Niagara on the lake: The jewel in Canada's crown

If ever there was a place where you could just "get away" from it all, enjoy nature’s splendor and relax, this is it!

Niagra falls_311 (photo credit: Susie Weirss)
Niagra falls_311
(photo credit: Susie Weirss)
There was a time when “Niagara Falls” and “honeymoon” were virtually synonymous in North America. Newlyweds by the thousands flocked to this spectacular sight, which straddles the international border between Ontario, Canada and Buffalo, New York. And while Disney World, Paris and Bermuda may have lured away some of the happy couples tying the knot, Niagara remains one of the world’s most stunningly-gorgeous and popular tourist destinations, attracting between 25 and 30 million visitors each year.
The Falls were “discovered” as early as 1604, when Frenchman Samuel de Champlain visited there and wrote about them in his journal. By the 1700s, Americans and Europeans were flocking to Niagara in large numbers. After the Civil War, the New York Central Railroad extended rail service to the city, making it even more accessible from America.
With the proliferation of the automobile industry after World War I, the Falls became a magnet for visitors from every state in the Union, who marveled at this mesmerizing “miracle of nature.”
The voluminous waterfalls of the Niagara River were formed when glaciers receded at the end of the last Ice Age, allowing water from the Great Lakes – in particular Lake Erie – to race along en route to the Atlantic Ocean. At its peak, more than 750,000 gallons (2850 cubic meters) of water cascade over the Falls every second. This enormous amount of surging water was seen early on as a source of hydroelectric power, and was used as far back as 1759 to power sawmills down-river.
The river’s first power plant was built in 1881, and when the Niagara Falls hydroelectric project went on line in 1961, it was the largest hydro-power facility in the Western world. Even today, Niagara remains the largest electricity producer in New York State, with a generating capacity of 2.4 million kilowatts.
But the Falls are about much more than electricity.
Tourism remains the bread and butter of Niagara, particularly in the summer season.
Preservationists have worked hard throughout the generations to preserve the pristine beauty of the Falls on both sides of the border, describing their efforts as a “sacred obligation to all Mankind.”
Hotels, amusements parks, casinos, restaurants and museums have popped up all around the area, but the primary focus remains the American Falls and the larger, more impressive Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side. While every few years some daredevil attempts to tightrope across the gorge or “shoot the Falls” in a barrel – the first successful attempt was in 1829, the last just a few years ago – the average visitor is content to just feast his eyes on the perpetually cascading water, traverse the tunnels by taking the Journey Behind the Falls, or travel right into the raging rapids on the famous Maid of the Mist boats which have been cruising the river since before the Civil War.
We were thrilled to do the obligatory tourist thing at the Falls, enjoying it immensely. But then we headed for the real jewel in the crown – the pastoral and perfectly picturesque town of Niagara on the Lake, just a short drive from the Canadian falls. If ever there was a place where you could just “get away” from it all, enjoy nature’s splendor and relax, this is it! Founded just after the American Revolution, the original inhabitants were “loyalists,” British citizens faithful to the Crown who fled across the border when America defeated the English and won its independence in 1776. The British influence can still be strongly felt here, as indicated by the fact that many of the town‚s streets – including Queen Street, the main drag – are named for English monarchs, and NOTL features the only Lord Mayor in Canada.
The town, once the capital of Upper Canada, was invaded and destroyed by American forces in the War of 1812, but the British rebuilt the city, and today it has retained much of its historical charm. The impressive military compound of Fort George and the Mississauga Point Lighthouse are among the many original sites restored to pristine condition and open to visitors.
They say a vacation is only as good as the guide who leads you and the bed you sleep in. And we were blessed to find both at the same address, at the Simcoe Manor (; 1-866-468- 4886), where we were hosted. This delightful inn is just what you would picture in a travel brochure: A trilevel, warm and cozy colonial house that provides the anxious traveler with his every need and offers the comforts that you generally don’t get at home: A fourposter bed with luxurious down comforter, fireplace in the corner and Jacuzzi-massage bathtub.
Tucked away next to a lush forest, yet just one block from all the amenities of NOTL’s Old Town, Simcoe Manor has five unique suites, each with a character of its own. The rooms are lovingly, lavishly furnished, with an eye for detail. There is both an indoor salon and an outdoor porch for sitting and reading, a large outdoor pool for swimming or sunning, and a royal dining room that features the finest crystal and china set on a majestic oak banquet table.
