By Bob Glaze
I was not aware of Niagara-on-the-Lake until great friends and neighbors in San Miguel de Allende, MX moved there from Toronto and were raving about their new town. So on my recent trip to Buffalo and the Finger Lake in New York, I made a point to meet them and other friends from Toronto for a fun weekend of great food, wine and theater.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is a town of around 17,000 people in southern Ontario. It is located on the shores of Lake Ontario, at the mouth of the Niagara River. It’s known for its wineries and the Shaw Festival, a series of theatre productions primarily from April through October. There are beautiful homes along tree-lines streets and many 19th-century buildings along the charming Queen Street/Picton Street corridor downtown. The wine country is really beautiful and the parks and trails along the River and the Lake are really lovely. Near the river, there is the 19th-century Fort George that was built by the British to defend against American attacks. You can actually see Old Fort Niagara on the American side in Youngstown, NY across the Niagara River.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is 15 miles north of Niagara Falls. It is approximately 80 miles from Toronto and 35 miles from downtown Buffalo, NY. I flew in and out of Buffalo and went across the northernmost crossing, the Lewiston–Queenston Bridge, which was quite easy and with little wait at immigration. Make sure to bring your passports and I recommend making sure that your rental car has the appropriate insurance for driving in Canada.
When you do go, I recommend that you avoid the weekends as I found that both the wineries and the downtown area to be very crowded with many tour groups and buses. Most are probably touring Niagara Falls as well. But I was able to enjoy my time and explore the area with some great meals, a perfect afternoon tea and two great theater productions.
Where to Stay in Niagara-on-the-Lake
I stayed at the Oban Inn located across from the Lake at 160 Front St. It is a charming inn that has a restaurant and spa onsite. I thought the location was perfect. It had free parking in their lot, so I just parked my car and was able to walk to the downtown shops, restaurants and theater. My room was very comfortable and beautifully decorated. They offer a number of room options from deluxe, premium and suites located in the main inn and in the surrounding cottages on the property. I enjoyed their dining room with the complimentary breakfast buffet and also for dinner on my last night. It is also away from all of the downtown crowds which was an added benefit.
Vintage Hotels has some good hotel options including the Prince of Wales downtown at 6 Picton St., the Moffat Inn at 60 Picton St. and the Pillar and the Post Inn at 48 John St.
Where to Eat in Niagara-on-the-Lake
Niagara-on-the-Lake has some great dining options from casual to fine dining. There are a number of good spots downtown as well as outside of town at some of the wineries. My recent finds include:
Ravine Vineyard: I read that this winery had a very good restaurant that was perfect for lunch. I stopped there first after crossing into Canada. It was a great option. I enjoyed the tomato salad and a great poached pear in red wine for dessert. The winery and vineyards are located on a family farm that has been in the family since the 1860s. It offers tours and tastings along with the restaurant. They produce a number of whites, reds, sparkling wines, rose and ice wine. 1336 York Road in St. Davids, ON south of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Zee’s Grill Shaw Club Hotel: My friends recommend this modern bistro and bar at 92 Picton St.. It is the perfect pre or post-theater dining spot, as it is directly across from the Shaw Festival Theatre.
The restaurant at the Ravine Vineyard which I enjoyed, along with Zee’s Grill, mentioned above, are part of the Signature Kitchens of Niagara. They currently operate thirteen restaurants in the area.
At 160 Front St., the Restaurant at the Oban Inn is a good spot for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It has an attractive dining room and good food. It is also away from the busy downtown area. The Inn also runs the Shaw Cafe and Wine Bar downtown at 92 Queen St.
Masaki Sushi: I enjoyed dinner with my local friends at this downtown sushi restaurant. It is very close to the Shaw Festival Theatre. They have a large menu of rolls, sushi, small plates and larger bowls. There is also a Omakase tasting menu offering from three to five course options. Prior reservations are required for this option. I really enjoyed the miso glazed black cod with rice. 60 Picton St.
I also recommend enjoying an elegant afternoon tea in the Drawing Room at the historic Prince of Wales Hotel. Here you can pick a choice of tea and enjoy a selection of pastries, sandwiches and scones. I went after a theater matinee and enjoyed seeing the historic building from 1864. It has has been the Prince of Wales Hotel since 1901. The Victorian Drawing Room is small so make sure to make your reservations online before you go. The hotel also has the Noble Restaurant and the Churchill Lounge.
Balzac’s Coffee Roasters: At 223 King St., Balzac Coffee Roasters is an excellent coffee shop that you shouldn’t miss when you are in town. They have a number of locations in Toronto and other cities in Ontario.
Backhouse: One of the local wineries recommended Backhouse, which a farm-to-table restaurant featuring new Canadian food made over an open grill. I will definitely try it on my next trip. It is just southwest of downtown at 242 Mary St.
Treadwell Cuisine: Treadwell Cuisine at 114 Queen St. gets excellent reviews for its farm-to-table cuisine. It not only features local ingredients but also features the local wines. I was sorry that it was not open when I was there. They also have Treadwell Bakery across the courtyard which opened in early 2018. It features seasonal pastries, fresh bread and sandwiches 118 Queen St.
Farm Stands: There are a number of local farm stands scattered throughout the area near the wineries. I stopped and found some wonderful local peaches at Van de Laar Orchards located south of town at 15435 Niagara Pkwy.
