Chatham-Kent, Ontario's Legendary RetroFest
I can still remember the red and white bag that sat in the basement of my childhood home which was filled to the brim with a cacophony of toy cars. If there was one thing that was certain about me in my youth, it was that I wanted to go fast.
Naturally, cars became the vehicle for me to imagine myself zooming around cities, and probably planets too based on how wild my imagination was.
I never did end up buying the Batmobile, or figuring out how to get my hands on a interplanetary flying vehicle, but at RetroFest in Chatham-Kent, I did see a few Batmobiles, and a whole bunch of cars that had me feeling like a kid all over again. Funny enough, I think a lot of the car buffs I met at RetroFest still had that childlike enthusiasm for cars. I mean, child or adult, who isn’t going to want to rev an engine that makes everyone on the street stop and wonder just what the heck is going on?
I’m perfectly satisfied (and even elated) with my spacious and reliable Honda CR-V, but I certainly didn’t mind imagining myself behind the wheel of a 1989 Ferrari Testarossa, or a red and white 1965 Ford Mustang.
This special edition of RetroFest that I attended (celebrating 40 years for RM Sotheby’s under Rob Myers) is, objectively, about an appreciation for classic cars. However, at the heart of it, it was also a window into the warm, supportive Chatham-Kent community, and it helped me understand the power of one person to give back and prop up and revitalize a deserving area of Ontario.
We’ll get to all that later, but let’s pull back for a second and give more insight into RetroFest by talking about Chatham-Kent itself.
Also, just note that if you want to get the full experience of what our time was like in Chatham-Kent, you can check out my saved highlights on Instagram.
All About Chatham-Kent, Ontario
For the most part, I’ll be covering RetroFest, and the celebrations associated with the 40th anniversary of RM Sotheby’s, but I’d be remiss to not talk about Chatham-Kent a bit, as it’s much more than just a place which happens to be hosting one festival on one weekend.
Chatham-Kent is a large municipality in Ontario’s Southwest. If you follow my site closely, you’ll remember that I’ve actually spent a lot of time in Ontario’s Southwest in the past. Two of my most popular articles on my site actually cover what to do on Pelee Island, as well as my experiences exploring Sarnia and Ontario’s Blue Coast.
Some of the more notable places in Chatham-Kent, in terms of towns and cities, include Chatham, Wallaceburg, Tilbury, Blenheim, Ridgetown, Wheatley, and Dresden. Believe it or not, Chatham-Kent is actually the 12th largest municipality by area in Canada, and the largest in Southwestern Ontario.
RetroFest is indeed one of the biggest tourist draws, which takes place primarily in Downtown Chatham, but outside of Chatham, you’ve got access to beaches, fishing, kayaking, hiking, camping, and a whole lot more. Chatham-Kent also played a role in the Underground Railroad, and was home to some of the most successful black settlements in Canada.
I want to get back to my experience at RetroFest, but I’d strongly recommend checking out the CK Today Chatham-Kent Travel Guide 2019-2020, which you can check out online for free by clicking the linked text. It covers, in depth, the experiences and communities that make Chatham-Kent a region well worth exploring.
Driving to Chatham-Kent (depending on your final destination) shouldn’t take but three hours from Toronto, and around an hour to an hour and a half from London.
If you’re driving from Toronto, I’d recommend stopping in the town of Erieau along the way. Erieau is a lovely little beach town, and you’d be hard pressed to find a better spot to catch a few rays than the extended beach there. When in Erieau, be sure to pop into Bayside Brewing Company. Order the yellow perch, and wash it down with a refreshing Lighthouse Lager.
If you enjoy learning about detailed tips on what to do in Ontario, be sure to check out my latest Ebook, which is great for planning a Toronto getaway!
NOTE: This post may contain some affiliate links. That means, simply, that I may get a commission at no cost to you. That being said, my opinions are fully my own.
What Exactly is “RetroFest,” Anyway?
