The Top Things to do in Port Stanley, Ontario and Elgin County!
If you’re an avid reader of my site, you’ll know that I’ve spent much of the summer on the hunt for scenic places in Ontario that I hadn’t yet had the chance to explore. Thankfully, in a province such as Ontario, a list such as that can be never ending. However, in light of my recent success and enjoyment exploring Southwestern Ontario (first at RetroFest in Chatham-Kent, then discovering Middlesex County), I shifted my gaze to Elgin County, and more specifically Port Stanley.
I often feel like a broken record when I’m writing about Ontario in that almost always I’m pleasantly surprised in what I find on my journeys, and that’s humbling. Growing up, I knew all about (Lanark County) where my dad grew up, but little else outside of the Greater Toronto Area. It has been one of the great privileges of my life to continue to explore places like Port Stanley and Elgin County, because I never leave without a story and a smile.
I was struck by a number of aspects of Elgin County, but a lot of that was wrapped around getting to know its portside villages and extended coastline. While Middlesex and Chatham-Kent were effectively landlocked, Elgin County had shores galore.
With this article, I’ll aim to focus on Port Stanley, but I’ll also take the time to offer your some subsidiary recommendations in the surrounding area, so that once you’ve done with all the top things to do in Port Stanley, Ontario, you’ll be able to continue on and do a bit more exploring in Elgin County itself.
Looking for Scenic Places in Ontario? How About Elgin County?
Ontario’s Elgin County as we know it today dates back to 1851, which is before Canada became a nation, so it’s safe to say there is some history here. In fact, Elgin County is well known for its historic homes and museums. While I won’t be touching as heavily on that in this article in particular, you can find out heaps of information on all aspects of Elgin County in their free 2019 Official Visitor’s Guide.
Elgin County doesn’t have a large population, roughly 50,000 at current moment, but what makes it one of the top vacation destinations in Ontario is the large coastline, as well as the port towns that man the coast where, as a visitor, you’re awfully happy that they don’t typically suffer from overcrowding.
Like other regions of Ontario’s Southwest, the produce is off the charts. Berries at the beginning of summer, corn so sweet you think it’s sugared in the late summer, pumpkins in the fall, and baking and preserves throughout the year. In August, if I’m not eating corn everyday of the week, I must have fallen ill. This is going to sound overly Canadian, but when I’m somewhere else than Ontario in August (which I’ve been many, many times), I yearn for that sweet Ontario corn.
There are a number of population centres in Elgin County which you might recognize, including Aylmer, Port Stanley, Belmont, Dutton and West Lorne. St. Thomas is well known, but technically it’s separated from Elgin County, though it’s within its geographical boundary.
Thankfully, Elgin County is one of those vacation spots in Ontario where you can spend as little as a weekend there and get a good feel for all that’s going on.
For reference sake, a drive from Toronto to Port Stanley shouldn’t take you more than three hours at the very most, and if you’re a quick driver like myself, it’s probably closer to two and a half hours.
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.
Let’s Talk First About the Top Things do in Port Stanley, Ontario
At the mouth of Kettle Creek, on the north shore of Lake Erie, is where you’ll find Port Stanley - a harbour village which boasts a population of around 2500. We have records of what we now know as Port Stanley dating back to the travellers and explorers of the 17th and 18th century, but it came to be known as Port Stanley in 1824, named after Edward Smith-Stanley, the 14th Earl of Derby.
Whether you’re a keener for history like myself or not, you’ll still find plenty to enjoy in Port Stanley, much of which keeps Port Stanley on the map as one of the top vacation spots in Ontario.
Port Stanley Beach
When it comes to stretches of sandy beach along Lake Erie, it really does not get much better than Port Stanley’s Main Beach. Beyond just the clean beach and great swimming, last I checked they also had volleyball courts up for folks to get their daily fill of exercise in the sun. It’s family friendly, and there’s also municipal parking nearby, though I have heard that parking can get a touch busy on a pristine summer’s day.
I’ve had readers reach out to me in the past about health concerns in terms of the waters of Lake Erie, and my answer is always that a lot of that comes from rumblings about the state of Lake Erie in the past near such cities as Cleveland and Buffalo, which is not representative of the Lake Erie in present day Elgin County. Furthermore, I was recently in Cleveland, and I can say that they’ve really cleaned things up over there, so you can bet your bottom dollar that things are looking pretty darn lovely in Port Stanley. In fact, Port Stanley’s Main Beach is one of only 27 in Canada to have earned official Blue Flag status for its commitment to safety and water quality.
