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Five Reasons to Visit Niagara-on-the-Lake that Don’t Involve Wine
This unique local gem is still well worth the drive, even if wine isn’t your jam.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is one of Southern Ontario’s most famous and picturesque villages and makes an ideal home base for touring through some of the region’s celebrated wineries.
But what if wine touring isn’t your thing?
Whether it’s because you have kids to entertain, you’re a designated driver who’s putting your foot down, or you just don’t like wine all that much, Niagara-on-the-Lake still holds plenty of wonderful ways to spend your time that don’t involve wine at all. Here’s a closer look at some perennial favourites.
Visit Fort George
This National Historic Site is maintained by Parks Canada and is well worth the drive on its own, especially with kids.
Though the area is famous for very different reasons these days, the Niagara River was a critically important strategic position during the War of 1812 and played host to numerous conflicts between the Americans and the British loyalists.
Built directly across the river from the United States’ Fort Niagara, Fort George was completed in 1802 and became the area headquarters for the British army. It was captured and largely destroyed by the Americans in the Battle of Fort George in 1813, then retaken by the British later that same year. The fort was partially rebuilt at that time but mostly allowed to fall into ruin, and it was eventually abandoned. In the 1930s, the fort was reconstructed true to the original plans and opened as a National Historic Site of Canada.
Visitors of all ages will enjoy touring the barracks, period-true officers’ quarters and kitchen, and the powder magazine – which is the only surviving structure from the fort’s original construction – all brought to life by costumed interpreters performing roles such as the summer-long musket firing and marching band demonstrations.
What makes Fort George especially enjoyable for children is that it’s one of the Parks Canada sites that participates in the Xplorers program. Kids 6 to 12 receive a booklet on arrival that encourages them to complete activities like dressing up in regiment uniform, playing some of the same games that soldiers did in the early 1800s, tasting a sample from the historic kitchen, and exploring the fort’s tunnels and artwork. When they’re done, they each receive a small reward to take home. It’s a wonderfully engaging program that helps children get fully immersed in important aspects of Canada’s history.
Owing to its ideal location just east of downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake, the fort is one of very few Parks Canada sites that’s fully accessible year-round. From November to April, it’s open on weekends only – in the coldest months, a skating rink has been set up in recent years – and through the high season from May and October it’s open daily.
Shop on Queen Street
It’s far too easy to while away an afternoon meandering in and out of the many charming shops in Niagara-on-the-Lake’s historic old town. Over the years, my family has developed some can’t-miss favourites.
It’s hard to believe that a store dedicated to Christmas would be of much interest year-round, but Just Christmas is completely beguiling, even in the peak of summer. I don’t think I’ve ever left empty-handed.
Just down the road is the only Ontario location of COWS, the Prince Edward Island chain famous for its moo-velous pop culture crossover t-shirts (“Lightning McQueen” becomes “Lightning MooQueen,” for example). Stop in for an ice cream and a bottle of Anne’s raspberry cordial while you browse the moo-chandise.
On my most recent visit, I discovered a new apothecary called Maison Apothecare, which sells locally produced personal care and cleaning products made with 100% pure essential oils. Walk through the door and you’ll immediately be immersed in the rich scents of lemon, lavender, and eucalyptus. It smells like heaven.
All of this mingles among old-fashioned haberdasheries, chocolate and fudge shops, art galleries, and one of the largest and most diverse candy stores you’ll find anywhere. If you get hungry along the way and don’t feel like fussy fare, stop at the Angel Inn for unbelievable shepherd’s pie or the Stage Coach for a classic diner breakfast.
See a Play
On the eastern edge of the historic old town is the Shaw Festival Theatre, the primary home to the annual Shaw Festival that runs from April to October – and sometimes beyond.
Although it was established in 1962 as a festival entirely dedicated to the works of Irish playwright Bernard Shaw, today it features contemporary works from various artists and eras. For the 2018 season, 14 plays are being shown across three theatres, including adaptations of The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis and Sherlock Holmes mystery The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the company’s first-ever Shakespeare production in Henry V – but with a World War I twist – and a run of A Christmas Carol from mid-November to December 23, which makes for an ideal excuse to visit the village while it’s decked out for the holidays.
Ride in a Hansom Cab
This one’s for those folks looking to impress and woo a potential partner. A word of warning: this is not cheap. But there are few things more romantic in this world than snuggling up under a blanket with your special someone in a horse-drawn carriage through the streets of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Tours run daily from 10 AM to 11:30 PM and can be reserved online, meaning that it’s up to you whether you’d prefer to make this a post-brunch activity or an after-dinner trip under the stars.
Stop at Picard’s
Technically, this is located just outside Niagara-on-the-Lake, but most visitors will drive right past it on the way into town on Highway 55. A stop at Picard’s has been an essential part of my family’s Niagara-on-the-Lake tradition for many years. Originally made famous for selling peanuts, including Ontario-grown Valencias, today Picard’s stocks a wide variety of quality nuts – the ones finished in a potato chip coating are a particular favourite – and premium, savour-worthy chocolate. I stock up on the chocolate-covered sponge toffee and milk chocolate mint meltaway bars every single time I go, and they never seem to last nearly as long as I would like. A trip to the old town would never be the same without it.
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