A Hidden Gem in Southwestern Ontario: Sarnia and Ontario's Blue Coast
Sarnia and Ontario's Blue Coast might not be near the top of your bucket-list, but that doesn't necessarily mean it shouldn't be. Especially in the case of Sarnia, the tide is turning, and it's vey much become a pleasant place to spend one of your precious summer Ontario weekends, or really any time.
The easiest thing that we can do as travellers is decide that a place isn't worth visiting, simply because of a host of reasons that other people have outlined for us. I'd never insinuate that a region should be universally loved, but I'll state matter-of-factly that you don't have a right to comment on an area which you may never have given a fair shot to.
Growing up in Toronto, I routinely dismissed cities in Ontario not named Toronto, and I'm willing to admit that was a clear and definite mistake. Nowadays, I travel around Ontario trying to show people what Ontario is all about, and if the success of my Pelee Island article is any indication, it's all going rather swimmingly.
I'm not saying that just because I like something, you will too, but I am saying that you ought to take the time to figure out if you do indeed like it. I'm willing to bet that in the case of Sarnia and Ontario's Blue Coast, you're going to be pleasantly surprised. It's a region that deserves your attention.
What Exactly Does Sarnia and the Blue Coast Consist Of?
In this article, I'm going to be focusing on Sarnia and Ontario's Blue Coast, but what exactly is my scope here? Well, primarily, I'll be focusing on Sarnia & Point Edward, Central Lambton, Lambton Shores, and the St. Clair River District. Naturally, I'm not going to be able to cover everything in one post, but my goal here is to provide you with the highlights, so that the next time you think about possible things to do in Southwest Ontario, this article might be of some service to you.
I'm not going to provide a whole map of Southwestern Ontario but, below, I will input a map which is locked in on Sarnia, Ontario, and showcases much of the region known as Ontario's Blue Coast. You're welcome to zoom in and out as your please to also discover the region on your own terms, or simply use it as a reference for the places I'll be further outlining below.
It's worth noting that the large body of water you see north of Sarnia is, of course, the mighty Lake Huron.
In the interest of providing the best value for you, I'm going to separate this post into experiences in Sarnia and Ontario's Blue Coast that you absolutely cannot miss, as well as another section of experiences that I feel are well worth your time, if you have enough of it. If I haven't mentioned something that you feel is integral to the region, comment below! I'm all about sourcing the best content for everyone by whatever means. I'm looking to put forth content that serves you, and helps you establish things to do in Southern Ontario.
If you want to get a behind the scenes sort of look at everything written here, you can check out my saved stories on Sarnia and Ontario's Blue Coast on my Instagram.
The Can't Miss Experiences of Sarnia and Ontario's Blue Coast
In this article, I'll more broadly be referring to experiences as really anything that someone might want to do when coming to the region which, as I mentioned, is a growing tourist region in Southwestern Ontario. I'll be talking about restaurants and cafes, opportunities for sports and outdoor activities, interesting and worthwhile accommodation, as well as Ontario wineries, Ontario breweries and Ontario cider houses.
My goal here is really to let you know where you can get a taste of the region, which will spark further exploration of Sarnia and Ontario's Blue Coast. For posterity sake, kindly note that the experiences aren't in any particular order, or ranked in a hierarchical fashion.
If you've got a car, you'll be able to tackle anything on here without too much difficulty. With the places I'll mention in towns and cities in particular, I'm also recommending you check out the surrounding area (for example, don't forget to walk down the main strip of Grand Bend if you'll decide you'd like to go parasailing near Grand Bend Beach)
Grab a Beer at Sarnia's Refined Fool Brewing Co.
I think these guys sum it up rather well on the Refined Fool website when noting rather bluntly, "we make craft beer in Sarnia, Ontario." That straightforward description really doesn't give an indication of just how well the beer squares up to other craft beer in Ontario. It's really good stuff. I'm a sucker for cold craft beer on tap.
I've scoured a lot of the websites of Ontario's brewers at this point, and I like Refined Fool's origin story the best - "Refined Fool is a group of teachers, creatives, blue collars, entrepreneurs, musicians and pastors who care about beer, business, Sarnia, and each other. We started out as a foolish bunch of backyard brewers using propane burners and frozen hoses and now we’re a real life microbrewery."
