Ah, Niagara Falls, Canada's capital of honeymoons and Little White Chapel chintz, home to enough junk culture—wax museums, cotton-candy emporiums and something called the House of Frankenstein—to make its massive casino seem positively urbane. Fortunately, there are two sides to the Falls, and we're not just talking about the twin legs of a certain horseshoe-shaped natural wonder. Beyond its neon heart, the Niagara region is a high-minded, low-key delight. Some forty-odd ever more respected wineries cater to a well-nosed clientele. The Shaw Festival, a summerlong series of plays by Bernard Shaw and his lesser-known contemporaries, is widely renowned. There are turn-of-the-nineteenth-century inns and fruit stalls and riverside walks to enjoy. Best of all, a collection of more than forty golf courses, emerald carpets rolled out between orchards and vineyards, completes the area's salvation.
Head toward the strip of land that divides Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, then follow the giant sucking sound that's sometimes audible over the din of border traffic. There are advantages to heading into Ontario's fruit belt for a spell—an exchange rate that will make you feel about 50 percent richer and a damn-sight better view of the Falls, head-on rather than off to the back and side. But it does mean skipping over the world's longest undefended border, which at times can seem very defended. There are three official crossings along the length of the Niagara River: at Buffalo and Lewiston, New York, and at the Falls. Alternatively, fly into Toronto and make the lively two-hour jaunt around Lake Ontario's western hip.
Know this about golf in Niagara: It's not about the vistas. The entire peninsula is as flat as Chevy Chase at the Apollo. Making up for the lack of topography is the climate. It's one of the greenest parts of the Great White North, lush and temperate well into fall, and the long season has given even the newest courses—and there are a lot of new courses—the chance to mature. Niagara's variety of layouts now rivals its broad selection of wines.
No argument, the best of the bunch is Legends on the Niagara. Built by the Ontario government to promote tourism, the forty-five-hole complex—consisting of two eighteens, Battlefield and Ussher's Creek, the nine-hole Chippawa, plus a 360-degree driving range and a par-seventy-two putting course—has rankled the privately owned area public courses, now pitted against a rival with bottomless pockets. Tough luck for them. For you—remember, this is benign, socialist Canada—it means playing on a couple of the most perfectly manicured courses on earth. The 7,309-yard Battlefield, designed by Douglas Carrick, is a particular joy and a stern challenge, with otherwise uninterrupted swaths of green pockmarked by 110 flash-faced bunkers. Stretched across the site of the Battle of Chippawa, a draw between U.S. forces and the British during the War of 1812, the front nine fills a virtually treeless stretch of open space, anchored by a nineteen-acre lake and more than a few of those traps. The knees-a-knockin' fourth hole, a 449-yard par four, looks to have more sand than fairway, but the sight of coyotes tugging mice out of the fescue sometimes softens the fearful view from the tee box. Thomas McBroom's Ussher's Creek is a more conventional experience, woodsy and traditional in appearance, and a whisper shorter than its partner. But its namesake creek meanders across more than half of its holes, and the occasional calamitous hazard—the vast pit of sand in the middle of the fourteenth fairway, say—gives it plenty of personality.
Not quite as memorable but well worth a visit is the twenty-seven-hole Royal Niagara Golf Club, in its fourth year of upscale operation. If possible, play the Iron Bridge and Old Canal nines, though the Escarpment is no slouch, sporting dramatic elevation changes owing to a curious geographical hiccup. Any pairing will leave you with more than 7,000 yards of solid golf, with the prettiest holes belying their malevolence. One example: Iron Bridge's par-four third hole boasts a sizable fen, a fairway bunker and two more great pits guarding a smallish landing strip, all with an old railway trestle as backdrop. For a more relaxing midround diversion, step through the hole in the fence at the Old Canal's third tee and take a gander into the abandoned locks of the selfsame Old Canal. The shipping lane's remains have left cascading rapids that drown out everything else, the cursed border traffic included.
At Hunters Pointe Golf Course in nearby Welland, it's the howling winds that fill your ears. The closest thing to links golf in the region, its 6,884-yard layout plays narrow enough when it's calm, with great stretches of ball-swallowing rough. The larger trick comes with managing the gustier days, which, for whatever microclimatic reason, seem to be pretty much every day. But with its frequent nods to the best of old-world courses—bunkers hidden behind otherwise safe-seeming slopes and greens that undulate like a belly dancer's abdomen—it's easy to be blown off to some romantic place of yore, like, say, Scotland. You'll come crashing to a harsher reality after seeing the lake-guarded green on the 529-yard ninth or the wet and sandy 513-yard dogleg left at number eighteen.
Finish things off with a couple of courses that are more than just make-believe old. To the blustery shores of Lake Ontario clings Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club, a 2,993-yard nine-hole track boasting two principal virtues: First, it's in Niagara-on-the-Lake (more on that little oasis later), and second, it's the oldest course in North America, having proudly hosted the golfing public since 1881. True, it's showing its age in parts, but precious few courses can claim both a redbrick colonial fort and one of the Great Lakes as a hazard. You can pay further homage to the semiancients at Whirlpool Golf Course, a 7,019-yard par-seventy-two design by Stanley Thompson, the Robert Trent Jones of the North, entering its sixth decade. Managed by the ever-active Niagara Parks Commission (which also cares for Legends), it's been sullied a tiny bit by recent tinkering but remains rooted in a loving history. Even as the sun goes down on your long weekend, take the time to appreciate the abundant flower beds, which have been given as much attention as a lesser course might give to its greens.
