© David Elkins
Flowers and other joys
Niagara-on-the-Lake makes a specialty of summer’s delights
Niagara-on-the-Lake thrives on theatre, wine and golf. A stroll down Queen Street ogling all the other visitors is also high on the list. And that goes double if you’re scooping the best gelato in Ontario out of a dainty cup with an artful little spoon.
The Shaw Festival’s three stages offer playgoers unmatched entertainment; upwards of 75 wineries in the region offer tours and tastings of white wines and ice wines to rival those anywhere; and the gorgeous golf course along the lake proclaims itself to be “the ninth best small course in the world outside the US.” It is a good course and offers clear proof that we are not a boastful people.
The setting for all these activities is close to perfect. Located where the Niagara River joins Lake Ontario, the area enjoys a much ballyhooed mini-climate famous for nurturing things that grow. In spring cherry, peach and apple orchards burst into bloom along side the rapacious vineyards. Flowers flourish everywhere.
Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) owes its good vibes entirely to spring and summer. Autumn is tolerable as long as you wear your woolies — the Shaw runs through October — but after Labour Day the bloom is off the gardens as they begin their descent into December. Winter can be brutal, as the last couple years have proven. Great banks of ice as high as garden sheds pile up along the shore, the hundreds of sailboats that adventure on the blue water in July and August doze in their dry docks. All that grows in the earth lies swathed in duvets of snow.
But this is June and the flowers are in their full glory. The first shoots appear in May and, after their long sleep, the race is on. Purple and white crocuses waft their spring perfume across lawns and along sidewalks only to be replaced in a twinkling by fragrant hyacinths and daffodils. Daffodils are a specialty of the region, worthy of Wordsworth’s famous poem:
“I wandered lonely as a cloud That floats on high o’ver vales and hills, When all at once I saw a crowd, A host, of golden daffodils; Beside the lake, beneath the trees, Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”
A single garden on Prideau Street hosts 10,000 of the beauties. Tens of thousands more grace lawns and open spaces, and along the Niagara Parkway, which runs south above the river, 27 kilometres to Niagara Falls. Sir Winston Churchill called it "the prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world." He likely made the trip in late May or early June when the 1200 trees and 200 varieties of lilac bloomed in the Centennial Garden.
After the daffodils it’s the tulips’ turn. They appear almost overnight in many beds on Queen Street, most notably the long one in front of the iconic Clock Tower. Soon they’re waving their outrageously coloured heads above skinny green stems. It’s in the residential streets, though, that the show really takes off. Pinks, whites, blues, oranges and a hundred shades of purple from violet to almost black reveal themselves in pots and window boxes. Private gardens flash their colours against a hundred white picket fences to the delight of passersby.
A natural high
Something even more exciting is happening in the trees. Clouds of magnolia blossoms are springing out of leafless branches, a spectacular display has materialized down every road and lane.
In Simcoe Park, opposite the Prince of Wales Hotel, by mid-May the magnolias’ gently falling petals have blanketed the ground in pale pinks and whites, and the crab apples are beginning to flower in a show of delicate snow white. You see them everywhere on front lawns and backyards and along medians.
And now there’s another wondrous spectacle unfolding. The cherry trees are dense with ravishing blossoms. So tightly do they grow, they could be pink clouds that have fallen to earth and are intent on breaking free and rising into the sky once more. They tower over cottages and call to picnickers in Queen’s Royal Park along the lake. Blankets are spread, food baskets opened, and icy bottles of Chardonnay and Riesling from wineries a short bike ride away uncorked. The air has turned warm and down on the shore brave kids wade in still cold water and practice skipping stones. On the edge of town orchards of colour-drenched peach trees preen among the still barren rows of vines that stretch off as far as you can see, broken here and there by gleaming stands of paper-white pear and plum trees.
Back in town, the gardens and terraces are putting on their June best. Outside small boutiques, huge pots of summery blooms welcome shoppers to come in and browse. The gardens and lawns around painter Trisha Romance’s big pink Victorian house, just off the main street on the way to the lake, are festooned with flowers. Even the horses waiting patiently with their buggies outside the hotel across the street are wearing flowers in their hair.
Summer is truly here. Choose someone you love and take a quiet ride at dusk along streets that many other than Churchill call “the prettiest in Canada.” Or rent a bike, see a play and visit the wineries, shoot a round or two of golf, or simply walk Queen Street, up one side and back down on the other, window shopping and eating ice cream. You can’t go wrong.
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