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Summertime’s the perfect time to take in Southern Ontario

Despite the recent chill in US-Canada political relations (some tiff about a tariff), the weather and the welcome from Canadians themselves couldn’t be warmer at this time of year (and the exchange rate is pretty welcoming, too). For an ideal combo of bustling urban excitement and bucolic small town, try a weekend trip to Toronto followed by a few days in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the most beautifully manicured village in Ontario and perhaps all of Canada, home to fine wineries, top restaurants and top-flight theater.


Getting to Canada and getting around Toronto

Fly direct from Tampa into Toronto’s Pearson International Airport via Air Canada (about 3 hours) or into Buffalo via Southwest or Frontier. (Remember: You will need to carry your U.S. passport and go through Customs.) An Aerofleet cab from Pearson ($44, $56 Canadian) will introduce you right away to a distinctive feature of Toronto’s skyline: the forest of skyscraping condo towers overlooking Lake Ontario. Once you’re settled in, the best way to get an overview of this multi-faceted city is to hop on one of the double-decker tour buses run by City Sightseeing Toronto.

A double-decker tour bus stops in Dundas Square.

Toronto must-do’s

  • Harbourfront: A lively, sprawling area of restaurants and recreation and water, water everywhere. Bonus: The bus tours mentioned above include a leisurely cruise from the harbor through Toronto’s network of beautiful island parks.
  • CN Tower: Talk about an overview. Toronto’s “needle” — an 1,815-foot-tall communications tower built in 1976 — features a glass-floor observation deck, a revolving restaurant, and EdgeWalk, where you can walk the circumference of the Tower’s main pod, 116 stories up (while wearing a harness, natch).
  • Casa Loma: A 98-room castle that was once a private home and is now open to the public (and catnip to movie and TV crews).
  • Museums: Like thousands of tourists and Torontonians, we waited in line for hours outside the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) to see the mind-blowing mirrored installations of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (who’s got a show coming up at the Tampa Museum of Art this fall). We didn’t see much else of the AGO, but we do know it boasts an extensive collection of contemporary Canadian art and a stunning facade by Toronto-born starchitect Frank Gehry. Also recommendable: the Royal Ontario Museum (Canada’s largest, focused on science, art and archaeology); the Bata Shoe Museum (over 13,000 shoes and shoe-related objects — including, we hear, Napoleon’s socks).
  • The Markets: Kensington Market’s not a market at all but a neighborhood, known for funky shops and ethnic restaurants. St. Lawrence Market is an actual market, a culinary mecca known for Canada’s much-touted peameal bacon sandwich (which those of us from south of the border would call “Canadian bacon”).
  • The Districts: The Distillery District is a picturesque cobblestoned ’hood full of shops and restaurants; the Entertainment District is chock full of theater (Toronto is the third largest English-speaking theater center in the world). Its smartly programmed cineplex, TIFF, is home to the glittery Toronto International Film Festival.
  • The Dog Fountain: This favorite landmark in Old Town’s Berczy Square features 27 breeds of dogs spouting water toward an elusive golden bone, as a disenchanted cat looks on.
The sitting area in the “King Eddy” Premiere room.

Where to stay in Toronto

The most famous high-end hotel might be the venerable Fairmont Royal York, but we opted for another downtown gem: The Omni King Edward (aka the “King Eddy”), a 1903 landmark that’s been updated and polished to a high sheen. The gleaming lobby mixes period touches with over-sized contemporary decor (the giant black chess pieces make for great photo ops), and our Premiere room was spacious and comfy, with wing chairs, sleek glass-topped desk and a generously proportioned bathroom, all brightly lit marble. You can access the hotel’s Royal Club for an extra 30 bucks, and it’s worth it — ample breakfast buffet, afternoon snacks, evening hors d’oeuvres with cocktails and wine, all in a well-appointed lounge. The service throughout the hotel was impeccable and extremely helpful, in particular our warm, well-informed concierge Vanessa. (Minus points: No free WiFi.)

