how to see wine country in two and half days (with wine being only a smallish — though pleasant — part of things)


Avoid traffic. Leave early. Eat your banana breakfast in the car.

Somewhere in the countryside near Beamsville realize you’ve forgotten your notebook so stop at a back-roads Dollar Store and find a gorgeous red spiral bound one with creamy lined pages.

Let the holidaying begin.

Quick stop at a winery you heard makes a raw and organic beverage without sulphur. Anticipate a pleasant conversation. Be disappointed. Your host is a cranky soul who should a) have stayed in bed, or b) better yet, avoid work that involves speaking to people, or maybe c) have some sulphur.

Go directly to lunch on a shaded patio with a view that is so lovely you forget to take a picture. Also the fries are excellent.

Find a sleeveless polka dot blouse for $2 at a thrift shop.

Head to second winery (also no sulphur) where conversation (with owner/winemaker) is top notch and much is learned and wine samples are offered (siphoned) directly from fermenting barrels, a rare treat.

Make annual pilgrimage to house you grew up in. Marvel how stone planter your dad made two thousand years ago is still there, as are the chicks and hens he planted (consider calling Guinness… or is it normal for chicks and hens to live this long? Surely they owe their life to neglect). See Minerva (new owner) sitting on shady porch. Wander in to say hey ho and end up spending the better part of half an hour realizing she is as sweet as ever but losing her faculties and it won’t be long before she can’t manage the place and whoever buys it won’t be so welcoming and so perfectly and wonderfully eccentric. Chat away the time and ask to see the wildly overgrown backyard (because she has done almost no yard work since moving in a dozen years ago)  which still has the shrubs, trees, rocks and shells that your mum and dad put there, and see how the patio and carport your dad made is crumbling and a field of weeds blocks what was once a path along the blackberry bushes… but Minerva’s eyes are bright with love for the place. Isn’t it beautiful, she says, and it is, yes, it’s absolutely beautiful in the most bittersweet way. Ask to take pictures and she will say yes, dear, take all the pictures you want.

Share hotel pool with Serious Swimmer doing laps. Better than Marco Polo.
Walk along shoreline.

Discover remnants of old fort and be reminded of the people who used to live on this land (before forts). Do some research. Find out their names. Be reminded there wasn’t always a pedal pub pedaling by on the street at dusk with merry/raucous passengers singing Sweet Caroline. (Although, really, how raucous can anyone be while singing Sweet Caroline? )

Day Two:

Be happy that you are alone for morning swim. Until you aren’t. Until Serious Swimmer arrives, turning bliss into a wave pool. Pretend you are in the ocean.

Take three things to patio:  red notebook, breakfast date ball, peppermint tea.

Drive along Welland Canal as far as Thorold. Be surprised at how pretty the streets of Thorold are and how really extraordinary is this canal that connects Lake Ontario with the higher elevation of Lake Erie, a canal you grew up around, played Tom Sawyer on, but have never driven the entire length of (eight Locks) nor have ever seen the ‘steps’ of Locks 4, 5, and 6, which allow freighters to climb over the escarpment. Watch two freighters pass in opposite directions. One, coming into the Great Lakes from the St. Lawrence Seaway and/or Atlantic Ocean, and the other, ocean bound. Watch a couple of sailors embark on ocean bound one. Chat with young family from Woodstock who share your awe. Wilt a little in the heat.

Continue to end of canal (Lock 8) at Port Colbourne where you see sand piles like those you remember from Lock 1 where, as a kid you used to climb them until someone realized they posed a danger of air pockets into which you or your friends could easily fall and suffocate and so they were removed. Probably coincident with the end of the unsupervised lawn darts era.

Stop at the most unlikely place to buy books (near Fort Erie). Buy several. Many of which will be donated to the library at a women’s shelter.

Find yourself on a heaven-sent patio overlooking Lake Erie eating freshly caught pickerel for lunch. (Heaven-sent because it’s the real deal, nothing fancy, great music, and on this scorching day it’s shaded, with an unexpected cool breeze off the lake that you learn is common, even constant, on this shore. A slice of old Crystal Beach.)

