SOUTHERN ONTARIO – Cycling 450 miles in eight days would be daunting for most people, but for Christina Bouchard, riding Ontario's Waterfront Trail end-to-end was pure pleasure. The breeze off the water, the views and the relatively light motor vehicle traffic set this ride apart from others she had done.
But the best part of the journey for her was experiencing the qualities and details of the communities she passed.
"You really get a chance to see things on two wheels that you would just blow past in a car," Bouchard says.
Beginning in Niagara and ending at the Quebec border, the trail stretches along Lake Ontario through 41 communities. As an experienced cyclist, Bouchard spent about four hours a day riding and the rest of the time exploring. She felt that in the southern portion of the trip, especially, the scale of the small towns was well suited for cyclists and made for an ideal biking pace.
"Because it was built in the horse-and-carriage days, it just seemed whenever I needed a break, there was a village," she says. The rich history of the region made for wonderful discoveries and she enjoyed learning about the forts and historic sites.
The Waterfront Regeneration Trust, a nonprofit organization now in its 20th year, runs the trail.
"It represents the collective accomplishment of the communities and a new relationship to our Great Lakes – one focused on regenerating and celebrating the waterfront," says Marlaine Koehler, the organization's executive director.
For people interested in cycling the trail end-to-end, the trust organizes a fully supported event every summer called the Great Adventure Race. But for most locals and visitors, the trail provides a pleasant outing for a day or a weekend afternoon. Here are a few close by to try:
*St. Catharines Trail: Port Weller to Port Dalhousie (12-mile return trip): This Port-to-Port ride on scenic off-road trails and residential streets offers a taste of history, beaches, woodlands, parks and plenty of sightseeing opportunities.
Access point with parking: Happy Rolph Bird Sanctuary (Read Road off Lakeshore Road, Port Weller)
Best attractions: Happy Rolph Bird Sanctuary and the 9/1 1 Walkway (2 Northrup Crescent St.) This 15-acre municipal park is home to hundreds of migratory birds, and its gardens include one of the best collections of flowering rhododendrons in the province. A petting farm, playground, concession stand, picnic areas and lakeshore benches make it an excellent spot to bring the whole family. There is also a trail running through the park that leads to a poignant waterfront memorial to Canadian victims of the 9/1 1 terrorist attacks.
Malcolmson Eco-Park (325 Lakeshore Road), is nearby Lock 1, where international ships navigate the Welland Canal. In this 36-acre natural park, the region's Carolinian Forest, savanna grassland and wetland ecosystems are highlighted, rather than formal gardens.
Any bike ride is better when there's a treat at the end of it and Port Dalhousie is certainly that. Right at the trail is Lakeside Park, a terrific place to stroll, picnic, take pictures of the lighthouses and perhaps ride its famous carousel. The four-abreast hand-carved animals decorate an antique wonder that has been enjoyed by visitors since 1903. Incredibly, the price hasn't changed and you can take a nostalgic spin for a mere nickel. The village itself, a cluster of about four small streets, is reminiscent of an English Victorian seaside town with an abundance of drinking establishments, restaurants and small shops housed in turn-of-the-century buildings.
*The Hamilton Waterfront Trail: HMCS Haida to Dundurn Park (8-mile return trip): Dramatically revitalized in the past decade, Hamilton's portion of the trail features military artifacts, marinas, historic bridges and heritage sights.
Access point with parking: Adjacent William's Fresh Café (47 Discovery Drive)
Best attractions: Check out the HMCS Haida National Historic Site (Pier 9, 658 Catharine St. N). At 377 feet long and more than 200 metric tons this World War II destroyer is impressive, to say the least. Referred to as the Fightingest Ship in the Royal Canadian Navy, it was involved in the sinking of 14 enemy vessels and also participated in the D-Day invasion.
Formerly vacant land has been transformed into Bayfront & Pier 4 Park (709 Simcoe St. West), a recreational green space with more than 5,000 feet of shoreline, a protected beach and facilities. The trail leads to Pier 4 Park, and with plenty of benches and picnic areas, it's another good place to stop and enjoy the vistas of the bay.
In Dundurn Park (610 York Blvd.), you will find the stately and grand Dundurn Castle, once the home of Sir Allan Napier MacNab, one of Canada's first premiers. Costumed guides transport guests to the year 1850 and into the lives of the prominent Victorian family and its servants. Also on the impressive grounds is the Hamilton Military Musuem, housed in Battery Lodge, a stone and brick gatehouse, where MacNab's children's teacher once resided.
More information on these itineraries and many more can be found on the Waterfront Regeneration Trust's website, www.waterfronttrail.org, which contains maps, itineraries, community profiles, main access points with parking, trail connections and information on public transit, attractions, festivals and accommodations.
And if that's not enough to explore, next year the trail will double in length, with an extension from Fort Erie to Windsor, adding another great lake to the Ontario Waterfront Trail and increasing the distance to 870 miles.Happy riding.