To most people, the word “Niagara” means thousands of tons of water crashing into a giant chasm. But there’s another showplace with the same name, and if you appreciate the finer things in life, it may be just as impressive: it’s called Niagara-on-the-Lake.
If you live in Toronto, as I do, Niagara-on-the-Lake is an easy day trip — so easy, in fact, that we tend to take it for granted. But it’s a brilliant destination, well worth a coupe of days spent discovering its history, theatre, food, wine and shopping.
At first glance, Niagara-on-the-Lake looks like what the Disney studios might cook up as a perfect recreation of a Victorian town. But in fact, it’s real. Founded in the late 1700s and originally called Newark, NOTL was the first capital of Upper Canada (now Ontario). It was burnt down during the War of 1812, but quickly rebuilt, and the town that stands here today dates mostly from that period.
Walking the picturesque downtown, it’s easy to believe you’re back in Victorian times. Horse carriages ply their trade in front of the picture-perfect Prince of Wales Hotel (photo at top), flowers line the sidewalks, and quaint shops with casement windows stand shoulder to shoulder along the main drag — called, fittingly, Queen Street.
There’s the venerable town theatre, a reminder of the annual Shaw Festival, one of Canada’s leading theatrical events. And since Niagara-on-the-Lake is in the middle of a region that produces some of Canada’s best fruit, vegetables and wine — Ontario’s answer to Napa Valley, if you like — there’s no shortage of first-class restaurants and wine bars.
I spent a day in Niagara-on-the-Lake this week, at one of the best times of year: September is the time for the Niagara Wine Festival, which runs till Sept. 24. It was a great experience — and if you haven’t had the pleasure, now’s the time to come. Here are a few photos to show you what you’re missing. And if you do decide to come, the Niagara-on-the-Lake visitor’s guide has information on where to go and what to do.