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Footloose in Canada

Curtain Never Falls on Village Hospitality

July 10, 1988|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers .

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Canada — Constructed alongside Lake Ontario, this town is considered one of Canada's most beautiful. For the last 26 years, however, it has gained accolades for presenting the works of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries.

From mid-April to mid-October the town holds a Shaw festival.

Among the festival's offerings this year are his "You Never Can Tell," Tolstoy's "War and Peace" and J. M. Barrie's "Peter Pan." Also, there's a "Stan Kenton Reunion," during which noted jazz musicians pay tribute to one of their finest.

It's a 20-minute drive to Niagara Falls, down one of the most scenic, flowery and well-cared-for stretches of roadway in North America. The Canadian-side views of the falls are magnificent, mist-shrouded by day or in a rainbow of colors by night.

Lovely old homes attest to the town's prosperity as a shipping, shipbuilding and railway center in years past.

Niagara-on-the-Lake also is surrounded by vineyards that produce a delightful Chardonnay, and pilgrimages to the Maple Leaf and Niagara fudge stores in town are made by chocoholics.

Here to there: Fly Air Canada or Wardair direct to Toronto; other carriers have stops or changes. From Toronto it's about 90 miles by bus or car to Niagara-on-the-Lake. Buffalo is another gateway, about 45 minutes by road.

How long/how much? Spend at least a day, more time for a trip to Niagra Falls or to attend one or more of the 10 plays being given this year. Lodging and dining are moderate.

Fast facts: The Canadian dollar was recently worth about 80 cents U.S., stretching ours to $1.24 up there. Weather is good from late spring to fall, foliage spectacular during the fall. You'll need positive identification for entry into Canada--birth or baptism certificate, voter registration slip or passport.

Settling in: The Oban Inn (Gate Street; $68-$80 double) is one of the oldest homes in town. Built in 1824 by a Scottish sea captain, it's a study in white, with dormers and broad verandas. Inside, all is Victorian charm and nostalgia, warm and casual. Each room is decorated differently, with overstuffed chairs, matching bedspreads and wall coverings, crystal chandeliers.

Prince of Wales (6 Picton St.; $80-$90 double), another oldie, dates from 1864. It's larger than the Oban, and also heavy with Victorian overtones. Standard double rooms are comfortable, but nothing special in the way of decor. Deluxe and superior rooms up to $128.

The Camp-Orders House (307 Mississauga St.; $55 B&B double) is an 1818 home restored during the past two years. Bedrooms feature separate entrances, are furnished in antiques. Walls have hand-stenciled friezes, bedrooms homespun-wool bed coverings and shiny wood floors. Imaginative breakfasts are put together with fresh local fruit and produce.

Varey-Hendrie House (105 Johnson St.; $68 B&B double, private bath, $56 shared) dates to about 1810. Burned in the War of 1812 and rebuilt in 1837, it has a private sitting room for guests, with Victorian furnishings. The dining room also has a wood-burning fireplace. Antique wash stands and period furniture are in some bedrooms, one of which has a crewel-covered tester bed. There are substantial breakfasts and a pleasant and very chatty owner. If you want a smoke here, or at the Camp-Orders House, you'll have to step outside.

Regional food and drink: Local tables take their culinary cue from the English, but for a small town there have been remarkable excursions into more international fare. We had excellent Szechwan beef and a most commendable French meal.

Also there's great Alberta beef or seafood from the Maritime Provinces. The immediate area is noted for its fresh produce and fruits, with orchards of peaches, apples, cherries and vineyards. The wines, mainly whites, warrant more recognition than they have received outside Canada. Try those of Inniskillen, Brae Blanc and Chateau Des Charmes vineyards, all excellent values.

Moderate-cost dining: Oban Inn's handsome dining room presents a decidedly English menu: pork pie with piccalilli relish, steak and kidney pie, potted shrimp, seafood casseroles and English trifle. Some tables have window views of the lake, all have fresh nosegays. Service is attentive and enthusiastic.

Fans Court (135 Queen St.) lays it out cold on the front door with a sign: "We serve authentic Chinese food, no Chop Suey." What it does serve is Singapore-style satays , a respectable number of stir fries, Szechwan beef or scallops and a great-looking radish and pork soup. This place is small and modest, with a choice of dining indoors or on a sunny courtyard with a green sea-dragon fountain at its center.

Royals (Prince of Wales Hotel) is the place to see and be seen before an evening performance of the Shaw festival. Dignified and comfortable, Royals is noted for its innovative dishes, soft candlelight and fine wine.

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