Maples, gourds and sunsets

A Side Trip To Southampton

While Port Elgin has plenty of charms with which to enchant visiting boaters, so too does the neighboring community of Southampton, just four miles to the north.

Located at the mouth of the Saugeen River, Southampton is a delightful little town and well worth a visit. However, docking facilities are extremely limited here; there are no facilities for transient boaters to tie up, even for a few hours. The fastest way to get to Southampton is by cab. The best route to get there is by the Rail Trail, whether you walk or break out the bicycles. If you’re feeling lazy or planning to shop in town, during July and August you can hail a ride on the bright red and green S.S. Trolley, which shuttles passengers between downtown Port Elgin and Southampton for a modest fee.

Festivals Galore!

April 28
Port Elgin Legion Chili Cook Off

May 25 – June 3
Huron Fringe Birding Festival

June 27 – August 29 (Wednesdays)
Port Elgin Tourist Association Beach Flea Market

July 1
Canada Day Celebrations and Fireworks

July 1 – September 2 (Sundays)
Port Elgin Band Shell Concerts

July 20
Rotary Club of Port Elgin’s Jeff Preston Celebrity Golf Tournament

July 23–27
Summer Music Camp

July 28 – August 12
Chantry Chinook Classic Salmon Derby

August 23–25
Saugeen Shores Comedy Festival

September 5
Leisure Fair

September 7–9
Canadian Big Band Celebration

September 9
Walk-It for Parkinson’s

September 16
Terry Fox Run

September 29–30
Port Elgin Pumpkinfest


  • Port Elgin Tourism
  • Port Elgin Harbour Office Port Elgin Harbour Office 519-832-6535 from May-October, and 519-832-2008 ext. 131 from November-April

Maples, gourds and sunsets

By Craig Ritchie
Once known as the Town of Maples in reference to its tree-lined streets, Port Elgin, Ontario has long been a popular destination for Great Lakes boaters thanks to its delightful harbor, inviting beaches and one of the largest pumpkin festivals in the world.
While many towns and villages along the Great Lakes have engaged in massive revitalization programs to restore their once-industrial waterfronts into inviting recreational areas, the little village of Port Elgin, Ontario has never had to do so — it’s beautiful waterfront has always been all about the beach.

Located midway up the Canadian side of Lake Huron, Port Elgin is the kind of charming lakeshore town that seems to have it all: A picturesque beach, protected waters and gorgeous sunsets every night of the year. The village was first permanently settled in the mid-14th century by a band of about 500 Iroquoian First Nation peoples. Archaeological examinations of the village site, situated smack in the middle of town in present-day Nodwell Park, suggest the settlers were primarily farmers who grew corn, tobacco, pumpkins and sunflowers. They also engaged in a great deal of fishing. 

As European colonization spread through the Midwest, a new wave of settlers arrived in Port Elgin, and they too found its rich farmlands and bountiful waters much to their liking. With the exception of aptly-named Harbour Street (which roughly parallels the lakeshore), many of the old town’s streets fan out from its protected harbor. Most of these streets are still lined with spectacular, Victorian-era residences that reflected the town’s considerable prosperity. 

By 1857, a shipping pier was constructed to link Port Elgin by steamship to other, larger communities, like Southampton and Goderich. The pier brought immediate returns for local farmers, who suddenly had easy access to new markets throughout the Great Lakes. Timber, coal, grain and passengers arrived in return, and the town thrived. Warehouses were constructed and a tannery opened for business, which quickly became the second largest in Ontario. With the rapid growth of Port Elgin’s shipping industry, many of the town’s young men went to work on the lake boats, further cementing Port Elgin’s relationship to the water.

