Niagara nirvana The home of the Falls, long a romantic destination for honeymooners, is gaining a new reputation as a ‘girls getaway’ venue (published in Forever Young)
By Ellen Ashton-Haiste
The “honeymoon capital of the world” isn’t just for romance anymore.
Times have changed in Niagara. The cascading Horseshoe Falls and their American neighbour, lit nightly with a rainbow of changing colours reflecting off the rising mist, has for decades drawn newlyweds and those hoping to recapture that loving feeling.
But while weddings and honeymoons are still big in the shadow of the Falls, today the bright lights and excitement of the casinos, the glitzy shops, luxuriating spas and surrounding lush parklands, verdant orchards and vineyards and quaint communities are a mecca for couples — and triples or quadruples — of a different sort.
The region is becoming recognized as a perfect venue for a “girls’ getaway.”
On a recent early winter weekend, my friend Sherry Thomson-Morton and I put this hypothesis to the test and, after three days exploring the area from our base at the Marriott Niagara Falls Fallsview Hotel and Spa, gave it a pass with flying colours. We even concluded that there was so much to see and do that a return visit was definitely warranted.
The hotel itself proved an ideal home port. In addition to comfortably appointed rooms, ranging from the standard two-bed variety to two-storey suites with lofts for bed and whirlpool baths, it offers awesome panoramic views of the Falls themselves.
In fact, the hotel, with all its rooms on the Falls side of the building, is one that lives up to the “Fallsview” name which pops up everywhere throughout the downtown, connected to a plethora of hotels and casinos.
Shop till you drop Shopping is an essential element of a girls’ getaway and Niagara has no lack of opportunities for browsing and buying. There’s something for all budgets, from high-end clothiers to anitque, Canadiana and other specialty shops.
The Fallsview Casino, connected by an outdoor walkway to the Niagara Falls Marriott, has its own galleria of shops, leaning towards the expensive end of the scale with retailers specializing in European crystal and designer and imported fashions. At the other end of the scale, the Canada One Factory Outlets are famed throughout the area for high-profile brand stores — some 40 or so including the likes of Roots, Body Shop and Samsonite — advertising savings up to 75 per cent over regular retail.
However we spent most of our browsing time prowling nearby villages like Ridgeway, Jordan and Niagara-on-the-Lake.
The latter, home to the Shaw Festival Theatre, is well-known for its historic atmosphere — with numerous sites and attractions that take visitors back to the War of 1812 — and unique shops from the famous Greaves Jams to the Just Christmas where all things seasonal can keep one wide-eyed and open-mouthed for hours.
Ridgeway, in the Fort Erie catchment area, is equally historic but in a less planned fashion, many century homes having been restored as shops. It’s also less expensive with some real bargains.
On the weekend we visited, the village was celebrating the season with the “Spirit of Christmas and Dickens Style Open House,” featuring evening candlelight strolls, carolling and Christmas concerts. In keeping with the mood, shops were serving up hot cider and taste-tempting seasonal treats while horse-drawn carriages ferried visitors along the main street.
Back in Niagara a spot worth a shopping spree visit is Rossi Glass, where artisans create glass pieces and demonstrate for visitors the art of glass blowing and creation. It’s one of only a handful of glass factories worldwide that make the ruby red cranberry glass — it’s secret being the addition of pure gold to the molten glass. The factory shop offers a wealth of one-of-a-kind glass items from lamps to vases, wall platters and figurines, all at discounted prices.
Spa-cial experience After a hard day of pounding the streets in search of bargains, there’s nothing like a relaxing spa treatment. Most Niagara hotels are offering spa experiences, whether in their own facilities or imported in-room treatments.
The Marriott Niagara Falls Fallsview Hotel and Spa has its own in-house Serenity Spa, where we donned thick terry robes and seated ourselves for luxurious pedicures and manicures. Nothing feels quite so good on weary feet as being wrapped in hot lavender-scented wax!
