Thursday, April 23, 2009

Beach blanket Ontario

Wasaga Beach is gorgeous, kitschy and packed with summer fun
By Joanne Laucius, The Ottawa Citizen


If you have a vintage motorcycle, a really, really loud car stereo or a well-tanned body you want to show off, Wasaga Beach is the place to do it.
Wasaga Beach, about 90 minutes northwest of Toronto (assuming light traffic), has been a tourist draw for more than a century and the beach itself is the reason why. Stand in the middle of it, and the arms of Nottawasaga Bay enclose you on either side. To the northwest, you'll see the Niagara escarpment, known to local residents simply as "the mountain." And, yes, from the beach the mountain does appear to be blue.
Wasaga has a reputation for being the Fort Lauderdale of the north, which thrills some and disturbs others. Take the debate over Wakestock. Three years ago, the wakeboarding extravaganza attracted a reported 45,000 people, many of them young people who could conjugate the word "party" as a verb.
Wasaga's still not over Wakestock -- the issue of attracting the tourist dollars that come with thousands of boisterous young people versus the desire for peace and quiet was one of the hot topics of last fall's municipal election. Wakestock has since moved to Toronto. Wasaga has relented a little this year and will host the Canadian National Wakeboard Championships Aug. 16 to 19.
Meanwhile, Wasaga has been slowly gentrifying, if getting a Wal-Mart counts as gentrification. Which may just apply in this case.
What makes you such an expert on Wasaga Beach?
I grew up near there. The beach and all of its manifold attractions, both natural and commercial, are the source of amusement, consternation and summer employment to just about everyone who lives in the area.
What are the best two words to describe Wasaga Beach?
Gorgeous and kitschy. Gorgeous because it's a natural wonder. Wasaga is the longest freshwater beach in the world -- 14 kilometres of clean, white sand beach.
Kitschy because Wasaga has always had some vague aspiration of being an oceanside resort circa 1956. When I was a kid, there was a life-sized concrete dinosaur painted green just across the way from the amusement park. The dinosaur was apparently an advertisement for a slide, where you paid a quarter to climb a set of rickety stairs and descend on a potato sack.
The slide and the dinosaur are gone. So is the amusement park, the trampoline enclosure and the store that sold velvet paintings. But there are still motels and cottage courts called the Luau, the Mermaid, the Albatross and the Hollywood, and it's almost impossible to leave Wasaga without buying a pukka shell necklace despite the fact that no pukka shells are found anywhere in Ontario.
Wasaga Beach appears to suffer from an identity crisis. What's up with that?
Wasaga is constantly evolving. The town has a permanent population of about 16,000 and at least as many seasonal visitors. Wasaga claims about two million visitors a year and bills itself as one of the fast-growing towns in Canada. The population has quadrupled over the past 30 years, and is, in many ways, part of Toronto's northward sprawl. It would be safe to guess that a significant part of the influx of new residents are retirees attracted to the natural beauty of the area and relatively low house prices. Part of the attraction may be the dozen or so golf courses within about a half-hour drive.
Let's start with the beach.
First, the entire 14 kilometres (that's almost twice the length of the Rideau Canal Skateway) is one long spaghetti strand of provincial park. That's good; it has preserved the beach itself from commercial development, although the streets around the beach are crowded with permanent and seasonal homes ranging from million-dollar mansions to quaint cottages. If you are ambitious, you can walk from one end to the other. Barefoot.
The entire beach is public, and it is sublimely scenic and safe. Lifeguards are stationed at regular intervals.
If you're a poor swimmer or have children, you will love the fact that it is possible to walk out for hundreds of metres before literally going over your head. That's because there's a series of sandbars in the water, which means every time you think the water is getting deep, you'll find it gets shallow again.
There seems to be a lot of walking involved. What if I don't want to walk?
Some people prefer to cycle using the side streets. The main street that runs parallel to the Beach is Mosley Street, which is -- you guessed it -- about 14 kilometres long. It starts at Highway 26 at the southwest end of the beach and ends at the other end of the beach at what is known locally as the Main Drag which loops around onto the beachfront. Here you will find the greatest concentration of beachfront fast food, bars and patios. This entire area is undergoing significant redevelopment. The waterslide that has been there for about 25 years has come down, and so has the old Miramar Hotel.
If you are looking for a supermarket, a restaurant or a shop that sells pukka shell necklaces, you will find it on the strip. If you're young, this is where you want to be. Here's the problem: On weekends, especially long weekends, quiet Mosley Street turns into a 14-kilometre-long parking lot, so it's best to avoid it entirely if you prefer peace and scenery of the natural variety.
