Thursday, September 17, 2009

Niagara - Partie Deux

We awoke on day two to overcast skies and mild temperatures but, no matter, we had breakfast in bed coming! This consisted of coffee, juice, croissants, granola, yogurt and ham and cheese roll ups. It comes with the room so you don’t have a selection but you do get to pick what time it’s delivered. I passed on the roll ups; I’m not a swiss fan. We enjoyed a lazy morning while getting ready and noshing and then, having decided half a small carafe of coffee was not caffeine enough, we walked down to our local Canadian Starbucks, a few short blocks away. Good thing we didn’t order ventis, yo. Those were more than $6.00! The pumpkin spice latte is just as good north of the border, btw.

Saying goodbye to the Sterling Inn at check out, we were on our way down the Niagara Parkway. If you’ve never been to Niagara on the Lake, you really must make it a point to visit. From the falls, it’s a short 15-20 minute idyllic drive. We stopped at the floral clock to take pictures and did the same at the Whirlpool Aerocar. We did not, however, risk our lives (and $20) to ride over the whirlpool. We’re no fools.

Having spent the first day/night by the falls for sight-seeing and casino-ing for John, the second part of our journey was for me. Though truth be told, John had just as much fun doing the following activities as well. If you’re not aware, we were right in the heart of Ontario’s wine country. There are probably about 30 wineries right by Niagara on the Lake, henceforth to be known as NOTL. My goal was to visit at least 4, but hoping for as many as possible. There are many bus, trolley and bike tours that will take you around but, considering a budget, we forged ahead alone. I knew of a few I definitely wanted to see and I had done massive amounts of research regarding tour/tasting times and costs. I was armed with many brochures and maps. We were set.

One of the first ones we came to was Marynissen Estates. Everything I read about this region recommended visiting a mix of the larger establishments and also the smaller wineries as well. You’ll have a very different experience at both. Marynissen would be considered one of the smaller ones. I don’t think they had tours so we just tasted. I had lofty goals of describing to you everything we tried and only now did I remember that I wanted to make notes and did not do anything like that while swilling the vino. I do remember we spent about 20 minutes tasting here, bought a bottle of Cabernet Merlot and headed down the road.

Remember those complimentary tour and tasting passes we scored from Andre? We put them to use next at Inniskillin, one of the big boys and my favorite of the entire trip. We decided to tour here and to our delight, there were only 2 other people on the tour with us! This allowed for much question asking and we were allowed to taste in their special Riedel (you know, the wine glasses?) Room as opposed to standing around the tasting gallery. Inniskillin’s set up is quite impressive. They bottle more than 100,000 bottles annually of all varieties of wine, their most popular being ice wine – a delicious dessert wine made from frozen grapes. The tour lasted about an hour and we got to taste a $110 bottle of Cabernet France ice wine as a trade off for not getting to tour the barrel cellar, which is under construction. Well worth it! Inniskillin has acres of beautiful vineyards. We even tasted a grape off the vine, much sweeter than I expected. We learned a lot (for instance, if you ever come across a 2007 Ontario wine, buy it! That was an optimal year for climate and everyone’s grapes did famously, you won’t be disappointed) and then tasted some more in the shop. Ultimately, we settled on a bottle of Pinot Noir Rose for us and a small bottle of Ice Wine for John’s parents to try. Ice wine carries a hefty price tag because the frozen grapes produce so little juice that it takes many more of them to fill just a 200 mL wine bottle. Oh yeah, because we’re special, we also got to try their special edition ice wine benefiting the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. I thought they were letting everyone try it but when some Asian lady asked about it, they denied her a taste. After her, we were given ours with no question. Coincidence? Oh well.

We kept on down the road to Joseph Estates winery. This is just a little boutique. I think their vineyards are elsewhere. We just tasted here and purchased a shiraz. After perusing their brochure, I think the man serving us was actually Joseph. A brush with grape celebrity!

