ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. -- Even the name sounds expensive.
For decades, the sleepy little town on the southwest shore of Lake Ontario has drawn tourists from hundreds of miles around. They come for the shops, the cuisine, the scenery, the faux-European atmosphere. And they come above all for the famous Shaw Festival, a respected repertory theater company that showcases some of the finer actors and dramatic productions this side of Broadway.
But for anyone whose income and age float below the level of an HMO executive, the prospect of spending a weekend in Niagara-on-the-Lake can be about as attractive as a $1,000 root canal.
If that sounds like you, all hope is not lost. Even if you're a connoisseur of the Mighty Taco value menu and wait breathlessly for last season's fashions to go on clearance at Old Navy, infiltrating the provincial charm of the town isn't impossible -- it just requires a little savvy and a wide-open mind.
First and foremost, the layout: Niagara-on-the-Lake proper consists of about five blocks packed densely with shops, theaters, restaurants and, on a busy day, crowds of Lacoste-wearing professionals and octogenarians.
So, the trick for a younger, budget-conscious visitor is not to get caught up in this crowd, which will inevitably whisk you toward a quaint boutique that exclusively sells gardening hats or a cafe hawking miniature hamburgers for $20 apiece. For those interested in avoiding sky-high price tags and kitschy trinket shops, it will help to know a few key places on and near Queen Street, the town's main drag.
*Hendriks Valu-Mart, 130 Queen St. That's right -- the place to go for food in a town full of haute cuisine and haughtier attitudes is the Canadian equivalent of a Kwik-E-Mart. For the DIY vagabonds out there, a picnic feast fit for a pair of kings (if kings ate bologna sandwiches and Ritz crackers) can be had for less than $10. And with all the natural beauty surrounding the town's flower-lined streets, the place is ripe as a Niagara peach for outdoor eating on the shores of the lake or in its handful of small, rolling parks.
*The LCBO, 20 Queen St. What picnic would be complete without a little wine? As the region's vineyards continue to gain prominence and recognition, a visit almost necessitates a sample of the local product. Whereas restaurants charge their exponential markup on wine by the glass, you can get yourself a completely respectable bottle of regional wine for about a 10-spot. The LCBO offers a vast selection from several local wineries, including Inniskillin, Jackson Triggs and Henry of Pelham. A bottle of Inniskillin Pinot grigio, for example, costs $12.75 Canadian, bringing the grand total of your picnic for two to a whopping $22.75.
*At the Old Niagara Bookstore, 223 King St., Laura MacFadden sits behind a small desk, peering at her book through a pair of thin glasses. The shelves are full of plays by George Bernard Shaw -- the namesake of the town's theater festival -- and his contemporaries, along with the latest best sellers in paperback and hardcover. The shop is a tiny intellectual oasis in a sea of antique stores, and so quiet you can hear MacFadden's fingers slip across her book as she turns the pages.
MacFadden, a longtime Niagara-on-the-Lake resident who has owned the small shop for more than 30 years, said that the town's offerings for young people are not exactly voluminous, suggesting that she and most other NOTL residents are happy with the current upscale atmosphere.
Quick to note that the town is about more than just the Shaw Festival, MacFadden heralded the ongoing Chamber Music Festival (running until Aug. 15), which is gaining in popularity year by year. It's not exactly Nine Inch Nails, but it's certainly a draw for the musically inclined.
*You've got your food, your wine and your book. Now to find a spot for that picnic.
For all the parochial charm and European architecture in town, little can hold a candle to its natural beauty, perched as it is on the edge of Lake Ontario. In the summer, the lake is a shimmering blue canvas dotted with hundreds of white sailboats. In the winter, no less beautiful, it is a seething sheet of choppy water that seems to extend infinitely. In either case, perhaps the cheapest and most rewarding activity the town offers is a long stare into the water during a picnic or a walk along the shore.
The perfect place for that is the tiny Queen's Royal Park (along Front Street next to the golf course), which affords a glimmering view of the lake, the terminus of the Niagara River, and historic Fort Niagara perched ominously on the other side. There's even an adjoining miniature beach at the edge of the park, a great place to plunk down and skip stones or cool off on a particularly sweltering afternoon.
If the lake grows monotonous, the verdant Memorial Park (between King and Wellington streets) lies smack in the middle of town. There, you'll find plenty of space to throw around a Frisbee or football.
*Where to eat if you're out for something more than bologna and crackers, but don't have enough dough for all the bells and whistles?
MacFadden of the Old Niagara Bookstore suggested the hip and recently opened Old Winery restaurant, about a mile out of town at 2228 Niagara Stone Road. There, an enormous dinner for two with a bottle of wine and a couple of appetizers clocks in at well below $100. And that's not bad, considering the head chef runs a joint in town where patrons routinely spend three times as much.
*If you can manage to bring your bike and aren't afraid of a little workout, riding the trail that runs along the Niagara River affords breathtaking views. For the super-ambitious, a round-trip from Queen's Parade Park just outside NOTL to Queenston Heights Park near the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge and back will give you a whole new perspective -- and probably make you ready for another meal. Of course, you can always take detours to the dozens of surrounding wineries (you'll see signs along the road), most of which offer wine tasting daily.
*As for the Shaw Festival (tickets for which are expensive enough to stretch anyone's checking account to the breaking point), it's possible to be frugal there as well. With three theaters and productions running from May to October, there's ample opportunity to see a show. Students pay $22 for special matinees, and Sunday afternoon tickets are $45.
*And let's not forget the ice cream. If there's anything NOTL has in profusion, it's dairy products. Ice cream is the great uniter, something almost anyone of any stripe can appreciate. For a scoop of fine-tasting cold stuff, you can wander into almost any joint on Queen Street. Chances are they'll be selling handcrafted trinkets and kitschy clothes, too, but if you can ignore that and simply savor your dessert, they'll be none the wiser.
Chances are that rebels without causes and angst-ridden teenagers won't find much solace in the cheaper side of NOTL, but for those who see it as an ivory tower of impenetrable snobbery, it should help to know that even ivory towers have back doors.
Shaw Festival: www.shawfest.com
From the Peace Bridge: Take the QEW to Exit 38 and follow signs onto Highway 55 and into town.
From the Rainbow Bridge: Follow signs to the Niagara Parkway north to Niagara-on-the-Lake.
From the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge: Follow signs to the Niagara Parkway north to Niagara-on-the-Lake.