With Valentine’s weekend approaching, maybe you’re torn between town and country for your romantic mini-break. Love blossoms on quiet moments of togetherness and excitement, so I say combine both in a Toronto-Niagara getaway with food and drink for two at the heart of the adventure.
Historically known as the Honeymoon Capital, I love Niagara for the kitsch factor and the thrill of the Falls—especially beautiful in winter when they often freeze over. And it’s a great starting point to explore wine country, where there are romantic restaurants, fun food lovers’ experiences and creative cool-climate wines to try.
S’more Fun at Peller Estates
Couples at Peller Estates get cozy in parkas in the 10Below Peller Icewine Lounge—sculpted from ice and maintained at -10C, the optimum harvesting temperature for ice wine grapes. You can stand at the ice bar, but I love the sheepskin-strewn ice benches, where you can sip several ice wines or clink glasses of Ice Cuvee—a honeyed sparkling white topped with Vidal icewine. Then back upstairs in the warmth you can try the Vino and Cocoa tasting experience that pairs Peller Estate wines with four international chocolates. My favourite part: toasting giant ice-wine marshmallows for DIY luxe s’mores.
Tip: Check out the tasting room and gift store for a candle holder made from barrel wood—perfect for soft-lit dinners year-round.
The (89-Day-Aged) Beef at Backhouse
Backhouse, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, exudes warmth and the fiery drama of a wood-fired grill and oven. From my table—and most spots in the dining room—I can see Chef Ryan Crawford in his open kitchen. He creates cool-climate dishes that bring together vegetables cultivated on his restaurant farm flanked by peach orchards; meat cuts from animals bought whole; and wines bottled by Niagara winemakers exclusively for Backhouse’s “Off the Wall” menu. For V-Day, Chef has prepared something extra special: striploin-for-two aged eighty-nine days in-house. I like a man who’s already planning for Valentine’s before Christmas has even come.
Tip: Finish your meal with a good snog—a craft cocktail made with maple-sweetened whiskey, eggnog and nutmeg.
Where to Sleep in Niagara
For the most up-close and dramatic views of the Falls book the Valentine’s package at Niagara Falls Hilton. In the king suite you’ll find a basket with VQA wines, glasses and chocolate truffles. Or if you want to go rural, stay in the charming village of Jordan at boutique hotel Inn on the Twenty. Depending on where your relationship’s at, opt for the couple’s spa getaway or the Say “I Do” in Wine Country package, which comes with officiant, witnesses and a single-tiered wedding cake, not to mention bubbly from neighbouring winery Cave Springs and chocolate-dipped strawberries.
Tip: Swing by Tawse winery so you can take a bottle of their Chardonnay barrel-aged ice wine back to your room. It’s exceptionally rare to make ice wine with these pricey grapes, and I love the results: a beautifully balanced sipper with interesting butterscotch notes.
Once you’re recharged by waterfalls and winery chilling, it’s time to take on the city.
Distillery District Bar Hop
The Distillery District is all charm, with its cobbled lanes and historic buildings. Locals in love head here for drinks in the warehouse bars and boutique stores. I start at Mill Street Brew Pub—and get cozy over their hoppy honey-and-ginger-spiced beer, “A Winter’s Tale.” Next at El Catrin Destileria—a modern Mexican restaurant with a dramatic 40-foot day-of-the-dead-inspired mural wall—I peruse a menu of over 120 tequilas and mescals. More original than roses for Valentines, I savour the hibisco rosa: a rosewater, hibiscus and citrus tequila-based house cocktail. To finish the evening, I recommend sharing a flight of fermented rice wine, made with fresh Ontario springwater, at boutique distillery Izumi, and comparing notes on which of their seven sakes make their hearts flutter.
Midnight Feast at Le Dolci
West Enders love date night at Le Dolci Culinary Classroom & Bakeshop—a pastry school where ombré-frosted cakes and vanilla and chocolate aromas greet you on entry. You can learn to make macarons or doughnuts—I go for pie making, an art you can customize in the name of love (one student even handcrafts a crust proposal). Or you can sign up for Naked Cake Decorating (it’s the cake that’s naked, BTW, not the amateur patissiers). The goal is to overload your naked cake with chocolate shards, popcorn, Oreos, ganache—all the crazy toppings you fancy.
Tip: On Valentine’s Day, couples can take a 10pm-midnight class that involves rolling truffles, filling bonbons and sipping bubbly.
Kensington Market Shopping Spree
Walk hand-in-hand through the streets of Kensington market, the quintessential Toronto neighbourhood where dozens of global culinary cultures are represented. I pick up the Curry Lovers blend at House of Spice as an aromatic aphrodisiac. And my tip for chivalrous types: forget the Valentines bling and splurge instead on gold pineapple tumblers for two, at Cocktail Emporium. At Good Egg, a culinary book and gift store, peruse romance-sparking tomes, such as the exquisite title Chocolate in the Short Stacks series (I decide to splurge on lovebird cookie cutters.)
Tip: Steps away in Chinatown, you can drop into Chine Hot Pot & Noodles and customize the shared ingredients and sauce blends for your steamy Chinese fondue à deux.
Where to Sleep in Toronto
In the heart of the city, I find the Ritz-Carlton a no-regrets splurge. The best part? The Cheese Cave in hotel restaurant, TOCA. There 35 cheeses from around the world sit for months in a temperature controlled glass room, on wooden shelves, like barn owls dozing on rafters, maturing to perfection. A little further East, the Ivy at Verity is ideal for an intimate boutique hotel experience. Bonus romance points: it’s inside a restored 19th century chocolate factory.
Tip: At TOCA, book spots at the special Valentine’s event Soft and Bubbly, which brings together soft cheeses and sparkling wines. And romantics staying at the Ivy at Verity can call ahead to have a bouquet of flowers—or even a cookie platter—in their room on arrival.
Reach Niagara Falls—and nearby wine country—in under two hours by train from downtown Toronto.
Chocolates on display at Soma in the Distillery District (image: Tourism Toronto)