The hotel’s spa offers a variety of packages, including in-room massages. Its Winter Warm-Up features Maple Sugar Glo, a treatment using natural maple sugar enriched with anti-oxidants and vitamins to exfoliate and hydrate the skin; Choco-Aroma, a side-by-side Swedish massage; and Peppermint Spice Pedicure, an invigorating treatment for the feet. A variety of other treatments and combination packages are available.
Wine … Niagara, with its ideal grape growing climate of warm summers and cool winters with protection from weather extremes offered by the two bordering Great Lakes and the Niagara Escarpment, is one of the country’s most noted wine regions, home to some 60 wineries and 16,000 acres of vineyards.
This industry which has blossomed and garnered international awards during the past quarter century is well worth exploring via any number of winery tours. Most of the wineries offer individualized tours and information sessions. We visited Peller Estates, just outside Niagara-On-The-Lake, where “seminars” on topics like decanting and stemware or wine and food pairings are offered daily.
Ours turned out to be a one-on-one workshop on “The Art of Food and Wine.” Our delightful host, Kevin Anderson, provided a wealth of information on how to properly “taste” a wine and rules of thumb for combining the libation with various dishes. The old rule of red wine with red meat and white wine with white meat is passé we learned; today it’s all about weight — a hearty, full-bodied wine to complement a heavy meal like steak or pasta and lighter wines with lighter dishes such as fish. There’s even a wine to go with barbecued hamburgers — Peller suggests its lighter red baco noir.
… and dine Many restaurants throughout the area, including some connected with the wineries themselves, offer “tasting” meals where similar information can be acquired in a delicious fashion. We tested our knowledge during a luscious dinner at the Niagara Falls Marriott’s Terrapin Grille restaurant, featuring an entrée of halibut, topped with grilled shrimp, salad and a scrumptious sorbet desert topped with ice wine sabayon, each course accompanied by an appropriate wine.
While exploring the region, there are plenty of places to stop for a light lunch. Right next door to Peller Estates is the one we tried, Riverbend Inn and Vineyard. A restored 1860s Georgian mansion with 21 guest rooms, it’s surrounded by 17 acres of lawns, gardens and vineyards which now produce the inn’s own wine, crafted in partnership with Klaus Reif of the neighbouring Reif Estate Winery.
There are also surprises at almost every four corners. At one such intersection, we discovered a home of every woman’s best friend — Nigh’s Sweet Shop, where fresh chocolate is made daily. It all started in 1958 with Grandma Nigh, mother-in-law of current proprietor Rebecca Nigh, making Easter chocolates in her kitchen for local children. Dozens of chocolate concoctions fill the shop which is the only venue for this family product, since Rebecca refuses to go wholesale in the interests of keeping it fresh and quality controlled.
After Dark While shopping and touring the countryside and great daytime pastimes, nightlife also abounds in Niagara. If spending hours on end at the one-armed bandits and blackjack tables, doesn’t appeal, there are theatres, nightclubs, concert venues and dinner theatres aplenty.
In the latter category, the long-running national parody Oh Canada Eh! Dinner Show has played to half a million guests and been voted “Attraction of the Year” six times since its 1994 debut.
A new dinner show is the Greg Frewin Theatre, starring the internationally renowned magician in a Las Vegas style show of sleight of hand and traditional magic acts complete with a cast of Siberian tigers.
In December, when we visited, a seasonal highlight is the Winter Festival of Lights, a wonderland of animated light displays created by the Niagara Parks along a five-kilometre route bordering the Falls and on Dufferin Island at the southern end of the Parkway. Bus tours take visitors on a tour of these lights, the best way to see them since they are fairly spread out. New this year is a lighted flag display which morphs from the Canadian to American flag and back, a message to American visitors that we welcome them north of the border, says Festival of Lights marketing spokesman Dino Fazio.
Our bus tour of the lights also made a stop at the Skylon Tower for a nighttime view of the Niagara region from nearly 500 feet up.
All told, Niagara has enough attractions to keep a “group of girls” occupied for at least a long weekend. During our lunch at the Riverbend Inn, we listened in on just such a group of four from New York State, enthusing about the opportunities compared to regions in their home area. We conclude they’ve got it right. Niagara is the perfect “girls’ getaway,” time and again.