If you're looking for something to try at Refined Fool Brewing Company, I'd recommend the Antique Peepshow IPA, or the Troll Toll, which is a cream ale. This was off their seasonal list so not sure if it'll still be around, but their Hefeweizen called "My Cousin Knows the Drummer," is also delicious if they've still got it around.
Roam Around Pinery Provincial Park
My only regret in regards to Pinery Provincial Park is not going sooner. I'm still trying to establish how I grew up in Ontario, and didn't know this was here all along (a common trope in my recent Ontario adventures). Pinery Provincial Park is about 25 kilometres in size, but what's remarkable is that it's got about 10 kilometres of sandy beach on the shores of Lake Huron.
Personally, I enjoyed the well kept trails. The park has ten different walking trails, a nearly 15 kilometre bike trail, as well as about 40 kilometres of groomed ski trails for the winter. Most importantly, it's picturesque and has a lot of the scenery that I genuinely missed when I was living abroad for a fair portion of this decade. It's got a classic Canadian feel, which, in my opinion, makes it one of the top things to do in Southwestern Ontario.
At Pinery Provincial Park, there are trails of varying difficulty and length to choose from, so there's something for everyone. Now that I've discovered this place, you better believe I'll be back - it's just too good to pass up. Not to mention, I've realized that a trip to Southwestern Ontario from Toronto is more than manageable for a weekend, and worth the trek (no pun intended).
Spend the Night at Camlachie Chapel
Camlachie Chapel was built in 1877, and I'm guessing, at that time, they didn't think it'd become an eventual Airbnb property - just a hunch, you know. In all seriousness, the chapel served the community all the way up until 2014, and then it was converted into one of the most unique Airbnb properties on the planet thanks to the initiative of award winning interior designer, Jenn Hannotte.
I've been blessed to stay in thousands of properties around the world across dozens and dozens of countries, but I've had few experiences like this. While I was there, I stayed up late listening to soul music and just took it all in, and it was all rather euphoric in a way. I went up on the balcony and looked over the main area, and was truly in awe of all the thought that went into making the Camlachie Chapel what it is today.
What I liked in particular was what Jenn chose to leave behind. You can still appreciate the stained glass, and the old signage for hymns, a few pews, as well as the raised pulpit, which is now a dining area. It was just plain cool, and I absolutely cannot recommend this experience high enough. If this wouldn't be a thing you'd like to do alone, have no fear, the Camlachie Chapel sleeps 6.
For my money, this is the most intriguing place to stay when thinking about the region of Sarnia and Ontario's Blue Coast. It might even be the neatest place in Southwestern Ontario. Suffice to say, I loved it.
You're welcome to use my referral code (which will give both you and I credit on Airbnb), if you do decide to book at Camlachie Chapel.
Go Parasailing in Grand Bend
Considering it also includes lofty views of busy and beautiful Grand Bend Beach along with the adrenaline rush, going parasailing here is an experience worth taking part in. I personally went with Grand Bend Parasail, and I found them to both fun and easy-going, but also very safety conscious. The price really wasn't all that bad either for the experience.
I've taken part in a lot of things which I mentally overhyped and, subsequently, they didn't live up to my expectations, but parasailing at Grand Bend Beach just wasn't one of them. It was exhilarating to get hundreds and hundreds of feet up in the air to get a better idea of how vast Ontario's Southwest really is. If you've got a penchant for adventure, you absolutely need to add this to your Ontario bucket-list. I've literally started an Ontario bucket-list, by the way - I taking the Ontario tourism slogan "yours to discover" as a challenge.
While you're in Grand Bend, Ontario, you might as well spend some time on Grand Bend Beach, a beach which has made Grand Bend one of Ontario's best beach towns. From photographs, you'd barely think Grand Bend Beach is in Ontario, which is probably why it's so consistently busy.
Grab Dinner at Limbo Lounge and Martini House
Located in downtown Sarnia on Christina Street, the Limbo Lounge has a nice little patio for seasons not named winter, and food which I'm sure is good through all seasons. The service was solid, the drinks were very well done, and my dinner was exceptional.
I ended up ordering a steak, as I hadn't had one in a while. I had the tenderloin, which was cooked to perfection in red wine demi-glace, and covered in a blanket of gorgonzola cheese and crispy onions. It was a notable meal during my summer, to be honest, and the oven roasted fingerling potatoes and seasonal vegetables on the side didn't hurt either.