Through the second half of the 19th century, Port Elgin began to develop a fledgling tourism industry, as a growing number of passenger boats, primarily from Michigan, began arriving in town on scheduled service, bringing hundreds of visitors each summer. When the railway arrived in 1873 and brought even faster access to market for local produce, the townspeople immediately recognized the writing on the wall and promptly began steering waterfront development away from commercial infrastructure and toward recreational use. The pier — now the focus of a full-blown harbor — was adapted to make it more suitable for pleasure boats, while a string of hotels, restaurants and rental cottages began to spring up all along the lakeshore. A waterfront beautification project centered around planting maple trees along these streets — a tradition that survives to this day — led to Port Elgin becoming known as the Town of Maples. That legacy lives on in the hundreds of large maple trees lining Port Elgin’s old town and the decorative leaf patterns inlaid into the sidewalks at downtown intersections.

But unlike other tourist beach towns along the lakeshore that shut down during the winter, Port Elgin remains a vital year-round community with a wide and varied economic base. Today, as the home of more than 7,000 permanent residents, Port Elgin is the largest community in southern Ontario’s Bruce County. It continues to serve the surrounding farming community while it welcomes an ever-growing number of tourists each year.

Made for boaters

Port Elgin’s harbor lies on the eastern shore of Lake Huron, 53 miles north of Goderich and 56 miles south of Tobermory. It’s fairly easy to spot from the lake, as the port is in close proximity to three major landmarks that are clearly visible from miles offshore. The first landmark you’re likely to spot is the massive Bruce Power nuclear power generating plant with its white reactor dome. Next, you’ll likely see a massive wind farm located just two miles south of the harbor, with its numerous white, 400-foot high wind turbines. That’s when you can look for Port Elgin midway between the turbines and Logie Rock, marked by a light buoy, which sits two miles north of the harbor entrance. 

As you approach the shoreline, you’ll pick up range markers with fixed green lights, which should put you on a course of 109 degrees. It’s a good idea to stay in the marked entrance channel as you proceed through the bay, which is dredged to a depth of about 10 feet; constantly shifting sandbars outside of the channel can pose a serious threat to navigation, particularly for sailboats and deep-draft yachts.

Port Elgin Harbour has 270 slips with room for about 30 transient boats. The harbor can accommodate vessels up to 140 feet on the seawall and smaller yachts on secured, fixed docks. If you haven’t called ahead to reserve a slip, pull up to the fuel dock located at the base of the front range marker and either call in on VHF 68 for instructions or walk over to the harbor office located in the large gray building with the blue roof. The harbor office also has a small but well-stocked chandlery that sells navigation charts, cleaning supplies and convenience items. The harbor also has gas, diesel, pumpout facilities, 30-amp power and water at each slip, along with washrooms, showers, wireless internet and a launch ramp.

Life’s a beach

Once you’ve pulled into port and secured a slip, where to begin your adventure? The answer to that question depends on when you arrive.

Virtually all of Port Elgin’s summer activities center around the beach. The town’s Waterfront Promenade — which begins at the harbor and continues along the beachfront — is a beautiful manicured walkway that simply demands a stroll. Go after dinner, when you can take in the cool evening air and watch the sun set over the lake. A beachside bandshell offers free Sunday night concerts in July and August, with genres ranging from rock to country to classical. Weekly beach carnivals are held on Saturday nights throughout the summer, and on Wednesdays the beach hosts a large and wonderful flea market. 

As you explore the Port Elgin waterfront, your ears and your nose will eventually draw you to The Station, located just off the beach, where you’ll find French fries that taste even better than they smell. Here you’ll also find a miniature steam train that takes passengers on a meandering sightseeing route around the harbor and into North Shore Park, a beautiful lakeside green space known for its expansive children’s playground, an inviting picnic area and some delightful walking trails through an ecologically diverse woodlot. 

Visit Port Elgin in late July or early August and you’ll find the area offers some of the best offshore salmon and trout fishing anywhere. The town serves as home base for the annual Chantry Chinook Classic, which bills itself as the largest salmon derby on Lake Huron. First prize for the largest salmon is a hefty $15,000 (CAD), while a number of additional prizes give everyone a chance to win something. There’s even a prize awarded to the salmon or trout that comes closest to matching this year’s specified weight of exactly 13.35 pounds. If you don’t have the gear or the know-how, charter boats in the harbor will be happy to show you the ropes and perhaps put you on the line with a prize-winning catch.

