Grand Bend, Ontario: Canada’s Best Beach Town?

There's nothing quite like a day at the beach, and Grand Bend has one of the best around.  JIM BYERS PHOTO

There’s nothing quite like a day at the beach, and Grand Bend has one of the best around. JIM BYERS PHOTO

GRAND BEND, ONTARIO – I’ve spent many a day kicking down the streets of Lahaina on Maui. I’ve paraded down Duval Street in Key West and strolled the piers of California from San Diego to Santa Cruz. I’ve been lucky enough to hit the beaches of Thailand and Sardinia, of St. Lucia and Senegal.
Yet somehow, despite some three decades living in Toronto, I’d missed spending any time in Grand Bend.
It won’t happen again. Because there are few things I love more than a good beach town. And because Grand Bend might be the best beach town in Canada.
It took me all of about two minutes to fall in love with this place. I pulled off Highway 21 and cruised under the giant “Grand Bend” sign, with its brilliant yellow sun, and spotted a great mix of options: sushi restaurants, t-shirt shops, a small mini-golf course and, the sure sign of a great beach town, casual spots selling the kind of French fries that smell like summer. The first store I walked into was Archies Surf Shop, which sells high-quality tees and sweats with simple but classic design. Some guys love a crisp Armani suit, but I love nothing more than a $25 tee shirt with a bold logo of a great beach destination. And I found lots to love at Archies.
I had a kiddie-sized (hey, us travel reporters have to watch it on the road) vanilla-chocolate cone at Dairy Dip; the perfect snack on a summer’s day, and took pictures of brilliant white straw hats that were calling my name, despite my having two or three of them at home already that get little use.
A game of beach volleyball on the sand in Grand Bend. JIM BYERS PHOTO

A game of beach volleyball on the sand in Grand Bend. JIM BYERS PHOTO

Then it was time to hit the beach on a warm, sunny afternoon. There were beach volleyball players galore and brightly coloured umbrellas on a warm stretch of sand.
There were families, but being a weekday in mid-June a lot of the younger kids were still in school; leaving the beach to university-age kids long-since freed from the shackles of the classroom. I strolled past the pink, soft green and baby blue Muskoka chairs in front of the Bonnie Doone Manor and strolled out to the short cement pier to take photos of the beach.
I snapped photos of boats on the Ausable River and then headed to my hotel. The tourism folks had booked me into the Pine Dale Inn, and I found it absolutely charming, with a great mix of things to do and quiet pockets to explore.
Muskoka chairs at the Pine Dale Inn. JIM BYERS PHOTO

Muskoka chairs at the Pine Dale Inn. JIM BYERS PHOTO

Manager Mary Jo Schottroff tells me the Inn has been in the family for 36 years. She proudly shows off the indoor pool and whirlpool and escorts me to the quiet gardens in back of the units, where you’ll find a small, covered gazebo that’s perfect for reading or a mid-day snooze. The Inn backs onto the Ausable River, so it’s a great spot to watch turtles sun themselves on a rock or dip your line or just relax by the water’s edge. They also have a small pond out front with red and white Muskoka chairs. Other amenities include meeting rooms, a pool table, video games and gas barbeques; making it ideal for families who don’t want the expense of eating out all the time. Schottroff also will let you sign out of their entry permits for Pinery Provincial Park just down the road, thus saving you another $17 or so.
They have motel-style units but my room was upstairs over the lobby, with tons of space and a fireplace and a set of chairs in front of the TV. It’s barely a 10-minute walk into town, or a very short drive, and they’re also pet-friendly.
I sat down for dinner on the patio at Smackwater Jacks, a fine spot along the river with a full view of the sunset. Owner Brad Oke tells me he worked for Bell Canada, had a sting in Saudi Arabia and toiled as a builder for many years in the Grand Bend area.
The patio at Smackwater Jack's is on the river in Grand Bend. Great sunsets, too. JIM BYERS PHOTO

The patio at Smackwater Jack’s is on the river in Grand Bend. Great sunsets, too. JIM BYERS PHOTO