If you aren’t huge on crowds, Port Stanley’s Little Beach is not far by and is essentially 185 metres of secluded sandy beach, though the water is a little more shallow.
The Port Stanley Pier and Lighthouse
The historic Port Stanley Pier was out of commission for quite sometime and the public could not access it, but that all changed roughly 5 years ago when once again it became a “place to be.” Bri and I actually rode bikes out to the end of the Port Stanley Pier (I’ll talk about renting bikes later) to get a better view of the old lighthouse. What I didn’t necessary expect was how charming the view would be, and photographers will likely rejoice at the views you get both of Port Stanley itself as well as Lake Erie (and Port Stanley’s Main Beach).
If you’re thinking about what to do in Port Stanley, I don’t see how you can’t have a walk (or bike) out to Port Stanley Pier on your list. It’s also a nice place to hold your partner’s hand and take a moment to feel the lake breeze on your collective cheeks. I couldn’t really recall being able to do this in many other places in Ontario, so I always make sure I’m taking advantage of scenic places in Ontario wherever I can.
This is one of those beautiful places in Ontario that never gets old.
Get a Glimpse of the King George VI Lift Bridge
Alright, I know what you’re thinking - “Chris, just how special can a lift bridge be?” And my answer to that is “pretty darn special.” That’s because Port Stanley’s King George VI Lift Bridge is the oldest lift bridge in Ontario. To me, that instantly qualifies it for one the top things to do in Port Stanley. However, don’t just take my word for it. In the summer especially, it’s not uncommon to see tourists and residents gathered around to watch the boats pass under this bridge, and you can feel free to join them.
In the heart of boating season, the King George VI Lift Bridge opens every half an hour to let through a variety of fishing boats, sail boats, and yachts. If it’s a nice day, you’ll want plenty of excuses to park yourself outdoors, and this really is a pleasant way to pass the time in Elgin County, Ontario.
Take a Ride on the Port Stanley Terminal Rail
The Port Stanley Terminal Rail is a heritage railway that operates between Port Stanley and St. Thomas primarily for tourism. It’s noted for being particularly scenic and is a favourite of tourists and locals alike. They’ve got fairly specific operating hours, so you’ll want to check the Port Stanley Terminal Rail website. In the summer months (July and August), though typically it operates Wednesday to Sunday, as well as offering the Extended Parkside Trip on Saturdays at 11am.
Riding the Port Stanley Terminal Rail is a nice to way to celebrate and learn about the heritage surrounding the London and Port Stanley Railway while noting what makes Elgin County one of the most beautiful places in Ontario in the present day.
Cool Down with a Scoop at Broderick’s Ice Cream
Located in the centre of Port Stanley right on Bridge Street is Brockerick’s Ice Cream Parlour. It’s been around since the mid 1980’s and shows no signs of going anywhere anytime soon. What makes it one of the top things to do in Port Stanley for me is two things things. Firstly, their homemade waffle cones are off the charts. My waffle cone was literally still warm - I personally can’t recall that happening elsewhere.
The second factor is that the whole vibe of Broderick’s harkens back to a lost age. The interior just screams 1950’s, and the fact that they’ve got over 30 flavours to compliment that interior is fantastic. They’ve also got sugar free and dairy free options, so while their design may be stuck 65 years in the past, their business model is clearly future facing.
All good vacation destinations in Ontario have an ice cream shop worth mentioning, and in the case of Port Stanley and Elgin County, I’d lead you towards Broderick’s Ice Cream Parlour, and Ontario ice cream institution.
Grab a Bite to Eat at One of the Many Port Stanley Restaurants on Offer
When Bri and I visited Port Stanley, there was one restaurant in particular that we were quite keen to try, and that was Kettle Creek Inn. We sat in the back courtyard replete with an array of flowers, shrubs, and trees that afforded a little privacy from the main strip, so it sort of felt like our little secret.
Sandra was our server, and she was outstanding. We felt so well taken care of right from the onset, and her recommendations could not have been more spot-on. She recommended (and we had) a variety of dishes that were all fresh, and seemingly locally sourced, but with a very ambitious, international flare.
To start, we shared the Braised Brisket Sliders, and Mushroom and Tofu Potstickers, both of which were scrumptious. We followed that up with the Slegers Mixed Greens (not your average mixed greens, as it included granola, rainbow carrots, cherry tomatoes, and a clovermead buckwheat honey vinaigrette), and the Pesto Chicken Bannock Flatbread Pizza with Russet Burbank Fries. I can firmly stand behind all of those choices.
Also remember that the Kettle Creek Inn (perhaps the name gives it away) is more than just a restaurant and happens to be one of the preferred places in Port Stanley to stay the night, so feel free to check their rates and dates.
