Our weekend-a-deux.

Z and I spent much of the August long weekend in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It’s our 25th wedding anniversary at the end of the month, but this was the weekend that worked best for a getaway.

We stayed at the Harbour House Hotel, a lovely 31-room place with gracious service, delicious breakfast, and extremely comfortable accommodations. It’s right on the waterfront, three blocks from the Shaw Festival’s main theatre and walking distance to the shops and sights of this quaint town.

We arrived around noon on Saturday and grabbed a bite on the terrace of the Queen’s Landing Inn which was across from our hotel. Then we picked up our tickets at the hotel and headed over to the Shaw’s Royal George Theatre to see a matinee of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. It was a terrific performance of this dark melodrama and it had us talking for some time after.

We retired to our hotel after the show for their daily wine and cheese reception in the lobby, and then our hosts drove us off to the Charles Inn for the first of two very memorable dinners in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Z had pan fried foie gras, followed by beef tenderloin and a chocolate passion fruit gateau for dessert. I had a spinach and arugula salad, the lamb dish, and a white chocolate creme brulee for dessert. In between the mains and dessert we shared a cheese plate and some port. (Detailed descriptions of the food are here.) We tried wine from the Megalomaniac label as recommended by our server: Z had the Cabernet Merlot and I had the Merlot. Both were excellent and we’ll be picking some up at our local LCBO Vintages outlet.

Sunday brought our first hotel breakfast, a lovely buffet in the conservatory with hot and cold items, most notably an excellent house-made granola and a delicious egg and ham casserole. We headed out to mass at St. Vincent de Paul parish which was just three blocks from our hotel.

After a nondescript lunch at a pub around the corner from the church, we headed back to the hotel where we were picked up for our winery tour. Conducted by Niagara Wine Tours International, our driver took five couples to four wineries over the course of about three hours. We spent an hour and a half at Jackson-Triggs. The tour was very informative, and they have a lovely showcase of a building and some vineyards, but it was clear that most of their grapes are purchased from commercial growers and it was slightly like being at Disney. I didn’t like any of the four wines we tasted and there wasn’t anything that we wanted to puchase (it’s all at the LCBO, anyway.)

We visited three smaller wineries. The first was Caroline Cellars, a family business with some innovative product. Our guide had suggested some things that we might like to try….they are one of the few Ontario wineries with a decent Baco Noir and Marechal Foch. We tasted both and agreed that they each needed the benefit of decanting. We got a bottle of the Baco Noir as well as something called French Revolution, a blend the specifics of which escape me. We also tasted (and purchased) their excellent 2007 Gewurztraminer and a most delicious 2006 Cranberry Winter Harvest, a blend of cranberry wine and late harvest vidal. A stunning dessert wine that would be excellent with cheese. Picked up two bottles.

We then visited the Reif Estate Winery. I had been there before and have always enjoyed what I’ve had of theirs. We tasted a few wines, but didn’t make any purchases here. Again, a lot of their wines are available at the LCBO so there wasn’t much point of carting it home.

Our last visit was to a very small winery: Lailey Vineyard. We had a tour led by Ed Haddon, the vineyard’s sommelier. He took us into the vineyard and explained their approach to weed and pest management (all-natural), and the labour-intensive approach to growing and harvesting grapes. Then we went into the winery and tasted some work in progress, as well as some finished product, most notably a wonderful Ice Wine. We picked up some of that, as well as a bottle of their oaked Chardonnay (2006).

Back to the hotel, and then off to the Stone Road Grille for our second fabulous dinner of the weekend. The chef makes his own bread and charcuterie, so we started with the charcuterie plate. We then had two of the nightly specials: I had pork-three-ways and Z had lamb-three-ways. Both were excellent. We had hoped to have a cheese plate, but we were both too full so moved directly to dessert (another creme brulee for me, and tapioca with coriander glaze for Z.)

Back to the hotel and then on to the Theatre for Wonderful Town. It was not my top pick, but we had time/scheduling constraints so that’s what we ended up with. I was very full, somewhat sleepy, and the room was warm. I found the first half a bit of a bore. This Bernstein/Comden musical has no music that’s made it into the popular repertoire (and none of which I’d heard before) and the storyline just didn’t grab me. Great, memorable music makes up for lack of plot in a lot of musicals, but it didn’t work here. Z persuaded me to stay through the second half and it improved. But it’s not something I’d recommend out of all the options available at the Shaw this season.

Monday morning, we had another great breakfast and spent some time on the terrace. We checked out at 11 and were back in T.O. on the patio of our local pub where we met our boys for lunch. I’m still thinking about the weekend three days later. It was a break to remember, and one that we must try to repeat in the not-to-distant future.

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