Spec writer Gary Curtis takes us on a cruise along the shores of Lake Erie from Port Maitland to Port Burwell, a summer stretch he’s frequented for the past 40 years
And there’s no better way to do that than with Lake Ontario fully in view. Pritchard Road on the far east-end of Hamilton Mountain affords a lovely view down the Red Hill Valley, across the lake and to the cold, distant towers of Toronto. It’s a favourite way in and out of Hamilton.
And where is my 1100 cc 1998 Yamaha Virago taking me? Somewhere along the lovely, sandy northern edge of Lake Erie, possibly a hidden beach with an iPod full of blues and decent beach reading.
Lake Ontario is cold and rock-strewn, inhospitable, and I live in dread of the 70-foot-long mutagenic, metal-sludge-eating tapeworms that are said to repose in the sediment at Windermere Basin. But Lake Ontario is OK at a distance, and that’s where you can spy it from at Ridge Road Estate Winery at Vinemount. On your way out of town, en route to those pristine Erie beaches, it is a must-stop where one can lightly sample (and purchase) many wonderful VQA selections. (They’ve just bottled a new Chardonnay, done in French oak casks, and should be ready upon this reading.)
With purchased Chardonnay in the saddlebag, angle hard over to Highway 56 as we’re beginning our Ontario Riviera Beach Cruise at forgotten, dormant Port Maitland, where the Grand River meets Lake Erie at the prettiest lighthouse this side of Port Burwell (which happens to be the western end of our beach-town trek).
Take the scenic Grand River Parkway (a.k.a. River Road), make a hard right over the river at Dunnville and a left at the variety store. If you’re hungry, the Grand Island BBQ joint comes recommended.
The beach, immediately south of the village, is usually deserted. For comfort’s sake, there is a portable toilet and daily OPP presence. It’s a bit rocky, so head east until you reach the big, grey driftwood log, and venture in there.
We’re heading west along a latticework of tiny roads, greenery arching overhead, zipping by tiny hardscrabble cottages with impossibly small bunkies (some smaller than walk-in closets.) There are majestic sweeping turns with Erie lapping happily at shale/packed-clay shorelines, and friendly folks tending to their gardens.
But not all are feeling happy about motorcyclists. There was a recent citizens’ meeting at Featherstone Point, decrying an incessant parade of bikes (300 in one day!) and the Haldimand-Norfolk-Elgin-Chatham-Kent-Windsor-Essex tourism board push (cruisethecoast.ca) that invites two-wheeled hordes into their neighbourhoods.
Here it can only be the scenery that draws riders, as there are no beaches worth mentioning, save for the fabulous Knight’s Beach, which is so perfect as to be God’s Own Aberration. The camping is OK, too. It is interesting to view the seasonal trailers parked in a row along the shore — $70,000 worth of trailer, $70,000 worth of custom decking. Not far down the way is the Parrothead, a local bar-eatery at the foot of Kohler Road that is close to reopening, featuring sumptuous Louisiana barbecue.
A local custom sees cottagers whose properties are across the road from the lake extending their landscaping to the adjacent shore area. Some say it is merely to beautify the area. Some say their gardens/plantings help anchor the sensitive shoreline. I say they do it to extend their domain and keep visitors at bay.
Just before hitting the Nanticoke industrial area, one will stumble upon Floyd’s Bar and Grill, an oasis out of the blue. Don’t let the outdoor tables fool you; beer must be consumed inside. The nachos are tremendous.
Skirting the Nanticoke industries, Port Dover hoves into view. To the west and northwest to Lake Huron, the beaches range from good to fabulous. The beach at Port Dover can get pretty crowded, especially from boaters who bring their craft out of the River Lynn basin and use them as floating patios, then motor the 300 metres back to berth at day’s end. For something more private, inch down tiny Inkerman Street a quarter-mile to the west, and you’ll find a tucked-away beach that is sparsely attended. However, a local “celeb” habitually catches rays in nothing but a dental-floss thong. You have been warned.
Next up, Turkey Point. There are two ways to get there: the sublime (see sidebar) or the merely wonderful (Highway 24.) Just off the highway at Vittoria (a former judicial capital and one-time Fenian target) is Kernal Peanuts, where one can buy all manner of delicious Ontario-grown nuts — the garlic peanuts are superb.