It all started with Rob Myers who, 40 years ago, started his first restoration shop in a single-car garage in Chatham, Ontario. He quickly became known as the guy among North American car collectors to get high quality car restorations done. Later, he fell into sales and auctions as well, and the RM Group of Companies was born.
I think Rob, and the RM Group of Companies, sum up their connection to Chatham-Kent rather nicely on the website for this year’s event when saying, “We have travelled from Chatham-Kent for many auctions and car shows, and we are often asked why we choose to remain grounded here, so far from most of our events. This celebration weekend, as we invite everyone to experience the warmth of our community, the hospitality of our neighbours, and the beauty of our tree-lined streets, we hope everyone will begin to understand why we are so proud to call Chatham-Kent our home.”
So, at its heart, RetroFest is a weekend for car collectors, but there were also family friendly events going on in Chatham’s Tecumseh Park, as well as concerts on both nights with big names.
Perhaps most importantly, RetroFest is a chance for people to realize what a charming place Chatham is, as well as the Chatham-Kent region, and, more than that, Ontario’s Southwest at large.
Not surprisingly, Chatham-Kent is now known as “the classic car capital of Canada.” I can see why that title stuck.
Just as a note, this year’s RetroFest took place in June. It’s usually an annual even in May, so just pay attention to the Downtown Chatham website to see when it’ll be next year because you don’t want to miss it!
What Were the Highlights of RetroFest in Chatham-Kent, Ontario?
If you’re thinking about attending RetroFest next year, but want to know what the most recent RetroFest was like, I’ve got your back. I’m going to talk about the highlights of RetroFest, which has to be talked about as one of the top things to do in Southwestern Ontario.
I myself was fairly surprised by the scale and breadth of the celebrations, and I can’t see why I won’t be marking RetroFest on my calendar for years to come - especially if I get another chance to stay at the Retro Suites, something I’ll talk about at the tail end of the article.
The Classic Car Cruise
For a lot of people, I think the Classic Car Cruise is the highlight of the whole RetroFest weekend. There’s an extensive route around Chatham, but, for the most part, the moment to shine is on the stretch down King Street, which is Chatham’s main throughway. The Classic Car Cruise is typically the first event to kick things off, so that’s typically Friday around dinner time (6pm).
You can imagine thousands of people on either side of King Street, as the cars come snaking down the street in all their glory. I need to note, it really is an incredible mix of cars that you’ll see. You’ve got everything from classic 60’s muscle cars, to pickup trucks from 30’s and 40’s, and plenty of wild, unique vehicles such as a giant chicken mobile, several iterations of the Batmobile, and even a large artificial elephant roaring down the street.
A lot of things going on at RetroFest are about having good fun and supporting the community at the same time. It seemed as if every event was tied back to a local charity, and I could not be a bigger supporter of that.
To be a part of the annual Classic Car Cruise, you just had to arrive at the John D. Bradley Convention Centre no later than 4:30pm on Friday, and prove that your car is over 25 years old.
We watched the Classic Car Cruise from Mamma Mia’s Ristorante, a great little Italian restaurant on King Street. They had a street facing patio that was perfect. Classic cars, wine, and Italian food? Uh, yes please.
We split two dishes, a pasta and a pizza. The pasta that we chose was the Spaghetti Pescatore, and it had fresh mussels, tiger prawns, scallops, and calamari, all with a tomato white wine sauce. The pizza we ate is a must try if you’re dining at Mamma Mia’s Ristorante in Chatham. It’s called the Truffle Manzo and features beef tenderloin tips, wild mushrooms, caramelized onions, bacon and mozzarella, all on top of a base of a roasted garlic truffle sauce. That pizza was honestly sensational.
The Live Music
One thing worth noting off the bat - these artists came and performed not for the money, but for the cause.
On Friday, Bri and I went to Tecumseh Park to see none other than one of Canada’s top bands - Sam Roberts Band (as well as opener Walkin’ 47). They put on a fantastic show, and it was only towards the end that Rob Myers came on stage to note that all these acts actually came and performed free, and that all the proceeds would go to the Chatham-Kent Health Alliance.
