Lazy Days in Port Stanley

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Lazy Days in Port Stanley

by Andrew Hind
01-Sep-2017
The history-rich community of Port Stanley, Ontario was once a hive for fishermen and industry; now, this tranquil Lake Erie village is a playground for boaters, beachcombers, hikers and culture lovers.
There are beautiful landscapes and lakeshores elsewhere. Other Great Lakes ports are rivals in terms of attractions. But nowhere else will you find so many enchanting scenes and engrossing attractions in one small port package, where the past and present meld, as in Port Stanley, Ontario.

Port Stanley is a small lakeside town with a big story to tell. At one point, it was a railway terminal and the site of one of the Great Lakes’ most popular amusement parks. Today, it’s still a working fishing port — one of the last on the north shore of Lake Erie. Port Stanley wears its maritime heritage proudly on its sleeve. Though the community has evolved over the past two centuries, one thing remains consistent: Port Stanley is a thriving port, even if the vessels that huddle within its harbor today are far smaller than in years past.

 

Historic harbor


The estuary where Kettle Creek enters Lake Erie was recognized as a fine natural harbor as early as 1801. After a wagon-road to London, Ontario opened in 1822, a community began to develop, creating a port through which grain and lumber flowed. A year later, the growing community was named Port Stanley in honor of Baron Edward George Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby. Stanley’s son, Frederick Arthur Stanley, would become Canada’s Governor General and also donate to the hockey world the trophy that still bears his name. In 1856, the Great Western Railway linked Port Stanley with London.

Around that time, a thriving commercial fishing industry took root in Port Stanley. Industry came quickly, with a number of shipbuilders setting up shop. Tourism arrived in the 1860s. Via steamships from Buffalo and Cleveland, and by train from London, tourists flocked to Port Stanley to lounge on its unusually fine beaches and to enjoy its many attractions.

The luxurious Fraser House Hotel opened in 1871, overlooking the harbor called Picnic Hill. Guests at the hotel had easy access to the beaches below by way of an innovative steam-powered incline railway. The hotel offered 62 rooms and a 200-seat dining room. From atop the hill, braver visitors could climb a 98-foot observation tower, which had seven viewing levels.

In 1907, a group of local investors formed the Port Stanley Amusement Company and began to develop attractions along the beach, including a Ferris wheel, two merry-go-rounds, a bowling alley, two theatres, dance clubs, a roller coaster, and 30 amusement booths and refreshment stands. It created a carnival atmosphere, and people loved it.

Perhaps the most famous addition was the Pavilion. Opened in 1926, this dance hall would later gain continent-wide fame as the Stork Club. Dancers would swing and sway to the tunes of some of the biggest names of the Big Band era in this 2,000-square-foot ballroom.

The next three decades were not kind to Port Stanley. In the post-war world, every family had a car or two, so rail travel went out of vogue and the line to Port Stanley was abandoned. The amusement park began to lose its appeal as vacationers could go further afield than ever before. One by one, the amusement park began to lose its attractions; the incline railway carried its last passengers in 1966; and the Stork Club burned down in 1979.

 

Port revival


Much has changed in Port Stanley in recent decades, and the pleasing port community has seen a revival. This renaissance began in 1983, when the old rail line was restored and trains once again began to run between Port Stanley and St. Thomas. Renamed the Port Stanley Terminal Railway, it was a hit for visitors — many of whom had never been on a train — and it remains one of Port Stanley’s greatest attractions. The original line’s sole surviving station, located in Port Stanley, was carefully restored and today houses the ticket office and gift shop. Train aficionados and history buffs will want to explore the relics of the old incline railway at the Elgin County Railway Museum in nearby St. Thomas.

Port Stanley’s Main Beach, awarded the prestigious Blue Beach award, is considered one of the most appealing beaches anywhere in Ontario — no small praise in a province that abuts four Great Lakes. It should come as little surprise, then, that tens of thousands of sun-seekers, swimmers and windsurfers flock to this strip of golden sand each summer. Take a walk down the  infamous Main Beach breakwater, which recently reopened after being closed for 16 years due to safety concerns.

In addition to Main Beach, Port Stanley has two other beaches of note. Little Beach, with shallow waters well protected by the east berm, is best suited for families with small children. It sits on the east side of town. Erie Rest Beach, located less than half a mile west of Main Beach, is the smallest of the three. Nevertheless, the beach is beautiful and clean, the water gradually drops off, and it tends to be quieter than Main Beach.

The port area itself has also transformed into a strikingly charming port of call. Fishing boats are still bobbing in the harbor, but the lakeshore has been reinvigorated in recent years with an eye toward another industry: Tourism. The shoreline, once a jumble of fishing nets, has given way to several landscaped parks. Glover Park neighbors the 1937 King George VI Bascule Bridge, the oldest of its kind in Ontario. The “lift” bridge is so delicately balanced that in the event of a mechanical or electrical breakdown, it can actually be raised or lowered by hand. From the park’s benches and picnic tables, watch the ebb and flow of maritime traffic slip by. Live bands play in the park during warm months.

