Travel

War of 1812 tours

Blast to the past with a suite of historical tours
  • Apr 30, 2012
  • 3,250 words
  • 13 minutes
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Niagara region: Three-day tour | Kingston to Morrisburg: Three-day tour | Hamilton/Brantford: Two-day tour | Ile-aux-Noix & Châteauguay: Two-day tour | Amherstburg: One-day tour | Sault Ste. Marie/Fort St. Joseph: One-day tour | Toronto: Walking tour

Niagara region three day-tours

Whether you’re touring the lush vineyards around pretty little Niagara-on-the-Lake in the north, investigating key historical sites in Queenston and Fort Erie farther south or simply embracing the might — and glitz — of Niagara Falls itself, this gorgeous, laidback region is a must-see for any serious road-tripper

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Niagara-on-the-Lake; Queenston; Niagara Falls & Fort Erie (Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic)

Day 1: Niagara-on-the-Lake
Start by exploring Fort George, built from 1796-1802 and used as the British military headquarters during the War of 1812. Time your visit right and catch one of the summer’s most impressive events — The Navy of 1812: Sailors on the Lakes (July 13-15), featuring action on tall ships and on the fort’s grounds. Other historic sites in Niagara-on-the-Lake include McFarland House, the Niagara Parks Commission’s oldest property, where the air of Georgian-era civility will gently wash over you. For a break from battles and bloodshed, hit the Shaw Festival (shawfest.com, April-Oct.), one of Canada’s premier theatre festivals. When the curtain is about to drop on your day, head for a meal at glowingly reviewed The Epicurean before retiring to the intimate and historic Riverbend Inn and Vineyard.

Day 2: Queenston
Drive to Queenston or bike there along the 53-kilometre-long Niagara River Recreation Trail. The first of the trail’s four sections traces the route General Brock followed to Queenston Heights and his eventual death. The heights themselves are now a peaceful park with views over the Niagara River, a perfect spot for a picnic lunch or a meal at Queenston Heights Restaurant. Afterwards, it’s all ink-stained hands on board at the Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum, the restored home of irascible rebel publisher William Lyon Mackenize; try your hand at the linotype machine, if you dare. Whatever you do, don’t forget you’re in wine country. Make the most of it with a tour and some tastings at Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery in nearby St. Davids. Afterwards, stumble into bed — and wake up to breakfast — at the Everheart Country Manor.

Day 3: Niagara Falls & Fort Erie
From Queenston, make your way to Niagara Falls for an early-morning glimpse of you-know-what before continuing to the lakeshore and Old Fort Erie (niagaraparks.com/ old-fort-erie), scene of the bloodiest battlefield in Canada thanks to the casualties suffered during the siege of 1814. The re-creation of the siege (Aug. 11 and 12) would be a good time to learn more. After exploring the fort, head back up the parkway to Niagara Falls and embrace your inner tourist with a trip on the Maid of the Mist; you may even want to throw a few chips down at Casino Niagara. Win or lose, you’ll need sustenance, so make for the Brasa Brazilian Steakhouse, a temple to the art of open-fire grilling with great falls views. Your last night of the tour could be spent in the Old Stone Inn, a former flourmill located in the heart of town.

Patricia Pearson is the author, most recently, of A Brief History of Anxiety — Yours & Mine. She lives in Toronto, as does photographer Tobi Asmoucha. Both are regular contributors.

Kingston to Morrisburg three-day tours

It’s a 140-kilometre stretch from Kingston’s buzzing streets and grand historical sites to Morrisburg’s decidedly more sedate charms, but there’s no need to rush. Instead, drift down the riverside back roads to Gananoque and Prescott, pausing to savour the quiet grandeur of the mighty St. Lawrence River along the way.

