Canadian novelist William Kirby, in a fit of hyperbole back in 1896, labeled Niagara-on-the-Lake “as near Heaven as any town whatever.”
Then again, maybe it’s not hyperbole. There’s no denying this community of 15,400 located 16 miles north of Niagara Falls, distinguished by tree-shaded 19th century homes, Victorian architecture and a dazzling profusion of flowers, exudes unmistakable charm.
As my wife, Linda, and I picnicked recently in picturesque Queen’s Royal Park, sunshine glinted off the Niagara River where it empties into Lake Ontario, sailboats skimmed across the water, couples strolled along a waterfront path and children frolicked in a quaint gazebo.
“I love that park,” gushes Janice Thompson, executive director of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce. “I love the water, and the fact that you can walk down to the gazebo. You look across in one direction and you’re looking at America and Fort Niagara. And then you look to the left, across Lake Ontario, and you can see the CN Tower. The outline of the Toronto skyline is quite incredible.”
The quiet of our idyllic picnic lunch was broken only by the sound of a horse clopping past, pulling tourists in a carriage through Kirby’s heavenly hometown.
Queen Street, the principal thoroughfare in Niagara-on-the-Lake, fairly bursts with, as Canadians spell it, colour. Blooming flowers are everywhere: Canna lilies, angel’s trumpet and other varieties fill display beds on the sidewalks, decorate traffic islands, hang from baskets and overflow planters. Homeowners enhance the aesthetic appeal by cultivating elaborate gardens.
No wonder Communities in Bloom lavished on Niagara-on-the-Lake the title of “Prettiest Town in Canada.”
“The real focus on gardens and ornamental horticulture started in the mid-1990s when the town participated in a program called Communities in Bloom,” says J.B. Hopkins, parks supervisor for Niagara-on-the-Lake. “That’s when things really got rolling in terms of beautification. The vintage hotels — specifically the Prince of Wales — practice a lot of ornamental horticulture, as well as other Queen Street businesses. And when you get into the residential areas, a lot of homes and bed and breakfasts have really attractive gardens, too.”
Of course, gardeners here benefit from something of a microclimate, with moderate temperatures even in the wintertime. Combine that with the area’s fertile soil and just about anything that’s planted will thrive.
Jokes Jean Cochrane, who writes a gardening column for the local newspaper, “Living in this part of the world, you can put a stick in the ground and it’s gonna grow.”
The blooming flowers and Victorian buildings create an ambience that bewitches visitors, who might suspect they’ve stumbled onto a Hollywood set. Granted, scenes from a number of movies, including “The Dead Zone,” were filmed here, but Niagara-on-the-Lake is indeed real. And, it turns out, very old.
The citizens of Niagara-on-the-Lake welcome Americans nowadays with open arms. Not so much 200 years ago. During the War of 1812, American troops captured the town from the British after a two-day artillery bombardment from Fort Niagara, across the river, occupied it for 6 1/2 months and then burned everything to the ground as they withdrew in December of 1813.
Few buildings survived. The citizens quickly rebuilt, and many of those early structures are still standing — and still lived in. Plaques affixed to outside walls of heritage homes indicate the year of construction; some have detailed historical signs standing near the property.
“Especially down Prideaux Street you’ll find a lot of old homes,” says Sarah Maloney, managing director of the Niagara Historical Society Museum, Niagara being a former name of Niagara-on-the-Lake. “One is called Demeath — that dates from about 1815. There are a number of homes in that area that were built from 1817 to 1820.”
The Masonic Hall a block from Queen Street dates to approximately 1816. The first parliament of Upper Canada — analogous geographically to present-day Ontario — met on that site when Niagara-on-the-Lake served as the provincial capital.
“There was a Masonic hall there in the 1790s, but then everything was burnt down in 1813,” Maloney says. “It was built back up again after the war and was actually used as kind of a merchants house. Then the Masons purchased the building and started using it again, and they still use it today.”
