ROUTE 1: NIAGARA PARKWAY
Niagara-on-the-Lake to Fort Erie
It’s impossible to be in a hurry when you’re on the Niagara Parkway. Hugging the Niagara River as it stretches from Niagara-on-the-Lake in the North to Fort Erie in the South, this scenic road compels travellers to slow down and take in the view. And what a view it is. In 1943, Sir Winston Churchill described it as “the prettiest Sunday Afternoon Drive in the world.” The nice thing is, at only 55 km in length, there’s plenty of time for exploring along the way.
Begin at historic Fort George, headquarters of the Centre Division of the British Army during the War of 1812. There’s year-round musket demonstrations, or, if you’re here during the summer, you can button into a redcoat and fire one for yourself.
You might also be lucky enough to catch the 41st Regiment of Foot Fife and Drum Corps play centuries-old military music that will rekindle your national pride…and have you checking your posture. For more history, step into the McFarland house, a 140-year-old Georgian mansion that once served as a war hospital, or stop in at the Laura Secord Homestead and learn how this Canadian heroine helped stop an American surprise attack in June of 1813.
Next, climb the Escarpment and be sure to take a moment to snap a few pics at the Niagara Scenic lookout spot just North of Queenston Heights....then head to the Butterfly Conservatory, where you’ll be welcomed by over 2,000 fluttering friends. This magical attraction features over 45 species of tropical butterflies, floating freely among lush paths and feasting on exotic blossoms. The space is located on the grounds of the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens, showcasing 40 hectares (99 acres) of beautifully maintained gardens, including over 2,400 roses.
When you need a break to refresh, a short drive will soon have you at the Whirlpool Aero Car, where you can soar high above the Great Gorge in an antique cable car. Or, if you dare to get closer (and perhaps wetter) continue along to the White Water Walk, and marvel at how the trillions of gallons of water that created the Gorge are still barrelling through the divide today at speeds of up to 48 km/hr, creating rare Class 6 Whirlpool Rapids.
At this point in your journey, you’re just minutes away from the great Horseshoe Falls themselves, so prepare to park your car, grab a bite, and take in all the sights. If you’re in a “picnicky” mood, Queen Victoria Park offers plenty of park benches and green grass with an unbeatable view of the Falls – so you can get your fill of them while you fuel up. Then, put on your rain ponchos and ride to the heart of the Falls on the Hornblower Cruise, or get your fun-on at attraction-filled Clifton Hill.
Once you’re back in the car, don’t get too comfortable, because you’ll want to hop out again at the many scenic points, parks and hiking opportunities that lie ahead. For instance, Dufferin Islands offers 10 acres of secluded parkland, accommodating several small islands connected by charming bridges and footpaths. Or, for families seeking essential playground time, Kingsbridge Park, boasts generous picnic pavilions and a water play area.
Continue your journey all the way to historic Fort Erie, where you can finish your day with a musket demonstration and military march.
There’s a lot to take in, which is why the Niagara Parkway is so much more than just a beautiful road. In fact, you might say it’s a one-of-a-kind destination in itself.
ROUTE 2: TWENTY VALLEY
Twenty Valley to St. Catharines.
Driving anywhere in the Twenty Valley to St. Catharines region is a breath-taking lesson in geology. This is where the Niagara Escarpment carved its place alongside the breezy Lake Ontario shoreline, creating stunning views and unique terroir.
The best way to explore is to get off the beaten track and travel the rural roads to any of the area's picturesque wineries, such as Fielding Estate Winery and Hidden Bench Winery in Beamsville, Stoney Ridge Estate, or Flat Rock Cellars.
Lunching at any of the winery restaurants is always a good call, or you could make a stop in the quaint, rural village of Jordan and dine at the Inn on the Twenty Restaurant., overlooking the babbling Twenty Mile Creek. While you’re in town, treat yourself to little shopping at the many one-of-kind boutiques, including at the new Jordon Village Mews. Four new merchants, offering everything from hats and jewellery to lavender soap and flowers, offer travellers yet another reason to spend time in the area – affectionately referred to as “Niagara’s best detour.”
