Travelling is really about time. You count the vacation days you have to spare, then the days until you set off. Immediately upon arrival the second hand kicks in and after that it’s all about how many days you have left: seven days, six, five…You are on the run to make every second here, there and everywhere matter. So much to do, so little time. It’s good news then that in 90 minutes you can find yourself strolling the immaculate grounds of a Niagara-on-the-Lake winery, hiking through the tranquil wilderness of the Bruce Trail, or brushing up on your Shakespeare at the Stratford Festival. Take the time to venture beyond the city: a few suggestions for daytrips to remember.STAGE & SONG
Classics of the world stage, outdoor concerts, and music festivals are all within a short drive from Toronto. The esteemed Stratford Festival of Canada (1-800-567-1600) in picturesque Stratford, Ontario, counts the works of Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams and Stephen Sondheim among its broad repertoire. This year’s playbill features 14 productions and highlights include The Tempest, starring William Hutt, a swinging sixties adaptation of As You Like It, featuring music by The Barenaked Ladies, as well as the Broadway musicals Hello Dolly! and Into the Woods. Lectures by featured performers, backstage and costume warehouse tours are also on offer. Author Rohinton Mistry kicks off the festival’s Celebrated Writers Series on June 26.
With more than 56 music concerts planned, there’s plenty to choose from during Stratford Summer Music (1-800-567-1600), July 27 and August 14. Plenty of stars will strut their stuff from soprano Measha Brueggergosman to Vatican organist James Goettsche. There’s also after-theatre cabaret at The Church Restaurant, and outdoor concerts along the Avon River.
Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival (1-800-511-7429) is a tribute to the works of playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and his contemporaries. This season sees 10 productions hit the stage, including Shaw’s You Never Can Tell and Major Barbara. Also look out for a production of perennial crowd-pleaser Gypsy, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Interactive elements of the festival include backstage tours (starting June 11), Tuesday night Q&As after evening performances and pre-show chats most evenings at the Festival Theatre.
The Elora Festival (1-800-265-8977) in the pastoral clime of Elora is one of Ontario’s premier chamber music events. Known for the intimate style of its featured concerts, the festival runs July 8 to 31. The diverse lineup this year includes the acclaimed Elora Festival Singers, retro crooner Matt Dusk and The Harlem Gospel Choir.
Big names in pop music light up Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate Winery‘s (2145 Niagara Stone Rd., 1-866-589-4637) glorious open-air amphitheatre. Soulful folkie Sarah Harmer opens the season on July 2. Barenaked Ladies frontman Steven Page goes acoustic for the finale concert on September 3.WINE & WINERIES
Visiting a winery is about more than just tasting and re-stocking your personal reserve. Many of Ontario’s internationally recognized wineries make their home in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and of that select group, many host special events and daily tours that take visitors on the journey from grape to glass.
Peller Estates Winery (290 John St. E., 1-905-468-4678) offers daily tours and tastings. Their signature is ice wine, but they’ve also won awards for their cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. There are Open Cellar Tours for first-time visitors and Three Generations of Winemaking Excellence Tours for an in-depth look. Tastings touch on all the elements of proper wine appreciation, from stemware and proper sampling techniques to wine and food pairing.
Free tours of Hillebrand Winery (1249 Niagara Stone Rd., 1-905-468-7123) start every day on the hour from 10 a.m. The winery also gives sparkling-wine tours and seminars on aromatic essences each day. Hillebrand’s Collector’s Choice Collection takes inspiration from iconic artist collective The Group of Seven. Each wine is individually numbered and the label depicts paintings by Tom Thomson, A.Y. Jackson and others.
Tour one of the largest underground barrel cellars in Canada at Pillitteri Estates Winery (1696 Niagara Stone Rd., 1-905-468-3147). Head to the grand château of Château des Charmes (1025 York Rd., 1-905-262-4219) for their public tours or twice weekly Connoisseur Series seminars on a selection of rare varieties. Pioneering Inniskillin Wines (Line 3 and Niagara Pkwy., 1-905-468-3554) helped gain the region its international reputation for superior ice wine. In 1991 it won Le Grand Prix d’Honneur at Vinexpo, Bordeaux. More recently the winery’s 2002 Oak Aged Vidal won The Canadian Ice Wine Trophy and The International Sweet Wine Trophy at the International Wine Challenge in London, England. Guided tours depart from the Brae Burn Barn, a 1920s structure inspired by the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, or you’re free to take a self-guided tour of 20 stations.
Call ahead for an appointment to get acquainted with cottage wineries, Maleta Estate Winery (400 Queenston Rd., 1-905-685-8486), where you can find their award-winning Meritage, a Bordeaux-style red wine, and Coyote’s Run Estate Winery (485 Concession 5 Rd., 1-905-682-8310), just one year-old this summer and already receiving kudos.