If you look into the Kettle Creek Inn, and don’t feel it’s your thing, you can check out SoLo on Main for something upscale, Shebaz’s Shawarma and Falafel for something quick, GT’s On The Beach to be right on the water in more a pub atmosphere, or the Village Square Coffee House If you’re simply looking for a cup of java.
Experience the Ride Elgin Bike Sharing Program
While we were in Port Stanley, and trying to tackle our fairly exhaustive list of things to do in Port Stanley, Ontario, we chose to rent bikes. We did that with the Ride Elgin: Port Stanley Bike Sharing Program. They’ve got four bike racks (Port Stanley Visitors Centre, Main Beach, Little Beach and Little Creek Park) where you can take a bike out for a spin.
Full disclosure here, I think this is a great program, but when we took out bikes it was still early days in terms of implementation, and there were still a few kinks. My bike, for example, had a pedal that was loose and came up to clip me in the back heel a few times. I mean, it’s no big deal, and I wouldn’t dissuade you from ever taking out a bike, but it is my job to be open and honest with you as readers, so do with that what you will.
For more info on the Ride Elgin bike share, I’ve hyperlinked the first part of this sentence.
What Else Should You Do in Elgin County?
While the focus of the article is in some respect the best things to do in Port Stanley, Ontario, I do want to include what else you should include in an Elgin County itinerary if you’re trying to explore it properly. It goes without saying that despite the fact that Port Stanley is a tourist hub for the region, it’s certainly not the only place worth seeing or visiting.
Wet Your Whistle at Natterjack Brewing Company
I can’t think of a more endearing story behind an Ontario brewery than that of West Lorne, Ontario’s Natterjack Brewing Company Ltd.
The brewery was founded in Elgin County’s West Lorne on September 22, 2018. The whole brewery was opened to honour the memory and legacy of the late Matthew Derek Soos who tragically passed away in 2015 from health complications. From talking to his family at the brewery, I could tell this was all about fulfilling Matthew’s dream, and even using his recipes. You see, Matt had studied at the Niagara College Teaching Brewery, and in that time had made some very interest beers.
My favourite beer was actually one of Matt’s recipes and that’s the Natterjack Toad, a Belgian blonde made with pistachios and cardamom. I can guarantee you’ll never have tried anything like it, plus it packs a pretty hefts punch in the percentage department. If you’re there, you have to try it. I’m literally sipping on one now while I write this. It may not end up being your favourite beer, but you’ll never forget trying it, and that’s worth something in my opinion. While you’re there, make sure that you also try The Logger, a smoked lager with peated malt (not to my taste, but very interesting), and the Soos’ Juices, an American strong ale made with chocolate malt that I did enjoy as well, though not as much as the Natterjack Toad.
Beyond the beer, getting to spend time with the Soos family was an honour. From the grandparents to the grandchildren, the whole Soos family is on deck to ensure that Matt’s dream lives on, one pint at a time. They all welcomed us with warmth, and if you’re in their area, I’d encourage you to stop by and have one for Matt.
If you’re ever thinking of heading down to Toronto, I’ve got what many readers have called the number one ebook on Toronto called “A Local Travel Writer’s Guide to Toronto.”
Grab a Bite at Tall Tales Cafe
Located in Wallacetown, less than a 10 minute drive from Natterjack Brewing Company, and about a 25 minute drive from Port Stanley, is Tall Tales Cafe. It’s a no frills, classic Canadian comfort food sort of spot that seems to be perennially busy. They’ve been open since 1982, and whenever you’re planning to visit, you’re likely in luck as they’re open 7 days a week as well.
I got a big juicy burger, and Bri got fish and chips, and I think that’s about what you’re supposed to get. The real prize, however, are their homemade pies. They’re a must have. Bri enjoyed the coconut cream pie (a crowd favourite), and I went for something different with the caramel pecan pumpkin pie. Both, as you might have guessed, were off the charts delicious.
Raise Your Glass at Quai Du Vin Winery
With vineyards first planted in 1970, Quai Du Vin Winery is officially Elgin County’s oldest estate winery. I’ve got to say, I’ve done a lot of wine tours, but the tour that Bri and I got to take with Jamie Quai, the third generation Quai to run this winery and current winemaker, was fantastic. Jamie is a down to earth guy who takes all the pretension out of winemaking, yet clearly has an unparalleled passion for it.
