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Sweet like wine, Niagara-on-the-Lake

Queen Street in the rain

The skies are thick with clouds when we pull up at colonial Fort George. From the passenger seat I catch a glimpse of its palisade fence, barely a minute away through the trees. It seems like an ideal place to kick off a tour of Old Niagara. But the moment we get out of the car, it begins to rain. Heavily.

I am here to visit Jessica, one of my Salamanca flatmates. For six months we whiled away the afternoons in the kitchen, spent evenings sampling tapas on nearby Van Dyck, and “window-shopped” in the gourmet section of El Corte Inglés. “I have never met anyone who loves food as much as I do,” she’d say, munching on a Spanish biscuit. “But here you are.”

We evade the rain in Balzac’s, a micro-brewing café tucked away inside the Historic District. Jessica spots me eyeing the cakes on the counter. “You want one?” I politely decline, knowing that she’ll be the one paying for both of us. Instead I warm up over a cup of “Caffè Canadien”, a latte infused with a dash of maple syrup. The day has only just started and we are already easing into something of a gastronomic tour.

On Queen Street we stop by Kurtz Culinary Creations, a specialty jam shop selling everything from artichoke and spinach tapenade to lemon curd. Plenty of gourmet places do free tasting, but at Kurtz the stands of open jars and bread baskets take it to a whole new level. I try the onion jelly, guilt-free, before deciding that it will make the perfect gift for my brother.

At Inniskillin the air is heavy with the aroma of harvest grapes ready to be plucked off the vine. We are in the middle of Ontario’s Wine Country, so that can only mean one thing. In the cavernous tasting barn we start off with a dry, fruity Riesling, before moving onto a medium-bodied Merlot. At the Icewine counter, decorated with the latest awards and trophies, I pick a glass of 2008 Riesling. Immediately I am rendered speechless by the explosion of flavours on my palate. Delicately sweet yet refreshingly tart, it is simply sensational.

Grapes on the vine, Inniskillin

A beautiful barn at Inniskillin

Signs of autumn

Wine tasting

At lunchtime Jessica brings me to one of her favourite local restaurants – the bistro at Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery. By a full-length window looking out onto the vineyard, we share an appetizer of sautéed escargot and pearl onions in puff pastry, drizzled in a tangy lemon and ginger dressing. This is followed by a succulent steak tartare, served with rocket, shaved parmesan and homemade garlic bread. For mains Jessica has grilled lake fish and I dig into the crispy duck confit on a bed of celeriac purée.

As appetising as it all sounds, it is dessert (pardon the expression) that takes the cake. I end up getting far more than what I asked for, a “chocolate sorbet and chocolate mousse”. On a plate crisscrossed with liberal amounts of chocolate sauce, the mousse hides a moist layer of brownie and a biscuit at the very bottom. All this is coated in a chocolate crust, and then crowned by a luscious sorbet with the texture of ice cream. I have just spent no less than 50 dollars on one sitting – but it is a price worth paying for the most memorable meal of the trip.

Vineyard at Ravine Estate

Escargot, chorizo and roasted pearl onions

The best steak tartare I’ve ever had

Delicious duck confit

The indulgent “chocolate experience”

Rusting relic

After lunch I have a few more hours to spare before catching the train to Toronto. Leaving the comforts of Niagara-on-the-Lake, we head south to the falls. The first sign that we are getting close is a perpetual cloud of mist rising from the gorge.

“It’s even more beautiful in winter,” Jessica tells me. “You’ll see giant icicles hanging off the sides and there’s hardly anyone else around.” We pass groups of visitors, drenched from the spray, in clear blue rain ponchos. I try not to cringe at the bright yellow bubble lifts shuttling up and down the Skylon Tower. Still, it’s not as bad as Clifton Hill, where the psychedelic mess leaves me with the strongest urge to flee.

At the edge of Horseshoe Falls I hug the parapet and peer over at its enormous turquoise-coloured cascade. The thundering mass is both hypnotic and vertigo-inducing; a marvel that still takes the stage despite all the Vegas-style development that has sprung up around it. For no less than half an hour I watch, mesmerised, as the torrent swells and churns before rushing over the edge, tumbling into the mist with a mighty roar.

Into the mist

Taking a tumble

Over the precipice

Canadian Horseshoe Falls

Rainbow Bridge and the American Falls

The American Falls

Touristy as it may be, Niagara Falls still elicits its share of oohs and aahs from most visitors. But take away the falls and it lacks the soul of the other Niagara, steeped in history, sprawling vineyards and theatre festivals. Before I leave Jessica drives us to Queenston, where we pass the house of Canadian war heroine Laura Secord. On this Friday afternoon the leafy streets are dripping with calm. Our vehicle bumps along the switchbacks leading down to the old docks, until we are level with the winding river. Jessica sighs. “Maybe one day,” she motions, “I will buy a house here.”

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. James, have you ever considered to write a book? You are one of the most talented bloggers that I know.

    November 28, 2011
    • Wow Bama, thanks for the compliment – I’m very flattered by your words. I’ve never really considered a book, although I do aspire to the quality of National Geographic articles. I think that’s what I was trying to achieve with this post.

      November 28, 2011
  2. Jessica #

    James,

    Ever since I first read your blog I loved it however, this Niagara post was fantastic. Perhaps I am biased (being that I am the Jessica you speak of) but you describe my home town so well and your pictures are perfect.

    I am so happy you came and one day I hope to be able to write about your beautiful home which is only slightly more populated than mine.

    Canada misses you.

    November 29, 2011
    • Jess,

      I didn’t quite know what to expect when I got there but I ended up falling in love with the little town on the lake (and not only because of the food!). Thank you so much for taking me around, Niagara was a well-needed break from Toronto and I wished I’d stayed a little longer. Perhaps next time we will actually make it to Fort George.

      November 29, 2011
  3. Everything looks beautiful! The town, the food, the winery, the falls. I need to go there. My sister has a beautiful winery in Australia and my son is currently working at a vineyard on Long Island.

    November 30, 2011
    • The Niagara Region is absolutely gorgeous! I think having a friend there really helped me to see it for what it was.

      November 30, 2011
  4. Magníficas imágenes my friend!

    You freeze the cascade’s water as if by magic!

    More than national geographic my friend, créeme 😉

    BTW, I like the ney “look” of your blog 🙂 Looks more professional, even if I also liked the ancient one, this is even better! 🙂

    December 6, 2011
    • Gracias Javi. 😉

      I bought a new camera just recently so I felt that it was time to give the blog a lift. You’ll see the new pictures hopefully in two weeks’ time – I’m still a beginner with the DSLR but it does make quite a difference!

      December 7, 2011
  5. Mouth watering food!
    I’m so hungry now…

    December 14, 2011
    • It was definitely one of the highlights of my trip. Thanks for dropping by!

      December 14, 2011
  6. Ice wine is so delicious!!! It’s one of those quintessentially Canadian things I look forward to drinking whenever I’m there 🙂

    December 15, 2011
  7. Wonderful description of a wonderful place!

    January 13, 2012
  8. A beautiful post on my hometown! Thanks for the wonderful memories, I do miss Niagara-On-The-Lake; you’ve captured Niagara perfectly!

    September 26, 2012
    • You’re welcome Jennifer – glad you enjoyed it as much as you did!

      September 28, 2012

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