What was once a sleepy Canadian steel manufacturing town is now a bustling city with plenty to see and do, in and around its surrounding areas.
ONCE upon a time, nobody ever wanted to go to Hamilton, Ontario, unless they were working in the steel manufacturing plants or attending the university famous for its engineering and business faculties. And least of all, tourists. When travellers thought of Canada, they would opt for popular destinations such as Toronto, Vancouver or Niagara Falls. Except, of course, an off-the-beaten-track traveller like yours truly.
Last October, when I returned to Hamilton where I once studied, for my cousin’s wedding, I had the opportunity to see a different side of the city and its surrounding townships. This off-the-tourist-grid city is unique in its offering of natural parks and forest reserves, interesting sites, including historical ones, and its special cuisine.
The city sits on the tip of Lake Ontario and is an hour’s drive from the Toronto metropolis. To the locals, Hamilton is divided into two main areas – Downtown and the Mountain, the latter a self-contained suburban township built atop a gigantic mountain, and comprising residences, schools, colleges, shopping malls, restaurants and even hospitals. Downtown is, of course, where the central commercial district is located, and further west is the “academic” community of McMaster University.
Not just the quaint city, but also its surrounding areas boast nature reserves which are wonderful for a picnic or relaxing stroll. During my stay in Hamilton, I had the opportunity to visit the Royal Botanical Gardens, including the Aboretum, which houses flowers during spring; Cootes Paradise, which is a natural forest reserve; and Princess Point, with its forest trails. The parkland was gilded in the golden colours of autumn (or fall, to the Canadians) and in springtime, it is resplendent with floral blooms.
Hamilton, known as the City of Waterfalls, has been rebranded The Waterfall Capital of The World, and is home to over 130 waterfalls. Although not nearly as huge or well-known as the Niagara, Albion Falls, a 19m cascade waterfall in King’s Forest, and also Devil’s Punchbowl, a 37m ribbon waterfall, are still a sight to behold.
At the West End of the city, fronting Lake Ontario, is the Bayfront Park. The 16ha waterfront park is an excellent place for fishing, yachting and seasonal public boat rides. Pedestrian and cycling trails, as well as cafés, are also available. In summer, concerts and festivals are often held here.
Port Dover, an hour’s drive southwest of Hamilton, is another popular spot for a day trip. Nestled on the north shore of Lake Erie, it offers a beach for swimming and sunbathing, as well as several quaint souvenir shops and cafés.
Sights and sounds
Less than a half hour’s drive from Hamilton, in Flamborough, is the Westfield Heritage Village, which comprises over 30 restored historical buildings surrounded by scenic forest trails and meadows. This historical village was created by two high-school teachers from Brantford (a half-hour drive from Hamilton), using authentic buildings and furnishings that were moved here from their original locations. From an ancient railway station and vintage train, to an old schoolhouse and barn that seem to have been plucked out from the pages of a history book, the 3.4sq km site is a treasure trove that takes one back in time to the days of the early settlers and pioneers.
You don’t have to an aircraft aficionado to be fascinated by the Canadian Heritage Warplane Museum. It houses over 40 aircraft in its former-hangar exhibition gallery, including restored ones and replicas, such as the Avro Lancaster, Westland Lysander and Bristol Bolingbroke. Visitors are allowed to get into certain exhibits to experience being in the cockpit or interior of an antique aircraft. Next to the museum is an airfield where visitors can ride in selected planes.
One of the highlights of my trip was a visit to Myers Apple Farm in Copetown, just a 20-minute drive from Hamilton. Fortunately, it was apple-picking season. There is also a petting zoo with farm animals, making it an excellent place for a family outing.
A trip to Bennett’s Apples and Cider Market was also part of my itinerary. Bennett’s is not your conventional market. Not only does it have fresh fruits and vegetables, maple syrup, and one of the best apple ciders I’ve ever tasted, it also offers home-baked pies and pastries such as apple crumble and pumpkin pie.
Half an hour’s drive southwest from Hamilton is the Six Nations Reserve. This is the reservation area for six Native American tribes – the Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, Onondaga, and Tuscarora – with its own housing, schools and businesses. While similar to surrounding towns and cities, the cost of living here is much lower, and items such as petrol and cigarettes are tax-exempt.
Due to its international community, dining in Hamilton can be a cosmopolitan affair. The great thing about staying with relatives was that I got to sample homemade meals, from hearty breakfasts of scramble eggs and sausages, French toast with bacon, pancakes with maple syrup topped with strawberries and blueberries, to an authentic Canadian Thanksgiving dinner with roast turkey, stuffing and sides.
While in the city, I had the opportunity to taste genuine Italian fare, a Mediterranean meal, and even fast-food that actually tastes good and is healthy!
The Italian community in Hamilton is a fairly large one, and my first dinner was at La Cantina, an Italian restaurant located Downtown, where we feasted on an array of pastas, pizzas and mussels cooked in white wine.
We also checked out trendy Locke Street with its classy restaurants and unique shops. Dinner was at NaRoma, an Italian-style pizza bar which is a favourite hangout for young working professionals. Even though I’ve never really been a pizza fan, with yummy toppings like pepperoni, sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, feta cheese, and unique ones like sweet potato, I was sold the minute I took my first bite.
We also visited Denninger’s Foods Of The World and lunched at their deli. Besides the usual sandwiches, sausages and meats that a deli offers, we tried the meat-stuffed cabbage rolls, perogees (which are Polish-style stuffed dumplings with meat, onions and cottage cheese), and a unique soup called Italian Wedding – it is an American-Italian-style soup containing green vegetables like cabbage, lettuce or spinach, meat such as sausages and meatballs, and tiny pasta bits, in a clear chicken broth, so named from a mistranslation of the Italian word meaning “married”, referring to the fact that meats and green vegetables go well together.
Even eating fast food is not without its charm. One of my most “luxurious” meals as a student in Canada many years ago was Swiss Chalet’s roast chicken and fries. After church on Sundays, a bunch of us would head to Swiss Chalet for lunch. So, returning to this famous Canadian fast-food chain for its rotisserie chicken – healthy because it is not fried but oven-roasted – was quite memorable for me.
At practically every corner, there was a Tim Horton’s and sometimes, next to it, a Wendy’s. One day, when my uncle, who was driving us around, stopped at Tim Horton’s for coffee, I took the opportunity to try the Mediterranean-style Baja salad at Wendy’s. I was impressed that something from a fast-food chain could taste so good and yet be so healthy with its fresh vegetables topped with avocado dressing and freshly grated cheese.
The most unique thing about travelling to a place like Hamilton is that the activities available vary according to the seasons, and being off the regular tourist grid, it is not overly commercialised. Instead, there is a down-to-earth goodness and authenticity about the places I visited, the sights I saw, the people I met, and even the meals I partook of. If I had the chance to visit Hamilton again, I most definitely would, but next time, I would try a different season to experience a different aspect of its beauty.