Al Capone must have been paying attention in school the day the teacher recited "Paul Revere's Ride," one of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous poems:
"Listen, my children, and you shall hearOf the midnight ride of Paul Revere …One if by land, and two if by sea;And I on the opposite shore will be …"
Nearly 150 years after the hanging of lanterns in a church tower alerted Colonists to an impending British invasion, Capone would use the same tactic but for a very different purpose. A light high atop a church in Canada was the signal to his men that the coast was clear for them to cross into the U.S. with their bounty of bootleg whisky.
Capone had only a 6th-grade education, but he didn't need a diploma to figure out that the Canadian city closest to Chicago is Windsor, Ontario. The gangster used to make the drive—just 41⁄2 hours—to enjoy his favorite, the locally made Canadian Club whisky. That indulgence is still available today, one of many pleasures awaiting visitors to the south side of the international border.
South? Yes, as you drive into Windsor—across a bridge over, or a tunnel under, the Detroit River—you're actually heading south. Go figure, eh? And once through customs, it's not much farther to the ports from which boats ferry passengers out into Lake Erie to charming Pelee Island, one of several attractions in Essex County. In fact, this offshore spit of land is the southernmost inhabited place in Canada.
I enter via the Ambassador Bridge and almost immediately notice differences that make it obvious I'm in a foreign land, though the Motor City's skyscrapers are still visible in my rearview mirror.
The road signs note that the speed limit along Huron Church Road is 50 kilometers an hour; Canada hasn't used miles for more than 30 years. Another sign tells me I'm at the Tourist Information Centre—they spell things the British way .
Many unfamiliar business names are visible: Canadian Tire, Petro Canada and Scotiabank, to name just three. In their signage, many sport the ubiquitous red maple leaf that appears on the equally common Canadian flags. But, to a Yank's relief, plenty of familiar signs exist too: Shell, Walmart and Holiday Inn included. In fact, just a mile or so—OK, a couple of kilometers—off the bridge, I spot a Dairy Queen. The familiarity, however, fades once I'm inside.
Sure, there are burgers and fries, but there also are some unusual offerings, such as a Moolatte (a frozen coffee drink) and a Blizzard made with pieces of Crispy Crunch (a Canadian candy bar).
And then there's the poutine. Particularly popular in Quebec—hence the French name—poutine is a true Canadian creation, a curious mix of french fries topped with white cheese curds and then slathered with gobs of brown gravy. If you're brave enough to tuck in, be sure to use a fork, and set the salt shaker aside; one serving has 99 percent of the daily value—what we call the recommended daily allowance—of sodium.
Thank goodness the Canadian Club Brand Centre is just a short drive away. This is where I can taste something I know I'll like: Canadian whisky.
The majestic old building—where until recently the whisky was made—sits on the riverbank just east of downtown Windsor. Tour guide Brian Daniel assures my fellow guests and me that we'll get to sample the wares at the end of his informative tour. It includes a visit to the former basement bar where Al Capone used to place his orders, both by the glassful and the caseload.
"Capone was known for being a real Canadian Club guy," Daniel explains. "He loved the whisky. He was a really big fan."
The guide goes on to explain how Big Al, apparently with some discreet assistance from members of founder Hiram Walker's family, devised a plan for keeping his boys from being intercepted by federal agents as they moved boatloads of illegal whisky across the Detroit River into officially dry America.
The story—for obvious reasons—isn't well-documented but is nonetheless legendary in Windsor. It seems that the Chicago mobster paid for a large, illuminated cross to adorn the top of Our Lady of the Rosary church, a Catholic parish, located not-coincidentally within sight of the river.
"Al Capone saw this church as being a perfect way to signal his smugglers on the river," Daniel tells visitors. "When you can see that lit cross, that means the river's safe. It's free to bring the whisky across."
No one knows for sure who was inside the chapel operating the light switch. "That's the big question," he says with a grin.