“Then I got stupid and opened a restaurant,” he says with a laugh.
Over the course of a 90-minute dinner, Oke is pulled away several times to check on one of the TV’s showing the Women’s World Cup or to smooth over one of a million little things a restaurateur has to deal with every day. He stops to chat with folks at nearby tables, acting as something of an emcee or general host, which also goes with the territory.
We have a smashing good time sipping local beers. The Smack Attack is made especially for him by Stratford Brewing Co. and all his staff have been trained in the world of beer so they can better dispense the goods from the restaurant’s 16 taps; mostly craft products and imports.
We also dine on Thai chicken bites, slip our crackers into a rich and smooth dip with smoked bacon, cream cheese, garlic and Thai spices. My main course is an excellent local turkey filet from Hayter’s Farms. For dessert, he gets me to try special deep fried banana caramel cheesecake he hands out to folks celebrating a birthday. Yum.
The restaurant seats 249 but only 75 spots are indoors, so Oke has to keep a close eye on the weather. He stays open in winter, partly so he can keep his workers employed year-round and build loyalty. Business isn’t as strong in the off-season, of course, so he adds special theme nights such as Mardi Gras Night or Cinco de Mayo.
Grand Bend has no shortage of fun spots to grab an ice cream or some other treat. JIM BYERS PHOTO

Grand Bend has no shortage of fun spots to grab an ice cream or some other treat. JIM BYERS PHOTO

Oke realized that drinking and driving laws and societal change meant folks were reluctant to come to his place and have more than a beer or two, so he started a pickup service a few years ago, using an old ambulance. These days he’s got a bright orange, 1974 VW van that’s generously sprinkled with hippie photos that he uses to ferry folks to his restaurant from as far away as 30 km’s or more.
Oke tells me he gets as much of his restaurant’s food from local producers as he can. He might someday even be able to serve local wine, as wineries are cropping up all along the Lake Huron shoreline. I drive a few miles south the next day and taste some fine cider from Twin Pines Orchards, which also has a lovely gift shop with great jams, hot sauce and home décor bits for the house or cottage.
A magical sunset in Grand Bend. JIM BYERS PHOTO

A magical sunset in Grand Bend. JIM BYERS PHOTO

Dinner is over at a good time, so I scoot back to the Pine Dale Inn and grab my camera so I can catch a truly magical sunset on Lake Huron.
The next morning it’s breakfast at The Schoolhouse Restaurant, a restored school with a quiet patio and lovely old photos of kids and teachers. I dine on lovely eggs, crispy potatoes (a critical ingredient of a good country breakfast) and homemade sausage and large, fluffy biscuits with good coffee.
The Schoolhouse Restaurant is a great spot to dine in Grand Bend. JIM BYERS PHOTO

The Schoolhouse Restaurant is a great spot to dine in Grand Bend. JIM BYERS PHOTO

Owner/chef Gus Merkies, who makes everything from scratch, tells me he’s changed his menu over the years to adjust to changing times.
“I was listening to the CBC a few years ago and somebody said something about ladies who lunch. I went to my restaurant that day and looked around at lunch and said, ‘Yeah, it’s 80 per cent women.’ So I added some new items to the menu, including quiche.”
He’s also adding a gift shop in behind the restaurant, nestled in a small, green glen near a spot in the Ausable River where booze used to be smuggled during American Prohibition.
It’s a charming spot that avoids being too cute or kitschy.
As I’m leaving, Gus insists on giving me one of his cookbooks. A local hears us chatting and, after co-signing the cookbook with Merkies insists I visit her gallery on River Road in the afternoon.
A family takes in a canoe trip in Pinery Provincial Park, just south of Grand Bend. JIM BYERS PHOTO

A family takes in a canoe trip in The PInery Provincial Park, just south of Grand Bend. JIM BYERS PHOTO

I’d been given a chance to try a jet ski session with Xtreme Watersports but opted instead to canoe the quiet waters of The Pinery Provincial Park on the shores of Lake Huron, just a few klicks south of Grand Bend. I don’t mind a jet ski now and then, but I par prefer dipping a paddle into still waters and gazing at brilliant white flowers on a deep green lily pad.
After my canoeing I drive through thick forests of Oak Savannah and take a minute to explore some of the massive sand dunes on the shore of the lake. A fellow named Simon is on the beach, building a sort of teepee out of driftwood.
“The natives used to do it, I’m told,” he said. “Folks like to come down here and build them. This one was falling apart a bit so I’m just helping fix it up.”
I ask if it makes him feel part of something bigger and he smiles.
“Yeah. It’s a nice thing to do.”
I make my way back to Grand Bend around lunchtime and, as instructed by my new friend at the Schoolhouse Restaurant, check out the Castaway Gallery, next to Smackwater Jack’s. I’m hugely impressed by a variety of art on display; lovely photos of old barns in deeply emotional and almost ancient-looking browns, paintings of white sailboats on a neon blue lake, polished wooden bowls and sparkling beach glass jewelry.
Building a driftwood "teepee" on the shores of Lake Huron at The Pinery Provincial Park. JIM BYERS PHOTO

