Experiencing Niagara Beyond the Falls

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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.

The terrace at Kitchen 76, Two Sisters Winery Photo: Lin Stranberg
On the terrace at Kitchen 76, Two Sisters Winery      Photo: Lin Stranberg

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).

New in Niagara Wine Country

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 Winery Photo: Lin Stranberg
In the barrel room, Two Sisters Winery      Photo: Lin Stranberg

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.

The pizza oven at Kitchen 76
The pizza oven at Kitchen 76      Photo: Lin Stranberg

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.

Rack of lamb at Kitchen 76 Photo: Lin Stranberg
Grilled lamb at Kitchen 76      Photo: Lin Stranberg

Boutique Wineries on Bicycle

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.

On the road to Caroline Winery Photo: Lin Stranberg
On the road to Caroline Cellars     Photo: Lin Stranberg

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.”

Sports, Spa and Shopping

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.

Cardio room at the Club, White Oaks Resort & Spa Photo: Lin Stranberg
Cardio room at the Club, White Oaks Resort & Spa      Photo: Lin Stranberg

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.

A soaker tub at White Oaks Spa Photo: Lin Stranberg
At White Oaks Spa       Photo: Lin Stranberg

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.

New Thrills at Niagara Falls

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.

Journey Behind the Falls Photo: Lin Stranberg
The Journey Behind the Falls       Photo: Lin Stranberg

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.

Hornblower Niagara Cruise Photo: Lin Stranberg
Hornblower Niagara Cruise       Photo: Lin Stranberg

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.

White Water Walk along the Niagara Gorge Photo: Lin Stranberg
White Water Walk at the Niagara Gorge      Photo: Lin Stranberg

We continued back to Niagara-on-the-Lake, stopping to look at the Whirlpool Aero Car enroute to a fun dinner at Treadwell’s  (be sure to book the kitchen bar).

Sous-chef at Treadwell's Photo: Lin Stranbeg
Sous-chef at Treadwell’s      Photo: Lin Stranberg

Catch a Festival

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.

Pygmalion Photo: Emily Cooper
Pygmalion at the Shaw Festival      Photo: Emily Cooper

In June, there’s the Niagara Integrated Film FestivalMusic 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.

Check the calendars at Niagara-on-the-Lake Tourism or Niagara Wine Festival for details.

About the Author: Lin Stranberg

Lin Stranberg is an award-winning writer, editor and enthusiastic traveller based in Toronto. Huffington Post blogs: www.huffingtonpost.com/lin-stranberg-/ Instagram: @linstranberg

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