"[Capone's] visits were quite frequent, from what we've been told," the guide adds. "He was basically making sure that his operation ran smoothly."
The yarns about Prohibition are enjoyable, even more so after Daniel—who also serves as bartender—shares some of the distillery's product. There are three varieties of Canadian Club to taste.
"When you're ready, have a little sip of our six-year whisky," he tells Sue Pitts and Julie Hallaver, who have driven over from Allen Park, Mich., for a day trip. He explains that apart from their aging, the 6-, 10- and 12-year-old whiskies are made from different recipes, using various amounts of malted barley, corn and rye.
"They taste extremely different," says Pitts, who adds that her Dad used to drink CC. "I'm impressed."
"I expected them to taste harsher," Hallaver adds. "It was interesting to see how they purposely make them different."
The distillery is in appropriately named Walkerville, now a Windsor neighborhood that was a town in its own right back in Hiram's day. Those who appreciate good beer in addition to good whisky will want to make the short walk to the Walkerville Brewing Co., where tours and tastings are also available. Both the brewery and the distillery sell their products. Be aware, however, that Americans can return home with only 1 liter of duty-free alcohol per adult.
Whisky and beer aren't the only kinds of alcohol flowing in the Windsor area. The temperate climate of the region allows grapes to flourish. That has given rise to about a dozen wineries in the area, with the Shores of Erie International Wine Festival coming up Sept. 10-14. There will be plenty of wine to go with food and entertainment.
But back to the whisky. The Canadian Club warming my insides seems to enhance the views of the Detroit skyline from Windsor's Riverfront Trail, which stretches for 3 miles—I mean, 5 kilometers. Walkers and bicyclists will find dedicated lanes where the trail passes several original sculptures, and plenty of benches offer the chance to take a breather while watching the passing boats.
Whatever your means of transport, you'll find Windsor easy to negotiate, partly because of its relatively small population. (At 216,000, it's roughly the size of Madison, Wis.) If you're traveling on foot, remember to wait for the "walk" light at pedestrian crossings; Canadians are far more diligent about obeying these than we Americans are.
Along the riverfront, one of the city's key attractions towers: the new Caesars Windsor Hotel & Casino, one of the city's hedges against the collapsing auto industry. With the same theme as its famous cousin in Las Vegas, this property offers (in addition to gaming) deluxe accommodations and big-name entertainment—Jay Leno, Joe Cocker, Alan Jackson, for example.
Of course, we have plenty of gambling and big-name entertainment in Illinois, but for those seeking a quick international experience without climbing on a plane, Windsor awaits.
If you go
General informationThe Convention & Visitors Bureau of Windsor Essex County & Pelee Island is exceedingly informative, with searchable databases for restaurants and accommodations. visitwindsor.com; 800-265-3633.
For those who have never crossed the border between Detroit and Windsor, crossingmadeeasy.com has useful information. U.S. citizens can obtain up-to-date information on passport requirements from the State Department at travel.state.gov. Passports are required.
LodgingWindsor accommodations range from cozy bed-and-breakfasts to luxury hotels. I found the Holiday Inn Select (1855 Huron Church Rd.; holiday-inn-windsor.com; 519-966-1200) to be an attractive, moderately priced choice, with the bonus of a 24-hour restaurant.
DiningFor traditional British fare such as steak and kidney pie and fish and chips, visit Kildare House (corner of Wyandotte Street East at Kildare; kildarehouse.tripod.com; 519-252-4003).
AttractionsThe Canadian Club Brand Heritage Center (2072 Riverside Drive East; canadianclubwhisky.com; 519-973-9503) offers tours year round. To sample the wares, guests must be at least 19, the legal drinking age in Ontario.
Southwestern Ontario's mild climate (at least by Canadian standards) makes grape-growing popular. The mainland has about a dozen wineries (swovintners.com ) that welcome visitors. The Shores of Erie International Wine Festival will be held Sept. 10-13. For information, visit soewinefestival.com, or call 519-730-1001.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times