Bucket List Worthy
Wine, theatre, golf and shopping. Did we mention great food, spas and scenery? All the ingredients for a fabulous getaway and it’s a total breeze to get to: just a 90-minute drive from Toronto’s Pearson Airport or half an hour from Buffalo. The Niagara peninsula, spectacularly set between two Great Lakes, Ontario and Erie, and bordered by the Niagara River, is Canada’s best known wine country.
With a cool climate growing season that ranks with the best in the world, Niagara has vineyards galore, dozens of wineries and two regional appellations, the geographic indicators set by Canada’s Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA).
We bypassed the tasting rooms and restaurants of old favourites like Peller Estates, Jackson-Triggs and Trius and booked a tasting, tour and dinner at Two Sisters Vineyards, the hottest premium newbie in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Two Sisters is a slice of la dolce vita on the outskirts of town. Sisters Angela and Melissa Marotta, of the Solmar construction family, lavished attention to detail and it shows: the tasting room is staffed by sommeliers, the barrel room is splendid, and the restaurant, under Chef Justin Lesso, is divine.
Called Kitchen 76, this airy space features a pizza oven, a communal table and an elegant terrace overlooking a few of the 76 acres it’s named for. We had a stellar meal paired with award-winning reds and whites, and swooned over the best focaccia ever.
A tour is the best way to get a balanced taste of the more than 30 wineries in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and the best way to tour is on two wheels. Unless you have a real aversion to cycling, you’d be crazy not to – the bike paths are beautiful, the country roads are wide open and there’s not a hill in sight. We didn’t see as much as a bump on our amazing ride with Niagara Wine Tours International, who gave us an experience we couldn’t possibly have had on our own. They promised us a “full sensory connection,” and they delivered all that and more.
We started with a tour and tasting at Reif Estates Winery, one of the industry’s founding-family pioneers, followed by a tasting at Marynissen Estates, home of Canada’s oldest commercial planting of Cabernet Sauvignon. We stopped at Caroline Cellars, a small country winery with an unassuming vibe and a really good lunch. Who knew? We would never have picked those places ourselves.
Many of the wines aren’t available at the LCBO, so guests simply buy at the wineries and pick up from Niagara Wine Tours at the end of the tour. You can also book a motorized tour or rent a bike and and hit the path along the Niagara Parkway, which Winston Churchill called “the prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world.”
Niagara Wine Tours was a recommendation from André, Chef Concierge at White Oaks Resort & Spa, our go-to hotel in Niagara. White Oaks is just 20 minutes away from Niagara-on-the-Lake and pretty much anywhere else in the region you’d want to go.
With 48 golf courses, you’re in the largest concentration of golf facilities in any one region of Canada; the top seven courses open to the public are on the Niagara Golf Trail. And hello, shoppers: the brand new Outlet Collection at Niagara is just across the road. You can shop till you drop at big-name outlets like Boss, Gerry Webber and J.Crew, and call the hotel to take your bags back to your room.
White Oaks is independently owned, family-run and has everything we like — great food, welcoming staff, a huge racquet and fitness club, and underneath it all, an award-winning spa with a full treatment menu. We love to hit the pause button with a honey nectar body scrub (look at that tub!), a knockout facial or muscle-soothing massage, followed by a low-key dinner at one of the hotel’s restaurants and back to snooze in the comfort of our room.
Being 20 minutes away, it was easy to overlook the hordes of tourists and plan a spectacular day at Niagara Falls. We avoided the casinos and high-rise hotels, and drove straight to Horseshoe Falls, where we donned plastic parkas and took an elevator down to the jaw-dropping Journey Behind the Falls.
We were mesmerized by our closeup of the second largest waterfall on the planet, where one-fifth of the world’s fresh water thunders down into the Niagara River basin. We had a dazzling view of it all over a pleasant lunch at Elements on the Falls before walking down to the new Hornblower catamaran cruise.
We wore red parkas and had a thrilling ride … just when we thought we couldn’t get any closer, the captain kept on going.
After all this awesomeness, there was more in store. We drove north on the Parkway and stopped to do the White Water Walk, a quarter-mile boardwalk along the Whirlpool Rapids, North America’s most dangerous (Class 6), in the Niagara River Gorge.
Since the Shaw Festival first began in 1962, no spring, summer or fall trip to Niagara could be complete without a visit to the theatre. The world-renowned Shaw Festival, North America’s second largest repertory theatre company, is an absolute must and runs until November. This year’s playbill includes Sweet Charity, the wonderful Peter and the Starcatcher, a new version of Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea, and a brilliant contemporary take on Pygmalion by Director Peter Hinton, set in modern-day London. The Shaw Festival runs yearly from April through October.
In June, there’s the Niagara Integrated Film Festival, Music Niagara‘s from July 11 – Aug. 9, the Niagara Jazz Festival is July 23 – 26, and the Peach Festival is Aug. 8 – 9. Coming up, you can catch the 64th Annual Wine Festival on weekends from September 12 – 27, the Grand Canadian Steampunk Exposition from September 25 – 27, and the Icewine Festival over three weekends in January 2016.