Canada’s southernmost road slides through a provincial nature reserve and doesn’t even have a marker sign. It’s still north of Toledo and Cleveland, after all, but it’s not so easy to reach: it’s at the bottom point of Pelee Island, in Lake Erie, a half-hour from Windsor and then another 90 minutes on the ferry. Sounds like an adventure!
I’ve long wanted to visit Pelee Island, just because it’s there, so I set off last month on a BMW R1200RT for a four-day break with my long-suffering wife Wendy. You already read about our experience being fully connected for the ride, but that was only the start of it…
Port Dover is popular on Friday 13th, if you’re into that sort of thing, but it’s popular on any other summer Friday, too. We discovered this when we tried to stay the night at the start of our Pelee road trip. There are only two hotels, and the only one with a room available was horribly overpriced at $150 plus tax.
Fortunately, the BMW R1200RT is a comfortable motorcycle for two people and we didn’t mind climbing back on and riding another half-hour west to Delhi. My hotel app showed there was one room left at the Maple Leaf Motel and I’d booked it on the spot. When we turned up and found the place on the edge of town, with families smoking at the picnic tables outside and a door that looked like it would give up at the first kick, Wendy was not happy. “Next time, I’m booking the hotel,” she muttered into her microphone, loud and clear through the speakers in my helmet.
I unloaded the bike, which doesn’t take long when it’s parked right outside the door. Left saddlebag for my stuff, right saddlebag for Wendy’s stuff, rear topbox (a $1,600 option – phew!) for rain gear, which I left untouched. An older guy in a plastic chair at the end of the row of rooms watched the whole time. “BMW, eh?” he said, as an icebreaker. “Yup, does the job,” I replied and hustled inside. Wendy was trying to turn down the heat on the thermostat in the sweltering room but the window air-conditioner was the only recourse. She looked at the thin brown bedspread and the cheap soap next to the sink, then glowered at me. “Next time…” she said.
We walked into town for dinner, and the safest place to leave our valuables was back in the bike. The luggage locks securely with a push of the fob button (another option, part of the $1,150 “Comfort Package”), like a car, and it’s fairly spacious. Even so, two people need to pack judiciously on a bike if they’re to fit in everything and not argue.
When we got back, happier for having had a couple of beers at the end of a hot day of riding, all was well. I chatted with the guy on the chair at the end for a while, whose name was Alan – he was staying a couple of months while his house was being refurbished. Inside, the room was cool and we fell asleep listening for imaginary bed bugs that never came.
It’s important on a road trip to not pack too much into a day – you should always leave some room for distractions. So when we saw the dry-docked submarine at Port Burwell, we had time for the one-hour, $25 guided tour. Who knew? HMCS Ojibwa was decommissioned in 1998 and sold for a dollar to private owners, who then spent $6 million moving it from Halifax to this quiet little lakeside town. We walked through the cramped quarters and heard stories about life on board, and while we were inside the hull, the sky poured rain outside.
When we came out, the bike was wet but the rain clouds had moved on. Score for us! We set off west again along Hwy. 3, which is a pretty road but deathly dull: straight as an arrow with farm fields to each side. Somewhere along the way, I noticed the fuel was running low. The tank holds enough for more than 400 km of riding and I’d not filled up since leaving home. Still, we had a ferry to catch and time was tight – a bit of mental math showed there would be enough gas to get us to the ferry terminal in Leamington, and the ferry company was emphatic we must arrive to collect our reserved ticket at least an hour before the ship loaded. I figured we’d collect the ticket and then I’d get gas in town.
I don’t usually book ahead for the ferry with a motorcycle, but you never know, so I’d booked this time. We arrived exactly one hour beforehand with 24 km of gas in the tank, and collected the ticket on the way into the fenced-off parking area. Going back to a gas station would not be so simple. I Googled “Pelee Island gas station” and saw there were two stations on the island, with an Ultramar right at the dock open until 8 pm, a half-hour after arrival. So Wendy and I relaxed and waited for the ferry to arrive.
When the ship docked and spewed its vehicles onto the ramp, a worker came up to us waiting with the parked bike. “We take no responsibility for damage to motorcycles on the ferry,” he said. “Do you accept that?” It was a bit late to ask now, but we nodded and boarded and rode to the end corner, where there were a few ratty bits of rope. I’d not thought to bring my own tie-downs. Doh! Fortunately, we were the only bike on the ship and I could choose from among the lengths of rope, and I lashed down the BMW ready for a hurricane. The crossing was smooth as silk, of course, and the bike never shifted. Just as well, really.
