A good road trip needs to tick a lot of boxes, especially when time is at a premium and gas prices are high. No one wants to keep doing the same trip either. How lucky are we then to have Essex County; chock-full of activities from birding, to wine tasting, to food trails, to history and much, much more. Getting there quickly is not the problem. But having to head back might be, so why not plan to stay awhile?
The tasting bar at Oxley Estate Winery is flooded with sunshine as vivacious owner Ann Neydon Wilson steps forward to greet us. A good vibe seems omnipresent, from the spacious wine patio and gardens to the carefully restored barn. Delightfully earnest staff will feel like friends before we leave and tastings of the small batch, award-winning wines will have been puckishly paired with songs (since every wine has a “sound”). Wowza White 2017, a bright, clean blend was linked to The Cure’s Close to Me, which seemed just right.
Oxley also has an excellent restaurant (choices include a spiced honey-glazed Cornish hen with leek bread pudding) and recently won a designation from Open Table as one of Canada’s Most Romantic Restaurants. Popular theme nights include Howl-at-the-Moon with live music, Buck-a-shuck ($1 per each East Coast oyster), and Barn Dinners, and there is live music every Sunday from May to October 6. 533 County 50 Rd. East, Harrow
North 42 Degrees Estate Winery takes its name from the same latitude address as Central Italy and Northern California, and states its credo in a few words: “good times and fine wines.” But when affable owner Martin Gorski speaks eloquently about the region’s superior soil and the surrounding Carolinian forest, his tone becomes so reverential there’s no mistaking a serious love affair. North 42 Degrees is a stunningly beautiful year-round destination offering a myriad of events, as well as good wine. Past workshops have included photography, pierogi making, and cross-country skiing, and there is a wine club. Corporate events and weddings are easily accommodated on the property. Serenity Lavender Farms is part of the winery, and produces over 40 different kinds of lavender. Products are available in the store.
Martin’s son Aaron is a superb wine guide, speaking intelligently about all aspects of the process and listening closely to our questions. The walls are lined with medals but the Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc (with a hint of Bosc pear that quickly makes it my favourite) won double gold, meaning the decision was unanimous. On the second floor, Bistro 42 is a sophisticated but comfortable dining experience, with sweeping views of Lake Erie and the vineyard provided by floor-to-ceiling windows. Food and staff alike are celestial — silky soft gnocchi and savory squares of pork belly are standouts. Even the tooled flatware is an art form. A busy map on the wall uses pins to represent North 42 Degrees visitors from all over the world, who have come to sample the wine and tranquility here. 130 County Road 50 East, Colchester
CREW is the acronym associated with Colchester Ridge Estate Winery, a small family run business that since 2006 has been producing award-winning VQA wines on 12 acres of vines. Michelle Turnbull welcomes us in the tasting room and proudly explains how successfully grapes can be grown in this “Canadian Riviera.” She also cites the warm breezes off Lake Erie and notes that being so far south really does have a positive effect on the wines.
The CREW Merlot 2016 that I sample is soft and full of dark berries and spice — distinctive tastes that even I can discern with a prompt, and it is frankly, delicious. CREW tastings usually take place in the retail store at the front of the building but larger groups tend to use the barrel room, which is impressively cavernous. Michelle notes that with the creation of a brand new tasting room and special event space coming in the fall (clearly underway outside) there will be room for additional art and sculptures. A nearby trio of high-stepping sheep has already made us smile, and there is something about art, wine and whimsy that just seem a perfect match. 108 County Road 50 East, Harrow
Tucked into the corner of Main Street and Division is Dutch Boys Chocolate, the collaborative dream of Henry Noestheden and Cor Boon, award winners in their respective fields as sculptor/designer and professional woodcarver. Both men — charming and dapper in their black caps and aprons — are now in their seventies, yet completed much of the store renovation themselves and when highly specialized machinery proved costly, they designed and assembled their own. Everything is made on site, by hand, and with “a great deal of love” Cor says. Kingsville has shown them much support since they opened two years ago, when they also won a “Jimmie Award” for the Best Chocolate in Canada. Boon’s diverse selection of carvings, which ultimately become silicone moulds for the chocolate, are often inspired by Point Pelee wildlife, and are truly art forms themselves. Truffles are made daily and there are 24 different kinds. Local ingredients are often featured although Henry confides the butter is from Normandy. The lavender sample I enjoy is a little square of shining bliss. Visitors are encouraged to watch production through a large window. 2 Main Street West, Kingsville
