San Francisco’s ‘Painted Ladies’ are certainly more grand. And St. John’s, Newfoundland may take the prize for the most colourful houses in one Canadian city. But for me, nothing lifts the spirits quite like the quirky, colourful Grimsby Beach cottages right here in Ontario. Painted in vibrant shades that use every crayon in the Crayola box, and with Victorian details that put even the most elaborate dollhouses to shame, Grimsby’s historic beach homes are a delight for the eyes – and one of the province’s hidden gems.
A Hidden Gem Just Outside Toronto
The small town of Grimsby lies about 90 minutes from Toronto, and enjoys an enviable location sandwiched as it is between the shores of Lake Ontario and the beautiful Niagara Escarpment. For this reason, it has attracted tourists for more than a century. Most notably, from about 1850 until the turn of the 20th century, Grimsby Beach became the location for the Ontario Methodist Camp Meeting Ground, a week-long annual revival event where families would come to worship together, camping on the shores of the lake. Before long, visitors’ tents were replaced with Victorian cottages, and a unique circular temple that became the heart of the community. (Sadly, this unique structure did not survive the years; only a small stone marker identifies the former location of the temple in the circular cul-de-sac known today as Auditorium Circle.)
By the 1910s, the Methodists had de-camped entirely, and the property was purchased by the Canada Steamship Lines who developed the beachside location into a resort and amusement park that attracted crowds of visitors for the next 20 years, before it too, gave way to summer cottagers who came to enjoy the beachside location.
Different from the Muskokas, where massive waterfront cottage properties are often separated by acres of trees, this beachside Grimsby community is a clustered enclave of modestly-sized homes, tiny one-way streets, and narrow laneways. In recent years, homeowners have invested significantly in these former cottages, making improvements to them but preserving their character – and the neighbourhood – in the process.
But it is the colours and character of these Grimsby Beach cottages that will make visitors smile.
Grimsby Beach Cottages ‘Spark Joy’.
If you like gingerbread houses for all of their colourful candy decorations, and you’re a fan of Victorian architecture, Grimsby’s historic beach cottages will have you snapping photos like a celebrity-chasing paparazzi. There are more than a dozen homeowners who have restored their homes using the kind of eccentric, colourful palettes and gingerbread details that are typical for cottages of this period. (You can see similar styles of Victorian cottages on Martha’s Vineyard and elsewhere in the U.S.)
Neighbours seem to compete with each other for who can come up with the most whimsical decor or elaborate paint jobs, and the colour palettes they use are as playful as the details that adorn the homes.
Auditorium Circle has a cluster of homes that have truly embraced the idea of whimsy and fun, with everything from pencil-crayon garden gates to comical faces flanking their windows.
Henk and I spoke with some of the residents who told us that while the detailed paint jobs require regular maintenance to keep the colours vibrant, it is a labour of love, something the homeowners have embraced for the past 20 years or so.
Check out this video as we strolled Auditorium Circle:
Explore the Laneways
Stroll down the narrow one-way streets and laneways of Grimsby Beach, and you are likely to discover fun details beyond just the historic homes themselves. Whether it’s a ‘shed quilt’ decorating an outbuilding (similar to larger quilts we saw on a Barn Quilt Trail north of Toronto), quirky shutters, or unexpected artwork on fences, there’s always something to delight the eye.
Even the Little Free Library here in Grimsby Beach has whimsical touches, like an antique plate, cup-and-saucer cupola, and of course, gingerbread trim.
Don’t forget Grimsby Beach!
While it is easy to get caught up in admiring the homes of this Grimsby Beach community, you shouldn’t overlook the actual reason why this was a popular cottage location in the first place: the waterfront. There is a pretty tree-lined waterfront trail just above the shore of Lake Ontario that runs behind the cottages that is ideal for skirting the shore, and several places where you can access the beach itself via paths and wooden stairs.
We visited Grimsby in the middle of winter, and were able to walk onto the ice dams that had piled up on the shore, exploring the ‘beach’ in an altogether different way than in the summer. We were surprised to see ice floes and small ‘icebergs’ floating out in the lake, too, near the shore and on the horizon, providing the perfect excuse for Henk to pull out his crystal Lensball to try a few photos.
Grimsby Beach Cottages: Colour Therapy Any Time of the Year
“Colour therapy” may have become trendy recently thanks to bathtubs that come equipped with coloured lights (yes, it’s a thing), but I prefer the kind of mood-elevating effect that Grimbsy’s beach cottages offer, especially in the winter. After an afternoon spent admiring these pretty painted ladies on a sunny Sunday, I would definitely recommend a visit to this little-known neighbourhood on the shores of Lake Ontario. Whatever season you choose to visit, this place is just plain fun for the eyes and good for the soul.
TIP: The people we met on our visit in the neighbourhood were lovely. But remember, these are people’s homes, and the neighbourhood is small. So be respectful, keep the noise down and don’t go onto anyone’s property without permission.
How to Get to Grimsby Beach Cottages:
Take the QEW to the Barlett Avenue Exit and after exiting, make a sharp right onto South Service Road West. This will head you back to Bartlett Avenue where you will turn right towards Lake Ontario. Where Bartlett meets Lake Street at the stop sign, turn left. You will pass a sign on the right that says “Historic Grimsby Beach’, and about 3 small streets past it on the right is Bett’s Laneway. Take Bett’s Laneway past 2 small streets to Temple Lane where you will turn right. On your right there’s an entrance to a small parking lot for about 10 cars right beside Bell Park, which is the centre of the neighbourhood.
TIP: The laneways here are narrow and one-way, so make sure you drive in the right direction! If the tiny lot is full, you can park just outside the neighbourhood and walk back – there are other homes you can see on the opposite side of Lake Street, too.
Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established GrownupTravels.com in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.