But there was no sign of a gas station near the dock on the island, and a girl working at the restaurant confirmed there’d never been an Ultramar. Who knows why it showed up on my Google search? it’s not on Google now. There was a small station at the north end of the island but it closed at 2 pm and the sky was already growing dark. We now had 22 km of fuel, on an island that’s about six km across and double that in length.
Wendy had booked us into the Wandering Dog Inn a week before, and it was on the other side of the island. We weren’t sure if it provided food or not, but when we arrived the owner, Kevin, told us the only place to eat was at the Stone House pub back at the dock. I told him about the fuel, and how we wouldn’t have enough gas left to reach the station in the morning if we went to eat. “Don’t worry, I’ll sort you out,” he said. “Go eat!”
So we did. We watched the sun set over the lake, too. Stunning. When we finally returned to the inn, to drink beer around a campfire, there was an indicated 2 km left on the range. No worries. Kevin would sort it.
He did, too, fetching a fuel can from somewhere nearby in his truck. The RT doesn’t need Premium gas, like some fussy sport tourers, but he was amazed by how little I took. The gas station was about eight kilometres away, so in theory, with an average consumption of 5.1 L/100 km, I only needed half a litre. He insisted I pour in more fuel, and then refused to be paid for it, not wanting money for the beer we’d drunk around the fire, either. “Just pass it forward,” he said. Canadian island life.
Even with the extra splash, though, I took the direct route on a dirt road up the east coast to the gas station. To the right were holiday homes on rocky beaches; to the left, farmland and wetland. Most of the island’s roads are smooth dirt, with an asphalt road linking the east and west shores and running north from the dock on the west coast up to the harbour. That’s where we found the gas pump outside the general store, where fuel cost $1.60 a litre. I put in $10 worth and thought myself lucky.
With gas in the tank and a few hours to spare before the late-morning ferry back to Leamington, we explored the island. It doesn’t take long. Pelee Island is not a great motorcycling destination – I think we were the only motorcycle on the island – but it is a lovely place to visit. Most people go to ride bicycles and watch birds, which you can do both at the same time, of course. Motorbikes don’t really help with bird watching, as if we cared.
Right at the bottom of the island is Fish Point Provincial Nature Reserve, and the short road through the top of it is Canada’s most southerly road. There’s nothing to mark this though. Most people aren’t bothered unless there’s a lesser spotted tit warbler perched on the fence. So with the island thoroughly explored and still another hour before the ferry, we headed back to the dock to wait for the ship home.
If you’re clever, you can take another ferry that sails south across the US line to Sandusky, Ohio, on the south shore of Lake Erie, then head back around to loop the lake, either east through Cleveland (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!) and Niagara, or west through Detroit. We did neither, but headed back to Canada and up the east coast of Lake Huron, staying over in Bayfield before returning home.
NOW IT’S DONE
The BMW was comfortable for an hour or so at a time, but much more than that and we wanted to stretch our legs and sooth our butt cheeks. It was quick when we wanted it to be, and the powered windshield was a blessing: down for low speed through town, or around the island, and up for cruising on the highway. There was no middle ground, though I could set it where I wanted. At full height, my line of sight was just a couple of inches above the top of the screen, which is exactly where it’s supposed to be for clarity of vision and protection from wind buffeting. There’s a larger windshield available too, again as an option.
BMW’s just announced a new R1250RT that makes more power and torque, and which updates the available technology. It’s also a little more expensive, rising from $21,750 for the 2018 we rode to $22,050 for the 2019. That sounds like a very small increase for the extra power and tech, but financing is 2.5% less for the 2018, and there’s currently a $2,500 rebate on accessories for it. You’ll want the costly top box if you carry a passenger, and the only practical way to attach a GPS Navigation unit is to buy one of BMW’s own — the handlebars are the wrong shape for a Ram mount or similar, but the slot for the proprietary unit is super-convenient and well-placed above the gauges. The price of the bike I rode was bumped up by a huge $7,800 with options, so there are plenty of ways to spend the rebate, making the 2018 a tempting buy.
But if you do visit Pelee Island and you want to save money, make sure to gas up first. Unless, of course, you stay with Kevin at the Wandering Dog Inn, in which case, pay it forward. Like I said: Canadian island life.