Dreaming of Niagara-on-the-Lake The December sky is dark; the evening air is brisk. As we walk out onto Queen Street and toward the Clock Tower, a memorial to residents who died in WWI, hundreds of people are gathered, holding flickering candles. Soon, the crowd is greeted by the mayor from the second story balcony of the old Court House, built in 1847.
“Merry Christmas” comes the greeting. “Merry Christmas!” answers the crowd. Snow begins to fall softly and the annual tradition begins. Each year in Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL), the holiday season is welcomed by the annual sing along of Christmas carols in front of the historic courthouse. Merrily decorated dogs and baby strollers, festooned with bows and bells and tinsel and garland, mix with smiling celebrants. Even ‘Father Christmas’ is here – singing while hugging children. We stand closely for the next 30 minutes as time-honored carols unite us with residents and tourists, all gathered to celebrate Christmas. We spent a December weekend in this Canadian town located in southern Ontario last year. This region is rich in history and things to do, no matter the season.
Thousands come here each year to enjoy the Shaw Festival (shawfest.com), eight-months of acclaimed productions featuring the works of George Bernard Shaw, but also of anyone who wrote during his lifetime (1856–1950). This year is the 50th anniversary of the festival so may special activities are planned. Thanks to a mild climate, the area has a bounty of produce. All sorts of fabulous vegetables and fruits are grown here but a lush grape production has lead to a number of wineries, featuring an amazing variety of wines, including ice wines.
During the War of 1812, this area was the scene of military action. American forces invaded, eventually destroying the town. Fort George National Historic Site is a focal point in a collection of War of 1812 sites throughout the area. Niagara-on-the-Lake is where many black Americans found freedom, as it served as a significant stop on the Underground Railroad. After the war, the British rebuilt the town and today, it retains a lovely Victorian charm, evidence in its many Regency and Classical Revival buildings. The town is also known for its signature restaurants, cultivated gardens, numerous art galleries, shops, and golf courses. Hollywood has found the town and numerous films have been made here including “Shattered Silence,” “The Dead Zone,” “The Experts,” “Trapped in Paradise,” “The Ref” and “Amelia.”
The town has numerous bed and breakfasts (more than 350), inns and hotels. We were thrilled to stay in the ornate and elegant Prince of Wales Hotel, as we had admired it as passersby on several earlier trips. It is an award-winning and lovely establishment with a top-rate staff. Our room, in the original part of the hotel, was showing some wear but fresh flowers and fruit delivered daily were delightful. The hotel dates from 1864 and has a long, distinguished history. It was named in honor of a royal visit at the turn of the century when then-Prince of Wales and future-King George V, came for a vacation. The rooms feature antiques and rich brocades with luxurious linens. Escabeche, its signature restaurant, offers a fabulous breakfast buffet accompanied by silver teapots, homemade marmalades and a view of passersby on Queen Street. Be sure to take the horse-drawn carriage ride that stops in front of the hotel. You will feel like royalty when you are a guest at the Prince of Wales. Wineries In 1974, the first local winery opened its doors and today there are more than 80 in the region. All the wineries offer tours, tastings and special events too numerous to list. We had a great time at Pillitteri Estates Winery. Visit www.wineriesofniagaraonthelake.com for complete information including pricing.
NOTL is known as the culinary capital of Canada. Incredible produce, outstanding local wines and noteworthy chefs make this a dining paradise. We had delicious experiences at each place we visited but two are particularly noteworthy: High Tea at the Prince of Wales Settle back into floral heaven where the decor
is rich, ornate and elegant. Our silver teapot and elegant bone china arrived with a delectable array of sandwiches, pastries and scones (featuring raisins soaked overnight in jasmine tea). Service was excellent; the tea divine. All the hurrying of travel melted away with our afternoon tea served in the hotel’s period drawing room; $32 pp; $40 with a glass of sparkling wine. Chef’s Table Diner at Peller Estates Winery Chef Jason Parsons wowed us at his Chef’s Table Dinner. Parsons proposes an ‘unscripted menu” - created from the freshest ingredients and the whim of his masterful creativity. Hosted in the private dining room, guests are seated at a banquet table and feted with course after course of freshly prepared delights, each paired with the finest wines. Amazing! NOTL restaurants have come together and formed Signature Kitchens – a highlight of local cuisine efforts. Cooking demonstrations, private themed dinners, local produce, exquisite attention to detail – you will remember the outstanding meals you have at NOTL’s signature kitchens (signaturekitchensofniagaraonthelake.com) for a long time.
So many shops, each more inviting than the last! Antiques, jewelry, paintings, hand-made clothing, beautiful gift items – there is a lot to be taken home. In the historic district, along the magnificent Queen Street, are more than 90 shops. Visitors love the gorgeous hanging baskets of flowers and plantings along the main thoroughfare. Don’t miss Niagara Essential Oils and Blends and Lavender Boutique. The Achals are a darling couple with a mesmerizing garden and shop. Niagara on the Lake offers an elegant and high end vacation experience. Fine dining, world renowned theater, exquisite wines and luxurious accommodations create a sedate and romantic experience. For complete information, visit www.niagaraonthelake.com.
If a high-end, romantic, Canadian Christmas weekend sounds good, here are some of the planned activities this December: Candlelight Stroll – Dec. 2 – This begins at the courthouse with carol singing. Walk on a guided tour through downtown accompanied by local choirs and musical entertainment. Free. Rotary House Tour – Dec. 2-3 Six historical homes are professionally decorated and on display. Hugely popular. $25 pp. Santa Claus Parade – Dec. 10 Each year is better than the last with this popular and spirited event. Free. Winter in Wine Country – A series of special events in December with tasting, shopping, special dinners, and more. Prices vary. LanternLit Ghost Tours - Hear tales of haunted pubs, inns, forts and homes where restless spirits are still said to linger. Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings until Dec. 19. $10 A McFarland Christmas – Enjoy a lush Victorian Christmas at McFarland House, one of the few buildings in the area which predates the War of 1812. The Christmas Open House is Dec. 2 with costumed heritage staff ready to welcome those looking to enjoy the festive feel and charm of a Victorian Christmas. $5. Also included in the Rotary House Tour Dec. 2-3.