If you're looking for a meal that's a little more upscale while you're exploring Sarnia and Ontario's Blue Coast (and Southwestern Ontario in general), this is a good bet. If you do eat meat, you won't be shocked to learn that I'd recommend the tenderloin. When you're looking for things to do in Southwestern Ontario, some good meals should be on that list, and I wouldn't hesitate to put "getting that delicious sounding tenderloin from Limbo Lounge" on the list.
Sip on Cider at Twin Pines Orchards and Cider House
Forget about just looking at Southwestern Ontario, I think this is the best cidery in Ontario, period. Quite honestly, the cider I tried at Twin Pines Orchards might just be the best cider I've had in my life. The property has been in the family for 50 years, and initially it was used to grow strawberries. Now they're growing 40 varieties of cider apples, and they've got their formula down pat.
Marc, a part of the family and big part of daily operations , told me outright that it took 10 years of experimentation to start producing a cider that they were comfortable bringing to market. They've got a number of ciders that I felt were worth trying and put ciders like Somersby to shame. These ciders are made from 100% apple, compared to popular commercial ciders (such as Somersby) which look like laughable flavoured sugar water in comparison.
I tried ciders of varying sweetness, some which were much closer to bitter than sweet. Regardless, they were never far from apple, and that's what I loved. The Hammer Bent Red is a great place to start if you're tasting their ciders, or even the Hammer Bent Scrumpy. That being said, the Hammer Bent Original would be mighty fine in a chilled glass on a hot day.
As far as things to do in Southern Ontario are concerned, I'd put stopping in here up there, if only to stock up and fuel your other adventures in the province. Having written this, I'm now going to have to open up a bottle myself - ah, the joys of being your own boss!
Canatara Beach and Park
For starters, Canatara Beach is one of only 27 beaches in Canada to have achieved official Blue Flag status for its commitment to water quality and safety. The beach stretches for almost a kilometre along the shore of Lake Huron, right near the mouth of the St. Clair River. In summer, I think this easily makes the list of "things to do in Southwestern Ontario."
What should also be noted is that it's not just Canatara Beach, but rather Canatara Park as well, which I'd recommend biking through on a nice day. There's also a petting zoo that's great for kids, a BMX and skate park, as well as mini-train (also great for kids and toddlers).
I know that Sarnia, Ontario has a reputation in some sense as a more industrial city, but places like Canatara Beach and Park have proved to me that that reputation really isn't all that applicable anymore. Not far from the heart of Sarnia city proper, you've got a full fledged, beautiful park - that's just something I didn't realize before visiting. Many would say it's one the top beaches in Lambton County.
If you are looking to rent a bike in Sarnia, by the way, I'd recommend The Bicycle Shop, they've got some great cruising bikes. It's one of the top things to do in Sarnia as far as I'm concerned.
The Cottage Petrolia
Believe it or not, this little town in Lambton Country is often credited as starting the oil industry in North America. It's roots are oil laden and rugged, but in the present day it's a quiet, quaint, and pretty little town in Southwestern Ontario. When you're there, just take some time to walk up and down the main strip, but just be sure to finish (or start) your trip at The Cottage Petrolia.
The place is run by Jeremy and his wife, who recently took it over, and it's a thriving community hub. I sat down with Jeremy for a good hour, and he told me all about the sweat they put into making their famous date squares, cheesecakes and desserts. Their coffee is also great, and Jeremy actually not does a fair bit of latte art, making designs like swans, flowers, and everything in between.
Don't leave without trying the "black and cream," which is a latte frothed with cream instead of milk, with a touch of blackberry flavouring. It's got to be Lambton County's most delicious caffeinated beverage.
Alton Farms Estate Winery
Alton Farms Estate Winery is firmly situated in what could be an emerging wine region, which is Lambton County and, more broadly, Southwestern Ontario at large. They were established in 2005, and are currently the only winery in Lambton County. People used to think you couldn't grow grapes here, but obviously Marc and Anne Alton are proving people wrong with this Lambton County stronghold.
