Canada Wine Country

Niagara On The Lake

August, 2015

The Set-up

It has been a hot summer in the Atlanta area, too many days above 90F. Our blueberries and blackberries were done and there would be no significant new crops for a while. We had nothing special we needed to do. So, obviously, it was time for a trip; preferably to someplace with cooler weather and also, a place with a good supply of wine. We considered the Central California Coast (Paso Robles and vicinity) but the recent forest fires didnít look appealing and it was not real cool there either.

Mape of the area around Niagara on the Lake (upper right).

Two of our friends we met windsurfing in Bonaire had told us about the wine growing area where they grew up, along the southern coast of Lake Ontario in Canada. There is a strip of land running from where the Niagara river empties into Lake Ontario westward for about 20 or 30 miles and perhaps 10 miles wide that is a good area for growing wine grapes. Because of the lake and the way the winds flow over the land, the winters are relatively moderate and can accommodate many varieties of wine grapes. The temperatures seemed to be running reasonably cool in that area, so it looked like a good possibility. Susan had never been to Niagara Falls and it had been something like 60 years since my one visit there. Everything seemed to come together to define a nice short cool-off vacation.

Approaching Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

Description: air view on approach

Day 1: Atlanta to Buffalo and Niagara Falls

I made the airline reservations and found there were very reasonable fares into Buffalo. The only problem was the hotel: there were almost no available rooms, at least for the weekend we would be there. I had hoped to get into one of the smaller "classic" hotels or B&Bs but there were none available, so we ended up in the Hilton Garden Inn next to St Catharines and about 7 miles from Niagara On The Lake. As it turned out, it was actually a very convenient and reasonable location although the weekend room rates were a bit much.

We flew to Buffalo on a Tuesday, arriving just about noon. The Hertz rental counter was a bit unorganized and it took about 20 minutes to pick up our rental and be on our way. Our plan was to stop and tour Niagara Falls that day on the way to our hotel. One objective we had was to take the "Maid of the Mist" boat tour to the base of the falls, but we were not sure where to find it. We ended up initially going to Goat Island, the land that divides the American and Canadian (or "Horseshoe") falls.

The American Falls from Goat Island.

Description: American Falls

We looked around a while, took some pictures and realized that the Maid of the Mist dock was on the other side of the American Falls, so we headed back over there. We found the ticket office, got our tickets, and went out on the nice observation platform that sticks out over the river, giving a very good view of the falls and river.

View of American Falls (near) and Canadian Falls (distance) from Observation platform.

Description: American Falls and Canadian falls

We then went down the elevator to the river level and the dock. Everyone got light blue disposable rain coats to protect from the mist around the falls and then we waited about 10 minutes for the next boat.

The two Maid Of The Mists boats in action.

Description: Maid of the Mists boats

The boat first went by the American Falls, but on the opposite side of the river.

The American Falls from across the river.

Description: American Falls

We then went on up and into the turbulence and mist created by the Canadian Falls.

One end of the Canadian falls.

Description: Canadian falls

The boat maneuvered fairly close to the falls, giving everyone who wanted to get wet a chance to do so.

Other end of the Canadian Falls.

Description: Canadian falls

And then it continued back close in front of the American Falls again, finally returning to the dock.

Another view of American Falls from near side of the river.

Description: American Falls

After looking around a little more and getting a few more pictures, we got in the car and headed to our hotel, crossing the river and clearing Canadian Customs in Niagara.

Day 1: In Canada

We found and checked into the Hilton Garden Inn and it was a nice modern hotel and the rate included a very nice breakfast each morning. We had not had much lunch, so we headed out for dinner a little early, deciding to try "The Old Winery" restaurant just outside of NOTL. On the way to the restaurant we soon found that there were many wineries and fresh fruit stands along most of the roads. It seemed there must have been at least one of each every half mile along the busier roads. We found the restaurant and had a very nice meal, taking a significant amount of pasta back with us. After dinner we drove into NOTL downtown and walked around a bit before calling it a day and heading back to the hotel.

Some of the flowers in Downtown Niagara On The Lake

Description: NOTL Flowers

Day 2: Bike and Wine tour

Prior to starting our trip we had done a little research and had reserved a full day bike/wine tour with a tour company in NOTL, Zoom Leisure, for our first day in the area. We got to the bike shop early, checked in and, having plenty of time, took a walk into town to look around in the daytime. It is an interesting little town with very nicely landscaped homes and businesses and a very walkable downtown.

