As I mentioned in a previous post about my vacation priorities, whether it means checking out a local band at a bar, attending a concert or simply visiting musically significant sites and venues around town, I love connecting with music while I’m traveling. So, to satisfy the music portion of our Easter vacation in Canada, Dave and I paid homage to one of our favorite bands, the Toronto-based Rush by casually visiting a few places in and around the city connected to members of the band.
On the way up to Toronto, we stopped to have lunch in the beautiful city of St. Catherines, located about 32 miles south of Toronto along the shore of Lake Ontario. The waterfront village of Port Dalhousie, which was incorporated into St. Catherines in 1961, is where Rush drummer Neil Peart grew up – hence our first Rush connection. We didn’t get to spend much time exploring the outskirts of the downtown area during our brief visit, unfortunately, but I learned that “The Garden City” garnered its nicknamed from the beautiful gardens and parks that are found within its boundaries. St. Catherines is also considered the metropolis of the Niagara Region and lies along a major telecommunications route between the United States and Canada.
I’d love to go back and see more of the city now that I’ve learned a bit about its history, which dates back to the late 18th century (1760s perhaps), when the area was settled by United Empire Loyalists. Since its inception as an agricultural settlement over 250 years ago the character of St. Catherines has evolved into the thriving city it is today. First an agricultural community called “The Twelve,” the settlement was later known as Shipman’s Corners and became populated by sawmills and gristmills, leading to its establishment as the principal milling site of the eastern Niagara Peninsula.
By the first quarter of the 19th century, the area was renamed St. Catherines, probably after the wife of a prominent businessman, the Honorable Robert Hamilton. Thanks to the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 and businessman William Hamilton Merritt’s canal system connecting Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, St. Catherines transformed into an industrial hub.
The town of St. Catherines, incorporated in 1845, continued to grow and develop throughout the 19th century thanks to farming and industry, but it also became renowned as a health spa due to salt springs that had been discovered earlier in the century. It was also a critical location for fugitive slaves and abolitionists after the American Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850 and served as the home base for Harriet Tubman for a period of time.
In 1876 St. Catherines was officially designated as a city and became increasingly urbanized thanks to the introduction of manufacturing and the expansion of business throughout the city. The city’s boundaries grew with the absorption of surrounding towns and villages, including Port Dalhousie, in the latter half of the 20th century. As mentioned before, St. Catherines functions today as a major city in the Niagara Region, which is distinguished by the vast number of local wineries that benefit from its fertile soils and streams.
Anyways, getting back to our journey, we enjoyed some wonderful local beers brewed on site at the Merchant Ale House Brew Pub and Restaurant, which was an adorable brew pub recommended to us by friends who had discovered it during a previous trip to Canada. I’ll elaborate more on our experience trying the beer at the ale house, plus some additional information on the Niagara Region in a later post. Needless to say we had a very lovely afternoon filled with sunshine, beer and appetizers, even thought we tried to order fried pickles and our waitress somehow misconstrued that to mean we wanted fish and potatoes (still yummy, though).
If we had more time, I would have like to stopped at Port Dalhousie and checked out Lakeside Park, immortalized in the Rush song of the same name.
Thanks for indulging my historical ramblings while in St. Catherines. Continuing along our journey, once we arrived in Toronto, we headed over to the CN Tower to have a drink and see the city from the clouds. Rogers Centre – the home of the Toronto Blue Jays – stands right next door to the tower. Rush bassist Geddy Lee is a huge baseball fan and so it was neat to see the home of his beloved team, even though I am a die-hard Pittsburgh Pirates fan. If we were in town longer we might have been able to grab a pair of tickets to the April 2 home opener, where Lee threw out the first pitch.
Another friend recommended dining in the quaint Little Italy section of town that evening. After wandering along the main drag, College Street, we finally chose the small yet classy Trattoria Taverniti. Our choice of restaurant was an example of what I picture as the quintessential Italian restaurant – warm brick interior, red and white checkered tablecloths and the Italian grandmother (executive chef Rosina Taverniti) slaving away in the kitchen creating our delicious margarita pizza and fried calamari. Anyways, it turns out that we planned on heading to that area anyways to check out a small music club with our third Rush connection.
After dinner at Taverniti, we hopped right across the street and grabbed a drink at The Orbit Room, a music club that was co-founded in 1994 by Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson and features live local bands every night of the week, including classic rock, blues, reggae pop, funk and soul and Stax groups, even a Steely Dan tribute band. I really liked the cool vibe of the small, dimly-lit dive bar located on an upper floor in the building, which wasn’t indicated by the narrow, nondescript entrance. If it wasn’t for the sign outside we would have passed the place right up. In fact, it actually looked closed and abandoned! We tried to get in earlier before dinner to have a drink but found out that the club didn’t open until 9:00p.m. The Dave Murphy band, the featured band on Friday nights, didn’t take the stage until 10:30p.m. After already being up for twelve hours and traveling for over six of those, we were too exhausted to make it to see the band. Another time!