Exploring Ontario with Carolyn B. Heller

1. What is the best time of year and the best way to visit Niagara Falls?

Niagara Falls is spectacular any time of year, but it’s especially beautiful in the fall, when the surrounding foliage turns brilliantly gold, yellow, and red.

To see the Falls, start by simply standing on the sidewalk above Horseshoe Falls and feeling the spray. Then, take the Maid of the Mist boat tour to the base of the Falls—and, yes, you will get wet!

Make time to see Niagara’s other natural attractions, too. I’d recommend cycling the Niagara River Recreation Trail, taking a guided hike at the Niagara Glen Nature Centre, or riding the Whirlpool Aero Car across Niagara Gorge.

mist flowing up into the air from niagara falls
Niagara Falls from the air. Photo © CPQNN/iStock.

2. What are some great kid-friendly places to visit in Ottawa?

Kids of all ages enjoy the changing of the guard ceremony that drums and drills across Parliament lawn on summer mornings.

The Canadian Museum of Nature has a kid-friendly combination of animal skeletons, sea creatures, and interactive exhibits. Don’t miss the “animalium,” with its creepy collection of live tarantulas, hissing cockroaches, and giant snails. And inside the Canadian Museum of Civilization, where you can learn almost anything about Canadian history and culture, is a Children’s Museum.

In winter, take the family skating along the Rideau Canal (the world’s longest skating rink) and stop for a BeaverTail, Canada’s classic fried-dough treat.

3. What are some food and drink specialties of Ontario?

Ontario has a strong “eat local” movement, with restaurants featuring Great Lakes fish, meat from nearby farms, and locally-grown produce. Ontario’s fruits, from summer strawberries and blueberries to apples harvested in autumn, are especially delicious. In late winter, visit eastern Ontario’s “maple country” where “sugar shacks” produce maple syrup and serve up tasty pancake breakfasts.

For wine tasting and touring (Ontario is Canada’s largest wine-producing region), head for Niagara, Prince Edward County, or the north shore of Lake Erie. Pair your wine with local cheeses, too.

For dessert, I’d suggest a butter tart. You’ll find these sweet gooey pastries at bakeries across the province.

4. Where is the best place to visit for those looking for an outdoor getaway?

Among Ontario’s many spectacular outdoor destinations, my favorites include the Bruce Peninsula National Park, Georgian Bay Islands National Park, and Killarney Provincial Park, all on Georgian Bay, as well as Lake Superior Provincial Park on the shores of the largest Great Lake.

sea plane on the water of Georgian Bay
Arrange a flight-seeing tour in Parry Sound for the most thrilling way to take in Georgian Bay’s 30,000 Islands region. Photo © Elena Elisseeva/123rf.

Algonquin Provincial Park is a popular getaway for hiking and canoeing. Explore other provincial parks, too, from the sandy shores of Pinery or Sandbanks to the more rugged beauty of parks like Frontenac or Bon Echo.

Even in urban Toronto, you can get outdoors with a quick ferry ride to the Toronto Islands—for beaches, bicycling, and the city’s best skyline views.

5. What are a few historically significant sites worth a visit?

Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, an intriguing living history museum in Midland, recreates Ontario’s first European settlement, where French Jesuits lived with the native Wendat (Huron) people in the 1600s.

In the 1800s, slaves fleeing from American plantations traveled along the Underground Railroad, a network of “safe houses” that led north to freedom in Canada. The Buxton National Historic Site and Museum, Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, and the John Freeman Walls Historic Site tell the fascinating story of how many of these former slaves established new lives in Ontario.

Many battles that shaped Canada’s history were fought in Ontario during the War of 1812. Events commemorating the war’s bicentennial are continuing now through 2015, especially in Toronto, Niagara, the Thousand Islands, and Southwestern Ontario.

6. What are some of your favorite summer festivals?

I’d definitely recommend visiting Ottawa for the annual Canada Day celebration (July 1), where the concerts and other special events culminate in a fireworks extravaganza on Parliament Hill.

Toronto Pride Week ranks among the world’s largest gay and lesbian pride celebrations, with 10 days of parades, marches, and entertainment, as well as a street fair and family activities.

If you love movies, don’t miss the Toronto International Film Festival in early September. It’s one of North America’s major film fests, screening more than 300 movies and drawing celebrities from around the globe.

7. Where can a visitor learn more about the aboriginal culture?

The Great Spirit Circle Trail, an aboriginal tourism organization on Manitoulin Island, offers visitors a rich variety of hands-on cultural experiences, from First Nations dance to cooking to a hike where you learn to identify traditional medicinal plants. You can even stay on a First Nations reserve—in a teepee if you like! The best time to visit is during an annual powwow celebration.

Another option? Ride the Polar Bear Express Train north to the predominantly Cree First Nations town of Moosonee. There, and on nearby Moose Factory Island, you can experience modern life in a remote aboriginal community. Tour the local cultural center, and stay and eat at the Cree Village Eco Lodge, where the kitchen creates contemporary dishes using traditional aboriginal ingredients.

8. What wineries would you recommend visiting?

The Niagara peninsula is Ontario’s largest wine-making region. You’ll find a friendly mix of small and more established wineries in Niagara-on-the-Lake and in the nearby Twenty Valley. Ice wine, a sweet dessert wine, is a Niagara specialty.

In Eastern Ontario’s Prince Edward County, the wineries tend to be smaller, so you’re more likely to chat with the owner or get an up-close view of the wine-making process. “The County” has a vibrant restaurant scene, with many eateries featuring local foods and wines.

To discover Ontario’s newest wine district—without big-city crowds—visit the up-and-coming wineries along the Lake Erie North Shore.

9. What are three must-see cultural highlights in Toronto?

It’s hard to choose only three highlights in a city as culturally diverse as Toronto! I’d start with the Art Gallery of Ontario, both for its extensive collections of Canadian and international art and for its striking, Frank Gehry-designed building.

Another highlight is the quirky Bata Shoe Museum. Not only does it showcase footwear belonging to everyone from Chinese laborers to A-list celebrities, but it also traces cultures around the globe by exploring what people wore on their feet.

If you’re traveling with kids, or if you’re interested in natural and cultural history, visit the massive Royal Ontario Museum, which exhibits dinosaurs, mummies, and thousands of artifacts from ancient and recent civilizations.

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