How We Spent Our Summer in Ontario’s Southwest

How We Spent Our Summer in Ontario’s Southwest

Ten of Our Best Experiences

Just like driving to a concert and feeling excited for the show, our team at young & free press has developed a way to travel to a community and imagine the whole setting as the performance. We call this life-art … the experience may contain music, paintings, theatre, sculptures, books, virtual reality, sports, businesses, video games, natural environments, culinary experiences, and roadside attractions, but we like to imagine the total picture. Everything is set on one stage. Our role is to wander, be open to chance interactions, and translate some of this back to our audience. We mix a bit of psychogeography into the equation, coming up with our own mental maps of various cities, towns and villages – basically, we want to make real life a work of art.  

We are so fortunate to live in Ontario’s Southwest, where urban spaces and rural horizons intersect with the vast expanses of the Great Lakes ecosystem always surrounding us. Beginning in the spring, we started a new collaboration with Southwest Ontario Tourism, and had the opportunity to go exploring! Our teenage journalists Maddie King, Alex Popen and Emily Stage took on the challenge with a little help from our owner and editor, Andrew Gunn. The goal was simple: generate content for our social media channels highlighting ‘The Teenager’s Guide to Ontario’s Southwest’, and pick out unique places that visitors might want to check out. One could argue that the real ‘Teenager’s Guide’ to any community is just finding some friends, hanging out in basements and backyards, and trying to avoid having parents find whatever you have hidden in your backpacks. Still, there are beaches, restaurants, cafés, ice cream shops, concert venues, galleries, farm markets, festivals and secret, unknown spaces to discover …

 So, here are ten of our favourite experiences from the summer:

10 / For visitors and newcomers, St. Thomas is kind of framed by historical reference points: nicknamed ‘The Railway City’, the community may be best known as the place where Jumbo the world-famous circus elephant got struck by a train and died in 1885. There is a plaque on Woodworth Avenue marking the accident site, and an impressive life-size statue of the elephant stands prominently at the west end of the city. Railway nostalgia is interesting, but right now we are more excited by the way that local citizens – including a lot of young artists and entrepreneurs – are reinventing the culture of the community. Echoes of the railway industry are everywhere with some tracks still preserved and a few distinctive heritage buildings remaining (along with some important rail traffic still happening in the industrial area), but now these things are acting more like the frame on which to build something new. Case in point: over the past ten years, the former Michigan Central Railroad Bridge at the west end of the City has been gradually transformed into the first Elevated Park in Canada! We think that this is one of the coolest spots in the region, and as more finishing touches are added, this is a definite must-visit for tourists. Also, we highly recommend visiting the Horton Farmers’ Market on Manitoba Street and Seed Confections on Ross Street … we love the vibe at the Market on Saturday mornings, and if you walk down to Seed Confections, pick up some of the incredible macaroons and ice cream!

9 / When we visited Sarnia and Point Edward in August, we arrived with no set itinerary other than a vague plan to check out the Bluewater Bridge as well as downtown Sarnia. This is where wandering is the right move, just walking into places without any preconceived ideas or expectations. We wound up discovering lots of cool spots! One of our favourite finds was the Downtown Market on Christina Street North, where there is an engaging mix of local, artisanal and eco-friendly products offered by an eclectic mix of vendors. The atmosphere is friendly and open, and the space is lovely. Afterwards, we drifted into the Cheeky Monkey record shop, where we picked up a couple used CDs for the ride home and admired the text-mural on the side of the building. We love the convenience of digital music, but finding little communities of people who congregate around record stores and music venues is rewarding, too. Afterwards, we ducked into Green’s Organic Café and tried the smoothies – warm space, great drinks!

