Niagara-on-the-lake (Canada, part I)

Timeline: August-September 2018

I feel like for most people, when they go to weddings they rarely travel outside the state where they live.

This was definitely an exception to that, because we were going very far north, to southern Canada. I’d only been to Canada once before many years ago when my family and I were in Detroit and we went across the bridge to Windsor, Ontario. This was back when you didn’t need a passport and just having your drivers license would suffice.

While you can drive in Canada with a US license, things had changed significantly since the last time I was in Canada and you’ll need a passport to enter Canada.

The quickest way to where we were going (a town in southern Ontario called Niagara-on-the-lake) was actually to fly to Buffalo and drive. All told, the drive would take about an hour including time spent waiting at the border. The drive itself was pretty uneventful, apart from the stress of driving in a completely unfamiliar place and driving an unfamiliar rental car (which, might I add, got incredible gas mileage that I now miss dearly).

The town of Niagara-on-the-lake is pretty much a hidden gem of southern Ontario. Even people from Ontario don’t know about it, but it is a beautiful, beautiful place. The population is around 20,000 people and though it’s popular with tourists the town has clearly placed a huge emphasis on retaining its small-town character and you won’t find any “touristy” gift shops or things like that. Nice, large houses, excellent restaurants, greenery is everywhere, and the people are incredibly friendly. I guess it may be what you think of when you think of a stereotypical New England town.

Something I also didn’t know about this area is that southern Ontario is very famous for wine. The Niagara region of Canada produces the vast majority of a specialty wine called icewine, a dessert wine made from grapes that are picked off the vine when they’re naturally frozen. Because the temperature range for picking the grapes off the vine is very small, icewine is very hard to make, but yields a wine with a very rich, sweet taste. The Niagara region of Canada is at the ideal latitude for conditions required to make it. Germany is the other major country that produces icewine.

I would say the drive was pretty uneventful, but that wouldn’t really be true. There was stress and anxiety from driving an unfamiliar car in an unfamiliar place. After getting the car rental sorted out (originally they wanted to give me a truck, I said no) we were at the border after maybe a 40-minute drive involving nearly all interstate, and toll roads. We don’t have toll roads where I’m from, so that was new. Really, the drive wasn’t bad. I just was stressing too much.

Crossing the border didn’t take very long at all, and after only a few minutes and answering a couple of questions we were in Canada.

The Niagara region of Canada is basically is the slice of southern Ontario between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, but a small portion of the region extends across the border into New York. The first thing I noticed is how much greenery there was. Trees and other plants were absolutely everywhere. Compared to the New York portion of the drive being mostly interstate, the Ontario portion of the drive was predominantly two-lane roads bordered by rows and rows of trees.

We drove into Niagara-on-the-lake, one of the most beautiful towns I have ever seen, on such a two-lane road. With a population of around 20,000 people, the town sits on the shores of Lake Ontario about an hour from the border. Dotted by tons of parks and wineries, even though the town is popular with people from Ontario and New York, the town hasn’t lost any of it’s colonial character. I ran into several people who grew up in Toronto who had never heard of the town. For someone like me who hasn’t really spent much time in the northeastern US, not to mention Canada, it was what I imagined a quaint New England town would be.

Coming from a larger city it was a nice change, really. But I’ve also learned that visiting a place and living in a place are very different things. Whether you move across town or across the world, there are many parts of life that don’t go away. Still though, I loved the small town, the older but very nice buildings, and the quieter pace of life. The fact that it was between 70 and 75 every day we were there didn’t hurt either.

The first night, which was the night before the wedding, we had dinner at an amazing restaurant called Zee’s Grill downtown. Imagine a quant, colonial-style old town that you might find in New England. Being in southern Ontario, New York and the US were no more than 90 minutes away by car.

The wedding was in a beautiful inn called Pillar and Post. When it was built, the property was a cannery, then when the cannery closed someone bought it and renovated it into a very nice hotel and spa. The property is huge, the building is huge, and the interior is gorgeous. Even though our hotel wasn’t in the center of town, Pillar and Post was only 3 blocks away, and Old Town NOTL (as it’s known locally) was only about a mile and a half away. Wineries that produce some of the world’s best wine were only a couple of miles away. Greenery, bike paths everywhere, nice houses, nice temperatures, a cool thriving old town center, some of the world’s best wineries. What’s not to like about a place like this?

Oh, and the squirrels there are jet black. That was new.

Another thing about Niagara-on-the-lake is that it’s pretty bike-friendly. I’d already planned a bike tour for our first day there earlier in the day before the wedding. Armed with a couple of wine-tasting vouchers from our hotel, we rented our bikes and took off on a tour of the Niagara region’s wineries. We’re both bad at directions and did a self-guided tour, so this was probably somewhat of a bold move. But it was a ton of fun, we saw some beautiful scenery, and sampled some awesome local wines. We rode a pretty long way and went to three wineries. We didn’t get as far as we wanted because we ran a bit short on time, but it was super fun nonetheless.

The building the reception was in as well as the grounds where the wedding was held used to be a cannery. Then I guess at some point after the cannery closed someone bought the property, renovated it, and turned it into a nice B&B. After the wedding was done, the dinner following the reception was beautiful. Formal place settings, at least 14 tables (I know because I was sitting at table 14) and personalized, handwritten notes for every party who came. Every one. Being the only American party at the wedding, we of course got to meet a lot of new people!

After the beautiful wedding, reception, and dinner we made our way back to the hotel, walking by all the beautiful houses under the broad-leafed trees that even in southern Ontario on the first of September still had all of their leaves.

Sadly, the next morning it would come time to leave Niagara-on-the-lake and go to Niagara Falls. Hopefully though, I will come back to Niagara-on-the-lake one day.

I certainly want to.