Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Fantastic Shaw-Fest


Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband
Image by Steve Rhodes via Flickr
Fall in Ontario and indeed many of the eastern seaboard states is for a colour-fiend like myself 6 weeks of glorious eye-candy, and the absolute best time to visit the gentle escarpment countryside of Niagara wine country and the picture-postcard perfect Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Depicted (by someone somewhere) as the prettiest town in Canada, I have to confess to being (initially) a tadge “underwhelmed” by the place. After 5 years in Canada and several visits to the area I am now a ‘convert”. I can’t get enough of it. I take all my guests  around as many of the 40 or so vineyards and for a stroll around all the cutesy boutiques and specialist shops in Niagara-on- the-Lake -itself. The town is “old”  by North American standards and steeped in “American Civil war history.  
Potted history:
It was settled at the close of the American Revolution by Loyalists coming to Upper Canada. You can still visit Fort George – on the outskirts of Niagara-on- the-Lake –  “which served as the headquarters for the Centre Division of the British Army. These forces included British regulars, local militia, aboriginal warriors, and Runchey’s corps of freed slaves. The  Fort  was destroyed by American artillery fire and captured during the Battle of Fort George in May 1813. The U.S. forces used the fort as a base to invade the rest of Upper Canada were repulsed at the Battles of Stoney Creek and Beaver Dams. After a seven month occupation, the fort was retaken in December and remained in British hands for the remainder of the war. After the war, the fort was partially rebuilt, but by the 1820’s it was falling into ruins. It was finally abandoned in favour of a more strategic installation at Fort Mississauga and a more protected one at Butler’s Barracks. During the 1930’s, the original plans of the Royal Engineers guided the reconstruction of Fort George as a National Historic Site”.
As for the actual town, it’s streets are lined with heritage houses, and buzzes with visitors all year-long because of its proximity to Niagara Falls;  the US border (and shopping in Buffalo), and the magnificent and many vineyards along the Niagara Escarpment.
Vineyards in Southern Ontario???
 The unusual climate of the Niagara Escarpment is the reason there so many world-class wineries densely packed into this one area. It is caused by something called the “Lake Effect”. So,  cyclical process this one: during the winter, vineyards are fanned by the Lake’s summer-warmed offshore breezes which are then bounced back to the Lake when they reach the escarpment which means the vineyards benefit from a constant and active airflow; The circulating air therefore prevents cold air from settling in lower lying areas as frost. In the spring, these same off-shore breezes bring cooler air circulating in the wine areas, which in turn delays the development of the fruit buds until the threat of late spring frosts has passed. In the summer, the air from the Lake is still comparatively cool so the grapes don’t ripen too quickly and the growing season is extended due to the warm, Lakeshore breezes which hold off the first frosts of autumn
 This unique climate system spawns two wine harvests in this area:  the first around mid-August for French hybrids such as Baco Noir, and mid-September through October for varietals such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and Cabernet Franc.
Late harvesting also occurs in mid November, with the fantastic and unique Icewine harvests occurring between mid-December and the beginning of January, depending on the weather. Best Icewine ever – Inniskillen Cabernet Franc  (award winning) – Tastes like Christmas in a wine glass
More about the Niagara wineries in a later post following a planned  “Taste of the Seasons” Touring weekend mid November – for more info, contact  Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce; (905) 468-1950;
For Brit expats or anglophiles, check out the British Shop – amazing how time, distance and non-accessibility can wildly exaggerate the allure of what were every day British supermarket products. The shop was jam-packed with seemingly normal people drooling over Fruit Pastilles in a box; Hula hoops, Monster munch;raspberry ruffle bars; MacVities dark chocolate biscuits and of course love it or hate it, Marmite. And they had strawberry, lemon and toffee bonbons. A quick aside about the hazards of these delicious chewy flavoured toffee coated in various flavoured powders. I adored – in particuar –  toffee bonbons but since  experiencing a “near-death” experience in a cinema a few years ago whilst stuffing my face with these. I never touch em these days. I was cramming these into my mouth – two at a time and doing the usual incisoring/sucking off the powder before I chewed them – NICE eh!, when I must have sniffed and ended up “inhaling”  the powder. Oh God, I literally ran down the aisle retching/gasping for breath, like  a drowning person coming up for air. I think I did it a couple of  times driving too;  again cramming  lemon bonbons like a woman possessed. However one of the great pieces of advice given to me by my Mother  was “Don’t panic (ha ha); breathe in through your nose and push the breath out through your mouth”.
Now I don’t know that the Red Cross Society would necessarily support these actions, but with me (cos I’m a drama queen), this is probably more about calming down and relaxing than clearing any blockages!! 
So back to Niagara-on-The-Lake , we stayed again at the “Oban Inn  and Spa” – Jesus, this will set you back a bit especially if like me – Stoopid – you let them arrange the theatre for you as part of a package. We stayed there with friends four years ago and it was amazing then with a wonderful and unexpectedly “arty” breakfast. We didn’t use the Spa facilities but liked the spa ambience of the place – wall to wall scented oil smell, the ubiquitos whale and bird-song “musak” and the incessant badder-teasing sound of water fountains. The bedroom was as luxurious as I remembered but the breakfast I’d been looking forward to so much sucked. To say it was a “Best Western/Comfort Hotel style d.i.y affair – a very poor continental buffet with the only protein being a bowl full of rather sad looking boiled eggs – would be an insult to these hotel chains!
Next time we are staying at a bed and breakfast at a third of the cost. 
If you are “into” British style pubs, “The Olde Angel Inn”  –  is  the business; every imaginable ale  served including to my husband’s delight “old speckled hen”; live music, and a wonderful old world charm, with the ceiling beams; slightly scruffy “pub furniture’ and spackled ceiling effect I felt like I was at home in the UK.
And finally, Shawfest itself:
This festival was started in 1962: QUOTE ” by Niagara-area lawyer and playwright Brian Doherty. During the summer, Mr Doherty organized eight weekend performances of Don Juan in Hell and Candida by Bernard Shaw under the title “Salute to Shaw“. For this event, the Assembly Room in the historic Court House on Queen Street was converted into a small theatre”
It has evolved over the years as a non-profit organization producing and show-casing the work of George Bernard Shaw (1856 – 1950) and his contemporary playwrights. Hence us choosing “An Ideal Husband” by Oscar Wilde.
I didn’t realise that Oscar Wilde had been SO persecuted for his homosexuality and that he had died (age 46) of cerebral meningitis in 1900 penniless and in a cheap Paris hotel.  Accused of homosexuality in 1895 he was arrested and tried for gross indecency. He was sentenced to two years hard labor for the crime of sodomy.  Upon his release in 1897, he wrote “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, revealing his concern for inhumane prison conditions. He spent the rest of his life wandering Europe, staying with friends and living in cheap hotels.  WOW!
The play itself which has twice been made into a film. First in 1947, starring Paulette Goddard and Michael Wilding, and then in 1999 – starring Rupert Everett, Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Minnie Driver.
Absolutely faultless; Timeless, clever and witty!
Over and Out
Terracotta Warriors hit the ROM
Food and Wine Pairing Niagara-on-the-Lake
The PATH to New York

One thought on “Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Fantastic Shaw-Fest

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