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Kingston; Gananoque; Prescott & Morrisburg (Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic)

Day 1: Kingston
Begin your day by learning more about the domestic life of Sir John A. Macdonald at his former residence, the Italianate-style Bellevue House, which bucked the Georgian architecture trend that was de rigeur at the time. A tour of the behemoth that is Fort Henry is up next. The daily garrison parade is a must-see, but try to catch special events such as the annual Fort Henry Tattoo (July 28) or the weekend-long re-enactment of the Flight of the Royal George (June 30 and July 1), which features tall ships, gunboats and period encampments. Gunfire may still be ringing in your ears but don’t ignore the rumbling in your belly — have lunch at the Kingston Brewing Company, where beer features in many of the dishes. After lunch, indulge in some art therapy at the Agnes Etherington Arts Centre, one of Canada’s finest university art galleries, before getting to grips with Kingston’s creepier side on a haunted walk. End you day in style with a night at the classy period-decorated Hotel Belvedere.

Day 2: Gananoque
Although not as much of a hotbed of cross-border conflict as other places, Gananoque did see some action, most notably as the site the first U.S. attack along the St. Lawrence River on September 21, 1812. The re-enactment (gananoque.ca, celebrate1812.ca) festivities of that event (August 24-26) will include tall ships, land skirmishes, storytelling and live music. If you don’t want to fill your day with things historical, opt for exploring the stunning 1000 Islands via kayak or just kick back and take a leisurely day cruise on the St. Lawrence; try 1000 Islands Kayaking and Gananoque Boat Line. Gananoque has plenty of restaurants to choose from, but few have food (or views) as good as The Shipman’s Dining Room. Come evening, bed down in the 116-year-old Gananoque Inn & Spa, housed in a former carriage works.

Day 3: Prescott & Morrisburg
First constructed from 1812-1814 to defend the St. Lawrence shipping route during the war, the Fort Wellington you see today is now an impressive expanse of earthen ramparts and palisades, within which lie a blockhouse, officer’s quarters, barracks and more, all best brought to life during the 1812 Garrison Weekend (May 19-21). Make sure to check out the new displays and sample an 1812 dinner menu. Just up the road in Morrisburg is a time machine (a.k.a. Upper Canada Village) leading straight to the 1860s. From the local smithy to the struggling tenant farmer, there’s no better way to grasp what life was like during this era. If time permits, head for Prehistoric World, a park where you can eat lunch with a T. rex or any of the other 50-odd full-scale dinosaur models scattered around. Your best bets for food and a place to sleep are one and the same: the Russell Manor Bed & Breakfast. Expect rich stick-to-your-ribs food and rooms decorated in “21st-century Victorian.”

Hamilton/Brantford two day-tours

Sandwiched between the tourism magnets of Toronto and Niagara, Hamilton and nearby Brantford often get overlooked as destinations. That they do is a shame, because both cities have a marvellous trove of historical sites and splendid museums that are well worth taking the time to explore.

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Hamilton; Brantford (Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic)

Day 1: Hamilton
Spend your morning at Dundurn Castle, the former residence of Sir Allan Napier MacNab, one of Canada’s first premiers, and the site of a British military outpost during the War of 1812. See the home and learn more on The Heights: A War of 1812 Tour of Dundurn National Historic Site, which runs only seven times between May and August. For something livelier make for Battlefield House and Museum & Park in Stoney Creek, site of the crucial Battle of Stoney Creek. Try to catch the re-enactment (June 2 and 3), which is not your average dress-up-and-fire-muskets affair; it also packs in parades, drummers, spoken narratives and strolling musicians. With your historical boots filled, take a load off on the Waterfront Trolley, which traces a relaxing 12-kilometre course along the harbour. Once you hop off, have a gander at the nearby HMCS Haida, the last Tribal-class destroyer left in the world, or head over to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame to see its superb collection of sporting memorabilia. Sightseeing done, have dinner at 1010 Bistro in Westdale Village. Spend the night in the MacNab Terrace Guest House, an 1879 brick row house the city has designated as a significant property.

