Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Discovering Canada's Far South

It’s a strange experience to walk out to the southern tip of mainland Canada.

Look at a map, and you will see Point Pelee jutting out into Lake Erie in the southwestern corner of Ontario. The map shows a pointy piece of land hanging there like a tiny icicle off the bottom of the country.  Point Pelee – part of Point Pelee National Park – really is just as the map shows. As you walk out, the land gets narrower and narrower until it ends in a sand spit. And if you walk out as far as you can, you can stand there, with your feet in the water, for a moment the most southerly person in Canada. (Except for anyone on Pelee Island – more about that later.)

Point Pelee is one of the things not to be missed if you visit Canada’s Far South. The area encompasses the city of Windsor, across from Detroit, as well as the rural areas of Essex County.  It’s a land of farms and food, grapes and wineries and – in season – a whole lot of migrating birds. And of course warm people who are eager to welcome LGBT visitors.  In fact, says Lionel Kernerman, the manager of product development for Windsor-Essex-Pelee Island Tourism, this area is part of an Ontario government pilot project this year to develop LGBT tourism in new areas. That means they are developing tourism offerings for the LGBT market and – among other things – ensuring that people in the tourism industry get diversity training.

Comparing Point Pelee to an icicle is a bit unfair. They like to tell you that this area is on the same latitude as northern California. In practical terms, it means that this is one of the warmest parts of Canada.

Agri-tourism is big, with a growing emphasis on local chefs using local foods. (Serenity Lavender Farm, with 40 varieties of lavender, is a uniquely scented experience.)  Wine is even bigger.  There are 18 wineries in Essex County, says Kernerman, ranging from small, artisanal ones to more developed undertakings.  There are different winery tours possible.  You can tour by car, but if you have a bit more energy Windsor Eats organizes regular wine trail bicycle rides. There are one or two tours organized each month. For $50, participants get a guided bike tour to several wineries, visits, tastings and a meal made with local foods. If you want to buy wine at a winery, the support vehicle that accompanies the tour will haul it for you back to the point of departure.
If you’re into bird-watching, you’ll love this area. Point Pelee and Pelee Island are part of an important flyway for migrating birds; some 400 species pass through, says Kernerman. Check the park website at Point Pelee National Park to find out what birds will be in transit during your time there.

Pelee Island, by the way, is worth a special mention.  Located in the middle of Lake Erie, the island is about 14.5 kilometres long and 5.5 kilometres across and has about 250 full-time residents. It is technically the most southerly inhabited part of Canada.  It’s a world apart, a quiet place that welcomes visitors when the weather is warm. Get there by ferry from Leamington (it’s about an hour and a quarter to cross) and you can explore it by car or by bicycle.

And Lake Erie itself is worth a mention, too. The area has a number of beaches both on Lake Erie and on other bodies of water for people who just want to lie in the sun. (Get a list of local beaches here.)

Windsor is a historic city with an industrial base. The urban area has a population of over 300,000 and an active LGBT community.  You can see Windsor by boat - Windsor River Cruises operates from April to October, offering scenic cruises along the Detroit River – or you can see it by bike, on foot, or on Roller-blade along the eight-kilometre Riverfront Trail.

This year, Windsor is celebrating Pride with a four-day festival August 9-12, says David Lenz, president of the Windsor-Essex Pride Festival Board.  This will be the 20th anniversary of Windsor Pride, and organizers are planning a major festival on the city’s waterfront. Events include an opening night party on August 9 at Legends, a local bar, and outdoor celebrations at the city’s Riverfront Festival Plaza on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Lenz says organizers are trying to “mainstream” parts of the festival to make it attractive to the broader community and to encourage more interaction with the community.  If you’re looking to go to Windsor Pride, there are packages available in association with Caesars Windsor Hotel and Casino, says Lenz. The “Diva” package includes one night’s accommodation for two, parking, two passes to the Friday Pride party and a $25 food credit at a Caesars restaurant and costs $154; The Pride Package is similar but covers two nights, has a $100 food credit and costs $388.

See the Windsor-Essex Pride Festival website for information.

Daniel Drolet is an Ottawa writer, a member of Travel Gay Canada and president of Éclair Communications.