Town Full of Charms in Ontario

By Green, Mary Margaret | The World and I, October 2004 | Go to article overview
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Town Full of Charms in Ontario

Green, Mary Margaret, The World and I

Mary Margaret Green is a freelance writer.

Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins are spending their summer on the shores of Lake Ontario, in the pretty Canadian town of Niagara-on-the- Lake. The first time Eliza saw it, she must have gasped, "Owww, it's loverly!"

I said something like that myself--minus the cockney accent--when my husband and I stumbled across it years ago during a visit to nearby (but worlds apart) Niagara Falls: "What a great place!"

Even as he snickered at us, Henry would have had to agree. Here's why:

* Flowers everywhere--cascading from hanging baskets, fences, and rails and casting vibrant color across seemingly every yard and public space.

* Beautifully maintained homes dating from the early 19th century.

* More fine restaurants, shops, art galleries, and artists' studios than can be covered in one visit.

* Small hotels, inns, bed-and-breakfasts, cottages, and rental houses, but no high-rises, chain motels, or traffic jams.

* Three intimate theaters within blocks of each other in which the Shaw Festival is presenting, this year, a total of 12 plays from early April through early December, including George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion with Eliza and Henry.

* Mile upon scenic mile of vineyards, fruit orchards, lush gardens, and manicured parkland.

* More than 40 wineries producing ever-better, award-winning vintages in limited quantities hard to buy outside of Ontario.

* Trails and little-traveled byways perfect for cyclists, hikers, equestrians, and in-line skaters.

* Waterways dotted with kayaks, sailboats, other pleasure craft, and tour boats.

* Fourteen nearby golf courses, including the lakefront, circa 1875 Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club, advertised as the oldest existing golf course in North America and the site of the continent's first international tournament, in 1895.

* The rapids of the Niagara River, swirling and crashing through the deep gorge it has carved into the bedrock for eons and then finally quieting as it empties into Lake Ontario.

Now you get it: Niagara (River)-on-the-Lake (Ontario).

It's just 171/2 miles north of Niagara Falls but with an entirely different atmosphere. The two towns are both contrasts and complements to each other. One is tourism with a boldface capital T, and the other is the calligraphy version. Taken as a whole with the surrounding countryside, lakes, and rivers, they offer a seemingly endless variety of vacation options. After three visits in six years, my husband and I still haven't explored it all.

For now, I want to concentrate on Niagara-on-the-Lake. The town began as a settlement along a portage road for ships' cargo carried by land between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario to avoid the falls and rapids of the Niagara River. It was the first capital of the British colony of Upper Canada (now Ontario) and, as such, site of the first parliament, which convened in 1792, and of the first courthouse, public library, and newspaper in its part of the world.

During the American Revolution, it was a haven for British loyalists. Before the American Civil War, it was a final destination for some of the slaves who escaped to freedom via the Underground Railroad.

Between those two historic periods came the War of 1812, and three forts--Fort George at the entrance to town; Fort Niagara across the mouth of the river in Youngstown, New York; and Fort Erie, about 37 miles south of Niagara-on-the-Lake via the scenic Niagara Parkway--offer interesting tours and special events.

Another, Fort Mississauga, built between 1814 and 1816 on the lakefront within Niagara-on-the-Lake, is gone except for its earthworks and tower. They are notable not only for their military history, but because the tower was built with bricks from the first lighthouse on the Great Lakes, built on the same site in 1804.

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