Niagara-on-the-Lake: Just a little too perfect?

One of the Niagara-on-the-Lake's beautiful properties

Niagara-on-the-Lake is one of the most picturesque towns I’ve had the good fortune to visit. But there’s also something a bit odd about it.

After a couple of days exploring, I couldn’t help but feel a bit creeped. It’s just a bit too perfect, and its population just a little too nice. It brought to mind the not-quite-real town that imprisoned Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. Graham kept saying how great it would be to move there but I think we’d soon go bonkers if we did.

Still, it was definitely an improvement on the tourist-tastic Niagara Falls and our hotel, the Queen’s Landing, was class, comfort and elegance personified, with a breakfast room that looked out over a little marina and the Niagara River.

Other than the wine tours and the busy theatre programme (which everyone wrongly assumed we were visiting), there isn’t a huge amount to do in town but it’s good for walks and chilling out. We chose a walk that highlighted some of its best historic buildings, and there are loads of them because Niagara-on-the-Lake is a survivor.

The Niagara River from our breakfast room
The Niagara River from our breakfast room

Back in 1812 when the US-Canadian war raged, the British town (then known as Newark) was a target because of the military forces based on the edge of town at Fort George. After a period of occupation in 1813, the Americans retreated across the river to New York State and controversially burned the town to the ground. Rebuilding soon began and a remarkable number of buildings remain from that time, in part because locals over the centuries were often too poor to pull anything down and build replacements. It’s often the case with perfectly preserved towns…

We began the walk near our hotel, at Navy Hall, part of which dates from the 1760s. When Newark was briefly the capital of Upper Canada, it hosted the province’s first Parliament and then became a military supply facility for the British.

On Delater Street we found the old Whale Inn. It sits by the shore of Lake Ontario where it meets the Niagara River, with views across to Fort Niagara in the US and to the skyscrapers of Toronto on a good day. Yards away stood Old Bank House, now a bed and breakfast inn and the type of perfect clapboard building that we saw everywhere in town.

Fort Niagara across the water
Fort Niagara across the water

On the edge of the town’s golf course – the oldest in North America – stands the remaining red brick structure of Fort Mississauga. Built during the War of 1812, there’s not much to see but the tunnels amid the earthworks are eerie and atmospheric.

After exploring several more streets, lined with gorgeous buildings and perfect gardens, we eventually emerged on to Queen Street, the main drag that boasts a wide variety of beautiful historic homes, B&Bs and stores. However, the shops are very much geared to an older crowd, selling the sort of homewares and gifts that would appeal to mums of a certain age everywhere. We popped in and out of a few of them, dodging Chinese tour groups and gaggles of aged folk.

On Regent Street we visited the local bookshop, where an ancient, powdered matron sat listening to wonderful classical music and I purchased a book on the 1812 war. We stopped and drank beer in the historic Angel Inn, built in about 1816 and supposedly Canada’s oldest operating pub. Outside, drizzle fell.

Inside Fort George
Inside Fort George

Our walk finished at Fort George, which is mostly a modern recreation but does have an original arsenal building with ever-so-necessary extra-thick walls. The displays do a very good job of telling the story of the 1812 war, the destruction of Newark and the soldiers who manned the barracks and officers’ quarters.

The rain continued to fall and a band rehearsed for a steampunk festival that was due to take place in the grounds.

It was obvious throughout our stay that Niagara-on-the-Lake is popular with older people, who were ferried in as tourists by the coach-load but who also, as locals, made up many of the shop workers. At night, the town wasn’t exactly riotous but we ate well at the Charles Inn and at the Cannery, part of the Pillar and Post Hotel. And we drank well in the bar at the Prince of Wales Hotel, one of the striking buildings that make up the town centre, amid tourists who were mostly a lot older than us.

The guide on our wine tour had mentioned that the town has an ageing population and it certainly seemed like it. It was also very white and very middle class. Perhaps only those on good pensions and with very good jobs can afford to live there because the adverts in the real estate agents’ windows proved that property isn’t cheap.

It’s also a town that revels in its British heritage. The Union Jack danced in the wind over Fort George and many roads and buildings boast names with royal or other British connections. But did that make me feel at home? Not at all – a town further removed from the urban jungle of SE26 I can’t begin to imagine.