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Wine and waterfalls in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada

Wine and waterfalls: Exploring Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada

When I found out my summer travels stateside would take me from New York to Toronto with a couple of days to spare along the way, there was only one place I could really stop off at – Niagara Falls. It’s one of those places that although you know it’s going to be really touristy, it’s such an iconic place that you really have to see it for yourself at least once. Though after hearing about the high-rises and casinos I was having second thoughts, until I found out there was another Niagara we could base ourselves in. Bursting with small town charm, Niagara-on-the-Lake was the perfect place to get our dose of wine and waterfalls.

Read more: Exploring Toronto’s waterfront and islands

Niagara-on-the-Lake's heritage district, Canada

Niagara-on-the-Lake’s heritage district

The town

Where Niagara Falls is big and brash, Niagara-on-the-Lake is the complete opposite – swapping high-rise hotels for cute B&Bs and giant casinos for boutique shops and restaurants. The town is set on the edge of Lake Ontario directly opposite Toronto, but you feel like you’ve travelled back in time as well as 130km across the province. Niagara-on-the-Lake’s heritage district is one of the best preserved 19th-century towns in North America. It’s all gorgeous Victorian red-brick buildings, perfectly manicured lawns, tree-lined streets and window boxes overflowing with flowers. So perfectly pretty it could be a film set.

Niagara-on-the-Lake's heritage district, Canada

Street strolling

It’s a bit of a favourite for a Torontonians on a romantic weekend break, and as I sat on a patio drinking a glass of local wine at sunset and watching a horse-drawn carriage trot by, I could see why. It sounds like it could be a bit twee, but somehow it skates just the right side of the line. It’s a place where time slows down – where all you have to do is relax and unwind, maybe do a bit of window shopping, stop for an ice cream (they have a branch of my favourite Prince Edward Island producer Cows), take a walk along the lakefront and do a a bit of fantasy house-buying to pick which multi-million mansion you’d fancy in a another life.

Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada

The Horseshoe Falls

The waterfall

As hard as it was to drag ourselves away from Niagara-on-the-Lake, you can’t go to Niagara without seeing the Falls. We didn’t have a hire car but had no problem getting around using the buses – catching the bus from Fort George to the Floral Clock where it meets up with the WEGO shuttle that runs past through all the main Falls attractions ($8 CAD/£4.50 for a 24-hour pass). And there are a lot of attractions – a zipline, 4D cinema, whitewater walk, aero car, sky wheel, viewing towers, walk behind the falls and various boat trips. If you fancy trying them out then there are various passes that bundle them together to save money.

Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada

Niagara Falls views and boats

But the main attraction for us was always going to be the Falls. As a former geography student and environment geek, the feeling of getting up close to such a force of nature was incredible. Canada’s Horseshoe Falls are the biggest, stretching 790 metres wide by 57 metres high, with an immense six million cubic feet of water flowing over every minute. The path runs right along the edge of the Falls so you can hear the roar, feel the spray on your face and look right down to the blue Maid of the Mist boats getting buffeted by the waves (bring a good waterproof camera case and prepare to get wet if you want to get up close). Yes it was pretty much as touristy as I imagined, but nature is still very much the star at the Falls.

Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada

The (smaller) American Falls

The wine

Away from that waterfall, the other thing the Niagara area is famous for is its wine. It’s the only place in the world warm enough in the summer to make red wine and cold enough in the winter to make ice wine. If you’ve not tried ice wine you’re missing out – it’s full of sticky, tropical fruit flavours, like pudding in a glass. It’s made using frozen grapes, which are picked by hand in December when temperatures are down around -10 (there’s a job I wouldn’t fancy doing). When the grapes are crushed a lot of the water is left behind as ice, concentrating the flavour and the sugar that’s left behind. Ontario’s one of the best places for ice wine, but there are other local white and red wines like Pinot Noir, Gamay Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling.

Peller Estates winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada

In the gardens at Peller Estates

There are about 28 wineries around Niagara-on-the-Lake, but they’re pretty spread out. So we hired a bike, picked up a map and chose a few which weren’t too far apart. One of the easiest cycle routes is along the Niagara River Parkway. You start at Fort George Historical Park, cycle through the park and then just follow the path along the edge of the Niagara River. There’s a separate cycle path and it’s fairly flat so it’s an easy ride – though there isn’t a lot of room in your saddlebag (and the extra weight combined with a few tastings can make things a bit wobbly!), so if you want to buy wine you can arrange to collect it later.

