Staging the Perfect Getaway in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario

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Bucket List Worthy  

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George Bernard Shaw lends his name to Niagara-on-the-Lake’s theatre festival. Credit: Lucas Aykroyd

If you look up “mellow” in the dictionary, you might find a photo of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Just a 1.5-hour drive from Toronto, this picturesque Southern Ontario town (pop. 15,400) is well-known for its British heritage, hanging flower baskets, and retirement communities.

However, Niagara-on-the-Lake is also a dynamic destination for culture connoisseurs and adventure aficionados alike. Here are four compelling reasons to visit the original capital of Upper Canada.

A Top-Notch Theatre Festival

The cast of You Never Can Tell.
The 1897 Shaw comedy You Never Can Tell was a recent hit at the Shaw Festival. Credit: Shaw Festival

Since 1962, the Shaw Festival has made Niagara-on-the-Lake a must-see for theatre buffs. Running annually from April to November, it’s named after George Bernard Shaw, the witty and polemical Irish playwright whose classics include Pygmalion – the inspiration for My Fair Lady – and Major Barbara.

Today, the festival showcases works by Shaw (1856-1950) and his contemporaries, plus new plays that challenge the status quo. In 2016, the final season for artistic director Jackie Maxwell before Tim Carroll takes the reins, well-known offerings will include Alice in Wonderland, Sweeney Todd, and Uncle Vanya.

Take a backstage tour at the flagship, 856-capacity Shaw Festival Theatre, opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1973. You’ll find out how a vintage black taxi – close to 90 years old – was converted to electric power for the stage, check out glitzy dresses worn in Cabaret and The Philadelphia Story, and discover how actors multi-task in their dressing rooms.

Rushing to dine before the show? No worries.

Whether you’re feasting on a char-grilled beef rib eye at the marble-tiled, intimately lit Escabeche, devouring a burger with apple wood smoked cheddar on the open-air patio at Zees, or enjoying an upmarket take on fish and chips with pickerel and coleslaw at the Oban Inn restaurant, local kitchens hustle to ensure you’re on time. And all four Shaw Festival theatres are within easy walking distance.

A Wonderful Wine Scene

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Niagara-on-the-Lake is surrounded by some of Canada’s finest vineyards. Credit: Lucas Aykroyd

The poet Rumi once wrote: “Either give me more wine or leave me alone.” He’d have been right at home in Niagara-on-the-Lake, which boasts more than 35 surrounding wineries. With warm microclimates and mineral-rich soil, this region is famed as the birthplace of ice wine.

An excellent way to sample the local vintages is on a biking wine tour, passing bucolic vineyards just off the Niagara Parkway. Tour operator Grape Escape hits four different wineries each time out, so you can come back more than once. Most production is small-scale, and you’ll taste wines you can’t get at home. Pedaling has its perks. Guide Marcy Desroches quips: “There’s no calories on a biking wine tour, right?”

And there’s no shortage of great wineries. Reif Estate Winery’s beautifully designed German-style tasting room showcases dry Rieslings. Inniskillin celebrates 40 years in business this year and is earning kudos for its Reserve Series Sauvignon Blanc.

Pondview specializes in ice wine shooters served in chocolate cups, and has hosted Don Cherry, Peter Mansbridge, and Prince Charles. Caroline Cellars not only offers delectable blueberry and blackberry wines, but also sells huge portions of poutine, plus tea towels and T-shirts with cheeky slogans like “If you don’t like the food, have more wine.”

A 12-km, four-hour guided afternoon tour is $64/adult. Grab a picnic lunch beforehand at Kurtz Orchards, the tour starting point. You can enjoy a sundried tomato chicken wrap with a juicy peach and decadent butter tart for dessert, and also buy local jams and jellies at the store.

A World-Class Waterfall

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In 2007, a CBC competition named Niagara Falls one of the Seven Wonders of Canada. Credit: Lucas Aykroyd

Merely a 20-minute drive from Niagara-on-the-Lake, close to 110,000 cubic metres of water pour over the world-famous Niagara Falls each minute. Want to experience North America’s most powerful falls without plunging over the edge like Lois Lane in 1980’s Superman II? Options abound.

Don a biodegradable yellow poncho and enter the Journey Behind the Falls. It enables visitors to feel the spray safely, and vividly documents the site’s history, including an over-the-top quote from the 17th-century Catholic missionary Louis Hennepin: “The waters which fall from this horrible Precipice, do foam and boyl after the most hideous manner imaginable.” Boat tours, like the dramatic Hornblower Niagara Cruises excursion, are also available.

The Whitewater Walk adds tidbits about the (often ill-fated) attempts of barrel riders, tightrope walkers, and swimmers to go over Niagara Falls, along with a scenic boardwalk stroll alongside the Niagara River’s vibrant green waters.

To experience the Niagara Whirlpool, situated downstream from the falls, try out two different perspectives. The Whirlpool Aero Car, which marks its centennial in 2016, offers a stately, scenic cable car ride over this deep, circular basin with a counterclockwise current.

If you’re up for getting smacked with huge waves and absolutely drenched, sign up for a Whirlpool Jet Boat Tour out of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Whizzing past power stations and under the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge adorned with U.S. and Canadian flags, the hour-long, 29-km odyssey feels like a James Bond movie.

A Hearty Helping of History

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Fort George, a focal point in the War of 1812, welcomes guests from April to October. Credit: Lucas Aykroyd

British colonial history comes alive in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Incorporated in 1792, it’s the only Canadian municipality whose leader holds the UK-style title of “Lord Mayor.” Jolly good!

If just looking at period costumes isn’t enough for you, head to Fort George. At this National Historic Site, you can put on a red British soldier’s tunic and fire a flintlock musket.

The cannon-laden fort played a major role in the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States. In an interpretive centre, the “Quill Network” brings that conflict alive for phone-crazed millennials by showing how social media would have looked for key players like British major-general Isaac Brock and U.S. president James Madison if it existed back then.

Visit the artificer’s shop with a working forge that produces horseshoes and tent pegs, thrill to 19th-century martial music performed by the Fife and Drum Corps, or discover how army officers feasted on pork, poultry, and wine.

At the nearby Mackenzie Printery, explore 500 years of printing technology at the former home of rebel newspaper publisher William Lyon Mackenzie. You can check out the Louis Roy Press (Canada’s oldest printing press), learn about the origin of expressions like “Mind your P’s and Q’s,” and do typesetting for a poster. It’s tremendously fun and engaging for anyone who loves the printed word.

When you’re ready to retreat and relax, the Oban Inn’s tradition of hospitality dates back to 1824. Originally built by Duncan Milloy, a Scottish steamboat captain, the garden-ringed property offers an outdoor swimming pool, a luxury spa, and a solarium where guests breakfast on fruit and pastries from tiered serving towers.

Niagara-on-the-Lake has more to offer than mellow times, but simultaneously, it makes mellowing out a genuine pleasure.

For more information on area attractions, contact Tourism Ontario and Parks Canada.

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About the Author: Lucas Aykroyd

Lucas Aykroyd is an award-winning Vancouver travel writer and public speaker. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and National Geographic Traveler. To engage his services, visitlucasaykroyd.com.

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