NOTL: A getaway not-so-far-away

Often people think the only way to “get away from it all” is to venture into far-off lands for lengthy periods of time, escape the addiction that is our electronic devices and live like nomads. Turns out – at least for the twenty-something “adventurers” we are – all you need for some downtime is often in your own backyard – of your province.

We all know Niagara Falls. No matter where you’re from, you have some semblance of what this one of the Seven Wonders of the World looks like and how fascinating and impressive it is. And it is!

But drive a mere half hour east, and you’ll get away from (most) fannypack-wearing, camera-slinging, casino-loving tourists and enter a true summer paradise where sun and sand meet and the people are as smiley as they are generous.

And who wouldn’t be happy in Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL)? Residents and visitors alike find themselves surrounded by sun, (tons of) great wine, a vast and beautiful lake, clean atmosphere and, albeit a lack of stoplights at Queen St. intersections, no traffic.

Looking across beautiful Lake Ontario to the States
Looking across beautiful Lake Ontario to the States

Niagara Falls is a destination, but NOTL is an experience. It’s world-renowned for its natural beauty – the town maps proclaim NOTL as “North America’s Prettiest Town” – its historic sites, and, of course, its wine.

Planning a trip to the region should begin in the many small towns in surrounding areas just outside NOTL. With so much to offer visitors, it’s a good opportunity for one to literally whet their palette with the region’s fine offerings.

We made a point to stop at a handful of vineyards along the Beamsville Bench, in Jordan, Grimsby, Lincoln and Beamsville, Ontario – about 40 minutes from NOTL.

Our first stop was beautiful family-owned Fielding Estates Winery. Fielding has a sprawling property with a new and modern wine tasting and retail building that’s been home to many events on its expansive front lawn overlooking the vineyard. Fielding’s friendly staff, impeccable facilities and great selection of gifts and accessories all complement its fantastic wine selection. While sampling ice wine, estate-bottled Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay, we sat on the balcony overlooking its entire property and enjoyed panorama vistas of Lake Ontario. We could not have started off our trip better!

From Fielding, we drove 150 metres down the road to the home of Mike Weir Wine. Weir, the famous Canadian golfer, has been in the wine business since the mid-2000s, with 100 per cent of the company’s profits going toward his childrens’ charity. The facility will be open in spring 2014 –but we got a sneak peek.

Touring Mike Weir Wine facilities - opening this fall
Touring Mike Weir Wine facilities – opening this fall

Mike Weir Wine’s new retail area, projected to open to the public in October 2013, will have a balcony that overlooks its vineyard and the lake in the distance. It will also hold a gallery filled with artifacts and memorabilia from Weir’s PGA Tour wins, including his 2003 Masters victory, and appearance at the 2007 President’s Cup in Montreal. The company’s knowledgeable and outgoing winemaker said it is mostly known for its Riesling, having won the 2011 White Wine of the Year in Canada.

Prior to arriving at Stoney Ridge Estate Winery, we made a point to pop into Upper Canada Cheese, famous for it’s Gold Label cheese and Guernsey cow products. Every one of its delicious cheese varieties is sourced from local dairy is made in its on-site facility. It should be ideally paired with some local wine!

Stoney Ridge, itself, is a gorgeous, small vineyard with the most finely manicured gardens in the region. It offers many areas for patrons to enjoy a glass of wine and a cheese plate amongst the rosebushes, lilies, arbors and vines. The knowledgeable and generous staff at Stoney Ridge made our quick visit one to remember.

From the Beamsville Bench, we travelled east along the QEW and the Escarpment to the lovely Niagara-on-the-Lake, where we would tour around in the perfect 25-degree sun before settling in at a local B&B.

With a population of about 15,400 – a quarter of which is retirees – it was immediately evident that NOTL was a popular destination in the summer months, particularly for those who live right across the border in nearby Buffalo or Rochester. And with so much to do, outside of just grape guzzling, it’s clear why that is.

Horseback riding, eating, golfing, picnicking, sightseeing, shopping, touring Fort George, cycling, and live music are just some of the many activities offered outside the vineyards – many of which we gladly partook in.

Trail riding near the vineyards
Trail riding near the vineyards

For example, the Niagara-on-the-Lake golf course is right in the downtown core, and was a mere five minute drive from our B&B. It’s located along the shores of Lake Ontario, and provides some stunning views. The course is the oldest in North America still in its original location, and was ranked No. 9 in Golf Digest’s ranking of the best nine-hole courses in the world.

Picturesque NOTL golf club
Picturesque NOTL golf club

Not being from the region, it was the diversity, variety and complexity of the region’s wineries was what really grabbed our attention and turned us into the tasting connoisseurs we now proudly claim to be (note: the term ‘connoisseurs’ is used loosely).

From the twilight tour at Trius by Hillebrand where we learned what goes into making a world-famous sparkling wine (‘Brut’), to understanding why rosebushes are planted to save the crops at Pillitteri Estates, to discovering building architecture is influenced by a barn at Jackson-Triggs, and to realizing the gunshot noises were actually just animal deterrents, our biggest takeaway was that winemaking is both an art and a science.

Overlooking the vast vineyard at Jackson-Triggs
Overlooking the vast vineyard at Jackson-Triggs

Getting away from it all doesn’t have to mean boarding a plane for the furthest exotic destination. As we experienced, taking a moment to breathe and relax outside the city and refueling with good food, great wine, friendly hospitality and fun activities is sometimes all you need.

And Niagara-on-the-Lake was the perfect place to do it.

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