About an hour’s drive east of Toronto is the lovely old-fashioned town of
Cobourg. This thriving community is full of unexpected delights and has one
of the nicest waterfronts that I have seen anywhere. As a Torontonian, I’m
not used to thinking of Lake Ontario as swimmable, but this stretch of the
lakefront is so enticing that my son and I wasted no time in running in
for a dunk.
There is a feeling of entering someplace magical created by a
series of peaked walkways that lead onto the beach at various entry points
from the surrounding Victoria Park. As I walked through the gateway, the
lake shore was beautifully framed and a wide expanse of blue water and white
sand took my breath away. I’m accustomed to Ontario beachfronts that are
look more like mud holes where one must negotiate rocks and seaweed just to
get in the water. But in Cobourg, the sand is smooth, the beach is wide and
the clear water deepens so gradually that we were able to walk out quite far
by the time the water reached my waist and my son’s chest.
As if this weren’t enough, there is a full service Marina and a pristine
boardwalk right next to the beach. The adjacent Victoria Park offers a
children’s wading pool, an outdoor pool, playgrounds, miniature golf, a lawn
bowling green and a campground.
The town is filled with historic landmarks such as the grand Victoria Hall,
which was opened in 1860 during a time when Cobourg was actually the fifth
largest centre in Ontario. At that time there were hopes for the booming town
to become the economic and political capital of the province. Originally
named Hamilton, the town changed its name to Cobourg in honour of the
marriage of Princess Charlotte, daughter of King George IV to Prince Leopold
of Saxe-Coburg Germany.
Immigration slowed and the town struggled financially after the failure of
its railway and the heavy bill from the construction of its opulent town
hall. But the determined citizens reinvented the town as a fashionable summer
Our visit coincided with the annual street sale and carnival, so the
downtown area was blocked off and shop owners had almost emptied their shops
in order to display clothes, shoes, sportswear, antiques and country
knickknacks. I also perused the Farmer’s Market, one of the oldest in
Ontario for fresh veggies. It is held behind Victoria Hall on Saturdays
from May until December.
One of the main reasons for our trip to Cobourg was the unique lodging that
we had booked. We were staying in the Cobourg jail and what a luxurious
jail it was! In 1998, the Cobourg jail, a Federal maximum security
prison, shipped the inmates to other facilities and closed down. It was sold
privately, and has been renovated into a 20 room Inn with two restaurants and historic exhibits in the basement.
Today, you can stay in the Manor House, a turn of the century home once
inhabited by the Governor and Chief Warden Turnkey, where themed rooms are
majestically decorated; or, in the prison section, where several rooms
have incorporated the original jail bunks and bars into the decor.
instance we stayed in the “Desert Escape” room, perfect for our family of
four. There was a queen bed topped by a perpendicular real jail bunk for my
seven year old. There was also a pullout couch, desk and an authentic jail
cell shower which turned on by pulling a metal chain. The couple of painted
bars left on one side of the bed actually helped stop the baby from falling
out. The mini-suite was nicely decorated with rose covered quilts and sand
coloured towels in keeping with the Desert Escape theme. Other rooms have
names like the Titanic, Lawyer’s Leap and the Privileged Prisoner. You can
view all of the rooms on their website and Judy the manager told me that half
the fun for visitors is viewing the rooms online and then picking out their
Every area of the former jail has been creatively used. The walled exercise
yard has been transformed into tennis, basketball and badminton courts. Some
of the original brick where the prisoners engraved their initials has been
left intact. The solitary confinement area has been left intact so that
visitors can peer in, and leave messages of their own. A great plus for
families is the Pic-a-Dilly Circus, a children’s play area and that has cozy
little cubby holes made from, what else?, original cell blocks and bunks.
Children can be booked into this supervised area and even take their dinner
here amongst TV, videos, toys and nintendo while their parents have a kid
free dinner in either the casual or more upscale restaurant right on the
We had lunch at a popular restaurant called the Oasis Bar and Grill. Tucked
away down a laneway off the main street, the Oasis has a lovely back patio
where we dined on authentic Greek salad and steak sandwiches. I tried the
soup of the day and it was one of the best soups that I’ve ever had. A beef based soup, thickened with tomato and cheese and topped off with floating
bits of crisp tortilla, it sure hit the spot.
Cobourg has a number of popular yearly events, including the Cobourg
Waterfront Festival which takes place around Canada Day, a Vintage Film
Festival that features silent films and vintage talkies that will take place
on October 26-28 and their Christmas Magic celebration, which will transform
the town and waterfront with 100,000 coloured lights from December 1 until
January 2, 2002. For further information check out the Cobourg website at
www.town.cobourg.on.ca or call 1-888-COBOURG.