Simcoe prides itself on providing gourmet breakfasts for its clients, and though we couldn’t fully indulge – as we keep kosher – we were treated each morning to delicious fresh fruit cups, freshly-squeezed orange juice, a selection of kosher cereals, and brewed flavored teas, all of which proved more than ample to start our day.
The best thing about Simcoe is its owner/manager, John Gartner. A former Toronto city planner and world traveler, John left the hustle and bustle of the big city for the serenity of the lake.
Erudite, friendly and full of useful information, John plotted our trip for us and helped arrange every detail. He has been running Simcoe for more than a dozen years, and prides himself on maintaining a level of service that matches any of the world’s great hotels. But there is a down-home, country feeling here, too, and it begins the moment you take off your shoes and wiggle your toes in the lush carpet.
“This is my home,” says John, “but while you are in Niagara on the Lake, it will be your home, too!” There is quite a bit to do in NOTL, particularly in the summer months. Numerous wineries dot the area, and tours are offered during the grape harvest season, from May to October.
PEACH, STRAWBERRY and cherry festivals are also held during summertime. In January, there is a twoweek “ice wine” festival in NOTL. Sweet aperitif, highsugar content frozen grapes are harvested, processed, bottled and sold, providing a unique drink which only Canada produces and which attracts visitors from all over the world, particularly the Far East.
There is also a golf course, beautifully situated along the lake, which is the oldest golf course in North America, dating back to 1875. And of course, you can visit the Butterfly Conservatory, which features over 2,000 colorful tropical butterflies floating freely among lush, exotic blossoms and greenery.
Paths wind through the rainforest setting, past a pond and waterfall and the Emergence window, where butterflies leave their pupae and prepare to take their first flight.
But, without question, the two best things to do in NOTL are biking, and the Shaw Festival. We got our bikes from the Grape Escape Wine Tour (; 1-866-935-4445), which rents bikes for quite reasonable prices ($25/day or $15 for 3 hours) and also organizes escorted wine tours by bike or SUV van.
The owner, Ian Mell, came to Canada from Yorkshire, England some thirteen years ago, first running a Bed and Breakfast in NOTL and then opening his cycle shop in the middle of town. Ian mapped out a terrific route for us, and we were off for the day.
The ambitious rider can bike to the Falls, about 25 km. away, or even to Lake Erie, a 54 km. ride.
But we decided on a relaxed trip to get to know the town and the surrounding scenery, taking the Niagara Parkway which parallels Lake Niagara and is surrounded on all sides by magnificent flora and fauna.
Along the way, we stopped at one of the many farms which offer outlet stores, and noshed on an assortment of fresh fruits and juice.
In the evening, we joined thousands of residents and visitors at the Shaw Festival. As Odette Yazbeck, the festival’s PR director (email:; 1-800-657-1106) explained to us, the Shaw (as they call it) is the only theater in the world specializing exclusively in plays by George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), as well as playwrights writing anywhere in the world during the era of Shaw‚s lifetime. Shaw is acknowledged as one of history’s great playwrights, and was a social critic known for his biting wit and caustic irreverence.
The Shaw Festival, running from April through November, opened in 1962. It has become one of the most popular and successful theater festivals in the world, with a permanent acting company and four separate playhouses.
The largest of the four is the stylish Festival Theater, which has 856 seats, every one of which was filled on the day of our performance. It was hard to decide on a play – Candida, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Heartbreak House and Drama at Inish were among the great selections – but we chose to see My Fair Lady, the Lerner and Loewe classic based on Shaw’s Pygmalion, which has wowed audiences for decades with its brilliant score and story.
We were not disappointed, to say the least. It was an amazing production, with a brilliant cast and a stellar set design. I could Doolittle more than sum it up by saying the Shaw need not take a back seat to its American cousin a few miles to the southeast (Broadway, I think they call it).
The play was truly a memorable highlight of our visit and more than lived up to the hype.
Niagara on the Lake is easily accessible from Ontario, or the USA’s East Coast. From New York City, you can take a short commuter flight to Buffalo and rent a car there for the one-hour drive to Niagara. Cross the bridge into Canada and you will enter a special corner of the world.
Whatever the effort, it will be well worth it!
The writer, director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana, and his partner were guests of Simcoe Manor.