Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Anniversary getaway: Niagara-on-the-Lake

Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario:  clock/cenotaph and court house (now a theatre).
We first visited Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario (not Niagara Falls -- Niagara-on-the-Lake! -- there's a difference!!),  back in June 1984.  My parents & I drove across northern Minnesota, Wisconsin & the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, through Detroit (quite an experience in itself...!!) and across the Ambassador Bridge to Windsor (where dh -- then just my boyfriend -- was finishing up his MBA) and on to London (Ontario), where -- main purpose of the trip -- I picked up my master's degree diploma at convocation.

Then we cut through the backroads of southwestern Ontario to the tourist trap (cough, cough -- errrr, hotspot?? mecca?? honeymoon capital??) of Niagara Falls (the first time for all three of us). After spending the night there, we drove up the Niagara River Parkway about a half hour to the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. (And then continued on to Toronto, so that my parents could meet dh's father before we headed home -- but that's another story for another day...)

I'd been living in southwestern Ontario for the past year, attending grad school, so I think I must have heard about NOTL then, and its Shaw Festival -- a professional theatre festival/company, which performs the works of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries on three different stages in town from approximately May through October/November every year (as opposed to the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, which does Shakespeare -- albeit not exclusively these days). (We took a trip to Stratford for our 24th anniversary in 2009, and I blogged about it here.)    

We didn't spend any time in NOTL then -- I think we just drove through to have a look at the place. But what little we got to see enchanted us, and we vowed to return. 

We did, two years later, in August 1986. My parents came back to visit us in our tiny apartment in midtown Toronto, and we decided that we wanted to go back to NOTL & spend more time there. (We did the falls again too.)  We've returned a number of times since then, both with my parents and by ourselves, for a few hours and for a few days. It's about a 2.5 hour drive from our old home and just 1.5 hours from our current location (in good traffic). 

Over these 30+ years, there have been many changes in NOTL.  Some say it has been "Disneyfied," and it is definitely much more "commercial" than it was 20 or 30 years ago.  (It's also gotten a lot more expensive...!)  While chains were once banned in the old town, main street today includes a Starbucks as well as a Sunset Grill restaurant.  And development (both commercial & residential) along the roads leading into town  is running amok.

But the quiet smalltown charm remains, drawing hundreds, perhaps thousands of visitors every day throughout the summer months.  The town dates back to the 1700s, and was the original capital of the province of Upper Canada (what eventually became Ontario).  It survived the War of 1812 -- the Americans burned it to the ground in 1813, but it was rebuilt, and there are many beautiful old homes homes and commercial buildings from the early to mid-1800s. The town offers accommodations in a number of charming old inns, small luxury boutique hotels, and bed-and-breakfast establishments -- although, for those who prefer the tried-and-true and don't mind a bit of driving, there are now a couple of larger chain hotels a few miles outside of town near the highway (including a Hilton Garden Inn). The number of vineyards & wineries in the area has exploded since we first visited the area -- many of them world-class, most of them offering tours and tastings, and some with fine dining in onsite restaurants. There are other excellent restaurants in town, and great shopping too -- as well as a (relatively new) humungous outlet mall just outside town on the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW, the main highway between Toronto & Niagara) that offers some great shopping.  

*** *** *** 

We hadn't been back to NOTL for an overnight stay since our 20th wedding anniversary in 2005 -- or even a day visit since October 2014 -- and I decided it was time for a return trip!  

Several of the hotels I looked at were booked for the dates we wanted (at least the lower-priced rooms -- which can still be pretty expensive...!)(and whose idea was it to get married the same week as both Canada Day & the Fourth of July, not to mention the kickoff period for summer vacation??). I eventually found us accommodation at the Charles Hotel -- where we'd previously stayed back in the late 1980s/early 1990s when it was newly transformed from a private residence to an inn and called the Kiely House. We thoroughly enjoyed our stays then, and I was curious to see what had changed (& what hadn't) in the years since our last visit. 

The house that's now the hotel/inn was built in 1832 (!), and comes with tons of atmosphere and interesting architectural & decorative details, including wraparound porches, both open & screened in, that just beg to be sat on with a good book & cold drink (or a cup of tea).  There's a lovely garden, and a view of the neighbouring Niagara-on-the-Lake golf club, the oldest golf club in Canada. It's just a few blocks walk from downtown and the three Shaw Festival theatres. It's not child UNfriendly -- no doubt there are families with children that have stayed there -- (no pets allowed) -- but I would say it's definitely more of a romantic/couples kind of place. In other words, perfect for a childless couple celebrating their wedding anniversary. :)

Front entrance

Front of the house, from an angle. The patio is part of the restaurant/bar. 
Back of the inn, with a view of the golf course next door.
Dh, my parents & I stayed on the second floor 30+ years ago.
Hugely enjoyed the veranda!! 

We arrived on Thursday afternoon shortly after 3 p.m. (check in time) and found ourselves assigned to the Daisy Room, which was on the ground floor, just off of the front veranda where breakfast was served each day. The room was smallish but comfortable & nicely furnished. (Most important, perhaps, on a horribly hot & humid day, it was air conditioned!! -- all the rooms are.)

The Daisy Room.
The bathroom was large with a large, newish glassed-in shower cubicle, complete with rainforest shower head (ahhhh....!!).

