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Huron County fare

WAYNE NEWTON, QMI Agency

Flowers add colour to the sandy beach and children’s play area at the main beach in Goderich. BARBARA TAYLOR/QMI AGENCY

Flowers add colour to the sandy beach and children’s play area at the main beach in Goderich. BARBARA TAYLOR/QMI AGENCY

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If there's a tourist town in Ontario that's worth its salt, it's Goderich.

A jewel in the crown of Ontario's West Coast, Goderich is famous to many people as the home of the world's largest rock-salt mine located deep under Lake Huron and as the town that suffered 12 seconds of tornado terror on Aug. 21, 2011.

The F3 tornado left a Sifto Salt Mine worker dead and destroyed 15 treasured heritage properties which were once featured on walking tours.

The historic town square -- a design inspiration for Disneyland -- was in the tornado's path and while buildings can be repaired and replaced, it will take decades for new trees to replace the century-old canopy which once shaded the square.

Tornado-damaged tree trunks have become a new, much appreciated, tourist attraction in Harbour Park, which overlooks the Goderich harbour, salt mine and beach. Chainsaw artist Bobbi Switzer has worked magic creating Celtic-themed carvings.

While the carvings are impressive, it's still the beachfront that draws visitors with its free parking, lengthy boardwalk and Rotary Cove, quite likely the most family friendly beach area on Lake Huron with its sandy bottom, shallow water and amenities such as a giant play structure.

Beyond the beach, Goderich has its special places -- and secrets.

There's the Huron County Museum which, among other treasures, includes the schoolhouse Walt Disney's father once attended (Disney's father was born in nearby Bluevale).

A few blocks away, is the Huron Historic Gaol, the grim stone structure which was the site of Canada's last public hanging. It's also where a wrongly accused teenage Steven Truscott was taken following the murder of Lynne Harper in 1959.

Citizens saved the jail after it was closed and slated for demolition and created a must-see attraction.

The trail to Goderich's best kept secret begins along another of the community's saved historical structures.

Menesetung Bridge, a healthy walk or short drive from the jail, was the longest railway bridge in Canada when it was built in 1907 to span the Maitland River. When the rail line was abandoned in 1989, the bridge was eyed for destruction until citizens got involved and eventually converted it to a walking and cycling trail.

Follow the trail and you'll discover the tomb of surgeon, adventurer and key Ontario pioneer Tiger Dunlop and the story of Goderich's phantom sister town, Gairbraid. A detailed plan including a Goderich-like square was laid out for Gairbraid, which would have covered an area generally where the tomb and Goderich airport are today, but the community was never developed.

Some 40 minutes away from Goderich, a nice evening trip for cottagers or campers, is the village of Blyth which offers summer stock theatre at the intimate Blyth Festival, and two can't-miss shopping spots, the Old Mill south of Blyth on Hwy. 4 and Bainton's Original Old Mill. Across from the theatre, Blyth also boasts Part II Bistro, which opened this year to create a perfect pairing with a play.

Theatre buffs staying in Goderich also can drive 50 minutes south on Hwy. 21 to the larger Huron Country Playhouse in Grand Bend.

Capping off a day exploring Goderich, my wife and I discovered a beautifully restored Victorian home which after generations of ownership by the same family was converted to a restaurant. It's gone through a couple of incarnations and is now called Thyme on 21, owned by Peter and Catherine King.

Located at the corner of Victoria St. (Hwy. 21) and Hamilton Rd., Thyme on 21 promotes local food suppliers such as Metzger's Meat Products of nearby Hensall -- I can vouch for how delicious Metzger's pork tenderloin ($22.99) is in the hands of Thyme on 21 chef Terry Kennedy.

Peter and Catherine's commitment to their community doesn't stop with menu items. They support local artists by displaying a changing array of artwork, any of which can be purchased through an inquiry with your server.

And while art on the wall is good, an entire gallery is better. That's what casual diners at Cafe Da Vinci -- opened when the Da Vinci Code was hot -- offers on Main St. in Bayfield. Co-owned by Doug Marr and Carlos Murguia, who have lived or worked in many places including Cape Cod, Spain and Mexico, Da Vinci's at 14 Main St. has a gallery featuring the partners' original oil paintings and fine art photographs.

Elsewhere in Bayfield is the largest sailboat marina on the Canadian side of Lake Huron.

Bayfield's shop and restaurants -- we had delicious lunches at Cafe Da Vinci and Artsee Cafe -- need no introduction. Among the shops not to be missed are JMR Art Gallery and Marten Arts Gallery, where I admired a piece called Lennon Memorial by London stained glass artist Ted Goodden, but couldn't come to part with $900 to buy it.

Bayfield's also home to one of my favourite spots along Lake Huron -- Pioneer Park. It's high above the sparsely used beach, which is accessible from the park by negotiating a long wooden stairway. At sunset, Pioneer Park often attracts throngs of people, cameras in hand, to capture some calendar-worthy images and a place to say good night to a perfect summer's day on Ontario's West Coast.

NEED TO KNOW

For travel information, see ontarioswestcoast.ca.

GREAT SLEEPS

From the street, Brentwood on the Beach, south of Bayfield in St. Joseph's, still looks like a millionaire's private home. It was built as a 10,000-sq-ft "cottage" in the 1970s by a Woolworth's store VP.

It's now a nine-bedroom luxury B&B owned by Joan and Peter Karstens and it's distinctly different from a cottage we once rented up the road, where gaggles of spiders descended each night from a kitchen-light fixture.

While Brentwood is comfortable -- with unexpected features such as an indoor salt water pool, sauna and whirlpool -- it's the beautiful grounds with rock garden, waterfall and barbecue area, that first made my jaw drop.

Stairs leading down a cliff to the private beach was jaw-dropper No. 2. It's a Caribbean-feel spot with shaded hammocks and a fire pit. There is a mechanical lift for those whose mobility makes the walk up and down to the beach difficult.

For more info, go to brentwoodonthebeach.com

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