ON THE BRUCE PENINSULA OF ONTARIO – Zane Davies is guiding me on a hike to the Lion’s Head Lookout in Lion’s Head Provincial NatureReserve.
“I went to a beach place in Mexico and it was nice,” he tells me as wind our way along the ancient Niagara Escarpment, sunlight slanting through the deep green trees overhead. “But there weren’t any mountains.”
Later, after showing me a rock formation that’s basically a hollow, vertical tube with an opening at the top and a space you can crawl into, he tells me he’s also been to the Rocky Mountains of Canada.
“They were beautiful,” he said. But he didn’t see a lot of open water.
A few minutes later we clamber over 400 million-year-old rocks and edge our way out onto a platform of stone that juts out over a massive series of cliffs that plunge some 70 metres down to the pebbly shores of Georgian Bay. The water is an impossible shade of green-blue; the sort of thing one sees in the Caribbean or off the shores of Greece in one of those travel posters that you think has been torqued by a mad photo editor.
The bay below us is quite large. To the left it stretches to the small but under-rated town of Lion’s Head. Across the way, we spot white, chalky cliffs rising above the bay at Smokey Head/White Bluff Provincial Nature Reserve. To the east, it’s fresh, open water for maybe 60 or 70 km before you reach the Parry Sound area.
A pure white sailboat drifts along in the azure waters below as we contemplate the view. To our left, a lone climber is snaking his way up the rock face in the bright morning light.
Humbling? For sure. Inspiring? You bet. Surprising? Damn right.
“See what I mean,” Davies asks me. “It’s like having mountains and the ocean right on your doorstep.”
It had been many years (sorry) since I’d up been up this way. On previous visits I’d camped at nearby Cape Croker and seen parts of the 700-km-long (and then some) Niagara Escarpment, a UNESCO protected biosphere. I’d also taken a tour boat out of Tobermory to see towering Flower Pot Island and to admire the amazingly, startlingly clear water. But I’d never been so high ON
TOP of the escarpment and seen the view from above along the legendary BruceTrail. Which is probably why the folks at Ontario Tourism asked me to come
check it out as part of their “surprising Ontario” campaign.
I’m not a serious hiker. I’m not in the best of shape. And I’m not as young as I was a week ago. But the hike wasn’t difficult, with only a few slippery bits over rocks made moist by a recent, welcome rain. The elevation changes are modest, and there’s no need for anything more than decent running shoes and perhaps a walking stick if you feel the need.
It took us only an hour to get from the roadside parking spot we had a minute outside of “downtown” Lion’s Head to the lookout. Not that it’s the same as strolling down the aisle at Sobey’s on your weekly grocery run, but there’s no reason that most visitors can’t make the trip if they take their time and follow the white Bruce Trail signs painted on trees by hundreds of volunteers in Ontario.
Better yet, hire a local expert such as Davies (he and his wife’s company is called Explorer’s Tread, and they’re both certified experts and outdoors enthusiasts) to show you the short cuts and the special bits along the way, such as the rock formations shaped like toilet paper rolls on end (at least to my way of thinking) and the rock archway just south of the Lion’s Head Lookout, where you can peer through a “hole” in the rock and gaze at that impossibly blue-green water below.
Lion’s Head has only a couple thousand residents. But it boasts a fabulous harbour, with a sweeping beach park that features a kids’ playground, camping and a big stretch of sand with tolerably warm water in summer (especially late summer). I stayed the night at the Lion’s Head BeachMotel, where the rooms aren’t fancy but have kitchens and outdoor barbeques and picnic tables on the lawn overlooking the beach. The folks in charge are nice as can be, and it’s a fantastic location with reasonable prices.
There are a few dining options nearby, including the pub at Lion’sHead Inn, where I had fine bangers and mash and a good local beer served by a friendly, folksy waiter. I stopped in at the popular Marydale’s café for a good, old-style breakfast the next day.
