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Grand Bend pier at sunset

Whenever I walk the beaches of Lake Huron my soul rests easy, as my footsteps leave imprints on the watery sand. I consider myself a woods and water woman – in other words, I’m drawn to those two earth elements. Sounds kind of airy, doesn’t it? The truth is, I’m pretty down-to-earth and practical by nature, and I guess that’s the key; anything that brings me back to those two elements, and I’m happy. Oddly enough, I live in the city about 45 minutes drive from the lake, but that’s okay. So long as I can escape when I need to when life and stressors get too much, I’m good with the compromise. I enjoy the close proximity to family who live in and around the city, and of course the amenities so close at hand, off-set by the 45 minute drive to the lakeshore.

My parents lived in Grand Bend, Ontario for almost thirty years, as did my husband and I for ten years. I loved small town living, walking into the grocery store or pharmacy and knowing the people working and shopping there. I revelled in being part of my community by joining the local arts group, and by extension, initiating the first writers’ group, Writing On The Beach, which still runs very well without me, now that I’m living in the city.

What’s fun and interesting is that Grand Bend and area showcases so much of those nature-based vistas that I crave, and there really is something for everyone. In fact, the region is more than a collection of small, rural Ontario towns and farms, or even the world famous sunsets over Lake Huron. It’s about a spirit and sense of belonging that permeates the air, welcoming visitors and residents alike, so I want to share some of that with my readers.

Located just 45 minutes from London, Ontario, 50 minutes from the Sarnia/Port Huron, MI border, and approximately 2 hours from Toronto, Grand Bend is the ideal spot to launch a vacation, host a creative retreat, and now, corporate events and getaways. Long known as a hub of summer activity, with pristine sandy beaches, lush Carolinian forests, The Pinery Provincial Park, bustling shopping venues and eateries to suit every taste and budget, Grand Bend has grown beyond the youth-oriented playground it became known for. Today’s Grand Bend and area has evolved to include up-scale dining establishments, entertainment venues, and “rustic-luxe” accommodations to her sandy shores.

Jeff Pacheco-Sales Manager, Oakwood Resort & Spa

In a bid to understand this exciting new side to an old favourite haunt, I met with Jeff Pacheco, Sales Manager for Grand Bend’s Oakwood Resort. The moment I walked through the wide front doors of the Oakwood, I was reminded of how truly lovely and welcoming it is. Jeff stood waiting for me, a wide smile on his face as he shook my hand. I thought I knew the Oakwood; I’d been there numerous times for brunches, lunches, and casual meals in the pub, but quickly realized there was much I had to learn.

As Jeff eagerly explained, the Oakwood has evolved too. While still maintaining its rustic lodge appeal, it has expanded beyond family vacations and local weddings to include corporate events, incentive rewards, team-building getaways, and retreats (think writing, art, music, health and wellness, etc.). With so much on hand at the resort, guests can stay put and enjoy golf, sun, sand, swimming, and pampering at the fabulous on-site spa, or they can venture 3 minutes down the highway and explore Main Street, the many shops and eateries, and of course, the main beach itself.

What I was surprised to learn is that, unlike my own assumption that the Oakwood was all about golf and pub food, is that they also offer complete experiential packages that tick all the boxes. With direct walking access to a private section of sandy beach, the Oakwood also boasts an indoor pool, plenty of large and more intimate meetings spaces, terraces with spectacular fairway views, and private dining options to suit every need. “We’re extremely dialled into what vacationers, groups, corporate, and event planners are looking for, and enjoy helping them build a getaway or event that’s fully customized,” says Jeff.

When it comes to organizing a corporate, group, or other event, I asked Jeff what advice he has for planners. “Hire a professional!” he laughed. “When working with planners, whether professional or individuals, we make a point to ask the necessary questions about guest numbers, the goal and drivers for the event, any themes or must-haves, meeting spaces, and really listen to their needs. It’s our job to make insightful suggestions, and one way we do that is by working with local experiential hosts, such as local micro-breweries, wineries, live theatre venues, and even jet-ski and parasailing adventure hosts. We work hard to make sure our guest’s time with us is truly memorable. When it comes to working with corporate event and retreat planners, we work with them every step of the way, to ensure no detail is overlooked. If you have an idea you’d like us to incorporate, let us know and we’ll work with you to make it happen. We’re always open to suggestions and new ideas!”

