About this series: Wheels wants to inspire you to get ready to explore — but only if COVID-19 conditions make it safe to do so. This series of daytrips and longer drives highlight great experiences you can have in the province, ands show you why Ontario is “Ours to Discover.”
Often bypassed by people headed to neighbouring Niagara-on-the-Lake or Niagara Falls, St. Catharines is a city full of surprises and well worth a visit. Founded in the late 1700s, it was once the home of abolitionist Harriet Tubman, was a key link in the history of Great Lakes shipping thanks to the Welland Canal, and is crisscrossed by recreational trails. A visit here will give you a new appreciation for this city on the shore of Lake Ontario.
In the morning:
Leave Toronto around 8 a.m., driving along the Queen Elizabeth Way west and you should arrive in St. Catharines by 10 a.m. On your way, take the exit for Jordan Road and visit Upper Canada Cheese in Jordan Station, where you can sample and buy its popular varieties, such as its delectable Nosy Goat and Niagara Comfort Cheese. If you’re visiting on a Friday, you’re in luck: that’s the day it has fresh curds for purchase.
Get back on the highway and continue to the exit for Lake Street, which will take you into St. Catharines. Begin your visit by stopping by the historic Salem Chapel British Methodist Episcopal Church on Geneva Street, a cultural treasure that was once attended by abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Though not open to the public during the pandemic, you can still admire the storied building and the historic plaques that tells its story.
[caption id="attachment_164553" align="alignnone" width="2560"] After your drive, take some time to stretch your legs by walking along the Welland Canal Parkways Trail, or – if there is snow on the ground – snowshoeing or cross-country skiing along its pathway. The 45-kilometre-long trail stretches from St. Catharines to Port Colborne, offering a relatively flat, paved surface that is also perfect for in-line skating or biking during warmer months. Depending on timing, you might find yourself beside a 26,000-ton ship as it makes its 226 metres climb through the locks up the Niagara Escarpment. If you want to learn more about the region’s proud shipping history, be sure to visit the Welland Canal Museum at Lock 3.
For another outdoor walking option, try the scenic, 5.3-kilometre St. Catharines section of the Bruce Trail. Winding past Brock University on the Niagara Escarpment, the trail is beautiful but not challenging, so you’ll have plenty of steam left for the rest of the day’s explorations. There is also the 10.3-kilometre Merritt Trail, named for William Hamilton Merritt, builder of the Welland Canal and an abolitionist colleague of Tubman. This woodsy walking trail winds its way beside Twelve Mile Creek and passes through downtown.
All that exercise has probably left you hungry, so head to Cold Break Brewery on St. Paul Street West. Its friendly, making-beer-while-you-watch atmosphere will keep you entertained, and both the brews and the bites are great. Have a pint of Krispy Cream Ale or a Lakeside Spruce Beer Seltzer, and chat with the brew master while you inhale an order of delicious Viscious Fishus Tacos.
Save room for a takeout dessert from Beechwood Doughnuts, also on St. Paul Street, Niagara’s first and only vegan doughnut shop. Everything is decadent and the shop is popular, often selling out before its closes at 5 p.m.
With doughnut in hand, stroll to Montebello Park, one of the city’s most beautiful green spaces. In non-pandemic times, Montebello, with its Victorian-style pavilion and bandshell, hosts the annual Niagara Wine Festival featuring tastings, food and entertainment for 10 days each September. Its famous rose garden is empty of blooms during the winter, but you’ll enjoy learning that this 2.49-hectare oasis was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also created New York City’s Central Park.
In the afternoon:
Port Dalhousie, St. Catharines’ lakeside enclave, is not only a summertime favorite with boaters, but is also home to Lakeside Park and 68 hand-carved animals who circle on a covered antique carousel. They’re currently taking a pandemic rest but be sure to bring the kids back next summer when they hope to be back in business. In the meantime, take a walk on the newly renovated pier and gaze over Lake Ontario’s wild waves before making the short drive to the famous Henley Rowing Course, which has hosted many world rowing championships and will soon welcome the 2022 Canada Games rowing events.
No visit to St. Catharines would be complete without tasting some of the sweet products from our region’s trees and vines. Stop at White Meadows Maple Syrup on Effingham Street, where you’ll enjoy a tasting board of four flavors of maple syrup, five gourmet maple treats and a tempting stack of mini pancakes. After, drop by Henry of Pelham Family Estate Winery on Pelham Road to meet the winemakers and sample its finest products. You can buy a bottle of their ice wine (they make three varieties) or a late harvest Vidal to take home.
[caption id="attachment_164551" align="alignnone" width="2560"]
Spring is almost here and this weekend was the first weekend for tours through the sugar bush at White Meadows Farms on Saturday, March 2, 2019. The tours run all weekend from 10a.m. to 3p.m. until the first weekend of April. Julie Jocsak/ St. Catharines Standard[/caption]
You’ll want to gather a few other treats as souvenirs of your visit, so make a stop at Bushel & Peck on Lake Street to buy some local produce and a jar of schmaltz. Yes, that’s chicken fat and nothing you fry in it will ever be less than fabulous. While you’re in a sinful frame of mind, visit Chocolates Etc. on Welland Avenue for a box of handmade icewine chocolates.
In the early evening:
For dinner, you’ll love the beer-battered haddock at The Merchant Ale House on St. Paul Street, made with its own Blonde Bombshell beer and served with coleslaw and tartar sauce. The food is great, but the location is even better – right beside the entrance to the Meridian Centre and just down the street from the First Ontario Performing Arts Centre, where you can enjoy some entertainment before heading home. Catch an Ice Dogs hockey game at the Meridian Centre or see a show at the arts centre. Tom Cochrane, an Edith Piaf tribute, Johnny Reid and Drag Queen Storytime are all playing to limited capacity audiences in the coming months. For the complete lineup, check firstontariopac.ca.
For the drive
Learn more about Harriet Tubman by downloading the “Stuff You Missed in History Class” episode about the abolitionist, Underground Railroad leader and spy for the Union during the Civil War (U.S.). “Harriet Tubman & the Underground Railroad (Part 1)” delved into her story and unravels some of the myths surrounding her. It is available from iHeart Podcast Network.
COVID-19 need to know
The Niagara region is currently dealing with the rise of the Omicron virus. Some restaurants are offering indoor service at reduced capacity, while others are providing curbside pickup and takeout service. Most businesses are open, also with limited capacity. Visit niagararegion.ca for the latest information on COVID-19 in the area.
Note: Times are suggestions only
- 8 a.m. Leave Toronto
- Drive west on the Queen Elizabeth Way
- 10 a.m. Upper Canada Cheese Company
- 10:30 a.m. Salem Chapel British Methodist Episcopal Church
- Noon: Cold Break Brewery followed by a doughnut from Beechwood Doughnuts
- 1 p.m. Montebello Park
- 2 p.m. Port Dalhousie
- 3 p.m. White Meadows Farms
- 4 p.m. Henry of Pelham Winery
- 6 p.m. Merchant Ale House