Niagara’s Best-Kept Secret: The Charming South Coast City of Port Colborne

Canal Days | Image credit: City of Port Colborne

Written by Katie Aeby of Sotheby’s International Realty Canada 

The city of Port Colborne may be the best-kept secret in the Niagara region. Located on the north shore of Lake Erie, at the south end of the Welland Canal connecting Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, Port Colborne and its surrounding towns and townships rival just about anything you can find on a four-hour drive north of Toronto, but at a fraction of the price.

With a population of 20,000, Port Colborne is rich in marine heritage, boutique shops, charming restaurants and cafes, and almost every outdoor activity imaginable.

From Getty Images

More than 50 wineries and breweries lie within a 45-minute drive; Niagara Falls and the Fallsview Casino as well as Buffalo, New York, with its shopping and skiing are about the same distance away. It’s difficult to find anything that isn’t accessible from this delightful town.

What Niagara’s entire South Coast area (of which Port Colborne is a part) is probably best known for, though, is the beautiful sandy beaches that stretch from the west of Port Colborne across the top of Lake Erie and all the way to Crystal Beach in Fort Erie.

Among the local favourites is Nickel Beach, reportedly the last remaining drive-on beach in Ontario. Drivers park their cars side-by-side a few feet from the lake, pull out their water toys, then enjoy a day of swimming and tailgating. Access is free for Port Colborne residents, and to prevent overcrowding, capacity is limited to only 200 paid visitor passes a day.

Nickel Beach | Image credit: City of Port Colborne

SplashTown Niagara, a floating, all-ages obstacle course, is the latest attraction here. But if it’s just peace and quiet you’re after, look no further than Centennial-Cedar Bay Beach next door, a particularly beautiful spot for sunning and relaxing with no cars allowed.

Centennial-Cedar Bay Beach | Image credit: City of Port Colborne

Given its location, there’s no surprise that all types of water activities are accessible in Port Colborne. Ship watching at the Welland Canal continues to be a major attraction. Each year thousands of visitors flock to the city to witness the sight of an international “Saltie” or “Laker” as they slip through the canal’s locks.

Cruise ship at Welland Canal | Image credit: City of Port Colborne

Fishing is more than just a popular pastime here. The World Fishing Network voted Port Colborne “The Ultimate Fishing Town”, in part for its quantity of Small Mouth Bass, Walleye and Perch. The 700-slip Sugarloaf Marina has plenty of charters available to show off the fishing spots locals like to keep secret. There are also charters and guides who will take divers to some of the best diving areas in Ontario.

Port Colborne is a renowned fishing destination | Image credit: City of Port Colborne

Within a 20-mile radius of Port Colborne, there are 20 shipwrecks that include wood schooners, barges, tug-boats, and freighters. There are also two particularly great dive spots nearby, Sherkston Quarry and Windmill Point Park, where you can see train tracks, a locomotive, mining equipment and more.

Sugarloaf Marina | Image credit: City of Port Colborne

For those who like to stay on terra firma, multiple trails for walking and biking offer something for every age and ability. The best include the Welland Canals Parkway Trail, which is ideal for biking and extends almost 40-km from Port Colborne all the way through to St. Catharines; the Friendship Trail, a flat and year-round 24-km trail that used to be a railway line, is popular for snowshoeing and cross country skiing; and then there’s the Gord Harry Conservation Trail, an unpaved 13-km trail that extends from downtown Port Colborne out to the township of Wainfleet through wetlands, open fields, quarry lines and wooded areas, all ideal for wildlife viewing as you pass through.

In fact, Port Colborne has an astonishing 21 parks and open spaces, one of the most important being the Wainfleet Bog Conservation Area, the only bog in the Niagara region and the largest one in southern Ontario. Formed around 12,000 years ago as glaciers from the last Ice Age melted and retreated, it’s home to many unique plant species, birds and wildlife, all visible from the publicly accessible trails and boardwalks that wind through it.

Wainfleet Bog | Image credit: Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority

Port Colborne also has another side to it, including close proximity to fabulous nightlife, international shopping and some of the country’s most famous attractions. Niagara Falls, once considered a less than sophisticated tourist attraction, has long since cleaned up its act and is now the envy of our American neighbours. Its world-class casino attracts top-name entertainment; downtown Clifton Hill, with its midway rides, games and otherworldly attractions, is a kid’s dream; and you really can’t beat the Falls themselves. Spectacular fireworks run every night throughout the summer, and during the holiday season, a stunning Festival of Lights picks up the slack.

Niagara Falls | From Getty Images

45 minutes from Port Colborne lies the town of Buffalo, New York, with its massive Outlet Mall and Walden Galleria Shopping Mall, where there’s every brand of American store you can think of and a plethora of restaurants and bars of every description. From there, it’s a short drive to the slopes of Ellicottville and Holiday Valley, which offer some of the best snow conditions and ski slopes around.

Port Colborne is convenient to ideal places to ski or snowboard

For the jet set, avoid the crowds at Pearson and head to Hamilton, Niagara Falls, or Buffalo airports – their smaller scales make flying a breeze. Heading to a business meeting or a game in the big city?  The Niagara-on-the-Lake airport has direct flights to to downtown’s Billy Bishop Airport. And by the summer of 2023 there will be regular 30 minute Hovercraft service between St. Catharines and Toronto.

Add all of these activities to Port Colborne’s low cost of living, strong sense of community and relaxed, inviting lifestyle, and what do you get? A magical place to live, work, and play. A wonderful town to visit, and without any doubt, one of the best-kept secrets around.