Stop at one more winery. Be grateful it’s air-conditioned, has a four-legged host (Simba), and an owner who talks you through the tasting while explaining the wine history of Turkey, from whence she and her partner came twelve years ago with zip wine knowledge.

Remind yourself that your parents, too, came to this country with their own variation of zip (and so many others!) and how proud they were to be all things Canadian, just like Simba’s mum and dad. Raise a glass to that.

Remind yourself of the people who lived here first. (Not as sweet a story.)

Another swim, another dinner, another walk, more tea on the patio.

Morning of last day.  Another book store and then farmers’ market where the bat mobile is picking up some new potatoes.

Be unaware of gallery hours and arrive a half hour before it opens. Be happy to have this time to sit in the shade of a park-like garden with a view of backyards and bridges and remember growing up in this town.

Inside gallery find Carolyn Wren’s exhibition celebrating “meditation in the repetitive tasks of life”, featuring installations such as the entire text of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own hand-embroidered on canvas, a video showing Wren hauling a sack of 50 one pound rocks up and down a hill, depositing a single rock each time she reaches the top (to a voice-over of Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus). Dresses representing maps made for pilots during the war, made out of Dupont silk because they were light and durable, and which women used after the war… to make dresses. And more. So much more.

Take country roads to find a view for lunch.

Find (another) thrift shop en route and buy two pairs of jeans for a dollar each. Be told they’re on sale because who wears jeans in summer?? 

Who indeed.

Don’t attempt an answer.
Just embrace your one dollar summer jeans… and run.

More Niagara.





diner love


Impossible to read Edward Keenan’s piece about the slow demise of family run diners (Toronto Star, Jan.26/19) without being overwhelmed by the urge to visit my own favourite local, aka: Whitby Diner, where the first time we ate there the chef came out onto the made-with-love scruffy little patio chock full of giant tomatoes growing in white plastic industrial sized buckets (originally home to feta cheese) and told us how he left Greece as a youngster and lived for a time in Newfoundland then moved to Toronto and, finally, Whitby where he spent many years making doughnuts at a number of local establishments but was happy to get out of that racket. He tells us with pride about the cucumbers he grows on his land just outside of town (his wife, apparently, is an amazing pickler and the pickles are for sale).

And so we head over on this snowy Saturday morning and while tucking into the best white toast (toast is an art), sausage and over not-entirely-easy/not-entirely-medium eggs (the chef at Whitby Diner really gets me)… I revel in the memory of a few historical faves.

Diana Sweets on St. Paul Street in St. Catharines where Howard Engel’s Benny Cooperman eats an egg salad sandwich (because Howard Engel is from St. Catharines and the Benny Cooperman series’ town of Grantham is actually based on St. Catharines) and where my older sister worked and where I loved hanging around because she was like a rock star in those white don’t-make-no-noise  shoes and aproned uniform and how — my god this was big! — she could go right into the back room and USE THE GESTETNER MACHINE to print out daily specials. I wasn’t allowed back there but just waiting for her to emerge with a handful of freshly minted menus was bliss. The glorious smell of the ink! I swear I’m still slightly high from that stuff.

And the stories.  Every day she’d come home and tell something. About staff, about customers like the Hells Angels or the elderly couple who wandered in and studied all the wooden booths trying to find the one they’d carved their names on when they were courting. They found it. (Carving names in the booths was apparently never discouraged, which was just one more groovy thing about ‘The Di’ that made me want to work there one day.) (I never did. Went straight into delis instead and from there I lucked out and got a receptionist gig in a denture clinic, which is when my career really took off.)

The diner across the Homer Bridge where my sister also worked (before the illustrious DS) and where buses didn’t run so my dad had to drive her and pick her up, during which transport I tagged along so that I could wait for her on a twirling counter stool and ask diner related questions like why are there so many flies on the windows? and where sometimes somebody gave me a slice of pie to shut me up.