In Niagara Falls, there are the usual high-rise hotels—the Radisson, Hilton, Marriott, Sheraton and Renaissance—each with a panoramic Falls view. It's all well and good. But about fifteen minutes north of the Falls, up past the orchards and stately riverbank homes and roadside apple bins, there's Niagara-on-the-Lake. It's to the dreck around the Falls what Beethoven is to Britney. There are more than 200 B&Bs scattered about Niagara-on-the-Lake's stroll-along streets, as well as many small hotels. Four formerly independent landmarks now operating under the auspices of a single megabucks company called Vintage Inns (causing locals and former regulars to grumble about jacked-up prices and gussied-up menus) nevertheless remain standouts: the Pillar & Post Inn, Prince of Wales Hotel, Queen's Landing Inn and the most charming of the lot, the Oban Inn. During peak tourist season, reservations are almost always essential. Should you be shut out, more capacious if less quaint accommodation awaits at Ontario's only four-diamond, five-star resort hotel, White Oaks Resort & Spa, close to town.
WINING & DINING
Like tour buses and mist, good eats are plentiful in Niagara Falls. Many of the larger local wineries offer fine restaurants as well as tastings and tours. Cave Spring Cellars (905-562-3581), Hillebrand Estates Winery (905-468-3201) and Peninsula Ridge Estates Winery (905-563-0900) have reputations for high-end dining and drinking almost as impressive as their grounds; other top area wineries include Château des Charmes (905-262-4219), Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate Winery (905-468-4637) and Reif Estate Winery (905-468-7738). In Niagara-on-the-Lake, a favorite foodie haunt is the Epicurean (905-468-3408), featuring a wide selection of quiche and sandwiches at lunch and a mouth-watering slab of Black Angus at dinner. Another good bet is the Olde Angel Inn (905-468-3411), a low-ceilinged pub opened in 1816. The steaming steak-and-kidney pie, washed down with a pint of Angel Inn Lager, makes for a blissful end to the golfing day.
There's the golf. The wineries. The Falls—despite our best efforts at messing them up, they're spectacular—which you can view upclose on the Maid of the Mist riverboat (905-358-5781, maidofthemist.com) or on a helicopter tour (try Niagara Helicopters Ltd. at 800-281-8034, niagarahelicopters.com). Then there's the casino and those wax museums. If you're still left with time to pass, be sure to patronize the aforementioned Shaw Festival (800-511-7429, shawfest.com) from April 3 through November 30. And don't forget about the House of Frankenstein, which boasts "abominations that move and talk," because paralyzed, mute abominations aren't nearly so scary—all those flash-faced bunkers at Battlefield excepted.
LEGENDS ON THE NIAGARA (BATTLEFIELD), 866-465-3642. Yardage/Slope: 7,309/134. Greens Fees: $89-$95. Architect: Douglas Carrick, 2002. T&L Golf Rating: ****1/2
LEGENDS ON THE NIAGARA (USSHER'S CREEK), 866-465-3642. Yardage/Slope: 7,180/130. Greens Fees: $89-$95. Architect: Thomas McBroom, 2002. T&L Golf Rating: ****
ROYAL NIAGARA GOLF CLUB, 866-769-2518. Yardage/Slope: 7,052/138 (Escarpment/Iron Bridge); 7,096/140 (Escarpment/Old Canal); 7,082/143 (Iron Bridge/Old Canal). Greens Fees: $60-$68. Architect: Ted Baker, 2000. T&L Golf Rating: ****
HUNTERS POINTE GOLF COURSE, 877-714-4659. Yardage/Slope: 6,884/129. Greens Fees: $38-$60. Architect: Graham Cooke & Associates, 2000. T&L Golf Rating: ***1/2
WHIRLPOOL GOLF COURSE, 905-356-1140. Yardage/Slope: 7,019/126. Greens Fees: $33-$50. Architect: Stanley Thompson, 1951. T&L Golf Rating: ***1/2
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE GOLF CLUB, 905-468-3424. Yardage/Slope: 2,993/119. Greens Fees: $17 (nine holes); $24 (eighteen). Architect: John Geale Dickinson, 1881. T&L Golf Rating: **1/2
OBAN INN, 888-669-5566, vintageinns.com. Rooms: $102-$269. Suites: $170-$307.
THE PILLAR & POST INN, 888-669-5566, vintageinns.com. Rooms: $102-$269. Suites: $170-$307.
THE PRINCE OF WALES HOTEL, 888-669-5566, vintageinns.com. Rooms: $116-$338. Suites: $170-$443.
QUEEN'S LANDING INN, 888-669-5566, vintageinns.com. Rooms: $102-$269. Suites: $170-$307.
WHITE OAKS RESORT & SPA, 800-263-5766, whiteoaksresort.com. Rooms: $103-$213. Suites: $117-$413.