If you’ve driven the rather boring section of Highway 401 between Toronto and Windsor, you could be forgiven for thinking there’s not much to see in southwest Ontario. But drive off the main highway and you’re in for a treat. Southwest Ontario is home to a thriving and growing wine industry. It’s full of cute towns and quiet backroads that are perfect for cycling. There are places to paddle and nature in abundance especially in the numerous parks scattered throughout the region. You’ll find everything from cheese factories to art galleries, fine dining to local cafes. And the beaches are some of the nicest in Ontario.
Here’s a sampling of 30 of the best things to do in southwest Ontario.
Paddling in Southwest Ontario
- Paddle 15 – 20 minutes over to Peche Island from the pop-up offices of Windsor Adventure Company. You can rent a kayak or join a guided paddle and explore the marsh, parts of which are within sight of the Detroit skyline. Birding is excellent. Stretch your legs on a hike of the island, noting the ruins of the former Hiram Walker mansion.
- Enjoy several hours of kayaking on Big Creek with Long Point Eco-Adventures. The easy paddle that’s perfect for beginners as well as advanced paddlers takes you through Carolinean forests (look for the 300 wood duck boxes in the trees along the route) teeming with birds. This quiet waterway has been termed the Canadian Amazon as it’s internationally recognized for the marshes and wetlands.
- Spend a couple of hours paddling the Grand River and explore the Dunnville area’s marshes where you’re likely to see blue herons, kingfishers, snapping turtles and massive carp. This paddle that leaves right from the dock of Grand River Kayaking is perfect for families.
Towns, restaurants and places to stay you don’t want to miss in southwest Ontario
- Plan an overnight in Kingsville. It boasts a couple of cute places to stay including the historic but completely renovated and very hip Grove Hotel as well as retro rooms, beautifully done at Inn 31. After enjoying a farm to table meal on the wrap around porch at Jack’s Gastropub, rent one of their bikes and check out this quiet town on the shores of Lake Erie. Or visit nearby Point Pelee National Park for not only the fine birding, but the beaches and the hiking.
- Dunnville, a small town on the Grand River is full of little B&B’s and cute locally owned stores. You’ll smell Sweet Retrospect before you see it – a store famous for candy and different flavours of Chicago style popcorn. Pop into Cheap Shabby Chic a few doors down and look for locally made charcuterie boards. Don’t miss a chance – either by car or on a bike – to see the Port Maitland pier. Go early in the morning to see all the fisherman on the pier.
- Need a caffeine hit? Stop at the Carolinean Café in Cayuga for delicious coffee and one of their home-baked treats. Starting in summer picnic baskets to go will be an option. Order one and then head to nearby Ruthven Park National Historic Site to soak in the natural beauty of the area. The site, formerly owned by five generations of the Thompson family, sits on approximately 1,600 acres along a scenic portion of the Grand River. Take a tour of the Greek Revival mansion and then explore the property via one of the many hiking trails. Depending on the season, you may see the bird banding station in action.
- A bike ride around Sarnia changed my preconceptions of the city. Sure, its got a big industrial area but its also got loads of first-rate multi-use trails. Pick up a rental bike at The Bicycle Shop and head for the waterfront along the St. Clair River. Cycle under the Blue Water Bridge, stopping to gape at the wild river currents. Explore Cantara Park and if you have time hang out on the beautiful beaches of Lake Huron.
- Visit the Judith & Norman Alix Art Gallery in downtown Sarnia. I spent a solid 90 minutes in here – enjoying their collections especially the exhibit – Homage: Donald Stewart in which 41 neck pieces were created and on display to celebrate Canadian women – from political activists to writers to hockey players. It’s one of the most interesting exhibits I’ve seen in a long time!
- Go glamping at Long Point Eco-Adventures and explore the area on bike, on foot or via zipline. Eat breakfast in the large dining room with a view over the marsh, grab a bite from the onsite food truck for lunch and walk across the street to Burning Kiln Winery for dinner. Be sure to order a glass of their Cabernet Franc.