The place in the old Towers plaza next to the Bank of Montreal where I would drop quarters into the jukebox and listen to John Lennon’s Imagine over and over and over while eating plates of fries with vinegar.

PJ’s in Whitby where the tables used to have built in PacMan games instead of place mats. Now they are just tables… *sniff* (but hands down still the best staff and the best place within walking distance for a cup of tea and/or brekkie and/or lunch and to soak up some beautiful unchanged over the years small town vibe).

Teddy’s in Oshawa. THERE IS NO BETTER PLACE FOR GRILLED CHEESE AND FRIES. None. (And none of yer fancy cheeses either… I’m talking process slices on Wonder bread. Once in a while, and done right, it is heaven.) (Technically more a family restaurant but I’m including it because it’s an ancient fixture on the landscape. And because of grilled cheese.)

A mere quick handful as I’m feeling peckish…


(All of which to say…. please, please, support your local diners! They are so much fun, essential to community and almost always run by interesting people, and because it is so very heart-warming to hear a waiter say “Hello, Betty/Jim/Stanislaus/Georgina… the usual? And how’s your mum doing…?”)

And this is a world in need of heart-warming.


All pics taken at Whitby Diner (where the jam is amazing). And for sale.

Thanks to Edward Keenan for loving diners and to the Toronto Star for the wonderfulness it publishes.
Support newspapers!


(Also… what have I missed?? Current favourites and all diner love memories welcome.)





how to spend three days in niagara

Oh Niagara. How I do love thee. Let me count the bottles of wine and bushels of fruit.

—If you can, begin your Niagara love-in on a Thursday. Less traffic but close enough to the weekend to feel celebratory.

Begin with lunch en route, in Ancaster, at the Mill. Don’t worry if it’s raining, the room is all windows and made for watching rain fall while you eat. Have the pickerel and chips and Soiled Reputation salad greens with shaved black radish, carrot, fennel and Dijon dressing. Just have it. Order a glass of Tawes Echo chardonnay. And don’t forget the rain.

On the way to Hamilton—where you will spend a few happy hours strolling through the Art Gallery—stop at a roadside nursery and buy seeds: arugula, mesclun, radishes, beets, carrots, chicory. And one asparagus plant for the cats to eat until the goldenrod in the garden is big enough to pick for them. [Cat grass just sticks in their throat and makes them gag.]

If you’ve missed the William Kurelek exhibit poor you.

Later, stop at Bryan Prince Books. Listen as the amazing and cheerful staff chat with customers by phone, in person, with each other, with the elderly man who toddles in, a paperback in his hand, and says it turns out he already read this book, can he return it and choose something else, and the amazing and cheerful staff say of course you can, Henry, and within two minutes Henry has chosen a hardcover, the title of which I can’t see, and happily pays the difference, and then toddles back outside, smiling, all flat cap and walking stick.

Consider stopping  for something just because a place looks like fun and you can see cupcakes through the window not to mention that you’re anxious to read what you bought at Bryan Prince. But, really, you have to admit you’re still full from the pickerel. Press on instead.

Take a picture of a fountain made for both mid-range and ground level thirsts, and smile at the woman who shakes her head as she passes and tells you that’s a silly thing to take a picture of…

Drive to your hotel in Niagara-on-the-Lake, which is one of your favourite places in all of the world and is privately owned and run by family that seems to enjoy what they do—and it shows. Go off season for good rates and fewer tourists. No one likes tourists… blech blech. You of course are not one.

Change and go for a swim.


Have a late dinner in the sports bar. Have a sublime thin crust pizza. Or quinoa salad.

And then… at last… climb into a most comfy bed and read that book you bought at Bryan Prince.

In the morning, swim. You will have the pool to yourself if you go at the right time. I’d like to tell you precisely what that time is, but I don’t know. Try to work it so you’re done your swim just before the aerobics class comes in, although, according to one of the women, you’re welcome to join them.

