- The Washington Times - Friday, July 23, 2004

Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins are spending their summer on the shores of Lake Ontario, in the pretty Canadian town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. The first time Eliza saw it, she must have gasped, “Owww, it’s loverly.”

I said something like that myself — minus the cockney accent — when my husband and I stumbled across it years ago during a visit to nearby (but worlds apart) Niagara Falls: “What a great place.”

Even as he snickered at us, Henry would have had to agree. Here’s why:

• Flowers everywhere — cascading from hanging baskets, fences and rails and casting vibrant color across seemingly every yard and public space.

• Beautifully maintained homes dating from the early 19th century.

• More fine restaurants, shops, art galleries and artists’ studios than can be covered in one visit.

• Small hotels, inns, bed-and-breakfasts, cottages and rental houses, but no high-rises, chain motels or traffic jams.

• Three intimate theaters within blocks of each other in which the Shaw Festival is presenting, this year, a total of 12 plays from early April through early December, including George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” with Eliza and Henry.

• Mile upon scenic mile of vineyards, fruit orchards, lush gardens and manicured parkland.

• More than 40 wineries producing ever-better, award-winning vintages in limited quantities hard to buy outside of Ontario.

• Trails and little-traveled byways perfect for cyclists, hikers, equestrians and in-line skaters.

• Waterways dotted with kayaks, sailboats, other pleasure craft and tour boats.

• Fourteen nearby golf courses, including the lakefront, circa 1875 Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club, advertised as the oldest existing golf course in North America and the site of the continent’s first international tournament, in 1895.

• The rapids of the Niagara River, swirling and crashing through the deep gorge it has carved into the bedrock for eons and then finally quieting as it empties into Lake Ontario.

Now you get it: Niagara (River)-on-the-Lake (Ontario).

It’s just 17-1/2 miles north of Niagara Falls but with an entirely different atmosphere. The two towns are both contrasts and complements to each other. One is tourism with a boldface capital T, and the other is the calligraphy version. Taken as a whole with the surrounding countryside, lakes and rivers, they offer a seemingly endless variety of vacation options.

After three visits in six years, my husband and I still haven’t explored it all.

For now, I want to concentrate on Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The town began as a settlement along a portage road for ships’ cargo carried by land between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario to avoid the falls and rapids of the Niagara River.

It was the first capital of the British colony of Upper Canada (now Ontario) and, as such, site of the first parliament, which convened in 1792, and of the first courthouse, public library and newspaper in its part of the world.

During the American Revolution, it was a haven for British loyalists. Before the American Civil War, it was a final destination for some of the slaves who escaped to freedom via the Underground Railroad.

Between those two historic periods came the War of 1812, and three forts — Fort George at the entrance to town; Fort Niagara across the mouth of the river in Youngstown, N.Y.; and Fort Erie, about 37 miles south of Niagara-on-the-Lake via the scenic Niagara Parkway — offer interesting tours and special events.

Another, Fort Mississauga, built between 1814 and 1816 on the lakefront within Niagara-on-the-Lake, is gone except for its earthworks and tower. They are notable not only for their military history, but because the tower was built with bricks from the first lighthouse on the Great Lakes, built on the same site in 1804.

Americans attacked the area twice in the War of 1812, the first time killing the revered British Maj. Gen. Isaac Brock, administrator of Upper Canada, whose monument in Queenston Heights a few miles south of the historic district towers over the surrounding countryside.

They occupied Niagara-on-the-Lake after the second onslaught and burned the town to the ground when forced to retreat several months later.

Residents and merchants rebuilt the town, sometimes on the foundations of their earlier properties, and many of the structures in use today as homes, inns, restaurants and shops have been beautifully restored to the way they looked after that postwar rebuilding.

This town of fewer than 14,000 was named Prettiest Town in Ontario in 1995 and Prettiest Town in Canada in 1996 by Communities in Bloom, a volunteer-based Canadian beautification program.

It’s enough to make a feisty flower girl from Covent Garden want to find a nice room somewhere in town, enjoy the cool night air and sit in an enormous garden chair all summer long. Even under the critical eye of Henry Higgins.

