Niagara-on-the-Lake With a Dog – Ontario – Canada
I wanted to love Niagara-on-the-Lake. I really did. And I liked it. I would even say I liked it a lot. But I did not love it. Niagara-on-the-Lake With a Dog is just not … *sigh*
I think it happens to every traveller. You hear about a place. It could be the Taj Mahal, The Great Wall of China, or Cinque Terra. People rave about it and you think, “Oh I must go!” or “I am adding that to my list!” and you look forward to seeing the location for yourself. Then you get there and you think, “It’s nice, but I don’t get what all the fuss is about.”
That is what happened to us with Niagara-on-the-Lake: a well preserved, 19th-century colonial town settled on the banks of Lake Ontario. It’s on a lake so large you feel like it’s a salt-less sea.
This small town is where critical battles in the defense of Upper Canada took place, including one in which heroine Laura Secord gained her fame. It’s a sharp reminder of Canada’s time at war with the United States. It’s a part of Canadian—and American—history often forgotten or ignored. Here, you will find people like Simcoe and Brock honoured as British and, now, Canadian heroes. Yes, Canadians are the “redcoats” so often vilified in American movies. That was something that really hit home when we visited Fort George. (That’ll be in a separate post.)
Niagara-on-the-Lake also gave many black American slaves their first taste of freedom. The town served as a stop on the Underground Railroad for those travelling further into Upper Canada, and as a refuge in its own right. Many of these escapees then joined in the fight against the United States as new free men, creating their own battalion.
You can learn all of this at the Niagara Historical Society—no pets inside—which was founded in 1895 and houses over 20,000 artefacts. What makes this building and not just the content all the more interesting is that it was in fact the first building built in Ontario to serve only one purpose: that of being a museum. Kinda neat!
If you enjoy architecture, then you’ll enjoy this town full of Regency and Classical Revival buildings. In fact, Niagara-on-the-Lake is considered to have the best collection of these buildings in the country. Most were rebuilt after the war of 1812 when the town was destroyed and ransacked by the Americans in an act later considered despicable by both sides in the battle. As a result, the town has more stone and brick homes instead of the wooden ones built before the raid. The stone and brick homes are the homes you see today.
So, the town has everything you would think we would love. It is teeming with history and designated a National Historic Site of Canada. This is the kind of stuff we look for, so we were crazy excited to go and were really looking forward to walking the town’s streets.
Take a look at this really great 1-hour self-guided walking tour you can upload/cut and paste, complete with a map of ten spots and explanations. You see? So much to anticipate.
We arrived just as the little shops and boutiques were opening. As we got out of the car, we were immediately charmed by Niagara-on-the-Lake’s main street. (We found parking easily, but be warned that in high season, parking can be a challenge.)
We parked next to the big clock tower that marks the start of the historical downtown district. The clock, now the town’s symbol and logo, was unveiled in the summer of 1922 as a Memorial Clock built to honour those from the region who died fighting during WWI. Parking next to the clock made it easy to find the car later!
We walked down Queen Street and, yes, the boutiques were lovely and diverse, selling everything from clothing to fudge. We even stopped at a milliner’s (how rare is that these days?) where Dad was thrilled to finally find the hat he had always wanted.
And although many bowls were laid out, and some were even pretty darn extravagant …
… with only a few exceptions, nearly every single store had a “no food, no drinks, no dogs” sign.
This meant the bipeds had to constantly do “the hand off.” Sure the town provides nice benches along the way and there were flowers everywhere adorning the sidewalks and adorable homes. There were even some antiques like an old water fountain to be seen.
But the blanket prohibition against my presence had a way of putting a damper on things. Don’t get me wrong, we are used to an occasional store having a no pet policy. We even expect it from those selling food, for example, but a clothing store? A milliner? A souvenir shop? Really? Worse was the attitude: a “looking down of the nose” when one of the bipeds had the misfortune to get a little too close to the entrance of a store. That was utterly unnecessary and unprofessional.
Luckily, there were some exceptions such as a lovely store called the Scottish Loft, which sells imported British goods. Dad found a coat he absolutely loved but sadly could not afford. Still, it was a blast and even with a tearoom at the back, they welcomed me with open arms, offering all the oooh’s and ahhh’s I so love.
We also spent some nice time at The Name Tree, a store specialising in family crests and such. The owners were wonderful and even didn’t mind me wondering off a bit, dragging my leash behind me as I sniffed about the place. The bipeds had fun finding out how their respective coat of arms would look when embroidered and placed side by side. I sense a Christmas gift in the near future!
Next up was posing with the Bernard Shaw statue! Yes, I did the tourist thing, as one does. The statute is surrounded by a fountain and has a nice plaque to tell you a bit about who Shaw was and all that. Fascinating character!
