Lake Erie’s secret: Pelee Island

The southernmost inhabited bit of Canada is Pelee Island, a 36-square mile island in Lake Erie just 90 minutes from Sandusky, Ohio by ferry. To its south is an even more southerly uninhabited Canadian island, Middle Island, which was a safe haven for rumrunners during Prohibition, but Pelee is Canada’s southernmost community.

Pelee is very quiet and (how shall I put this?) truly out of sync with the urgencies of contemporary life. For the first two days of my stay on Pelee I tried to find a pocket of wireless Internet access. I was unsuccessful. “We’re working on it,” said a clerk at the police station. “You can use my computer,” the owner of Connerlee Bakery offered. “Nowhere on the island,” said the guy at the register at Pelee Island Winery. “This is your vacation! Relax! You’re as bad as my husband,” said the proprietor of Comfortech Bike Rentals. Her husband, it turned out, is Pelee’s mayor.

We were on Pelee to celebrate a belated birthday and to chill out. Both goals were accomplished. We rented two adjoining houses at the north end of the island and spent our time biking, swimming, and eating. We had all our meals at home save a few bakery runs and our final night’s dinner, which saw us sampling Anchor & Wheel Inn‘s C$16.95 all-you-can-eat fish fry.

On balance, Pelee is a very affordable place to vacation. Our house rental ran about C$160 per person for the week. Beyond housing, bike rentals (C$20 per day), and the final night’s dinner (about C$20 per person) there were no costs beyond market and bakery runs.

Actually, that’s not quite true. There is a fabulous Heritage Centre on the island, and we spent a few dollars (adult admission C$3) to check it out. Opened in 1988 by founder Ron Tiessen, it contains well-curated exhibits on various aspects of Pelee’s cultural and physical history. The Heritage Centre has helped pioneer organic farming on the island and also operates an annual event in early May called Springsong, which celebrates birds and birding and typically features a banquet with Margaret Atwood, a long-term part-time resident of the island. Ron is a Pelee expert, and talkative to boot, and the Heritage Centre functions as a tourist information center as well as a museum.What is there to do on Pelee? In springtime there’s Springsong (see above.) During the summer, there is above all biking to be done. Pelee is a flat island, perfect for biking. It’s good, then, that there’s a bike shop right by the main ferry pier. Bikes at Comfortech Bike Rentals begin at a rather steep C$20 per day. In addition, visitors hike, swim, fish, take photographs of the island’s churches, visit Pelee Art Works, and sample island wines at the Pelee Island Winery. Pheasant hunting season in October and November closes out the season.

There is some great local produce to sample as well. Plenty of local producers sell the fruits of their labors at little roadside stands, and there is also a Saturday farmer’s market. Pelee feels on the ground and looks from the air like a set of farms plopped down into Lake Erie.

Pelee is charming, of course, but what sets it apart from dozens of other North American islands full of rental cottages is its sense of being apart from the rest of the world, its lack of resorts, and the fact that it has so few traditional tourist amusements. It feels like a little secret, tucked away for residents and the few people who make the trek. That it barely markets itself surely has something to do with the impressions it sustains.

There’s a giddiness in extreme communities, places on the edge of nations or continents, and Pelee is no exception. Visitors hike stealthily through Fish Point Nature Reserve to walk to the very tip of Canada’s southernmost inhabited island. A secret of sorts, Pelee shows no sign of morphing into something unrecognizable or overdeveloped anytime soon.

Pelee Island ferry information can be found here.