NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ontario -- Mention Niagara and most travelers think of the famous falls, which deserve their reputation as the mother of all tourist attractions. But there's another place with Niagara in its name just a half-hour drive from the falls that should be part of any visit to the area: Niagara-on-the-Lake, a lovely town known for wineries, an annual theater festival and a charming downtown.
And while summer is high season for visiting the waterfalls, September and October are among the busiest months of the year in Niagara-on-the-Lake. There are more than 30 wineries in Niagara-on-the-Lake and 80 altogether in the region, and fall is the season when visitors can see and experience the harvest and the pressing of the grapes.
Shaw Festival: Annual theater festival through late October. See shawfest.com
Wine route planner: winecountryontario.ca/niagara-on-the-lake
Wine tour: wineriesofniagaraonthelake.com/taste-the-season. Touring pass is $44.25 Canadian per person plus taxes, for use any Friday, Saturday or Sunday in November, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., for tastings, events and food-and-wine pairings at 28 wineries in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Designated driver passes are $30 and include food and non-alcoholic beverages.
Icewine Festival: January 2013. wineriesofniagaraonthelake.com/icewine-festival
Niagara Historical Society Museum: 43 Castlereagh St., Niagara-on-the-Lake. niagarahistorical.museum
Visitors can also find locally grown produce, depending on what's in season, including peaches, pears and apples, along with jams, juices and other products, for sale in places like Kurtz Orchards Country Market, 16006 Niagara Parkway, and at a Saturday morning farmers market, through Oct. 6 at 111 Garrison Village Drive.
Fall is also the last chance to catch performances at the Shaw Festival, a popular annual event that takes place in three theaters in Niagara-on-the-Lake, staging works by George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries, plus new plays written about his era (1856-1950). The season began in May, with productions ranging from "Ragtime," through Oct. 14, to "Hedda Gabler," through Sept. 29. Noel Coward's "Present Laughter" and Bernard Shaw's "Misalliance" run through October.
For leaf-peepers, the area has "stunning fall color," usually peaking in early October, according to Janice Thomson, executive director of Niagara-on-the-Lake's chamber of commerce. The town's leafy waterfront areas include both the Niagara River and Lake Ontario (the waterfalls flow into the river, which flows into the lake). Niagara Parkway, which follows the river, offers a "spectacular drive," according to Tina Truszyk, spokeswoman for the Tourism Partnership of Niagara. There are also cycling routes along the river and the nearby Welland Canal. Niagara-on-the-Lake has a number of bike rental companies including some like Zoom Leisure Bike -- zoomleisure.com -- that offer guided bike tours of the wineries.
The Niagara region's wine industry began only about 35 years ago, when winemakers realized that the area's unique Great Lakes climate and soil was well-suited to grape-growing, especially for cool-climate grapes used in table wines like pinot noir, riesling and chardonnay.
But the region is best-known for icewine, a specialty product made from grapes frozen on the vine in winter. The frozen grapes are nearly dehydrated so the juice is concentrated, which makes the wine sweeter than table wine. It's considered a dessert wine, but it can also be served with savory and even spicy entrees.
I bought a bottle of icewine from the Trius Winery at Hillebrand (1249 Niagara Stone Road) to take home after tasting it at the Trius Winery Restaurant. Served at the end of a family barbecue, the icewine's rich fruity flavor was enjoyed by all as an after-dinner treat, providing a sophisticated palate-clearing contrast to our casual meal of hot dogs, burgers and corn.
Icewines are sold in half-bottles -- 375 milliliters rather than 750 -- and are generally more expensive than ordinary table wines, in the $40-$60 range. A popular icewine festival takes place in the area each January with tastings, seminars, contests and other events.
Wineries range from smaller rustic properties like Ravine Vineyard to larger estate-style wineries like Peller, Inniskillin and Trius. A number of newer wineries, like Southbrook Vineyards, are focusing on sustainability and agricultural techniques that have a low impact on the environment. Bus tours and private guided tours are available, or you can make your own itinerary using the Wine Route Planner at WineCountryOntario.ca.
But the wineries are so well-signed that you can easily just drive around and stop when you see one that looks interesting. Many of the wineries are located along three major thoroughfares, Niagara Parkway, Niagara Stone Road and Lakeshore Road, surrounded by flat, grapevine-covered fields and crisscrossed by a numbered grid, with roads bearing names like "Concession 7" or "Line 5." Concession roads run north-south. Line roads run east-west.
Some tasting rooms charge a small fee, some don't. I was offered complimentary sips at several winery counters before making my purchases.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is also embracing culinary tourism and was recently named Canada's No. 1 wine and culinary destination by TripAdvisor. A number of wineries, like Peller, Strewn and Trius, have upscale on-site restaurants, many of which use locally sourced products in their menus. Strewn is also home to a wine country cooking school.
Forty percent of tourists to Niagara-on-the-Lake come from the U.S., with Ohio, Pittsburgh and New York among its biggest feeder markets, Thomson said. After agriculture, tourism is the second-biggest industry in this town of 15,400 people, and it has the lodging to prove it: 1,000 rooms in B&Bs and 1,000 hotel rooms, many of them high-end boutique hotels, though there is one Hilton and a Best Western, according to Thomson. That creates a lot of alternatives to the many brand-name, high-rise hotels that dominate downtown Niagara Falls, promising "falls views." The waterfalls are less than 20 miles from Niagara-on-the-Lake, 35 miles from Buffalo, N.Y., and 80 miles from Toronto.
You'll need your passport if you're crossing the border from the U.S., but you can get by without Canadian money. Most retailers accept credit cards and U.S. cash, though any change will be remitted in Canadian currency. The two currencies are nearly at parity, with $1 U.S. equivalent to 97 cents Canadian.
Niagara-on-the-Lake holds an important place in Canadian history. Founded in the late 18th century, it became the capital of what was then known as Upper Canada in 1792. It was on the front lines during the War of 1812, as headquarters for the British Army, and was burned by U.S. troops in 1813. The town's National Heritage District includes over 100 buildings that date to 1859 or earlier, many of which were built to replace structures destroyed in the fire, according to Leah Wallace, a senior planner for the town. The oldest buildings date to 1815-17, many of them built from red brick and clapboard in the Georgian-Neoclassical style.
Notable homes include the Breakenridge Hawley House on Mississauga Street, the Kerr-Wooll House on Prideaux Street, the Cameron-Farren House on King Street and the Wilson-Guy House on Victoria Street, Wallace said. St. Mark's Anglican Church, which was occupied by U.S. troops during the war, dates to 1805. Other historic sites include Fort George and Butler's Barracks. The Niagara Historical Society maintains a museum at 43 Castlereagh St., and walking tours are available. The heritage district, which comprises the downtown, includes a lively main street, Queen Street, packed with interesting small shops, including clothing boutiques, specialty food stores and good restaurants.
If you're planning a visit in November, you can buy a pass for the annual "Taste of the Season" event, which offers tastings and food-and-wine pairings at 28 wineries. The pass can be used Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays throughout November. And if you're visiting the weekend of Oct. 8, wish the locals a happy Thanksgiving. While it's Columbus Day in the U.S., it's time to give thanks for the harvest north of the border -- including all those grapes.