There are certain moments, on certain summer days, that can later return to your mind with delightful, smile-provoking clarity. A road trip through Essex County can provide many such moments — and create great memories.
Essex, Canada’s southernmost county, is bounded by Lake St. Clair to the north, the Detroit River, and Lake Erie. It includes Windsor, Amherstburg, Leamington and Pelee Island. It has some of the warmest summer weather in Canada. And a friendly, community-minded population.
Find a home base, because you’ll want to spend at least a couple of days. There are a number of hotels, mostly in the larger towns and cities. Scattered around the county are numerous B&Bs. You might make the happy decision to make your home-away-from-home at the Iron Kettle Bed and Breakfast, in Comber (just off the 401, near Tilbury). The owners, Chef Benjamin Leblanc-Beaudoin and his wife Ginette Tremblay, provide first-rate accommodations and a comfortable, relaxed ambience in their heritage home. “Local and seasonal” truly does describe the food: breakfast might include freshly made croissants from Chef’s kitchen, breads from a neighbouring artisanal bakery, and omelettes made with farm-fresh eggs and just-picked wild garlic chives.
Of course one of the reasons you might be down here, (just perhaps), is that Essex County is home to nearly twenty wineries. Lake Erie North Shore is one of Ontario’s three primary appellations of origin (along with Prince Edward County and Niagara Peninsula). From the heavy hitters like Pelee Island and Colio, to smaller but well-established vineyards like Sprucewood Shores, Colchester Ridge, Muscedere and Viewpointe, to relative newcomers such as Oxley, Cooper’s Hawk and North 42 Degrees, these vineyards enjoy the warming effect of Lake Erie’s shallow waters, a long growing season, and a very southern location. (The 42nd parallel north also passes through some of Europe’s finest wine-growing regions, as well as the Oregon/California border.)
The wineries welcome travellers to tours and wine tastings, either scheduled or arranged by appointment. Many have dining options that focus on locally-sourced and seasonal ingredients.
Here’s a sampling of some wineries to consider visiting:
Oxley Estate Winery, located on a bluff on the shore of Lake Erie, hosts visitors in a renovated 1920s barn. The light-filled and elegant tasting/dining area opens onto a spacious terrace. Oxley produces award-winning wines in small lots from traditional grapes, and from less common, sustainable varieties such as Auxerrois and Regent.
Cooper’s Hawk Vineyards is committed to sustainable practices. The 67-acre property comprises wetlands, ponds and woods as well as the vineyards. Tours and tastings are customized, and the recently expanded premises feature a new restaurant offering locally sourced foods, and wine pairings. Cooper’s Hawk produces wines that are both affordable and of award-winning quality.
Situated directly on the shore of Lake Erie, Viewpointe Estate Winery offers plenty to the wine tourist: tastings, tours, culinary demonstrations and other events. The restaurant is open daily in the summer. Chef Jodie Brown’s strong support of local farmers and producers is evident in the delicious and creative offerings.
Whether you’re a fine wine aficionado or a cardboardeaux connoisseur (hey, don’t be so quick to judge), Colio Estate Wines is worth a visit. One of the first wineries in the region, and now one of Canada’s top five producers, Colio focuses on big reds, but is also known for its characterful sauvignon blancs, chardonnays and rieslings.
If your schedule (or the ferry schedule) doesn’t allow for a visit to Pelee Island, you can still enjoy a tour and tasting at Pelee Island Winery in Kingsville, which is open year-round. Pelee is Canada’s largest estate-owned winery, and the wide range of product offerings means there’s something for every palate. It also means that many Pelee wines are on menus in the region. A lovely wine to pair with a sunny patio — 2013 Cabernet Franc Rosé from the Retro series.
Consider leaving the car behind for part of your winery tour. Essex County is notoriously flat (though there is a major exception — the 30–50 foot (10–15 m) high ridge near Kingsville and Leamington). Farm Dog Cycles offers short and leisurely tasting tours, as well as full-day guided rides that take you through some of the best wining and dining and cycling in the area. The Farm Dog family is accommodating: tours are customized to your preferences, and if you are staying locally there is a pick-up and drop-off service available.
If golf is your game, there are over 20 courses scattered throughout Essex County. But even if you don’t know a nine iron from a tire iron, consider a stop at Rochester Place, a golf club and resort near Belle River. Chef Johnny Oran is in charge of the kitchen at the Parkside Grille. A Stratford Chef School alumnus, Oran has paid his dues in kitchens across the country, including Cowbell and Splendido in Toronto, and Montreal’s exclusive 357c. Besides the expected burgers, sweet potato fries, and the local must-serve Lake Erie perch, Chef indulges his creativity with such items as grilled lamb kefta (with lamb sourced from local Ewe Dell Family Farm), and a stunningly delicious roasted head of cauliflower stuffed with house-made mozzarella, tahini, pomegranate, and toasted almonds (for sharing, of course).
Stop at Mettawas Station if you’re near Kingsville when it’s time for a meal. In 1899 Hiram Walker — whisky magnate, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and sometime railroad builder — commissioned the station to facilitate the travel of guests to his resort hotel, The Mettawas (described by a Windsor newspaper of the time as “a magnificent pile of buildings.”). The hotel no longer exists, but the station has been lovingly restored by the Essex Region Conservation Authority. In 2008, Chef Anthony DelBrocco and his wife Janet converted this landmark into Mettawas Station Italian Mediterranean Grill. As the name suggests, the cuisine has a definite Mediterranean flavour. The menu offers a tasty array of appetizers, salads, pastas, pizzas and entrées, including various antipasti, spinach gorgonzola and apple salad, lobster ravioli, and rack of lamb. There are gluten-free options available. Expect friendly, professional service from the DelBroccos and their staff.
This vibrant region offers plenty for the avid road tripper. There are historical sites, farmgates and farmers’ markets (there’s a night market in Windsor’s historic Walkerville neighbourhood), galleries and theatres, festivals and family-oriented activities. And lots of natural beauty to enjoy, from the Ojibway Nature Centre in Windsor, to the Jack Miner Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Kingsville, to Point Pelee National Park and Pelee Island.
My favourite memories of my Essex County road trip? A patio afternoon of sunshine, and wine, conversation and laughter. A stroll on a sandy beach, to the very point of Point Pelee. Cycling along a country road under blue skies, past farms and vineyards. A late-night, winding-down glass of wine on the porch, with the scent of flowers and fresh-cut grass on the breeze, and the sound of the waterfall in the garden pond, lulling me towards dreamland.
Tourism Windsor Essex Pelee Island visitwindsoressex.com
Wine Country Ontario winecountryontario.ca
Iron Kettle Bed & Breakfast ironkettlebb.com
Parkside Grille rochesterplace.com/parkside-grille
Mettawas Mettawas Italian Mediterranean Grill mettawasstation.com
Farm Dog Cycles Bike Ride farmdogcycles.com
Pelee National Park pc.gc.ca
The writer was a guest of Tourism Windsor Essex Pelee Island and the Wine Markerting Association of Ontario. They did not review or approve the story.
CECILIA BUY likes discovering new places, meeting new people, and life in the slow lane.