One of the nicely landscaped hotels/B&Bs in NOTL

Description: NOTL Hotel landscaping

We got back to the bike shop and started gearing up, picking out our bikes and getting the bikes and helmets adjusted. Our guide for the day was a man named John and he turned out to be fun and interesting. Also on the tour were a younger couple and two young women who decided to do the tour on a tandem bike. The young women on the tandem were a little shaky at first, but they got it figured out and did quite well.

Our tour group, with John to the left.

Description: Tour group

John took us on a tour of the town, telling us about the history and how/why it was settled. We stopped at multiple places to hear about the settlers, the architecture, and more recent history. John covered quite a bit of the history of the War of 1812, describing the American fort across the river and the British fort we went by and the battles that were fought. We found out later that John used to be a history teacher so he came by all this knowledge for a good reason. Ah, but this is to be a wine tasting bike tour, so on to the wine!

Our first winery stop was at Lailey winery, a fairly small winery, where we had our first taste of a white grape varietal, Vidal, as well as our first taste of icewine. The Vidal is somewhat considered the common manís grape in the area, but I liked the fresh, fruity taste, somewhat like blend of a Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc. The ice wine was sort of the local specialty as it requires a fair amount of very cold weather (-8 to -12C) that most other grape growing areas do not have. It is very sweet though, and a little goes a long way. After leaving Lailey we stopped for lunch at a roadside market that also sold sandwiches and such. Next to the market was what they said is the worldís smallest church.

The worlds smallest church at our lunch stop.

Description: Worlds smallest church

The lunch was OK, but it was really not as advertised and was the only disappointment of the tour. It was fairly filling and kept us going through the afternoon.

Our next stop was at Reif Estate Winery and this was a very pleasant tasting.

Inside the Reif Winery tasting area.

Description: Reif Winery

Apparently we had one of the managers of the winery and he had set up a special tasting in a separate private room. He had sausage and cheese pairing to go with each wine and the food complimented the wines very well. It was a most enjoyable and informative tasting, probably the best one we had all day.

The entrance to Inniskillen winery facility.

Description: Inniskillen Winery

The Inniskillin Winery was a rather large facility that was obviously set up more for the hospitality industry than for just producing wine. Our tasting group was put at an outside tasting bar in the sun and the young man who lead the tasting, while going through all the motions and giving good instructions and such, just didnít seem to have his heart in it. Susan also noted a "barnyard odor" around the tasting area, possibly throwing off any serious tasting efforts. As a result of all this, I remember very little about the wines, either what varietals we tasted or how good they were.

The Marynissen vineyard and winery was relatively small but interesting.

Description: Marynissen winery

The Marynissen (yes, that is all one word, a last name) winery was just about the opposite. It is a small family winery, established and still run by some of the very early growers of wine grapes in the area. (Besides being a good historian, John also knew a lot about the development of the region as a wine producer and provided good insights into the different wineries.) The lady running the tasting was a friend of the family and gave a very good and friendly tasting. While all the wines were good, we choose a Syrah and a Pinot Grigio to take with us (and ended up drinking the PG with our dinner that evening).

Jackson-Triggs winery: Their building is supposed to resemble a typical local barn.

Description: Jackson-Triggs Winery

We had to ride a fair distance to get to our next, and final for the day, winery; Jackson Triggs. It was another very large facility with lots of room for events of all kinds. (We noticed the following night that they were having some kind of concert there.) Unfortunately, by the time we got there it was a little after 4:00 and the young man who led our tasting really did not want to be there. You could tell he was trying to avoid being the person to lead the tasting and once he did start, he really wanted to be somewhere else and the tasting was rather disorganized. Whether because of the leader, the disorganization, or the fact that this was the fifth winery and tasting that day, I can remember little of the wines.

After leaving Jackson-Triggs we rode the mile or so back to the bike shop and called it a day. We really did not ride a long distance that day, probably around 10 Ė 12 miles, but the biking environment was very good and the scenery beautiful. That evening we decided to just eat the pasta we had brought back from the Old Winery, a few other snack items, and some of the wine we purchased that day.

Day 3: A longer Bike Ride

The biking was so good the first day that we decided to just rent a couple of bikes and head off by ourselves. The bike trail we had been on continued to and past Niagara Falls, which was about 16 miles from NOTL, so we headed that direction. We actually first made a slight detour to take a look at the little harbor and marina where there is a sailing club to see what that looked like then picked up the bike trail close to there. We continued on the trail, retracing some of the same ride as the previous day, then started seeing new territory.

Between us and this bridge, which we crossed under, was the Niagara Escarpment.