On Friday, the crowd was waiting for one performer in particular. During the Classic Car Cruise, one of the cars had Rob Myers in the back and right beside him was none other than Kid Rock. When Kid Rock took the stage to jam a bit with Sam Roberts Band and play a few tracks of his own, the crowd went wild. Both Bri and I had a lot of fun there, and I hadn’t seen Sam Roberts Band since 2009 in Kingston, so it was fantastic to see they’ve come so far.
On Saturday, the band Big Sugar was playing at Chatham’s Capitol Theatre, and local band Superfly opened up for them. Big Sugar are another band that are well known in the Great White North, and they too agreed to give all the proceeds to the Chatham-Kent Hospice Foundation.
That’s what I meant when I was referring to the fact that it’s about classic cars, but it’s actually much more than that. There’s a ton going on throughout the weekend under the umbrella of RetroFest, and it seemed that so much of it was focused on giving back, especially on a local and regional scale.
I want to also mention that before we headed down to Tecumseh Park for some live music, we stopped into Sons of Kent Brewing Company, and we loved the vibe there! If you’re in Downtown Chatham, you’ve got to stop by and grab a quick pint. It’s a brewery founded by four friends, who all shared a singular vision - to create an Ontario brewery that used traditional methodology, but with a modern, creative twist to what ingredients they’d include. They just released the “Berry White,” for example, a raspberry wheat beer. I tried the Super 8 Double IPA and it was an absolute treat.
Daytime Festivities in Tecumseh Park
While the night on Friday in Tecumseh Park at RetroFest was more about live music, and more adult-oriented, on Saturday during the day it was much more kid-friendly.
In fact, when we visited in the early afternoon, we saw an entire children’s area that catered to families with kids of all ages. There was plenty of food, play areas, and live country music from “The Dirt Band,” followed by “The Chaser Band.” The kids were having a blast.
It was nice to see that there was area for the young ones who might not yet be the car buffs their parents are.
The KHAC Classic Car Show in Downtown Chatham
On Saturday, instead of cruising on down King Street, many of the cars in the show were staying put for people to get up close and personal with them. For the Classic Car Show, you had to register your vehicle, and all vehicles had a sign in the front which gave information about the make, model, year and more.
The best part, at least to me, was being able to talk to the owners about their cars and the story behind them. I remember that Bri and I ended up chatting for a while to a woman who had beautifully refurbished a Volkswagen Bus from the 70’s, and herself and her family were literally about to take it on a big road trip right after the show all around the US. I’m not sure about Bri, but my eyes lit up about how wonderful it would be to have that thing for our future adventures!
If you’ve been reading my content for a while, or just following me on social or what have you, then you’ll know by now that I’m attracted to heartfelt, genuine passion. While I’m not a car aficionado myself, I relished the chance to talk to people who lived and breathed cars and were only too happy to tell me about their cherished vehicles, which they often talked about as if they were their offspring.
Just being able to walk up and down the street and to see the variance of colour and cars was a special opportunity. If you live in Southwestern Ontario, or Ontario in general, there’s really no excuse for missing this! There were people who travelled from all over the world, which made the few hours it took us to get there via car seem like nothing.
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The Concours d’Elegance
If it sounds fancy, it’s because it is.
The Concours d’Elegance took place on the Saturday from 9am-4pm, and it was held not in Downtown Chatham, but rather on the RM Grounds, which are about a ten minute drive from Chatham.
This is, as they describe it on their website, “a once-in-a-lifetime collector car display,” which features some of the most rare and beautiful cars on planet earth. Yes, you read that correctly. It’s not just a collection of rare cars near Chatham-Kent, Ontario - no, no, no.
It just doesn’t get much bigger or better than this when it comes to cars.
The cars on display here represent the finest collection of cars I’ve ever been in the same room with by a country mile. Think one of a kind Alfa Romeos, Ferraris from the earliest days, restored Fords, and the crown jewel, a 1937 Cadillac Series 90 Roadster. I could talk about how much different cars were worth, but I’m fairly sure that everything in that room was priceless.
