Story by Shannon Leahy
PORT STANLEY, ONTARIO — Lake Erie has a bit of a nasty reputation.
Just like bad boy Lake Superior, Erie doesn’t give up its dead. While Superior ranks as our largest, deepest Great Lake, tiny and shallow Lake Erie is our scariest.
More than 400 ships have vanished into these dark waters; four times the number of vessels lost in the Bermuda Triangle. Often considered easy-going, shallow and small, Lake Erie is more than a tame recreational lake notorious for its “dead zone” of dirty water. Sudden storms, especially vicious north-to-south winds, frequently roar across Erie waters and smash unsuspecting ships into the graveyard below.
Wind changes mean sea changes and modern sailors still pay heed to Erie harbours that can change from deep to disastrous shallow within minutes of a shrieking storm. Many of the drowned seamen are still aboard the ships that took them to their final resting place. Lake Erie sailors and pirates don’t rest easy out here and they don’t offer locals peace.
Most of the shipwrecks in these warm waters are unrecovered yet ghostly crews regularly appear as misty midnight-water apparitions in beach-culture communities like Port Dover, Port Burwell and Port Stanley.
Just as it’s best to avoid underestimating any Great Lake, the same rule applies when judging Erie’s 120-kilometre stretch of northern shoreline. There are common southwestern Ontario treasures blending the best of rural and urban living, tasty experiences like five-star shopping, staying and eating without big-city frowns, traffic and lower prices.
In Port Stanley, a picturesque former fishing village about 30 minutes south of St. Thomas, a half-hour south of London and two-and-a-half hours west of Toronto, we find free street parking and free coffee refills, which for city-slickers is equivalent to riding a unicorn.
Lake Erie’s shoreline and beaches, no matter the season, are pretty and the people friendly, unhurried and kind. If you move too fast on the boardwalk or sigh too loud in line, locals will ask if you’re from the big city; a salty-sweet smile-slap that reminds you to slow down, be nice, fit in. And wait.
I’m reminded of this advice when I move too quickly and torpedo too many questions during a submariner tour in Port Burwell. The HMCS Ojibwa, Canada’s first Oberon Class “silent hunter” Cold War-era submarine, was purchased by the community for $1 from the Department of National Defence.
As in life, there’s a catch. Hauling the 52-year-old, five-storey, 2100 tonne, football-field-long vessel from Halifax to the north shore three years ago cost the area $6 million. Saving a submarine and piece of Canadian history from the scrap yard? Priceless.
If you’re a movie buff, the Ojibwa was the submarine featured in “The Widow Maker” with Sean Connery. If you love trivia: the Ojibwa is a diesel-electric “small” sub with 3680 horsepower. It’s three times smaller than a nuclear sub.
For the most part a peaceful sub, the Ojibwa’s main duties were covert action, the tracking and following of Soviet nuclear submarines – very, very quietly – and the training of NATO surface ships and aircraft in what’s commonly known as “war games.”
No one knows why this “giant ear of the ocean,” which never shot any of its 28 torpedoes, is called Ojibwa. After breathing in 60-minutes of submariner air, “Brotherhood of the Fin” war stories and torpedo dust, we’re ready for fresh air and fishing, where some of the best southwestern Ontario walleye thrive along this pretty shoreline.
Yes, Lake Erie fish – perch, trout, salmon, whitefish, catfish – are safe, edible and tasty.
All that fear-mongering that went on years ago about Lake Erie becoming a “late Great Lake” because of its high bacteria levels and decaying birds, fish and garbage? Not so. Like the ghost ships that still sail these waters, Erie is back from the dead. Jokes about Erie’s dirty water are met with dead silence. Whether speaking to year-round beach bums, busy restaurant and bar servers (G.T.’s Beach Bar and Grill in Port Stanley is ranked one of the top beach bars in the world) or best-friends-forever-bed-and-breakfast hosts, Lake Erie is “Blue Flag” all the way.
Locals proudly inform out-of-towners that water quality is tested weekly at the main beach in Port Stanley from mid-June to Labour Day weekend, and consistently awarded Blue Flag status, an annual confirmation that at least 80% of all provincial water-quality guidelines have been met (i.e.,100 E.coli per 100 ml of water). So there.
Swim in the Erie water, fish and eat the Erie fish and smile at the Erie locals. There’s nothing scary here. Except for those Erie ghost ships and screeching winds worthy of a tiny lake with a great big back-from-the-dead reputation.
WHERE TO EAT, DRINK AND SLEEP
The Lighthouse Restaurant and Pub
36 Robinson Street, Port Burwell
Telephone: (519) 874-4112
Cool patio, cold beer, hot fish (tasty fresh yellow perch), friendly staff and prices.
The Museum of Naval History (HMCS Ojibwa submarine)
3 Pitt Street, Port Burwell
For up-to-date schedule and tours click here, or visit the Elgin Military Museum in nearby St. Thomas (open year-round) at 519.633.7641
One-hour submariner guided tour:
$17 plus tax (adults), $11 plus tax (children)
Open 7 days a week, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Victoria Day weekend to Labour Day weekend
Open weekends, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., after Labour Day to mid-November
Port Burwell Marine Museum and Historic Lighthouse
20 Pitt Street, Port Burwell, Ontario
Telephone: 519.874.4807 or off-season 519.866.5521
Nan’s Nook Bed and Breakfast By the Lake
13 Victoria Street, Port Burwell
A five-minute walk to the beach, lighthouse and submarine. Go to the beach, swim in the pool, tour the century-old house and grounds.
Rates include a hearty breakfast: $57 (October to April) to $67 (May to September).
You can book through airbnb (beautiful photos of rooms, sweet testimonials) or contact the owners directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 226.271.3815.
324 Smith Street, Port Stanley
Former Toronto chef Kim Saunders runs the show here. Highlights include award-winning dining out on the veranda, a three-page wine list and B-and-B accommodations (five guest rooms, one carriage house) set in a gorgeous pre-Confederation (1854) heritage home. Check out the carved fireplace mantle; a mid-19th-century tall-ship relic!
Tuesday: 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. || 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday: 8:00 a.m. to 3 p.m. || 5:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Saturday: 9:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. || 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Sunday: 9:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
G.T’s Beach Bar and Grill
350 Edith Cavell Blvd, Port Stanley
Telephone: 519. 782.4555
Opens May 2016
Recently voted one of the world’s best beach bars. Situated right on the main beach with a 400-seat patio and eight beach volleyball courts. All beers under $7. Check out Cheeseburger Mondays, Nacho Tuesdays, Wing Wednesdays, Perch and Chips Thursdays, Corona Fridays. Don’t waddle away until you try the dessert nachos.
The Suite Retreat at Divine Madness Cottage
207 Cornell Drive, Port Stanley
Fran Kennedy – owner, host, chef, artist, kind heart – might be the nicest person you ever meet. Sitting atop a hill overlooking treetops and Port Stanley harbour is a B-and-B oasis with gardens, patios and (magical!) frogs. Stay for a night or stay for a week. You’ll love the divine madness up here. Early evening checkouts (5 p.m.) can be arranged.
Rates range from $85 (two-person room includes five-star breakfast) to $250 (first night in cottage, $200 next night)