When I was growing up near the U.S.-Canada border in western New York State, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, was my window to the “other side,” a pristine sample of Canada that not only represented a different country, but also a different era. Experiencing afternoon tea and Victorian-themed hotels and shops, I believed for many years that I was in England, and that England was a century behind the rest of the world. Much has changed. While keeping its bygone spirit, Niagara-on-the-Lake has embraced the latest trends and takes its place as a sophisticated world-class getaway destination, now offering spa menus before tea and wine pairings with just about every meal.
And although the exchange rate wasn’t what it had been so many years ago, a three-day escape in Niagara’s stylish new wine country fit well within my $500 budget.
What’s the deal?
Putting together my getaway was fairly easy and straightforward. Airfare and car rental were inexpensive, and affordable hotel alternatives kept prices as sound as my sleep. The biggest challenge, if you could call it that, was comparing airfare and car rental costs, along with driving distance, among the three nearest major airports. The rest was as simple as choosing activities, from what wines to sample to which Shaw Festival play to see.
Choosing among the three airports, I flew into Buffalo for $163 round-trip from Boston on US Airways. Like most destinations in the U.S., the best rates appeared about 21 days in advance. Having traveled to Buffalo often to visit family, I knew this fare was well within the normal range, if not a little lower. Depending on your departure city, it might be significantly cheaper to fly into Toronto or Rochester, New York. These were the going rates for a cross-section of cities around the country.
- $152 from New York to Buffalo
- $152 from Washington, D.C., to Buffalo
- $160 from Chicago to Buffalo
- $162 from Philadelphia to Buffalo
- $209 from Detroit to Rochester
- $228 from Ft. Lauderdale to Buffalo
- $231 from Kansas City to Buffalo
- $273 from Atlanta to Buffalo
On average, add anywhere between $20 and $100 from other departure cities in the Midwest or on the West Coast. For example, I found a surprisingly reasonable fare of $331 from far-away Seattle to Toronto.
Most major U.S. airlines fly into Buffalo and Rochester, with US Airways stepping up as one of the most frequent and affordable, particularly from the East Coast. JetBlue has been expanding into the Buffalo and Rochester markets, creating routes to and from New York’s JFK airport, and more recently, between Boston and Buffalo. Toronto’s Pearson Airport is by far the largest, with service from several U.S. and many international carriers.
NEXT >> Getting around
Before committing to purchase an airline ticket, I made sure to evaluate all car rental options, as a pricier car could quickly shift the balance of my budget. From a quick scan on Hotwire, which often has the cheapest rates, I priced three-day rentals from all three airports. Rochester was the cheapest at $51.70, followed by Buffalo at $68.40 and Toronto at $101.60.
Toronto airfare and car rental cost the most, so I eliminated that option immediately. Airfare to the remaining airports was comparable; however, even though Rochester’s car rental rate was slightly cheaper, I chose Buffalo because the drive time from the airport to Niagara-on-the-Lake was much shorter. From Buffalo, it took only 45 minutes, compared to one hour and 40 minutes from Rochester (one hour and 25 minutes from Toronto). Add border-crossing wait times into the mix, and any time saved can make a significant difference.
Coming from the U.S., you’ll have to cross the Niagara River over to Canada. The closest bridge to Niagara-on-the-Lake, and perhaps the most direct, is the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, which I took. However, you might prefer to cross one of the other bridges due to traffic conditions or to see Niagara Falls. Depending on your route, expect to pay some tolls. I shelled out $3 (round-trip) on I-190 in New York State and $2.75 (one-way only) for the bridge.
Once in Niagara-on-the-Lake, I recommend keeping the car handy, especially if you want to enjoy the wine route (with a designated driver, of course). Many people rent bicycles to ride the path up and down scenic Niagara Parkway, which overlooks the Niagara River from up high. This road to town is filled with historic parkland and is home to Fort George (where many War of 1812 battles were fought), fruit orchards, and some of the area’s grandest homes and wineries. Exploring historic Old Town requires nothing more than a leisurely gait. Everything from Shaw Festival theaters and shops to Lake Ontario at the mouth of the Niagara River lies in close proximity.
Parking right in town can be difficult, particularly on weekends and festival days. However, with a bit of patience, you can find metered spots, pay-and-display areas, as well as short- and long-term lots.
For border traffic conditions, check online or call 800-715-6722.