Day 2: Brantford
Quiet riverside Brantford has a clutch of small museums and historical sites that are well worth seeing, especially for their focus on First Nations culture and history. Begin at the grounds of the former Mohawk Village, site of Her Majesty’s Royal Chapel of the Mohawks, the oldest surviving church in Ontario and burial place of Joseph Brant; Brock’s visit to the village in the early days of the War of 1812 helped secure the Six Nations as important allies. Continue your investigation into First Nations life at the Woodland Cultural Centre, or opt for another dose of 1812 history at the Canadian Military Heritage Museum’s commemorative exhibit on the conflict. For a more general understanding of Brantford’s history, pop into the Brant Museum & Archives. You can further explore the surrounding area by boat, either rafting or kayaking on the Grand River; try Blue Heron Rafting or the Heritage River Canoe & Kayak Company. Alternatively, the more activity-oriented Earl Haig Family Fun Park has go-karts, a water park and batting cages. End the day with a Greek-meets-Italian feast at Gus & Guidos before calling it a night at the handsome Courtney House.

Ile-aux-Noix & Châteauguay two day-tours

It doesn’t take you long to escape Montréal’s hectic urbanity and find (or lose) yourself among the bucolic charms of Quebec’s Montérégie region. Whether it’s exploring the island redoubt of Fort Lennox in Île-aux-Noix or wandering Ormstown’s quaint streets, you couldn’t ask for a more peaceful getaway.

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Ile-aux-Noix; Southwest Montérégie (Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic)

Day 1: Île-aux-Noix
You can get to Île-aux-Noix from Montréal by car or by biking a section of the Route Verte. To make the most of your two-day tour, take a bike with you and explore the southernmost sections of the trail from Île-aux-Noix to the U.S. border. Île-aux-Noix itself is home to Fort Lennox, and although the structure you see today was built between 1819 and 1829, the British did use the island as a naval base and shipyard during the War of 1812; ships built here participated in the Battle of Plattsburgh in 1814. Near the fort is the Blockhaus de la Rivière Lacolle, once an outpost for British garrisons assigned to protect the local sawmill and the lighthouse. Just to the west of Île-aux- Noix is the Vignoble Morou Vineyard, a good spot to stop off for a tasting and tour. Fill up with more delightful drink and food at Restaurant Alyce, just to the east of Île-aux- Noix in Saint-Sébastien. From there, it’s a quick hop over to Henryville and the charming GÎte la Paysanne.

Day 2: Southwestern Montérégie
A short drive west of Île-aux-Noix is Allan’s Corners, which would be an otherwise unremarkable patch of Quebec countryside if it wasn’t home to Battle of the Châteauguay National Historic Site, where Charles-Michel de Salaberry defeated invading American forces on October 26, 1813. Once you’ve explored the interpretive centre and surrounding site, you’ve got the rest of the afternoon to tour the immediate area. Begin with a Mexican-food lunch in Ormstown at Que Pasa Restaurant & Bar. Work off all that guacamole by browsing through the town’s antique shops or by signing up for a half-day kayaking tour on the Rivière Châteauguay, departing from nearby Huntingdon. You may want to skip the shopping and the paddling altogether and drive down to Powerscourt to see the 151-year-old Powerscourt Covered Bridge, one of the oldest of its kind in Canada. Head back towards Ormstown for your evening meal and the nearby GÎte Centaure for a good night’s rest.

Amherstburg one-day tour

Spread out over the shoreline of where the Detroit River and Lake Erie begin to meld, lovely Amherstburg is easily accessible from Windsor and has a rich heritage that begs to be explored

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Fort Malden and more (Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic)

Fort Malden & more
A visit to quaint little Amherstburg should begin at Fort Malden, scene of Brock’s meeting with Tecumseh prior to their attack on Detroit. The fort’s Military Heritage Days (Aug. 4 and 5) run in conjunction with the Roots to Boots Festival, the town’s signature event for the 1812 bicentennial. To really get immersed in the War of 1812, though, book tickets for the Phantoms of the River Canard (Apr. 21 to Oct. 28), an interactive play that outlines historical events and gives an insight into what life was like for locals at the time. The best way to get a feel for Amherstburg itself is on a self-guided walking tour through its pretty streets, taking in such notable places as the Park House Museum, the oldest house within 400 kilometres, the North American Black Historical Museum and historic neoclassical Bellevue House; a map is available from the visitor centre. Settle in for a meal at Caldwell’s Grant, an 1830s-era blockhouse, before ending your day with a nightcap at Pier 41 Bed & Breakfast, which has sweeping views of the river and Lake Erie.