Near the lift bridge is Kettle Creek Marina, celebrating its 23rd summer in Port Stanley in 2017. This friendly, family-owned marina prides itself on providing attention to detail and service to make you feel at home. Kettle Creek Marina offers transient dockage, private restroom and showers, laundry facilities, gas grills, picnic tables, a three-hole putting green and a campfire for roasting marshmallows.

Not far away is Lions Landing Marina Park, located in the west side of Kettle Creek just north of the bridge. The tranquil marina rents slips, has BBQ pits and offers a covered seating area.

 

Explore and stay awhile


Main Street, which lines the east side of the harbor, maintains an atmospheric maritime legacy through former fishing buildings, net sheds, and a small concrete building known as the Cork Kiln. This unique structure was built around 1915 during the height of the commercial fishing industry. The cork fishing floats used in fishermen’s nets were dried within the building.

Most of these historic structures, some dating back to the late 19th century, have been tastefully transformed into boutique shops, craft stores and antique dealers. Some have even been remodeled into restaurants. On a hot summer’s day, visit Broderick’s, a 1940s-style ice cream parlor, where you can indulge in an old-fashioned shake, float or waffle cone. Mackie’s Snack Bar is a real institution in town. Although the building itself is of modern construction, there has been a Mackie’s in Port Stanley since 1913; the snack bar is a must-visit. SoLo on Main is one of the area’s hottest new restaurants, offering up “hand-crafted dishes with only the freshest local ingredients designed by creative tastemakers in Port Stanley.”

It would be a crime to spend any time in Port Stanley and not savor at least one meal at the Windjammer Inn, a restaurant famed for its excellent cuisine that uses only the best local produce. The owners like to say that at Windjammer Inn, “Global inspiration meets local sensibility.”

Consider participating in one of the Historical Walking Tours that guide visitors through the heritage-filled downtown. These hour-long tours will immerse you in the town’s rich past, pointing out buildings of historic note, sharing some of the fascinating stories associated with life in this port community, and “introducing” you to some of the colorful characters who helped shape the beautiful village of today.

If history is your thing, there are still other ways to fill your days. Located just over the King George VI Bridge, the Port Stanley Jail is a period “lock-up” from the 1870s that never fails to entertain tourists. Fisherman’s Museum in Glover Park preserves the lives and times of Port Stanley fishermen over the last two centuries. It wasn’t an easy lifestyle — the Great Lakes are notoriously temperamental — and so one comes away with a greater appreciation of what these men endured to put food on the table for their families. Don’t overlook the Stork Club Big Band Museum and Hall of Fame, dedicated to the history of the Stork Club and the impact of the Big Band era on Port Stanley.

A number of inns and bed and breakfasts offer portside accommodations, including the historic Kettle Creek Inn and the newer Inn on the Harbor. Kettle Creek Inn oozes warmth and charm. Built in 1849 as a summer home for the local Justice of the Peace, the main building first became an inn in 1918. The original inn and its two guesthouses encircle a courtyard with English gardens, creating a peaceful oasis in the heart of Port Stanley. Kettle Creek Inn offers exceptional dining in its intimate English-style pub and its more sophisticated dining rooms.

While it may not have the historic pedigree of Kettle Creek Inn, Inn on the Harbour offers luxurious accommodations. Each of the 12 themed rooms and suites overlook Lake Erie. In-room amenities include double Jacuzzis and fireplaces. The accompanying Little Inn, which opened in 2008 and is just steps from Inn on the Harbour, offers accommodations in its four rooms.

 

Local amusements


Although the amusement park that made Port Stanley famous is long gone, the community continues to find new ways to entertain visitors. Since 2011, the Port Stanley Festival Theatre has put on shows that highlight Canadian works in drama, comedy and musical theatre. The lineup is eclectic, offering something for everyone, and is hosted within the historic confines of Port Stanley’s former town hall.  

Port Stanley offers great opportunities for a round of golf. The 18-hole Kettle Creek Golf and Country Club is located within walking distance of downtown, and many would also consider it among the finest golf courses in the region. The fairways are scenic and offer challenges enough to entertain even the most skilled recreational golfers. The Bluffs Golf Club is a bit further away (about a 5-minute drive), but well worth the effort. Though only 9 holes, the course offers stunning vistas from bluffs overlooking Lake Erie. Put aside the driver for a few moments and soak in the view.  

Strap on a comfortable pair of shoes and head out onto the Elgin Hiking Trail, described as the “jewel of trails” in southwestern Ontario.  Running 25 miles between Port Stanley and Payne’s Mills, the trail winds through scenic valleys, woods and hillsides along Kettle Creek and Dodd’s Creek. If that sounds like too much effort, maybe you’d prefer a more sedate afternoon at Moore Water Gardens, which specializes in growing water lilies and aquatic plants for wholesale and retail. Guests are welcome to wander through more than an acre of outdoor ponds. Throughout the summer, there are special events, tours and speakers hosted here.

There’s no mistaking Port Stanley’s fishing and maritime heritage — it’s part of this Lake Erie port’s considerable charm. The meld of past and present, of stunning scenery and appealing attractions, is uniquely Port Stanley, and it’s as delicious as the fresh pickerel that local fishermen harvest from the lake. 

 

 

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