And -- bonus!! there was a lovely little private screened-in porch for our exclusive use. It reminded me of the (much smaller) screened in porch on the side of my grandmother's house, where we used to gather in the evening to drink coffee & socialize with visiting relatives and neighbours.  I spent a couple of happy hours out there (heat & humidity be damned... ) reading and watching the people & traffic go by.

A partial view of the private screened-in porch
accessible only from our room.
I'd made us an early dinner reservation at the hotel's well-reviewed restaurant, called the HobNob, which was located in the beautiful double drawing room. We had a table near the window. There were two other tables while we dined (with more arriving as we finished), and while there was music, it wasn't too loud, so we were actually able to carry on a conversation, lol. We decided not to have appetizers, but did have dessert. :)  I had salmon while dh had chicken, and we both thought our meals were amazing -- crisp on the outside and tender on the inside.

Where we had dinner on our anniversary. 
After a most enjoyable dinner, we hiked over to the other side of town. I'd bought us theatre tickets to see "Me and My Girl" at the Shaw Festival Theatre.  I knew nothing about it, except that it was a musical.  It turned out to be a British musical from the late 1930s, the story of a Cockney guy who discovers that he's an earl, and the clash of classes & cultures that unfolds when he meets his new family. I had heard of one of the song & dance numbers, "The Lambeth Walk" -- and realized that I could sing along with another, "Leaning on a Lamppost," which was jazzed up a bit & recorded in the 1960s by my original boy band idols, Herman's Hermits (!!).  :)  Well done and thoroughly enjoyable.

We had breakfast the next morning (and the morning after that, before we left) on the veranda near our room. (Price not included with the room.)  Again, the service was great, and the food...!  We both ordered the maple cinnamon brioche French toast, which came with maple syrup, fresh fruit, potatos, sausage and bacon fried just the way I like it (crisp), and arrived piping hot.  The tea came in a proper china teapot (yay! -- no leaky metal horrors...) & dh's coffee was made fresh in a French press. He said it was great & wants to look for one for himself now. ;) The breakfast (served from 8 to 10 a.m.) was ample enough that we didn't need to eat lunch (although we did wind up having afternoon snacks later...!).

The front veranda, where breakfast was served. 
As I mentioned, Niagara is famous for its vineyards & wineries. We thought about doing a winery tour on Friday afternoon -- there are even tour companies that will pick you up, drive you around to several wineries and then take you back to your lodgings. But while dh & I enjoy the occasional glass of wine with dinner, neither of us are big drinkers (out of practice since our student days!! lol) -- we toured one winery several years ago and attended a tasting seminar, & left wondering whether dh should really be driving...!  The tour company our hotel recommended offers several different packages, most of which took you to three different wineries, where you'd sample a minimum of three wines each = approximately 9 (usually generous) samplings within a few hours (on a very hot, humid day). A glass of wine at lunchtime used to leave me relatively useless for the rest of the workday;  I figured a tour would probably do both of us in for the rest of our day in NOTL. So we decided to skip the wine tour this time around.

We also thought about going to Niagara Falls, but we've been there several times before -- it's always jammed with people, parking is horribly expensive, and the weather forecast was predicting thunderstorms.

So instead, we spent a pleasant few hours walking up & down main street and poking into the many wonderful little shops (including the Christmas store, the jam shop, and an obligatory stop at the fudge shop, which has been there since 1967). Then we drove back out toward the QEW and the outlet mall, where I picked up a new nightgown, some tops and jewelry from some of my favourite stores.

Back in town, we decided to wander back up the main street and find a place to eat dinner, without making reservations. The restaurant we chose was well rated online -- but we found it just adequate but nothing really special.  Next time, we'll try somewhere else. We did save room for dessert, and stopped for gelato at one of several gelato/ice cream shops on the main street, then strolled through Simcoe Park while we ate it.

We spent a LOT of time walking while we were in town -- it's a very walkable place.  By the time we left, though, my feet and knees were killing me....!  It was VERY hot & humid when we arrived on Thursday;  not quite as hot (but still pretty warm and still very humid) on Friday.  Although the chances of rain & thunderstorms were given as 60-70% in the forecast, we didn't get a drop. Saturday, of course, was wonderfully pleasant. Figures!!

Saturday morning, we had breakfast, took another walk around the neighbourhood, and then checked out & headed back home.

We will be back, sooner rather than later...! 

If you are in Toronto/southern Ontario, Niagara Falls is certainly a must-see. The falls themselves are spectacular (tip: Americans, get your passport & come on over to the Canadian side -- the view is better.)(And I'm not just saying that because I'm Canadian, lol.)  I'll admit I haven't actually spent much time in the town itself in recent years, but it tends to be on the kitschy/commercial/tourist-trap-ish side. A lot of my friends with children love taking their kids there to Great Wolf Lodge, Marine Land, ziplining, the wax museum, etc. (as well as the traditional Maid of the Mist boat tours & Table Rock, etc.).  There's a casino with shows & gambling, if that's your taste.

But I always urge everyone to take the drive up the Niagara Parkway and spend some time in Niagara-on-the-Lake too. You won't regret it! 


  1. You should get paid by the town's tourist board!

    Aaaah - to get an air-conditioned room when you need it.
    Yummm - salmon for dinner.
    Ughhh - crispy bacon - I don't like it too crispy, and was pleased that Scandinavians provide both crispy and non-crispy.
    Ha ha - remembering Herman's Hermits.
    Drool - gelato (as it has been hailing outside on and off all day today)
    Bliss - the thought of the perfect weekend away.