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Southwestern Ontario, Canada for birds, butterflies, and booze

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I am met at the Detroit airport — just across the river of the same name from Windsor, Ontario — by a kindly Canadian gentleman with soft blue eyes and a subtle but engaging smile. His trim frame and gentrified gray hair belie his senior age. He will be my trusted guide to Southwestern Ontario for the next week as I explore the wonders of nature and the amazing agriscape of a region also known as the Deep South of Canada.

Ron Laplante of Vive Le Canada! begins my orientation to Windsor, Essex County, and Pelee Island with an outpouring of amazing facts that defies conventional wisdom; perhaps to provide a greater perspective on what I am about to experience. For starters, Ron tells me that Detroit is North of Windsor, as are 21 American States that are partially or fully north of this industrial-base Canadian city. “Wow,” I exclaim, when I realize that I must travel north to go home to the U.S. “It totally blows my sense of direction.” If you traveling west (as the crow flies), you will discover that Windsor is aligned with the California-Oregon border while going due east you will find that Windsor is aligned just slightly south of Boston. The result is warm summers and crisp winters, ideal for agriculture, unique flora and fauna, and the production of world-class grapes and wines.

However, the southwestern region of Ontario is also on one of the continent's major flyways and thus is known for migrations of both birds and butterflies. It is this yearly ritual of Nature that attracts thousands of nature-based travelers to the region, all hoping to bear witness to the wondrous migration of hundreds of winged species that make Ontario and parts of Canada farther north their summer home.

A Birder’s Paradise

Southwestern Ontario is a birder’s paradise in both the spring and fall, when avian concentrations of migratory species transit the land, to and fro, in search of food and familiar habitat. Come springtime, hundreds of colorful warbler species pass through Point Pelee National Park, Ojibway Nature Preserve, and Hillman Marsh. The changing colors of fall find raptors and birds of prey resting at Holiday Beach Conservation Area — enjoying a brief respite before resuming their journey south for warmer winter grounds.

Point Pelee National Park is the farthest south that you can go in mainland Canada, and is arguably one of the best known birding hotspots in North America. This is especially true for spring migration. Since Point Pelee is the first landfall for migrating species as they cross Lake Erie on their northerly trek, numerous species seek temporary respite from the fatigue of flight. The first three weeks in May are considered prime time, with May 10th considered to be Warbler Day. From the vantage point of this narrow peninsula that extends out into one of the shallowest of the Great Lakes, it is possible to sight as many as 55 species of American wood warblers. Forty-two different species have been observed at the Park and 36 visit annually.

Although in terms of land mass Point Pelee is small, it is comprised of a significant diversity of habitat: sand bars, beaches, dunes, marshland, scrub, bush, and mixed woodlands. It is these rich and diverse transitional ecological areas that attract a wide variety of land-based birds.

Flight of the Monarch: A Tri-Nation Migration

Every year around mid-summer to early fall, communities of monarch butterflies congregate at the tip of Point Pelee, and patiently wait for favorable winds to assist their winged crossing of Lake Erie. Ultimately, the monarchs will migrate to their winter home in central Mexico, crossing the nations of Canada, United States, and Mexico in their incredible journey to central Mexico.

Adult monarchs who begin their life in Ontario (the final brood of the summer) travel only by day, and migrate at a speed of between five and 18 miles per hour. By October they reach Mexico, thus covering a total distance of approximately 2500 miles. There, in a collective behavioral phenomenon designed to protect them from temperature extremes and dryness, the monarchs will drape themselves on the central highland fir trees by the millions. The first-time migrating Monarchs have never been to Mexico and get there through internal body mechanisms that scientists are still trying to figure out.

Then, with the warming winds of March as harbinger of spring, the monarchs begin their northward journey to Canada. However, the butterflies reaching Ontario in early June are not the same butterflies that over-wintered in Mexico, as most will make it only as far as Texas before instinctual breeding occurs. It is only after three or four generations of breeding, dying, and new generations continuing the flight north, that the monarchs eventually reach Canada. But those that do eventually reach Canada use the narrow strip of land of Point Pelee as their principal point of departure for the return to Mexico.

Heartland of Ontario Wine and Whiskey

Canada has numerous microclimate regions that are excellent for producing fine wines. The warm breezes off the lower Great Lakes help create microclimates in Ontario that are quite productive for vineyards — most notably the Niagara Peninsula and the north shore of Lake Erie. Southwestern Ontario’s geographical location, its “lake-effect” weather, and its rich soil left behind by retreating glaciers millions of years ago are the main ingredients of its great wine-producing environment.