Peller Estates winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada

Peller Estates wine tasting

Our first stop was Peller Estates, just a couple of kilometres out of town. It’s a grand-looking place with a bit of a French château meets Southern ranch thing going on. They even have an ice bar for the full ice wine experience and on a sunny day the gardens were full of people for a BBQ. But we headed straight into the tasting room. In a bit of a weird coincidence, there was this Ice Cuvée wine my mum and I loved when we did a cruise with P&O – a Champagne-style sparkling wine topped up with a drop of ice wine to add sweetness. I’d never seen it anywhere else but it turns out Peller Estates make it, so I had to do a thorough tasting to make sure I still liked it (the answer was a definite yes, I just need to find a UK stockist now).

Inniskillin winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada

Inniskillin winery

From Peller it was another 3km along the Parkway to Reif Estate, a family-owned vineyard set up by a wine-making family from Germany. It has some of the area’s oldest vines which give the wines lots of flavour. Next up was Inniskillin, a short hop away, where we chatted to a guy on the tasting desk who’d emigrated to Canada from South Wales 30 years ago and now spent his retirement teaching people about wine – not a bad way to spend your days. Then our final stop was 4.5km away at ice wine specialists The Ice House, whose ice wine slushies were just what we needed to set us up for the ride back to town. Four wineries were just a taste of what Niagara’s wine has to offer, but a pretty perfect way to spend a stopover.

Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada

Love those red brick buildings

The details

Getting there: We took the train to Niagara Falls from New York Penn Station for US$88 (£63) per person. It took about 9.5 hours, but the seats were really comfy with tons of leg room. You go through Canadian immigration when you get off at Niagara which was pretty quick and easy. We did plan to hire a car but the train was late so the car hire place had closed. So we gave up on that idea and took a taxi to Niagara-on-the-Lake ($40 CAD/£22) then used the bus. There’s a shuttle between Niagara-on-the-Lake and Niagara Falls from April to September which runs every hour and costs $14 CAD (£8) return. To get to Toronto, we took the bus to Burlington then the GO commuter train to Union Station (two hours and $19/£11 in total).

We stayed at: Cape House B&B, a cute traditional – but not too chintzy – B&B about 30 minutes’ walk from the centre of town (Niagara-on-the-Lake is bigger than it looks!). There are only three bedrooms and everyone eats breakfast together so it’s got a bit of a communal atmosphere – there’s a lounge and deck so you can sit out with a glass of wine in the evenings if you’re feeling sociable. Owners John and Phyllis were lovely – Phyllis whipped up homemade granola and smoothies for breakfast and John drove us to the bus station on our way to Toronto. Rooms from $165–$185 CAD (£92–£103) a night in high season.

Lake Ontario, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada

Along the lakefront

We ate at: Because we were a bit out of town we thought we’d have to get taxis out for dinner but it turned out there were a couple of good restaurants nearby. The star was Backhouse, tucked away in an unassuming shopping centre. From the outside it looked like a strip mall office but inside was this dark and moody restaurant. We went for their Signature nine-course tasting menu ($79 CAD/£44) and sat right in front of the open kitchen so we could watch the chefs at work. It was probably one of the best meals I’ve had in years, with beautiful presentation and lots of inventive flavours (and no problem to make it gluten-free).

We also liked The Old Winery, just down the road from our B&B, for Italian food like woodfired pizzas, pastas and grills – and a good local wine list. Also recommended is the Grill On King in the centre of Niagara-on-the-Lake, especially if you can grab a table on their pretty flower-lined terrace out the front. They (unsurprisingly) specialise in grilled meat, and do burgers and sandwiches at lunchtime too. And if you fancy a change from wine, the Exchange Brewery have a tasting room where you can try their beers. There’s usually a mix of their main and seasonal brews, and the roof terrace is perfect for sunny afternoons.

Exchange Brewery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada

A change from wine at the Exchange Brewery

Have you ever been to Niagara?

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What to see and do in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada, a pretty historic lakeside town with cosy B&Bs, boutique shops and great restaurants which makes a perfect base to explore Niagara Falls and the Niagara wine region #Niagara #Canada #ExploreCanada #Niagaraonthelake

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28 Comments

  • Reply
    Bethaly
    March 8, 2018 at 12:42 am

    Wow gorgeous photos! I really need to visit Toronto one day. The farthest I’ve been from BC is Winnipeg, Manitoba!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 9, 2018 at 9:04 pm

      Canada is such a big country, and so much to see! I would love to see more of BC next time I make it over.

  • Reply
    Jill Wiggins
    March 9, 2018 at 3:41 pm

    Of all the amazing, exotic places you have been to that I have not, Niagara-on-the-Lake is one I actually have visited, and loved it just as much as you did. We only ate a meal there and walked around a bit, but we found it utterly charming. Also worth a stop if you’re in that area is a fabulous butterfly conservatory, probably one of the best anywhere. Both educational and beautiful!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 9, 2018 at 9:21 pm

      Brilliant! It was such a lovely spot, we were only there a couple of days and came away feeling so relaxed. We did miss the butterfly conservancy though so will hopefully make it back someday to see it.

