I must have been absent from school the day we learned about the War of 1812. Growing up, history was my favorite subject, but as I sat in an office interviewing Paul Dyster, the mayor of Niagara Falls, New York, who mentioned upcoming events to commemorate the bicentennial of the conflict, I couldn’t for the life of me recall who won the war (it was a stalemate) or even why it was fought. (Unresolved trade issues, the impressment of U.S. sailors into the British Navy and British efforts to halt America’s westward expansion.)
I grew up about 20 minutes away from Niagara Falls, and my father and grandfather lived and worked in the city for many years. Growing up, we visited the Falls often, usually when friends or relatives from out of town came to visit, but occasionally just to get out of the house.
But despite the fact that I’ve been to the Falls probably more than 100 times, I’ve never thought to ride a bike near this iconic natural wonder until I saw some cyclists on an organized bike tour in Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) Ontario, a distinctive, historic town 18 miles north of the Falls, last summer.They were on a wine tasting tour that brought them to several area vineyards mostly via the Niagara River Recreation Trail (NRRT) a 35-mile trail that hugs the river, starting in Fort Erie, just across the border from Buffalo, to Fort George, a key battleground in the War of 1812 located on the edge of NOTL’s historic district. I read up on the NRRT and decided that I could learn a thing or two about the war, have a bit of wine and get some exercise, all on one bike ride.
My wife and I set out from the Canadian side of Niagara Falls on our ad-hoc NRRT tour on a warm, almost perfect Tuesday morning in July. We ditched our car at the parking lot in front of the visitor’s information office, where you can leave your car all day for just $5, and went inside to ask for a NRRT trail map.
A young man manning the information desk had no map and was surprisingly unfamiliar with the trail.
“Where does it start?” he asked, handing us a free map of Niagara Falls.
“We were hoping you would know,” I said.
He conferred with some similarly uninformed colleagues and they concluded that we should probably just ride down to the Falls and turn left to head towards NOTL. But as we flew down Clifton Hill, the Canadian side’s tacky street of video game parlors, tourist traps and motels, and saw the mist rising from the Falls, we decided to head right towards the Horseshoe Falls.
It was about 10.30 a.m. and there were plenty of tourists ambling about, snapping photos and queuing up for the Maid of the Mist boat trip, but it wasn’t crowded yet, so we were able to ride right past the tourists gaping at the American and Bridal Veil Falls, all the way down the Horseshoe Falls, where we got a delightful little cool down from the mist.
I’ve always loved Niagara Falls, but being able to glide by all the tourists and see the Falls at about 10 mph was a new thrill. Why had I never done this before?
As we headed north, away from the Falls, we passed the impressive seven-story Cham Sam Buddhist Temple, which sits incongruously amidst a string of cheap motels and shops catering to tourists, before the trail became a distinct bike path just beyond a Super 8 motel. On a gradual uphill section of the trail just outside the Falls, my wife tried to shift gears too abruptly and jolted her chain right off the bike.
I feared that our outing would be a bust, but she had it back on in ten minutes. With a lane of our own to work with, we picked up speed, cruising by the Whirlpool Aero cable cars, a pretty golf course, and the strangely appealing Sir Adam Beck II Hydroelectric Generating Station, which offers 40-minute tours for $9.95.
The U.S. and Canada share the longest peaceful border in the world, but two hundred years ago, many of the major battles of the War of 1812 played out in the Niagara Region. Shortly after cruising by the generating station, we stopped for a climb up Brock’s Monument, in lovely Queenston Heights Park, which offers a terrific view of the surrounding region, including the Falls.
Sir Isaac Brock was a British army officer who became a Canadian hero after being shot in the chest while leading British and Canadian forces into battle at the Battle of Queenston Heights on October 13, 1812. Only three decades removed from the Revolutionary War, Ontario had a large population of Loyalists who left the U.S. after siding with the British during the war, and Brock came to symbolize Canadian independence.
The first monument was bombed by an anti-British activist in 1840 but was quickly rebuilt. On October 12, last year, hundreds of reenactors marched on Fort George and recreated the momentous battle where Brock was killed.
Rejoining the trail, we hit its most exhilarating downhill slide right after the Brock Monument, and as I went flying down the shady path, I had a strange sense of déjà vu. I realized I’d cycled down this section of the path before, as a child, but I couldn’t conjure the exact circumstance.