Description: Bridge over Niagara River

As John had pointed out on our first ride, the only problem with riding toward Niagara Falls is that about 10 miles into the ride, you have to climb the Niagara Escarpment. At one time this was the boundary of Lake Ontario and it is a rather steep rise of about 300 feet: once you start up the climb, there is no resting until you get to the top, or get off the bike and walk. We made it to the top and continued, passing under an auto/truck bridge, a power plant and a park. We stopped at an observation point that was overlooking the Niagara "Whirlpool".

The Niagara Whirlpool with the cable car cables.

Description: Niagara Whirlpool

It is not really a whirlpool, but a very turbulent section of the river where it makes a 90 degree turn and has worn away the riverbanks into a circular area. There was a small cable car that started at the opposite side of the whirlpool and came across above the whirlpool, stopping about 50 feet from where were standing, then went back. There were also a number of fairly large "jetboats" (35 foot, with probably 20 - 30 passengers) that would come upstream to the whirlpool, explore it some, and head back downstream. We continued on, pausing at the other end of the cable car run and then continuing toward the falls. Shortly after this, however, the nice bike trail apparently turned into a small bike lane along a rather busy street in a commercial area. We decided that we had seen enough and gone far enough, so we headed back, stopping at several places we had seen and passed on the way up..

The Botanical Gardens included a butterfly exhibit and a nice vegetable garden.

Description: Botanical Gardens

One of these was the Niagara Botanical Gardens. They had a butterfly enclosure (which seemed rather expensive and we did not go in) and a very nice vegetable garden which we toured and critiqued. There were lots of flowers in bloom and some of the vegetables were ready for harvesting. A little further on was a nice park with a tall monument to a War of 1812 Canadian General.

A momument to a Canadian general in a nice park.

Description: Momument

We walked around the park and took in the views from off the top of the escarpment. Another place we stopped (and had a light snack) was a park right next to the river that had hiking trails but we figured we didnít need to take a hike while on a bike ride and it was a good decision, as it turned out.

Heading back down the escarpment you could not recover the energy spent going up as it was too steep, but it was much easier than going up. We found a roadside fruit stand and bought some fresh cherries and ate most of them sitting at a picnic table. Getting back toward wine country, we passed a sign to the "Frog Pond Winery" which reminded us of the Frogtown Creek Winery in north Georgia, so we decided to take a look. Frog Pond is a small organic vineyard and winery with a small tasting room hosted by a pleasant woman. We were the only customers there during our visit and had a very pleasant tasting there, and left with a bottle of their unoaked Chardonnay.

Stratus Winery was a large facility: Susan on a bench in front.

Description: Stratus Winery

The final stop on our ride was Stratus Winery, one of the wineries recommended by our friend Peter. It was a rather large winery and event facility almost next door to Jackson Triggs which we had visited the day before. This tasting was led by a very pleasant older gentleman and was very enjoyable with some rather nice wines. When we left Stratus it was about 3:00 so we decided that was enough and headed back to the bike shop. I figured that we rode a little over 30 miles, which was a pretty good workout on the hybrid bikes we had.

That evening we drove into town and ended up at the Shaw Cafť and Wine Bar. I was not expecting anything special form the looks of it, but we both had the honey glazed salmon and it was excellent. Top that off with a bottle of local wine and afterwards a cup of good Starbucks coffee and we considered it a very successful day.

We had dinner upstairs on the veranda and had a nice meal.

Description: Shaw Cafe and Wine Bar in NOTL

Day 4: More wineries

On our third full day we decided to head to the other side of St Catharines, to the Vineland and Jordan areas to check out some wineries our friend Peter had recommended. We first headed to Peninsula Ridge Estate Winery.

The view out a window at Peninsula Ridge with Lake Ontario in the distance.

Description: Shaw Cafe and Wine Bar in NOTL

We got there a little early and looked around some prior to their official opening. Once they opened we took their winery tour to get familiar with their facility and to pass a little time. After all, we didnít want to start drinking wine too early! They have a very nice facility with a separate fine dining restaurant. The gift shop and tasting area was placed in an old barn, although the barn had been largely reconstructed and from the upper floor you could look out over the countryside and see Lake Ontario. Since it was now getting close to noon, we headed to the village of Jordan to find the "Restaurant On the Twenty". The Restaurant on the Twenty is associated with the "Inn on the Twenty" where I had tried to get a room, as recommended by our friend Tim.

Interior of Restaurant On The 20: Can you find Susan?.

Description: Restaurant on the Twenty.

