How I spent my summer vacation – A trip along the ghost coast

biking and boating

We were planning on going to New York (I love New York) and Washington with maybe a stop in Philadelphia – the city of brotherly love but not so kind to hitchhiking robots. But then the Friday night before we were set to leave, I discovered that my passport expired last month. Damn. You never used to need a passport to visit the u.s of a.

Oh well, it was going to cost a fortune with the Canadian dollar trading so low anyway.

I had the week off and in great need of a vacation. What can we do?

We thought about going to the Montreal and the east coast. Too much driving. And, frankly I’m a little intimidated trying to get around in french. I know, I know, I’m the guy who will hitchhike up the east coast of Mtaylasia. I’m the guy who will train ride around six Chinese provinces, interior ones where in a railway station with thousands of people, me and cousin Dan are the only two white guys (likely seen for weeks or months). But Quebec scares me.

Maybe it’s the traffic.

We decided instead to tour the wineries and beach towns of Southern Ontario. Why not see what is in our own backyard, as they say.


wineryDay one – Niagara on the Lake.

An easy drive from KW, Niagara-on-the-lake is kind of a dumb and long name for a town. It is not it’s first name. It was a name that was officially adopted in the 1970s. Before that it was named after a military man and then it was called Newark and Fort George.

A lot of towns in Ontario had several names before one stuck.

Niagara-on-the-lake was pretty much burned to the ground during a two day siege in 1812. It was the home of loyalists leaving the relatively new country of the u. s. of a.

I don’t know what the War of 1812 was all about. It took about a year and there was apparently a lot of burning done. There was action. There was music. A good time was had by most, or many.

wine tastingNiagara-on-the-lake is a pretty and boring little town, full of retired people who walk really slow. I googled it, of course, and learned that it is a growing retirement community. I suppose it has pretty good weather in the winter. It’s quiet. There is wine.

We stop on the way into town at a winery and buy a couple of bottles of award winning red.

I wonder why the GPS takes on such a winding way through the country, over the Welland canal and into town that way. With the wine we should get some cheese.

We walk to the end of town after an rich Italian supper and at the point where Lake Ontario and Niagara River meet. It is really windy and cool.

Our hotel, we wandered into and asked if they had any rooms. They did. They had one left so we took it. That is the kind of trip this is.


Across the lake from Toronto Day two – A day in Niagara-on-the-Lake

Our hotel is on the main street, right next door to the Prince of Wales hotel, where we have a leisurely breakfast. I don’t complain about the poor service – I tip as regular. When I’m on holiday, I tend to become a fatalist; everything happening for a reason.

We get to the jet boat place just as they are finishing their safety instructions. Keep your arms in the boat. Do not stand up. Pat your head if you feel scared.

It has been a trip of great timing; and fortuitousness, arriving just in time for this, happening upon that, getting the last room at the inn… Suiting up for the boat ride through the rapids proved to be redundant. We get completely soaked many times over. We sit at the very front. In for a penny, in for a pound.

There was about a foot of water in the bottom of the boat when we set out. The water will be up to my knees soon. I wondered if they had some sort of pumping system to get the water out. It comes over the front of the boat in thick waves, crashing down over our heads.

An hour later and complete soaked, we are deposited back on the dock. Give me your huddled masses.

We are just in time for the bike ride and wine drinking tour. They said to be there at 11:30 and they would be leaving at 12:00. We get there just as they are leaving. We sprinted like wet water rodents through the park to get there. We grab the tandem bike that was out front and peddle to catch up with the group – a young couple from NFLD and three ladies from The Big T.O. We will pick up three more ladies at a winery where they had lunch. Our group is not very outgoing. We don’t stick together. Our guide is forever racing up and back telling us where to go, where to turn, what our next winery stop is called and looks like. We are spread out over a half kilometre on the country roads between wineries. Like life, we are all traveling at our own speed.

We ride down to the waterfront and can see Toronto across the lake in the distance. We ride through residential Niagara-on-the-lake and through countryside Niagara-on-the-lake and along the Niagara Parkway visiting three wineries, sampling lots of wines, buying some wine, learning about wine and wineries. I thought it would be a silly trip but it actually is lots of fun. It’s easy. My clothes are quickly drying in the wind and the sun. I think about that movie “sideways” from a few years ago. I remember the guy drove his car into a tree, but I can’t remember why.