I should note that, once again, in a classy move, the proceeds from this will actually benefit the Children’s Treatment Centre Foundation of Chatham-Kent.
So, You’ve Decided You’re Coming Next Year to Chatham-Kent’s RetroFest - Where Should You Stay?
Now, you know me well enough to know that my recommendation is going to tie in beautifully to everything I’ve said prior, right?
The Retro Suites Hotel is the result of a spotted opportunity. Who spotted that opportunity? None other than Rob Myers. He and his business partners saw the decline and dilapidation of a central section of the downtown core of Chatham, Ontario, and had a plan. They renovated and restored this section of Downtown Chatham and created the Retro Suites Hotel.
The idea behind the Retro Suites was that the facade of this unique boutique hotel would fit in perfectly with the vibe of Chatham, but also provide Chatham with a top-tier luxury hotel.
I’ve stayed in thousands of hotels, and none have been like the Retro Suites. Chatham’s Retro Suites Hotel has to be considered one of the top boutique hotels in Ontario, and features 45 individually designed suites which all have a different theme, but all still showcase the exposed brick and loft-style ceilings of the old building.
We stayed in the “Sail Inn,” which was two floors and featured a king bed, queen bed, two TVs, wet bar, sitting area and more. We certainly had no complaints.
If you know you’re going to be at RetroFest, then book at the Retro Suites as soon as humanely possible, as these rooms go fast and they’ll only get more pricey leading up to next June. It’s no mistake that I ran into Kid Rock as I was checking into my room, and hey, if it’s good enough for Kid Rock, then I suppose it’s good enough for me.
In the morning, don’t miss breakfast at The Chilled Cork. It’s got a distinctly retro diner sort of feel, and again has plenty of exposed brick, modern art, and pop culture pieces. The food was also scrumptious, especially if you’ve got a penchant for eggs benedict.
The defining feature of the Retro Suites in Downtown Chatham, at least to me, is the fact that it’s basically a museum. Bri and I spent some time simply wandering around the halls and finding the most eclectic and bizarre art and adornments all over the place. Especially if you’re into the whole “retro/pop” vibe, this place will be your playground.
The Retro Suites is easily one of the coolest hotels in Ontario, and that’s not even debatable.
What Makes RetroFest in Ontario’s Chatham-Kent Region Worth It?
When I first got news that I would be heading to RetroFest in Chatham, I admittedly had to do a bit of Googling. My assumption was that it would be a pretty great little festival by Southwestern Ontario’s standards, and Bri and I would have a fun time.
What I didn’t fully grasp yet was that this experience would be world class by any standards. Some of the top names in Canadian rock (and let’s not forget Kid Rock) were there, folks brought some incredible cars from around North America and the world, the hotel was a masterpiece is its own right, and the Concours D’elegance quite literally included some of the world’s most rare and distinctive vehicles. And yes, that is a picture up above of me, Kid Rock, and Rob Myers.
I moved back to Ontario about two years ago now, and it still amazes me that there’s so much I didn’t know about, and so much to explore. For me, exploring Ontario’s Southwest has been the gift that keeps on giving, and I’ll have some more content from the region coming up right after this, so stay tuned. Each place that I’ve visited in this region has its own story worth telling, and it’s an honour for me to do so.
Next year, as RetroFest approaches, I encourage you to think about whether it’s something you want to be a part of. It’s fun, it’s impressive, and, quite frankly. it’s one of the most unforgettable Ontario festivals I’ve attended.
Supporting these festivals (especially festivals such as RetroFest which are so closely linked to charity and the community) is a way to give back to deserving regions like Chatham-Kent, while making sure that you never lose your adventurous spirit.
As for me, I may not play with those toy cars in the basement anymore, but, in my mind, I was behind the wheel of each and every car I came across, and that was well worth the price of admission.
I want to humbly thank Ontario’s Southwest and Chatham-Kent for hosting me as media. All opinions are completely my own. Below, I’d love to know in the comments if you’ve visited Ontario’s Southwest or Chatham-Kent before and your thoughts! I respond to each and every comment personally.
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