Niagara-on-the-Lake lives up to its title as Canada’s prettiest town

Jun 15, 2013 – By Kenneth Bagnell

I went back a few days ago to Niagara-on-the-Lake just in time for the bloom of early spring.

Young landscapers lined Queen Street with bright plantings. Neighbourhoods shone in the green of another May. I’ve missed Niagara-on-the-Lake — travelling elsewhere perhaps too often. 

Harbour House Hotel, awarded 2013 Travelers Choice Award on Trip Advisor,offered a breakfast as fresh as the day.

So I planned a trip to “Canada’s prettiest town,” to take in two performances at the Shaw Festival, dine at restaurants of interest and stay in an inn of tranquility, one with the atmosphere that’s a hallmark of a Niagara-on-the-Lake inn: calm, friendly, gracious.

I’d return to historic sites: the fort haunted by a profound memory of Canada’s past and to the churchyards whose stones speak of untold stories, then to Niagara Historical Museum where archivist Sarah Maloney showed us through, pointing out an enormous feathered hat worn in 1812 by General Isaac Brock himself. For the rest I’d just roam, letting Niagara-on-the-Lake speak to me.


Harbour club

Harbour House Hotel, awarded 2013 Travelers Choice Award on Trip Advisor,offered a breakfast as fresh as the day.
Through summer and early autumn, Niagara-on-the-Lake Historical Museum will be the setting for lectures and exhibits dealing with the turbulent period of The War of 1812.

We settled in The Harbour House, an inn of just over 30 rooms and suites, steps from the Niagara river and with service I’ve long liked: soft-spoken, always courteous, even having my paper of choice quietly handed to me as I came to breakfast. Breakfast, in turn, was fresh as the day.

Harbour House, like some other local inns, has a convenience that some of us appreciate: a no-charge shuttle to and from each of the Shaw theatres: Festival, Court House and Royal George. More and more, the Shaw festival, now into its second half century, draws widening acclaim. When we saw Oscar Wilde’s satirical and beautifully staged Lady Windemere’s Fan we knew again, that the praise is justified.

While the Festival theatre seats 856, there’s unique experience in smaller venues, one being The Royal George, seating 313. We saw Somerset Maugham’s Our Betters, first performed in the 1920s. I like small theatres: they allow me to indulge a personal pleasure, watching facial language by gifted actors, in this case Anthony Bekenn playing a role that’s embedded in theatrical history: the fabled British butler.

In Our Betters, the butler must accommodate a mix of pretentious North Americans, including one who, as I recall it, says: “We can be rude if we like because we can afford it.” Bekenn performs precisely, conveying a good butler’s disciplined refinement thus masking, yet never entirely, his justified distain. Well done.

Naturally we went walking, this time, with a professional guide, Lily Forsyth. We not only strolled the shaded streets, but learned aspects of the town’s history I’d never known, one being outside a shop on Queen Street with large letters above aged windows: The Niagara Apothecary. It dates to 1866 and today, as a historic site, it’s staffed with imagination: volunteer pharmacists. Lillian also included comment on the emergence of the town as a destination: “The Shaw Festival, begun in 1962 gave it a sense of new life.”

This is a historic year for Niagara-on-the Lake: the 200th anniversary of a day in May 1813, when U.S. ground artillery attacked Upper Canada, choosing Niagara’s Fort George as their target. We walked to the Fort, meeting gracious university students, dressed as military men of long gone days, now teaching children who come, to understand the sacrifices of the young men, some of whom gave their lives so that Canada remained Canada.

From now until year’s end, the drama of those painful days — when our country might have become part of the United States — will be commemorated. That’s the painful past. But it’s long gone, and today’s Niagara-on-the Lake, while retaining history, invites us all, Americans and Canadians, to celebrate with gratitude, its flourishing life and enduring beauty.

photos by barbara bagnell,special to the hamilton spectator


The author’s stay was facilitated by the Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce, Visitor and Convention Bureau, and Niagara’s Finest Inns.



For visitor information: Telephone: (905) 468-1950. We dined well at three restaurants: The Olde Angel Inn, (dating to 1815,) Tiara at Queen’s Landing Hotel (a minute’s walk from Harbour House), and Zees Grill, (two minutes from the Festival Theatre.) To reach our guide Lillian Forsyth, who includes 20 sites on a 90-minute walk, go to