Niagara, Ontario is home to one of the most iconic natural monuments in the world. Millions of tourists flock there to get a look at the three waterfalls that make up the “Falls.” Around the falls are plenty of touristy attractions. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, Niagara Casino, big hotels, gift shops, and chain restaurants. There certainly are plenty of things to do after you’ve had your fill of the falls, but if Casinos aren’t your style, Niagara on the Lake might be.
Just north of the falls, bordering Lake Ontario, is Niagara on the Lake. The quieter, less built up area is a short drive or bus ride away. On our trip, we dedicated one day to this part of Niagara. It has plenty to offer when it comes to nature and wine.
The Botanical Garden and School of Horticulture + Butterfly Conservatory:
The Niagara Botanical Gardens and School of Horticulture is free and open to the public. The whole garden is 100 acres, so you can ramble around for as long or as short as you like. There is also rest area with bathroom facilities and food.
The gardens have some areas which are highly polished and manicured, such as their European style rose garden with a large fountain at the center. But other areas are left a bit more wild. Plenty of happy bees were enjoying the abundance of the garden on the summer afternoon we visited. The garden is not only for visitors, but is part of the School of Horticulture as well. Some of the beds will actually be student projects. The lovely herb garden features plenty of tags indicating student work, as well as an olive tree (ambitious in the climate) and many varieties of culinary and medicinal herbs.
While studying the tags in the herb garden, I ran into one of the grounds keepers. She explained to me that while certain plants will never reach their full potential in the Canadian climate, such as that olive tree, the garden’s goal is to educate. They enjoy showing people plants they have never seen before. The students grow vegetables in dedicated beds, so it’s a practical garden as well as an attractive one.
On the grounds, under a large glass dome, is the Butterfly Conservatory. Exotic butterflies from around the world enjoy a home there. On this trip, we decided to pass on the Conservatory, but it’s definitely something worth visiting with children. It’s a chance to teach them how to handle a butterfly gently (never touch the wings!) and it can be a great photo-op since the butterflies are a bit used to being handled and tend to land on visitors. There are tons of photos and videos online showing people enjoying the company of butterflies.
The Butterfly Conservatory and parking at the gardens is not free, though admission to the garden itself is. The Butterfly Conservatory is $15 CAD and parking is $5 CAD.
Inniskillin and the Niagara Wine Trail
Inniskillin is known as a pioneer in modern Canadian wine making. By grafting European vines onto North American roots, they grow fine quality wine grapes that are resistant to local pests. The vineyard was one of the first in the region and it opened in 1974. In 1991 they gained fame by winning first place at Vinexpo in the dessert wine category. They won with their now famous ice wine. One of the first major producers of ice wine in Canada, they set a trend in the area and now the Niagara region is famous for it even though the original concept came from the German tradition of Eiswein.
At Inniskillin you can have a brief tour and tasting for $10 CAD. On this tour you visit some of the vines and peek in the production rooms. There’s a video that explains the unique way ice wine is produced, and a tour of the cellar where they age both ice wines and table wines. The tour ends with a tasting of two table wines and two ice wines. Your tour ticket also serves as a coupon in their wine shop for $10 off your wine purchase.
I personally love learning about how things are made, so the tour was very interesting to me. The tasting was what we were all waiting for though. After trying a white and a red table wine, they serve you a still and then a sparkling Vidal ice wine. Ice wine is very sweet and usually a white wine, though it’s available in red varieties too. Some varieties have a syrupy, honey-like taste and consistency. A this tasting I was able to finally find a wine my husband will drink, so it was an especially successful day for me. If you want to taste more of the wines available at Inniskillin than the tour offers, the wine shop also has tasting sets of table and ice wines.
Because of Niagara on the Lake is set between the falls and Lake Ontario, the area has what’s called a micro-climate that makes it one of the best regions in Canada for wine growing. The micro-climate makes the region more temperate overall, and the soil has a high level of clay which reduces the need to water the vines. There are 25 vineyards in Niagara on the Lake, so if you’re very interested in wines and vineyards, you can take a trip down the Wine Trail. Check out their site for events and maps.
There’s a lot to do in Niagara beyond visiting the Falls. Personally, I think I need to spend a weekend just doing that Wine Trail. Niagara on the Lake is definitely worth putting on the schedule for your trip to Niagara, Ontario.