My family and I have a goal to visit every province and territory in Canada and so far, we've road tripped over 100,000 kms together. This summer alone, we’ve already spent more than 7,500 kms on the road and almost 1,000 nautical kms travelling to the most easterly parts of our country.
Now that the big trip is behind us, for the rest of the summer, you'll find us on the shores of Ontario's Southwest beaches. Despite our many adventures, my family looks forward to relaxing days in a location that doesn't require additional kilometres be added to our road trip tally. However, things will be a little bit different this year because our 12-year-old daughter will be performing in the cast of Aladdin: The Panto at Huron Country Playhouse in Grand Bend.
We’ve tented, yurt-ed, cottaged, resort-ed, and B&B-ed during many of our Ontario Southwest beach vacations, but this year, we’re stepping it up a notch. We will be parking our new camping trailer right near the beach so we can easily get to the theatre and spend the rest of the time exploring all the area has to offer for families.
Here are 18 things we’re planning to discover (and re-discover!) this summer that I know your kids will love:
My kids are pro-road trippers but even they need a break sometimes. Also, less time on the road means more time on the beach and five of the 14 Ontario Southwest beaches are less than 2.5 hours from Toronto. A bonus is that they are situated in the opposite direction of most of the cottage country traffic!
Having grown up in Southern Ontario, I've been visiting the beaches in this area since before I can remember (back in the days when Port Stanley had tall metal slides along the beach that we'd pour water on before sliding down on the hottest summer days!) These beaches are known for warm water and sandy beaches that stretch for kilometres. As an added bonus, four of those beaches including Canatara Beach, Port Stanley, Grand Bend, and Port Glasgow are among only 26 beaches in Canada that have earned official Blue Flag status based on their commitment to high water quality, environmental education, and safety criteria. We plan on dipping our toes in all four of them this summer!
Think you can't mix your beach vacation with a little experiential learning for the kids too? These excursions might have you thinking otherwise!
If your kids love planes the way my 8-year-old son does, you'll want to head to the No. 6 RCAF Dunnville Museum near Rock Point beach. You'll be able to see several WWII vintage planes, try your hand at the flight simulator, and get lost in the expansive collection of memorabilia.
For kids who spend hours playing with toy trains, roam among the retired train cars and engines, they'll enjoy the miniature railroad displays at the Elgin County Railway Museum. Then take a ride on one of Ontario’s oldest railways on a real train with the Port Stanley Terminal Rail.
The first time we took our kid to see the HMCS Ojibwa (a cold-war era submarine that has been restored and is now permanently displayed in Port Burwell), it wasn't open for tours just yet. Although we could walk around the outside - which is impressive all on it's own - all three of the kids couldn't wait to come back to tour the inside. Now, the HMCS Ojibwa is open to the public so, if your kids are older than 6, they can tour the inside of this impressive submarine.
Why is it that a kid who complains they’re tired of walking in the grocery store will happily hike along the trails for hours? If you haven’t experienced hiking with your kids, this is the perfect summer for it! Choose one of the many Ontario's Southwest trails and let your kids lead the way without having to worry about cars or staying on the sidewalk. I highly recommend when choosing a trail you pay extra attention to length of trail, difficulty level, and highlights along the way. For example, look for boardwalks, birding, lookouts, and trails that loop (instead of having to come back the way you came - for some reason my kids like trails that loop the best).
This is a little known fact, but one of the best times to teach your kids to ride their bikes is when you’re camping! Usually there are unpaved paths and more time since you’re away from the regular life distractions. When your kids are ready for the next level of bike riding, you can check out the BMX bike park at Canatara Park beach or ride Lake Erie’s portion of the 1,600km Waterfront Trail.
Our family has spent many hours building sand castles and taking barefoot walks along the beach so be sure to pack your sand toys, because Ontario's Southwest beaches are known for having kilometres of soft sand.
Rock Point beach is unique because of its ancient coral reef and exposed fossils. Your kids will love exploring the fossils and learning through hands on programs provided free of charge through Ontario Parks.
With the exceptional blue flag beach quality water, it will be hard to get your kids to dry off, but for a change of pace and potentially a new challenge, Ontario Southwest beaches offer all of the water activities your kids could want to try.