The Grove Brew House is an award-winning microbrewery. A hotel of the same name is next door and both have enjoyed plenty of positive buzz since opening in 2016. Previously a historic landmark, The Grove building has since been re-imagined as a boutique hotel. It recently placed in TripAdvisor’s Top 25 Small Hotels in Canada, and attracts such famous guests as Margaret Atwood and Gene Simmons. At the Brew House we sample a tender crusted wood oven pizza simply adorned with tomato sauce, a slick of garlic oil and some fresh basil skittered over buffalo mozzarella and it is one of the best I have ever had. Beers I enjoy include the Clubhouse Stout — an assertive glass of treacly darkness — and the aptly named Paradise Lager, which is just that. Both The Grove Brew House and The Grove Hotel have been decorated with a distinctly funky but pleasing juxtaposition of old and new — an interior wall is exposed to reveal stone beneath while a large rooster sculpture stands tall in a washroom. Original pipes have been incorporated at the bar, discovered oak re-purposed for tables, and of course the brewery itself shines like a cityscape in the background. Hotel rooms are not traditional — each one has been assigned a clever theme such as “Hello Mr. Lumberjack” whose trendy description notes that the fluffy linens are “made from clouds — we’re pretty sure.” Certainly the quirk works and The Grove’s attention to every detail from witty menus to genuinely friendly staff does not go unnoticed. 12 Main Street, Kingsville
Troy Loop has long been a champion for Kingsville and his wildly successful Jack’s Gastropub has been going strong for over twenty-five years. This busy family-run business is just one of a few in the “Jack” series, a clever homage to Jack Miner, famed Kingsville conservationist who popularized bird banding and its importance. We enjoy a splendid meal on Jack’s wraparound porch. It includes succulent pickerel and good French fries with an especially tasty vinaigrette slaw while my companion enjoys a juicy mile-high Luau burger which could easily have fed a family of four.
Distinctive Inns of Kingsville represents Troy’s multi-property boutique hotel group. Each hotel is named after its street number, with Inn31 (31 Division South Street) featuring three luxurious suites on the second floor of the 1880 Kingsville homestead. Inn136 features suites at the Heart & Soul Guest House (136 Mill West). At Inn15, with Brewery loft suites at the Banded Goose Brewing Company (15 Main East Street), we enjoy a pleasant and comfortable stay. The welcome centre at Banded Goose is a collaborative effort with Tourism Windsor/Essex/Pelee Island and serves as a handy hub for friendly concierge advice, maps and food/wine trail guides. (An added bonus: from spring to fall a complimentary bike is available on request).
Bean 15 coffee lounge — also located at the brewery address — is a casual spot to sip (try the “Birthday Cake” sugar on your coffee!) as you plan your next steps. Admire the huge vintage photographs of Jack Miner on the walls.
The BlackJack Gastrovan — the name says it all — is yet another “Jack” innovation, serving up high-end creations on the go, at extremely reasonable prices. Most recently the Gastrovan has taken on the Sunday brunch crowd and offers a changing menu featuring steak and eggs breakfast perogies, blueberry Hefeweizen mussels, and other unique choices. Troy’s genuine enthusiasm and passion for Kingsville is inspiring, and although he has clearly been a visionary in its success he is quick to point out that all of the local businesses truly support one another and believe in what they are doing.
Beach House Grill is a cheery, family-run restaurant with lots of fun nautical nods (the doorway to the dining room is a giant porthole) and a varied menu that has something for everyone. Breakfasts include everything from the usual choices to “Meatloaf and Eggs,” while an extensive dinner menu features tacos, burgers, seafood (including frog legs), and a pleasing kids’ menu includes two pasta choices. 70 Park St., Kingsville
Wolfhead Distillery is a winning combination of hipster and historian, touting itself as “the first premium craft distillery in Essex County since Prohibition.” Tours of the distillery as well as tastings are available, and it’s fascinating to view the gleaming steam-punk tableau of copper/steel machinery clearly on view from the tasting bar.
There is also a restaurant with a menu that reflects the distillery’s products (Wolfhead Whisky Smoked Wings, for instance) and offers plenty of good choices. Wolfhead’s premium blends of vodka and whisky take the definition of purity to a new level and the near-by limestone quarry is essential to a taste which is “mineral driven.” Vodka is wheat-based and distilled seven times, making the product gluten-free. Vodka flavours (award-winning Premium, banana caramel, grapefruit) are unique and authentic. (The grapefruit flavoured vodka tastes intensely of peel, almost a marmalade note). Whisky choices (premium, coffee, apple caramel) are especially impressive — perfectly balanced and not remotely cloying. I have never enjoyed whisky but this is a very different experience. Additional products are in the works! 7781 Howard Ave, McGregor
A single goat bleat breaks the silence as we arrived at the 13-acre Muscedere Vineyards, a beautiful family-owned winery close to the Chrysler Canada Greenway (a trail popular with birders, cyclists and walking enthusiasts). Melissa Muscedere is a knowledgeable and entertaining host and in mid-tasting suggests that we examine the grapes themselves. As we set out she explains the care that goes into winemaking (“90% vineyard, 10% making wine”) and points out that having “small lots, means big character.” Muscedere wines — all hand-harvested — have enjoyed many awards and the premium reds are a specialty. Award-winning 2013 Syrah is rich and has a definite pepperiness, as promised. The delicious 2017 Rosé surprises me since it is not remotely sugary. Melissa explains that rosé was not originally intended to be sweet — and is now finally trending back towards dryness.
