Owen Sound Ontario is a small, tourist-friendly city on the south shore of Georgian Bay. This summer I made it my destination for a mini-vacation. With its art galleries, boutiques, heritage buildings, lovely parks and waterfront, it made for a perfect retreat.
August 26, 2012 – Because I live in a fairly big city, every once in a while, I like to run away for a couple of days to a small town and just unwind. I’m usually looking for a quiet, pretty little place with a bit of culture and nature and hopefully a few good places to eat. In previous years I’ve checked out Niagara on the Lake, Orillia and Port Stanley. This summer I picked Owen Sound, the main city in Grey County Ontario, on the southern banks of Georgian Bay.
Owen Sound is about 200 km north-west of Toronto, depending on your route. I took the Greyhound bus from Toronto. The trip lasted roughly four hours and cost me about $90 Canadian (return). On the way, the bus stopped briefly for passengers in other touristy towns like Barrie, Wasaga Beach and Collingwood.
Although the city reports a population of around 21,000, I suspect that this figure includes the outlying areas and farms and not just the downtown. The central business district is pretty tiny. On the way in, on the highway, you pass through the typical suburban atmosphere of most modern cities with the anonymous big box stores and malls, but once you cross into the main downtown, it’s a whole different ball game. Small, clean, historic and well-preserved are a few words that spring to mind.
By “small” I mean a downtown that is roughly 6 blocks wide by another 8 or 9 blocks long. Sydenham River runs through the centre of Owen Sound Ontario and splits the town into east and west. The main shopping street is 2nd Avenue East which runs from north to south, but you’ll find more stores and restaurants on the streets that run across it -- 9th and 10th Streets in particular. More on this later.
When I arrived at the bus station in Owen Sound Ontario, I immediately headed for my Bed and Breakfast which was only a few blocks away. The town has a number of B and Bs, most of them located in lovely heritage homes from the late 1800s and my choice was no exception.
Butchart Bed and Breakfast does have something unique, however: a link to some famous locals, the Butchart family, who were responsible for creating the well-known Butchart gardens in Victoria, BC. I visited the gardens last year and fell in love with them, so it was wonderful to stay in their former family home.
My bedroom was in the Turret Room, possibly the prettiest of three rooms on the second floor:
The first floor has two living rooms, the kitchen and dining room and a lovely indoor pool area with a hot tub and exercise equipment. The stained glass and original woodwork show that the Butcharts were great believers in comfort and beauty and had the money to hire the very best designers and craftspeople of the period.
After dropping off my bags, I headed downtown to have lunch at the Chaise Lounge restaurant and bar, which offers live music on some nights. It’s close to two other entertainment places: Jazzmyns (a jazz bar) and the Roxy (a theatre offering occasional plays and concerts).
The main attraction in town for me, though, was the Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery, so after lunch I made my way over there. The gallery consists of only a few rooms, with about half of the space devoted to Thomson, arguably Canada’s most famous artist. Thomson was a “local boy made good” and in addition to about 50 of his (smallish) paintings on display, there was also a collection of photographs and artefacts from the famous painter (his baby cup for example) and a great sculpture of him as well. The other part of the gallery had a show by local contemporary artist.
Right next door to the art gallery is the Owen Sound Library … or should I say the “libraries”? The town outgrew their old Carnegie library but instead of tearing it down, they wisely built on an addition which blends nicely with the old heritage building and fills the need for more space. Inside the old part is a lovely fireplace surrounded by cozy wing-backed chairs.
Owen Sound has a fabulous harbour right downtown, and my next goal was to explore that area. On the west side of the harbour I found the Marine and Rail Museum (now renamed the Community Waterfront Heritage Centre) which is located in the renovated former railway station. The railway no longer comes to Owen Sound but it’s nice to see that they have put the old building to good use.
The harbour is a popular place for fishing and strolling.
It’s also a good place to take in some history. I discovered many plaques along the way, telling me about the city’s past. The old grain elevator also makes a dramatic backdrop for this Bookmarks plaque with an excerpt of a novel set in this exact location, ROGUES’ WEDDING by Terry Griggs:
By late afternoon I was getting hungry again, so I had a wander down 2nd
Avenue East where I found a handful of restaurants. I picked the Raj
which is a casual Indian restaurant with delicious food at a reasonable
price. While I was there, I saw many people coming in for take-out,
suggesting local fans, which is always a good sign!
