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My Favourite Place in Canada: Beaches

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

BLOOMFIELD, ONT. — As I approached the summit, one final hurdle lay ahead. It wasn't the steep, crumbling slope under my feet. Nor was it the blazing midday sun. No — as I climbed the dune in Eastern Ontario's Sandbanks Provincial Park, my greatest challenge was the all-dressed bacon cheeseburger, onion rings and chocolate milkshake I had just devoured outside the snack bar.

Just as mountaineers acclimatize to altitude, I stopped and waited for the grease rush to subside. Then, heartened by what awaited beyond the dune's 10-metre peak, I scrambled up the sandy mound, paperback in one hand, towel in the other.

I had seen the view from atop the dunes dozens of times before, either on a sand-seeking expedition out of Toronto, or on “Picton Day,” the June exodus of class-cutting teens from my former hometown of Kingston. On this perfect summer Saturday, it encompassed blue skies, calm Lake Ontario waters and white sands framed by stands of eastern cottonwood trees, a picture that solidified Sandbanks as my favourite Canadian beach. The sand and scenery of some East and West Coast beaches may compare — PEI's Cavendish and Vancouver's English Bay spring to mind — but Sandbanks' summer is reliably hot and sunny, and the water is fresh, calm and surprisingly warm. If, like me, you often crave a splashy game of paddle ball — that free-form, co-ed pursuit of the Frisbee-fatigued — you'll only be up to your waist in water more than 100 metres offshore, owing to the three beaches' gentle, child-friendly slope out of East Lake (which is actually a bay).

Unlike much of surrounding Prince Edward County, which has seen a spate of development in recent years, little has changed at Sandbanks since I first arrived here in someone else's parent's minivan more than 15 years ago. The drive past the main entrance still winds pleasantly through thick maple forest. The aforementioned snack bar still serves up the thickest milkshakes around — thanks to the staff's perennial lack of blender-awareness. And on a prime summer weekend, the park's Outlet, Sandbanks and Campers beaches are still busy, but not maddeningly so. After all, there's plenty of real estate: The 11 kilometres of beaches and dunes form two of the largest freshwater bay-mouth sandbars in the world.

Arriving at noon, it was easy to find a sunny spot devoid of errant Frisbees and sand-encrusted toddlers. Spreading out mats and towels, and unfolding lounge chairs — my wife Angela and I are confessed beach-accoutrement addicts — we settled into an afternoon of doing very, very little.

Once again, I noticed that time and sound perform strange tricks when one is prostrate on the beach. A lively conversation among a group of nearby teenagers — “Dude, man, my wakeboard is sick” — soon became a melodious trickle interspersed with the noise of splashing kids and squawking gulls. This was followed by an irresistible snooze, a groggy awakening and feigned surprise that two hours had passed in what felt like five minutes.

It was time for a swim, at which point our reasons for leaving Toronto became abundantly clear. To be sure, the Big Smoke has sandy beaches, some of which are quite pleasant. Trouble is, you'll be publicly ostracized for entering the water (and privately concerned should you develop a sudden rash). Indeed, I am always shocked by Torontonians' lack of Sandbanks savvy. Wasaga and Sauble beaches, both about two hours northeast of the city, seem to get all the attention — mention Prince Edward County and you'll likely get a blank stare. True, Sandbanks lacks the shopping and nightlife of its busier Lake Huron counterparts. But in my mind, its location within a provincial park — with extensive camping facilities mere steps from the sand — is one of its best features.

The Visitors Centre & Nature Shoppe near the park entrance sells souvenirs and houses exhibits on Sandbanks' flora and fauna, including such oddly named plants as hoary puccoon and sand spurge, as well as migratory birds like swamp sparrows and pileated woodpeckers. There's also a wealth of special events for campers, such as slide shows, guided walks and Theatre in the Park, in which interpretive staff gamely don historical costumes to dramatize the century-old history of Sandbanks.

Angela and I were intent on suntans, however, and our afternoon unfolded lazily, as so many have on past visits. But when our thoughts turned to stylish shelter and French-fry-free sustenance, the annual routine was interrupted.

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