Nicknamed the Golden Horseshoe, the region between Toronto and Niagara Falls takes its name from the shape of the western end of Lake Ontario. Most visitors barrel through it in about 90-minutes along the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW).
Other than speed, there’s not much to recommend this route. So, if you can invest a couple of extra hours, take Regional Road 81 instead for part of the route, picking it up from Grimsby (QEW exit 71) and following it about for 14km.
This lovely backroad hugs the base of the Niagara Escarpment, passing orchards, wineries and a historic attractions on the way between Beamsville, Vineland, and the Twenty Valley. This is the heart of Ontario’s tender fruit belt – think strawberries, cherries, apricots, plums, pears, and grapes – in season all are piled high at road-side farm stands and at local farmers’ markets. Veggie-lovers will find lots to choose from along the road too.
This area comprises one of Ontario’s main wine regions – the Niagara Region appellation – and there are a number of wineries just past Grimsby along Regional Road 81 (called Main Street at this point), and on various streets branching off it.
If you feel like stretching your legs and taking a gentle walk through vineyards, check out the Beamsville Bench Vineyard Trail (about 4km from downtown Grimsby). It’s a well marked, easy trail that connects five wineries – including Rosewood Estates Winery & Meadery where you should be sure to try the mead (honey wine). When you get hungry, there are some great spots to stop for lunch. Peninsula Ridge Estates Winery has a very good restaurant in a striking home mid-way up a vine covered hill.
You can also find good food options in Jordan Village, a small village in Vineland further along Regional Road 81 (which turns into King Street here). Jordan Village is built near the banks of the Twenty Mile Creek. A few quaint shops and galleries line its Main Street, and there’s a small historical museum too. But the main draws here are Cave Spring Cellars and Inn on the Twenty, one of the best Niagara Region restaurants.
Once you’ve had your fill of countryside and are back on the QEW headed toward Niagara – there’s one other stop that’s worth taking – especially if you’ve ever wondered how ships get from, say, Chicago to Toronto. The answer is the locks of the Welland Canal. A skyway takes the QEW high over the Welland Canal – and sometimes you can see ships coming or going underneath. But leave the QEW and follow signs showing a ship in a lock to find lock-side places to watch ships make their way through the Canal.
For a closer look at how locks work, check out the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre at Lock 3. It explains how the entire St. Lawrence Seaway works and gives you the history. There’s also an awesome viewing platform at Lock 3 that allows you to get up close and personal with ships as they go through the lock.