Have breakfast at Liv. Complimentary smoothies start things off. Might even be chocolate banana…

Have the eggs benny.

Begin the wine tour with Niagara College Winery, a teaching facility as well as winery and where they’ve built a whole new beautiful building—one of the loveliest features being a wall of wines, a bottle from each of the wineries in the area.

Visit the College greenhouses where you would love to be a student, and buy a small pot of oregano and a large potted snake plant. One to eat with eggs, the other because it’s happy minding its own business in the shade and has no appeal for cats.

Visit Staff Winery and be met by Brix, the happy giant puppy. Buy some Toute Sweet chocolate to go with the Baco Noir.

Visit Tawse Winery because they are bio and love talking about life without pesticides. And so do you. Buy some Riesling.

Drive to Beamsville via the back roads and pull over to walk or stretch or breathe fresh air whenever the mood strikes. Do not be tempted by the chocolate in the back seat.

Stop for lunch at August Restaurant, where even though the last customers are leaving because it’s twenty to three and they close at three for a couple of hours, the staff says don’t be silly, come on in. And the music is wonderful and no one will rush you and the waitress—who is charming and pleasant in exactly the right way—will tell you she started off as a customer and she loved the food so much she begged them to let her work there for free. Or meals. Or something. I think she gets paid now. She is a gem. And she’s not kidding about the food.

Think to yourself: at this moment I am completely and utterly happy.

Say it out loud if you’re with someone.

Drive slowly back to the outskirts of NOTL, where your comfy bed awaits for a short nap.



Walk from your hotel through the gardens of Niagara College, to the College’s beautiful restaurant, Benchmarkwhere you will be surrounded by windows and wonderful views, culinary students eager to ply their newly learned skills, and food that has never failed to satisfy. Afterwards, you will be grateful you’re walking back to the hotel, but sorry it’s only less than ten minutes.

The final day [which may well be Saturday] wake and swim and have breakfast at Liv and walk through the grounds, then say your goodbyes to this delightful home away from home and promise to come back soon.

Discover a new winery. Make it a small one, off the beaten path–one that looks like nothing much from the outside, yet on the inside awaits a brilliant chat with owners and some excellent Riesling to add to your ever-growing Riesling cache.

Drive to St. Catharines and go directly to the Farmers’ Market. Buy arugula and blue iris, freshly caught trout, and whatever else demands to go home in your carrier bag. Then walk over to Hannelore’s Book Shop where, if you know the place well, you can navigate through the stacks and find just what you’re looking for. If you’re a newbie, give yourself time and enjoy the adventure. [Note: Hannelore has no website. She’s too cool for that. But anyone will be able to tell you where to find her.]

You could of course have lunch at the market or at any number of places downtown, but on this day you have a hankering for a lakeside table, so take yourself off to Port Dalhousie [where only the locals know how to pronounce it] and treat yourself to the joy at Treadwell, where the food is local and, I swear—it doesn’t matter what you have—out of this world delicious, where the staff is welcoming and smart and so happy to see you and you wonder if the house across the road might come up for sale so you can eat here every day.

Eat slowly. Sip your wine. Make this last. You won’t want to leave.

In fact what you’ll want to do is order the appetizer again for dessert. [And don’t think you haven’t done this before…]

If you’re so inclined, walk over to the beach, take a ride on the carousel if you dare. Be careful. Some of those critters move.

Eventually the QEW will beckon and it’ll be time to head home but not without first stopping at Foreign Affair to sample their unusual amarone wines and walk about the grounds of Vineland Research Centre, which used to be the Experimental Farm your parents took you to on Sundays when outings on Sundays meant suits and ties, hats, gloves, patent leather shoes and that horrible pink plaid pleated skirt that made climbing trees very difficult.

Have I mentioned it’s still raining?

Have I mentioned it matters not at all?
Greenhouse at Vineland Research Centre


More Travel:

Prince Edward Island