Where to eat in Toronto

Toronto is a fabulous food town, its breadth of cuisines a reflection of its multicultural populace. Thanks to the reliable Vanessa, we found a very fine Italian restaurant just steps away from the hotel: Carisma, where I enjoyed the best seared scallop appetizer I’ve ever had and my husband had pasta with freshly shaved truffles. (Vanessa recommended the dish because, she told us, it was truffle season.) Toronto has a huge Asian population, so it’s no surprise that David Chang’s Momofuku noodle empire has an outpost in the city. For lunch, we sat at a counter with an up-close view of the kitchen crew, chowed down on fantastic ramen and a perfectly cooked steak, then stopped by the little self-serve dessert market upstairs, Momofuku Milk Bar, where we could not resist purchase of a Crack Pie, Chang’s insanely rich (and addictive) cookie bar. We consumed it later in the day during a late-afternoon pause at Cawthra Park in the city’s colorful LGBTQ-centric Church-Wellesley District. Yum. A note on where not to eat: We left a screening at TIFF and found ourselves on a block of King Street that was full of restaurants. Unfortunately, we chose one called Fred’s Not Here. Won’t go into detail, but to paraphrase an online review, Fred’s Not Here and you shouldn’t be either.


Where to stay — and where to walk

Situated an easy 80-mile drive southeast of Toronto, NOTL is a popular tourist destination — you can tell just by the number of Bed & Breakfast signs. We stayed this year at Le Papillon, a delightful small B&B with delicious breakfasts and lively conversation every morning, and on our previous visit rented the charming and surprisingly roomy Swinton Cottage. Other accommodations range from the posh Post House Inn to the chic 124 on Queen (which has a terrific spa) to the venerable Prince of Wales Hotel, established in 1901.

A city park in Niagara-on-the-Lake overlooks Lake Ontario.

Just about any of these places are walking distance to Queen Street, the town’s main drag, and to the Shaw Festival theaters. You’ll want to walk because the street and the residential neighborhoods surrounding it are just so darned scenic — including, just a few steps away from the shops, a park with stunning views of Lake Ontario.

That Festival feeling 

A pilgrimage to southern Ontario is on many a theater buff’s bucket list because two of the world’s most renowned theater festivals are headquartered in the area. The Stratford Festival, situated in the town of Stratford 90 miles southwest of Toronto, was founded in 1952 with a focus on Shakespeare; NOTL’s Shaw Festival was founded 10 years later with a focus on, you guessed it, Shaw (as in George Bernard). The lineups of both festivals include not just classics but also contemporary plays and musicals, distinguished by diverse casting and cutting-edge stagecraft.

This year’s Shaw Festival opened in April and continues through October 28 with a dozen shows running in repertory. The big event, we’re sorry to report, has already closed its limited run: the world premiere of the Mythos trilogy, an epic solo project by the British actor/writer/raconteur Stephen Fry. An irreverent retelling of Greek myths that’s both sensational and hilarious, I suspect it’ll have a future life on other stages. But there’s still plenty of theater to see in NOTL.

We also caught:

Of Marriage and Men: A delightful pairing of one-acts from 1904 in which Shaw explores one of his favorite themes, the battle of the sexes as a battle of wits (with the woman usually winning out).

Grand Hotel: A revival of the 1989 less-than-classic musical about troubled souls staying at a Berlin hotel on the eve of the Depression, this was a disappointment — especially compared to the festival’s joyous production last season of the musical Me and My Girl, which had us dancing in the aisles to the Lambeth Walk.

The cast of The Magician’s Nephew. Photo by Emily Cooper.

The Magician’s Nephew: A new adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s beloved tales of Narnia, this was the high point for us. You’ve heard that term “stage magic” — well, this was in fact a magical production, both for its quicksilver ensemble work and its imaginative use of cardboard boxes to create a world of make-believe. Take a child or grandchild — or, for that matter, your inner child.

