It was a hot, sticky August afternoon and we'd driven six hours from Ottawa, through Toronto's eight lane traffic, and finally arrived at our cottage near Beamsville, on the Niagara Peninsula.
It was so good to be back!
We'd prepare a delicious dinner, grill in the backyard and enjoy our friends' company and several bottles of wine at the table on the patio that overlooks the vineyard, with Lake Ontario shimmering beyond.
Perhaps you're imagining that I'm some wealthy person with a vineyard cottage. It's true I don't worry about upkeep, laundry or mortgage payments. But truth be told, we rented Harvest Guest Cottage, with our friends, for a weekend for very reasonable price (especially when divided among three or four couples).
It's billed as a wine-country cottage, and it certainly is that.
During our first visit, one of our group declared the wine another had brought from Ottawa was plonk. So he and I hopped in a car and, within minutes were at Vineland Estates, swirling, sampling and buying a couple of bottles to take back to the party. Total elapsed time: About 15 minutes.
Both years, we eased into the weekend with a Friday dinner at the cottage, splurging the next night with multi-course, wine-paired dinners at nearby wineries.
The cottage is owned by Crush on Niagara, a wine touring company that offers a variety of escorted tours in the region, with pickup at your door.
But for us, it's as much about cycling as it is about wine. In fact, while we enjoyed over-the-top meals, visited wonderful wineries and even got to admire Niagara Falls, when I asked my husband about his favourite part, he surprised me by saying what I was thinking: Flying down that big hill in the middle of a 35-kilometre cycle on the Saturday morning.
I should stop to clarify. Perhaps you're imaging yourself peddling up quiet roads to a quaint cottage set on a vineyard. I know I did before our first visit. In fact the cottage is a squat little brick farmhouse on a busy road/minor highway I wouldn't dream of trying to cycle on. Nearby sideroads lead invariably, and rather steeply, uphill, up to The Bench where the best grapes grow, but would make gruelling cycling, mostly on gravel.
But if you've already transported your bikes on a car rack, it's no big deal to tote them a bit farther to several great cycling routes in the area, each with free parking at the start.
The first summer, not knowing any better, we parked near Fort George, just outside Niagara-on-the-Lake, and cycled straight down the paved Niagara River Recreational Trail to Niagara Falls for lunch. With the Niagara Parkway on one side and the turquoise Niagara River deep down the gorge on the other, it's unbelievably spectacular. As one of the many historical plaques along the way told us, during the 1940s Winston Churchill described it as the prettiest Sunday Drive in the world.
I bet he'd find it even prettier today, with vineyards and wineries lining part of the parkway.
The only problem is that the bike path peters out temporarily somewhere between the whirlpool gorge and Niagara Falls, so we ended up navigating town sidewalks and the narrow shoulders of the road.
We made it, of course, and had lunch in the refreshing mist overlooking the falls, before cycling more or less along the same route back.
Last summer, we followed a similar route, but with the help of new pamphlet put out by Tourism Niagara, avoided Niagara Falls and cycled a large rectangular route rather than doubling back. This route also takes in Churchill's scenic drive to the outskirts of Niagara Falls, but then veers into back streets, along some pretty paths, down that exhilarating hill and through orchards where we inhaled the sweet fragrance of ripe peaches.
At the corner where we met up again with the Niagara Parkway, we stopped for a lunch at a place with picnic tables, sandwiches and hot, buttery corn on the cob.
That route is one of six in the pamphlet. I'd also like to try the one that travels along the Welland Canal, or Rockway, which takes you near Henry of Pelham's pretty winery, or the Wainfleet Picnic Ride, in some of Canada's best agricultural land (think artisan growers of heritage vegetables). Besides the Greater Niagara Circle Route, which is more than 140 kilometres long, the routes range from 32 to 42 km and are mostly flat or with rolling hills.
All are within a 30-minute drive of Harvest Guest Cottage, the perfect place to return for a hot bath, conversation with friends and a well-earned glass of wine.
-- Canwest News Service
IF YOU GO
HARVEST GUEST COTTAGE: Has four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a large kitchen and back patio with gas barbecue. We found it very comfortable for three couples.
COST: From $145 for one room for one night with a hearty breakfast basket to $900 for the whole cottage for a weekend (add $45 if you want the fridge stocked with breakfast foods). Wine packages, which include one night's accommodation, breakfast basket, a vineyard and winery tour and a meal at a nearby winery start at $230 per person.
CONTACTS: www.crushtours.com or 1-866-408-WINE
CYCLING PAMPHLET: The Cycling in Niagara map and guide is available free by calling Tourism Niagara at 1-800- 263-2988 or emailing gatewaytourismniagara. com. You can also find it on the website www.tourismniagara.com (in the online brochure section), or pick it up at the Gateway Niagara Information Centre at the Casablanca exit from