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Road trip to Niagara Falls,
via the roads less travelled

Published May 20, 2013

No, we’re not there yet … you’ve just been to the washroom … stop teasing your brother … if you behave, I’ll show you a pirate ship.

For me, the best part about a long-weekend road-trip with the family is that I don’t have children, so yelling at the backseat is purely for my own amusement.

It’s just me and my wife, the self-appointed pointer-out (she’s a city girl) of cows, sheep and horses. But I’m still a big kid myself, so this is a child-friendly drive to Niagara Falls, steering clear of the QEW. Getting there on back roads is half the fun and you’re within spitting distance of the lake.

Hey, stop spitting back there! Or at least roll the window down.

Lakeshore Blvd. is where old strip malls and dollar stores go to die. Just when you’re starting to think, “This is really ugly and boring,” you’re into Port Credit, with a charming little downtown.

Walk along the Waterfront Trail and, carefully, onto the rocks. The lake freighter Ridgetown, launched in 1905 (seven years before the Titanic), is a permanent breakwater but looks as if it’s sailing home from out of the past.

The road closest to the lake isn’t always Lakeshore. It has a variety of names, including the charming and evocative North Service Rd. Nor is it one continuous route and it can get a little confusing. But keep the water on your left and the QEW on your right and you won’t go wrong.

Overnight accommodation ranges from chain hotels to B&Bs and a few old-style “no-tell” motels. One or two still boast that every room has its own phone. Great, but can it shoot video like the one in my pocket?

By now, you’re through Oakville, which also has a downtown worth exploring, and on to Burlington and its lovely (Toronto, take note) Waterfront Park. Pop into the Joseph Brant Museum and maybe have a bite of lunch at the Discovery Landing building. Brought a model sailboat along? There’s a pond here just for you.

There’s also a nice view of the Burlington Skyway, dwarfing the Canal Lift Bridge, which is the one you’ll cross. In season, there’s a fair chance it’ll be raised to allow a big freighter to pass almost within touching distance.

Hang a right immediately after the bridge on to Fishermans Pier for a spectacular view across Hamilton harbour of the steelworks belching steam and sometimes flame. This is our industrial heartland — not your conventional tourist sightseeing spot but not to be missed.

Time for another ship, with a glimpse en route of the oil terminal — again, not what most visitors choose to see, but that’s their loss.

The destroyer HMCS Haida saw action in World War II and the Korean War. The ship, a national historic site, is moored at Hamilton’s Pier 9 on Catherine St. and you can go aboard for a tour. A family pass costs about $10.

The Steam and Technology Museum is on Woodward Ave. near the QEW and you’re also close to Hamilton Indoor Go Karts on Cavell Ave. Fast fun for everybody, with “senior” and “junior” karts. Remember, karting is where Michael Schumacher got his start.

Speed makes you hungry. The Fifth Wheel Truck Stop outside Grimsby puts you fender-to-fender with the big-rigs, some cool souvenirs in the store and classic diner cuisine. Speaking as a connoisseur, I’d caution that the corned-beef hash may not be your wisest menu choice.

On into Grimsby. And a big surprise. Who knew — not me, for one — that there’s a little neighbourhood of houses painted in Toytown colours?

If the shopping bug’s got you, you’ll pass Prudhommes Antique Market, with lots of dealers inside, and a factory outlet.

By now, you’re well into Niagara wine country. As you drive toward Jordan Harbour, you’ll see masts sticking up at a crazy angle.

It’s not really a pirate ship. But it has the look. The vessel was built in Quebec a century ago and was a St. Lawrence River ferry, cargo boat and restaurant. It was towed to Jordan Harbour in 1997, apparently to continue as an eatery, but a fire in 2003 ended those plans.

It rests just offshore, so you can get quite close. Listen carefully and if you hear a muffled, “Yo, ho, ho, me hearties,” let someone else drive the rest of the way.

You could easily spend a long weekend in Niagara-on-the-Lake alone. A doll-house of a town (possibly a little too cutesified for its own good), there’s a lot going on. The annual Shaw Festival this year features everything from the musical Guys and Dolls to George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara.

Many of the wineries offer tours and some have restaurants. My favourite is Ravine — right off Niagara Parkway on York Rd. in St. Davids — which has a family-friendly menu (you can eat well for less than $30 a head) and lovely views across the vineyards.

Once you’re full of food, you may want to shake it up a bit. Farther down Niagara Parkway is Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours. Suffice to say it’s a rough ride, and you should wear little more than a swimsuit. And a big grin.

And here you are in Niagara Falls, with whatever your heart desires (and some things it probably never thought of), from a massive casino/hotel/entertainment centre to wax museums and haunted houses. Don’t pay up front for any single attraction. Bundled deals will save you significant money. Go to falls.com for details, and you can also download a Niagara Falls app.

If Mom and Dad want a quiet evening with dinner, a show and perhaps a flutter on the gaming tables (leave your mortgage papers at home), many of the hotels offer babysitting.

Great Wolf Lodge provides a little of everything for everyone, including miniature golf and a tremendous water park.

Speaking of water, let’s not forget the Falls themselves. You’ll find them without help from me. Just listen for the sound of every faucet in the universe being turned on simultaneously.

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