Explore Canada’s deep south in Essex County. Just over the river from Detroit (Michigan) and hugging the shores of Lake Erie, Essex County covers a peninsula that stretches from the cities of Leamington in the southeast to Windsor in the northwest. Though many equate Essex County with industrial Windsor, the small towns and countryside closer to the Lake are where you’ll find many of the county’s true gems.
The route between the main attractions below is around 70km or 1.5 hours driving and adds about 40km/30min to the usual journey through the county on the main Hwy-401. But, allow the best part of a day to make the most of the itinerary – or two days if visiting Pelee Island.
A good place to start a tour, if you’re heading in from the east is Leamington (Exit 48 from Hwy-401 then south Route 77). Known as the tomato capital of Canada, it was a company town until 2014 – the company was H.J. Heinz (the ketchup folks). Though Heinz has pulled out, its presence is still felt on a drive down the main street, as the company name crafted in brick is still visible on the old Heinz works. Though it’s not as big an employer as Heinz, Highbury Canco now uses the facility.
You’ll also notice that there are a lot of greenhouses in Leamington. Well, that’s because it’s the commercial greenhouse capital of Canada.
Essex County also is home to Point Pelee, an 8km peninsula that juts into Lake Erie. It’s also the southernmost point on mainland Canada. The point is in Point Pelee National Park, which is famous among birders because it’s on a major migration route for many varieties of birds. If you’re into bird-watching, check out the Friends of Pelee’s Festival of Birds website where you’ll find the latest migration news. Note that individual camping is not allowed at the park, but the Friends of Pelee also have information about nearby accommodation and camping.
While Point Pelee is the southernmost point on mainland – Pelee Island, located southwest of Point Pelee, is the southernmost point in Canada. Visiting the Island requires at least a full day, but it’s time well spent. Besides visiting the Pelee Island Winery Pavilion, where you can learn all about the history of grape growing in the region, you can rent a bike, go for a swim, take a hike, or just relax in the southern climate. Depending on the time of year, you can catch a ferry to the Island from Leamington and from Kinsgville.
When you’ve seen enough farmland, or if you’re hungry after visiting Pointe Pelee, head west about 10km along the lake to Kingsville for a variety of places to grab a bite. Merlis’ Coffeehouse & Eatery is charming, while Mettawas Station in Kingsville’s old train station on Lansdowne Avenue is a very nice restaurant in a historic old train station.
One of the most picturesque roads in the county is County Road 50 from Kingsville toward Colchester. It’s also one of the region’s wine routes. Yes, you read that right – wine routes. The area’s unique geography is conducive to grape growing. Besides being fairly far south (for Canada!), the temperature is moderated by Lake Erie on the south and Lake St. Claire on the north. The wineries are spread out throughout the region and they’re easy to find – just follow Wine Route signs.
One personal favorite is Oxley Estate Winery because both their wines and restaurant are excellent. Their young chef, Aaron Lynn, is a native son who returned to the area after honing his craft at top restaurants. If you’re in the mood for a sip at a lakeside patio, continue down County Road 50 road to Viewpoint Estate Winery.
Also on Country Road 50, just before you get to Oxley Estate Winery, keep an eye out for the John R. Park Homestead Conservation Area. The property is a living museum that takes you back in time to the 1840s. It was the homestead of a prominent family that had all the modern conveniences of the day – including a free-standing ice house, a loom house, a sawmill, and a double out-house.
Finally, if you continue along the lake and head north-west to the Detroit River you’ll arrive at Amherstburg and Fort Malden, an important British post during the war of 1812. The fort is small, but it gives you a good perspective of the strategic importance of the frontier along the river.