Building a driftwood “teepee” on the shores of Lake Huron at The Pinery Provincial Park. JIM BYERS PHOTO

Eager to get to my next appointment on my tour of Southwest Ontario, I wander onto the patio at Midori for a quick bite of sushi. I’m expecting something fairly pedestrian but am served one of the lightest and tastiest tempura dishes I’ve ever had; with tiny sprigs of broccoli and slivers of red pepper and two homemade sauces for dipping.
My sushi platter arrives with perfect tuna that’s lovingly presented with twists of lemon for decoration. The owner sends me out a gorgeous and intricate Kamikaze roll with salmon, avocado, cream cheese, cucumber, crab and a light tempura treatment.
A kamikaze roll at Midori sushi in Grand Bend. JIM BYERS PHOTO

A kamikaze roll at Midori sushi in Grand Bend. JIM BYERS PHOTO

It’s rich and tasty and designed to look like a work of art from the Castaway Gallery. And I’m starting to think maybe Grand Bend isn’t just a great beach town.
Xtreme Watersports offers jet skis and Seadoos as well as boat charters for folks who want to get out on the water for some skiing or wakeboarding. They also have kayaks and operate two water trampolines.
Grand Bend Parasailing does single, double and triple parasail trips on Lake Huron.
For more on Grand Bend and other great destinations in Southwest Ontario, visit http://www.ontariossouthwest.com/

{ 29 comments… add one }
  • John Goodwin 8 July 2015, 12:37 pm

    Nice commercial for a very select few businesses. Grand Bend is so much more. I usually share any articles about GB not this one

    • jimbyers 8 July 2015, 12:42 pm

      Sorry I didn’t have more time to explore.

      • Brianne Murphy 8 July 2015, 2:28 pm

        I’ve been in Grand Bend for over 35 years, and I’m STILL exploring all that Lake Huron has to offer! You can hardly be expected to write about the wonders of this remarkable beach town in one blog post?!

        Shame on you, John, for not supporting the article and local businesses featured. That’s not how we welcome visitors to our beach town! This article was spot on, and truly reflected the diversity of the area. There’s something for everyone!

        Hopefully, this article intrigues others to explore the area.

        • Matt Nicholson 9 July 2015, 4:55 am

          well said Bri

        • Sarah Nicholson 18 July 2015, 1:32 am

          Agreed Bri, our perfect beach town has something for everyone and can’t all be seen in a few days. I can count numerous times i have headed up for a weekend with plans of hitting up all my favourites and sadly at the end of my stay i realise that i havent made it to any of my favourite places; i instead spent all my time with great people; friends and neighbours on our stunning beach. How can we expect a reporter to find everything we cant find time to do in a few days. Great article about some of our incredible spots. I hope you come back and we can show you more of our piece of paradise. Happy to show you around, or introduce you to some of our incredible people.

  • David Bannister 8 July 2015, 1:07 pm

    Great Article!

  • Glen Baillie 8 July 2015, 2:00 pm

    If you had more time, there are 31 restaurants, 3 golf courses, water sports, campsites and theatres all in the immediate area. Lots of activities for a visitor, or a resident.
    Thanks for the review, come on back and stay awhile. We also have over 30 realtors working the area…

    • Robin Tiller 9 July 2015, 5:03 pm

      The population of Grand Bend surges from 2,000 to an estimated 50,000 in the summer months and holidays. People come for adventure and return because there is always more to do…arts, sports, food, relaxation…”a great beach town”.

  • Sherry 8 July 2015, 3:34 pm

    Sometimes us locals forget what we have in our own backyard. Thanks for the reminder…………….A great article.

  • David 8 July 2015, 5:29 pm

    A very nice and thorough article. Grandbend is most definitely the finest beach in Canada and probably should rate high in North America.

  • Mary Alderson 8 July 2015, 5:48 pm

    Great article! Another top-notch feature in Grand Bend is Huron Country Playhouse and Playhouse II. Professional theatre in the country. No better way to spend an evening.

  • Carol Gledhill 8 July 2015, 10:17 pm

    I will be sharing this article for sure. I agree with Brianne’s comment – you cannot possibly cover each and every business or venue in one visit. It is a great article and should entice people to come and see what Grand Bend has to offer.

