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A TASTE OF NIAGARA Wine and Theatre Highlight Canada's Prettiest Town
By Jamie Ross

For Travel Writers' Tales

The idyllic, 18th century Niagara-on-the-Lake has been called Canada's prettiest little town. It is home to some of North America's finest wineries, a sampling of great hotels, fine restaurants that specialize in local cuisine, eclectic shopping and the Shaw Festival. Blossoming flowers colour the neat and orderly downtown. Beautiful stone heritage buildings have been restored to their original splendour. Old-fashioned street lights illuminate the horse-drawn carriages that parade up and down Queen Street. Though its famous name has left it linked with one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the mood and pace of the charming town has little in common with the tourist-riddled, glitzy city of Niagara Falls.

Niagara Carriage Rid

And Niagara-on-the-Lake's beauty is more substance than superficial. The Niagara Peninsula is recognized internationally as an outstanding wine producing locale, with a unique mesoclimate similar to that of the great wine producing regions of the world. This rich agricultural area is more southerly than Bordeaux, and the two Great Lakes, Ontario and Erie, moderate temperatures, ensuring the cool springs and long autumns that are ideal for growing grapes.

Just over an hour's drive from Toronto and ˝ hour from Buffalo, the peninsula is home to over 40 wineries. No longer are they simply purveyors of excellent wines, the wineries have done an outstanding job of tapping into tourism, offering visitors the complete wine country experience. Open year round, they welcome guests with tours, tastings, special events, and the opportunity to experience regional cuisine in their on-site restaurants.

Niagara Bike Tour

My wife and I rented bicycles, feeling that this energetic approach would be the healthiest and safest way to do some winery-hopping. With trail map in hand, and following the blue wine route signs, we cycled through the beautiful vineyard estates, stopping at the renowned Peller Estates, Inniskillin, Jackson-Triggs, Reif Estate, Pillitteri, and Marynissen wineries to sample their remarkably diverse offerings. Winemakers and their staff at the taster bars showed us how to taste and evaluate wine by colour, clarity, aroma, and flavour.

The picturesque paved Wine Trail meanders along the bank of the Niagara River, past beautiful stone homes, historic inns, orchards, vineyards, and wineries. The trek follows the Niagara Parkway, which Winston Churchill, during a 1943 visit, called "the prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world." The many historic plaques and markers remind us of Niagara-on-the-Lake's special place in our history, as capital of Upper Canada in 1792, site of the first provincial parliament and of our first newspaper.

Wine Trail

We pedalled down to the waterfront to watch jet boats departing for a quick trip upriver to the famous falls, and then visited historic Fort George, where staff in period costume and uniform re-enact daily life in the garrison circa 1812, when the fort's cannons faced Fort Niagara on the American side of the river. When a light drizzle began to fall, we slipped into the Buttery Restaurant on main street for Steak and Kidney pie and a dark beer.

The annual Shaw Festival, which opens in April and runs to November, features the works of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries. There are three theatres, each with its own personality. The Royal George Theatre on Queen Street features Edwardian gilt mouldings, richly coloured red walls and golden lions. It was built as a vaudeville house to entertain troops during World War I. The second largest repertory theatre in North America, the Shaw stages eleven productions each season, to an international audience of some 350,000 people. We enjoyed the intriguing Friday evening performance of "An Inspector Calls" and, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, were wowed by the fun and engaging musical "Wonderful Town."

Niagara Tasting

With the musical numbers echoing in our heads, we wandered through the art galleries and shops along the main street, settling on the Shaw Wine Bar and Café as an excellent place to sit and discuss the theatre. Sipping a barrel-aged Gamay Noir while looking down at the tree-lined main street, with its flower gardens and restored buildings, I raised a salute to the poet William Kirby who wrote, back in 1896, that "Niagara is as near heaven as any town whatever." After our enchanting weekend in Niagara-on-the-Lake, we realize things have not changed very much.


Where to Stay.

From five diamond hotel properties to charming inn and bed and breakfast homes, there are plenty of accommodation properties. Reservations can be arranged through the Chamber of Commerce Accommodation Booking Service. We stayed at the engaging and very comfortable Wine Country Bed and Breakfast, where we were well looked after by hosts Jeff and John, whose personal touches included arranging transportation to dinner in a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost.


One of my best meals in a while was put together at The Charles Inn by chef William Brunyansky. Built in 1832, this white neo-Georgian house with the ambience of a colonial mansion is one of Niagara-on-the-Lake's oldest buildings, and is recognized by Wine Spectator as one of the best dining experiences in town. Information.

Chamber of Commerce Accommodation Booking Service 905-468-1950
The Shaw Festival Theatre 1-800-511-7429

Photos by Jamie Ross

1. Niagara Carriage Ride
2. Niagara Bike Tour
3. The Wine Trail
4. Niagara Tasting

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