"Frolic and Fun for the Old and Young" reads a 1920s advertisement for Lake Side Park in Port Dalhousie. This now quaint village within the city of St. Catharines was the summer party hot spot in the first few decades of the 20th century.
Over 250,000 men, women and children would descend upon Port Dalhousie every summer, coming by large steamships, small boats, trolleys and Model-T Fords, dressed in their weekend finery and ready for a good time. And a good time they had -- it was the bee's knees, you could say.
Dance-crazy flappers shook, trotted and tangoed in the dance hall. Bathers clad in midthigh or longer suits splashed in the waters of Lake Ontario. Youngsters slid down the popular water slide, which was kept wet at all times to avoid a burnt bottom. They twirled on the turn-of-the-century carousel with its colorfully painted lions, horses and giraffes. It cost a whole nickel to ride. Men tried their luck on games of chance at the midway and, of course, everyone picnicked.
Picnics were huge social events in this era. Organized by churches and companies, attendees could number in the thousands. The most famous one in Lakeside Park was the Emancipation Day Picnic, which commemorated the 1833 act leading to the eventual freedom of 800,000 slaves held in the British Empire. Aptly nicknamed "The Big Picnic," this social event was highly anticipated. Between 6,000 and 8,000 people were celebrating with music, dance and enormous quantities of fried chicken and salads.
With time and the end of the steamer era, Lake Side Park's glory days faded, but Port Dalhousie remains to this day a popular outing on summer days, with frolic and fun still to be had.
The village itself, a cluster of small streets, is reminiscent of an English Victorian seaside town with an abundance of drinking establishments, restaurants and small shops all tightly packed together, housed in turn-of-the-century buildings.
The requisite candy shop, Old Port Candy and Sweets, 28 Lakeport Road (www.oldportcandy.com; (905) 938-0611), boasts a cavity with every visit. It may well be worth a trip to the dentist to sample a few treats from the huge selection of British, retro and novelty candies. The only trouble with this place is that if you bring in your kids, it may be impossible to get them back out. Unless, of course, you bribe them with ice cream --also served here.
Port Mansion Hotel, 12 Lakeport Road (www.portmansion.com (905) 934-0575), built during the Civil War, has gone through several incarnations in its 150 years and now operates as a nightclub, theater and restaurant (the dining and theater areas are separate, but dinner and a show can be had for one price).
The theater's cozy interior, with its wood-panel walls, stained glass, Tiffany lamps and wrought-iron staircases, provides an intimate experience where the audience is never more than 15 feet from the stage. We were thoroughly impressed with their professional production of Neil Simon's "Plaza Suite" when we visited. "The Rocky Horror Show" is playing through Aug. 7; "A Country Legend: The Pasty Cline Show" opens Aug. 13. The restaurant patio is a prime spot to soak up the convivial lakeside atmosphere.
Another superb location to dine with a view is Treadwell, 61 Lakeport Road (www.treadwellcuisine.com; (905) 934-979). The extraordinary locks of the Welland Canal, a bubbling waterfall, jumping fish and fishermen trying to catch them are just a few of the sights to behold while enjoying your meal. Chef Stephen Treadwell subscribes to the farm-to-table philosophy, and most items are sourced from local suppliers, including fresh produce from Wyndym Farm just down the road, beef from Cumbrae Farms near Guelph, cheese from Upper Canada Cheese Co., lamb and pork from -- well, you get the idea. The result is award-winning Niagara cuisine and a restaurant that is definitely worth a visit.
Weekends, the Artists in Market at Lock and Main Market Place, 17 Lock St., hosts local artists and crafts people displaying and selling paintings, ceramics, textiles and more.
Of course, you can always have a picnic. The steamships may have gone and bathing apparel may be more revealing, but Lake Side Park is still a terrific place to get together with family and friends, stroll along the lakeshore and piers, take pictures of the lighthouses and ride the merry-go-round.
Not only is the original carousel still in the park with its majestic four-abreast hand-carved animals, but the price hasn't changed. Yes, it's true: 5 cents will buy you a nostalgic spin on this now antique amusement ride. And that really is -- as they said in the '20s -- the cat's pajamas.
If you go:
Traveling on the QEW, exit at Ontario Street (Exit 470) in St. Catharines. Turn left on Ontario Street to Lakeport Road. Turn left onto Lakeport and follow the signs to Port Dalhousie.