  • Keith Heipel 8 July 2015, 10:58 pm

    Grand Bend truly is a gem. Your article provides an impressive overview.

  • Margarita 9 July 2015, 2:16 am

    Grand Bend is my favourite spot in the whole world. I loved reading the article and seeing Grand Bend through some one elses eyes.

  • Karen McInnes Downing 9 July 2015, 4:02 am

    Great article to show some of the many great spots in Grand Bend. Thanks Jim and hope that you return soon.

  • Melinda 9 July 2015, 12:13 pm

    Yes, Grand Bend is certainly beautiful. There is really a lot to do. However, if you want to get away from the hustle and bustle, Ipperwash Beach is the place to go. No amenities just pure beach, a little bit west of Grand Bend. It’s worth the drive!

  • Doug Pedlar 9 July 2015, 3:48 pm

    Great article on the Bend and area. We are so lucky to live in the area and it just takes an article like this to remind us how fortunate we are to be able to live and work here! I will definitely share this… Thanks again and come back any time! Doug

  • Jen Gaukroger 9 July 2015, 4:56 pm

    Thankyou for the article! We truly have a special place here. There’s a vibration that can’t be photographed or described, but it’s contagious! I encourage visitors of all ages to come and enjoy.
    Shared your article.

  • Bill McGrath 9 July 2015, 6:35 pm

    I’ve been lucky to visit here from London as soon as I got my driver’s licence then years later be able to live in the area. It’s been great to see the continual growth and moderization of Grand Bend as a summer and residential destination through the generations.

  • Rita Williams 10 July 2015, 1:49 am

    i loved the article, all that was written was very well said. As a grand bend resident, it’s great to hear such positive feedback about our beautiful hidden gem. The pictures were beautiful as well.. Thankyou Jim Byers.

    • jimbyers 10 July 2015, 2:03 am

      Thanks, Rita!

  • David McClure 10 July 2015, 10:55 am

    Jim: That was a great article.I know that you could not include every restaurant . But as my grandchildren would say ,”Grandpa ,don’t forget Aunt Gussie’s restaurant and remember the fish and chips there and down at the harbour “.
    I wish that you had been here earlier to see Anne of Green Gables at the Huron Country Playhouse -the great ,successful summer theatre that started off in the renovated Taylor barn on the “B” Line back in 1972 .

  • Faye roberts 10 July 2015, 2:56 pm

    I grew up in one of the most pristine, stunning areas of the continent, Gros Morne National Park, NL. Thirteen years ago, I visited Grand Bend for the first time. It, like Gros Morne is truly beautiful with white, sandy beaches as far as the eye can see. During our annual summer sojourn my favorite part is sitting on the front porch of my in-laws cottage on Main Street, sipping on a cold beer watching the world go by. That, of course, is after a long stroll on the beach during the setting of the sun. Love it!

  • Jim Southcott 15 July 2015, 1:24 pm

    Follow my family’s lead and come to Grand Bend for a visit, and stay for a lifetime. What a truly great place to live and retire. Jim Southcott

  • Elizabeth Jean Sullivan 17 July 2015, 5:14 am

    During peak season Grand Bend is definitely best seen on foot, for traffic tends to stand still for long patches of time. 🙂

  • Paul S. Lam 25 July 2015, 12:39 pm

    I stumbled on Grand Bend and was very to learn about the place.
    After reading Jim Byers’ article and the numerous comments, I am thinking of visiting Grand Bend some time in the near future.
    It seems to be a very nice place or Jim Byers is a very good writer.
    Why go thousands of miles and spend thousands of dollars while we have gems like Grand Bend in our own backyard?
    BTW, I hail from Quebec!

  • Lia Argent 26 February 2016, 5:04 am

    My husband and I went on vacation to Grand Bend in 2015 on one of our neighbor’s recommendations. Once I saw the beach something inside of me said I need to purchase some kind of property here so we can spend more time here. Well, the second week of vacation we bought a house and we will be moving to Grand Bend from Toronto this year. I still can’t believe it, who knew this place existed? Thanks GB, Lia and Mark
    P.S. Jim Byers’ article was very well done and as we were reading about some of the place’s, it was exactly how we felt when we were there.

  • Emily Carcamo 18 May 2016, 3:39 pm

    Thank you for the well written article about our beautiful beach town! It is so very true…once you visit, you’ll want to stay. Keep promoting Grand Bend!

  • Grand Bend University 8 July 2016, 2:27 pm

    This is a great town!

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