Where to shop in Niagara-on-the-Lake

With 1 Canadian dollar currently equivalent to 76 U.S. cents, Americans shopping with Canadian money get to enjoy the “Oh, I’m not really spending all that much” feeling. Which is a good thing in NOTL, because you’ll find any number of tempting shops in which to drop those loonies and toonies.

Among our favorites:

Leon Shoe Shop: Stylish shoes and leather goods, including European brands hard to find in the States.

Old Niagara Bookshop: The platonic ideal of the quaint indie bookstore, complete with elderly proprietress and a comprehensive collection of rainy-day lit, including a big selection by Canadian authors.

Irish Design: If you moved to Florida from colder climes, satisfy your sweater nostalgia in this well-stocked, great-smelling shop full of chunky cable knits, Harris tweeds and other Irish treats.

BeauChapeau Hat Shop: Who knew you could find the perfect-for-Florida wide-brimmed straw hat in a shop in Canada?

Greaves Jams & Marmalades: A dizzying array of fruity concoctions like apricot almond and rhubarb ginger, available in multiple sizes and gift boxes.

Niagara Home Bakery: You can’t leave NOTL without having the quintessential Canadian treat known as the butter tart, and this homey spot offers a delicious variety.

COWS Creamery: NOTL-ers love their ice cream, and judging by the long lines, they really love COWS ice cream. You’ll know why when you try one of the 40-plus flavors; I’m partial to Caramel Moochiato, but you gotta admire the brazenness of Udder Finger.

The restaurant at Trius Winery.

Where to Eat in Niagara-on-the-Lake

Trius Winery Restaurant: Our best meal in NOTL, bar none. For an unbeatable evening, start with a winery tour; Trius Winery (formerly Hillebrand) makes some of the most acclaimed wines in Canada, and our affable tour guide not only taught us a lot about wine-making, he gave us plenty of tastes. Then, have dinner in the winery’s gorgeous restaurant overlooking the vineyard. Chef Frank Dodd makes Canadian flavors sing in exquisitely plated dishes like Atlantic halibut filet with wild nettle gnocchi and lobster knuckle, and the service is impeccable without being in the least bit stuffy. It’s pricey, but remember that Canadian exchange rate and chow down!

Treadwell Farm-to-Table Cuisine: There are lots of options on Queen Street, from Niagara’s Finest Thai  (aptly named) to good basic fare at Shaw Cafe (you’ll know it by its glorious floral borders and selfie-ready GBS statue). But the undisputed champ on Queen for quality of cuisine and elegant yet unpretentious presentation is Treadwell’s — try the melt-in-your-mouth ricotta agnolotti with wild mushrooms or the pan-seared Ontario rainbow trout — where on two different occasions (a birthday and an anniversary), the staff went out of its way to make us feel special.

Prince of Wales: We haven’t tried the hotel’s upscale Noble Restaurant or its traditional afternoon tea, but we like the ambience in the Churchill Lounge, where you can get a big, reasonably priced burger and relax in big comfy leather chairs.

Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club: You don’t have to be a member to eat here, but it’s fun to gawk when the convivial clubbers come to dinner in their pastel-colored golf gear. Plus: Excellent food and killer views of the lake and North America’s oldest golf course.

Wineries, wineries everywhere…

…and lots of drops to drink. In addition to Trius, you have, oh, about 100 wineries to choose from in NOTL and environs. The region between the Niagara escarpment and Lake Ontario boasts an ideal combination of terrain and climate for cultivating wine — including the area’s most famous export, ice wine, a divine concoction made from grapes partially frozen on the vine. With wineries come wine tours, and we were very pleased with our experience on Vintage Wine Tours, whose route included a diverse mix of wineries and concluded with dinner at the HobNob, an old-school fancy restaurant at the Charles Hotel.


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