These days, when you sit down at a restaurant — or fast food joint, even — chances are the menu makes some mention of sustainably harvested or locally sourced products. The locavore movement is trendy, but the terms “farm to table” and “field to fork” aren’t just marketing buzzwords in southern Ontario, and especially Norfolk County.
“We’ve never had to try to be those things,” says Meaghan Hurkens, a tour guide for Red Apple Rides (519-718-2453, redapplerides.com), a new bicycle tour company based in Port Dover. “It’s just always been that way here.”
At the tail end of the company’s three-hour Foodie Tour that explores the lakeside town of Port Dover and its surrounding countryside, Hurkens chats with participants over a sample of Rambling Road Brewery Farm’s Country Pilsner (519-582-1444, ramblinroad.ca) and a plate of fished-to-dished fried perch at the iconic Erie Beach Hotel (519-583-1391, eriebeachhotel.com). Moments later, we are joined by Red Apple Rides’ owner Phil Poss, who grew up on a nearby farm.
“Growing up on the farm has always taught me to appreciate what you have,” he says. “And it’s the most important reason I started these tours. I can connect people to what we are able to grow here.”
Norfolk County is Canada’s top producer of a long grocery list of produce, including asparagus, cabbage, sour cherries, ginseng, peppers, pumpkins, squash, zucchini, strawberries, sweet corn and sweet potatoes.
The bicycle tour provides just a taste of the diverse amount of food that is grown or prepared in the area, so I make sure to visit other recommended spots during my three-day excursion in both town and country.
In nearby Simcoe, Chef Ryan Rivard and killer mixologist Jennifer von Schleinitz don’t have to go far to get the season’s bounty. They run a popular restaurant, called The Combine (226-440-3369, thecombine.ca), out of their home and use a few key ingredients direct from the backyard. What they don’t grow themselves, they get from local suppliers, so their name-dropping menu is more like a who’s who of Ontario farms. Among the offerings are braised longhorn short ribs from Y U Ranch (519-842-2597, yuranch.com), lamb belly from Woolley's (woolleyslamb.ca), and a delicious brick-oven pizza called the Norfolk ABC made with local apples, smoked bacon from Townsend Butchers (519-426-6750, townsendbutchers.com) smoked bacon and aged cheddar from Jensen’s (jensencheese.ca).
I savor each bite of my dinner, and wash it down with a couple strawberry bellinis with juice from Meadow Lynn Farms (519-426-4461, meadowlynnfarms.com). By the time the meal is over, I’ve decided to visit the farm the next morning to pick my own berries.
Norfolk County is all about the fresh air. Most of its out-of-town visitors, like me, aim to give up big-city pollution and high-stress lifestyles in favor of the great outdoors and a laidback pace, at least temporarily.
Next, I head to Long Point Eco-Adventures (877-743-8687, lpfun.ca), which just happens to be one of the best places to blow off some steam with activities like zip lining, mountain biking, axe throwing and tree climbing — all of which I try while surrounded by nature at its finest.
Norfolk has the highest percentage of forested land in Ontario, and the adventure resort is nestled within a swathe of woodland that contain mighty oak, tulip, chestnut, black gum, dogwood and maple trees. Under one of these tall trees perched on a cliff that stretches down toward Lake Erie and the Long Point World Biosphere, I meet Andrew Swannell of Tree Climbing Canada (519-718-8733, treeclimbingcanada.ca). His goal is to get more people up a tree, and not just among them.
“I went to school to become an arborist, so I have worked in trees for 15 years,” he says. “But instead of cutting them down, I wanted to invite people to climb them for fun.”
One look at the rope dangling from a branch 50 feet above my head, I start to get a little nervous, but Swannell assures me that he can teach anyone how to inchworm up the polyester thread rope with little more than a pulley and a series of knots, including foot loops for self-assisted climbing.
After getting harnessed in, it takes me awhile to figure out the rhythm of standing up on the foot loops while simultaneously pushing a knot over my head. With plenty of rest between each outlay of effort, I literally reached the end of my rope without reaching the end of my figurative rope.
Later that evening, my mood is at an all-time high as I toast my accomplishment with some new friends over a glass of wine at Burning Kiln Winery (519-586-9858, burningkilnwinery.ca). Its name pays homage to the former tobacco farm on which the property sits. The tasting room and winemaking facilities are housed in a building that incorporates the old wood packing barn used for curing the tobacco leaves, while 26 acres of pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling, pinot gris, merlot and cabernet franc, savagnin and petit verdot stretch over and down a hill.
While live music plays, dinner is served on the patio from a food truck provided by David’s Restaurant (519-583-0706, davidsportdover.com). I order a charcuterie board with meats, cheeses and grilled vegetables from purveyors I’ve come to recognize during my short stay.
I finish the night with one more glass of wine that I carry with me while wandering between the rows of carefully trained vines. As the strums of the guitar fade away, it’s just me, the waning light, the birds flitting about and a beaver gnawing on a meal of leaves, grass and branches next to the winery’s pond. It doesn’t get much better — or local — than that.
Best Place to Live Like Royalty
Surround yourself with luxury at Clonmel Castle, a boutique bed-and-breakfast in a Georgian revival heritage mansion with rates starting at $127 CAD. High tea is served on Wednesdays and Sundays. 416-768-1902, clonmelcastle.ca
Best Place to Sleep in the Wilderness
Long Point Eco-Adventures offers unique lodging that ranges from a power-free camping pod to a wired wilderness pod with bed, sofa and toilet to a luxury Wilderness Suite with queen- or king-size bed and full bathroom with an open-air shower. Rates start at $89 CAD. 877-743-8687, lpfun.ca
Best Way to Bring Out Your Inner Lumberjack
Axe throwing has been a Canadian sport for years. Imagine a game of darts, but with a slightly more lethal weapon being chucked at a large bullseye. Games at Long Point Eco-Adventures are led by an expert axe thrower and last approximately three hours. $50 CAD. 877-743-8687, lpfun.ca
Best Place to Go for a Date Night
Paul Meiklejohn wants you to get dirty with him and your significant other. The founder of Elevation Mountain Bike Camps teaches novices the fundamentals of mountain biking and puts those newfound skills to the test along single-track trails that he and other members of the Turkey Point Mountain Biking Club have groomed through Norfolk’s forest. “We have 75 kilometers of trails with no mountain,” he says. “Because we don’t have steep descents or aggressive climbs, it’s a great learning environment for beginners.” Date night costs $75 per couple and includes two bikes, two helmets and a $20 discount on dinner at the Sand Bar.
If you have a hankering for roast turkey, stuffing, candied yams and cranberry sauce, it’s always Thanksgiving at The Crepe House, where all your holiday favorites are packed into the Turkey Dinner Crêpe, then drenched in gravy. Crepe House co-owner Penny Nunn got her start peddling all kinds of sweet and savory creations from a propane-powered food cart on Port Dover’s pier. Since then, the restaurant has become a happening venue for its colorful outdoor patio, live music and, of course, crêpes. Prices range from $10 to $18 CAD. 519-583-9018, crepehouse.ca