In addition to winemaking, Quai Du Vin Winery hosts a fair amount of events, which largely revolve around live music and celebrations. I tried many of the wines, and enjoyed most very much, but, funny enough, I think I enjoyed listening to Jamie talk about them just as much as I enjoyed tasting them (and I mean that as a compliment, I assure you). He’s one of a kind, and I loved the fact that I could never picture him doing anything but what he is doing now.
Jamie notes on their website, “My own philosophy on winemaking stems from a belief that wines should play a supporting role in the experiences of your life: they should compliment your favourite meals, they should help bring friends together, and a great wine accentuates that romantic evening you've been planning! Achieving that goal as a winemaker means using only the highest quality of grapes from our vineyards, using a combination of Old World and New World (and sometimes unconventional) techniques in production, and as always, leaving plenty of time for wines to evolve naturally- as they are meant to.”
They’re not producing the most expensive or exclusive wines, but I got the sense that Jamie just wants to create wines that people enjoy drinking at a price they can actually afford.
Where Should You Stay When You Visit Elgin County, Ontario?
Of course, where you stay is going to to depend upon how you want to approach the visit. Some people are going to be keen to stay in the heart of Port Stanley, which is fine, but Bri and I did a little something different in our visit to Elgin County, and it’s an option I’d encourage you to consider.
Our Stay at Nature’s Oasis Retreat: Nature’s Dream
Located in Southwold, which is about a 20 minute drive to Port Stanley, is arguably the most unique airbnb in Ontario. The property is run by Nikki and Steve, two hosts who take their job and responsibility as hosts seriously and aim to provide the best experience possible.
The property is like nothing you’ve ever seen. When we arrived, Steve let me know that the property used to belong to an extraordinarily wealthy man who was quite the eccentric and even kept lions and tigers on the property. Yes, lions and tigers, on private property in Ontario. Nature’s Oasis is about 80 acres in size, with 24 acres of walking trails for those who like to get out and spend time in nature. They’ve also got a fishing pond, and the barns and stables towards the back of the property were a blast to spend time in.
Steve had a special affinity with a goose named Honkers, and it was great (and hilarious) to see their connection. I particularly loved roughhousing with the dwarf pygmy goats! What’s fantastic is that Steve made us feel like we were the first ones to ever take a tour of the property, and he was just excited as we were. It was like no airbnb we’d ever experienced!
The indoor portion of the property was also remarkable, especially the indoor saltwater swimming pool. Our room was spacious, and they went through the trouble of leaving us a bottle of wine to welcome us, which was a nice touch. I also had to get up early and do work one morning, and there was a coffee/tea/games room just of ours which was perfect for that.
We ended our night with a campfire and wine right by the pond. How cool is that?
Before leaving, we also got a chance to dine on Nikki’s famous breakfast. Wow. We couldn’t decide what we wanted so she made us french toast and pancakes with whipped cream and fruit. I know, we’re spoiled.
I like places that are a little different, and this is definitely that. You can see their property on their website if you’re keen to give it a whirl yourself.
Of All the Vacation Spots in Ontario — Why Port Stanley and Elgin County?
Like anything, when I’m talking about “beautiful places in Ontario” or “scenic places in Ontario,” those sorts of comments come with a certain amount of subjectivity. What you find beautiful, I might not, and vice versa. That, in a sense, is what makes travel fun and exciting - two people can go to the same place, and feel differently. But, to have an opinion, you do indeed have to go in the first place (and encouraging people to do that is arguably my life’s mission).
When I think all the things to do in Port Stanley, and all the things to do in Elgin County, I’m struck by how perfect this destination is for those who love to be within driving distance of a coastline. I’ve always felt that towns and cities that are on the water have a different sort of vibe, and that’s what I felt when visiting Port Stanley. I believe that essence permeated Elgin County at large, which makes it a genuinely laid back and warm experience for those visiting.
Lastly, there’s a history here that more Canadians should recognize. The history we can trace back to Port Stanley and Elgin County at large predates the formation of Canada by a number of years, and it’s fascinating to think about explorers from the 17th century arriving at the shores of Port Stanley and other harbour towns in present day Elgin County.
I mentioned at the beginning of the article just how much I’ve been relishing the opportunity to explore Southwestern Ontario, and so much of that was because I didn’t know enough about a region I grew up so close to. It’s a powerful thing to fill your mind with stories and history and faces and tastes where there was once only a blank. Now, whenever someone mentions Ontario’s Southwest, or Port Stanley, or Elgin County, I get to join in on that conversation, and that, to me, is what it’s all about.
I want to humbly thank Ontario’s Southwest and Elgin County 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, Port Stanley, or Elgin County before and your thoughts! I respond to each and every comment personally.
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