It’s a common theme in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The Olde Angel Inn, built around 1816, still welcomes guests. It is touted as the oldest operating inn in Canada.
History, you might say, is Maloney’s cup of tea. But for a literal cup of tea, head to the elegant Prince of Wales Hotel, where tea time is observed every afternoon. It’s only fitting in a town that accentuates its British heritage. In fact, a Union Jack flies over Queen Street, next to a 50-foot-high clock tower that looks as if it’s been transplanted from the banks of the Thames.
Brits visit here in great numbers — so do citizens of Germany, France, Spain, Japan, China, India and Brazil, according to Thompson. Some 2ﾽ million tourists come each year, drawn by a variety of attractions in the Old Town — the historic district — and the vicinity. They amble down Queen Street and browse the specialty boutiques, art galleries, artisans’ studios, high-end clothing stores, antique shops, outdoor cafes and pubs.
Many tour one of the nearby wineries, go on a ghost walk (Niagara-on-the-Lake is reputedly Canada’s most haunted town), indulge themselves at a spa, play a round at Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club or take a step back in time at McFarland House, a circa 1800 residence just south of town. Some attend the renowned Shaw Festival, where theatergoers applaud the works of Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and contemporaries such as Oscar Wilde, Somerset Maugham and Eugene O’Neill.
Shaw’s “Major Barbara” is now showing at the Royal George Theatre.
The Shaw Festival stages 10 plays a year, from April to October, at four theaters: the Royal George (328 seats), Court House (327), Festival (856) and the more intimate Studio (175).
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has lauded The Shaw as “one of the great repertory theaters in the English-speaking world.” About 240,000 people a year attend, 36 percent from the United States, according to Valerie Taylor, the festival’s director of marketing, communications and sales.
“We get people from every state in the Union,” Taylor says, “from every province of Canada and from around the world booking tickets to see our productions.”
Some visitors, like pinballs, bounce from one play to another in the course of a day to get their theater fix.
“We’re very unique in the fact that we offer a one-act play at 11:30 in the morning,” Taylor says. “It’s about an hour, so you finish out, you can go grab a lovely lunch or a glass of wine at one of the restaurants in town, and then jump into a 2 o’clock matinee, come out, go to dinner, and then come to an 8 o’clock show. And people do that.”
The comedies, dramas and musicals transport audiences to a long-ago time, when the pace of life seemed utterly unhurried.
Niagara-On-The-Lake works a similar magic on visitors. Here they can unwind, stretch out on a blanket and listen to a concert at Queen’s Royal Park, sip tea at the Prince of Wales or munch on freshly baked scones at McFarland House. Like the horse-drawn carriages that traverse the streets, everything moves to a leisurely rhythm.
“We have a saying here — it’s the Niagara-on-the-Lake effect, and it’s something you can’t quite put your finger on,” Thompson says. “When people come here they just relax. They take a different approach to life.”
There is serenity to be found in even the most unexpected places. Maloney, for example, cites Fort Mississauga, which dates to 1814 and is situated on the waterfront.
Earthworks and a brick tower are all that remain; there’s no staff on site, just interpretive panels, so visitors are often alone with their thoughts.
The fort, oddly enough, is accessible only via a path that cuts through the Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club.
“If you dare to go across and dodge the golf balls, you can walk around the earthworks and just get the most beautiful view of Lake Ontario and the mouth of the river and Fort Niagara across,” Maloney says. “It’s just so quiet out there. If people want a quiet place to reflect and enjoy the scenery, that’s the place to go.”
Truth is, there’s hardly a place in Niagara-on-the-Lake that doesn’t foster a sense of peace and tranquility.
“What a beautiful, beautiful town,” Taylor says. “It’s picture-perfect. I think it casts a spell on visitors. When you come here you feel like you’ve arrived somewhere very special.”
Somewhere, William Kirby wrote, very much like heaven.