If you do not know, the Shaw Festival is a Canadian theatre festival founded in 1962. The original raison d’être of the theatre company was to stimulate interest in George Bernard Shaw and his peers. The mandate has grown a lot since then and it’s all a pretty big deal. The theatre and its plays attract thousands of visitors every year.
We walked back up the other side of the street and took a small side street to find the public washrooms. It was super clean and I bet it’s very handy when the tour buses come in.
We also found a Balzac’s coffee there. It’s the ONLY pet friendly patio in the ENTIRE town. We sat down and had a treat or two; the bipeds had a coffee (Dad) and tea (Mom). The place was so kind and generous that when Dad ordered a black tea by accident (Mom can’t manage black teas—sensitive tummy, Balzac’s switched it for her with no charge! How nice is that? And when Mom loved the tea—a delightful peach infusion—they even gave her an extra tea bag to take home. That … is service.
We then made our way towards the Prince of Wales Hotel, a beautiful, vintage, pet friendly (if expensive) hotel and restaurant. Although the hotel is pet friendly, pets are not allowed on the patio for dining. Once again, I find myself questioning how people define “pet friendly establishment.”
And … well … that is it. I think that was part of the disappointment. Niagara-on-the-Lake’s historic district is basically one street. It’s certainly a lovely and picturesque street but it’s just one street with few, if any, side streets to offer more variety.
And what the town caters to is not really our interest.
- We shop but we don’t shop.
- We don’t drink, so wine tasting wasn’t really going to interest us much. (Vineyards surround the town.)
- The bipeds eat healthy (clean, whole foods), so places like a candy store or fudge shop, or a store selling fresh jams and pastries may make us pause to buy a gift for friends, but it isn’t going to delight.
- No pets allowed nearly everywhere!
I do think we would have enjoyed things more if we had timed our visit with the farmers’ market. I tried to tell Mom this but I was ignored and well … sigh … the result was a serious challenge finding a place to have lunch. It was so much of a challenge that we sort of broke the rules.
We ate at the Epicurean, a really fun place. They have a small patio at the front of the restaurant and a huge one at the back. Neither is pet friendly. It’s a self-serve situation and the food options are wide and delicious. I was basically snuck onto the massive patio at the back and with no service staff to object, we managed alright, but only because of my small size. People who got a peek of me smiled and winked at the bipeds, happy to keep our little secret.
But it’s against the rules, so what do I recommend should you go with your canine companion? We found out after that you can take your Epicurean meal to go! With that in mind, we would have ordered our meal as take-out, then turned right when leaving the restaurant, and crossed over to Regent Street heading south towards the lake and the Queen’s Royal Park.
Here you will find lovely spots overlooking Fort George on the peninsula across the way.
You can savour your meal on a picnic table and enjoy the stellar view. If you walk toward the left, there is also a pretty white gazebo—should you need cover from rain. There are public washrooms there as well. Clean and free. You do have to pay for parking should you move your car.
Back in town, we made our way through the throngs of tourists who were by now being dropped off. Forgive me, but it seemed like termites spilling out of massive logs on wheels, everyone eager to shop ‘til they drop, and armed with bags, credit cards, and cameras. With that sudden crowd surge, we were happy to leave Niagara-on-the-Lake and discover the surrounding region instead.
Lesson learned? What others think can’t always be your guide. If you talk to a person who likes antiques, wine, and sweets, and doesn’t mind tourists everywhere, and doesn’t have a canine they travel with, then you will meet a person who will absolutely love Niagara-on-the-Lake. So when you listen to why people “love” a place, always make sure you hear what they are saying. What are they talking about? Are these things you enjoy as well?
And look at a map.
Certainly we can’t and shouldn’t compare but … yes … but … when you have spent entire afternoons discovering tiny picturesque towns like Luzerne, Eze, or Plovdiv, which spread out for you to discover over an entire afternoon, the small towns of North America can seem … well, less. We have come across this phenomenon before in Naples (USA), and Perth, finding that although the towns are charming, you are quickly done with the exploration. It’s a single street or maybe two.
Keep those expectations in check!
Having said that, the area surrounding Niagara-on-the-Lake—known as Queenston—has so many trails, bike paths, and interesting historical places to visit that should you have a car, or wish to rent a bike or scooter, you can easily spend a day discovering the entire Niagara-on-the-Lake Region. I will share our adventures in Queenston in a subsequent post.
In review: Niagara-on-the-Lake With a Dog: It’s a cute town with a very interesting history. But don’t expect to spend the day. Rather, make it a part of a regional discovery route. Note that neither the shops nor any patio will welcome your canine companion for a meal. Like many places in North America, Niagara-on-the-Lake suffers from the illusion of pet friendliness. Dog bowls on the sidewalk and exceedingly high pet rates at hotels or B&B’s do not a pet friendly town make. Niagara-on-the-Lake will offer up a lovely stroll, some intense history, art galleries, and shopping. Bottom line: is it worth a stop? Absolutely. It’s just really not that pet friendly.