As many people will recall, there was once a time we could go to Canada without a passport. My parents never did whenever we went there, and that includes a trip all the way up to Quebec. Neither did I, and I’ve driven even to the Muskoka Lakes in 2000 to celebrate getting my Master’s degree at a place called the Sherwood Inn. September 11, 2001 changed all that and, beginning in 2008, going across the border to the Great White North was just like when Americans enter Saudi Arabia.
I didn’t visit my old haunts up in there for over ten years when, recently, I finally decided to take out that unused passport of mine and drive up I-90 to Buffalo and beyond. A few things had changed in the past decade such as the new toll booths on the Canadian end of the Peace Bridge (where I wound up paying three dollars) and a roundabout in downtown Virgil which I swear I never saw before. What really caught my eye was the big sign while driving on Route 55 towards Virgil saying Niagara Greenbelt. I later discovered that this was put into place in 2005 to preserve environmentally sensitive areas and farmland as well as, among other things, promote low-impact tourism. Yet, so much more remained familiar and, once I drove past a residential neighborhood which ten years ago was only just being built, it was like I never left. Stopping at the traffic light at Queen St., I turned left and drove to the end of the street to the little lakefront park I always used to stop at. There, I saw once again the Toronto skyline rising on the horizon.
This city at the tip of the Niagara Peninsula is quite different from the carnival frenzy of Niagara Falls down the road. Once the capital of Upper Canada, Niagara-on-the-Lake is home to the world-famous Shaw Festival. This internationally renown theater company, founded in 1962, holds productions in three buildings in the town (the Festival Theater, the Royal George, and the old Courthouse). The troupe acts in plays not only by Shaw but anyone who wrote on in his lifetime (he lived until 1950) and even later. I remember seeing a production of William Inge’s play Picnic there at the Royal George once and the place was packed. The Shaw is definitely one of the driving forces in the local economy.
It also has the Niagara On The Lake Golf Club, on Front Street, which is the oldest golf course in Canada. I stopped there on my visit for lunch and it was de ja vu for me seeing the view of the Niagara River and the old Fort Niagara on the US side with its French fortifications. I used to go the club’s restaurant many times in the past and thought it was good. This time back didn’t disappoint me either. I had their BBQ Pork Ribs ($16 Canadian) but they had a nice selection for lunch and their outdoor patio was quite busy for a September Sunday afternoon.
Naturally, Niagara-on-the-Lake is mobbed with tourists. The sidewalks along Queen Street were packed with people looking around, going in and out of shops, and a few walking their dogs. It has always been the case with the “prettiest town in Canada” as the advertisers put it. Yet, this is a real city as well and a block away the streets were a lot quieter. I was rather surprised that it was so busy late in the season, with the official beginning of Fall only days away.
This part of the nation’s proximity to Canada was always been in my opinion an asset. In a few hours, you are in another country that’s similar yet different at the same time. Surfing the internet cannot provide the same experience of driving down a highway with everything on the signs in kilometers, among other things. On less simplistic note, reading publications like the Globe and Mail interest me not so much as what goes on in say Winnipeg but what its’ columnists, such as William McDonald in an August 28th piece, write about us. This is just as worthwhile as buying a bottle of Crown Royal and knowing I can now bring it back across the border the same day; as I learned when I went through US Customs at the Queenston Bridge. Interesting thing about that, except for handing the official my passport, it was exactly the same way it was when I used to go up there 15 years ago. It’s nice to know the mass hysteria which led to my car being searched the last time I was there has gone. So, perhaps, I won’t wait more than a decade to make the drive up I-90 and get that passport ready.
Photographs by James Valentino.