Up the road an hour or so is Tobermory, which is another world entirely. Where Lion’s Head is super low-key and relaxed with only a bit of shopping, Tobermory features tons of cute shops selling t-shirts and similar beach-y stuff. I don’t mind that sort of thing, so I quite enjoyed bopping around and checking out some of the shops, including one that sells everything
from marine charts to bow ties.
I’d heard the Tobermory Brewing Company and Grill was a good place to eat, but Davies had suggested I try the Bootlegggers’ Cove Pub at the Big Tub Harbour Resort, a two-minute drive (or boat ride) from central Tobermory. The resort sits on a peninsula that ends with a lovely lighthouse and a pretty set of rocks where folks snorkel and swim and take diving lessons. The patio at the pub is spacious and overlooks a pretty channel, with deep blue water and majestic boats darting back and forth between the tour boats heading out to Flowerpot Island. Definitely a place to chill and soak up the scenery on a fine summer’s day.
I also had a chance to check out the Collingwood area, home to the annual Collingwood Elvis Festival, 450 million year-old fossils (at CraigleithProvincial Park) and the Blue Mountain Resort, a year-round Ontario destination with fine skiing and snow sports in winter.
I stayed at the fine Georgian Bay Hotel in Collingwood, with an enormous room that featured a large living area with two sofas, a big-screen TV, a fully stocked kitchen and a spacious bedroom and bath. They have a couple of outdoor pools, plus an indoor pool, hot tub and spa, as well as a tennis court, kids’ playground and a real-grass mini-putt golf course that looks like a hoot.
I wandered down to their on-site restaurant, Gustav Chophouse, for dinner and sat at the bar with some rabid Blue Jays’ fans watching Toronto clobber Baltimore, which was great. They serve a marvellous, just right Mediterranean style chicken with lemon and spices, along with perfect potatoes and a ton of veggies. Very friendly servers, and a fine place to dine.
I also (burp) was able to have lunch at The Mill Café in Thornbury, just north of Collingwood. It’s a fantastic town I’d love to spend more time in, with lovely shops and a terrific waterfront park and beach area. I had a nice salad with apples, cranberries, goat cheese and candied walnuts, followed by sensational pulled chicken tacos with lime tequila sauce, pickled onions, arugula and chilli aioli, plus fried avocado for a nice, smoky flavour. Insanely delicious, and an early candidate for my “Jimmy Award” as best taco of the year.
We sat on the sunny patio overlooking the Beaver River Falls, but the interior is equally lovely and would be a fine spot on a snowy day in winter. The Mill Café chef, Andrew Barber, also runs Andrew’s Roots restaurant in nearby Meaford, so that’s worth checking out.
After lunch I spent some time up the hill at Georgian Hills Vineyards. I wouldn’t think they could grow good wine this far north, but they do a good job with the reds and a very nice job with their white wines and roses. I was quite impressed.
The climate and geography in the area isn’t entirely conducive to growing wine, at least not on the top of the escarpment. But Georgian Hills is located in a valley below the top of the escarpment, which means the nights aren’t as cold and that the soil is better. They did extensive work before deciding the area could grow grapes, and they’re being rewarded for
I didn’t have much time, but I also was hugely impressed with a brief tour of Owen Sound. Harrison Park is one of Ontario’s top urban parks, a deep valley surrounded by the Niagara Escarpment and plenty of activities; everything from camping to fishing to playgrounds to pedal boats. This was the northernmost stop on the Underground Railroad, and there’s a fine memorial you can visit while you ponder the awful lives black slaves faced and the marvellous feeling that freedom must have provided. Stirring stuff, and not to be missed.
The town seems to have come a long way of late, and there are fine-looking shops, book stores and restaurants in town. It also boasts a weekly farmers market, a lovely, old library that apparently has a fireplace and the Tom Thomson Gallery that outlines the life of one of Canada’s finest painters. Thomson was born in the area and is buried here, and I’m told that some well-wishers leave paint brushes at his grave rather than flowers.
World-class hikes, gorgeous water, tremendous history and a marvellous food and drinks scene. There’s a lot to like in this part of a very surprising province.
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