NEXT >> Where to stay
Where to stay
As a popular getaway destination, hotels have little incentive to charge rock-bottom rates. This is especially true for the swank, newly refurbished establishments. With rooms starting at $200 per night, I knew quickly that I was priced out. Luckily, there are many B&Bs of distinction, with much more budget-friendly rates.
The Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce website has a list of almost 300 properties organized by price range. As I scrolled through, the words “circa 1787” at SkyeHaven Bed and Breakfast jumped out at me. When in a historic town, stay at a historic place, I thought. The B&B, run by Scotland natives Sandra and David McAslan, has three enormous rooms by B&B standards, all for $125 CAD per night. After inquiring over email, the couple offered me the first floor “Blue Room” for only $120 (CAD), including all taxes and fees, which came to $103.25 (USD) at the time of booking. All the rooms are decorated in a traditional British style, with modern and spacious bathrooms, and include breakfast prepared by David himself. The property is located slightly more than a 10-minute walk from town.
Other Niagara-on-the-Lake hotels
A bit “newer,” dated circa 1890, Cecile’s House Bed & Breakfast is located right in the town center, exactly one block from Queen Street and one block from the lake. The owner, Chris Martineau, was once a Montreal chef, so I imagine there’s quite a focus on “breakfast.” He also runs a shop, Cecile’s Home & Gift, that sells delicate French country housewares, around the corner. Rooms are decorated with antiques and Provencal accents and start at $115 CAD.
Those willing to pay more for a full-service hotel won’t be disappointed. The recently renovated Oban Inn, run by local developer and designer Si Wai Lai, remains forward thinking with its three-month-old O Spa and soon-to-come infinity pool. While some rooms have kept their English country theme of years past, others have adopted a comfortable contemporary style. All rooms have small flat-screen TVs, Bose stereos, and bathrooms with smart essentials. High season rates start at $250 CAD.
No mention of Old Town lodging is complete without the Vintage Hotels, a group of Niagara-on-the-Lake classics recently spruced up by none other than Si Wai Lai. The flagship Prince of Wales, while newly polished, retains its Victorian British opulence. The country-rustic Pillar and Post and business-set favorite Queen’s Landing offer guests a mix of elegant comfort and the latest in modern amenities such as Wi-Fi. Two of the hotels have full-service spas. Rates typically start in the $200 range in the busier seasons.
Visit the Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce for a complete list of hotels, inns, B&Bs, and rentals.
NEXT >> Classic Niagara activities
Classic Niagara activities
If you can’t afford to stay at the Prince of Wales hotel, you can experience afternoon tea on its enclosed veranda for much less. The tea menu is varied, with British standards like Earl Grey and Orange Pekoe, as well as the trendiest blends such as Himalayan green, chai, and white tea. My choice, to remind me I was still in Canada, was “Golden Tippy Assam” with organic vanilla and maple sugar. The Victorian ritual’s other components remained tradition at its best, with egg and watercress sandwiches, scones with clotted cream, and an assortment of pastries such as seasonal fruit tarts and chocolate-glazed opera cakes. Afternoon tea costs $32.
Perhaps Niagara-on-the-Lake’s most famous draw is the ongoing Shaw Festival, the only theater in the world devoted to the works of George Bernard Shaw. The festival runs from April through November and presents world-class performances in three different theaters in Old Town. This year’s lineup features two plays by Shaw, Arms and The Man and Too True To Be Good, and eight other scripts by varied playwrights like Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Miller, and other, more contemporary names. At the large-stage Festival Theatre, I saw the entertaining “High Society,” which was a musical take on the classic romantic comedy, The Philadelphia Story, set to the tunes of Cole Porter. Tickets for this season range from $52 to $86; however, there are 11 ways to save. Appropriate for weekend travelers, all seats cost only $45 on “Super Sundays.”
Shaw doesn’t own the only festival in town. Niagara-on-the-Lake is buzzing on any given day with special events, whether occupied by summer re-enactors in colonial getup or partitioned off by a 30-foot ice bar for winter icewine tastings. I happened to be there for Canada Day Celebrations (July 1), which featured Artistry By The Lake, a display of 80 local artisans selling pottery, oil paintings, and crafts. Celebrations also included fireworks and free admission to Fort George. Town events are free to the public.