Of course, Eliza doesn’t have that luxury. She and the stern professor will be onstage longer than many of the other characters in the Shaw Festival lineup for 2004, battling away onstage through Nov. 27.

Their audiences are more fortunate, as they can build delightful vacations around the festival’s matinees and evening performances without a thought to all the work that goes on before and after each production.

My husband and I were among those lucky vacationers in June.

The first time we saw Niagara-on-the Lake, in 1995, we couldn’t stay. We were on a Canadian camping trip with three of our four sons, and Niagara Falls was a daylong stop en route.

An exploratory ride north on the Niagara Parkway at dusk took us along the Niagara Escarpment high above the rugged river gorge; through beautifully manicured parks and gardens; and past woodlands, vineyards, orchards and gracious homes into the 19th-century town, which we hadn’t known existed.

We were intrigued, but with three restive teens in the back seat, we didn’t linger. “Another time,” we told each other hopefully.

A short, spur-of-the-moment, just-us-two getaway to Niagara Falls in 1999 finally gave us a chance to check out “that cute little town we saw before.” We thought we would spend a day there but devote more of our time to the falls area.

My husband, more of a movie fan than theater buff, would have been content to spend the time roaming through town, watching the lake lap at the shore at Queens Royal Park, and finding nice restaurants for lunch and dinner, then calling it a day.

Why, I asked, would anyone go to a town known for its theater festival and not see even one play? Fortunately for me, Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” was playing that afternoon at the Royal George Theatre on Queen Street, the historic district’s “main street,” and I assured him he would enjoy it.

“I think it will appeal to men,” I said hopefully.

I was right. He stunned me as we left the theater by turning toward the Shaw Festival shop next door and saying, “Let’s see what they have for tonight.”

We bought tickets for that night’s play at the Festival Theatre, set in a park several blocks from the Royal George and Court House theaters, which almost face each other on Queen Street. After a fine al fresco dinner in the sidewalk cafe of the inn-size Royal Park Hotel across the street from the theater grounds and another enjoyable night of theater, we were hooked.

We returned the following year and enjoyed three plays — one in each theater — plus hiking, biking (me) along the scenic Niagara River Recreation Trail and seeing the sights in Niagara Falls, Niagara-on-Lake and points between. We left wishing we had had more time and making mental lists of what we wanted to do “next time.”

High on my list was a day visiting some of the local wineries and taking an organized bike tour so I could enjoy areas beyond the recreation trail without getting lost.

You can only imagine how happy we were to accept an invitation to return this summer, as guests of Ontario Tourism, to revisit the Shaw Festival, tour some wineries, take that bike ride (with Steve Bauer Bike Tours) and generally reacquaint ourselves with an area that already had captured our hearts.

Now my husband has suggested inviting a childhood friend to go with us next year, and I’m thinking of other couples who might enjoy going with us after that.

We’re always surprised to learn how many of our friends and relatives, like us in the mid-‘90s, know of Niagara Falls but not Niagara-on-the-Lake. We’re changing that, one conversation at a time.

We expect to return for many years. As Eliza might say: “Not go back to Niagara-on-the-Lake? Owwww, gwaan.”

• • •

The nearest airport is Buffalo Niagara International in Buffalo, N.Y., about a 40-minute drive. The route to Niagara Falls, the entry point to Canada, is well-marked. Niagara-on-the-Lake is 171/2 miles north of the falls via the Niagara Parkway.

Toronto is 80 miles west and north of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Niagara Airbus provides shuttle service from both the Buffalo and Toronto airports; www.niagaraairbus.com.

Besides the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake is noted for the Niagara International Chamber Music Festival, Monday through Aug. 18 this year. Under the aegis of Niagara College’s International School for Musical Arts, the festival will offer a wide range of classical music — a total of 36 concerts in 23 days — and music-related events in venues all over town, from churches to wineries.

The calendar is chock-full of other special events to celebrate the gardens; historic homes; wines; strawberry, cherry and peach harvests; history; and art of the area.

The Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce and Visitor and Convention Bureau is an excellent source for comprehensive information on attractions and special events plus help finding lodging and links to most tourist destinations; www.niagaraonthelake.com.