Cabin at Oakwood Resort

While touring the property with Jeff, I have to admit to being duly impressed by the overall scope and size of the property, along with the different types of accommodations they offer. Not only can guests stay in the main lodge, but there are a number of lovely cabins dotted along a path toward the lake that would be ideal for large and small gatherings. How ideal for a creative retreat, whereby groups can gather for meals, yoga, nature walks, mediation, and creative sessions, followed by great food and comfortable accommodations, separate from the main resort.

Of course summer is prime time for Grand Bend and the Oakwood Resort, with the lure of sun, water, sand, and summertime fun, but I wondered about the off-season and winter months.

“We have so much to offer people looking to get away from the city and really revel in nature’s wonderland during every season,” Jeff enthused. “In fact, cozying up by a roaring fire in our pub, visiting our local micro-breweries and wineries for a beverage and cheese tasting event, snowshoeing and hiking through our incredible Carolinian forests both here and at the Pinery Provincial Park, or snowmobiling the many trails that criss-cross the area, are just a few of the exceptional lures of our off-season and winter getaways.”

Talking to Jeff reminded me that Grand Bend and the Oakwood Resort really does offer some wonderful, unique opportunities not found elsewhere. After all, the on-the-beach location means visitors can walk to the shore or enjoy a meal overlooking the lake, fabulous sunsets, and sunrises, for those who love an early start to the day, accompanied by incredible views of the lake any time of year. Combine that with close (30 – 60 minutes) proximity to other day-trip worthy visits to nearby towns, such as Bayfield and Goderich, each of which offers completely different experiences and views, and you can see what I mean.

One of the biggest challenges areas such as Grand Bend face is that people tend to assume it’s a summer retreat, and forget that many local establishments, hotels, golf and country clubs, are open year round.

Winter in The Pinery

As Jeff says, “This area is so perfect for guests who love the Fall, Winter, and Spring seasons, with close, easy access to places like the Pinery Provincial Park, which is just 10 minutes down the highway, where visitors can take in the stunning Fall colours from September to November on a hike through the incredibly diverse Carolinian forest, or the brilliant greens of Spring, numerous picturesque farms, or experience the pristine beauty of our winter wonderland. The truth is, it’s the perfect place to get away to and reconnect with nature, and escape the pressures of city life and work.

When considering The Oakwood, it’s important to remember that we’re a full-service resort, with all the on-site amenities and area attractions right on our doorstep. In fact, more and more guests are just as excited about our off and shoulder-season stays, since prices are definitely lower, and there’s so much to do and explore.”

As we walked back toward the front lobby, I asked Jeff what’s next for the Oakwood.

We’re constantly looking to up our game in so many areas, but one we’re really excited about is expanding even further into corporate events. By offering customized packages that include really fun team-building components, such as our version of The Great Race, or scavenger hunts, to live entertainment, state-of-the-art technical and Wifi options, cozy or grand meeting spaces, and welcoming outdoor venues. We’re excited about the opportunity to work with companies, planners, and groups who want to experience all we and Grand Bend have to offer, without having to travel by air to distant places. In fact, industry research states that more companies are seeking meeting and event locations closer to home for a variety of very good reasons, including budgets, time considerations, and ease of travel. A fun new expansion is our increasing reach into the US market. After all, the US dollar goes quite a way here, and we offer a uniquely Canadian experience just a short 60 minute drive over the border, making us an exciting and attractive venue!

Driving away, I turned my car toward Main Street and the beach. An ice cream cone was calling my name, and I couldn’t wait to indulge my sweet tooth while meandering along the boardwalk and people-watching on that hot August day. I’m glad I was able to connect with Jeff and learn a lot more about a place I thought I already knew. Just goes to remind me that we all become complacent about what sits right in our own backyard, and by reaching out to Jeff at the Oakwood, I re-discovered an exciting vacation and event destination for the future.