Old Town, framed by street-long flowerbeds and trotting horses pulling carriages, is Niagara-on-the-Lake’s beating heart. Visitors continuously pour in and out of primo boutiques that line Queen Street, showcasing specialty items like ornamental gardening gifts, Scottish and Irish imports, and fine Victorian chinaware. The only real chain is a small Crabtree and Evelyn shop that’s been there for years. Art studios and antique sellers are a mainstay, along with alfresco restaurants like the Shaw Cafe and Wine Bar and desserteries selling pastries, ice cream, and homemade fudge. A few blocks away, Queen’s Royal Park is a quiet place to dip into the water or get a full view of Old Fort Niagara on the American side of the Niagara River.
My favorite spot outside of Old Town is Kurtz Orchards, a producer of local fruits and specialty food products like icewine jelly and a newly popular Asiago Parmesan Bread Topper. Although the free tasting samples throughout the store were enough for a meal, I picked up a boxed lunch and picnicked in the orchard under a covered gazebo tucked behind a large koi pond. Lunches cost $9.95—much cheaper than many places in town—and feature a gourmet sandwich, baby green salad, fresh fruit, and a seasonal dessert.
NEXT >> Not my mother’s grapes
Not my mother’s grapes
Although still rich with produce growers like Kurtz, the Niagara region has been deemed too valuable over the past few decades for fruits like apples, and many growers have switched to grape growing. Too young to drink the last time I visited, I was oblivious to any wine scene. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one. Several wine reps I spoke with claimed that local wine wasn’t much to rave about until recently. Niagara-on-the-Lake now boasts 17 wineries, with many more scattered through the Niagara Peninsula.
Viticulturalists and vintners have begun to realize that the land and climate produce ideal grape-growing conditions due to glacial deposits and a microclimate created by the Niagara Escarpment and Lake Ontario. Located on the 43rd parallel, the Niagara Peninsula rests at the same latitude as major wine regions in Northern California, France, and Germany. I was awestruck at the similarities between one of Niagara’s signature varietals, Cabernet Franc, and one of my personal favorite wines produced in St. Emilion, France, near Bordeaux. Other big varietals are Riesling, Gewurztraminer (think Germany), and Vidal, a cross between North American and European grapes.
Niagara’s cool winters set the region apart, with temperatures dropping just enough to produce icewine. Once it has reached minus 10 degrees Celsius, the frozen grapes can be harvested and pressed into the succulent dessert wines that have become very popular. Niagara produces mostly Vidal, Riesling, and Cabernet Franc icewines, which are currently ranked among the best in the world. Konzelmann Estate Winery made a relatively rare 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon icewine that I had to bring home.
Niagara has created a traveler-friendly experience, with a well-marked wine route and burgeoning wine estates and tasting rooms. Most wineries offer behind-the-scenes tours and charge tasting fees, which vary between $1 and $5. Some charge that much to sample just one icewine. However, most hotels and inns offer complimentary tasting cards and passes to select vineyards, so be sure to ask your innkeeper.
For the complete 17, visit the Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake website.
Wine country splurges
All the activities above fit nicely into my budget, but if you have a bit extra to spend, here are a few things worth the splurge.
Strewn Wine Country Cooking School
At Strewn Wine Country Cooking School, the exuberant Jane Langdon teaches hands-on, one-day classes that usually focus on a seasonal theme. Participants work in teams of two at their own cooking station, and they prepare each of the dishes themselves. I was able to observe a class for a while and even got to help with dessert, a panna cotta made from strawberries picked fresh that morning. $195 CAD for a six-hour class.
Jackson Triggs Proprietor’s Table dinner and “Twilight in the Vineyard” concert
Jackson-Triggs winery has made itself into a stunning attraction. Besides the usual vineyard tours and tastings at its modern barnyard estate, it offers a host of special events like the Proprietor’s Table dinner, where guests gather in the barrel cellar to feast on a multi-course meal paired with wines, many from the reserve collection. Afterwards, guests file outside to the intimate amphitheater for a musical performance from the “Twilight in the Vineyard” summer series. The dinner and concert combined cost around $150 CAD, depending on the performer.
Strewn and Jackson Triggs events sell out quickly, so book well in advance.
Years older, and hopefully a bit worldlier, I no longer see Niagara-on-the-Lake as “olde tyme” England. It’s really more like Napa. Of course I’m being facetious. From my three days of rediscovery, it’s clear that one of Canada’s prettiest towns is a unique world-class getaway destination, one that combines the elegance of yesteryear with fashionable pursuits modern travelers desire.
I haven’t picked the destination for my next column but am considering destinations in Florida or the Northeast, all for under $500. If there’s a place you’d like me to explore, please email me at email@example.com.