PELEE ISLAND, Ontario — A big-city person is bred to have, shall we say, certain concerns. So when I asked a resident whether I needed to lock my bicycle — because touring 10,000 rural acres in the middle of Lake Erie by car sort of misses the point — her giggle gave me a start.
"Oh, dear, no," she said. "I've lived here my whole life, and I've never taken my keys out of my car."
"So no one will steal it?"
"If they do, this is an island — there's nowhere to go," she said. "You could just go to the ferry and wait for it."
When it turned out my bike had brake issues, I asked another local about renting a replacement. He said the only rental shop was way at the other end of the island — a whole three miles — and told me to just take his. So not only will they not steal your bike on Pelee Island, they'll give you theirs!
With dusk approaching, I spent the next couple of hours riding that guy's creaky, brown three-speed across the flat, open island in a flawless summer breeze. I saw miles of gentle, swaying soybean fields. Occasional dense stands of trees. A red-brick schoolhouse attended by 10 children. A dozen cars — most of the drivers offering a wave. And ... that's about it. No stoplights. Few businesses other than a bakery, a few B&Bs, a small grocery and a gift store. Certainly no chains or corporations. And that's the point.
"This place forces you to do nothing," said Dean Robillard, 40, of Simcoe, Ontario.
Not exactly a tourism slogan to swear by, or is it? It worked for Robillard. He bought a house on Pelee Island after one visit.
Here at Canada's southernmost inhabited point, just two miles from the Ohio side of the lake, excitement comes in the form of a pilgrimage to the old stone lighthouse. It is sipping the afternoon away at the Pelee Island Winery and, in the fall, pheasant hunting. Those requiring flashy nightlife should look elsewhere.
But they would miss something special about a wooded island with a year-round population of 250 — a summer population five times that — that makes you reconsider the definition of "to do." Everyone here says the genius of the island is that there is nothing to do. But on my first full day, I got on my bike (now fixed) and rode from Pelee's northwest corner to a place at its southern end called the Fish Point Nature Reserve.
On a warm afternoon, I walked about a mile through thick woods toward the island's tip, winding up at a spit of sand and stone that curved into the lake like a tail.
At the end of the spit, I was truly at the end — at the end of the island and at the end of Canada. Just then, Ken and Marilyn Pedder, a couple from London, Ontario, celebrating their 42nd wedding anniversary, walked up.
"There's nothing to do here," said Marilyn, a 60-year-old homemaker. "I like that."
I pointed out that we had done something — we'd walked to the end of the island and were treated to a gloriously wide view of the island.
"True," she said. "This is a nice place to relax and enjoy nature, if you like that. But we know people who have come here and say, 'Why would you want to go there?' Everyone is so busy in their lives these days that they don't know how to relax."
After hiking out of the preserve, I returned to my bike and pedaled along the coast, stopping at what looked like a B&B that I hadn't seen in any brochures. A man and a woman, both wearing shorts and T-shirts, sipped red wine in the front yard.
"Is this a B&B?" I asked. "A restaurant?"
"Soon it will be both," said Sandra Laranja, 42, with a smile.
During her first visit to the island four weeks earlier, Laranja decided to buy this B&B, which had been shuttered for the previous two years. It's now open and called The Wandering Pheasant Inn.
"Isn't that sort of ..." I began.
"Crazy?" she said. "Ask anyone and they'll tell you a similar story. For me, I immediately loved the way I felt here."
This made me think of Robillard, who also bought a place after one visit.
It also made me realize that Pelee Island is a simple place with simple truths. Chief among them is that there's not much to do — except to want to stay.
IF YOU GO:
GETTING THERE: Most people arrive via the ferries that depart Sandusky, Ohio, or Kingsville or Leamington, Ontario. Fares from Sandusky are $13.75 for passengers 12 and older and $6.75 for children 6 to 11. 519-724-2115, ontarioferries.com
SLEEPING THERE: For such a small island, there are a number of top-notch B&Bs. A few favorites are Wavecrest (519-724-1111; wavecrestpelee.com, $160 per night) and Gathering Place (519-724-2656; pelee.com/gatheringplace, $125-$150 per night). A cheaper option is the Anchor and Wheel Inn (519-724-2195; anchorwheelinn.com, as low as $65 a night).
EATING THERE: The best options are the Pelee Island Winery (519-724-2469, peleeisland.com), which offers grills and meat to enjoy with a bottle of their very fine wine; the Anchor and Wheel (519-724-2195, anchorwheelinn.com), which is the closest thing to a regular restaurant on the island; and Conorlee's Bakery & Delicatessen (519-724-2321, conorlee.bravehost.com), which excels in inexpensive breakfast and lunch seven days a week.
WHAT TO DO: The few musts are visiting the old limestone lighthouse; sipping wine at the winery; walking to the very southern tip through the Fish Point Nature Reserve; and going to the Pelee Island Heritage Centre (519-724-2291, peleeislandmuseum.ca). Otherwise, ride your bike (rentals are available at Comfortech Bicycle Rental, 519-724-2828, bikerentalandretail.webs.com).
MORE INFORMATION: Visit pelee.com and pelee.org.