude of an area that feels a bit like the Florida Everglades.

Ferguson has worked as a community-based nurse and offers discounts to folks in retirement homes and nursing homes.

“I had a fellow on board recently who hadn’t been on a boat in years. He said he used to love to go boating with his wife. When we finished our tour I asked him what his favourite part was. He said ‘Watching my wife’s hair blow in the wind, just like it used to.’”

Long Point Island Hugger Tours offers wonderful boat rides out on Long Point.

We take our lunch at Burning Kiln, where I sip a lovely glass of rose on the patio and chat briefly with Zamecnik. I’ve been here a couple times before and always enjoy it. To me, it’s one of the top wineries in Canada.

We also try some fine wines down the road at Inasphere Winery, where Ryan and Chantelle and their family grow a variety of grapes, as well as other fruits and vegetables. They make their own pico de gallo with tomatoes they grow themselves down in marshy land along the lake, where Ryan’s grandfather built dikes to keep out the water.

“Our five-year-old loves to help pick them,” Chantelle tells me. “If they’re too ripe he loves to throw them out with a big ‘splat.’’

Back in town, I tour the Port Dover Harbour Museum, where I read great stories about local pioneers, including Abigail Becker. The story goes that Becker on one stormy November day saved the life of seven sailors who were shipwrecked on the shoals of Long Point, where she lived in a one-room cabin with several children. Her husband was away, and Becker is said to have waded into chin-high water to save the sailors’ lives.

They say Becker loved few things more than sitting in the shade of her cottage, sitting in her rocking chair and smoking a pipe. She raised 17 children alone after her husband died. I’d have loved to have met her.

I tour some fine shops on Main Street in Port Dover, including The Dover Cheese Shop and Urban Parisian, where they sell lovely macaroons and lemon meringue pie and make a wonderful iced coffee latte. I also try another nearby craft beer spot, Concession Road Brewing in the nearby town of Jarvis. They make a variety of great seasonal beers and also feature locally made games in a former firehouse.

My final stop is dinner at Lago, an attractive restaurant on Port Dover’s Main Street that’s run by chef Ryan Rivard, who’s worked at a number of top restaurants across the country. 

Rivard tells me he’s sticking to mostly tried and true Italian classics in a city where diners are still a tad conservative. He does a good pasta cacio y pepe but I found his carbonara with chicken much more interesting; a delightful dish I’d love to sample again.

I can’t help but notice the tattooed sayings on his arms. One says “The real truth about it is nobody gets it right,” one arm says. The other says, “The real truth about it is we’re all supposed to try.”

Read more of Jim Byers' travels on his blog here.