Il Gelato di Carlotta: Locals claim that this is the best gelato in town. They make an authentic Italian gelato as found in Florence, as their family tradition of making gelato dates back several generations. I loved the coconut!! 59 Queen St.
The Clubhouse Restaurant and Bar: This casual dining option is located at the Niagara on the Lake Golf Club. My local friends are golfers and always enjoy the cafe which is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We met for Sunday brunch and I had a fun experience with other locals in our group. It has an outdoor terrace with great views of Lake Ontario. It is the only spot in town for dining right on the water. It is a public course, so the restaurant is also open to the public. They feature live music on Fridays and Saturdays. Even better was that it was directly across the street from my hotel the Oban Inn. It is also away from the tourists downtown.
What to Do in Niagara-on-the-Lake
As a lover of theater, the Shaw Festival was one of the reasons that I wanted to visit Niagara-on-the-Lake. The Festival Theater runs from April to October and presents world-class plays and musicals in three venues. The Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre and The Festival Theatre are located at 10 Queen’s Parade in the main facility. The third is located at the Royal George Theatre at 85 Queen St. When I was there, I attended a very good production of the Hound of the Baskervilles and the excellent musical Grand Hotel. Both were in the larger Festival Theatre. The venues are downtown so you can stay in town and walk to the performances. There are a number of good restaurants, a short walk away, that you can visit before or after you attend. The venue itself has a casual cafe, bars, a beautiful garden and lovely outdoor seating. Throughout the season you can attend tours, readings and post-theater discussions. It was an excellent experience and I highly recommend it.
The Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake
Niagara-on-the-Lake is surrounded by over 20 wineries that you can visit when you are in the area There are even more as you head west towards Hamilton, Ontario. It produces some excellent icewine, whites and reds. According the Wikipedia, “icewine is a type of dessert wine produced from grapes that have been frozen while still on the vine. The sugars and other dissolved solids do not freeze, but the water does, allowing for a more concentrated grape juice to develop.”
Make sure to visit the following wineries:
Ravine Vineyard: The winery and vineyards are located on a family farm that has been in the family since the 1860s. It offers tours and tastings. They produce a number of whites, reds, sparkling wines, a rosé and an icewine. They also have a casual restaurant onsite with great patio seating that is a great spot for lunch. 1336 York Road in St. Davids, ON south of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Inniskillin: This is a large winery with excellent wines. They produce a four kinds of sweet icewine, a number of chardonnays and rieslings plus pinot noirs, merlots, red blends cabernet francs and cabernet sauvignons. I am not a big white wine fan, but really enjoyed the cabernet franc and the cabernet. They have a second winery in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia southeast of Vancouver. 1499 Line 3 at the Niagara Parkway.
Stratus Vineyards: This vineyard has one of the loveliest tasting rooms that I have been to on any of my travels. Just seeing the elegant tasting room is well-worth the trip, but their wines are a must to taste. Their Stratus Red is a full-bodied, red blend and the Stratus Syrah is a peppery red wine with taste of black cherries. Both were excellent to taste. They also produce a number of Rieslings, Sauvignon Blanc, Cab Franc and an Icewine. 2059 Niagara Stone Rd.
Marynissen Estates: Marynissen Estates is a small winery that began growing their own grapes in 1975. They feature their, icewines, whites from gewurztraminers, chardonnays and rieslings and reds from pinot noirs, blends, merlots and cabernets. I thought the pinot and the cab were both very good.
Peller Estates Winery and Restaurant: This is a large winery and tasting room where you can enjoy tours and tastings. The Winery Restaurant offers Sunday brunch and lunch daily. In the evenings, you can enjoy a five course dinner with wine pairings. 290 John St. E.
Other Things to Do
Beer lovers will enjoy visiting Niagara Oast House Brewers. This is a local microbrewery, set in an old barn from the 1800s, that is located just southwest of downtown at 2017 Niagara Stone Rd. Here they make a number of saisons, ales, IPAs, porters and stouts. Their tasting room, known as The Beer Shed is large and quite fun. They also have the Beer Patio which is a two story outdoor terrace and deck in the rear of the facility. They serve food including barbecue which I saw them cooking out back! They also feature special events.
RiverBrink Art Museum: Having read about this small art museum, I stopped by on my way back to Buffalo. Located at 116 Queenston St, Queenston, ON, this private home on the Niagara River was converted to a private art museum in 1996. It features works that explores Niagara on the Lake and Canadian Heritage. It manages the Samuel E. Weir Collection that includes Canadian, European and American paintings. You can see works from the collection as well as temporary exhibitions of paintings, sculptures and decorative arts
Fort George National Historic Site is an historic military structure that was the scene of several battles during the War of 1812. You can visit the site, tour the rebuilt buildings and barracks and see the canons along the earthen walls. I enjoyed my walk through the Fort as my last stop in town. 51 Queen’s Parade.
My local friends also recommend visiting the Niagara Historical Society Museum if you want to learn more about the history of the area. 43 Castlereagh Street.
I hope that you enjoy your time in Niagara-on-the-Lake as much as I did. Please let me know how you liked it and if you found any great restaurants or wineries that I didn’t have time to visit!
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