After dinner I headed back to the Owen Sound Ontario harbour and walked farther north along a path, right up to Kelso Park, a lakeside urban recreational area with a small outdoor stage, tiny beach and sports courts. This is where the annual SummerFolk Festival is held every August. It’s a popular folk festival that attracts big name headliners.
After a HUGE and delicious breakfast at the B & B, I headed off again to explore more of the downtown. My first stop was the Owen Sound Artists’ Co-op which has three spacious rooms full of paintings, photography, stamp art, textile art, purses, glass, and pottery from 40 local artists. I bought some art cards, chatted with the friendly artist on duty and with his permission snapped this photo:
I’m always amazed at how many creative people Ontario produces!
This gallery is located in the historic, renovated Chicago Building. One thing I noticed about the downtown is how many of the shops and restaurants and cafes are housed in heritage buildings, many of them with the original tin ceilings inside, like the one in the River Café.
Quite a few of the buildings in Owen Sound Ontario seem to date from the late 1800s but this restaurant is a little later (1940s) but still irresistible. It used to be the town bus station:
I just loved its funky feel.
The Gallery De Boer is another shop that caught my eye. Looks in this case are truly deceiving. See that skinny little space on the right hand side of this photo? Looks tiny, right? But when you mount the steep stairs and enter the gallery you’ll find several large rooms full of a wide variety of Canadian art from traditional to modern with hundreds of works on display. With 4,000 square feet of space, it’s the biggest commercial art gallery in Grey County Ontario.
Other shops in downtown Owen Sound Ontario include bookstores, office supply and stationary, gift shops, furniture shops, clothing stores, etc. There’s also a very old farmers market but it’s only open on Saturdays.
The Billy Bishop Home & Museum was also on my list for Day 2. Bishop became famous as a much-decorated WWI flying ace. I saw the amazing two-man play about him last summer in Toronto at the Soulpepper theatre in the Distillery District and was curious to see his childhood home.
In addition to military history, the museum displays items of social and cultural interest from the early 1900s. It’s a fairly typical middle class home of the period and features original artefacts from the family.
The house is gorgeous but definitely not one of the most elaborate in the city. By walking around you can see that Owen Sound Ontario was once a very prosperous city. I picked up the Historic Walking Tour brochure which describes many designated heritage buildings. Owen Sound used to be big in manufacturing and shipping. As a major port it was known as “Chicago of the North”. Shipping declined after the opening of the St Lawrence Seaway but the old mansions still testify to “old money”.
Today the economy of Owen Sound Ontario includes farming (beef, apple and corn), some manufacturing, one large printing plant, and tourism. In this “cottage country”, salmon and trout fishing attract many visitors and there’s even a large fishing derby in August. According to one of the residents I spoke with, it’s quickly becoming a retirement community as well.
One of the attractions of Owen Sound Ontario for seniors as well as younger folk is the readily-available green space. In the afternoon I took a stroll along the Bruce Trail to Harrison Park just south of downtown. The trail is a dirt and stone path running along the east side of the river. Although it’s very scenic, the trail can be kind of isolated and is probably not the best route to take if you’re walking alone. I didn’t encounter any problems but if I’d known it was so isolated I probably would have taken the western route (by road) instead.
When I got to the park I visited the swans (an information panel mentioned that the park actually provides swans to places like Stratford Ontario). I sat at a picnic table for a while under the trees and enjoyed the sound of the stream and the local birds.
Owen Sound was the final stop in Ontario on the Underground Railroad and the town still hosts the oldest Emancipation Festival in the county. People come from all over North America to attend this festival celebrating the abolition of slavery. Inside the park there’s a recent monument to Black history and the pursuit of freedom:
The park has playgrounds for children and walking trails and the Harrison Park Restaurant which offers table service inside as well as a quick-serve ice cream stand on the side. It’s a perfect place to enjoy the freedom of a summer’s day and was a wonderful setting for my last day of a rejuvenating vacation.
Owen Sound is north of Toronto and west of Ottawa. Greycoach Canada bus line serves the town. Use this map below for driving directions.
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