I'll never forget the first time my eldest daughter finished her first Grand River Kayak trip in her own kayak. At 11-years-old, she paddled her kayak to shore and you could see the incredible sense of accomplishment on her face.
Rent a stand-up paddle board (SUP) or kayak from Sport in Port in Port Stanley or at Grand River Kayak at Dunnville. Both also offer lessons which is great for kids and Grand River Kayak also offers tours for the whole family.
Do you have any idea what flyboarding is? Not surprisingly, my daredevil son does and has been asking all summer if this is the year we'll let him try. Older kids (or even moms and dads) can take water sports to the next level by learning to wakeboard at Erieau Wakeboard and Watersports School or Flyboarding at Turkey Point’s Waveline Rentals.
"Let’s walk to the lighthouse," seems to be a common phrase when enjoying after dinner ice cream. Ontario's Southwest definitely has a few you can stroll to. Check out the Port Burwell Marine Museum and Lighthouse which is open during the summer months. Kids can climb up the staircase and take in the panoramic views.
Speaking of ice cream, an important part of beach vacations is the food! In Port Stanley, our family loves Mackies for French fries, Orangeade, and popcorn. We like Broderick’s for ice cream and the Kettle Creek Inn for Lake Erie perch.
We’ll often stop for peanuts from the largest peanut grower in Canada, Kernal Peanuts Inc. near Turkey Point and Richardson’s Farm and Market for a taste of locally grown fresh produce and real maple syrup.
Wondering what your kids will share when their new teacher asks, “what did you do this summer?” Give them something special to talk about after taking a zodiac boat tour at Long Point, a designated United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Biosphere Reserve. Or walk along the boardwalk to Canada’s most southern point at Point Pelee.
Though a bit biased because my daughter is in the show, I know the Huron Country Playhouse’s Aladdin: The Panto is going to be fun for the whole family. Pantomimes are known for their singing, dancing, and comedy designed for children, sometimes with a bit of boo-ing when the villain appears or cheering for the hero. We can’t wait to see this year’s show!
Every summer, my Dad used to take my brother and I fishing and besides not wanting to put the worm on the hook or keep any of the fish we caught (my Dad became an expert at catch and release), I absolutely loved spending long quiet afternoons with my dad. Some of the area’s best fishing can be found at Erieau on Lake Erie and if you’re a beginner or looking for a new challenge there’s a selection of fishing charters to choose from.
Did you know Ontario's Southwest was one of the last stops on the Underground Railway? When you tour the Buxton National Historic Site & Museum near Erieau beach, kids can experience first hand the restored settlement and the important role the region played.
Your kids can also learn about the Victorian Era at the Cottonwood Mansion Museum or the development of Upper Canada at Ruthven Park National Historic Site, both near Rock Point.
My favourite family vacations with my dad and brother were camping at the beach in a tent that seemed to take forever to set up. While our family has graduated from our tent to a trailer this year, the beach is still our favourite place to camp. Ontario Parks offers exceptional camping at Port Burwell, Turkey Point, Long Point, Rondeau, Rock Point and The Pinery. They also offer interactive learning opportunities for the whole family so once you book your site, be sure to check the park’s event calendar and programs online. It's amazing what kids can learn from the Ontario Park Rangers.
Tip: If you prefer glamping, check out the eco-friendly Wilderness Suites at Long Point Eco Adventures or glamp on a working farm at Oakwood Escape. Of course, if camping or glamping isn’t for your family, there are more than a few accommodation options from inns, cabins, cottages and B&Bs – something for everyone!
Taking time to watch the sunset is one of the many memory-making moments of a family beach vacation and the sunsets in Ontario's Soutwest do not disappoint – especially over Lake Huron. Plan for leisurely sunset walks along the beach, bring your camera, and don’t be shy to ask a passerby to snap a picture of your whole family (yes, mom, you need to get in front of the camera too!)
Have your kids ever had the opportunity to look up at the stars without all the light pollution from the city? One of our family's favourite nighttime camping activities (besides roasting marshmallows, of course!) is laying on the beach looking up at the stars and making out a few of the constellations. If you're ready to take your stargazing to the next level or need a little help remembering the constellations we learned back when we were kids, visit Long Point Observatory and take a look from their super powered telescope.
See you at the beach!