Winston Churchill, known for his emphatic pronouncements, once called the tree-lined highways and byways surrounding the Ontario town of Niagara-on-the-Lake “the prettiest Sunday drive in the world.”
In fact, the small town of 15,000 people boasts itself the prettiest town in Canada. After spending a weekend in the historic community, I have to admit…they might have a point.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is a short 20-minute drive from Niagara Falls. While the Falls themselves, the thundering horseshoe-shaped cascade that plunges more than 100 feet into foaming whirlpools, are an awe-inspiring sight, the town of Niagara Falls is less so.
Directly across from the Falls is the unpleasant spectacle of Clifton Street, a cheesy collection of plastic palm trees, funhouses, wax museums and tired-looking chain restaurants. Clifton Street is meant to appeal to the crowds of teens and college students who venture across the US border to take advantage of Ontario’s lower drinking age, but for those of us for whom the pub is no longer a novelty, the cacophony of hucksters and plastic is more than unappealing. As my husband stoically announced when he saw Clifton Street, “this town looks like it needs a good wash.” Indeed, the entire street looks like Vegas threw up on it. We couldn’t wait to leave.
If you are visiting Niagara Falls, however, there are some interesting sights to be seen. The Whirlpool Aero Car is a pleasant 10-minute cable car ride over the swirling waters of the Niagara Whirlpool, formed at the end of the rapids where the gorge takes a sharp turn and sets the waters twisting and swirling. The view from the family-friendly cable car is spectacular.
No trip to Niagara Falls would be complete without a ride on one of the famous Maid of the Mist tour boats, which have been plying the waters at the base of the waterfalls since 1846. The ride itself takes less than a half hour and the wait is sometimes long to board, but it’s worth it – the power of the Falls is breathtaking close up. Wear warm clothes, though – the wind is chilly and despite the lovely plastic poncho provided for you, you will get wet!
There are historic sections of Niagara Falls and probably many nicer areas, but after a hurried walk down Clifton Street, I’d seen enough. We headed back to Niagara-on-the-Lake at double-quick time.
The contrast between the two towns couldn’t be more marked. Where Niagara Falls is loud, touristy and shabby, Niagara-on-the-Lake is quaint, picturesque and steeped in history.
The Niagara region provides some of the most fertile growing conditions in Canada, making it the perfect place for orchards and vineyards. Wineries surround the small town, including some very well-known winemakers such as Jackson-Triggs, Inniskillin, Trius and Peller Estates. Many of these wineries offer vineyard tours and wine tastings, which is a truly lovely way to spend a warm spring afternoon. The area is small and the wineries easily accessible by bicycle, a mode of transportation which is aided by the network of paved bicycle trails which wind through the area. Tours are held every hour or two on weekends, but many book up, so visit the websites of wineries you are interested in to see if tours can be booked in advance.
The Old Town itself is beautifully preserved, its neat streets dotted with 19th century buildings, many of which date back to the War of 1812, when the town was razed by retreating American soldiers and rebuilt from the ground up. Niagara-on-the-Lake is proud of its history and heritage, and there are many historical sites and tours to visit.
Fort George is the rebuilt site of a key British fort in the War of 1812, which saw the US and Britain fighting for control of Canada. Fort George has been painstakingly restored and costumed guides take visitors back to those tense days of war and bloodshed. Late May also sees the historical re-enactments of several important military battles in the green fields surrounding the fort, which soldiers dressed up in historical costume, cannons firing and muskets crackling as those long-ago battles are brought to life again.
The Laura Secord Homestead is another great place to visit if you’re a history buff. Laura Secord was immortalized when she overhead the plans of American soldiers to invade Canada, and walked 32 kilometres to warn the British of the upcoming attack. The homestead also features costumed guides and, my favourite, a lovely selection of Laura Secord chocolates in the gift shop.
In town, the Apothecary Shop is a must-see. This small museum on the main street recreates the pharmacy which once occupied the spot and the walls are lined with the history of pharmacy in Canada, from quack remedies to mortars and pestles to tattered old prescriptions. The small building even boasts it’s own ghost, which you might catch a glimpse of if you’re lucky.
Walking tours are a great way to see the town and learn about its history. These 90-minute jaunts take visitors on a relaxed stroll through the picturesque streets of the village, telling the storied history of the town while visiting key historic buildings and sites.
If you’re not up for walking, hop on a horse-drawn carriage ride. The Sentineal family has been running carriage tours of Niagara-in-the-Lake for decades, and their knowledge of the town and its history is impressive.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is also known for its culinary delights. One of the best restaurants in the area is the 5-star dining room at Peller Estates Winery. Reservations well in advance are required during the busy summer months, but it’s well worth it. The menu features gourmet selections prepared by celebrity chef Jason Parsons using many local ingredients. Five or seven course menus are available which gives you course after course of amazing food complete with wine pairings for each. The restaurant itself is pricey, but you won’t be disappointed. I can still taste the fresh fiddleheads, baby asparagus and buffalo tenderloin. The walking trails come in handy after seven glasses of wine, one with each course of your meal!
Whenever I travel, I always try to stay at a bed and breakfast. There are many beautiful and historic bed and breakfasts in Niagara-on-the-Lake that offer gorgeous accommodations, amazing gourmet breakfasts and warm local hospitality. The Wonderstruck is a beautifully-restored Victorian home complete with a turret which dates back to the early 19th century, run by Margaret Wunderink, also a talented artist whose lovely paintings decorate the walls of the B&B. Wunderstruck is about 10 minutes outside of town and only minutes away from many of the region’s best wineries, a great choice if you’re hoping to do wine tasting tours or enjoy being out in the country.
The perfect end to your trip is a late-night ghost tour of the town, run by Ghost Walks of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Tours leave nightly at 8:30 from the Haunted Shop, just off the main street, and feature a costumed guide with a flickering lantern who walks visitors through the many haunted locations in the town. Niagara-on-the-Lake also claims to be Canada’s “most haunted town,” and while that may or may not be true, the place does have more than its share of bloody history and creepy tales.
To find out more about things to do in Niagara-on-the-Lake, visit the town’s website at www.niagaraonthelake.com.