According to the Southwestern Ontario Vintners Association (an industry and trade association that represents wineries along this section of Ontario’s wine rout), this sunshine-filled weather and proximity to the warm, shallow waters of Lake Erie create the ideal microclimate for grapes to grow. It is also a prime summer holiday destination for the same reasons. Increasingly therefore the Ontario countryside southeast of Windsor is developing into a significant wine-producing and wine-lover's destination.

The new wineries in this most southern region of Canada — some developed more than 20 years ago — are now producing excellent red and white wines from grapes grown locally along the Lake Erie shore. Fourteen wineries are within an hour’s drive of Detroit and beyond the Windsor gateway; half offering public tours and tastings. Known as the Southwestern Ontario Wine Route, various microclimates within what is itself a microclimate enable the cultivation of a diversity of grapes, resulting in different tastes and different wines from vineyard to vineyard.

Lake Erie: The North Shore

In addition to the big players, such as Pelee Island Winery in Kingsville, and Colio Estate Wines in Harrow, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2005, there are several “family farm” wineries, such as: Erie Shore Vineyard in Harrow, Sanson Estate Winery in McGregor, and Mastronardi Estate Winery in Kingsville. The Viewpointe Estate Winery, a $5 million venture in Colchester, is scheduled to open by the fall of 2006.

Travelers may be surprised to learn that this unique area of Canada which is is nurtured by the temperate Great Lakes effect and the most sunshine hours in Canada, also enjoys a climate and latitude similar to that of Burgundy, France.

Hiram Walker, a Famous “Canadian Son” and His Equally Famous Canadian Rye Whiskey

It was 1858 when Hiram Walker began producing whiskey in Windsor. Using a combination of grains that can include rye, malt, barley and corn, he perfected a recipe that has since become regarded as a world classic. While technology has progressed, the recipe remains the same, relying on the “rivers of tradition that run deep.” His proprietary process for “Canadian Club” in Canada (still today the company's signature brand) requires pre-blending before introducing distilled alcohol to charred oak barrels. All Canadian whiskey must be aged for at least 3 years in the barrel. All Canadian Club whiskey is barrel-aged for at least 6 years, many for longer. The result is a whiskey revered as one of the lightest whiskeys in the world, characterized by an almond nuttiness with soft oak and caramel flavors. Today, over 80 per cent of grain purchased for whiskey comes directly from fields in Essex County. The Canadian Club distillery in Walkersville is also the only distillery that produces whiskey from “Grain to Glass.” The company's Canadian rye whiskey is locally grown, produced, and shipped to over 150 countries worldwide. The biggest distribution markets are the United States, Australia, and Japan. A stop at the Canadian Club Heritage Centre reveals history of whiskey in general and in particular the leadership role of Hiram Walker in the production process. A visit and tour ends with a sample tasting.

Whether you choose to visit Southwestern Ontario for nature, fruit of the vine, cuisine, attractions, or local produce, there are choices that will please everyone. With a border city urban diversity that is increasingly defining Windsor, it is possible to have the urban fix while indulging in agriscape delights nearby.

Getting to Southwestern Ontario and the Point Pelee Area

Convention & Visitors Bureau of Windsor, Essex County and Pelee Island

Riverside Drive West
Windsor, ON N9A 5K4
1-800-265-3633

Vive le Canada! Tours & Shuttle Service
939 Victoria Avenue
Windsor, Ontario
Tel: (519) 253-9368 or 566-3511

Serving the Windsor-Detroit area, the easy and reasonably priced shuttle service is available by arrangement from train stations, airports , bus stations in the .U.S and Canada.

VIP Windsor Shuttle Services
Tel: 1-866-255-9998

Ontario Ferry (For Ferry schedule to Pelee Island)
Tel: 1-800-661-2220

The Region's Natural Playground

Point Pelee National Park of Canada
407 Monarch Lane, RR 1
Leamington, Ontario, Canada
Tel: (519) 322-2365 or 1-888-773-8888

Point Pelee National Park is renowned for migrations of birds and butterflies. As such, it is considered one of the “hotspots” for aspiring birders wanting to add to their life list of avian species.

