Good times - and couscous - in Niagara (as long as you avoid the casino)
NIAGARA REGION - A couple days to re-connect with familiar sights in Niagara and to meet some new folks was a heaping helping of mostly good times.
I'll have more later in the pages of Star Travel, but suffice to say I got in some hiking, biking, boating, gambling, eating, drinking and more during something like 42 hours in Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake, not to mention St. Davids and a great tour at a relatively new - and terrific - winery called Ravine Vineyard Estate. I'd asked the tourism people to give me some of the real touristy things to do so I could experience some of the items in their "Break Free Niagara" campaign (yes, the one that caused such a momentary furor in the media the past couple days).
So I took a ride on the aerial tram over the whirlpool, hiked down the beautiful Niagara Glen trail past towering trees and enormous boulders to watch the jet boats fire up on the rapids, rented a bike in Niagara-On-The-Lake (don't forget the hyphens), did a three-course lunch at the Queenston Heights Restaurant with a tasting of Ontario wines, dined magnificently at the Oban Inn and at Ravine winery, did a Brazilian steakhouse thing at Brasa at the Hilton Fallsview, stayed on the 50th floor of the Hilton and watched fireworks go off below my feet, which was a first, and rested overnight at the lovely Oban Inn in N-O-T-L. The highlight, and I can't believe I never did this on previous trips to Niagara Falls, was the Maid of the Mist.
I don't know why I never tried it before. I've stood on the edge of the falls many times, but usually I was just there for a day and maybe I thought the crowds were bad, or maybe I thought it was just a silly thing to do. But on this occasion I had plenty of time and a perfect, hot day, so I walked down the road from the hotel one afternoon and got in line for the Maid. It looked ominous, but the line was really only 10 minutes long to get to the elevators, and from there it was a short walk and maybe a five-minute wait for our boat to arrive.
It was, in a word, stunning. It's one thing to stand at the brink of the Canadian Falls (or American) and watch the water thunder over the edge, but to see the majesty of it from below is something else. The first part of the trip is quite clear and mostly mist-free, so you can take photos with your regular camera. Birds whirl in the air above the green water, and rainbows appear every three seconds, sometimes in full 180 degree glory. And the water roars. And roars. Old folks clad in silly blue plastic sheets grin like idiots, lovers kiss and giggle and even jaded journalists can't help but wonder at one of the marvels of the natural world.
I had neglected to check the charge in my waterproof camera and it was, of course, dead as a proverbial doornail. But I managed to get off a couple snaps with my regular camera before quickly thrusting it into my reasonably waterproof backpack.
We got to hover near the base of the falls - it's not nearly as scary down there as it looks from above, by the way - for several minutes before heading back to dock. For $15.60, it's about as great a deal as I can imagine.
Actually, the trip was probably three or four times longer than the mere five minutes I spent at the Fallsview Casino, where I dropped $20 in record speed on two slot machines. Maybe it's me, but I've been to casinos in Ontario at least four times and each time they've proven absolutely pathetic in terms of payout. At Fallsview, I put in $20 and did 20 spins at a quarter each and then 40 spins at three credits or 75 cents. I got "paid" back only once in those 40 spins, and it was a measly $1.25. Of course, this being Ontario, you don't actually get the satisfaction of holding real money or seeing real money come out of a chute or hearing the clink of coins tumbling out of the machine. No, you get "credits" on a slip of paper. Sigh.
That wouldn't be so bad if the machines actually paid out, but the times I've gone it's been over faster than a nervous Niagara groom on his wedding night. Maybe I should try blackjack or roulette. Or maybe stick to something more my speed, like the criminal hall of fame or Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville (and is it just me, but does Jimmy seem just a little out of place north of the border?).