Turkey Point itself is gloriously faded, with down-at-the-heels pitch ‘n’ putts, tacky ice cream stands and crappy patio pub grub. It’s actually pretty tough to beat. And better now as a line of buoys keeps (party) boats and swimmers apart.
Port Dover to Turkey Point
There are few motorcycle rides anywhere as glorious as the 25 kilometres between Port Dover and Turkey Point, which passes through three hamlets — Port Ryerse, Fisher’s Glen and Normandale, each nestled snug in its own valley.
Into Port Ryerse, there’s a steep drop, then a 90-degree turn at the bridge. Your bike gets thrown one way, then the other through two prolonged “push turns.”
There’s a bit of plush, verdant cropland before you drop hard into Fisher’s Glen, and another 90-degree turn at a mandated 9 mph, followed by another twisted valley climb. Into Normandale, it’s another downward plunge, and then a wicked bend to the left and a series of sweeping turns before turning left onto hurl-inducing, ultra-steep Old Hill Road and down into the Point. I had so much fun I turned around and did it again, and again the next morning.
(Scenic note: the small burbling stream at Normandale is the site of Ontario’s first iron forge, circa 1816: from this tiny font grew Ontario’s industrial might!)
Heading west along Front Road toward St. Williams is a much-admired new venture, Norfolk County’s first VQA winery, Burning Kiln. It’s one road off Turkey Point beach, and from its patio you can view Inner Bay across fertile flatlands. The Chardonnay and Strip Room (Merlot and Cab Franc), both so delicate as to belie their potency, are divine. (My winery, just down the road, shall be called Charlotteville Bench!)
There’s a pretty stretch of twisted road betwixt St. Williams and Port Rowan, green crops encroaching upon pavement and more sweeping turns. The Boathouse eatery in Port Rowan is a hospitable place — as is the town’s well-stocked book store — and it overlooks the small harbour (although Krestle’s, which used to be there, had far better pies.)
Onto the Long Point Causeway, and there are signs warning of turtles. What they don’t say is that these turtles are as big around as garbage-can lids, and much crunchier. The beach is superfine, and there is a naked contingent (Bare Ass Beach, according to guide books) farther up the Point.
One of my best Long Point reportorial memories was of being flown by jet helicopter to the last-ever changing of the lighthouse keepers on the tip of the 40-kilometre sandspit.
Unless you’re going to beach it, there’s not a lot to do at Long Point.
Which is not the case at Port Burwell, just over the Elgin County line. This dusty jewel is only now coming alive — there are more restaurants, bars and things to do than ever before, and I’ve been coming here for 40 years.
And most important: Best. Beach. Anywhere. It’s wide, soft, stretches on forever (with another Bare Ass spot off to the west, hard by the spooky wind turbines under the shaved-down cliffs). The provincial park is the best of its kind with wonderful children’s and nature programs, and a play park in which children cannot harm themselves in any way. Serious warning: Bad to vicious undertow, sometimes. Conditions are always posted. My kids had The Belly-Button Rule: no deeper than that, and no farther out than the presiding parent.
Then it’s off home, up Plank Road and through the Big Creek Valley to Vienna and Straffordville and on up into Oxford. Pick your own way home; just make sure to come in on Pritchard; it’s always good to see Lake Ontario again, especially after this satisfying 435-kilometre ride.
Will that be perch or perch? Just as there are two distinct kinds of football fans, those who prefer to sit up high and watch the ethereal flow of play, or those who merely want their mayhem up close, there are two schools of thought on how to prefer your Port Dover perch.
And that means either the Erie Beach or Knechtel’s. At the Erie Beach, the perch is served almost naked, kissed with the merest whisper of gossamerlike (bread crumb and egg) coating. At Knechtel’s, it’s battered in a divine cloud of artery-clogging goodness. At the Erie Beach, you can have their signature celery bread, a beer and a selection of to-die-for pies (pecan, lemon meringue) from the Cove Room downstairs. At Knechtel’s, there is the wackiest salad bar anywhere.
I say it’s all good — and great to have a choice!
I actually am a Knechtel’s man … and I like mayhem in my football.