My mind wanders.

The tour guide used to be an electrician and although his tour guiding was not electrifying (how could it be?) he is knowledgeable and friendly and interesting. During the War of 1812, the Americans burned all but one of the buildings to the ground. Later in our trip, in Port Dover and other ports we discovered that they did that there too. They had a scorched earth policy, even in 1812. I can just imagine the music playing, the cannon balls firing and whole towns along the coast of Lake Erie, burning to the ground, except it seems for one building per town.

We drive down the Niagara Parkway, through Niagara Falls and then through farm country to Port Dover.


Port SomethingDay 3 – Port Dover

We are just going. Our trip is open ended. We google from the car, places to stay in Port Dover and find a place on the hill at the top of town. When we get there, as instructed, we use the courtesy phone and find that our room is ready for us. It is #19 at the top of the stairs.

The whole time at this hotel we do not see another soul. No one. Not a desk clerk, not a guest. That’s weird. The next morning when we lock ourselves out of our room, we use the courtesy phone again and are told that duct taped to the bottom of the phone is the master key. We un-tape it and let ourselves into our room and then return the key to it’s place under the phone.

I wonder where the other end of the courtesy phone is. It could be in the hotel, but I doubt it. It could be in Port Dover or in New Brunswick. For all we know, it could dial into a call centre in India.

That’s unlikely.

dining roomWe walk past the Port Dover Beach Hotel twice before realizing that its the one we are looking for. I don’t know why I was expecting a grand hotel (The Shining) a Victorian, a railway hotel like Victoria’s Empress. Breakfast is comical. We are the only ones in a very large dining room and then the menu is just silly it is so simple. I have coffee, toast and sausage links. It’s a perfect breakfast, just simple and served on antique plates. We figure the hotel was built in the 1940’s. The dining room music is a local radio station playing music from the early 70’s. It’s quaint. It is like going back in time. We are eating off of your grandmother’s best china.

A lot of this trip is like that, weird and time-warped.

It is like nothing much has happen here in the past 30 years. I think to myself, if we had of moved to London instead of Waterloo 15 years ago, life would have been very different. Life is shaped by the places you live. These little farm towns and port towns we travel through are lost in time.

Long Point

It is sandy and windy. We get a day pass and walk the beach. The drive in is flat and past campground and camp sites and boats, lots of boats. We have ham and cheese on buns, cherry tomatoes and chips. We eat the rest of the strawberries that have been in the cooler since Tuesday morning. It is a nice picnic. A little windy but relaxing. The whole idea of a vacation is to break with habit, to do things that you wouldn’t normally do.

For us too, this trip is kind of a dry run of a longer, meandering trip we talk about taking when we retire. The dream is to get a Roadtrac and travel the cities and towns of North America. We want something small enough that it won’t attract attention when we are in a city parking lot.

From Long Point we continue along the Erie Coast, stopping now and then to ponder and make fun of the towns we pass through, buy coffee, see a submarine, another beach, another dead port. We learn about how the towns developed. Lumber for ship building, then shipping ports for grain and beans. The farms farmed grains and then tobacco. The railways arrived from the north connecting towns like London and St. Thomas to the coast. Fun and prosperous times were ahead at the turn of the century with entertainment centres built along the beaches. Then after the two wars, things changed. The slow decline was ahead. The trains stopped running. The ports became unused. The towns became frozen in time.

We drive past tobacco shacks and corn fields. The road is nearly deserted in the middle of a weekday afternoon.


Our hotel is actually a motel and the room is the best one yet, and the cheapest at $100/night.

It is really amazing that we can do this. From the car, google ahead researching hotels and restaurants, making bookings, paying by credit card…the world is always only a few key strokes away. We walk a couple of big blocks to a Pho restaurant and after a light dinner cut short our stroll around Talbot and Erie streets. Leamington is kind of a rough town. There are lots of men and boys hanging around, migrant workers here to work in the farms. It’s weird, only a couple hours down the road and the scenery completely changes again.


