As the winter season approaches, Niagara-on-the-Lake turns up the holiday charm. Red-ribboned garlands pop up along the main stretch of Queen Street, twinkly lights appear, and shops proudly display tempting sweet treats – from butter tarts to jams and beyond.
On my wander through the picturesque main town, with my partner in tow, I spotted at least six bakeries within the heart of NOTL’s historic downtown. There’s no shortage of ways to satisfy a sugar craving here. At the tiny corner shop Fritters on the Lake, the specialty is apple-flavoured donuts, freshly baked on site. The cinnamon-tinged aroma, evoking freshly pressed cider made with the season’s freshly picked apples, is divine.
Another must-visit is the Niagara Home Bakery, which is buzzing with excited customers when we walk in. Trays of gingerbread men, butter tarts and peppermint chocolate cookies are waiting to be devoured – paired, naturally, with a steaming cup of hot apple cider or cocoa. The friendly server at the counter encourages us to grab half a dozen pastries to get a discount. The gingerbread man seems to be waving at me, so I grab a few along with some pillowy apple turnovers.
We take our pastries on the go because there’s still so much to explore. As we walk, pointing out this or that historic plaque or date marker, I bite into the apple turnover, which is topped with crystals of sugar. The filling is warm, lightly sweet and completely comforting.
Perfect slabs of fudge catch my eye at Maple Leaf Fudge which turns out fudge in locally-inspired flavours like ice-wine and seasonal eggnog. The sweet, caramel scent wafts out onto the street – paired with the falling snow and a passing horse-drawn carriage, it’s almost too perfect. With my canvas tote already filled to the brim with baked treats, I decide to savour it with my eyes alone.
My sweet tour of Niagara-on-the-Lake is not over yet, and I may have saved the best for last. We head to Picton Street and step into the elaborate, gilded lobby of the Prince of Wales Hotel. This Victorian gem was built in 1864 and has since hosted its share of royalty (The Duke and Duchess of York in 1901, Queen Elizabeth II in 1973).
Heading into the Drawing Room, a bright, elegant space with plaster ceilings, a roaring fire and bouquets of fresh pink roses atop every table opens up. I sink into a tufted chair at a corner table, ready to enjoy some afternoon high tea.
We order the Heavenly Cream, the best-seller on the menu. The blend of Ceylon and Assam black teas with notes of Italian bergamot and creamy bourbon vanilla comes to our table steaming in an antique teapot dotted with pink flowers and finished with gold trim. Classical music hums softly, and the vibe is elegant yet inviting, and fancy without feeling intimidating.
A spectacular three-tier silver platter overflowing with treats arrives at the table. I start with the freshly-baked scone, still warm and studded with jasmine-tea infused golden raisins and paired with strawberry jam, crème fraîche and light-as-air whipped butter. Other sweets include macarons, buttercream-topped chocolate cake, ginger cookies and an oat-crumble berry tart. Talk about a royal lineup.
I decide to toast my sweets-filled day with a Kir Royale: local sparkling wine topped with cassis liqueur. After all, Niagara is synonymous with wine.
But it might be time to add desserts to the region’s list of draws. If you find yourself in Niagara-on-the-Lake, take my word for it: Don’t even think about skipping dessert.