Niagara-on-the-Lake has a storied past.

Life Travel – The Kingston Whig Standard


Historical reenactors at a recent event at Fort George in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Many events this year will commemorate the region's role in the War of 1812. BOB TYMCZYSZYN/QMI AGENCY FILES

One of the most vivid chapters of Canada’s past can be best recalled not far from water’s edge in Ontario’s Niagara-on-the Lake, widely known as Canada’s Prettiest Town.

We spent a few days there a week or so ago. This summer and fall, the most critical event of Canada’s past is being marked: The days of spring 1813, when the peaceful town was attacked and occupied by American forces. In time, they withdrew. But as official history puts it: “Canada was a hair’s breath away from being part of the United States.”

When we walked to today’s historic site — Fort George — we met young men shouldering rifles and garbed in red and blue uniforms of a bygone. We watched as they helped children understand the sacrifice made by too many young men in uniform back then.

As one instructor spoke he displayed primitive weapons and described the harsh penalty handed a soldier trying to flee the battleground.

Now until year’s end special events recognize those painful days. One example: From late spring to mid December, the American occupation becomes vivid as uniformed soldiers patrol town streets and, on certain days, historians give public lectures on old tumults.

We also went twice to performances at the town’s renowned Shaw Festival. Its theatres are just a few minutes walk from the Harbour House — a fine hotel with gracious service provided by local young people. A courtesy shuttle runs between Harbour House and two sister inns — the sparkling and respected Charles House and Shaw Club.

We dined at Shaw Club’s contemporary eatery, Zees, then took a two-minute walk to The Shaw’s renowned Festival Theatre, its largest.

The evening performance was a provocative work by Oscar Wilde, a man whose life provokes debate as did his tumultuous 19th-century years at Oxford, when he was — for awhile — suspended. Skillfully stages, the play is complex but has very insightful moments.

Next night, at the smaller Royal George, we took in Our Betters, a theatrical favourite (dating to the 1920s) by Somerset Maugham. In my modest opinion it’s even more engaging than the previous evening. (Perhaps it’s personal: I prefer small theatres with closeup views.)

The streets, shadowed by summer’s thickening trees, whispered of their past during a stroll with Lily Forsyth, a gracious lady who took us to about 20 significant sites: Churches, cemeteries, monuments.

The Niagara Apothecary, more than a hundred years old, is staffed imaginatively by volunteer pharmacists who know its stories.

And yes we did sample local cuisine — including pub fare at Olde Angel Inn, said to be the oldest operating inn in Ontario–with the luscious wines of Niagara-on-the Lake.

The town has 27 wineries, whose whites get better every year.

Have you tried John Howard’s Riesling? If not I have a suggestion: Have it at a table in a Niagara-on-the- Lake restaurant. Just being there makes it even better.