St Catharines Ontario is home to the Niagara Wine Festival, the biggest annual party in the region. However,that's not all there is to Niagara's largest city. "St Kitts" as it's sometimes called, boasts other tourist attractions as well.
St Catharines is known to tourists as the headquarters of the annual Niagara Wine Festival (formerly known as the Niagara Grape and Wine Festival).
Photo above courtesy of St Catharines Ontario Tourism
Although many events take place at local wineries, the original headline event, the Grape and Wine Parade, winds down old St. Paul Street in the heart of downtown St Catharines, and many of the concerts and wine-tasting/food sampling events unfold under the trees in historic Montebello Park.
As a child, I remember sitting on the curb, eagerly awaiting the passing parade. Even back then, it was “the” big event of the year, and the last big fling of summer. But my, how it’s grown since the Niagara wineries have taken off.
If you’re in town for the Niagara Wine Festival and staying overnight, you might want to check out some other attractions as well. Here are my suggestions.
Rodman Hall Art Gallery
109 St. Paul Crescent, St Catharines
Brock University manages this local public art gallery. Housed in a beautiful old limestone mansion once owned by the Merritt family (local gentry), the building itself is worth a visit. The 1850s era home features original marble fireplaces, stained glass windows and oak floors.
The gallery is fairly small so you shouldn’t need more than an hour here to see the temporary exhibits. They tend to be modern and a little avant garde, geared to the university art crowd. There’s a permanent collection as well, mostly historical, scattered throughout the house.
Don’t forget to wander around outside, front and back, and admire the architecture, as well as this hilarious sculpture:
It reminds me of rush hour in the Toronto subway.St. Catharines Museum/Welland Canal Centre
The Welland Canal is important part of St. Catharines’ history, so a large part of the museum traces the history of its creation. If you’re lucky while you’re there you’ll see a foreign freighter or maybe a ”laker” (one of the ships that ply the Great Lakes) squeezing through the locks, looking as if it’s holding its breath. These ships resemble floating apartment buildings. A sister of mine used to work as a cook on one of these monsters. You can also learn about other aspects of local history including sports like lacrosse, and the St. Catharines connection to the Freedom Trail, a system that brought American slaves to freedom in Canada in the 19th century.
If you're interested in history, take a drive out to Morningstar Mill and check out a handful of restored heritage buildings: the gristmill, a turbine shed, miller's house, icehouse, sawmill and a barn housing a blacksmith shop and carpentry shop. The gristmill dates from 1872.
Lakeside Park and Port Dalhousie Marina
Port Dalhousie Ontario (a small community in St Catharines)
When I was a kid we used to go swimming here in Lake Ontario and high-jump over the waves rushing into shore. The wilder the waves, the better! I once got disoriented and started swimming toward the Toronto shore, which is visible most days from the water. Out on the water, distances are hard to judge. My dad swam out and pulled me back to the right shore. (I’ve never had a very good sense of direction... a bit of a handicap for a travel writer.)
Even if you don’t swim, Port Dalhousie is a fun place to visit. You can walk along the pier at the marina and admire the 19th century lighthouses:
….stroll on the beach
…or visit the antique carousel which is still only 5 cents a ride.
The carousel has been here since 1921 when the beach was a much busier place, with a huge amusement park and picnic area attracting thousands of visitors from Hamilton, Toronto and even the neighbouring United States. The Coney Island-style carousel was built in 1903 by the Charles I.D. Looff Company of Rhode Island and is one of the few of its kind remaining worldwide. It even has the original music. Four generations of my family have enjoyed riding on this merry-go-round.
Royal Canadian Henley Regatta
Martindale Pond right next to Port Dalhousie is the site of the Royal Canadian Henley Regetta. This competition was founded in 1880. If you're a rowing fan, this is the place to be in August. This monument honours the rowers.
The setting is quite lovely, though, all by itself, and you can enjoy it any time of year. This romantic couple (of mallard ducks) was obviously soaking in the atmosphere the last time I visited:
St. Paul Street is the "main drag" of downtown St. Catharines. Until this year, the downtown had been stagnating for decades, but now that the Performing Art Centre has opened, businesses (mostly restaurants) are opening up all along the curving street.
Fans of mystery writer Howard Engel’s Benny Cooperman series may feel a little déjà vu in St. Catharines. That’s because “Grantham”, the fictional setting for the series, is based on St. Catharines Ontario where Howard grew up. I recognize some of the places in his novels, including that lunch counter at Diana Sweets where Benny always eats his chopped egg on white. It was still around when I was growing up.
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