Eat, Play, Love

Niagara-on-the-Lake offers a cultured, active lifestyle for those wise enough to live there

Reposted from the National Post – July 26, 2013 by Brenda McMillan

Everyone wants to love their neighbourhood. It’s about more than the streets you use to get home after work, more than how far you are from transit or the dentist. It’s about connecting with the place and the people. This multi-part series explores some of the many vibrant neighbourhoods in and around the GTA and what makes them thrive.

When asked, “What do you love most about living in Niagara-on-the-Lake?,” those born there, long-term residents and people who are newish to the area all say variations of the same thing: “It has a lot of community spirit; it’s like stepping back in time to a beautiful small town with a slower pace, less traffic and better weather.” They also allude to its connection to history, the land and to water.

Niagara-on-the-Lake, a.k.a. N.O.T.L., includes not only the town at the junction of the Niagara River and Lake Ontario that hosts the Shaw Festival, but also the larger area (including Virgil, Queenston and St. Davids) bordered by (roughly) the river, the lake, the Welland Canal and the QEW/405 (General Brock Parkway). With about 20,000 residents, this thriving community enthralls visitors, but offers residents much more.

The Shaw Festival, which started in 1962, draws patrons from Ontario and New York, and also from other national and international locales. This year, 10 plays — only one from namesake George Bernard Shaw — are split among four theatres. Town residents often choose lunch-hour performances at The Court House theatre as they can be thrilled midday for 50 minutes and still have time to eat lunch before returning to work. Lunchtime entertainment is only one of the perks of living in N.O.T.L.

Another benefit, if you are one of a growing number of paddleboard enthusiasts, is an après-lesson Social for Locals, organized by Tim Bala, owner-operator of Paddle Niagara. Married and in his 30s, he started the company to share his joy of paddleboarding with his community and says the sport is steadily growing as the waterfront becomes more accessible. His family, who long ago vacationed in NOTL, moved to the area from Toronto a couple of generations back, so Mr. Bala is as local as they come. He reminisced about walking to school as a boy, and says he worked in every hotel at one time or another. He is a big supporter of his home, “What I love most about NOTL is how we rally together to do things like raise money for the community centre and arena. We’re a big hockey town.”

He also spoke dreamily about the food trucks, as did other residents. Staffed by “talented young chefs” at Wednesday evening’s “Suppermarket,” the food trucks are a dinner destination for residents, who also enjoy the artisans, live music and fresh local wine, produce, baked goods, fruit, cheese, flowers and more. Only on from May 22 to Sept. 18 off Niagara Stone Road in The Village, it is at the same location as the popular Saturday farmers’ market where NOTL residents are the first to get the region’s strawberries, raspberries, cherries, peaches and apricots. With the abundance of local fruit, it is no wonder Marsha Forsythe, owner of Forsythe Galleries, told me to visit Greaves Jams and Marmalades on Queen Street, the main thoroughfare.

A baguette of a store with golden wood floors, and cabinets and shelves lining one wall and bins of jars lining the other, it packs a full variety of jams, marmalades and chili sauce as well as unusual household items. When Greaves made their products at that location (they are now made at a facility in Virgil), Ms. Forsythe says, “you could smell the strawberry jam in the street.”

Ms. Forsythe and her husband, Doug, are both creative, as are their two grown children. They opened their gallery 30 years ago; it is one of the oldest businesses in town. She rattled off such activities as pottery, soccer, swimming, hockey and skating, and says, “There are things for all people and all ages and abilities.” Sailing and golf were also on her list.

The Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club is North America’s oldest course. Bordering the water where the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario, the semi-private, nine-hole club also has a dining room with good food and “the best view in town” according to many residents. Indeed, an expanse of windows overlooks Fort Niagara on the American side and Fort Mississauga in the middle of the golf course on the Canadian side, as well as a canvas of agitated water where the river joins the lake. Sailboats dancing with the wind make the view so perfect it seems contrived.

Club owner/operator and forever resident John Wiens also speaks about his active community. “Residents can be involved with clubs such as Rotary and Kinsman, or with the Niagara Foundation, the Historical or Horticultural Society, or they can join a book club or golf club (there are a few). Ours takes on new members each year.” Mr. Wiens also speaks about the community’s pride. “Niagara-on-the-Lake was the first capital of Upper Canada, and had the first Parliament and the first newspaper.” That pride shows itself in the beautifully kept homes and gardens, and on the main road.

Queen Street, with its overfilled hanging baskets and bountiful planters, is the retail showpiece of the town. Gorgeous in every respect, it is also functional with a range of bakeries and eateries such as Epicurean Bistro (a cafeteria by day, it dons linens for fine dining at night), Corks Winebar, The Irish Tea Room (not to be missed), Bistro Six-One, and for the ultra fine-dining experience, the superlative restaurants at the hotels or in wineries such as Inniskillen and Peller Estates. On Mary Street, Stone Road Grille continues to wow patrons, but exploration of the larger region unearths a bevy of wonderful restaurants featuring local products. Niagara is as serious about food as it is about wine. And coffee.

For an excellent caffeine fix, affable service and an unpretentious atmosphere, locals convene at Balzac’s Coffee Roasters (223 King St.). The day I went in I asked for an off-menu choice of a shot of espresso with an equal amount of steamed milk. This was a new request for the barista, but he made it with good humour, a little conversation and a swirl in the cream on top. It was soul-satisfying. My drink later in the day was not as pretty, but was pretty tasty.

Wineries are dotted all over NOTL. Large, small, organic, eco-friendly, independent, new, established ­— the region has more than 60. The trick is to visit and taste through their offerings to determine what wines will become your “house” wines, as many are only sold directly from the winery. Some offer dining or entertainment, such as music nights. Residents close to Jackson-Triggs, for example, can enjoy its summer concert series from the comfort of their own back yards. With a glass of wine, of course!

‘Residents can be involved with clubs such as Rotary and Kinsman, or with the Niagara Historical or Horticultural Society, or they can join a book club or golf club. Ours is the oldest in North America’

Other ways to relax include spa visits. The Prince of Wales’ Secret Garden Spa does a marvellous pedicure, but other hotels and resorts also have wonderful spa programs. For a different experience, Niagara Waters Spa at Niagara College’s NOTL campus offers a variety of student-executed services for skin, face, hands and feet. An hour-plus Hot Stone Pedicure includes nail, cuticle and callus care, a hot stone massage, and pretty polish … all for $30.

For those who prefer to relax on the water, the NOTL Sailing club, established almost 50 years ago, is at the foot of Melville Street. The clubhouse and office of manager Ed McIlroy are in an impressive 1834 two-storey post-and-beam building. Its Junior Sailing Program is open to the public and is popular with the local adults.

New homes are being built at a pretty steady pace, so the Newcomers’ Club continuously grows. Convener Diane Short says the club has 240 members, because nobody ever leaves the group; they meet regularly for meals and outings. One of the things that lures people down the lake to NOTL, she says, is that they get “more house for the dollar.” And such activities as the annual Film Fest (winter only; held in one of Shaw’s theatres) is also hugely popular. She smiles as she tells me that everyone reserves their seats with coats, then spends an hour with wine and friends in the lobby before the movie. And, just like in the “old days” everyone claps at the end of the film.