This summer, I have company coming from France FOR ONE ENTIRE MONTH! Besides being excited to spend time with family I rarely see, I’m looking forward to playing tour guide and local know-it-all. It’s become tradition to take visitors to every place we love within a two-hour(ish) radius of home base in the Greater Toronto Area. We always visit the nearest beaches—Turkey Point, Long Point, and Grand Bend—and sit back to watch them ooh and ahh.
The first order of business after my cousin and his kids land, is a trip to the grocery store to stock up on peanut butter and maple cookies. But once that’s done and they have their yearly supply packed away, we’re planning visits to Algonquin Provincial Park, Sainte-Marie among the Hurons near Midland, Kensington Market in Toronto, and checking out the food truck scene in Hamilton, along with this year's three beach destinations on our list: Port Dover, The Pinery, and Long Point— a family-favourite. I don’t mess around when I plan visits.
As we play tourist this summer, there'll be up to seven adults and eight kids ranging in age from eight to 17, and no shortage of fun activities on or near Ontario’s beaches to keep us happy and tired. Here are 10 activities to rival some of the most stunning beaches around the world.
I have it on good authority that anyone can master (or at least not suck) at SUPing (stand up paddleboarding), so it's on the bucket list this summer. My daughter wants to learn too and I'm looking forward to making it a mother-daughter experience we'll remember. Between SUPing, skimboards, paddle boats, kayaks, and surfing (YES! Even surfing, especially off Long Point), we can play along the shores of all three of our chosen beaches. My daughter spent the first week of the summer camping at the Pinery with a friend. Besides spending more hours in the water than they did on land, she told me about their paddleboating fun, although her first words were, "That was A LOT of work!" Every spot offers lessons and rentals for the newbies.
When we're not in the mood to completely escape civilization, but we still want a sandy beach, we'll head to Port Dover. As anyone with kids can attest, they occasionally want to do more than coat themselves in sand and I love that Port Dover offers the full package. Sometimes the best part of a beach day is stopping in shops to pick up a vacation trinket, or sitting on a patio eating ice cream, or walking along the pier watching the fish and birds flit by. There's enough selection in this small town for everyone.
I'm probably most excited to explore more of the protected areas near the Pinery and Long Point, and the older kids also plan to try their hand at kayaking into the Old Ausable Channel near the Pinery. The Oak Savanna and Coastal Dune Ecosystems at the Pinery on Lake Huron are home to hundreds of plants and bird species. The causeway and its surrounding wetlands at Long Point on Lake Erie is one of the largest in North America. It's a refuge for migrating birds and attracts thousands of visitors every year.
Which brings me to bird watching. Granted, making a full day of spotting waterfowl will not keep most kids entertained for long, but we've made a game of it in the past. There are guided walks and hikes at the provincial campgrounds near all three beaches and the kids will love learning about the local flora, birds, turtles, and other wildlife. It's all part of the family adventure, especially if we let them quiz us about it afterwards.
Because our summers are relatively short, we (and most Ontarians!) make the most of outdoor events when we can. Every summer, my family and I try to take in as many festivals, outdoor markets, and music venues as we can. This year, we have visits planned in the areas around our three beach mini-getaways: the Port Dover Summer Festival (Art in the Park), Summer Sunset Sounds, and Turkey Point Summerfest.
It's not enough to pack a picnic of sandwiches and watermelon (although that's always part of the day), part of my provincial pride comes from showing my family we know about good food in Ontario. There are markets and restaurants at every location and I've already spotted a few we have to try. On the list are the Beach House Restaurant (in part for its palm trees and view), the Urban Parisian Pattisserie & Boulangerie, and Aunt Gussie's in Grand Bend near the Pinery for breakfast.
If the kids' eyes are sharp, they'll spot fossils, driftwood made smooth by rolling waves, and interesting rocks to add to their collections. We've made some cool finds in all our regular spots, especially on Long Point and the Pinery.
When people think of sand dunes, they usually picture a far off destination, something only seen on travel shows, never imagining that Southwestern Ontario has dunes that stretch for kilometers and reach more than 20-metres in height. The Pinery and its neighbouring dunes are a protected area and Long Point itself is one large sand spit/sand dune. Hike along the coast to see the constantly changing formation, but stick to the paths and off the vegetation, which serves to protect the dunes from erosion.
With lakes that resemble seas and colours that change by the minute, our Ontario beach sunsets are so spectacular, it's impossible to leave before the sun falls below the horizon. Word has it, National Geographic even ranked the sunsets at the Pinery on Lake Huron as one of the Top 10 Best in the World. And even if the ranking was never officially made, kids and adults who visit and watch the colours unfold, agree it should be.
I've saved the best for last. Long gone are the days when Ontario wines were looked down on by the rest of the world. Now, we win awards and restaurants near and far include local, Ontario wines on their lists. Not far from Port Dover is Ontario's South Coast Wine Trail, home to 10 wineries that can be visited and which offer tastings. That one's Sharpied in my calendar.
We’re lucky to have beaches nearby that rival some of the most beautiful ones around the world and with interesting and fun small towns a short walk or drive from the beach, no one ever goes home bored or hungry. I’m looking forward to making sure the French tourists know it too.