Brewpub located near the Butler Farm Market on Friday starts out serving 10 house beers, plus Pennsylvania wine, housemade soda and food.
ST. CATHARINES, Ontario — This spring we had a great time during a long weekend in and around St. Kitts.
Not the island between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, but this town in southern Ontario — not even a five-hour drive from Pittsburgh — that locals fondly call St. Kitts.
The largest city (pop. 133,000) in the Niagara Region, just over the border between Lakes Erie and Ontario, St. Catharines isn’t an international tourist draw like its neighbors Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake. But it’s also not as tacky as the former can be, nor as precious as can be the latter. This onetime manufacturing city — reminiscent of Erie — is a place where people live and work and play hockey and go to school, but it still has plenty of its own charms to offer travelers.
We went up for our 9-year-old son’s spring hockey tournament, which was played at several regional rinks. (Cool thing about Canadian ice complexes: They tend to have pubs.) One hockey highlight: Meeting and taking a photo with one of the 100 Greatest NHL Players and No. 6 all-time points leader, Marcel Dionne, who was helping out at his daughter’s delicious Blue Line Diner next door to his epic sports memorabilia store in Niagara Falls. What a nice guy and family! (We finally got to try the local specialty that is peameal bacon, a cured lean pork loin with a cornmeal crust. Superb. And we bought some autographed hockey cards.)
We just missed, by a few days, hockey god Wayne Gretzky, who was in Niagara-on-the-Lake to officially open, after two years of construction, his sprawling Wayne Gretzky Estates Winery & Distillery. (It’s going to be a tourist magnet, including in winter, when the lake beside the outdoor bar will be frozen for skating. Our great winery tour guide, Michelle, regaled us with the story about the Canadian “loonie” — dollar coin — the Great One place at what will be center ice. No. 99 grew up playing hockey on a farm about 100 kilometers west in Brantford.)
Yes, we had to go check out the Falls and postcard-pretty NOTL. But we stayed and spent a lot of time in St. Catharines, including in its downtown. It’s relatively gritty in spots, but real, with historic buildings and hopefully shiny centerpieces such as the Meridian Centre, home of the Niagara IceDogs junior hockey team and other arts and entertainment.
On one of our strolls along the main drag of St. Paul Street, we bought a pretty necklace at Craft Arts Market, which sells lots of cool, locally made stuff and also makes a mean cup of joe. Other shops and stores line the stretch with lots of bars and restaurants. The exchange rate — a U.S. dollar worth about $1.30 Canadian — made paying more fun.
We had a ball — and Mexican brunch — at the St. Catharines Farmers Market, held from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, year-round, in its own indoor market house. Even in mid-June, the local strawberries and rhubarb gave hints at what a rich agricultural region this is. We sampled Sudani peanuts and bought Ambrosia apples and some of my Canadian wife’s favorite local delicacies: butter tarts.
We only sniffed the famous fare at nearby Beechwood Doughnuts, where people from all over line up for Instagram-ready all-vegan pastries in flavors such as maple bacon and key lime pie. They look and smell fabulous, but what kind of doughnut shop doesn’t open until 10 a.m.? We had to pregame at one of the scores of Tim Horton’s, the ubiquitous restaurant chain named for its former hockey player founder who played some in Pittsburgh (and who died in a car crash in St. Catharines).
The city is hockey nuts, yes, but lacrosse is the focus of the hall of fame at the cute St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre. The canal is the reason that Queen Elizabeth Way is elevated as the city’s landmark Skyway, so big ships can pass beneath; it’s how ships travel between the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway and the ocean. Here on the public viewing decks at Lock 3, you can see how these huge ships get raised or lowered nearly 100 meters (326 feet) in eight steps from one end of the canal to the other, to get over the Niagara Escarpment (over which flow the Falls). We checked the online schedule so we could time our visit with the locking through of the Algoma Hansa, a relatively short 144-meter-long tanker. While this may sound boring, it actually was pretty interesting. (You also can bike the 42-kilometer length of the canal.) Afterward, we drove back downtown for drinks and a snack.
The Niagara region is famous for its vineyards. Wine Country Ontario lists nearly 50 wineries in the Niagara Escarpment & Twenty Valley area, not counting another almost 40 in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Wine routes crisscross the city. My wife enjoyed some local whites and reds, and my son discovered that he loves ice wine after taking a tiny taste of Gretzky’s $99-a-bottle Cabernet Franc version offered on the tour.
I was more interested in visiting some of the area’s burgeoning breweries, more than a dozen of which are handily mapped out on the Niagara Ale Trail. One is the Teaching Brewery at Niagara College, which also has a student-run farm-to-table restaurant, Benchmark.
I loved a pint of housemade India pale ale at the Merchant Ale House, and bought a 32-ounce can of IPA to go from the Plan B Beer Works down the street. We couldn’t squeeze in on Friday night to eat at Merchant, which serves cool Canadian fare including poutine (fries with gravy and cheese curds) and tourtiere (meat pie). But the fish-and-chips and other food, and the beer list, were solid at Fiddler’s Pour House across the street. Like most local places, it seems to go out of its way to offer vegan and gluten-free options. (That includes the Smoke’s Poutinerie chain that has an outlet here. Its variations include the Ohhhh! Canada, poutine topped with peameal bacon, double-smoked bacon, French toast sticks and maple syrup.)
St. Catharines’ diversity, in part due to lots of college students, is reflected in its restaurants, many of which are Asian flavored. On Saturday, we took a tip from a food writer friend and stopped at Duru for Korean. The exterior doesn’t look like much. But our special “meal for three” filled the table, and us, with miso soup, green salads, dumplings, shrimp and veggie tempura, plus entrees of kimchi stew and bulgogi with rice for $49.95. (The “liquor combo” meals come with a bottle of potent soju or four bottles of beer.)
Another memorable feed was post-championship Sunday brunch at The Diner House 29, another strip mall gem, with retro decor and an “eclectic” menu. My wife savored one of the “breakfast bowls” — Lebanese-spiced lamb kefta on basmati rice with cumin stewed tomatoes, feta, cilantro, yogurt and two eggs that were poached and then deep-fried.
Even my relatively simple “porridge” — oatmeal — was dressed up with rhubarb butter and almond vanilla brittle.
We can’t wait to go back, if just to eat. And there are lots of other St. Kitts attractions yet to experience, from the town’s Port Dalhousie (and its vintage, still-a-nickel-to-ride carousel) and “heritage” sites such as Harriet Tubman’s Salem Chapel stop on the Underground Railroad to the country’s longest hike, the Bruce Trail, and all the other green spaces that give this place its official nickname of the Garden City.
This is a good year to go, in that Canada is celebrating its 150th anniversary. As part of “Canada 150,” travelers can get a pass for free admission into national parks and other sites. They’ll be partying on Canada Day on this Saturday and all year long, and St. Catharines is holding several special events of its own, including the opening of its museum’s One-Five-Oh! Exhibit.
Bob Batz Jr.: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr.