Steeped in history, and embraced by captivating country and lakeside views, Amherst Island is quickly becoming a rather popular place for both locals and travellers alike. Situated a mere three kilometres off the North shore of Lake Ontario between Kingston and Glenora, Amherst Island is a charming and absolutely breathtaking location prime for scenic drives, cycling, delicious local food and so much more.
For our next signature experience blog with Naturally L&A Heidi and I set course for Amherst Island - to explore the rolling emerald fields, captivating rural landscapes and vibrant community of this brilliant destination. From fossil hunting to local food, farms and fascinating history - join us for a fun summer road trip to Amherst Island!
A Vivid Crossing to Amherst Island
To make the most of our trip, we started the day rather early. We boarded the Amherst Island Ferry at 7:30 AM, and enjoyed a brilliant visual spectacle as the sunrise interacted with the low lying clouds which hung overhead with a cold, yet stunning mixture of blues and violets. As we made our crossing from Millhaven to Stella, the early morning light took on a splendid amber glow casting the horizon in a vibrant splash of gold.
The ferry ride is relatively brief, but certainly offers some scenic views and great photo opportunities. Unlike the Glenora, or Wolfe Island ferries, there is a toll of $9.00 for cars, trucks or SUVs, so it’s good to make sure you bring cash. The cost of your fare includes your return trip - and it’s also worth mentioning that motorcycles cost $2.00 and bicycles are $1.50 respectively.
Either way, I can’t remember the last time I bought a round trip to a beautiful island getaway for only nine bucks. Pretty sweet deal if you ask me.
Fossil Hunting on the Southern Shore
Our first encounter with Amherst Island’s history was rather one of prehistory as we explored the rocky southern shoreline hunting for fossils. The area located off of South Shore Road is a primordial and beautiful sight to behold that is particularly rich in various fossilized objects to discover between the ancient crags of sedimentary rock lining the water’s edge.
It wasn’t long before we began to discover a treasure trove of geological goodies ranging from ancient shells, snails, and corral originating from perhaps an ancient reef once teeming with oceanic life millions of years ago. What at first appears to simply be a bunch of rocks quickly transforms into a diverse array of objects as you closely examine the thin layers of stone.
In many instances, the fossils we observed appeared smashed and at times it was evident that an entire piece of rock contained millions of broken shell fragments. Likely due to the immense amount of pressure exerted as the sediment shifted, and was eventually turned to rock over time.
Fossils, are in a way nature’s abstract art canvas, offering an infinite variety of patterns and particles forged from a timeline that ended eons ago.
A mind-blowing time capsule if you will. An entire universe of clues allowing scientists to decipher and understand the earliest days of life on Earth. To hold a fragment of it in the palm of one’s hands is a fascinating experience.
Upon further examination, vivid details of even more shells revealed themselves, only further enhancing our little fossil hunt. This is likely a good time to mention that the area we visited off South Shore Road is an earthcache spot - and just one of about 1,500 #geogaching locations situated throughout Amherst Island, and Lennox & Addington County.
After spending close to an hour sifting through so many amazing fossils, it really reignited my childhood interest in dinosaurs and fossils. It also inspired a newfound interest in the idea of geocaching. We’ll definitely have to try it out in the near future! For a great introduction to geocaching in Lennox & Addington County, have a look at this informative blog post by Joe Tisdale.
Stone Sentinels Stand Amid Timeless Pastures
After our intriguing fossil hunt, we got back into the car and headed back to Stella. During the drive, we were treated to endless views of rolling fields of gold and emerald - as well as our first glimpse of Amherst Island’s legendary dry stone walls. These masterfully crafted walls are among the oldest in Canada - and an iconic piece of both local and national history.
The first wall we observed was located at the historic Pentland Cemetery which is located on Front Road, where the ancient graveyard is embraced by beautiful pastures and surrounding farm fields. Many of the island’s dry stone walls are nearly two centuries old, built by Irish immigrants who travelled here long ago, bringing their unique traditions and ingenious building techniques with them.
Today, the walls stand as a testament to the determined, hard-working souls who built them - and the close ties between the island’s community and a fascinating heritage dating back to a time before Canada’s confederation. A cherished and humbling reminder of those who once tilled these fields, and worked the land throughout their lives before coming to rest within the fields and meadows of the island. Their memory and legacy carried on by their children, great-grandchildren and so forth.
It’s humbling in its sublime simplicity and contrast from the seeming complications of today’s modern and disrupted life. To live, love, work the earth, grow - and pass on one’s legacy in the most classical sense. It’s quite beautiful really.
Uncovering Amherst Island’s Story
Our next stop was at the Neilson Store Museum & Cultural Centre to explore more of the island’s fascinating history. Located in the original Neilson Store which was originally built in 1883, this informative museum houses a grand collection of mementos and artefacts representing several key timelines throughout the island’s history.
From the origins of the ferry service to examples of daily life including vintage school materials, there is plenty of information to absorb at the Neilson Store Museum. I was quite taken with the vintage product packages on display, old school books and other items of intrigue. It’s also worth mentioning that the museum is also home to the Weasel & Easel - a lovely gallery and gift shop carrying several lovely items crafted by local artists and makers.
There’s easily between one to two hours worth of information and exhibits to enjoy, depending on whether or not you’re in a rush. It’s definitely worth perusing the wares in the gift shop as well - where you’ll find several desirable items including paintings, locally made jams, t-shirts and other keepsakes to help remember your visit to the island.
A Quick Bite at The Back Kitchen
It was nearly 10 AM by the time we left the museum and by this point, Heidi and I were growing a tad peckish. The inner foodie was starting to grumble, so we had saddle-up and secure ourselves an early lunch. Fortunately, the island’s fantastic and foodie-friendly eatery was located only four hundred metres down the road.
The Back Kitchen is a wonderful and unique restaurant on many levels. First and foremost it is a not-for-profit, community-run operation providing a vital social space for island residents and travellers that are fortunate enough to discover it. The primarily volunteer-based staff is largely made up of local youths who spend their summers cooking and serving the patrons.
Of course, The Back Kitchen is also famous for its menu of sensational and savoury dinners, lunches and during the summer months - a wide selection of ice cream from Kawartha Dairy. Every effort is made by the staff to procure and use locally produced meat and vegetables and this effort and dedication to local food infrastructure pay dividends into the quality of the food that ends up on your plate.
It was still before noon, so I found myself still in breakfast mode. I asked for a toasted western sandwich and home fries - while Heidi decided to go for something a bit more robust. Her eyes lit up when she read the description of The Back Kitchen’s famous Banquet Burger. This meaty bounty of locally raised beef came with a thick slab of melted cheddar and two generous strips of bacon, along with dill pickle, red onion and fresh romaine.
My western really hit the spot and the home fries were crispy, golden and seasoned just right. The red peppers used in the omelette were fresh and added a lovely flavour to the sandwich. Heidi’s burger - was a love letter to all bacon cheeseburgers. Fresh, locally raised beef tastes light years better than industrially raised, mass-produced, frozen beef used frequently by large fast food companies. There’s just no contest.
We also tried an absolutely lovely chilled cucumber soup which had a distinct zesty taste from the inclusion of fresh dill. Perhaps it was the product of an old family recipe found in the recipe books of the island’s great-great-grandmothers. It’s amazing how tastes and even smells can transport us through time. Heidi mentioned that her father used to make similar dishes based on recipes handed down by his Hungarian forebears.
The sense of community on Amherst Island is so strong - you can literally taste it.
Walk Along Windswept Beaches
After a delicious meal, we headed South East toward the scenic shoreline of Sand Beach Wetlands Conservation Area to walk off some of our “lunch” and take in some more of Amherst Island’s splendid lakeside views. By now, the once cloudy sky had completely broken apart, making way for a gorgeous if not particularly hot summer day.
This magnificent 54-acre conservation area is a protected and unspoiled series of lush wetlands and picturesque natural sand beaches carved by several millennia of wind and water. When visiting this beach, it’s good to be aware that it is unsupervised and swimmers should take caution. There are signs near the parking area just past the gate, that will also inform visitors of whether or not swimming is advised.
Regardless, Sand Beach is a brilliant location for a leisurely stroll along the stunning windswept beaches and listen to the waves as they lap the sands - eternally moulding the very island over time. Just another tranquil and surreal moment brought to you by the unspoiled beauty of L&A County.
It was a wonderful experience to walk between sprawling golden beaches and shimmering marshlands - soaking in all that green. This lovely conservation area is a fantastic place to explore and shoot photos and appreciate the serenity of it all. More than once, we just closed our eyes and listened to the waves, the birds and the wind as it rustled through the bullrushes.
