Don’t get tide down in the office! Go ahead and make waves at the beach by coming out of your shell and exploring some of Elgin County’s hidden gems.
Trade in your briefcase for a beach bag and head on down to the shores of Lake Erie and explore one of the region’s best beach towns.
Located just twenty minutes south of London, Elgin County has some of the finest stretches of shoreline available in Southwestern Ontario. From the bustle of portside villages to the quieter, more serene atmospheres, Elgin County has the ability to serenade you into another world.
Recently, along with a group I spent a day in Elgin County taking in the sights, sounds and tastes of Port Stanley, home to one of the two Blue Flag beaches in the county.
First stop of the day on the way to Port Stanley was at Wildflowers Tea, a nine-acre farm located just outside St. Thomas, Ontario where co-owner Jane Magri and her family reside. Immediately upon stepping onto the farm you notice that your senses take over as your eyes are drawn to the patches of blossoming wildflowers, your ears soothed by the sound of wind brushing through the trees and your nose as it smells the aroma of a fresh, open field, putting you in an absolute state of tranquility.
While taking a tour of the farm I learned that they not only grow herbs and plants, that are used for their teas and retail products, like Catnip and Althea Officinalis (a natural marshmallow plant) among many others, they also raise chickens for fresh eggs and harvest fresh honey from their own on-site hives.
Being known for their teas, of course we couldn’t leave without trying some! We sampled a very nice mild tea called Simplicity, a blend of chamomile, licorice root, nettle and spearmint. This blend is the perfect drink to have at any time of the day, hot or cold, while providing you with that silky blend and touch of sweetness to warm your body, mind and soul.
After the morning cup of tea we went indoors to see the lovely retail space on the farm. The retail store has a beautiful wooden exterior and a glossy hardwood finish on the inside giving the restored barn a modern and minimalist look. Most of the time the retail space doubles as a yoga/meditation spot for Jane to teach classes as well as hosts birthday parties and events by request.
Next we travelled to Port Stanley’s newest dining establishment, Solo on Main, conveniently located right on Main Street. A house converted to fine dining restaurant, Solo has both a modern and simplistic feel to it with perhaps one of the best views of the Port Stanley pier and lift bridge in the town. With a large wooden sign on the exterior and gorgeous patio by the entrance, this is a hard restaurant to miss.
The inside is beautifully laid out with a full service wooden bar that has some of the region’s own Bayside Brewing Co.’s craft beer on tap. The walls are painted with a lovely stone blue finish giving the atmosphere a very calming and relaxed feel. A nice touch added by Lauren (who is both the owner and head chef) is a section of chalk wall where the menu and daily specials are written out to give you the feeling of just how simplistic the restaurant is. The main dining room can seat about 30 people and is organized to create an intimate atmosphere without feeling crowded as you again have a beautiful view of the pier.
After the tour of Solo on Main, we decided to take a visit to both the small family beach and main beach in Port Stanley while also enjoying a walk along the pier. We could not have asked for a better day to take in the sights of the sandy beaches, crystal blue water, and the sounds of children enjoying the beginning of their summer holidays with their families.
Having worked up quite the appetite walking along the brand new pier extending far into the waters at the main beach, we decided to head to GT’s Beach Bar and Grill on the main beach for some cold drinks and amazing food. GT's has been a staple in Port Stanley for over 20 years, and it is no surprise as to why. The 400 seat patio acts as a great place for families and friends looking to fuel up for the second half of their beach trip, sports fans to watch some beach volleyball on the adjacent courts, or the everyday beachgoer looking to unwind while enjoying some shade and live entertainment. The patio has direct access to the beach so you can come straight from the sand to a seat and grab a bite or drink.
Regardless of the reason behind your visit, the food at GT’s is absolutely to die for. Since our visit fell on a Thursday I decided to check out that day’s special- Lake Erie Perch and Chips. Battered and fried until golden brown, served with coleslaw, tater sauce, a large serving of fries and guacamole, oh my guacamole. Don’t order this (or anything else for that matter), without a side of guacamole. The very nice waitress suggested the guacamole and boy was I glad she did. Who knew that a simple vegetable could create something so sweet and creamy with the help of some citrus juice and seasoning? When life gives you lemons you make lemonade, when life gives you avocados you make #Guacamole.
