Jim Byers explores Ontario's Southwest.

ALONG ONTARIO’S LAKE ERIE SHORELINE - Great food. Wonderful people. Terrific wines. And great outdoor experiences.

I really had no idea what I was in for when I told the tourism folks at Ontario’s Southwest that I wanted to do a trip along the Lake Erie shoreline. Truth be told, I’ve lived in Toronto for 33 years but had never seen the shore of this Great Lake except from an airplane.

I know. I know. That’s terrible. But I think I’m like a lot of Toronto folks who think about getaways from the city and immediately think north to Muskoka. Or east to the Kawartha’s and Kingston. Or south to Niagara. Lake Huron beckons, for sure, but many folks here don’t know enough about the southwest part our province.

In fairness (he said with a pleading voice), I don’t have any friends or family in Ontario outside the GTA. All of my friends with cottages have them around Muskoka. So that’s been my natural default holiday spot.

Still, I figured a guy who acted as the Toronto Star’s travel editor for five years and still writes regularly for the paper ought to be a lot more familiar with other parts of the province. So, after way too many years of ignorance, I set my sails west and south for terra incognita. And loved it.

I think it had a lot to do with the people and with the utter (not to mention total) lack of pretence.

There were nice homes, for sure. But no billion dollar cottages I could see with precious, $200,000 water ski boats. There were cars. And a lovely highway meandering near the coast. But no traffic jams.

The produce was out in full force. The sun was shining. Those things helped. But I think the people had a huge amount to do with it.

The tone was pretty much set at Oxley Estate Winery in Harrow, my first stop on a three-night swing along what some call the “Forgotten Coast.” My server, Jody Goslin, insisted I try the unoaked Chardonnay with my three-cheese quesadilla. It was a great call for a perfect, still and sunny day on the patio surrounded by perky red geraniums and partly shaded by massive trees.

Goslin is quite the force, and told me all sorts of great stories about the chef, a retired teacher at St. Clair College. The wine is quite good and they do some great work with wines specially designed to thrive in the local, sandy soils.

Equally entertaining was winemaker Rori McCaw at Cooper’s Hawk Vineyards in Harrow, a stunningly designed, modern facility with acres of grass and trees and a bandstand for live music and even a children’s playground; something I don’t recall seeing at any winery I’ve been to anywhere in the world.

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McCaw told me she “likes to play around a little bit” with her wines and explained that the longer growing season has a strong effect on the grapes grown on the north shore of Lake Erie.

“If you came here in late September we’d still be wearing bathing suits around here.”

Ouch. That hurts.

We sat on chairs in the shade of a giant tree and sipped the local Merlot and a nice Pinot Noir, chatting about soil and grape varieties and winemaking styles and tourism and lord knows what else.

I loved Inn 31 in Kingsville and the on-site Jack’s Gastropub (more on that later this week), but the highlight of my stay in town was a chat with Randy Taylor at Randy’s Antiques, a relatively new spot on Main St.

I wandered in to find an absolutely insanely varied shop selling not only lovely antique furniture but old Pirate board games, Star Trek figurines, Al Kaline baseball gloves and tons more. Best of all to my mind (and Randy’s) was an Evel Knievel pinball machine. Randy’s eyes light up like a winning, well, pinball machine, when he talks about finding it in a friend’s basement.

He wears a Hawaiian shirt every day (“because I’m retired”) and seems to charge far less than he could for a lot of items. But I get the feeling he doesn’t care. The man is having a blast after spending a couple decades as an auto “body man” in Vancouver and is back home in southwestern Ontario, where the lifestyle is easy and the folks as friendly as they come.

I admired a nice sunset down at the Kingsville waterfront, where folks are fishing and walking their dogs. The next day is one of the highlights of my trip, a bike ride through Point Pelee National Park.

I posed for photos at the sign marking the 42 nd parallel, which puts this part of Canada at about the same latitude as Florence, Italy, and wandered out to the point itself.

They have a lovely boardwalk that winds through endless marshlands filled with wildlife, and there’s a great viewing platform, to boot.

The drive from Kingsville to Port Stanley took me past low-key produce stands selling tomatoes as red as a southern Ontario barn, as well as sweet corn, deep green cucumbers and brilliant red raspberries. I passed small, tidy homes with wooden porches and handsome farms and pretty churches with spires rising into the blue summer sky. I stopped for a cold drink in Erieau and admired the funky vibe in town, which reminds me of the devil-may-care and artsy attitudes you often find with folks who live on the Toronto Islands. I spotted a pretend road sign that says “Retired and Broke Drive.” The town strikes me as a wonderful spot to spend a very laid-back beach holiday.

