Take a leisurely drive along Lake Erie’s north shore. A relatively mild climate and fertile soils have given Norfolk County a long history of agriculture – first tobacco and now wines – but with around half its municipal boundaries on Lake Erie it’s a beach-loving place. All this makes it an ideal slow-travel alternative to the main east-west highways, or simply a fun day trip. The main destination is Port Dover, while St Thomas, a city in neighbouring Elgin County, is of interest as it was once an important railroad hub, as its excellent museum reminds visitors.
On the main highways, it’s about a 1.5hr drive between Hamilton and London, Ontario. Our east-to-west itinerary below (reverse the order if you are coming from London) doubles that drive-time and covers around 320km — but it’s a lot more interesting. The itinerary can also be done in a long day or weekend trip from London (4hrs/300km-round-trip) or Hamilton (4.5hrs/360km); or even Toronto (6hrs/500km).
Of all the towns on the shores of Lake Erie with the word Port in their name, Port Dover is the one every Ontarian has probably heard of. Though some may mention the perch, pickerel, and public beach smack dab in the middle of the town, most know it for something very different.
For the past 30 years Port Dover’s become known because of its Friday the 13th Motorcycle Rally. Yes – the rally is held every Friday the 13th – no matter what month it happens to be, or how inhospitable the weather may seem to a non-motorcyclist.
Since 1981 the city’s been THE destination for bikers, typically attracting over 100,000 if the month happens to fall in the summer – other times of the year the rally is smaller, but guaranteed no less enthusiastic. It’s definitely something to see – though if you don’t like the characteristic sound of a Hog, you might want to bring ear plugs.
Other times of the year Port Dover and the vicinity offer cottages and typical beach activities. If you’re looking for something especially family-oriented, head about 45 kms west along Lake Erie toward Long Point, a spit that extends about 40 kms into the Lake. It’s a popular beach destination and, like Point Pelee in Essex County, which is further west in Lake Erie, it’s one of the largest bird migration areas in North America. On the point itself is Long Point Provincial Park, which has a mile-long (1.5 km) sand beach and campsites. You can also camp at nearby Turkey Point Provincial Park.
Among the attractions that beckon en route between Port Dover and Long Point one fun alternative is Long Point Eco-Adventures. This privately owned park features zip lining through a tree-top canopy, mountain biking, kayaking, and even star gazing at their own on-site observatory. With so much to see and do there, you may find one day isn’t enough. No problem – they’ve got custom-designed private wilderness suites for some “glamping”, which stands for glamorous camping.
Practically adjacent to Long Point Eco-Adventures, and with the same owners, is Burning Kiln Winery – arguably the area’s best-known winery. There’s a number such wineries in and around Port Dover which are known as the South Coast Winery area – though that’s not yet an official VQA designated appellation.
The Burning Kiln Winery’s name is a tip of the hat to the region’s agricultural past – it used to be the tobacco capital of Ontario. On the winery’s property you can see a couple of the old tobacco kilns, as well as one of the newer ones that’s re-purposed to dry grapes.
For a more in depth look at the local tobacco industry head inland to toward Tillsonberg. Here the Delhi Tobacco Museum and Heritage Centre teaches about tobacco growing and displays historic equipment. You can also learn about alternative agriculture in Norfolk County, including things like ginseng.
Finally, it’s well worth driving west of Norfolk County to Elgin County, whose main attraction is the town of St. Thomas. On the map it looks like little more than a bedroom community due south of London, but it’s much more than that.
At one point in Ontario’s history, St. Thomas was a significant railroad hub. This came about when various railroad companies realized that the quickest way from Chicago to the U.S. east coast was through Ontario to Buffalo. Picture this: in the early 1900s over 100 trains per day passed through St. Thomas’ Canada Southern Railway Station.
But, as trains made way for autos, traffic through the station dropped off and by 1996 the building was abandoned. Lucky for us, a group of rail enthusiasts from the North American Railway Hall of Fame (which happens to be located in the station) – have brought the old beauty back to life. It’s open to the public and you can take a self-guided tour.
Locomotive repair was also important to the local economy and there’s a wonderfully preserved train repair shop across the way from the train station. The repair shop houses the Elgin County Railway Museum and it’s a must see – even for non-train buffs. The building is a great example of industrial, purpose-built architecture, complete with cranes capable of lifting locomotives off the track for servicing. The museum also has an impressive number of locomotives and train cars from different eras.