Sault Ste. Marie/Fort St.Joseph one-day tour

If you’re making a long and leisurely trip across Canada, take time to pull in at Sault Ste. Marie, which proudly displays its frontier, maritime and industrial heritage with several worthwhile sites, and marvelously isolated Fort St. Joseph, perched at the tip of St. Joseph’s Island.

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Fort St. Joseph and more (Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic)

Fort St. Joseph & more
If there’s an unheralded War of 1812 site, then remote ruined Fort St. Joseph would surely qualify. This frontier outpost was the launching point for the July 17, 1812, assault on Fort Mackinac — the first British attack on American soil after war was declared. Spend an hour or two wandering about and marveling at numerous archaeological finds before zipping up to Sault Ste. Marie. The Sault Ste. Marie Canal, once the longest lock in the world and the first to operate with electrical power, makes for an interesting stop, but don’t miss a visit to Ermatinger House and the Clergue Blockhouse, properties that once belonged to two of the Sault’s biggest characters. Ermatinger House is the former home of fur trader-merchant-militiaman Charles Oakes Ermatinger, who participated in the Fort Mackinac attack; next door is the Clergue Blockhouse, the home from which Francis Clergue, founder of Algoma Steel, directed his business operations. If your historical appetite is sated — and you’ve timed your visit right — chill out to the sound of some international rhythms at the Echoes of the World Drum Festival (June 22 and 23). With a full day nearly behind you, make for A Thymely Manner; you’ll be hard pressed to find better, more authentic Italian food in town. Bed now beckons, but summon the energy for the short drive northeast to the peaceful Bellevue Valley Lodge.

Toronto

With such a wealth of things to see and do, Toronto can at times feel a bit overwhelming. But with a little forward planning — and the help of the handy walking tour outlined on the opposite page — you’ll be well on your way to catching some of the city’s most absorbing sites, scenes and neighbourhoods.

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Walking tour of Toronto (Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic)

Walking tour
It’s said that the history of modern Toronto begins at Fort York, site of the garrison built here by Lt.-Gov. John Graves Simcoe in 1793. The current complex dates back to 1813 and features Canada’s largest collection of original War of 1812 buildings. The fort is open year-round and offers guided tours, cannon firings, exhibits and seasonal demonstrations. From the fort, you’re just a stroll away from other historical sites, plus galleries, restaurants and bars, many of which you can reach on foot. Afterwards, for some pampering, head to Hôtel Le Germain, within easy walking distance of the fort.

1. Walk up Bathurst, then east on Queen and up Beverley to the Art Gallery of Ontario to ogle either its glass-and-steel exterior or the superb exhibitions inside.

2. Return to Queen and continue east, stopping at historic Osgoode Hall, home of the law Society of Upper Canada. Check out the marvelous stained glass windows and its Great Library.

3. At 60 Queen is Old Toronto City Hall and York County Court House. Step inside this grand old building for a self-guided tour.

4. Continue east on Queen to Yonge and look north for the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre, the last operating doubledecker theatre in the world. See the sumptuous interior by booking show tickets or joining one of the Thursday or Saturday guided tours.

5. Head down Yonge to 10 Adelaide, site of the Birkbeck Building, one of the few remaining examples in Canada of an early 20th-century financial institution.

6. From there, make for food stalls of St. Lawrence Hall and Market at 157 King Street East — the perfect place to stop off for a coffee or snack.

7. Return to Adelaide and stop in at No. 260, the Fourth York Post Office, the sole surviving example of a British Colonial post office in Canada. It’s still a working post office, as well as a museum.

8. Walk south to the Gooderham and Worts Distillery at 55 Mill Street. The complex is a classic example of Victorian industrial design and was once the largest distillery in the world. You’re now among the restaurants, cafés and bars of the Distillery District, which is also packed with shops and galleries. Sit down for dinner at The Boiler House or belly up to its seven-metre-high wine rack and bar for a pint and a burger.

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