HAMILTON, Ont. -- How far would you travel to visit a place with 100 waterfalls; a glacier-carved natural harbor that laps the shores of the world's 14th largest lake; a botanical garden described as the "pride of the nation"; enough museums to keep an historian busy for a week; and a World Heritage Trail that's so accessible you can hike a wilderness gorge in the morning and sit down to penne pasta with a side of arugala in the afternoon?
Would you believe it's all just about an hour's drive from Buffalo?
Halfway between Niagara Falls and Toronto is the city of Hamilton, complimented by the smaller, yet, just as lovely, city of Burlington.
Located on the stunningly beautiful Niagara Escarpment -- a 1,400-mile dolomite and limestone bluff that runs from Rochester, along two Great Lakes and into Canada -- Hamilton is a can't-miss experience perched on the edge of Lake Ontario. With a population of about 500,000, the city offers enough to interest a visitor during every season.
Take a haunted ghost walk in the fall. Hike a pristine trail or skate a frozen pond. Browse a heritage museum or simply sit down to dinner in a glass-walled restaurant and watch the waterspouts form on Lake Ontario. The experience is yours to choose because this area embraces the seasons with a flare that defies the weather.
The geographic conditions of the internationally acclaimed Niagara Escarpment bisect Hamilton into upper and lower sections that hug Hamilton Harbor and meander down to misty Burlington Bay. So many waterfalls have been carved by this physical phenomenon that Hamilton has been dubbed the "City of Waterfalls." The Hamilton Conservation Authority has identified 60 waterfalls within the city limits and another 40 in the immediate area.
The Spencer Gorge/Webster Falls Conservation Area is one of the most easily reached for a dramatic late fall hike. Spencer Gorge is a "y"-shaped gorge that was sliced out of the landscape by the Wisconsin Glacier 10,000 years ago. Depths reach 320 feet and hikers are treated to vistas of Webster Falls, Tews Falls and Spencer Creek.
The Dundas Peak route culminates with scenes of Hamilton and the harbor, and traverses the famous Bruce Trail, which hugs the Escarpment for 800 kilometers from Niagara Falls to Tobermory. The trails are moderate to difficult with steep drop-offs. They are not intended for small children, but there's a pretty park located at the gorge parking lot that anyone can enjoy. From there it's a short, safe hike to view Webster Falls from the top, where it can be seen in fall or winter.
Hamilton is also home to the Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG), a National Historic Site in Canada. This 2,700-acre facility is one of the world's largest and is internationally recognized for "plant conservation, habitat protection, scientific research and public education."
Five gardens and four nature sanctuaries are linked by shuttle bus, although automobile parking is also permitted at each site. RBG boasts the world's largest collection of lilacs, two acres of roses, 30 kilometers of trails that traverse through wetlands, marshes, a waterfall, a rock garden and four restaurants that include two teahouses. Seasonal gardens are open until Canadian Thanksgiving (Oct. 13) after which only the main arboretum and restaurant are open and the shuttle stops.
The RGB is worth a visit any time of year. October events include "Halloween Howl" (Oct. 25-26), "Freaky Fashion Show" and "Ghostly Garden Walks." Holiday events begin Nov. 29 and continue through December including "Santa at the Garden."
Historic buildings abound in Hamilton, but Dundurn Castle, which was home to Sir Allan Napier MacNab (premier of the United Canadas, 1854-56) is another National Historic Site. The 40-room home features charming dovecotes, vintage gardens, costumed guides and Victorian Christmas decorations with treats and caroling in November and December.
For the war buff in the family, the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum features aircraft from World War II until the present, including one of the world's only two remaining Lancaster bombers and a rare de Havilland Vampire fighter jet.
Interactive exhibits allow visitors to climb into a fighter cockpit. Flight simulators encourage aspiring pilots to test their mettle. The radio room includes documentaries and videos.
One could wander the trails and museums in this area for days, but don't leave without dining on the waterfront. Just down the road and around the bay is the charming city of Burlington. At Discovery Landing, a 14,200-square-foot glass landmark on Lakeshore Drive, there's an observatory, a 10,000-square-foot reflecting pool, and a restaurant that overlooks the Burlington Bay Bridge and Lake Ontario. The reflecting pool is used for sailing model boats in the summer or fall and ice skating in the winter.
Spencer's at the Waterfront is a full-service restaurant that serves Sunday brunch as well as lunch and dinner. If it's too cold for the outdoor patio, the establishment provides wonderful vistas of the lake any time of year through its glass walls. In fact, watching the weather form on Lake Ontario is an entertaining pastime for even the most timid storm-chaser at this scenic point. And, if you don't care to dine, simply take the elevator to the top of the adjacent observatory and spend as much time as you like searching for funnel spouts. It's both fun and free.
If you go
*Waterfalls: For a list of falls, go to www.hamilton.worldweb.com. Click on "activities" and then "waterfalls."
*Royal Botanical Gardens, 680 Plains Road West, Burlington/Hamilton; (905) 527-1158; www.rbg.ca. Hours: RBG Center is open 9 a.m. to dusk; the outdoor gardens are open 10 a.m. to dusk and the Mediterranean Garden is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: $10 adults; $7 senior citizens and students; $5 for ages 5-12; free for ages under 5; or $25 per family.
*Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, Hamilton International Airport, 9280 Airport Road, Mount Hope; (905) 679-4183; www.warplane.com. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission: $10 adults; $9 seniors and students; $6 ages 6-12; free for ages under 6.
*Dundurn Castle, 610 York Blvd., Hamilton; (905) 546-2872. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily; closed some holidays. Admission: $10 adults; $8 for seniors and students; $5 ages 6-12; free for under 6.
Discovery Center/Spencer's at the Waterfront/Observatory, 1340 Lakeshore Road, Burlington; (905) 633-7494; www.spencersatthewaterfront.com.