With the Canadian dollar in its weakened state against the American greenback, Canadians might be looking for travel options closer to home. In that same fluctuation, Canadian destinations become more affordable and more attractive to our American friends. A unique travel option for both to consider is Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Located in Southern Ontario, along the shores of the Niagara River and Lake Ontario, Niagara-on-the-Lake was the original Capital of Upper Canada from 1792 to 1797 and the location of several battles in the War of 1812.
As Niagara-on-the-Lake had been on our bucket list for some time, John and I decided to check it out in August of last year, in time for the famous Shaw Festival. Regular readers of my blog know that we have a voracious appetite for theatre and we were absolutely delighted with Shaw, a theatre company that draws its inspiration from the works of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries.
Upon arrival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, we checked in at our new home-away-from-home, the Oban Inn. The staff at the front desk ran the operation like a finely oiled machine, always greeting guests as they were arriving or leaving, generously offering tourist information on the fly, while still maintaining the calm and serenity of the Oban Spa vibe. Our room was spotlessly clean, very comfortable and very quiet.
After our long drive from Ottawa, we were starved. Our first stop was the Oban Inn’s beautiful dining room for dinner. I had already called ahead to ensure that they were well equipped to handle a gluten sensitivity, and the serving staff was indeed well-prepared.
Our first Shaw festival theatre experience was a winner, right out of the gate, with the legendary musical, Sweet Charity at the Festival Theatre. We were charmed by Julie Martell’s sweet portrayal of Charity, and were mesmerized by the gorgeous costumes, sets, lights, songs and dance. The entire company was impressive in that performance and kept us wanting more.
Our Tuesday evening concluded with a special treat at Il Gelato Di Carlotta. Their wide array of tasty gelato won us over immediately. Even though we could get a few different scoops in one cup, there were just too many flavours to try in one visit. We concluded we must return… and we did! (Note: gluten-free cones are available)
Wednesday morning we returned to the Oban Inn’s dining room to start our day with a simple yet elegant breakfast. The big picture window overlooking the garden offers a beautiful view and a lovely opportunity to slowly open one eye at a time as the caffeine kicks in and the brain cells engage, gently easing into the day rather than the hustle and bustle of the daily grind back home. We were starting to feel the vacation vibe setting in.
We decided to take a stroll down Queen Street and check out the shops. We were very impressed by the wide range of stores in just a few blocks, including clothing, shoes, gourmet foods and home décor. The fact that these were not the same chain stores you would see in the malls back home, made the thrill of the hunt that much more of an experience. There was indeed something for everyone, and a great opportunity to take advantage of the more relaxed pace to explore the unique product lines.
Queen Street is also home to many great dining establishments whether you are looking for fine dining or more casual fare. For Wednesday’s lunch, we stopped in at Bistro Six-One for some really delicious pizza (available with gluten-free crusts).
One cannot visit “NOTL” without checking out a winery… or two. The Oban Inn front desk staff booked us on a wine tour with Niagara Wine Tours International. We had a marvelous time! Our tour guide’s encyclopedic knowledge offered us a comprehensive understanding of the region’s climate and topography, which contribute to the unique flavours of the wines produced in the area.
Our tour whisked us to five wineries: Riverview Cellars, Marynissen Estates, Lailey Winery, Pond View Estate and Reif Estate Winery. I admit that even though I carefully paced myself on the sampling, my memory of which wine was which was starting to fail by the end of the fourth stop on the tour. But either way, we had a lot of fun and bought home a few bottles as “souvenirs”!
After a short nap back at the hotel we went back to Queen Street for dinner on a restaurant patio, al fresco, thinking the fresh outdoor air would do us some good!
For our evening entertainment, we signed up for a Ghost Walk, in which our tour guide, cloaked in in a big black cape, walked us to some of the historic sites in the downtown area. Our tour guide masterfully shared with us stories of paranormal activity witnessed at a given site, while at the same time offering factual, historical accounts of the sites, leading the guest to draw their own conclusions as to why the spirits were restless. We were riveted by the seamless flow of stories from the historical to paranormal, leaving even the skeptics of the group going “Hmm”.
As the evening drew to a close, we returned to Il Gelato Di Carlotta for another delicious gelato before heading back to the hotel.
Thursday started with breakfast at the Oban Inn again and the decision to go explore the Fort George National Historic Site. The Friends of Fort George web site explains: “Fort George was built between 1796 and 1802. This fortification served as the headquarters for the Centre Division of the British Army during the War of 1812 and played a pivotal role in the defence of Upper Canada.” The picture perfect weather that day lent itself to a leisurely and very enjoyable tour of the grounds, imagining the living and working conditions of troops as they defended the territory.
For lunch, we decided to check out the Olde Angel Inn, as it was subject of one of the stories mentioned during the Ghost Walk the night before. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, our meal experience was not haunted, but the pub fare and vibe were very enjoyable and the staff was great.
For the afternoon, we decided to return to the park by the water we visited along the Ghost Walk, thinking it might be nice to see it by daylight. We were so glad we did. Queen’s Royal Park, originally the site of the Queen’s Royal Hotel built in 1886, features meticulously manicured green spaces, benches, picnic tables, paths and a stunning gazebo which served as a prop in the movie “The Dead Zone”. It was no surprise that for such a picture-perfect afternoon, the park was a busy spot, as people took the time to break from their day and bask in the park’s beauty and majesty.
Across the street from the park, we were drawn in by some of the striking artwork in the window of a heritage building. We stopped in and had a lovely chat with Gina at the King Street Gallery who took the time to tell us about some of the artists behind the work we were admiring. If you are in the neighbourhood, we highly recommend taking a look around the gallery.
For Thursday’s dinner we returned to the Oban Inn dining room to try some of the items we spotted at Tuesday’s dinner that looked amazing. We highly recommend the Oban Inn dining room for a divine dining experience.
Coincidentally, our next play was called “The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt”, starring Canadian actress Fiona Reid (whom many might remember from the late 1970’s Canadian sitcom, The King of Kensington). The playwright, Michel Marc Bouchard, described The Divine as “a fable about a meeting between the brilliant, mythical actress, Sarah Bernhardt, and a young man whose innocence is shattered by his growing awareness of the iniquities of his times.” We both enjoyed this play for its depth, its strength, its impact and its ability to tell a story about a time, over 100 years ago, with themes that are still relevant and provocative today. The cast and crew performed this material masterfully and with the sensitivity needed to tell such a story without bias.
We continued bantering about how good the play was as we made our way to say our final goodbyes to the kind staff at our gelato place… and with no arm twisting, to try another serving of delicious gelato.
As we made our way home on Friday morning, we made a point of stopping in at a local farmer’s market and check out the fresh-picked produce for which the Niagara region is so well-known.
Our only regret from this trip was not having reserved some time to try the Oban Inn’s spa services. We were so tempted but there was just so much to see and do in a few days, we just ran out of time.
With its historical richness, great local food and wine, great entertainment offerings and its very mellow pace, Niagara-on-the-Lake is a relaxing yet energizing getaway that we highly recommend.
Did you enjoy this post? If you did, please know that there are plenty more where that came from! If you haven’t already, you can check out the rest of my blog at andrebegin.net. From there, you can click on the “Follow” button to receive future posts directly in your inbox.
Also, don’t be shy, feel free to tell a friend or to share the link.
Sincere thanks for reading!
Have a great day,