One of the best things about living in southern Ontario is its close proximity to so many amazing destinations. From small towns to outdoor adventures to big cities – there’s a lot to see and do. My favourite weekend activity is heading out and discovering new places I’ve never been before. I seek out those under-the-radar spots. To my delight, Norfolk County is brimming over with some pretty amazing hidden gems.
Norfolk County is a rural region on the north shore of Lake Erie in southwestern Ontario. Day tripping to Norfolk County is under 90 minutes from Toronto. And even closer for those cities in the west end. As for tourism, it’s an up and coming region to discover. So if you’re anything like me, go now before it becomes too saturated with tourists.
Here is one perfect day intinery bringing you to some secret places in Norfolk County.
En Route to Norfolk County
You are likely to drive through Brant County, the neigbouring region to Norfolk County. A must-stop is Paris. This picturesque small town is known as Ontario’s “Prettiest Little Town”. It is located where the Grand and Nith Rivers meet.
Against the backdrop of the two rivers sits the tiny downtown lined with shops and cafés in the town’s historical buildings. Grab yourself a sweet treat from the Paris Bakery and stroll the main street. Venture a couple streets over to The Paris Wincey Mills Co., a historic building that dates back to 1889, that has been been transformed into a year-round market.
First Stop - Apple Hill Lavender
This 4th generation family farm began its operations in 1906. Today, the farm grows apples and lavender on its 45 acres. It’s a family affair with one sister overseeing the apple orchard and the other sister, the lavender farm. Apple Hill Lavender is open to the public from May to December, and the best part – you can stroll the rolling hills of lavender for free.
Fields of lavender is such a beautiful sight to behold. And, Apple Hill Lavender is at the top of the list! With the sound of bees buzzing and the intoxicating sweet smell of lavender in the air, this is such a tranquil spot.
In bloom for such a short time of the year (mid-June to late-July) are the popular French (Lavandula) and English (Angustifolia) cultivars.
In addition to growing, they also harvest and distill onsite producing their own natural essential oils. From these, they make a large variety of culinary and body care products sold in their Bake House and boutique shop.
Melissa, the operator of the lavender farm, is also a very talented artist. Her pottery, ‘The Raging Bowl’ can be found in the boutique shop.
Why not enjoy a picnic under the old apple trees? Before you reach Apple Hill Lavender you will pass by many farm market stands, stop in and grab yourself some seasonal fruit and baked goods, knowing that you now have the perfect spot to enjoy them.
Second Stop - Port Dover
Port Dover, named after Dover England, was discovered in 1794. Only to be burned down and destroyed during an American raid in 1812. The survivors of the war slowly rebuilt the community and by 1870s the village grew to over 1,00 residents.
Sitting on the shores of Lake Erie this laid-back beach town offers up a whole lot more than fun in the sun. Port Dover’s lighthouse from mid-1800s is this small town’s most famous beacon. Walk along the long pier for those panoramic lake views.
Located just off the beach strip is the Port Dover Harbour Museum a small museum preserving the town’s historical role in the commercial fishing industry. You might also hear some legendary tales of famous shipwrecks and rum smugglers too.
Take part in Port Dover’s thriving arts and culture community. Visit the Lighthouse Festival Theatre for some live professional theatre. Also, be sure to check out Woodhouse Gallery featuring local and Canadian artists.
Seekers of small town charm will be presently surprised at just how quaint the downtown is. Just a couple minutes walk from the main beach area is where you’ll find the historic buildings lined with some cute shops. Boutiques like The Dover Cheese Shop, Cottage North Soapworks, 13 Reasons, to just name a few.
Port Dover is also known for its restaurants. They have an amazing array to suit everyone. From beach-side grill to diner and pub-style to bistro and even a couple of fine dining. No matter, almost every menu in town features its famous local fish – perch and pickerel. We opted for the very popular The Crepe House. They have a great selection of sweet and savory crepes, including their signature butter tart crepe. Yes, please!
The winding roads along the scenic Lake Erie shoreline, known as Ontario’s South Coast, is a popular motorcycle route. Port Dover was put on the map due to its Friday the 13th tradition. Since 1981, the gathering of motorcyclists every Friday the 13th (rain or shine and all seasons) where hundreds of thousands of bikers descend upon this small town.
