When it is your job to be out at events five nights of the week, there’s nothing more desirable than doing absolutely nothing when the weekend finally hits. But, when living in the city and having a sociable circle of friends, completely avoiding the weekend party can be difficult. And so, you ask yourself, “How can I make the great [weekend] escape?” Having to be back at a desk by Monday morning doesn’t normally allow for brief exotic getaways, but nearby cultural and culinary attractions do.
Ontario’s wine country is a little brother in an old industry. Though sometimes snubbed by international wine lovers in favour of bottles from the more well-known regions of France, Italy, Spain and California, the grapes grown in the small town of Niagara-on-the-Lake produce as fine a wine as any in the world. From the growing popularity of local wines including the global export of the region’s famed ice wine, it’s safe to say that Canada’s wine industry has come of age.
Located less than two hours away from downtown Toronto, wine country tends to get neglected by younger generations. No doubt we like our wine, but somehow we can’t seem to get past the stigma that associates Niagara-on-the-Lake with a more mature crowd, who prefer early bird dinners, and go home to bed right after the theatre.
But when all you’re looking for in a weekend is a good glass of wine (or a few good glasses), tasty meal, and some peace and quiet, what could be better than escaping to the escarpment? Curious, the magazine sent myself and a photographer (both under the age of 35) to explore the area. As you’ll see in this overnight guide, we share how to have fun not having drink-and-dance-till-dawn “fun” in Niagara-On-The-Lake, and why this little wine town is the ideal escape from a hectic city life.
Where to Stay
The Historic Lyons House is a grand home (as you might expect from the name) that sits just off of the town’s main streets. Run by Howard and Jolanta, the home was purchased by the couple back in 2002. It was their love for cooking, entertaining and meeting new people from around the world that attracted them to beginning their own bed & breakfast business.
It’s easy to forget that when you stay at a B&B, you are staying in someone’s home, and not a hotel. The warmth found inside the Lyons House though, makes this difficult not to realize. Family photos are displayed in the dining room and a three-legged cat named Ruby hops about greeting guests.
Staying with Howard and Jolanta feels like staying in the impressive home of distant relatives, with the perks of a luxury hotel. The room we called our own is named the Master Bernard’s Room; a pleasant and cozy room with a Versaille-esque décor that comes with private use of the master bathroom across the hall.
Howard is as helpful as any concierge, and offers handfuls of VIP wine tasting passes (and a map) before heading out the door. Together, the couple offer their seasoned expertise of the area on everything from what they consider to be the best in wineries and restaurants, to detailed explanations of must-see tourist destinations.
While every aspect of their hospitality is enjoyable, the highlight is in their morning breakfast. Howard, outfitted in a chef’s uniform, hosts the table — serving coffee and replenishing the freshly baked scones — as Jolanta works away in her kitchen. The breakfast, which resembles a three-course meal, is exquisitely plated and falls in the delightful middle of a culinary and homemade masterpiece.
In just 24 hours, the Historic Lyons House of Howard and Jolanta felt like home and family.
Where to Drink
Chateau Des Charmes
The Chateau, looks just like that, a French castle — although it is a new building from 1994. The winery itself was founded in 1978 by Paul Michel Bosc, a fifth generation winegrower who came to Canada in the 1960s. The estate is not only referred to as the “jewel” of Niagara wine country, but Bosc is also considered a visionary whose impact revolutionized the local industry.
According to Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake, the Jackson-Triggs Niagara estate winery is one of the most advanced in Canada. And simply judging from its exterior appearance, this isn’t hard to believe. Set within 11.5 acres of their vineyard, the winery is a breathtaking contemporary building. The vineyard itself features three classic varietals: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling.
In an area that is known for being quaint, it is hard to imagine that it might host the first LEED-certified winery in the world. Stratus Vinyards was awarded the prestigious title (that stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) back in 2005. As you can imagine, the winery isn’t just impressive for the Niagara region, it ranks among the best globally. Aside from indulging in their impressive range of wines, guests can browse through books on Eames design, or by David Suzuki, or simply take in the incredible design of the establishment.
Where to Eat
Considered an integral landmark of the historic section of Niagara-on-the-Lake, the Oban Inn was originally built as a house in 1824 for Captain Duncan Milloy of Oban, Scotland. As the story goes, Milloy often opened the doors of his private home to guests, and they never closed. Today, the Oban Inn, along with its spa and restaurant, is a luxury hotel that has happily married their traditional past with a current and metropolitan finesse.
During our own dinner experience, we were enamoured with our serving of Woodland Mushrooms and Caramelized Onion Tarte Tatin appetizer, Cumbrae Beef Tenderloin main and the incredible chocolate cinnamon doughnuts (made in house) for dessert.
Unlike city reservations that can go as late as 11pm, the Oban graciously pushed back our reservation to the last possible spot of 8:45pm. Despite being the last table to be seated, there was no sense of being rushed, and we were left to lazily enjoy more of the regions best wines long after our meal, as the restaurant was packed up for the night around us.
Special mention must be given to the waitstaff here, who proved to go above and beyond. After all, how often does a server offer to head out in the night to track down Advil when a customer complains of a post-wine tasting induced headache? Now that’s service.
The verdict? What you see is what you get in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It’s a nice place to be full stop: idyllic in its quiet charm. If you can’t fathom a Saturday night that doesn’t include dancing on the tabletops of the latest “it” bar, heading two hours out of the city (where businesses shut doors at 6pm on a Friday night) isn’t going to be for you. But for those like me, who are in constant search of an escape, Niagara-on-the-Lake — with its offering of some of the best flavours this province has to offer and cultural activities that include top tier theatre found in the form of the Shaw Festival — is your must-book weekend getaway.
As we discovered, a perfect weekend getaway is about appreciating the finer things in life, things that are still, well…simple and wonderful for it.