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8 / We checked out Chatham back in June for Retrofest weekend, which was supported generously by Rob Myers and the team at RM Sotheby’s … again, we figured that we would just show up and explore, and make decisions as we went. The only fixed point on the schedule was a concert by Sam Roberts Band in Tecumseh Park. When we arrived, we walked downtown and through the distinctive Retro Suites Hotel as the crowd began to swell on King Street for the classic car parade … suddenly, we looked over and saw Rob Myers riding along in a car and casually sitting next to Kid Rock, which was kind of a surprise! Later on, Kid Rock appeared on stage in the park before Sam Roberts took the stage, and everyone seemed happy to see him (setting aside any political debates for the occasion, presumably). Chatham definitely feels in the orbit of Detroit and the whole Motor City vibe, and all the puzzle pieces seemed to fit together perfectly. Kid Rock sang a bit of ‘All Summer Long’, Sam Roberts Band came out and put on a great summer kick-off show, and the whole scene was memorable, including the members of the crowd watching from up on top of the nearby Armoury building. Beautiful night …

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7 / Some neighbourhoods have a distinctive character that seem genuine and beyond any artificial attempts to build up an identity just for marketing or economic development purposes. Old East Village in London is one of these unique spots in the region, and we find something new to appreciate about the area every time we visit. On the weekends, most activity revolves around The Market at Western Fair District – if you’re unfamiliar with the area, definitely visit the Market and follow the paths from there. Some of the emerging brands in the city are located nearby, including Illbury & Goose and Booch … walk along Dundas Street and discover lovely coffee spots like 10Eighteen or Backroads Coffeehouse & Cakery, and check out the arts and culture venues sprinkled around the area. Some people are put off by the challenging elements of the local street life – there is a drug scene, for sure, and homelessness – but the fact that the community seems to look at this squarely and recognize the issues at play, as opposed to trying to gloss over things or ignore the causes, is part of what makes Old East unique.

6 / Over the summer we visited Oxford County a couple of times. We wanted to try to find the vibe of the area, something beyond the obvious dairy theme. The City of Woodstock is called ‘The Dairy Capital of Canada’, and the Town of Ingersoll was the location of the first cheese production facility in Canada, commemorated now by the local Ingersoll Cheese and Agricultural Museum. Tourism Oxford invites visitors to travel the ‘Oxford County Cheese Trail’ for a legendairy experience (good pun), highlighting stops like Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese (if you like cheese, this is definitely the place for you -- make sure to arrange a look inside the ‘Aging Room’ where hundreds of cheese wheels rest, kind of like the treasures in the room at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark). Still, the dairy industry is only one aspect of the community, and we wanted to look for what might be coming next. What could attract teenagers and young adults to Woodstock, for example? In September, we attended a public meeting at the Woodstock Museum, where representatives from a firm called Fotenn Planning & Design were providing an update on a project called ‘Renew Downtown Woodstock’, which the City and local Economic Development team have introduced to help develop a downtown development plan. Some of the proposed ‘action items’ felt overly familiar – a façade improvement plan, relocating the methadone clinic, and commissioning a signage and wayfinding strategy – but a few held some promise, including hiring a Downtown Coordinator to produce events, adding a Youth Advisory Committee, and implementing a Pop-up Shop program. Our suggestion? View these moments as opportunities, and try something entirely new! For the time being, though, if you visit Woodstock, we recommend a trip to Fritzie’s Fries and a walk through the lovely Woodstock Art Gallery. For ice cream, frozen yogurt and smoothies, definitely hit Bartley’s Dairy Bar … as one can note from the photo below, Maddie had a little trouble with her cone, but the ice cream is terrific!

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5 / We visited Grand Bend on a blisteringly hot summer day in July. The beach was busy, lots of people were exploring the village, and again, we did not really have a set plan – although in this case, we figured the heat might be too much by mid-afternoon, and decided to pick up tickets for Rocky: The Musical at the Huron County Playhouse. Before the show, we had lunch at the Growling Gator on the beach, stopped for ice cream at The Dairy Dip, and then tried axe-throwing at Chachi’s Axe Throwing Field. All three places are located on Main Street. For anyone who has not tried axe-throwing before, the first few tosses may be a bit wide of the mark, but eventually the stroke comes. Maddie & Alex hit the bulls-eye after a few tries! Bottom line: Grand Bend gets hot and busy in the summer, but the vibe is fun … lean in and enjoy!