Pelee Island

The most southern inhabited place in Canada, Pelee Island is brimming with biodiversity. It is the site of Canada’s oldest estate winery and home today to Canada’s most southerly vineyard. Where prickly pear cactus grow wild, it is also the final R&R place on Canadian soil for migrating Monarch butterflies before they cross Lake Erie on their long trek to Mexico.

The island is easily accessed by ferry, with many visitors opting to tour the island by bicycle. A lighthouse on one end and a wine tasting pavilion and museum on the other provide an array of sights and attractions for all.

Hillman Marsh Conservation Area
County Rd. 37 @ 2nd Concession,
Leamington, Ontario, Canada
Tel: (519) 776-5209

With more than 900 acres of shallow mudflats, Hilllman Marsh is a significant wetland and premier site for songbirds and shorebirds. Bald Eagle sightings are common.

Ojibway Nature Preserve
5200 Matchette Road
Windsor, Ontario, Canada
Tel: (519) 966-5852

Located in Windsor, Ontario, thye Ojibway Nature Preserve is a collection of natural areas within a 10-minute drive from downtown. Wetlands, forest, savanna and prairie provide habitats for a variety of flora and fauna.

Wine and Whiskey Producers

Pelee Island was the home of Canada's first commercial winery and its ruins are still visible today. Pelee Island Winery revived that tradition and is Canada's most southerly winery.

Colio Estate Wines
1 Colio Drive
Harrow, Ontario, Canada
Tel: (519) 738-2241 or 1-800-265-1322

With production in excess of 240,000 cases, Colio Estate houses over 2.4 million litres of cooperage in stainless steel and oak. Today the winery and their award-winning wines reflect the passion and dedication of Master Winemaker, Carlo Negri.

Erie Shore Vineyard
410 County Road 50 W
Harrow, Ontario, Canada
Tel: (519) 738-9858

Erie Shore Vineyard produces a variety of boutique wines that exhibit both creativity and versatility. One can’t go wrong with the 2003 VQA Duet, a blend of 2/3 Cabernet Franc and 1/3 Zweigelt. Described as a medium bodied wine with subtle black pepper and current flavors, I found it a complex wine hinting at plum and huckleberry with a cedar bouquet and jammy finish.

Sanson Estate Winery
9238 Walker Rd
Amherstburg, Ontario, Canada
Tel: (519) 726-9609

Winemaker and owner Dennis Sanson produces award-winning wines that reflect the unique characteristics of the land. Be sure and try the Bird Dog Red, so intense according to Sanson, that it stains the glass. Rich, vibrant with hints of robust coffee make for a versatile wine to accompany pizza, pasta, burgers and wild game. Match Thai food with the Autumn Harvest Vidal, a complex, spicy wine low in acidity, with fruity character laced with sage.

Viewpointe Estate Winery
151 County Road 50 E
Harrow, Ontario, Canada
Tel: (519) 738-0690 or 1-800-372-VIEW

This winery is making a “splash” in the world of wine for its gutsy research, quality wines, and by emphasizing the total wine experience within the context of cuisine and a sense of place.

Aleksander
1542 County Rd. 34
Ruthven, Ontario, Canada
Tel: (519) 326-2024

Aleksander Estate Winery is one of Southwestern Ontario's newest wineries. Grape and specialty fruit wines are available.

Mastronardi Estate Winery
1193 Conc. 3 East
Kingsville, Ontario, Canada
Tel: 1-800-320-5040

The Mastronardi Estate Winery is situated on a historic 100-acre vineyard. The technology of windmills ensures frost-free vineyards circulating warm air currents in this unique microclimate during crucial times when temperatures drop. Award-winning full-bodied Merlots are the signature wine of Mastronardi Estate. It will be introducing Pinot Grigio, Gerwurztraminer, Shiraz, Baco, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zweigelt, and Cabernet Franc Icewine in the near future.

Pelee Island Winery
455 Seacliff Drive (County Road #20)
Kingsville, Ontario, Canada
Tel: (519) 733-6551 or 1-800-59-PELEE

The winery was established in 1979, with over 550 acres of vineyards growing on the Island. Because of a very unique microclimate and natural environment, a variety of grapes are grown with distinctive flavors. It is the most southern winery in Canada. While grapes are grown on Pelee Island, the Kingsville facility is where production takes place. However, Both feature tasting rooms.