Two of my other major discoveries were of the food and drink variety. On Wednesday night at the Oban, I ordered a main course of local pork tenderloin on a bed of couscous. I had tried couscous before and thought it was impossibly bland, not to mention boring and utterly devoid of taste. This was served, however, with Moroccan spices, including cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, cilantro and other things starting with a "c" as I rercall, plus a cranberry reduction swirled around the outside. There were five or six thick slices of pork resting on top of the couscous, which also featured diced onion, peppers and dried cranberry. It was one of the best main courses I've ever had. Honestly, it was that good. Just a marvel of tastes and textures and some incredibly tasty tenderloin.
The next day I had the three-course lunch at Queenston Heights Restaurant, hard by the monument to Major-General Isaac Brock that rises high above the heights to commemorate his battle - and his death - during the War of 1812. (As an aside, Tony Baldinelli from the Parks Commission tells an amusing story of the time Winston Churchill came to the Heights and noted there was a statue of Brock, who died during the battle, but not one of General Roger Hale Sheaffe, who came to his rescue and drove the invading Americans back over the border. There's a small statue of Sheaffe on display in the restaurant, but it's not even 1,000th the size of the towering Brock memorial. One could easily make the point there should be more of a permanent memorial to the natives or Indians who fought on the side of Britain/Canada at the battle. There was an impromptu native memorial - I've attached a small photo of part of it - at the base of the Brock column when I was there, and deservedly so.) Anywho, they served smoked salmon, French onion soup (both fine but not extraordinary) and then some wonderfully tasty and perfectly grilled chicken on a bed of small, grain-like thingies. I thought they were baby garbanzo beans or lentils or some such, but I was told they were Israeli couscous.
Couscous??? Again??? What is it with this place? I gotta say it was completely different in style from the Oban, but it was a fabulous dish, spiked with a touch of garlic and a good sprinkling of pancetta. Yum. The wines weren't particularly memorable, but the views out over the twisting (surprisingly to a Toronto guy who doesn't know his geography as well as he thinks) Niagara River.
The next day I stopped for lunch at Ravine Winery, where they serve a fabulous charcuterie plate with local meats and cheeses, as well as wine from their relatively new and fairly small winery.You can dine inside, but there's also a lovely patio with views up towards the Niagara escarpment or down the hill towards Lake Ontario. It's killer wine, especially (at least for me) the Merlot and the Cabernet Franc. Like couscous, I've never really had a Cab Franc that I liked a whole lot, usually finding them too vegetal and a touch funky on the finish. But this was deep and smooth and flavourful stuff that I think would go great with slightly spicy pork or even a steak.
It's a family-run operation, with what's believed to be the largest wood-fired oven in Ontario. They make their own bread, including three types of very good sourdough, and they even do barbeques for dinner on Monday and Friday nights. Can't wait to try that some warm summer's evening.PORTER-AIR CANADA WAR
Interesting that Porter seems to have won a court battle in which Air Canada sought to get more spots out of the Island Airport. More interesting to me is that Porter chief Bob Deluce is said to be suing Air Canada for allegedly revoking the lifetime passes he says he and his wife were given when he sold Air Ontario and Austin Airways to Air Canada in 1986.
Isn't that awesome? Upstart airline owner suing his rival so he can fly for free on their planes?
You could say he should stick to his own brand, but Porter won't get him to the Caribbean for a holiday, or to San Francisco. Mind you, the way Porter's board of directors is connected to Virgin America you'd think he could probably fly free on any of Sir Richard Branson's planes. But this is only partly, I suspect, about free travel. Mostly, it seems to be about tweaking big, bad Air Canada, or making us think of AC that way.
I got a kick out of Star reporter Madhavi Acharya-Tom Yew's report, in which he quotes Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick as saying he fully understands Deluce's desire to taste the forbidden fruit.
“It is completely understandable why Mr. Deluce would prefer to fly Air Canada - with its Executive Class, in-flight entertainment, Maple Leaf Lounges, Concierge Service and other exclusive benefits—rather than Porter. Wouldn’t you?”
I also like the diagram on Toronto Life's website today, which shows the two airlines' logos on football helmets and has them matched up like it's the Grey Cup.
I suspect the courts are finding this airline bickering a bit much to deal with. I suspect the lawyers don't mind at all. Me? I'm lovin' it.