- Head to Sandbar on the Beach in Turkey Point, just minutes from Turkey Point Provincial Park. Grab a burger and beer while you enjoy the view of Lake Erie.
- Spend at least a day in Oxford County – what I would describe as the centre of cheesemaking in southwest Ontario. Follow the Oxford County Cheese Trail (beware – many of the businesses are often closed on Sundays) and be sure to include a tour of Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese. Get your cheese curd fix at Bright, Mountainoak or Gunn’s Hill.
- In the town of Ingersoll stop in for a taste of cheese at the Ingersoll Wine Cellar & Cheese Shop. You may end up walking out with one of their beautiful charcuterie boards. Then stroll around the corner and meet Cindy Walker at Chocolatea. You’ll want to perform a taste test or two on both the hand-crafted chocolates and their tea. If you need a more substantial lunch or a cup of coffee finish up at The Olde Bakery Cafe on Thames Street South.
- Check out the mammoth cheese replica at the Ingersoll Cheese and Agricultural Museum. The cheese which was made from 35 tons of milk visited the New York State Fair and toured Great Britain in 1886.
- Explore Oxford County on a bike. The local tourism organization has put together a number of routes – of varying lengths and difficulties which you can check out here. Expect predominately quiet roads through pretty pastoral countryside as you’ll see in the photos below. You could easily spend several days in this area exploring.
- Plan a stay at the R Wee Inn in Otterville. While it can accommodate four people with built in bunk beds, it’s a lovely place and comfortably roomy for two. Aesthetically everything seemed perfect and really well thought out. Breakfast fixings are provided. You can eat dinner at the nearby Otter Creek Golf Course. And while the cycling in the area is rolling, it’s very pretty.
Tour the southwest Ontario wineries
- You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to wineries in southwest Ontario. In the Windsor – Essex – Pelee Island area alone there are at least 18 wineries. There are three in the Huron region (east and northeast of Sarnia) and ten in the Norfolk County – Elgin County area.
Over a week I stopped in at three wineries in the Windsor – Pelee region, one in the Huron area and the Burning Kiln Winery in Norfolk County. They all offer very different experiences, with some being more low key than others. All that I visited offered meals, usually in incredibly pretty settings.
In the Windsor – Essex area you can rent bikes or join a half or full day tour with Farm Dog Cycles. This is flat country so the cycling is easy but very pretty.
Located on the shores of Lake Erie, this family owned winery grows 12 grape varieties so there’s plenty to taste. The tasting room located in a beautiful bright barn is a far less intimidating spot that many, staff are very helpful and there’s a nice patio for a meal.
Located on the shores of Lake Erie, this is the largest of the wineries I visited. It’s got a grand view of the lake from a dining patio and a large tasting room so it’s perfect for big groups.
Sitting on an acreage that is ground up Canadian Shield, the husband and wife team that run the winery and lavender farm benefit greatly from three generations of a farming background along with the fact that Martin (husband and co-owner) is a microbiologist. The onsite restaurant produces divine food with the must-have dish the most beautiful charcuterie plate I’ve ever seen. Choose from 16 wines including a sparkling sauvignon blanc and a store full of great smelling lavender products.
I have so much respect for Marc and Anne, the hard-working co-owners of Alton Farms Estate Winery who had never farmed a day in their lives before jumping into their wine making adventure. In addition they have an outdoor seating area for enjoying their thin crust pizzas (made onsite), as well as about 30 new lambs. Where they find the time to do it all is beyond me. As Anne said on numerous occasions over the course of a tour, “every time they upgraded or automated a piece of equipment it was a marriage saver. : Go check these people out as a good portion of their wine is only available onsite.
From a previous trip to the area I can also highly recommend a visit to Point Pelee Island – but do it over a couple of nights. You can read about that experience here.
Although not technically in southwest Ontario – if you’re anywhere close to Dundas (near Hamilton) try hiking Dundas Peak. It’s located in a scenic area with vistas and waterfalls; come fall the colours are particularly glorious here.
Over a week as a guest of Southwest Ontario Tourism I barely scratched the surface of what you can do. Take these 30 ideas as a starting point for more exploration of this unique corner of the province.
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Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta
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