You’ll find many other wineries from Winona through to St. Catharines as you approach Niagara-on-the-Lake. Wine Route highway signs help guide your way, as does the Wine Council of Ontario’s Official Guide to the Wineries of Ontario available at tourist offices. Familiarize yourself with at least 30 of the 50 Niagara Peninsula wineries during the Niagara New Vintages Festival (1-905-688-0212) from June 4 to 12. Enjoy the first public sampling of wines from 2003 and 2004 in tastings, wine and cheese pairings, seminars and other special events. Or come back for more than 100 events happening at the Niagara Wine Festival, on from September 16 to 25.EAT & BE MERRY
A few wineries run equally top-notch restaurants, pairing fine wine with stellar fare. Hillebrand Estates Winery Restaurant (1249 Niagara Stone Rd., 905-468-7123) affords a lovely view of the vineyards. Gastronomes make the drive to Jordan solely for the excellent wine country cuisine of On the Twenty Restaurant (3845 Main St., Jordan, 1-905-562-7313). Nearby Vineland Estates Winery Restaurant (3620 Moyer Rd., Vineland, 1-905-562-7088) has also gained notice recently. Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate Winery (2145 Niagara Stone Rd., 1-905-468-4637) hosts Savour the Sights, an event in which each course of a five-course menu is served at a different location in the winery.
Many eateries in the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake boast a CAA Four Diamond rating, including Ristorante Giardino (142 Queen St., Gate House Hotel, 1-905-468-3263), Escabèche (6 Picton St., The Prince of Wales Hotel, 1-905-468-3246) and Tiara (155 Byron St., Queen’s Landing Inn, 1-905-468-2195).
Great restaurants flourish in Stratford, and are continually renewed by emerging talent from the Stratford Chef’s School. Three lauded locales that pair classic French technique with regional produce include The Church Restaurant & Belfry (70 Brunswick St., 1-519-273-3424), which retains its 1874 design, The Old Prune Restaurant (151 Albert St., 1-519-271-5052), situated in an Edwardian house, and Rundles Restaurant (9 Cobourg St., 1-519-271-6442), a modern, all-white space. Several bars and restaurants pull draughts of locally brewed Stratford Pilsner, including Pazzo (70 Ontario St., 1-519-273-6666) and Foster’s Inn (111 Downie St., 1-519-271-1119).
Just outside Stratford in the hamlet of St. Mary’s, Westover Inn (300 Thomas St., 1-519-284-2977) serves its much-lauded menu daily. Also noteworthy, The Millcroft Inn (55 John St., 1-519-941-8111) in Alton and five-diamond-rated Langdon Hall in Cambridge (RR 33, 1-519-740-2100), both an hour’s drive from Toronto.
But the standout, must drive-to-dine experience is Eigensinn Farm (RR 2, Singhampton, 1-519-922-3128). Guests willingly make the two-hour drive north (and pay a few hundred dollars) to take a coveted seat in the farmhouse of internationally acclaimed chef Michael Stadtländer for his exceptional multi-course menus. (Dinners are kept a minimum of eight guests.) Temporarily closed as sculptures are built around the 100 acres, foodies anxiously await the re-opening in August for the Heaven on Earth event, when courses will be served in and around these artworks at 10 different locations, one for each course, on selected dates. Call for details.
Learn to cook like a pro at a pair of Niagara cooking schools. The Wine Country Cooking School at Strewn Winery (1339 Lakeshore Rd., Niagara-on-the-Lake, 1-905-468-8304) runs one-day classes on the first and third Saturday of each month. The Good Earth Cooking School (4556 Lincoln Ave., Beamsville, 1-905-563-7856) schedules three-hour demo classes on weekends.RIDE, HIKE, DRIVE & FLY
Niagara Falls is one of those iconic, must-visit attractions and one of the best ways to experience the natural wonder’s majesty is on The Maid of the Mist (5920 River Rd., 1-905-358-5781), which brings raincoat-clad passengers to the base of the falls. Various tours allow you to see the falls from all angles. Journey Behind the Falls (1-905-354-1551) takes you around the back way, while Niagara Helicopter Tours (1-905-357-5672) provides a view from above. Watch the falls from the revolving dining room of Skylon Tower (5200 Robinson St., 1-905-356-2651).
Among other natural wonders is the Niagara Escarpment, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. The 800-kilometre Bruce Trail provides the only public access to the reserve. Caledon’s Forks of the Credit River Provincial Park (off McLaren Road, outside Caledon) and Belfountain Conservation Area (2 Credit St., Belfountain, 1-519-927-5838) are two lovely wilderness areas in which to wile away the hours. Hike or tube the rapids of the 22-metre-deep Elora Gorge in picturesque Elora, or view beautiful flora and fauna at the 1,100-hectare Royal Botanical Gardens (680 Plains Rd. W., Burlington, 1-905-527-1158). Enter the tropical rainforest setting of the Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory (on Niagara Pkwy., Niagara Falls, 1-905-356-8554) and see more than 50 species of butterfly (2,000 butterflies in total).
Looking for an adrenaline surge? Bridgestone Racing Academy (Mosport Raceway, north of Bowmanville, 1-905-983-1114) allows daredevils to do race laps in a Reynard Formula 2000 car.—Anne Gibson