Within a long day's drive of Philadelphia, Niagara-on-the-Lake is a charming destination: theater, shopping, history (military and otherwise), nature, hiking, bicycling, plus serious (and not so serious) food and very serious wine. And flowers everywhere, with endless vistas inviting photography.
Winston Churchill called the drive to Niagara-on-the-Lake "the prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world" and that route — 20 minutes along the Niagara Parkway from Niagara Falls — leads to this sweet town filled with B&Bs.
Coming up are many special events, including Canada Day on July 1 at Fort George, and from mid-July to mid-August there is a summer music festival with 34 concerts.
For military buffs, the bicentennial of the War of 1812 offers many opportunities: This year marks the anniversary of the war, which they're calling "200 Years of Peace" since nobody can decide who won. There are two forts: Fort Niagara on the American side, and Fort George on the Canadian side. You can walk through Fort George, and, if you're an 1812 fan, go to one of reenactment days where everyone dresses up in very hot, uncomfortable 19th-century uniforms, sleeps in tents, and is honor-bound to use no contemporary amenities. Other military-themed holidays include Sailors on the Lakes, Fife & Drum Muster, and more (see www.parkscanada.gc.ca).
For shoppers, besides the usual clothes and knickknacks, there are old-fashioned tea shops as well as candy shops specializing in outrageous chocolates and fudge and traditional maple goodies (syrup, candies, etc). Particularly good is Cows, advertised as Canada's best ice cream, with divine flavors like Wowie Cowie and Mooey Gooey.
And as a countermeasure, there are miles and miles of wonderful woodsy paths for walking and bicycling, with bicycle rentals available for half day, whole day and overnight, including bicycles built for two and wine tours for both cyclists and passengers.
And, just in case you've used up too many calories, there is much food and drink.
As in many tourist towns, there are a lot of overpriced mediocre restaurants, but some excellent standouts: For fancy food, try the traditional high tea at Niagara-on-the-Lake's Prince of Wales Hotel right in the center of town, available from noon to 6 every day ($32 per person), with snowy linen, cucumber sandwiches, scones with clotted cream — the works. For plain food, try the Olde Angel Inn, Ontario's oldest operating inn, established in 1789 and rebuilt in 1816 — you'll be walking on the original floorboards. Not only does it offer British beer on tap and Yorkshire pudding, but it comes with a ghost story of a Captain Swayze who walks the inn at night; legend has it that as long as the British flag flies over the Inn, the ghost will do no harm. And for what a friend calls "highly cheffed" food, try the Ravine Winery, where chef Paul Harber provided the best moules/frites lunch I've ever had in a charming farmhouse setting.
Famous for its wine country, the Niagara region is a serious presence in the international wine world, specializing not only in the sweet and delicious ice wine (the grapes have to freeze before they're pressed), with each of the many nearby vineyards very distinct from the others. For sleek, go to Stratus (a showroom all in silver and black); for folksy, go to Reif Estate, run by 13th-generation German vintners, with a "sensory garden" featuring herbs that highlight and echo the notes of their wines. And for biodynamic passion, go to Southbrook Winery, where the architect-designed showroom seems to merge with the sky, and a flock of sheep rather than chemicals weeds the vineyards. Every wine I tasted was delicious, from bubbly whites to refreshing roses to dark reds. But do note the need for a designated driver, especially if you start tasting before lunch!
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