Winston Churchill called the 56-kilometre Niagara Parkway ”the prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world.” Curving and winding through some of the finest parkland in Southern Ontario, it’s also one of Canada’s most historic places. Wineries and tales of ancient heroes abound. Here, some guy named Blondin carried an iron stove across the great Falls on a tightrope, and here some other guy named Mark proposed to a girl named Wendy over Harleys and a bottle of the local vintage. Adrian Blake brings us a slice of life on the Parkway, where Sunday drives were practically invented.
Falling for Niagara
Riding past a shady grove of hardwoods on the historic Niagara Parkway, it’s not hard to imagine hearing musket reports and seeing red-coated soldiers of the pre-Victorian British crown taking cover behind the trees. Along the banks of the Niagara River, which the road parallels, some of the bloodiest battles of the War of 1812 took place. During that pivotal conflict, British and Canadian troops and native allies fought an American militia intent on annexing Canada.
These days, the Niagara Parkway experiences an invasion of a different kind. Tourists enjoy what an old warrior of a different era, Sir Winston Churchill, once proclaimed as “the prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world.” Now, as then, his praise is well-earned.
The Parkway extends only 56 kilometres, from Niagara-on-the-Lake, about an hour’s ride from Toronto, to Fort Erie on the Canada-US border. But over much of its length, the road curves gracefully and undulates over ancient escarpment through some of the finest parkland in Southern Ontario.
It’s also a main artery through the Niagara peninsula which is itself a national treasure. You’ll find dozens of wineries, orchards, unique ecology (the Niagara escarpment is a World Biosphere Reserve), significant Canadian history, and natural attractions like Niagara Falls, one of the top tourism destinations in North America.
While I’ve visited the region a number of times, I’d never fully explored its many charms. This time out, I chose to do so on a 2009 Yamaha V-Star 950 Tourer. Brand new in Yamaha’s lineup, it makes the ideal companion for my purposes: a middleweight touring cruiser with loping midrange power and enough room to comfortably carry me and my stuff for several days.
After spending most of the day cruising the peninsula’s Wine Route, I
arrive at the picturesque town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, located where the Niagara River empties into Lake Ontario. To escape the August heat, I immediately take refuge in the cool, zen-like interior of the Oban Inn. The Oban was originally built in 1824 as a private home, and rebuilt in sumptuous style after a devastating fire.
A walkabout later takes me along streets of the town’s Heritage District, past boutiques and fine restaurants, and theatres for the internationally- acclaimed Shaw Festival.
Niagara-on-the-Lake—Ontario’s first capital—was burned to the ground at the end of the War of 1812. Eventually resurrected, it has aged well. Elegant 19th century homes, many converted to B&Bs, line tree-shaded streets and the sound of clopping hooves accompany horse-and-carriage rides around the neighbourhood.
On Prideaux Street, I watch David Mobray, a stone mason, carefully repairing the front walk outside the Kerr-Wooll house (circa 1815). It was owned by Dr. Robert Kerr, a prominent surgeon who conducted his private practice there. “It’s well-known this house is haunted,” says Mobray. “On more than one occasion, I’ve been working in the basement and heard footsteps overhead when no one else was around and the doors were locked.”
Over at the Olde Angel Inn (circa 1793), I hear the story about a psychic who was recently repelled by ominous forces beyond the cellar door where a young British captain was mortally wounded by American soldiers in 1813. Unexplained disturbances have been recorded there as early as the 1820s, says a period newspaper clipping.
NEXT MORNING, IT’S TIME TO PUTT along the Parkway. It’s already warm and humid as I saddle up, then roll on the throttle. Beneath me, the motorcycle’s engine fluidly thrums. Above, the spirited singing of cicadas sound high in the trees.
Outside of town, the Parkway runs straight and open. Near Fort George, I ride up the grand driveway to the Peller Estates Winery. The winery, reminiscent of a French chateau, is set amid lush vineyards. It’s one of several award-winning vineyards along this sun-drenched stretch.
Surprised by the rumble of Harleys with Florida licence plates, I meet two couples in search of a bottle of fine wine to toast a momentous occasion. “We’re getting married at three o’clock today!” exclaims Denise, a tall blond riding a baby blue Heritage Softail. Her husband-to-be, Mark, beams beside her. “And Tim and Roxanne are celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary today!” she adds enthusiastically about their riding companions.
Mark had proposed to his beloved at Niagara Falls—still the height of romantic tradition for a lot of folks—and they’d decided to get married there. After offering my congratulations and taking quick photos, they find a suitable vintage inside the winery store and roar off to their date with the preacher.
Back on the Parkway that’s a well-traveled two-lane, I make sure to keep to the 60 kmh posted speed limit. It may be slow, but like Tim said, “it slows you down to see everything.” And that’s a good thing since there’s plenty to see, including markers along the route that retell some of the area’s history.
At Van de Laar Orchards, I park the Yamaha in the large gravel lot behind the roadside stand and check out the fresh produce. The stand has been a family-owned fixture on the Parkway for more than 50 years. I bite into a big, succulent peach and while the sweetness quenches my parched throat, I chat with Van de Laar matriarch Kathy. “The peaches are doing well this year, but the cherries and pears have been affected by all the rain. We need more sun,” she says.
Seeking some relief from the sun, I welcome the stippled shade from the deciduous Carolinian forest further along the Parkway and admire a distinctive row of lofty conifers bordered by an English-style stone wall near the village of Queenston.
