Travel: Canada’s Pelee Island offers laid-back respite
PELEE ISLAND, Ontario -- This Lake Erie island is Canada’s southern-most inhabited point. But it’s less Key West than Mayberry, or perhaps, being Canadian, Moose Jaw.
On Pelee Island, a very limited selection of groceries is available at a small co-op and a campground store. Churches outnumber bars three to two. The island has a winery, a bakery, a restaurant, a cute little museum, acre after acre of field and forest, and a presiding calmness usually broken only by waves crashing against the stony shoreline.
Not that Pelee doesn’t get downright lively during events such as the annual Island Unplugged Music Festival in August, but big-time partiers will want to skip this island and put in, perhaps, at sometimes raucous Put-In-Bay on the Ohio side of the lake.
Travelers looking for a few days of relaxation or nature watching and a friendly haven, though, should consider crossing the border.
Getting to the Canadian island is easy, as long as you have a passport. A ferry runs from Sandusky on the Ohio mainland directly to Pelee. The trip takes less than 2 hours.
Once on Pelee, travelers will find their lodging options limited to bed and breakfasts, rental cottages, two campgrounds and a very few small inns scattered across the island. But the small-scale, homey accommodations match the island’s laid-back, friendly atmosphere.
Getting around Pelee is a laid-back affair, too. The island speed limit is just 50 kilometers-per-hour (that’s about 30 mph for those who don’t speak “Canadian”) and several roads have a lower posted limit.
Bicycles are popular. Visitors who don’t bring their own will find a rental shop near the ferry dock.
Walking Pelee’s quiet roads is a great way to get around, too. But don’t let that small dot on the map of Lake Erie fool you. Pelee is big, especially on foot. Although it’s home to only about 300 full-time residents, at 10,000 acres, it’s the largest island in Lake Erie.
The island’s circular Waterfront Trail, which follows paved and unpaved roads along the entire scenic shoreline, is about 17 miles long.
Pelee is home to several nature preserves, including those at Fish Point on the southern end of the island and Lighthouse Point on the north. Those preserves protect some of the most unusual habitat in Canada, including a unique alvar, a limestone plain with more than 50 rare plant species.
Visitors don’t need to go to the preserves, though, to see birds.
Avian visitors, like their human counterparts, find Pelee a great place to recharge. During the spring and fall migrations, Pelee becomes one of the biggest birding hot spots in all of North America as winged visitors pause to rest during their lake crossing. More than 300 bird species have been seen on Pelee.
The island’s climate, moderated by the surrounding lake, has long made it a grape-growing center. Today, Pelee Island Winery carries on the tradition with more than 600 acres of grapes, the largest estate winery in Canada. The winery also features a lovely tasting room, live entertainment on weekends and a huge patio and wine garden where visitors can sip wine and dine on meat they cook themselves on the winery’s outdoor grills.
The closest thing the island has to a village is clustered near West Dock, where ferries arrive. There, visitors will find several bed and breakfast inns, the island’s only ice cream stand and Westview Tavern, the southernmost bar in Canada.
Across from West Dock is the Pelee Island Heritage Centre, a tidy little museum that tells the story of the island, its natural history and its people.
The museum is located in the historic Pelee Town Hall and offers a look at the island’s early Indian culture, shipwrecks, fishing and winemaking industries, and much more.
Museum guests also will learn about a time when the island was the start of many a party. Pelee was the embarkation point for thousands of gallons of Canadian liquor smuggled over the border into Ohio via rowboat or over the ice during U.S. Prohibition. (Even Mayberry had its moonshiners.)
If You Go
Pelee is the southernmost inhabited stop in Canada and the largest island in Lake Erie. Pelee is known for its tranquility, bird-watching and wide-open spaces.
Ferries offer passenger and auto service from Sandusky and from Kingsville and Leamington, Ontario. For more information, call 1-800-661-2220 or visit www.ontarioferries.com.
Visitors also can fly on scheduled air-taxi service from the Erie-Ottawa International Airport near Port Clinton. For more information, call Griffing Flying Service at 419-734-5400 or visit www.flygriffing.com.
To learn more about things to see and do and where to stay on Pelee Island, call the Township of Pelee Municipal Office at 1-866-889-5203 or visit www.pelee.org/tourism.
-- Steve Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SteveStephens.