Next, work off your lunch with a hike on the Bruce Trail or in the Ball's Falls Conservation Area, or drive another 12 minutes and you'll arrive at Short Hills Provincial Park. This 735-hectare natural environment park offers hiking, fishing, bird watching, cross-country skiing, horseback riding and mountain biking on authorized trails, and makes an idyllic setting to spend an afternoon.
From here, it's a short drive to St. Catharines where the range of sights and activities are sure to please anyone along for the ride. A thriving local arts scene has taken up residence in the newly-opened FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, and the downtown core is filled with shops and restaurants.
From Twenty Valley to St. Catharines, there's plenty of magnificent drives to keep you going – and just as many charming towns, wineries and lush hiking trails to entice you to stop. In other words, enjoy. You've got all the makings of the perfect road trip ahead.
ROUTE 3: THE LAKESHORE
Port Dalhousie to Niagara-on-the-Lake
This 22-km drive encompasses some of the region’s most spectacular lakeshore scenery. Travelling west to east, begin at Port Dalhousie, with its picturesque, sandy beach and historic Lakeside Park. Take a ride on an antique carousel, carved in 1905 and still only 5 cents a ride.
Then pull out the cameras at one of the area’s two historic lighthouses, originally built to direct ships into the first, second, and third Welland Canals. The older lighthouse is located at the end of the marina pier – a stop worth exploring with its gorgeous, panoramic view of the Toronto skyline, and its many impressive boats from ports all around the world.
Continue cruising, and you’ll be rewarded with an expanse of beautiful vineyard and escarpment views. Pull over for a tasting, or even lunch, at many of the renowned wineries along the way, including Palatine Hills, Strewn, and Sunnybrook, each of which offer the chance to sip and savour their award-winning wines while taking in their lush green landscapes.
As you sail along between estates, watch for road signs enticing you to local fruit stands, where you can fill up on sun-ripened peaches, pears and plums while you stretch your legs in the countryside.
A few more clicks and you’ll arrive at Niagara-on-the-Lake. Consider trading in your automobile for a horse-drawn carriage, and explore this historic city at completely different speed. Step back in time at Fort George, relax at the marina, or treat yourself to some 19th century elegance in the Victorian Tea Room at the regal Prince of Wales Hotel. Or if you’re in the mood for a little drama, take in a production at the Shaw Festival Theatre, the second largest repertory theatre in North America, and one of the most acclaimed.
You’re never really “done” your journey in this lush region, so if Niagara-on-the-Lake was your destination, you’d be advised to stay the night. Plenty more roads are waiting to take you places tomorrow.
ROUTE 4: THE SOUTH COAST
Wainfleet to Fort Erie
Pack a picnic if you're driving this route on a sunny day, because you'll have plenty of opportunities for a lakeside lunch. Traversing the Northeastern tip of Lake Erie, it'll be a stop-and-go journey as you ramble your way from the charming little town of Wainfleet to Historic Fort Erie, or the other way around.
If you’re starting in Wainfleet, bring your hiking boots and head to the Conservation Area and Bog, Ontario’s largest remaining peat bog and home to scores of bog plants, migratory song birds, butterflies, and animals.
And if the timing’s right, you can catch a wagon ride at the Marshville Heritage Festival in September, or celebrate all things agricultural at the Wainfleet Fall Fair.
From there, head east, and spend the day playing at the many beaches running alongside your route, thanks to the great Lake Erie, the true centrepiece of the region.
Some sandy options include Nickel Beach, Humberstone Centennial Park Beach, Long Beach Conservation Area and, as you arrive in Fort Erie, Crystal Beach, with its white sand and clear water.
If you're more in the mood for fishing or boats, plan to spend some time at Sugarloaf Harbour Marina in Port Colborne. Not only do the bass and walleye love it here, but the ship-watching is excellent. Families can't seem to get enough of the exhilaration of seeing a mighty, international "Saltie" or "Laker" as it slips through the Welland Canal.
Whatever you're up for, there's plenty of active or relaxing choices on this gorgeous South Coast drive. Just plan on spending most of your time outside the car.