Another unspoiled moment brought to you by Lennox & Addington County.
Ewe’ll Fall in Love at Topsy Farms!
As we arrived at our next stop, I couldn’t help but be overcome with a sense of deja-vu, but more on that in a moment. Situated on the island’s North West Corner is Topsy Farms, a longtime member of Amherst Island’s agricultural community and well-known destination for visitors seeking raw honey, wool and meat.
Each year, Topsy Farms draws scores of tourists to Amherst Island to visit the farm, purchase goods and also participate in helping out around the farm. Each season, several lambs are orphaned for various reasons and fans can even adopt a lamb and visit to help feed and care for the fluffy little youngsters. In recent years, Topsy Farms has become such a popular destination in L&A County that they were awarded a Green Tourism Award in 2017!
Also on-site is a fantastic retail outlet carrying ready-made wool products including blankets, toques, scarves, sweaters and even wool beer cozies. You can also get some delicious raw honey which is produced right there on the farm. For those of you who enjoy a nice roast leg of lamb, or lamb-burger there’s also a selection of meat available too.
If you’ve always wanted a legit wool sweater, or locally produced yarn and craft supplies than it’s more than worth the trip to Topsy Farms to visit Sally and Ian and stock up on goodies. To get a look at Topsy Farm’s selection of goods you can also check out their online store and shop from home!
Built by Hand. Fortified by a Community.
Over the course of the day, we’d passed by several more beautiful dry stone walls, located throughout the island as we continued on our trip. After our visit at Topsy Farms, we headed back toward Stella to stop at the Feidin Wall which is located across the road from Amherst Island Public School. This legacy wall was built in 2015 during the Dry Stone Wall Festival.
This historic event gathered stone wallers from Ireland, Scotland and the USA to gather on Amherst Island as well as several dignified guests including Ireland's Ambassador to Canada, members of parliament and more. This iconic monument represents a beautiful marriage of the respective building methods used in dry stone walling.
To add to the historic and ancient origins of this craft, examples both Celtic and Christian iconography, are embedded in the construction resulting in a timeless tribute to the ancient history of the Irish settlers who once braved an oceanic exodus from their homeland to build a new future, on this very island and the surrounding regions.
During the fall solstice, the sun will align with the ocular within the Celtic cross, casting light upon a traditional Claddagh. An ancient sigil, in this case depicting a pair of hands embracing a heart. The sleeves on each hand bear the image of a shamrock and maple leaf. This astonishing collaborative construction serves as a timeless representation of the strength of our international bonds and shared histories.
Back To The Back Kitchen!
We had spent so much time driving the scenic routes of Amherst Island and being immersed in local history that we barely noticed that it was now getting close to dinner time! With that revelation, we hopped back into the car and took the short drive back into the village of Stella, to return once more to the Back Kitchen for round 2.
This time, Heidi chose the pulled pork sandwich with a side of crispy golden fries, while I indulged in the day’s lunch special: The Fishwich. The pulled pork was slow cooked to perfection and had just the right amount of tangy bbq sauce. It was both smoky and sweet, with an ample pile of meat on a fresh bun.
My meal was basically a fish burger made from a battered and fried fish fillet on a bun with fresh iceberg lettuce and sliced tomato. It paired well with a hefty order of onion rings that were made fresh to order - and took me out of commission as far as dessert was concerned.
Heidi, on the other hand, indulged in the selection of ice cream flavours and enjoyed a waffle cone stuffed to the brim with Kawartha Dairy’s Black Raspberry Thunder. While her ice cream certainly looked irresistible, I was content to enjoy the last of my onion rings to add a sweet end to our big day exploring Amherst Island.
Parting is But Sweet Sorrow
Amherst Island is a brilliant locavore’s treasure - hidden in plain sight. From the island’s fascinating history, spectacular scenery to its wonderful food and welcoming community, there is plenty of reasons to include this destination on your next road trip or weekend getaway. We could have easily spent several days exploring the island - and can’t wait to go back!
As always, we’ve included a custom Google Map that not only includes the places we stopped, but also a few bonus locations including B&B’s, conservation areas, and other points of interest on Amherst Island! We openly invite you to enjoy a scenic drive along the Loyalist Parkway and take the ferry to Amherst Island!
Until next time, thanks for reading!