You think you know a place, sometimes even if you have never been there. Then you visit, and suddenly the curtains are lifted, the fog dissolves, and you discover. That’s what I found during a weekend jaunt to the region known as Hamilton Halton Brant. The area is large, and ripe with natural wonders. The prices are surprising low. And it's not far from Toronto.
First the place that’s now being called The New Brooklyn: Hamilton. Steeltown, it turns out, has exceptional nature, notably the Niagara Escarpment. It’s home to over two dozen waterfalls, and the cherished Bruce Trail cuts through the town. At various points on the escarpment the city is hidden by trees, and the air is cool as you approach one of the many waterfalls. There are waterfall hikes ranging from two kilometres to five days. Some, like Tiffany Falls, begin in suburbia and then pass it by for a short easy walk.. Other tours offer a shuttle, hotel and meals.
In Hamilton, many of the neighborhoods are canopied with trees and alive with birdsong.. In Gage Park, there’s a large expanse of lawn and a band shell. This year was it hosted its first Festival of World Music, part of the growing arts scene. Like in Brooklyn, Hamilton was given an impetus by inexpensive housing and plenty of space. Gallery central is James Street North , which has regular art crawls and periodic supercrawl festivities. .
But the artistic pinnacle is the Art Gallery of Hamilton, which is celebrating its centennial with a showing of 100 works from its permanent collection. In addition, there’s a blockbuster exhibit, Into the Light: The Paintings of William Blair Bruce. Bruce is called Canada’s first impressionist painter, but only in his youth did he paint scenes of Canada, which is why he is so little known in his native land. Growing up in Hamilton, Bruce (1859-1906) left for France in 1881 and never looked back. He studied at the Barbizon School, exhibited at the Paris Salon and lived in Giverny. He painted nature and figures, including his Swedish wife, the sculptor Caroline Benedicks. He spent his last years with her on an island off Sweden, where he painted haunting seascapes
Blair’s work made possible the Hamilton Art gallery. The year was 1914, and Blair’s family donated 29 of his paintings to the city of Hamilton with the proviso that an art gallery be established. The current exhibit includes 100 paintings, which come from the National Gallery, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Museum in Stockholm. The exhibition will be at the AGH until Octoer 5, 2114.
Guiding visitors through the Gallery was the very knowledgeable Bill Manson, author of the book, Up and Down Locke Street. It is Hamilton’s signature cool street, with cafes, antique shops and boutiques.
The Earth to Table Bread Bar really struts the New Hamilton. Its ceilings are high and industrial, and the ingredients are as local as possible.. Owner and pastry chef, Bettina Schormann, is confident. “We have developed a community,” she says. . Open only four years ago, the 50-seat eaterie was one of the first of the trendy cafes. In the morning it’s an alternative to Starbucks. Later, it serves lunch and dinner.
‘We try to push the envelope, but we also have to offer food that feels comfortable,” Schormann says. Hence the pizzas, stone baked and varied.
Salads are up to trend: Kale is done Caesar style; arugula and fennel salad come with sunflower seeds and fontina cheese. Quionoa burgers are dressed with guacamole, red pepper aioli and arugula .Dessert includes milkshakes from a local organic dairy, and chef Schormann’s pies.
My next stop, 35 minutes away, is the Grand River, and the town that overlooks it, Paris Ontario. Named for the old mines where gympsum was used for plaster of Paris, the town has been called the prettiest in Ontario, with an historic main street that offers everything from a spa, bookstore, restaurants, a cheese store and a venerable linens emporium that has been known for decades.
At one end of the street is the Arlington Hotel, the prefect grand hotel for a small town, with surprisingly low prices and stylish decor. Opened 1851, it has passed through different owners, and in June of this year it reopened in a style that respects the past but is anchored in the high tech present.
The Forks, the hotel’s restaurant, uses local ingredients to make accomplished specialties, like the pickerel stuffed with creamed leeks,with swiss chard, charred cherry tomatoes, sweet pea and tarragon sauce. It offers a range of salads and pasta dishes; the lunch menu includes a delectable roast chicken wrap with pancetta, watercress, tomatoes, roasted peppers and eggplant spread.
The next day, it was time to try the Grand River. My Guide, Jason, was from the Grand River Rafting Company, which does everything from renting you a kayak or raft or canoe, to guiding, to organizing groups. As we canoed down the river, Jason pointed out various trees, a snapping turtle and a heron. We stopped at a spring, which yielded truly celestial water, and I also tasted watercress, which deserves its name because it grows near water. The trips run from two hours to overnight camping. The river is mostly calm, although we did pass a class one rapid called the “big bloop”. But for the most part, it was a delightful summer’s day meander down the river. Made more relaxing because it was only a one to one and a half hour drive from Toronto.