Small Towns: Niagara-on-the-Lake Ontario

Is it too much to assume that by summer we can travel again? Maybe it’s not a good year to hop on a plane, but if you’re up for a drive, why not head for Niagara Falls? Much like the Grand Canyon, there’s not much one can say about the falls except, “awesome!”

Far too many people, though, make the mistake of staying within sight when they visit Niagara Falls. There’s no nice way of saying this, so I’ll let it rip: Niagara Falls, New York is the pits–a mini Detroit with a water feature. It used to be that all one needed to upgrade a trip to the Niagara Gorge was cross the Rainbow Bridge into Canada and stay there. It’s still nicer than the U.S. side, but Niagara Falls, Ontario, has also grown tacky and crowded. Your best bet is to keep driving for 25 minutes and stay in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, a tidy town of 17,500 that’s such a delight that it’s far more than a place to sleep. 


As its name suggests, it’s on the mouth of the Niagara River, where it empties into Lake Ontario. On clear days you can peer across the lake and see Toronto in the distance. It’s just 27 kilometers as the crow flies, but it takes a few hours to drive there because one must drive around a lake that’s not called one of the Great Lakes for nothing. You might, however, find enough to do in Niagara-on-the-Lake that you won’t be tempted to go big.

The first striking thing about the town is that it’s just not necessary for people to live like pigs. It is sparkling clean, has lots of gardens and parks, ree-lined streets, and attractive Victorian era homes, inns, and shops. Sure, money helps, but even modest homes are well-maintained. The town’s most active area is along Queen Street, but if you want a break from tourists and shopping, all you have to do is stroll a block or two in any direction and you’ll have plenty of solitude. But before you duck out, be sure to sample British pastries downtown that you won’t find in the States, like Eccles cakes and Lamingtons. Also stop at the Niagara Apothecary for a sometimes-disconcerting look at how folks treated ailments in the days before drugs were tested and regulated. (I can only imagine what would have been done to coronavirus sufferers.)

As for things to do besides shop, in the summer Niagara is home to the George Bernard Shaw Festival which, as of this writing, is still slated to happen. There are several other playhouses that have changing productions, prompting some to compare its theater offerings to those of the Berkshires (which probably won’t happen this year). There are also historic homes and churches throughout the town. For many runaway slaves, Niagara was the first taste of freedom on the Underground Railroad; as a British colony, Canada officially abolished slavery in 1834, 31 years before the United States. Ontario, then called Upper Canada, informally abolished slavery decades earlier still. You will find markers and other reminders in Niagara.

Niagara was a strategic place during the War of 1812, hence another local tourist spot is Fort George on the very spot where the river dumps into the lake. It’s a classic earthen redoubt that added stone works as it grew. This doesn’t make U.S. history textbooks very often, but Americans captured Fort George during the War of 1812 and when they were ousted, they burned great sections of the town before leaving. This occurred in 1813, before British troops returned the favor and burned Washington, DC. If you want to brush up on the War of 1812, on your way to the falls you can visit the homestead of Laura Secord, who is a Paul Revere type in Canada who warned that the Yanks were coming! There is also the farming town of Queenston nearby, where there are monuments to Canadian heroes and martyrs during the War of 1812. Don’t be surprised if locals joke that the War of 1812 is “the only war Canada ever won.”

Aside from going to the falls, you can enjoy lots of scenic splendor in and around Niagara-on-the-Lake. The drive along the Niagara River is amazing and the town is in the very heart of a booming wine industry. Niagara wines used to be swill, but they have had a decided upgrade. Even Wayne Gretzky has a vineyard there and it has several areas related to his hockey memorabilia. Our favorite, though, was Stratus–not the cheapest you can drink, but maybe the best. The vineyard certainly does things right; the operation is practically a showcase in green viticulture.

If there’s anything better than the wine, it’s Niagara cherries and peaches. Stop at Greaves downtown and buy some cherry preserves; they are my favorite ever. The reason the region is so (ahem!) fruitful is because it is on Lake Ontario, not Lake Erie like Buffalo, your likely border crossing. Lake Ontario has quite different weather systems. You could even visit in the winter, as the yearly snow total is roughly what Buffalo gets in one bad storm. Check it out Niagara-on-the-Lake whenever you go to Niagara Falls. Did I mention that the falls are awesome?   

Rob Weir

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