Out on the town

If you’d rather get off the boat for a bit, take a stroll through Port Elgin’s maple-lined streets and step back in time to a kinder, more refined era when the world moved at a much gentler pace. A helpful guide produced by the Port Elgin Municipal Heritage Committee (and available online at includes a map of the historic town with detailed descriptions of different Victorian-era buildings that you’ll pass. As you make your way through town, you’ll inevitably find attractive shops to browse and enticing spots to stop for lunch.

Golfers have their choice of four good courses located in the immediate area. East of town, there’s The Club at Westlinks, an 18-hole, par 71 course (519-832- 4653); while the Holiday Country Club, located to the south of the village, is an 18-hole course (519-389-4118). Two more courses sit just north of Port Elgin, including the Saugeen Golf Club, a 27-hole facility with a practice range (519-389-4031) and South Port Golf Course, a nine-hole course with a driving range (519-832-5650). 

If you’re looking to stretch your legs, consider going for a stroll on the Rail Trail. As commercial shipping gave way to the railway, the rail lines subsequently gave way to highways, and their abandoned tracks were eventually removed, leaving miles of vacant, overgrown pathways through the countryside. A group of volunteers founded the Rail Trail group in 1990 and convinced local government to secure ownership of the rail bed so it could be cleaned up and converted to trails for walking and cycling. Today, the well-manicured trail stretches all the way from Port Elgin to the neighboring town of Southampton. It’s an easy round-trip by bicycle. If you’re feeling energetic, you can walk the four miles up to Southampton then return on a trolley to avoid overdoing it (see sidebar, A Side Trip To Southampton, p. 53). You’ll find the trailhead located on River Street in Port Elgin, a few blocks north of the town center and east of Highway 21. 

Flora and fauna

The bird watchers in your crew will likely want to take a day trip out to Chantry Island, located a half-mile offshore between Port Elgin and Southampton. The island — a federal bird sanctuary — attracts more than 50,000 birds during the spring and early summer breeding season, including a variety of sandpipers, ducks, double-crested cormorants, black-crowned night herons, great blue herons, great egrets, ring-billed gulls and great black-backed gulls. Climb 106 steps to the top of the island’s lighthouse for an incredible view of the island and the lake. The island has no facilities for boaters and the number of daily visitors is strictly controlled, so guided tours operated by the Chantry Island Marine Heritage Society ( are the best way to go.

While you’re checking out the local flora and fauna, head south of town to MacGregor Point Provincial Park, which overlooks Lake Huron just beyond the beach. Described as one of the most ecologically diverse natural places along the entire Canadian shoreline, MacGregor Point is home to a number of unique and rare species, including carnivorous plants. Yes, you read that right. Park interpreters offer guided walks through the cattail marshes and silver maple groves that reveal these highly unusual inhabitants. Although not quite as dramatic as Audrey, the singing, man-eating Venus Flytrap from the 1986 film “Little Shop of Horrors,” the park’s various species of bladderworts and butterworts heartily chow down on a variety of insects. 

While there’s always plenty of things to do in Port Elgin, the biggest event on the town’s annual calendar is Pumpkinfest ( Generally held the last weekend in September or the first weekend in October, the Port Elgin Pumpkinfest is among the largest and best-known festivals of its kind in the world, attracting around 60,000 people every year. There’s a farmers market and a classic car show, but the real stars here are the enormous gourds and pumpkins grown by local farmers. The climax of the event is the annual weigh-in competition to see who cultivated the largest vegetable of the year. It’s serious business, with the contenders brought in by forklifts and cranes. To date, no less than four world records for the largest pumpkin have been set at the Port Elgin Pumpkinfest, with the title currently held by a massive 1,877-pound pumpkin that was entered in the 2016 event. Trust me — after a few hours at Pumpkinfest you’ll never look at a Halloween jack-o-lantern the same way again.

With its tree-lined streets, laid back atmosphere, gorgeous waterfront and beautiful sunsets, Port Elgin is the kind of place that’s easy to fall in love with. Car-sized gourds and meat-eating plants simply make it a can’t-miss destination on any cruiser’s list. 

South Shore JUN17