Third Stop - Normandale
This tiny historical village is known as a ghost town. In the 1800s, the population swelled to almost 800, but today only a couple of hundred part-time cottagers reside here.
This secret spot has historical roots as being Ontario’s first steel town (sorry Hamilton). The Van Norman Company, from 1822, was known for building the first iron furnace, among other iron materials like the cooking stove, kettles, pots and pans. Nothing remains of the foundry today on Mill Street, only a marker designating it a National Historic Site in 1927.
Today, Normandale is a quiet place for cottagers, with maybe the odd full time resident. To reach it, you drive through “Spooky Hollow Nature Sanctuary” – a densely forested area with a winding hilly road until you reach the main street.
Two well-kept historic buildings, the Union Hotel (1840) and the original Post Office (1842), stand at the main intersection of Normandale Road and Main Street.
A trail from Mill Street leads to a very small secluded beach. And, the views are worth it! It is also the only dog-friendly beach in the area. That was the initial reason for seeking out Normandale, only to be pleasantly surprised to find a whole lot more.
Amazingly, there are two restaurants in Normandale. The long-standing General Store, known for its burgers and ice cream and Tacos ‘n’ Tequila, authentic Mexican food. As soon as I saw the instagrammable outdoor terrace with Papel Picado, Mexican folk art, strung overhead I was sold.
This family-run business, also includes the adjacent Normandale Century Inn, was just opened by a newly immigrated Mexican family. We sipped on some tequila cocktails with homemade nacho chips before we heading out to our last and final stop.
Final Destination in Norfolk County
The final destination is the 20-km stretch from Turkey Point to Long Point along the scenic Waterfront Trail roadway. Here are the best things to do in this area.
See an UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve
Long Point is comprised of over 26,000 hectares of a protected coastal ecosystem. Designated as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1986 it’s home to:
- 1,300+ species of plants,
- 370+ species of birds,
- 100+ species of fish,
- 45+ species of mammals,
- 30+ species of amphibians and reptiles, and
- 90+ species of butterflies
This 40-km stretch of uninterrupted beaches, undisturbed sand dunes, grassy ridges, wet meadows, woodlands, marshes and ponds is an incredible sight.
Do some birdwatching
Turkey Point, one of the earliest settled communities in Norfolk County, was named for the abundance of wild turkeys that nested there. Today, its diverse ecosystem of marshes, ponds, wetlands and dense Carolinian forest make this a popular spot for migrating birds and other wildlife.
Long Point is world-renowned refuge and stopover for migrating birds in fall and spring. Come here in March and April for waterfowl viewing. Its delicate dunes and marshes teem with songbirds, spawning fish, turtles and frogs.
Sip a little at a Winery
Once a Tabaco farm, the crop was replaced with grape vines and the doors to Burning Kiln Winery were opened. This winery has it all. From dining at Canned Heat to live entertainment and a pop-up artisan market, and even the option to stay in the original farmhouse from 1865. Tasting flights of 3 or 5 are guided by your personal wine expert. And, we may have walked away with a couple of bottles, including their newest wine, ‘Broken Needle’, a delicious Pinot Nior Rosé.
Further down the road is Blueberry Hill Winery. When in season freshly picked blueberries and market preserves are available, as well as, their wine.
Take some photos at Port Rowan
Port Rowan is a tiny town, dating back to 1825, that thrived on lumber and fishing industries. Being so close to the popular Long Point most would drive right past it. Don’t. Especially for those amateur or professional photographers.
There is nothing here but old boat houses. The more rustic the better. Wait for the perfect lighting and the water reflections come alive.
Locals can found fishing off the pier. Boaters come and go. And, the only business in sight is Twin’s Ice Cream Parlour which has been operating for several decades.
Head to the beach
For the best beach experience, visit one of the area’s two provincial parks – Turkey Point and Long Point Provincial Parks. Alternately, both towns have public beaches that extend into cottage areas, just watch for private property. I recommend the public beach at Turkey Point, it’s a long stretch of 3-km of sandy shoreline.
As a holidaymaker…
Day tripping to Norfolk County was full of hidden gems. This region in southwestern Ontario surprised me. It’s chock-full of some amazing places that could have you exploring this region for days. I am already planning my return visit to experience more.