Story and Photos By John Morris

When boaters ventured into Frenchman’s Bay even a couple of decades ago, it was not without some trepidation - the entrance to the harbour was badly marked and was flanked by the remnants of underwater pier footings, the water inside the bay was so shallow running aground was a certainty for any but the shallowest drawing and the docks were slightly wobbly and mosquito populated.   But all that has changed and more transformations are underway even as you read this.

In recent years Frenchman’s Bay has seen a complete makeover of its east shore, a refurbishing of the beachfront and particularly a radical reno of the immediate blocks of Liverpool Road that lead down to the marinas. Much of the bay has been dredged and currently the channel into the bay is getting a multi-million modernization.

Frenchman’s Bay occupies a unique place in this country as one of the very few privately owned harbours dating back to the commerce of 19th century when on April 28, 1877 an Act of Parliament gave the Pickering Harbour Company a federal charter for the waters. Over the intervening century, the bay evolved into a shallow but serviceable recreational boating area. The small but welcoming Frenchman’s Bay Yacht Cub has a long history. According to the club’s account it was formed in 1938 when “The Bay was predominately a summer community, with Avis Dance pavilion, now Swan's Marine Supply Store, the centre of social activity. The Annual Regatta on the August Holiday weekend was a highlight of the summer activities.”

While FBYC on the west shore of the Bay looks more or less the same as always, the rest of the area has changed significantly. The Pickering Harbour Company rather than the government controlled the navigational aspects of Frenchman’s Bay as well as almost all of its shores and bottom and the relationship with the various governments is not always harmonious. as a result upgrades were perennially slow to arrive. Only comparatively recently were substantial lights installed on the rocky piers that extend out into Lake Ontario from the entrance gap in the sandbar that encloses the bay. Until recently the area was locked in time somewhere in between a boaters’ paradise and a rural marshland even as modern Pickering was growing to the north.

Bernie Luttmer, the owner of Swan’s Marina first discovered the Bay in 1973 when he decided that if he was going to live in Toronto, he wanted to have a sailboat. Looking for a place to moor it he unearthed a cottage at the foot of Liverpool Road that had a slip. He bought the cottage from Herman Swan and lived there, then quit his job and evolved the place into Swan’s Marina, just as the fiberglass boat was revolutionizing sailing. Today Luttmer is a key player in the redevelopment but back then he describes it as a no man’s land. “There was no sewage or water - we had to bring jugs from the gas station up Liverpool road in order to make tea.”

Bay Ridges, the portion of Pickering south of Highway 401, was a haphazard collection of old style cottages, 60s homes and a sprinkling of high-rise condo towers. But things changed in 2002 when the Pickering Harbour Company got permission to develop in the area of Liverpool Road abutting Frenchman’s Bay and with two developers created mixed-use nautical village.  The city, recognizing that they had a diamond in the (very) rough, published Development Guidelines for what had once been called Fairport Village encouraging its rebirth for “marinas, yacht clubs, mooring facilities, and ancillary facilities; marina-supportive uses and facilities; restaurants, limited retail; public open space; and community, cultural and recreational uses.”

Ten years later, voila! The marinas on the east side of the bay are spruced up and adjacent to them there is a Nautical Village of 130 or so homes, condos and shops with interspersed park areas and even a small swimming pool for residents. A New Urbanism main street is clearly modern but conveys a small town feels without being twee. Ground floor shops and cafés with condos above blend attractively with the surroundings.  On narrow streets between Liverpool and the waterfront, there’s a cluster of homes overlooking the Bay. There’s a fine gazebo and the planted trees are achieving some size. 

At the south end of the Village, Liverpool Road turns into Millennium Square across from Swan’s. This public space is used for events while providing a gateway to the well-enjoyed beaches that access Lake Ontario. Purists may scream ‘kitsch,’ but mostly the area has acknowledged its 150 years of waterfront history while creating an area that is increasingly used by both locals and visiting boaters.

For a visiting boat, there are several choices for dockage and lots to do. The three marinas on the east shore, Swan’s, Frenchman’s Bay Marina and Wharf Street all offer transient docking. Reciprocal club members can visit FBYC then circumnavigate the Bay via Bayly Street to get to bustle of the east shore.

Especially on the west arm of the sandbar, the natural setting remains intact.  Exploring along Beachpoint Promenade, the road that runs along the narrow land strip, you’re miles from civilization. Water yoga types from doing their stretches on paddleboards and there’s the rustic but very active Rouge Canoe club, currently still rebuilding from a 1995 fire that all but wiped it out. The bay and its marsh environment remain tranquil and rural. Looking south across the sandbar is the beach and Lake Ontario vista .

One distinctive feature of the Pickering shore, for better or worse, is the Nuke Plant with hulking silos and a towering wind turbine . On the east side of the bay the kids and parents enjoying fishing in Hydro Marsh and playing enthusiastically on the excellent splash pad blissfully unconcerned about the enormous plant a few hundred metres down the beach.

Frenchman’s Bay is the first stop heading east just barely beyond the borders of the Toronto GTA, an easy hop from the clubs and marina at Bluffers Park.  Once cruisers seeking onshore dining could choose the chip truck or a hike up to the perennial boater favorite Massey’s on Liverpool Road but today new food options include Hy-Tea, an authentic teahouse, Café Crème Brulee with crepes and cupcakes galore or an old fashioned style ice cream stand.

More substantial shore restaurants overlook the docks: The Waterfront, just east of Swan’s Marina, serves upscale pub food on its two fine balconies as well as inside. Port, onshore next to Frenchman’s Bay Marina just steps north, is a fine dining spot where Executive Chef & ISG Certified Sommelier Thomas Heitz creates menus to reflect the season and local ingredients.  There’s also The Lake House, an attractive banquet/business facilities that hosts a lot of weddings overlooking our romantic boats.  

In addition to the changes on shore, the three levels of government are spending $9 million to upgrade the entrance to the Bay. Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA)’s website has extensive information on the project that “will result in the creation of a safe harbour entrance while preserving and enhancing the ecological conditions.” The report from last June indicates the size of the undertaking “Approximately 7,900 tonnes of gabion stone and 2,500 tonnes of rip rap were transported to the east spit with the use of a tug boat and two barges. In addition, over 4,000 tonnes of rip rap was delivered for use on the west breakwater.” Fans of the Bay can subscribe to the TRCA’s free online newsletter. The project is scheduled for completion in December 2014.

With all the onshore and waterfront projects, Frenchman’s Bay is emerging as a top tier boating destination, completely sheltered from the Lake and adding cruising features enthusiastically. For years Frenchman’s Bay languished as a bit of a secret swampy paradise, but that secret is definitely making its way onto the front page. If the esthetic distance between marshland and waterfront fine dining can be properly bridged, the Bay might develop into one of the finest boater destinations anywhere.

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: Fishing in Hydro Pond
Photo 2: This aerial shot gives a unique perspective of the club’s protected location and comprehensive facilities.   Credit: Kalloon Photography
Photo 3: Main street scale makes the Village work
Photo 4: Launch ramp adjacent to Swan's on the east side
Photo 5: The Lake House event centre is right on the bay