This is the start of one of my favourite stretches of Parkway. I gently lean into the corners as the road approaches Queenston. A quick look as I pass the village reveals Laura Secord’s restored homestead. While her name has become more synonymous with confectionery in this country, she is famous for helping thwart an attack planned by American troops during the War of 1812.
Here, the Parkway ascends the escarpment and you’re rewarded with a panoramic view of the Niagara River from a lookout at the crest. The road then winds its way past the Brock Monument that towers high above the village. The monument commemorates a key British victory at Queenston Heights under Major-General Isaac Brock. Brock was killed in battle and hailed a hero.
If you missed the earlier pull-off, you can get another incredible view north along the Niagara River from this point. The Niagara Gorge ends at the foot of the escarpment here, just 11 km from the Falls. This is also a great spot to soak up some history and stop for lunch at the quaint Queenston Heights Restaurant.
A traffic roundabout here sets me back onto meandering Parkway again. There are more open views of the gorge below where you can see the strata of sedimentary rock layers on the American side. The water appears greenish in colour because of dissolved minerals that are eroded from the limestone bed beneath Niagara Falls.
The road snakes its way to the Sir Adam Beck 2 Generating Station, one of Ontario’s largest hydroelectric facilities. Part of the imposing complex looms above the roadway as it traverses cliffs twice as high as the Falls. At river’s edge are massive concrete slabs of a hydro installation on the American side. It’s an amazing feat of engineering that demands a tour stop.
A short distance away, I pull off the Parkway where it skirts an elbow in the river and opt for a spectacular view of the churning Niagara whirlpool and rapids from an antique cable car. The Spanish Aero Car has been plying this span for more than 90 years. It’s one of the many attractions along this stretch operated by the Niagara Parks Commission. The NPC is the steward of more than 4,200 acres of parkland along the Niagara River corridor.
At the nearby whitewater rapids, tightrope walkers once defied death in the name of entertainment. On a plaque inside the dank underground tunnel leading to the rapids is the story of Jean Francois Gravelet, known professionally as Blondin. In 1859, Blondin was the first person to walk a rope over the rapids, and he did it carrying an iron stove on his back.
Before long I finally see the billowing mist of the Falls from where the Parkway is called River Road in the city of Niagara Falls. I pass several blocks of attractive (and biker-friendly) B&Bs between the Whirlpool Bridge and Rainbow Bridge to the US and find free parking only blocks from the Falls, my destination for the day.
The promenade along the river is easy to negotiate. But on weekends, especially, a crush of visitors jockey to see the Falls and a glimpse of the water. The Falls never fails to impress. It’s as high as it is deep (52 metres) and water thunders over its edge at 120 kmh.
Below, a Maid of the Mist tour boat bobs on the waves, jammed with blue-rainsuited passengers looking like members of some aquatic cult. I’m captivated by the toy-like vessel as it navigates the frothing current, shuttling from the base of the American Falls to the mighty Canadian Horseshoe Falls.
And as usual, Clifton Hill beckons— no, screams—for attention. The street slopes down to the Parkway, a giant amusement park that spills over several blocks. Its rattle and hum is a non-stop soundtrack for every kind of guilty pleasure your inner kid (or, more likely, your own kids) could want, from spookhouse to arcade to wax museum.
I duck into the air-conditioned shelter of the Harley-Davidson store and ask the perky salesgirl where all the bikers are today. “They mostly descend on the Falls on Friday and Saturday nights,” she says. “There might be up to 30 bikes parked along Clifton Hill where they put on a bit of a show.” Just as I leave, as if on cue, four Harley riders pull up and park at the curb. The blinding chrome and loud blapping creates a show all its own.
LATE NEXT MORNING, I RESUME my ride along the Parkway, returning to the Falls from Niagara-on-the-Lake. Spray from the Falls mists my helmet faceshield as it’s carried by a light breeze. Traffic is light and tour buses deposit passengers near the Table Rock complex where tours are conducted behind the Falls.
Once past the rapids above the Falls, the Parkway affords a breezier view of the Niagara River that’s dotted with picnic spots and occasional pleasure boats. It’s not as busy along this end of the Parkway; there’s a straggle of motorists, and motorcyclists who return my wave.
Close to the village of Chippawa, the Welland River forces the Parkway to dogleg and cross a bridge before paralleling the Niagara River again. Then it’s lazy curves along the shoreline for the next 22 km, all the way to Fort Erie.
Not far from the village, I pay silent homage to the fallen at the Chippawa Battlefield site. It marks the first time both armies engaged in stand-up action in the open during the War of 1812. About 200 combatants are believed to be buried here. While flags flap in a gathering breeze next to the cobblestone cairn honouring the event, a flock of close to 100 swifts noiselessly perform aerial acrobatics, much as they might have then, before settling in the highest branches.
At Fort Erie, the Parkway becomes Lakeshore Road, offering a sweeping view of Lake Erie. I arrive late in the afternoon at the eponymous fort, the site of the bloodiest battle of the War of 1812, and am fascinated by the staff who recreate life at the fort down to the fine details.
All too soon, it’s time to head back to the Oban. In the growing evening stillness, I hear crows in the distance and the sun is a burnished orange ball slowly sliding toward the horizon. As I fire up the Yamaha, the light is gauzy and golden. And if I look hard enough, I can almost see the ghosts among the trees.
– Adrian Blake (December 2009)