By this time, we were famished and suffering from slight tipsy-ness. Well, I was. John was the driver so I hope he wasn’t. On the Niagara Parkway closer to NOTL you will find Kurtz Orchards. Do not pass this opportunity by! They have many dips and spreads and other goodies for you to taste. They also serve soup, sandwiches and salads to weary wine drinkers. We picnicked outside there (a trip goal of mine – I even packed a blanket, although we sat at a table). Nourished, we continued on to Peller Estates.

I had really fond memories of Peller having toured there a few years prior. John was with me on that trip but didn’t make it to the winery for reasons I will not divulge. OK, I will. He was hungover. I remembered a very informative tour and a beautiful building and grounds. I hit the location, dead on, it was still beautiful. We opted out of the tour because the timing wasn’t matching up right. We went to the tasting room and store instead and were met with a very abrupt, not super helpful or friendly, staff. This was disheartening. The highlight here was tasting their Baco Noir. I had never come across this before but the pourer, imparting the slightest bit of wisdom before disappearing with haste, said it tastes like barbecue in a bottle. We were intrigued. She was right! I’m going to search for a Baco Noir this weekend at my local wine shop. The problem with Ontario wines is that you can’t buy them online (only their ice wine). In the states, you have to try to get it through a distributor. I’m going to do my best though. We left without buying anything because they left a sour taste in our mouth, the people, not the wine. The wine was delish.

By this point, it was nearing 4:00 pm so we decided to go the extra couple minutes into town to check in. John had never been to NOTL before (see previous paragraph) so we drove down Queen St. (the main drag) to take in the sights. It’s the cutest little town with the most beautiful flowers and the street is lined with shops and restaurants. It’s also home, from April – October, to the Shaw Theatre Festival. It was our original intention to see a show while there but not interested in forking over $60 to see something we were only mildly interested in, we chose other means of evening entertainment. More on that later.

Consulting the map, we made our way to the bed and breakfast that was “walking distance” from the town center. Sure, you could walk it, if you didn’t mind no sidewalks and a mile plus. We were a little disappointed by its proximity to town and also semi-apprehensive at the idea of the B&B anyway. On our way I told John if we pulled up and it was shady, we’d just go back to the Sterling for the night. I hadn’t put any deposit down as payment was expected in cash (that part is a bit shady, eh?). A brick Georgian, two-story, the Almar House Bed and Breakfast is run by Chris and Sarah (last names promptly forgotten). Remember this is our first attempt at a B &B. As Chris showed us to our room I thought I was going to die from the daggers John was shooting at me. Small would be a generous description. See below for the bathroom.

We dropped our bags and laid down on the squeaky bed. Fabulous. Anyway, we just said we’d make the best of it and it would be a good story. Both of us were pretty tired so we rested a bit and then headed out to our last winery of the day to try and make their last tour.

Barrel Cellar at Jackson-Triggs

Jackson-Triggs is another one of the big guys. They have another establishment somewhere else in Canada that’s even bigger than their Ontario vineyards. FYI – most wineries only grow a portion of their grapes. The rest are purchased from grape growers throughout the country. I think this is cheating but whatev. Our tour at Jackson-Triggs was good (and free!) But our guide, Hugo, had a heavy Colombian accent and I found myself having trouble keeping up with him. I was tired and tipsy. We did just a couple tastings here, bought a bottle of Riesling for John’s parents and went into town for a little shopping.

Back at the Almar House we could hear the other guests (3 bedrooms total) in the common room but decided we’d rest instead of introducing ourselves. That would come the next day at breakfast. Taking a dinner recommendation from Chris, we supped at the Irish Harp Pub, which serves traditional Irish fare. Boy was it tasty! I never turn down good fish and chips though. John had the Irish stew. Did I tell you we were not considering calories on this trip? Well, I had been all stoked to pig out on desserts and the only one we had was the cookie the day before. After the previous night’s dinner and here at the Irish Harp, we were too full. So sad.