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4 / One of the main draws of being in Ontario’s Southwest is the remarkable diversity of agricultural produce grown in the region. We had a great time visiting farms over the summer, specifically in Norfolk County, where farmers grow everything from ginseng to strawberries, grapes, pumpkins, cherries, apples, and much, much more. Go visit this unique area, for sure.

We had a few special experiences. First, we visited Schuyler Farms to meet Brett Schuyler and Carrie Woolley, who manage cherry and apple orchards combined with a distinctive lamb business in which the animals graze in the orchards and in woodlots (find more details at Woolley’s Lamb). One cool moment was getting to watch how cherries are harvested by the ‘Shaker Crew’ … check out our Twitter video, which has picked up over sixty thousand views!

Second, we heard about a new on-farm dining experience called Thrive Norfolk, and this was definitely worth the trip! Chef Matt Desmaret welcomes guests to his family farm near Langton, where everyone gathers together at a long table positioned in the middle of a one-acre garden. The social media visuals are stunning, including sunflower walls and warm lights.

Third, one of the best spots for tourists in Norfolk County is Bonnieheath Estate, a lovely lavender farm and winery near Waterford. What makes this a special place? Definitely the owners, Steve and Anita Buehner, who are terrific hosts. When the lavender is in bloom, the fields are beautiful, but really the property is always stunning. Maddie and Emily had fun taking a few photos in the lavender rows! We love the wise use of the land, too, a mix of agricultural production and environmental stewardship, including wetlands and grasslands.

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3 / Nothing beats summer concerts! From energetic world-music shows to laid-back folk nights to sprawling festivals designed to appeal to all music fans, we got a taste of just about everything in London this summer … TD Sunfest, Home County Folk Festival, and the new Park Jam Music Festival were definite highlights. Rock night at Park Jam on September 5th might have been the best of all, especially the performances by The Beaches and The Glorious Sons. Our sincere thanks to all the organizers who help to make these special events happen!

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2 / One of our most unforgettable experiences this summer was zip-lining at Long Point Eco-Adventures … this is a must-see location in Ontario’s Southwest, positioned beautifully beside the Long Point Biosphere Reserve near Turkey Point. There is a lot to do at Eco-Adventures, including axe-throwing, biking, and stargazing at night in the observatory. For the 19+ crowd, Hometown Brew Co. is now set up on-site, and Burning Kiln Winery is just across the road.

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Emily, Maddie and Alex took on the zip-lining course, and highly recommend the experience! The Carolinian forest is a gorgeous setting, and the staff members make the zips lots of fun.  

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1 / Before we started travelling around the region and really digging into different communities, we did not expect Windsor to become one of our favourite destinations, but hey, for anyone who has not looked closely at the City for a while, go check out all the fascinating things happening! We recommend making stops around Walkerville (Taloola Cafe is a neat spot, and the Walkerville Eatery is a fun option), as well as the Ford City District, where The Grand Cantina serves up excellent tacos. In downtown Windsor, we discovered all the street art in the alley around Maiden Lane and just fell in love with the remarkable murals, especially those by artist Daniel Bombardier – check out his work here. Every time we wander through the alley, we are struck by the way that great art can transform an urban environment, subtly shifting the way that a whole city is perceived. Returning to our original themes of urban wandering and psychogeography, and making real life the actual work of art, great murals truly play an integral part … these walls become the sets for the play of our everyday lives. What is cooler than that?

 In our view, more and more funding should be directed toward public street art, and provide artists the opportunity to dig deep into our communities and offer new visions for how we can live in these cities and towns. We were so inspired by what we saw in Windsor that we have started to generate these opportunities ourselves, arranging for funding to support a new street art program for high school students at the STEAM Centre in St. Thomas and helping to coordinate more mural projects in other communities. This is what travelling is meant to do – to open up new ways of thinking and to imagine how far we can really go, even when we are hanging out at home between trips. Thanks to Southwest Ontario Tourism for the opportunity to travel around the region … summer 2019 was a memorable one, for sure!

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