Any advice?
Avoid weekends and the Main Drag if you can, and under no circumstances get caught at the corner of Mosley Street and Highway 26 on a Sunday night, when cottagers are on their way home to Toronto. On weekends, do what local residents do and avoid travelling far on Mosley Street by taking Sunnidale Road or Townline Road and sticking to the west end of the strip away from the Main Drag. Or visit the beach in the evening and you're also likely to catch a beautiful sunset.
Let's get it over with. Give me the quirky piece of Wasaga historical trivia.
In August 1814, during the War of 1812,
the British supply schooner Nancy was attacked and destroyed by American forces on the Nottawasaga River, not far from where the Nottawasaga empties into Georgian Bay. The sunken hull caused an accumulation of silt in the river, which over the decades resulted in the creation of an island -- Nancy Island. You can see the Nancy's charred hull inside an enclosure beside the museum on the island at Mosley Street and Third Street. The museum also has a collection of Nancy-era water travel artifacts. (The Friends of the Nancy website is at wasagabeachpark.com)
Any nightlife?
You bet, but you have to head to the Main Drag. The venerable beachfront Dardanella Tavern, aka The Dard, has recently been partially renovated, although it's now a bit smaller than it was in its hey-day. The Bananas Beach Club has also been expanded.
Can't-miss eateries?
It isn't for the Cordon Bleu crowd and it's slightly scruffy, but Paisley's Lorna Doon (sic) is a Wasaga institution. Find it on Mosley Street near the corner of Highway 26. On Sunday evenings, the parking lot is jammed with visitors going for a last cone before returning to Toronto. You can get a hamburger and fries, but the real draw is the soft ice cream sundaes.
What does soft ice cream have to do with R.D. Blackmore's 19th-century novel, Lorna Doone?
I have no idea. It's like the Luau and the Hollywood. That's Wasaga Beach.
Any other beaches nearby?
Lots. There's a series of beaches that stretches north along the shores of Georgian Bay almost as far as Midland. But one of my favourites, for the relative peace, is in the opposite direction. Northwinds Beach is just off Highway 26 near the base of Mountain Road in Craigleith, just north of Collingwood. Like the name suggests, it gets a lot of wind and it's a favourite haunt of the windsurfing crowd.
Collingwood?
If you're exhausted by the frenetic holidaying on Wasaga, try Collingwood, 15 minutes and worlds away. In the winter, it's a ski resort town. In the summer, it's positively sleepy relative to Wasaga, though far more upscale. (Visit town.collingwood.on.ca)
If you're in the mood to recharge your batteries, try one of four Collingwood-area "anniversary hikes" on the Bruce Trail designed to celebrate the trail's 40th anniversary. You can download the maps at brucetrail.org. And if you happen to be in Collingwood this weekend, check out the Elvis festival, which this year spills over into Wasaga. (collingwoodelvisfestival.com)
And now for something completely different?
The village of Creemore, about half an hour away, has done a great job of capitalizing on the architectural charm of its main street and its scenic location.
It's off the beaten path and about 20 minutes from Wasaga. You'll find the Creemore Springs Brewery, North America's smallest jail and an inordinate number of browse-able shops and good restaurants for such a small town. Creemore Springs celebrates its 20th anniversary Aug. 25 during the annual Copper Kettle Festival. There will be a farmers' market, rides for kids, brewery tours and a beer garden. The brewery maintains a website with local information at creemoresprings.com
Where do I stay?
There are no franchise hotels on Wasaga Beach, where accommodations are a hodge-podge of independently-owned hotels, resorts and cottage courts. For between about $650 and $850, you can get a weekly rental on a cottage suitable for a small family and within walking distance of the beach. The problem is getting a reservation in July or August. You would fare better in early June or mid-September onward. The beach is particularly quiet -- you might even say forlorn -- before Victoria Day and after Thanksgiving.
For listings, visit town.collingwood.on.ca or wasaga.net/stay.html
Any other good websites?
Check out www.wasaga.com and www.wasaga.net. There's lots of Wasaga lore and debate.
How should I get to Wasaga Beach from Ottawa?
Avoid the way that Torontonians go. Highway 7 will take you past Peterborough, then north on Highway 12 through Orillia to Horseshoe Valley Road. Take Horseshoe Valley Road to Highway 26 which will take you to Wasaga Beach.
Or take an even more scenic and less-travelled way to Orillia via Bancroft: Highway 17 to Renfrew, Highway 132 and 41 south; west on Highways 28 and 118. Then take Highways 503 and 45, which gets you to Orillia. Except when you're skirting the Kawarthas on a weekend, you are almost guaranteed light traffic.

Joanne Laucius is a Citizen reporter. She's been visiting Wasaga Beach since 1965 and still goes with her two daughters.
© Copyright (c) Canwest News Service
November 2008
Image: Ross Gough, Beach Design

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