We had a pleasant lunch of some somewhat unusual entrees and an interesting waiter then walked next door to another recommended winery, Cave Spring. Although I donít normally like to go to "wineries" which are only retail outlets not close to the vineyards, the hostess was pleasant, the wines were good, and we left with a bottle of their Cabernet Franc.

From Jordan we found our way to a small winery, Featherstone. We were the only visitors on this Thursday afternoon and we enjoyed several of their wines and left with a bottle of their Red Tail Merlot (named after the hawks in the area) and a bottle of the seldom seen Baco Noir, which I really enjoyed.

The next stop on the route was Vineland Estates.

Interior of Vineland Estate Winery.

Description: Vineland Winery interior

This was a larger winery with an extensive gift/wine shop and tasting facility. I think a large group had just visited and the tasting seemed a bit unorganized, but the young people leading the tasting were friendly and helpful. Although the wines were good and enjoyable, we didn't find anything unusual or special enough to take with us. (We were already somewhat concerned about the amount of wine we could bring back with us to the US.) Our final winery for the day was Tawse which had a rather modern and interesting structure and tasting facility.

Many of the fermantion and aging tanks were visible from the tasting room.

Description: Tawse Winery tasting room

The tasting room was somewhat suspended in the middle of the wineriesí fermentation room with large stainless steel tanks and some oak barrels around and below. Again, the wines were good, but nothing unusual or special enough to warrant carrying home with us.

When we had stopped at Frog Pond winery the previous day we had asked the hostess about places to eat in NOTL. One of the places she mentioned was Corks so when we came across it that evening, we decided to give it a try. They were very busy and things were a bit hectic, but our meals were surprisingly good.

Corks restaurant was busy but very good.

Description: Corks restaurant in NOTL

Day 5: The Hike

We were out of pre-planned activities and, after a litle discussion, we decided to drive back to the park with hiking trails we had seen on our long bike ride. We got there and looked at the available trails on a map which did not have the length of the various trails noted. We decided on one that appeared to go down by the river as it looked interesting.

Start of our hike: note the whirlpool in the distance and the rock sticking out into the river just above the railing.

Description: Starting our hike.

The start of the trails did not appear to be well marked but we found what seemed to be the starting point and headed out. More accurately we headed down as the first thing we did was climb down about 50 feet of open metal stairs which had me a bit nervous already since I don't like being close to the edge of a drop-off.

We started by descending these stairs to get past a sheer cliff.

Description: Stairs starting the hike

The initial part of the trail was easy to follow and well maintained with only a few slippery or tricky sections, but it got succesively more challenging. We had seen some people on a large boulder that stuck out into the river and we had made that our informal target to reach. It took longer to get down to the river level than we expected but we occasionally stopped to watch the jet boats as they went up and down the river. We finally made it to the boulder and managed to scramble out onto it for a brief look around. We considered backtracking from that point but thought that the trail surely formed a loop that would soon take us back to the starting point. Well, we were right about the loop part anyway.

We made it to the rock into the river.

Description: Rick in the river

From this area on, the trail got more primitive and in numerous areas the only indication of just where the trail went was the occasional spot of orange paint. We would occasionally see someone else on the trail so we figured we were still OK and kept going. Eventually we got to the whirlpool section of the river where a couple of people were fishing so we decided that there must be an exit route close by.

We got past the whirlpool before getting to the exit point.

Description: past the whirlpool

We got past the point where the cable car comes across the whirlpool and finally found a trail headed back up toward the road. Of course, the trail had to climb probably 200 feet to get back to the road and sidewalk level so by the time we got to the top and end of the trail, we were rather tired and figured we had gotten our exercise for the day. It was another 20 minute walk back to the park facility and our car, but it was on a flat sidewalk and seemed almost too easy. By the time we finished our hike we had been on the move, rather vigerously, for a little over 2.5 hours. And we were just going to take a relaxing walk! We went back to the hotel and cooled off in their (indoor) swimming pool and relaxed for the rest of the day. For our last dinner in the area we decided to go back to the Old Winery restaurant and we both had pizzas and shared a bottle of local wine. A fitting end to a pleasant trip.

Day 6: Headed home

On Sunday morning we had a good breakfast at the hotel and headed to Buffalo to catch our flight home. On the way through US Customs I told the officer that the wines were so good that we were bringing back a couple bottles more than our dutyfree allowance and he just said "Yes, it is good and I do that all the time myself. Have a good day." and waved us on. The flight home was uneventful and our 7 bottles of wine arrived in good condition to be enjoyed in the coming months.

Our thanks to Tim and Peter for their suggestions for hotels, restaurants, and wineries. You guys helped make our stay very enjoyable.

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