Today, it is Canada’s largest independent winery and largest estate vineyard with export to 12 states in the U.S. and 10 countries. A creative nature theme is used in labeling many of their bottles, featuring wildflower, butterfly, and bird scenes created by local artists.

The vineyard has a zero insecticide policy along with an Integrated Pest Management System. With heat units and frost-free days unmatched anywhere else in Canada, the island is able to grow varietals that cannot be grown anywhere else in Canada.

Pelee Island Pavilion
Pelee Island
Tel: (519) 724-2469

Pelee Island Winery's vineyards are located on the island itself but the Kingsville facility on the mainland is where production and bottling is done. The Pelee Island Pavilion is a large tasting facility, a modern and beautifully appointed building with a knowledgeable staff as.

Canadian Club Heritage Centre (Hiram Walker)
2072 Riverside Drive East
Windsor, Ontario, Canada
Tel: 1-800-447-2609 ext. 499

The Centre is located five minutes from the Detroit-Windsor tunnel. A tour of the historic building built in 1892 showcases how Canadian whiskey is made. It is noteworthy for its two floors of Italian architecture, including a room where Al Capone reputedly stayed.

Where to Eat

The Downtown Diner
322 Pelissier Street
Windsor, Ontario, Canada
Tel: (519) 256-7111

Really a bistro with a French flair, this diner opened its doors in July 2006. It features daily specials along with various ethnic dishes that are as tasty as they are filling. Bargain prices.

Spago
Trattoria & Pizzeria
22 Talbot West
Leamington, Ontario, Canada
Tel: 519-326-7080

Defined by authentic Italian food and superb service, Spago offers pasta and pizza that tastes as if you were in Naples. With ample portions and the freshest of ingredients, it’s no wonder that Spago is a favorite with locals.

Lakeside Bakery Deli Café
286 Erie Street South
Leamington, Ontario, Canada
Tel: (519) 326-2626

With loads of freshly baked bread, creative luncheon combinations, and scrumptious desserts at affordable prices, this is well worth a lunch stop.

Paula’s Fish Place
857 Point Pelee Drive
Leamington, Ontario, Canada
Tel: (519) 326-1292

When visiting Point Pelee National Park, be sure to dine at Paula’s Fish Place. Her motto is, “Fresh fish served with a smile.” Don’t bother asking her about the “secret” batter recipe that makes her fish taste succulent and oh so light: It’s hard to believe it’s fried. During birding season, she is open from 5am to 10 pm to accommodate birders and budding naturalists.

Food and Fun

Colasanti’s Tropical Gardens
1550 Road #3 East
Kingsville, Ontario, Canada
Tel: (519)326-3287

Colasanti’s is a gargantuan greenhouse extravaganza that is educational, entertaining, and just downright fun for the entire family.

A tropical wonderland of exotic birds and gardens, plants and flowers, aquariums, reptiles, and a petting farm, Colasanti’s also sports an 18-hole indoor mini golf course and claims to have the largest selection of tropical plants in Southwestern Ontario.

Restaurant specialties include “broasted chicken,” apple cider, and fresh hot doughnuts. (The later by the way is the Canadian spelling). Stop by on Wednesday nights for their bargain buffet of pasta and chicken. For take-home, try the homemade butter fudge in a variety of flavors.

Where to Stay

Hilton Windsor
277 Riverside Drive W
Windsor, Ontario, Canada
Tel: (519) 973-5555

Elegance and a convenient location describes this prestigious downtown property, with stunning river views that showcase the Detroit skyline. Upgrade to the Executive Floor for continental breakfast in the morning hosted by Lynda, and cocktails and appetizers from hostesses Gladys in the afternoon. Professional service with genuine smiles.

Wild Rose Guesthouse
21298 Harbour Street
Wheatley, Ontario, Canada
Tel: (519) 825-9070

In this jewel of a place, hosts Lily and Tom will have you feeling like family before you leave. Since birds and butterflies frequent their home, budding birders have abundant opportunities for “dress rehearsals” before leaving for bird watching at nearby Point Pelee National Park. Meals are truly gourmet, with special emphasis on both presentation and taste.

The Ramada Inn
201 Erie Street N
Leamington, Ontario, Canada
Tel:: (519) 325-0260

In the midst of major remodeling and upgrades, this property offers business convenience at affordable prices. Be sure to check out special “birding” packages during the spring and fall. The Ramada Inn is close to the Pelee Island Ferry and Colasantis.

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