I also passed through Blenheim, where I spot the kind of sign you only find in small towns: “Jimmy’s Barber Shop and Dry Cleaning Depot.”

I rolled into Port Stanley and fell in love again. It’s a fabulous town, with a great beach and a waterfront restaurant/bar called GT’s that feels like southern California. I tried the orangeade at Mackie’s, a famous spot on the water and admired the firm bodies walking the beach or playing Frisbee.

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Part of Port Stanley is a great beach town. But part is a southern Ontario resort town with a different vibe, entirely. I paused to admire the smart clothing in the window at the shops on Main Street (of course) and had a great chat with Barb Booth, who sells a mixture of seeds and dried fruit called “Barb’s Brickle” at a small shop called The Storehouse. (As I write, my wife and I are going through the only bag I bought pretty quickly, which makes me think I might need a return trip. Or a mailing address for more.)

I enjoyed a lovely room at The Windjammer Inn and an even better meal on the large, wraparound porch, which made me jealous as can be. I dined on a marvellous salad with local greens, radishes, strawberries and almonds and wolfed down a creamy risotto with three types of green peas, flavourful Parmesan cheese and perfectly cooked shrimp and scallops. My server offered some great Ontario wine suggestions, too.

The next day I spent a fabulous morning kayaking Big Creek with Brian Craig of Long Point Eco-Adventures , one of those people who just loves his job and lets it show. We passed towering, ancient maples and more Kentucky coffee trees and admire the black and blue-winged damsel flies that dance over the surface of the creek, which some call “The Canadian Amazon” due to the diversity of life you’ll find. The creek moves slowly in these parts and about the only work you have to do is paddle around fallen trees. We stopped for a quiet snack of local strawberry pastries and fresh berries, then finish up an hour later.

I wasn’t sure what to expect at Burning Kiln Winery , but my ears perked up when I learned that the winemaker, Andrzej Lipinski is also the head guy at Colaneri in Niagara, one of my faves. Lipinski insisted on me trying just about every type of wine he makes, and I was slain by the quality. He uses the Italian method of drying grapes after they’re picked to give them more flavour prior to being pressed, and it results in what I think is some of the best wine I’ve had anywhere. The Cab Frank is particularly hefty and impressive, but the crisp whites and softer reds and the not even remotely sweet roses are equally pleasing. (More on Lipinski and Port Stanley and Point Pelee coming up in later blogs, by the way.)

I rolled into Port Dover and was immediately charmed once again. I grew up in northern California and my family has a cabin near Santa Cruz Beach, south of San Francisco. Port Dover feels a lot like home to me, with colourful shops selling bright green and orange and blue inner tubes. There are some cool shops to check out and I stopped to admire the palm trees they plant each summer outside Callahan’s Bar.

Dinner that night was the foodie highlight of my trip; a stop at Twisted Lemon in Cayuga. I sampled too many of the addictive lemon pepper bread twists and dine on beef short ribs with garlic, malt and a raspberry glaze in a serving big enough for Fred Flintstone.

I was quite taken with chef Dan Megna, who has worked in some of the top restaurants in the province and tells delightful stories of turning his former home into a restaurant. I was wearing a Hawaiian shirt at dinner as it’s the only clean thing I can find in my bag. I make a joke about it but Megna just laughed

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’ve got tattoos and a bandana and ride a motorcycle. I’m in no position to judge.”

I checked in for the night at the Lalor Estate Inn (now closed, unfortunately) in nearby Dunnville, a massive, red brick home with a wraparound porch big enough for a rock concert and a huge lawn with towering, old trees. Co-owner Judy Brough made me feel like a long-lost friend and we chatted for a while before I hit the sack in a huge room with a sun room and old-style bath and a TV and sofa and old-time furnishings. (More later on this great place, including a visit by actress Hilary Swank.) 

The next morning she served up local strawberries piled onto a mountain of whipped cream and a crisp, golden waffle. I sat under gargantuan baskets overflowing with soft red begonias and admired the porch and the garden and the quiet of a southern Ontario town on a summer morning.

I’ll be back.

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