As well as two goats and a shaggy rabbit in his hutch, there is a “dog friendly” policy in place and a wonderful patio area boasts a wood-fired oven for pizzas, creating a relaxed family feel. 7457 County Road 18 RR#4 Harrow
Sprucewood Shores Estate Winery opened in 2006 but, with the stately Tuscany-inspired retail building rising up from the lush surroundings, it seems inconceivable that it hasn’t been here for generations. Sprucewood Shores is a family business started by parents and now run by the next generation. Wine seems to be almost a vocation here and Vice-President/Winemaker Tanya Mitchell’s pride and passion for what she does is evident. I sample the 2017 Sauvignon Blanc, which is very tempting and just faintly citrus, while the popular “Lady in Red’ 2016, a medium light blend, is plummy with a hint of vanilla bean. Wine and cheese tours are available as well as tastings. Sprucewood Shores will also deliver anywhere in Canada. As well as the patio and surrounding gardens (balconies offer panoramic views of the vineyards and Lake Erie) there is a magnificent reception hall suitable for weddings and other events. There is also a path to an unexpected beachfront and scenic pond area. Be sure to consider Sprucewood Shore’s outstanding picnic basket, amply packed with thoughtful gourmet treats which can be paired with a glass of quality wine and toted along anywhere on the property. 7258 County Rd 50 West, Harrow
Although Caffeine & Co has not yet been open a year, cheery owner Meghan Boschin laughingly recalls the line-ups they experienced almost immediately, “as though they’d been waiting for us!” Housed in an older building, the Parisian-style interior is sleek black and white marble with smooth gold chairs (and golden flatware) at each table. “Bowler-hat lighting” adds a playful touch. Excellent coffee (which can be spiked with a shot of Baileys or Sambuca) is available in all its traditional forms as well as lactose-free, coconut/almond, and soy. Impressive choices abound, including Turmeric Latte, Jasmine Matcha and an outstanding Ayurvedic tea, which has a clean mintiness. A fine loose leaf tea selection is also available. Fresh soup and quiche are made in-house daily and there is an excellent selection of sandwiches, also available on gluten-free bread. An extensive bakery boasts macarons, carrot cake (suitably striped for Pride and pleasingly moist), croissants and much more. My favourite is a huge Crème Brûlée cookie scorched carefully to capture the flavour perfectly, but without the crunch. A sensible children’s menu offers waffles and classic grilled cheese. 238 Dalhousie Street, Amherstburg
Artisan Grill has been favoured by locals and tourists alike for more than seven years. With an emphasis on fresh ingredients and attention to detail, Chef Matthew Johnston’s menu offers a variety of hand-crafted meals, such as Chicken Marsala, designed to please. An impressive wine list offers both local and international choices and there is a good selection of beer on tap. The restaurant interior is quietly chic while a discreet gated patio at the back allows diners to eat beneath pergolas and tiny lights. There is a separate restaurant on the second floor, Fleur de Lis that is only open Saturday evenings or by private booking, so reservations are a must. Fleur de Lis has a prix fixe menu featuring classic choices such as Lobster Thermidor and Chateaubriand. 269 Dalhousie St., Amherstburg
The Salty Dog is an inviting and popular upscale pub. A jaunty seafaring vibe prevails inside. We are able to sample a few specialties, including a vegan taco (popular even with carnivores!) with a toothsome filling of crispy cauliflower, avocado and chipotle drizzle. Lobster mac ‘n’ cheese is piping hot and creamily tender with generous hits of lobster meat. An imported wood-fire oven produces consistently excellent pizza and is clearly visible from the tables. The Salty Dog has a good selection of beer, wine, and specialty cocktails, and despite its relative newcomer status (not quite a year in business) it may well have found its moorings. 237 Dalhousie Street, Amherstburg
At the Waterfront Ice Cream Shop there are over 50 flavours of hand-scooped ice cream to choose from. Old school parfaits, banana splits, and milkshakes are also here and with nearly 40 years in business, you can be assured they will be done right. (Voted #1 ice cream parlour for Windsor, Essex and Metro Detroit). 229 Dalhousie St., Amherstburg
Whatever your road trip theme, Essex County has so much to offer. You should go.
Photos by Doug North
Sue and Doug were guests of Tourism Windsor Essex Pelee Island, which did not review or approve the contents of this article.