Marc and Anne are just a pleasure to be around, as I learned when I went for a tasting. It's clear that they work so hard day in and out to make sure that Alton Farms Estate Winery lives up to their vision, which they can then share with the community at large. They grow over 32 varieties of grapes, and are committed to creating wines they like, which means they're a little drier and more tart I might be used to, but interesting to try! Anne summed up their operation nicely when stating, "it's not being a winery, it's a total lifestyle."
By the way, did you know I have a podcast? If you're a fan of Rick Steve's, you'll certainly be a fan of it - It's a niche travel podcast called Rick Steve's Over Brunch.
What Else is Well Worth Visiting in Sarnia and Ontario's Blue Coast?
The places I've listed above have a special place in my heart, so I wanted to highlight them, but those are just places that appealed to my tastes in particular. It's entirely possible that the places I'm going to list below might be more your style, who knows!
In the interest of being thorough, and really allowing you to create an itinerary that will allow you to see all the things you can do in Southwestern Ontario (or at least this specific region of Southwestern Ontario), I want to highlight a few more places that might be right up your alley.
Oakwood Resort - This resort has been a Grand Bend, Ontario institution since the early 1920's. At Oakwood Resort in Grand Bend, you've got access to a private beach but, perhaps most importantly, you've got a golf course on the grounds. It’s not necessarily a modern chic design, but it’s got a classic Canadian resort feel. Overall, it's a great place to bring the family, and a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of downtown Grand Bend.
Smackwater Jack's Taphouse - If you're in Grand Bend, this a solid place to go for dinner. The back patio in particular is charming as you're right on the water and, in a sense, in the action. I'd recommend getting the fish and chips at Smackwater Jacks. I had the pickerel fish and chips and I was not disappointed in the slightest.
Blackwater Coffee Co. - You could do a whole lot worse than adding a visit to Sarnia's Blackwater Coffee Co. to you your "things to do in Sarnia" list. They've always got a number of roasts on hand, and they make a mean Chai Latte if that's your thing. It makes sense to poke your head in if you're in downtown Sarnia. Especially sitting near the front of Blackwater Coffee Co., it's a nice spot to observe what Sarnia, Ontario is all about.
Ipperwash Beach Club - Ipperwash Beach Club, in the Lambton Shores region, is a good pub and restaurant in an even better area. Not shockingly, it's right near Ipperwash Beach - a photogenic Ontario beach by any standard. The value was pretty good, the service was on point, and the food was good overall, so it's not a bad bet.
Cafe Mexico - I ended up trying six of their tacos, and a few of them really were to my liking. Having spoken with locals in Sarnia, I understand it's a bit of a new venture, and it seems that they're committed to bringing some new and interesting flavours to Sarnia's culinary scene. Hey, I can respect anybody with some creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit, so I wish them well!
So, Why Come All the Way to this Region of Southwestern Ontario?
It's funny, I'm much more a person that really has to justify why I shouldn't go anywhere and everywhere, as opposed to why I should - I've come to understand that almost every place offers value if you know where you've looking. That being said, I do understand that some people have limited vacation and so on, and they want to make sure they're going to get their money's worth during their time off.
Well, what's great about this region, especially if you're from Toronto, is that you can literally scoot up here for the weekend, and get a really decent picture of what Sarnia and Ontario's Blue Coast are all about. Heck, you could even just focus on one area, like Grand Bend, and take a day trip up to Twin Pines Orchards and Cider House, and that'd be a good time.
If you come to places willing to discover on your own terms, as opposed to basing your your life on a random review you saw online somewhere in the early 2000's, life gets a whole lot more wonderful. What I'm saying is, forget whatever you think you know about Sarnia and the surrounding area because it's a fun spot to be.
I put together this careful itinerary, and I write about Ontario in general, because I feel like there's so much to appreciate in this province. It's all about knowing what a place offers, and how to take advantage of that.
So, some weekend soon, come see for yourself what all the hype is about and, I'm betting, you'll be very pleasantly surprised.
I want to humbly thank Lambton County (Ontario's Blue Coast), and Ontario's Southwest for hosting me as media. All opinions are my own. I want to hear from you guys. Have you been to this region before? Does this article pique your interest? Are you from Sarnia & Point Edward, Central Lambton, the Lambton Shores, or the St. Clair River District? How do you feel I captured the essence of the region? I love to hear from my readers, so get back to me if you've got anything to add. I respond to each and every comment, and anything and everything is welcomed!
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