Next stop on the tour was the historic Kettle Creek Inn. As we approached the Inn I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful garden located right next to the entrance that greatly compliments the structure of the building. Walking into the hotel you immediately notice the English-style pub on the left hand side that is a popular watering hole for the locals in the winter. On the right hand side there is a Victorian style parlour furnished with couches, a fireplace and an intimate table for two by a large window that provides a beautiful street view of Port Stanley.
Overall Kettle Creek Inn has the feeling of a cottage villa surrounded by tall trees, with the room balconies providing breathtaking views of the town. The outdoor dining area is seated around a lovely gazebo adjacent to the garden giving you a shaded and relaxing view that gives the outdoor area a country club dining atmosphere. But perhaps what makes the outdoor dining area so special is that it is not just for people staying at the inn but is open for all visitors to enjoy. Having the ability to walk-in, dine and relax in a dining area as unique as the inn, truly gives the patrons of the restaurant an experience like no other. Being able to sit in an exclusive feeling atmosphere taking in the sights and sounds of the proud locals and awestruck tourists truly gives you the pleasure of knowing you made the right choice to stay/dine at the Kettle Creek Inn.
We then made our way to the Port Stanley Festival Theatre down the road where we were treated to a quick tour of the newly renovated theatre. It may not seem like it from the outside, but once you walk in through the front doors this theatre is quite the sight to behold. Long hallways furnished with red carpet and kiosks selling exotic items and souvenirs like native drums, hand-made scarves, children’s books and more, all provided by the in-house gift shop Connections (a fair trade shop). There's even a tourism information centre in the summer right in the building.
The new renovations has allowed the theatre to now accommodate up to 150 people in the old Town Hall building, where they now host approximately 125 performances throughout their season, with more than 50 of the shows being completely sold out. All new office spaces and production spaces has allowed the theatre to expand its operations and provide a better working experience for staff and production crew along with a much improved viewing experience for customers. The theatre hosts an annual gala where I was happy to find out that the Kettle Creek Inn provides the catering for this event. It is nice to see businesses in the area helping each other in terms of promoting and selling the Port Stanley experience.
Located steps from the Port Stanley Festival Theatre is a fairly new restaurant & store in the town called The New New Age. The New New Age is an artisan style market that aims to help (re)connect humans to nature by way of fresh, farm and garden to table food and hand-crafted goods. The retail space was unlike anything I have ever seen before, very simple, very elegant, and astonishing. Upon walking in you immediately feel at home with the sight of pottery, wooden shelves, large glass windows, soothing music and the smells of fresh food. The majority of the shop focuses on selling apothecary type items, house ware, handmade jewellery and clothing along with serving their farm-to-table menu, with ingredients straight from the owners' farm, in an intimate seating area for the restaurant. The New New Age also brews their own small batch craft beer under the label Last Castle Brewing. The limited run beers are available only on-site and rotate often.
We were treated to a rather large farm board containing many delicious items like water buffalo salami, a chive oil vinaigrette dip, fresh sour dough bread, sweet snap peas, honey sweetened mustard, fresh beats, and more. It was truly an image to behold. To go along with the delicious board I was treated to some of their organically brewed Carolina Red floral saison beer made in-house. The Carolina Red has a floral aroma that paves the way for the flavours of pink grapefruit and ginger bread, with minimal bitterness and a refreshingly dry finish. It is certainly a different craft beer, but one that you must experience nonetheless.
As with any trip to Port Stanley, you cannot go home without a stop at Shaw’s Ice Cream. The ice cream parlour has been around since 1948 and has been a must stop location on any trip in the area and a favourite among the locals. With over 41 different flavours made all on-site, you can truly taste the difference in their product. From ice cream scoops, to smoothies and delicious waffle cones, all of their products are made from fresh Canadian ingredients, and have been since the day one! Talking about their ice cream simply doesn’t do it justice, so be sure to check out Shaw’s Ice Cream the next time you are in the area.
The gems of Elgin County can sometimes get lost in its Lake Erie shorelines and beach life if you haven't yet explored beyond the sand. Make no mistake the beaches are one of the items that make Elgin County special, however it is the amazing agri-tourism, unique accommodations and arts and culture that help separate it from the rest. Even as a London resident, I had no idea that something so special and so surreal could be located in the heart of Ontario’s Southwest.