Pelee IslandDay 4 – Pelee Island

I often find myself in remote and hard to get to places. I think I have a need to see things as they are, as they are before they get discovered and spoiled. But really. We are not the first people to come ashore on this island. People have been coming here for decades, for hundreds of years even.

There is a painting at the winery of the town dockside 100 years ago. Not a lot has changed, we discover on our bike ride around the island. There is a road now, paved mostly whereas in the olden days there would have been a wagon trail of dirt and ruts. The bike ride past cottages and not much else actually reminds me of Koh Samui Thailand back in the 80’s – they’d paved the road a few years earlier – when I got to Koh Tao the road was dirt with sprinkles of gravel and with long flat potholes deep with water. Koh Tao was about as remote as you could get back in those days. Provincial Bangladesh was too, but that is a different story.

So the motel in Leamington was quiet and comfortable. Lethal Weapon was playing on a movie channel. It was really terrible. I watched a bit of it but it was comically bad. The story was lame and the stunts were amateur. I remember seeing it when it first came out in the 80’s and thinking it was good.

pirateTimes change. Maybe that is progress.

After a quick stop at Tim Hortons, we are parked and walking onto the ferry for a one and a half trip across Lake Ontario.

Time to sit and write in this blog, bang out these thoughts from the ghost coast.

It’s fun being on a ferry. Ferries are so BC, so relaxing. You are stuck and you have to make your own fun.

Fun for me is blogging.

At the west harbour on Pelee Island, there are tour minibuses waiting to take you wherever it is you need to go. Besides the winery, which is within walking distance, I can’t imagine where else there is to go. We walk right past them all to the bike rental place. We did well on our tandem ride in Niagara on the Lake so why not go around the island on a tandem bike? It takes us three hours to get around the island. We stop for lunch, finally getting the Lake Erie Perch we’ve been hearing about. We take the wrong turn and miss the lighthouse but we see lots of other sites, well mostly we see water, cottages and fields. Just like when we were walking around Niagara on the Lake, we bike past places for sale and wonder what life would be like to buy a cottage here. I don’t know how I would spend my time. Would I finally write a novel or a screenplay? Would I exercise twice a day for two hours each time? Would I stay up late drinking wine from the winery and then sleep late?

Hard to say. Easy to dream.

lighthouseThe next and maybe final stop on our trip is Ontario’s west coast – Grand Bend. Like yesterday and the days before that, we travel late in the day to our next day’s destination. What lies ahead we will discover when we get there.


Everything is two to three hours away. On the way to Grand Bend we find a motel in Forest, just 30 minutes short of Grand Bend. All the other hotels and motels are fully booked, but we ask at the last one “do you know any motel we might try” and thats how we find this one. It’s under new management, only two weeks in and the new owners have two rooms left. We secure the second last one and drive on, an hour and a half later and through a thunder storm arriving just as night is falling.

The room is quaint (small) and rustic (musty), but at times like these it’s just nice to have a roof overhead. We sit out front of our room and watch the lightening in the distance flash sideways across the sky. There is another large thunder storm that night, but we are tired from our 30K bike ride and sunburnt and road weary. We sleep soundly. The rain and the wind do not impress us.


Storm chasingDay 5 – Grand Bend

The fog clings to the fields like low clouds. The sun comes up over the highway. It is big and yellow. It is going to be a hot day.

We were early to bed so at seven o’clock we are already in Grand Bend, coffee and breakfast in hand, parked at the beach. We walk down the beach, past the sign that says “Private beach. Do not enter”. We walk an hour down the beach and an hour back. People walk their dogs. Others just walk or jog. The beach slowly comes alive.

After breakfast, back on the beach, the parking lot is full. The beach is full of people and lawn chairs and towels and big beach umbrellas. It is clear and 26 degrees at noon.

The fishermen that were along the pier are gone. The boaters boat. The sun bathers bathe. There is food and busses and motorcycles and laughter and children and sand, lots of sand. This is vacationland. This has been a good vacation and a small adventure. I’m glad we didn’t go to Washington. It will be there for a future trip, maybe a fall trip through the autumn leaves.

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