Wineries range from smaller rustic properties like Ravine Vineyard to larger estate-style wineries like Peller, Inniskillin and Trius. A number of newer wineries, like Southbrook Vineyards, are focusing on sustainability and agricultural techniques that have a low impact on the environment. Bus tours and private guided tours are available, or you can make your own itinerary using the Wine Route Planner at http://WineCountryOntario.ca.
But the wineries are so well-signed that you can easily just drive around and stop when you see one that looks interesting. Many of the wineries are located along three major thoroughfares, Niagara Parkway, Niagara Stone Road and Lakeshore Road, surrounded by flat, grapevine-covered fields and crisscrossed by a numbered grid, with roads bearing names like “Concession 7” or “Line 5.” Concession roads run north-south. Line roads run east-west.
Some tasting rooms charge a small fee, some don’t. I was offered complimentary sips at several winery counters before making my purchases.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is also embracing culinary tourism and was recently named Canada’s No. 1 wine and culinary destination by TripAdvisor. A number of wineries, like Peller, Strewn and Trius, have upscale onsite restaurants, many of which use locally sourced products in their menus. Strewn is also home to a wine country cooking school.
Forty percent of tourists to Niagara-on-the-Lake come from the U.S., with Ohio, Pittsburgh and New York among its biggest feeder markets, Thomson said. After agriculture, tourism is the second-biggest industry in this town of 15,400 people, and it has the lodging to prove it: 1,000 rooms in B&Bs and 1,000 hotel rooms, many of them high-end boutique hotels, though there is one Hilton and a Best Western, according to Thomson. That creates a lot of alternatives to the many brand-name, high-rise hotels that dominate downtown Niagara Falls, promising “falls views.” The waterfalls are less than 20 miles from Niagara-on-the-Lake, 35 miles from Buffalo, N.Y., and 80 miles from Toronto.
You’ll need your passport if you’re crossing the border from the U.S., but you can get by without Canadian money. Most retailers accept credit cards and U.S. cash, though any change will be remitted in Canadian currency. The two currencies are nearly at parity, with $1 U.S. equivalent to 97 cents Canadian.
Niagara-on-the-Lake holds an important place in Canadian history. Founded in the late 18th century, it became the capital of what was then known as Upper Canada in 1792. It was on the front lines during the War of 1812, as headquarters for the British Army, and was burned by U.S. troops in 1813. The town’s National Heritage District includes over 100 buildings that date to 1859 or earlier, many of which were built to replace structures destroyed in the fire, said Leah Wallace, a senior planner for the town. The oldest buildings date to 1815-17, many of them built from red brick and clapboard in the Georgian-Neoclassical style.
Notable homes include the Breakenridge Hawley House on Mississauga Street, the Kerr-Wooll House on Prideaux Street, the Cameron-Farren House on King Street and the Wilson-Guy House on Victoria Street, Wallace said. St. Mark’s Anglican Church, which was occupied by U.S. troops during the war, dates to 1805. Other historic sites include Fort George and Butler’s Barracks. The Niagara Historical Society maintains a museum at 43 Castlereagh St., and walking tours are available. The heritage district, which comprises the downtown, includes a lively main street, Queen Street, packed with interesting small shops, including clothing boutiques, specialty food stores and good restaurants.
If you’re planning a visit in November, for about $45 you can buy a pass for the annual “Taste of the Season” event, which offers tastings and food-and-wine pairings at 28 wineries. The pass can be used Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays throughout November. And if you’re visiting the weekend of Oct. 8, wish the locals a happy Thanksgiving. While it’s Columbus Day in the U.S., it’s time to give thanks for the harvest north of the border – including all those grapes.