Accommodations fit variety of tastes, budgets

From the lap of luxury to the arms of Mother Nature, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, and its environs have distinctive lodging to fit just about everyone’s tastes, budget and needs. Add the accommodations in Niagara Falls, just 17½ miles south, and the choices are almost endless. (All rates are in U.S. currency.)

Campers can pitch their tents or park their recreational vehicles at Shalamar Lake Trailer and Family Park in Queenston or at a KOA about three miles from the falls. Shalamar charges $21 for tent sites and up to $26 for RV hookups. (www.shalamarlake.com). KOA rates range from $25 for tent sites to $74 for cabins. For it and other camping options, check www.infoniagara.com /camping.

First-time visitors often are struck by the number of bed-and-breakfasts in the area. Niagara-on-the-Lake alone has 265, and more line the route out of Niagara Falls.

I visited three in the Niagara-on-the-Lake historic district.

The circa 1890 Cecile’s House (www.cecilehouse.com) is owned by French pastry chef Chris Martineau, whose guests enjoy his specialties at breakfast. Rates, $87 to $109 double occupancy.

The 1818 Burns House (www.burnshouse.ca) has an open two-level verandah and bright, casual decor suiting the personalities of Yvonne Rahn, a yoga teacher, and her husband, Ross. Rates through Oct. 31, $102.

At CentreHouse (www.canvisit.com/centrehouse), murals commissioned by owners Barry Williams and Nancy Penman from Lindsay Davies of Mural Mystique in Aurora, Ontario (www.lindsaydavies-muralmystique.com), are stunning: a Niagara spin on Renoir’s “The Luncheon of the Boating Party” filling one dining room wall, a reproduction of John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X” in the upstairs hallway and a beautiful young woman in satin and lace in the largest bedroom. Rates through Oct. 31, $109.

Many of the hotels and inns have interesting stories. The 12-room, 1832 Charles Inn was home to innkeeper Kathy Taylor’s grandmother, and as Mrs. Taylor shows guests around, she points out where family members slept when they visited.

Most fun in the rooms, creatively decorated by owner Sue Murray, are claw-foot tubs covered with wallpaper to match each room’s theme — sunflowers, for example — and then protected with polyurethane. Rates range from $125 weekdays to $200 weekends, depending on the room, and include breakfast, (www.charlesinn.ca).

In contrast, Mrs. Murray’s other property, the 31-room Harbour House overlooking the yacht basin and lake, looks like a large version of a renovated sea captain’s house, but it’s just 1 year old and decorated in a more contemporary style.

My husband and I stayed there, in a room with a gas fireplace and a shower with multiple massaging jets. Two rooms have been set aside for guests who bring their dogs. Rates through Oct. 31 range from $200 for a room to $298 for a suite, including breakfast (www.harbourhousehotel.ca).

Niagara-on-the-Lake Vintage Inns owns four luxury hotels in the historic district. Rates through Oct. 31 range from $170 weeknights for a room to $360 for a suite on weekends (www.vintageinns.com). One, the Oban Inn, includes breakfast for two; the others offer meal packages for an additional charge.

Historic district hotels in a more moderate price range include the 22-room, 1835 Moffat Inn. Rates through Oct. 31, $75 to $135 (www.moffatinn.com).

Niagara Falls is the place for the major chains — Renaissance, Marriott, Hilton, Embassy Suites, Comfort Inn — and comparably sized independent hotels in a variety of price ranges (www.infoniagara.com).

Some of the smaller, older but well-maintained motels overlooking the falls were offering incredible prices in early June — and visitors needn’t worry that the low rates mean shoddy accommodations.

We have had good luck at the Horseshoe Falls Motor Inn just uphill from the falls. The motel recently underwent an extensive renovation, yet it was advertising rooms as low as $30 in early June. Rates through Labor Day range from $52 to $173, $229 for a whirlpool room. Free meals for children under 12 with parents (www.horseshoefallsmotorinn.com).

Photographs by Mary Margaret Green/The Washington Times

Architect Wayne Murray designed wife Sue Murray’s 31-room Harbour House hotel to suit its location overlooking the yacht basin in the historic district of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

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