Every road is the same chrome-to-chrome bumper-to-bumper mess. I’ve just got to get off this road. It’s time for me. Veering off the highway I pass a beautiful stretch of mansions that could be Beverly Hills without the palm trees. Where in the world am I? Suddenly a quaint village full of restaurants, boutiques, salons and dog-walkers appears. I’ve only now discovered what locals have known for years: the heritage-designated downtown village of Oakville.
Along this posh strip of the Lakeshore, a short getaway from Toronto, I’m only moments from the pebble shoreline of Lake Ontario. Oakville has the most harbours per city in Canada; parking is free after 6pm, on Sundays and holidays, and there is an easy, small town feel that beckons a leisurely stroll.
I begin at the Hamba Lounge in Touch De L’Afrique. Part South African art gallery, part travel agency, and part café, here I sip on an intense but smooth Red Latte of rooibos tea ground through an espresso machine, and admire the artisanal works. Around the corner I am drawn to the sweet aroma of SweetBites where a variety of 20 cupcakes brings out the kid in me. All made from scratch. Immediately zeroing-in on a moist chocolate cupcake with chocolate ganache and a spoonful of cookie dough, I follow up with more, more, more.
I had heard about the health benefits of Himalayan salt, and its 84 minerals composition, but I never imagined there would be a salt cave in downtown Oakville. The glowing pink Solana Salt Cave invites us to detoxify, breathing in negative-ions equivalent to relaxing by an ocean. Revitalized, it’s time to shop! The boutique that catches my attention is M for Men. Smart, hip collections that include Pal Zileri, Jacob Cohen Jeans and Xacus Shirts, and with price tags I can afford to look at, I want everything I see. I’m offered espresso and biscotti, and made to feel like a star being styled to impress. This is how shopping should feel. Shopping and lunching gives me that “where am I?” feeling again. A pillar of the village is Ristorante Julia. “It’s really important to us that people eat healthy,” shares chef Carl Dahl. His menu ranges from classic rustic to nouveau eclectic, and the calm positive vibe that effuses throughout the room is evident in the warmth and flare of his cooking. An inventive menu at Fin Izakaya, paired with a range of sake, excites my palate with charcoal-grilled garlic soy oysters, avocado tempura, marbled beef sizzling on a hot stone, and roasted duck enlivened with a seven-spice sauce.
The centre of action is the romantic piazza ambience of the town square. Children play in the grass, baby-strollers and bicyclists pause to relax; yoga enthusiasts assemble for lessons; on summer nights live jazz entertains, and in winter it’s an ice rink. From my patio table at 7 Enoteca, the emphasis is on sharing fresh ingredients sourced locally or flown in from Italy. A one-of-a-kind, 900-degree wood-fired oven needs only 60 seconds to crisp my generously portioned lobster pizza. Fresh black truffles are shaved onto it tableside.
On a return visit with friends, we meander along the pier, and take a “Lakeshore lap” of gastronomy: tapas at Corks, craft beer at Bru, dinner at Seasons, and wine tasting at Maluca. When Oakville needed a change, George and Tammy Couto injected a new pulse with their four restaurants, each with its own niche. At Corks we crunch on beer-battered shrimp tacos with avocado and pico de gallo, and ricotta, spinach and pine nut empanadas with tomato basil coulis. Sidling up to the gastro-bar at Bru we select from 30 craft beers and pair with shrimp po’ boys, smoked peanuts and lip-smacking deep-fried pickles. Embracing organic ingredients from the area, even the artwork is local at Seasons. Executive Chef Peter’s tangy and tender sticky Thai rubbed pork shoulder, and sous vide lamb with caramelized eggplant and figs are reflections of colour and uncommon finesse that are exciting to taste. From crisp spicy-sweet chicken wings and Reuben-smoked brisket sliders to a bacon-wrapped terrine of foie gras, duck and pistachio, the French bistro wine bar, Maluca, offers us a delicious selection to pair with wine and cocktails.
Oakville is far enough away that we feel like tourists on a splendid day trip, and close enough to feel that we’re home.