For more information:

Jeff Pacheco: 519-238-7357
Oakwood website: https://oakwoodresort.ca/

Oakwood Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/OakwoodResort
Oakwood Instagram page: https://www.instagram.com/oakwoodresort_/
Oakwood Twitter page: https://twitter.com/OakwoodResort
Grand Bend Tourism: http://www.grandbendtourism.com/

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A few years ago I went on a company site inspection with S.I.S (Strategic Incentive Solutions) to St. Pete’s/Clearwater, Florida. The Convention and Visitor’s Bureau (CVB) hosted a top-notch site inspection for the entire S.I.S. staff for two nights, three days, that featured four fabulous luxury hotels and several exciting points of interest.

Having visited Florida many, many times over the years I’ll admit I had a preconceived notion that this particular area was primarily geared to geriatrics and snow-birders. As a child, my family and I used to frequent the area just to the south of St. Pete’s/Clearwater in our motor home, but I wasn’t as familiar with the town itself as I thought.

St. Pete’s/Clearwater is a bustling, upscale destination boasting some of the travel industry’s top luxury hotels. Facing pristine wide beaches are some of the most beautiful hotels I’ve had the pleasure to visit. With soft white sands underfoot, shore birds, and pelicans wheeling overhead, and the warm gulf coast surf lapping at my cold Canadian toes, I was enchanted.

On arrival we were met by Suzanne and Tina, our two escorts from the local CVB, who drove us to our host hotel, The Sandpearl. From the moment we exited the rental cars, our group was warmly welcomed by the sales manager, Wendy. After a quick change and freshen up, we were back in the car for a short 15 minute drive to meet Winter, the dolphin, at the nearby Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Winter and her friends became the heroes of a much loved, family-friendly film, Dolphin Tale, a movie I’ve enjoyed watching since my return home.

Winter the dolphin

For the next few hours we were given a personal tour by guide, John, who filled us in on all the small details we would have missed otherwise, and told us the heart-breaking story of Winter the dolphin. Winter was rescued from Mosquito Lagoon, near Cape Canaveral. At only two months old, she became wrapped up in a crab trap line, where her tail flukes lost circulation due to the lines. Overcoming extreme odds against survival, and after many trials of outfitting her with a new prosthetic tail, Winter made a tremendous recovery, proving she could overcome anything, and thrive. Once word got out about Winter’s prosthetic tail, people with varying degrees of their own disabilities began showing up at the Aquarium to see this miracle dolphin for themselves, and came away inspired to tackle their own personal challenges with renewed hope.

John told us many stories of marine wildlife in desperate need of the aquarium’s unique services, and I couldn’t help but be impressed by the passion, vision, and goals of this small facility and those who worked there. We were constantly reminded that, while open to the public, this is no tourist “show”. This is a working rescue, rehab, and release facility that helps the area’s marine life survive the sometimes brutal encounters with humans and other catastrophes. After the success of A Dolphin Tale, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium saw a tremendous influx of visitors, and much needed revenue. Although I haven’t been back since the new aquarium opened in 2011, I definitely want to return to see how they’re doing and the changes they’ve been able to make!

My personal take-aways from that trip were reminders not to prejudge an area. The hidden gems and less-known are often the very best experiences of an entire trip. Even though I know Florida fairly well, and I’m sure much has changed again since I last visited the area several years ago, I have a much deeper appreciation for the people who call this beautiful destination, home. They care about the land, beaches, and animals that share the waters and beaches we visitors take for granted. From the hotel staff who do their utmost to make a visitor’s stay memorable, to the guides who feel a real connection to the causes they believe in, it’s all about sharing a little of what they have with others. For those of us fortunate enough to visit and listen, sometimes the valuable take-away is the education we receive about the real threats humans pose to the environment and animals of this planet. It’s these kinds of experiences that stay with me for years after I’ve returned home, and remind me to pay attention to where I put trash, to respect the beauty of the places I visit, but also be mindful of the damage I might unconsciously do just by being there. Animals like Winter remind me that life is to be lived, and when we co-operate, great things can happen.

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