In lieu of the theatre, I found a walking ghost tour. OoooooOOOOOooooo. That was a spooky ghost noise, eh. It was only $10/person and we were to meet the cloaked guide carrying a lantern by the Olde Angel Inn. Mysterious, yes? It turns out, NOTL is extremely haunted, hence the tour. Apparently, many tour goers have caught apparitions, orbs, etc on camera during the tour so it was suggested that we take lots of pictures. The tour lasted 90 minutes and took us all over creation. It was actually way better than I thought it would be. I was expecting cheesy, I got historical. A fair trade. See the orbs in my picture below? Could just be dust. You decide!

We slept okay, despite the creaky bed when turning over. The room even had a 13” mounted TV in the corner. Shades of a hospital but the other guests were quiet and all was fine. We were sort of dreading breakfast. Not for gastric reasons but for conversational ones. We had been told breakfast was served at 9:00 am so we promptly headed downstairs at the appointed time to find an empty table. Drat! We had hoped others would pick seats first. We waited a few more minutes until Chris welcomed us and delivered coffee. Then, another guest walked downstairs. I only wish I had my camera with me at that time so that I could show you this person who could easily have been taken for either half of the Tim Burton/Helena Bonham Carter marriage. Lady’s hair was kuh-razy, yo! She was quickly followed by an older gentleman and another old couple. All other guests easily had 40 years on us. They talked a lot, John interjected some, I said almost nothing. Conversation quickly turned to health care, the merits and pitfalls of their system (they were all Canadian) and our pending system in the states. This bored me to no end. John loved it. On the upside, this was easily one of the best breakfasts I had ever eaten. Hands down. The starter was strawberries and cream with these sweet cookies and mint. Oh mah gah. Heaven. The main course was eggs benedict. I had never had eggs benedict before so I was skeptical. Already anticipating just a few bites and then pushing the rest around my plate so as not to offend, I was quickly surprised. It was delicious! I ate as much as I could and left only a few bites because I was stuffed to the gills.

We packed up our things and checked out (this consisted of saying goodbye). John’s view of B&B’s did a 180 in our time at the Almar House. From, “We don’t ever have to do this again” on Friday night to, “I would definitely try a B&B in the future” on Saturday morning. I should note that in NOTL, you cannot spit without hitting another B&B. They are EVERYWHERE, in all price ranges. The Almar House was only $103, a fair shake, even if the room was small.

Queen St.

Before we headed back to the states we did a little browsing through the stores and bought many maple flavored things. Then it was onto a few more wineries.

We had tasting coupons left over at Hillebrand so we headed there. It was lovely. I wish we had had the time to tour. Maybe in the future. I forget what we tried but we bought a bottle of their Trius Red. The Trius being one of their lines and not a grape. I forget what grapes are in it but it was tasty.

Pillterri came after Hillebrand. This was a mid-sized winery. We tasted here, first two tastes free, subsequent 50 cents. Wheee!!!! We ended up purchasing a Gewurtzraminer-Riesling Fusion which was quite crisp. Also, up to this point I don’t think we had bought any whites for ourselves so we were lacking.

Finally, we stopped at the Reif Estates on our way out of town. I had visited here before with my sister and mom. I didn’t really remember anything about it but we had time so we thought we’d check it out. It was very pretty and they had a neat garden that I wouldn’t have minded sitting in but we headed straight into the main building. Intending to taste, we never made it to the bar. There were far too many people there and no one interested in paying attention to us. Pfft. I didn’t want to buy your wine anyway. It was then that I realized we were wise in visiting the others on a weekday, same with the Falls. Because Niagara is such a short drive for a lot of people, I would imagine their weekends are pretty crowded.

On the road again and we were home before we knew it. Well, that’s not true. The sun was beating through the window on my legs and the drive on I-90 is boring. It still only took 4 hours but, it felt longer. Customs were a breeze. They didn’t even ask if we bought anything.

We had a wonderful time and while I would have liked to take more time off from work to relax, there really isn’t anything we missed out on doing only having been there 48 hours. An extra day probably would have just meant more wineries…..I suppose that’s not a bad thing. Remember I said day two’s activities were for me? Well, John is now enamored with wineries and wants us to plan a Napa trip ASAP. Keep dreamin’, baby. Although I do hope to take him to Texas Wine Country in November. On to the next adventure!

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