A weekend or more on Pelee Island, the southernmost inhabited spot in Canada, is a great place to try out the concept known as slow travel. And that’s just what my husband and I, along with my mother in law, did last weekend. This is a place where time stands still. Cellphones don’t always work. And forget looking for wireless for your computer. But there are things to do if that’s what you want or you can very easily and quite happily do nothing. Pelee Island is not a place to come looking for nightlife and excitement. Instead think birds and beaches, vineyards, quiet forest trails and friendly locals. And the three R’s – reading, relaxation, recharging.
But first you have to get there.
Baltimore Oriole feasting on an orange
Where is Pelee Island?
Pelee Island sits just above the Canada – United States border – a whopping 800 kilometers south of Vancouver, British Columbia. Canada’s version of the Deep South. It’s a 90 minute ferry ride away from Leamington – Canada’s Tomato Capital in case you didn’t know. Only a few ferries run every day so be sure to make a reservation – which costs nothing – ahead of time. You need to phone to make the reservation. Happily you deal with a live person almost immediately – and a helpful one at that. (Ph: 1-800-661-2220 or 1 -519-724-2115). Interestingly, on our return the ferry captain made an announcement that we would travel to Kingsville, not Leamington, about 14 kilometres further west. I’m not sure how often that happens. You can also take a seasonal ferry to the island via Sandusky, Ohio, a town roughly half way between Cleveland and Toledo. Call the same number noted above to make the reservation. That ferry ride is ¾ hours long.
Then what do you do on Pelee Island?
On a warm May weekend there seemed to be as many cyclists and walkers as there were cars getting off the ferry. Young people headed for the beach with coolers full of beer. Cyclists headed off to explore the island. We began with lunch.
Conorlee’s Bakery and Delicatessen was stop number one. We figured that any restaurant with the world bakery in it, was worth checking out. And this one did not disappoint. We arrived at the bakery via a short drive from the ferry past the Stoneman, a testament to island perseverance, and the shoe tree, a testament to we don’t know what. The bakery was great. Picnic tables set up under shady trees, allowed you to eat while watching the numerous Baltimore orioles feeding on oranges set out in the tree. Offerings of freshly made soup, made to order sandwiches, deli items, salads and baked goods ensured we were well fed and ready to continue exploring.
Our next stop was Sheridan Point, under a mile away. We quickly checked out the views from the shore…and the snake. Snakes LOVE Pelee Island. It’s even been called a Herper (snake lovers) mecca. It’s lucky my mother in law didn’t know that about the island before we got there. It has a huge density of snakes including the elusive Blue Racer. We saw two live snakes in total and several dead ones on the road. If you’re a swimmer, look out for the Lake Erie Water snake. Fortunately they’re not too common.
Pelee Island Winery was next. But first we had to retrace our steps, and head back towards the pier. Along that road these three Mennonite kids, who were incredibly polite and lovely, offered their mom’s freshly baked donuts – at a price of .75 each – at a roadside stand. My husband proclaimed them delicious.
The winery is a major destination for island visitors. Not only do they offer wine tastings and tours, but you can choose a cut of meat and they’ll grill it for you – for lunch or for dinner. Pick up a bottle of wine and you have a perfect meal.
Fortified by our three tastings, we continued on to the Fish Point Provincial Nature Reserve. And what a delight it was. Nearly one sixth of Ontario’s plant species are found here – including Prickly Pear Cactus, Hop Trees and Swamp Rose Mallow. I was thrilled to catch the tail end of the trilliums blossoming. Masses of them carpeted the forest floor, turning from white to pink as they aged.
It’s a mile – on foot or by bike – out to Fish Point and if it’s a hot day I’d recommend a bathing suit so you can enjoy the beautiful beaches.
The rest of the day was spent napping and reading – just what you’d expect to do on an island like this. We stayed at the very lovely Wavecrest B&B. It’s run by Thom and Barry, a couple who fell in love with the island twenty years ago. They built and decorated this B&B so that it offers Lake Erie and/or pond views from every bedroom. Located on a sandy beach and just minutes from the trails to Lighthouse Point, you couldn’t find a nicer spot on the island. Add in a 6 pm happy hour with the local wines featured, a delicious breakfast and friendly hosts, and you have a real winner.
The following day got off to a leisurely start with breakfast served at 9am. We didn’t even leave the table until 11 – a sign of great conversation and no immediate agenda.
We seemed to move on to island time with ease – though there were still a few things we really wanted to do. One was to check out the old limestone lighthouse at Lighthouse Point. It was built in 1833 and was put on the Lighthouse Digest Doomsday List of endangered lighthouses. Fortunately, enough concerned individuals banded together and with the help of some government funding raised funds so a full restoration could take place. The restoration was completed in 2000 and now there’s one very handsome lighthouse standing with a view to the Canadian mainland.
The trail to get to the lighthouse is noteworthy – at least during the spring migration. The air was filled with birdsong – to an extent I’ve never experienced before. It was like listening to a CD that never stopped – and was absolutely wonderful. There were more warblers in the trees – at noon – that I ever would have thought possible. In the space of minutes we had seen the Blackburnian, chestnut sided and magnolia warblers – a real thrill if you’re a birder. Along the way to the lighthouse we passed swampy sections with turtles galore basking in the sun. And all of this was only a ten minute walk from the B&B.
It was a tossup on how to spend the rest of the day – sleep and read or cycle the island. My husband and I decided some exercise was in order so we rented bikes for a few hours from Comfortech – a bike shop located across from the ferry pier. With map in hand, though one could never really get lost, we set off to ride the circumference of the island. It’s a flat 31 kilometer ride on a combination of paved and dirt roads but super easy and very doable in about two hours. Along the way we saw numerous purple martin houses and many people mowing vast expanses of lawn. I’d heard good things about the Gathering Place B&B so we stopped in to check it out and ending up chatting for some time with Liz, the friendly co-owner of the beautifully restored 1893 limestone house. This B&B would also be an excellent choice.
And that was our weekend. I think many of us could use more island time but at least we got a taste of it.
Before You Come to Pelee Island
- Fill up your car. I didn’t see any gas stations.
- Bring as much cash as you think you’ll need. There is an ATM but it can be empty by the end of a weekend. You can also get cash back with a liquor purchase – but the store needs to be open.
- Bring prescriptions.
- Check the Toledo, Ohio weather forecast. Locals say it’s more accurate than the Windsor, Ontario one.
- Leamington is a four hour drive west of Toronto and about an hour from Windsor.
- The Anchor and Wheel is your best bet for a meal if the winery isn’t open.
- We ran out of time but a visit to the Pelee Island Heritage Center was recommended.
- If you need to stay the night in Leamington – for an early ferry or if you plan to visit Point Pelee National Park, I recommend a stay at Island View B&B and Guest House.
- A guided bike tour is available on Pelee Island with Explore Pelee.