The Other Niagara: A Jewel On The LakeBill Symonds
Niagara-on-the-Lake offers business travelers the perfect escape from fast-paced Toronto. Outside of rush hour, it's an easy 90-minute drive from Canada's business capital. But once you arrive, you'll feel as if you've traveled back a century.
This charming town of 13,000 nestled along the shores of Lake Ontario at the mouth of the Niagara River--and a world apart from the carnival atmosphere of well-known Niagara Falls, Ont.--is one of North America's best-preserved 19th century villages. That's appropriate, since the town and surrounding Niagara Peninsula saw some of the fiercest fighting during the War of 1812. Today, Niagara-on-the-Lake is also home of the renowned Shaw Festival, a repertory theater that from spring to early autumn performs works by George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries. And it's at the center of Ontario's rapidly improving wine industry.
Early fall--September and October--is arguably the best time to visit. The town is less crowded than during peak summer season. And the Niagara Parkway, running 13.5 miles along the Niagara River gorge down to the world-famous falls, is spectacular once the leaves start to change by late September. That's also when the grape harvest kicks off at the area's vineyards. And this fall, the Shaw Festival will be in full swing until Oct. 29.
Delve into the area's history starting at Fort George, a huge British-built fort at the edge of town, which has been restored to the way it looked on the eve of the War of 1812. From there, the short drive to Niagara Falls passes several other monuments, including a Georgian-style farmhouse that served as a military hospital, and the homestead of Laura Secord, the beloved Canadian heroine who alerted her country's forces to an American invasion. Best of all, the scenery is some of the nicest in Ontario.
VINE DRIVE. The "Wine Route" established by Ontario's vintners also passes through Niagara-on-the-Lake. This well-marked drive includes more than 25 wineries, many run by first-generation German immigrants attracted by the region's fine growing conditions. Although many of these wineries are upstarts by European standards, they've garnered an impressive number of international awards in recent years. Most offer tastings for a nominal charge. The best introductory tours are offered by Inniskillin and Hillebrand Estates, both near the town. Inniskillin offers a fascinating self-guided tour which explains how it and other local wineries make some of the world's finest "icewines." This sweet dessert wine is made from grapes harvested only after they've frozen on the vine.
While many Torontonians consider Niagara-on-the-Lake a day trip, you'll find it more relaxing if you stay overnight. Because rooms are at a premium, call the accommodation service offered by the Chamber of Commerce (905 468-4263) before you go. They can help you find a room at the town's best hotels. Two of them, the Prince of Wales and Queen's Landing, also have excellent restaurants. For a more memorable stay, ask the Chamber to help you book a night in one of the town's 86 bed-and-breakfasts. Many are beautifully preserved homes in the historic district. And all have been inspected for compliance with the town's quite high standards. Rates mostly range from $50 to $100 a night, including breakfast. With the Candian dollar worth just 75 cents U.S., bargains abound.
A perfect way to spend your evening is at the Shaw Festival, which is staging nine plays into the fall, including a brilliant revival of Noel Coward's epic Cavalcade. Be sure to call ahead for tickets (800 267-4759); they normally cost up to $45 U.S., but Sunday evening performances are just $19.
Many Canadians are secretly happy that more Americans haven't heard of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Too many visitors, they argue, would spoil it. If you're lucky enough to go, you'll no doubt agree.
BY CAR From Toronto, take the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) south toward Niagara Falls. After passing St. Catherines, take Exit 38B onto Highway 55, which runs into Niagara-on-the-Lake. The drive takes 90 minutes.