  • Reply
    MummyTravels
    March 9, 2018 at 8:15 pm

    It always sounds like such a lovely spot – even apart from the falls. I never knew about the wine though, that’s quite a weather combination. And a lovely place to test out the results.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 9, 2018 at 9:32 pm

      I can never resist a wine region! This was a great one too – easy to get around and do some tastings.

  • Reply
    Rachel @ Never Enough Novels
    March 9, 2018 at 8:41 pm

    I haven’t been in a few years, but need to go back for the ice wine! I love the idea of a bike tour. We drove around, so it’d be a neat experience to bike to a few wineries instead.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 9, 2018 at 9:34 pm

      The ice wine is so good! I only had room to bring a tiny bottle home unfortunately but you can get some in the UK. The bike trip was fun too, and flat enough that it wasn’t too hard work.

  • Reply
    MoKath
    March 11, 2018 at 8:45 am

    After seeing this post, this is added to my growing list of places to visit.
    Put it pretty high up!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 15, 2018 at 11:23 pm

      That’s great, hope you get to make the trip someday soon!

  • Reply
    Kieren
    March 12, 2018 at 8:14 pm

    These photos are amazing – Canada is definitely one on the bucket list (the list is just too long!).

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 15, 2018 at 11:17 pm

      Thank you! Yes I know that feeling too – the list never gets any shorter does it!

  • Reply
    Kayla
    March 12, 2018 at 10:56 pm

    I’m currently sitting in my office, procrastinating doing any work and now, thanks to you, day dreaming of being in Canada. Everything looks and sounds absolutely divine! How cute is Niagara-on-the-Lake?! Thanks so much for bringing this to my attention, I’ll have to add it to my ‘travel ideas’ notes on my iPhone haha 😛

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 15, 2018 at 11:16 pm

      Ah thank you! I didn’t know much about it before I booked the trip but it was a great discovery, so relaxing too.

  • Reply
    Laura
    March 13, 2018 at 2:41 am

    Looks so beautiful here! Had no idea there were so many wonderful things to see there.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 15, 2018 at 11:15 pm

      It’s such a cute place!

  • Reply
    Suzanne Jones
    March 16, 2018 at 7:19 pm

    I had a few days in Toronto about 12 years ago! We went to Niagara for the day spending a few hours at Niagara-on-the-Lake and stopping at a winery on the way back, although I don’t remember which one. I do remember the ice wine though which is delicious! This was a lovely reminder of our visit to this pretty little town.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 19, 2018 at 5:21 pm

      Ice wine is so good! I wish we could have brought more back with us.

  • Reply
    WOMANTALENT
    March 16, 2018 at 7:51 pm

    Thank you darling, so many options for us now xx

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 19, 2018 at 5:21 pm

      Thank you!

  • Reply
    alison abbott
    March 19, 2018 at 1:15 am

    I’ve been to the US side of Niagara Falls, but see now I really missed its Canadian sister! Niagara-on-the-Lake is another great place to see the falls and take in a few wineries. I see a road trip in my future!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 19, 2018 at 5:33 pm

      It’s a great base for a weekend break – enough to see but relaxed too and lots of great food and drink.

  • Reply
    Sara @ Travel Continuum
    March 19, 2018 at 2:11 pm

    I’m not much of a wine-drinker but I’d go to Niagara-on-the-Lake just for its retro feel and tree-lined streets…AND because I too love looking for those lesser-known yet nearby attractions. This reminds me a lot of Ecuador, where there are two ‘equator’ attractions, the main official one, and the quainter, but less touristy Intinan site nearby.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 19, 2018 at 5:34 pm

      It’s always nice to find a bit of a more hidden gem!

  • Reply
    David
    June 12, 2018 at 12:02 pm

    This is truly amazing! Enough inspiration to want to visit Niagara. Lovely photos.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      June 14, 2018 at 8:32 am

      Thanks – really enjoyed my trip there!

  • Reply
    Ava
    October 5, 2018 at 6:39 pm

    Well done! This post carries its title like a charm! This is more than a mouth full and all that one truly need to know in just one post!
    The pictures are STUNNING! I have never been to Niagara Falls, but I hope to go one day. I knew that the falls crossed the borders, but I didn’t realize that there was a difference in the views/experience! Truly informative guide that I plan to save for when I am able to go on the trip.
    Thank you

    • Reply
      Lucy
      October 10, 2018 at 10:04 pm

      Thanks so much – so glad it was useful!

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