The smell of clean, crisp fresh vineyard air greets you as soon as you enter the city of Niagara-on-the-lake. With the wind blowing through the grapevines, the birds flying above the vineyards, the sun setting with pastel colours lighting up the sky, you can’t help but feel a strong sense of peace.
However, if it’s your first time visiting, you would never know that this beautiful, peaceful town has a very interesting story to tell.
Where do I start to tell you this story?
Formerly known as Upper Canada and founded by German Mennonites, this town officially became recognized in 1792.
This major influence still exists to this day. A lot of people I’ve met who live here are either directly German Mennonites or their grandparents were. From the older couple living across the street who was born in Paraguay but are pure German Mennonites, to the local cafe manager and owners whose grandparents were German Mennonites, to the sign outside the church that says Sunday German service at 9:00 am.
In the evenings after 5 pm, you will see a group of young ladies with long dresses walking down the street, running & playing. As you walk by, you’ll hear the roaring sound of 3 ATVs behind you driving by with young men with helmets on them. Both groups of kids are part of the still-thriving Menonite community.
It’s beautiful to see the history and influence still alive in this little village of Virgil. A small village within a village where you will find German and Mexican Menonite communities.
This little town also became a safe zone, a place of freedom where blacks who fled slavery at the end of the American Revolution, were given freedom & land in former Upper Canada (Niagara-on-the-lake) by the British. Nestled along where the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario, with Lake Erie to the South and Buffalo, New York to the East has now a very white influence. Winter or Summer, there is a constant warmth in the air here. It’s likely the residents of Niagara-on-the-lake, who welcome you with a smile, kindness and a friendly hello as you walk down the street.
Driving down through the vineyards, along the main road you will enter a cosy and beautiful little town with cute shops, gourmet restaurants and cafes.
Fire, blood and war once covered these streets of the Old Historic town of Niagara-on-the-lake. The main shops are located along 2 streets surrounded by historic homes, parks and Lake Ontario where as you stand in the gazebo, you can look out to the Buffalo fort where cannons once reigned from one side to the other between the British and American troops. As you walk down Queen St in Niagara-on-the-lake at 8:05 pm, drinking a cup of coffee, you see a man dressed in an old period outfit with a black top hat, cape and a lantern telling a story to awe-inspired tourists about the dark history and stories of ghosts in this town.
Yes, there are many buildings and areas here that are said to be haunted and as such, you can do a walking ghost tour any time of the year, to learn all about the chilling stories of the most haunted city in North America, if you’re brave enough. Each building and home is filled with charm and character. From the famous 200-year-old Inn and spa called Obann, to the small cozy 3 bedroom Bed & Breakfast run by a local family located in the heart of this historic town. While you take a romantic horse and carriage ride through the old town before you retire to your room to rest for the night, it’s as if you go back in time and get a small feel of what life could have been like back then.
After the occupation by the American army, fire filled the streets as the army burned down homes and many lives were lost and a city destroyed. Out of the ashes, destruction and war, a town was rebuilt but history was not lost or forgotten. The stories of ghosts still remind the town’s residents of this history. It was an interesting war, because to this day no one is really clear on who won.
With the war being the only history now, the early 1900s is when the wineries were established in the area.
As you ride on your bicycle on the road among the vineyards, there truly is a unique crisp fresh smell that’s unlike what you’ve experienced in your travels. A strong sense of calm and tranquillity is why some people make this townhome, leaving the big city for a yearning for a slower pace of life. In the spring and summer months, as you walk through the vineyards doing wine tastings or taking photos, a loud bang in the distance will startle you.
No, it’s not the ghosts, it’s the winemakers who set up a few of these bird bangers (as the locals call them), in the vineyards to scare the birds from eating the grapes.
Hop on your bike at the end of your wine tasting and ride to a cozy beautiful restaurant for dinner. As the hostess seats you at your table, you will find yourself in a cozy romantic setting. Looking at the menu, you will see that the food is farm-to-table that comes from the local farms in Niagara-on-the-lake. This is very common at almost every restaurant here. Niagara-on-the-lake is a community that supports local farmers and has been doing this since before it became popular.
As the seasons change, so does life in Canada’s biggest wine country. In the spring and summer months, you’ll notice more culture in this town. That’s because the tourists start to flock here and so do the vineyard workers from Jamaica, Mexico and Vietnam. They are contracted workers by the wineries that hire them to come from Spring to Autumn to work in the vineyards. I was told that wineries hire international workers because they can’t seem to find anyone locally who wants to work there.
As Autumn comes, so does the crisp air, the trees start changing colour, and their leaves fall, covering the streets with a blanket of colour. This is the harvesting season for the wineries.
Harvesting of the grapes happens from October to November, you will see the grape vines bare and ready for the winter and you will notice fewer workers because they go back home after November.
You may be surprised to see some vines have grapes that stay on through the winter and only get harvested in January or February when it’s -7 degrees celsius. These will be used to make some of the best Icewine in the world you’ve ever had. The world’s best and biggest supply comes from this region but Germany is another country that also makes Icewine.
The relationship here is very interesting because Niagara-on-the-lake was founded by German Mennonites, however, I was surprised to learn that they do grow wine and some may drink as well in moderation. As you sample a glass of Icewine, you will notice how sweet it is. It is considered a dessert wine but the name Icewine comes from the fact that the grapes are frozen when they are harvested, and the sweetness is an all-natural concentration of sugar from the freezing of the grape.
As you wake up to the first snowfall and see the streets, homes and grape vines covered in a white blanket, you can’t help but look out in awe of the beauty here. That strong sense of peace and tranquillity never seems to dissipate. Taking a walk out to enjoy this gorgeous weather or having your coffee outside as you’re bundled up are a few ways you can enjoy this day.
As you take a walk out in one of the many parks in Niagara-on-the-lake, you will see animal tracks everywhere that definitely do not belong to a dog. As you look up you will see a family of deer hopping and jumping out in the distance. There are different birds you will see in the summer or winter, wild hares, and deer who are here all year round.
As the sun sets on this gorgeous snowy winter day and lights up the sky in pink and purple pastel colours, and the night starts to fall, certain parts of this town are just waking up. Around 11 pm the stores will be closed and the people will be enjoying time with their family at home or sleeping but you might start to hear what seems to be outside the door or in the backyard, loud howling and cackling sounds.
Niagara-on-the-lake is known to be filled with coyotes. This area is a haven for them and they roam through the vineyards or parks at night hunting for food. The echo carries the sound and sometimes you may think they are behind you but it’s possible if there is a large wooded area.
The howling you hear may send chills down your spine because it’s not just one or two but six or eight in a pack. They aren’t afraid to walk down the middle of the street at night. It was 1 am when we saw him. Standing in the middle of a residential road, lit up by the street lamps. He ran fast as a car drove by and at the moment we knew we wouldn’t be able to outrun him if he was chasing us.
The little cozy, beautiful, historic Niagara-on-the-lake, no matter the season, is always thriving and is full of culture, life and activities that differ based on the season. Each season brings on a new adventure but the peace, calmness and tranquillity that makes this town a wonderful place to visit or call home, never changes.