After leaving the park area, the trail jogs past the Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum in Queenston, a well-preserved village that was founded in the 1780s and retains the loyalist leanings of its early inhabitants. Queenston Street is filled with historic homes, and many were flying flags to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Pretentious to be sure, but perhaps not surprising since the town was badly damaged by American troops in the War of 1812.
We made a brief stop to check out the home of Laura Secord, who is Canada’s Paul Revere. In June 1813, Secord became aware of American plans to stage a sneak attack on British/Canadian forces, and walked 20 miles to inform the British, leading to their victory in the Battle of Beaver Dams.
Just outside Queenston, we started to pass enticing fruit stands, selling fresh cherries, peaches, apricots, blueberries and plums. And further up the path, a string of wineries dotted the Niagara Parkway – we passed Ice House, Riverview, and Inniskillin before stopping at the Reif Estate Winery, one of my favorite family owned wineries in NOTL.
When I was growing up on the other side of the border in the ’70s and ’80s, there were just a smattering of wineries on the Niagara Frontier but our regular visits to the Canadian side of the border always felt like excursions to another world. The wineries, the tidy, green parks, the Victorian mansions along the Niagara Parkway and the cutesy town of NOTL presented a classy juxtaposition from the dull suburb of Buffalo I grew up in.
Today, there are more than 70 wineries in the region, many of them specializing in decadently sweet ice wine, and NOTL is a major tourist attraction. Major corporations, like Vincor International, own some of the most popular wineries but I’ve always preferred the family run places like Reif, Pillitteri Estates and Konzelmann.
We tried three ice wines at Reif for $5, one more sinfully sugary than the next. Our bartender told me that my favorite – the Vidal ice wine was a 22 on the sugar scale.
“It’s got hints of pineapple, honey, pear and apricot,” he said.
My palate is never sophisticated enough to catch all the flavors it’s supposed to and I half think the barkeep was just making things up as he went along, but I had to admit – it was damn good.
Our appetites whetted, we made a detour from the trail, heading west on a road lined with vineyards simply called Line 1 to have lunch at the Pie Plate, a bakery and restaurant on Niagara Stone Road. Downtown NOTL is filled with cute little restaurants, but many of them are tourist traps. The Pie Plate is where the locals go for good local beer, wine, baked goods, pizza and sandwiches.
On this afternoon, two cute blondes, Josceyln and Alicia, were waiting tables and my wife got them confused.
“Everyone gets us confused,” Alicia said. “We used to live together and we even dated the same guy.”
I wondered who the lucky guy was but contented myself with a Steam Whistle Pale Ale and a wood fire pizza that I made short work of before heading east on Niagara Stone Road towards NOTL with a stop at Pillitteri Estates for more ice wine.
I’ve never been a fan of Queen Street, NOTL’s main drag. It’s filled with overpriced shops and restaurants hawking useless trinkets and mediocre food, and there are usually way too many tourists clogging the sidewalks, especially on weekends. But riding up and down NOTL’s quiet side streets is a joy.
We parked our bikes at Queens Royal Park, a beautiful little green space with views of Toronto in the distance, located where the Niagara River empties into Lake Ontario, and spent a few minutes digesting a plaque that lists all the people who have swum across the lake.
Sixteen-year-old Marilyn Bell became a Canadian national hero in 1954 when she became the first person to make the crossing, completing the 51-kilometer swim in just under 21 hours. Two years later, a 36 year-old-man accomplished the feat but took 18 minutes longer than Bell. Over the years, strong swimmers from all over the world have shaved time off of Bell’s mark and the plaque still has space for those who are fit and crazy enough to attempt the crossing.
The trail ends at Fort George, a key fort controlled by the British during the War of 1812, and rather than retrace our route back to Niagara Falls, we paid $10 to take a shuttle back to our car. In taking a cab back to Niagara Falls, I felt like we cheated a bit and resolved to return to the area to cycle the first half of the trail, from Fort Erie to Niagara Falls.
Nick, our driver, had no interest in ice wines or the War of 1812 but was plenty annoyed that our bikes were taking up space in his minivan.
“You really should pay double price,” he said, as we pretended not to hear him.