There is more to Southern Ontario than Toronto and Niagara Falls:a string of towns with beautifully preserved Victorian Main Streets, lovely waterfront areas, interesting cultural events, pioneer history, farmers’ markets and old-world charm.
These towns are easily accessible by car or by GO Transit or VIA Rail trains from Toronto.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is a charming Victorian town less than two hours’ drive south from Toronto and 25 kilometres from Niagara Falls. Its history goes back to the 1780s but the present buildings were built after the small town was razed to the ground by the Americans during the 1812 War. It is set slap-bang in the middle of Ontario’s wine country, which makes for a very enjoyable drive (if somewhat lengthened by frequent detours to taste the local nectar, icewine, a sweet wine produced from grapes that have been frozen while still on the vine. The most popular kind of grape for icewine is Vidal. The colder it is drunk, the better.) A leisurely stroll along Queen St. and King St. is highly recommended, especially in spring and summer. The flower-lined streets are filled with quaint shops, ice cream stores and interesting buildings. Niagara-on-the-Lake is also famous for its annual Shaw Festival Theatre in the summer.
Stratford was established on 1859 and, just like its English counterpart, lies on the shores of the river Avon, swans and all. The town is famous for its summer theater festival, which attracts internationally renowned stage names. The downtown streets are lined with splendid Victorian buildings which are beautifully preserved; it all looks terribly English. The best time of the year to visit Stratford is the autumn: the trees along the waterfront take on lovely russet, golden, red and ochre hues, and the Amish farmers open the doors of their homes to visitors every Saturday in October. I suggest you plan your visit in advance. We didn’t, and got there too late on the last Saturday of October to visit any Amish home.
St. Jacobs village lies in the heart of Mennonite country and is surrounded by fruitful farmland. Unlike the other towns, there is nothing Victorian about it. The country style wooden buildings along King St. (OK, maybe street names are a throwback to Victorian times) house a variety of shops ranging from boutiques to broom-makers’. A disused mill was converted to a shopping mall of sorts. If you’re in the mood for shopping, the local specialties are maple syrup (it even has its own museum) and quilts. Look out for the murals depicting the Mennonite way of life. If you go for a drive in the country, though, you can see it for yourself.
Guelph is located in the Kitchener-Waterloo area about 100 kilometres west of Toronto. Its downtown core is probably less quaint than Stratford or Niagara-on-the-Lake but is not without appeal. The Church of Our Lady Immaculate is a National Historic Site that towers over the town. Old Quebec Street Shoppes is a nice surprise; this boutique shopping mall has beautiful facades crafted with local granite in Victorian (aha!) times. If you ever wondered how the poppy came to be associated with war veterans and worn on Remembrance Day, Guelph has the answer. It is the birthplace of Lt. Cl. John McCrae, who wrote the war memorial poem In Flanders Fields: “In Flanders fields, the poppies blow, between the crosses row on row…” His home is now a museum and there’s a sobering memorial next door. There is a handful of parks along the River Speed where you can rent a canoe and paddle to your heart’s content or just sit on a bench under the trees and spend a relaxing hour or two.