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Ontario Road Trip: St. Catharines

By Tiffany Mayer | @EatingNiagara

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Most people coming to Niagara to see the water likely aren’t getting off the highway in St. Catharines.

Breathtaking as the Niagara Falls are, one of the most stunning stretches of blue gold in the region can be found at a St. Catharines park called Happy Rolph’s Bird Sanctuary and Petting Farm.

It’s my happy place, really, standing out for its beauty and how easy it is to just be in the moment here. Happy Rolph’s is bounded by Lake Ontario, offering a view to the Toronto skyline on a clear day — or seemingly endless water on a cloudy one — along the park’s portion of the Waterfront Trail, which cuts a 780-kilometre swath from nearby Niagara-on-the-Lake to the Quebec border. It’s a scene that plays out to the soundtrack of waves lapping a rocky break wall, birds singing and leaves rustling in the lake breeze, like a real life relaxation CD.

Locally, this branch of the trail is known as the 9/11 Memorial Trail, lined with 27 trees planted in honour of each of the Canadians killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. With one deep breath of lake air, it’s easy to get lost in your thoughts here. But just a few steps away, it’s just as easy to lost in a moment of simple, childlike joy, thanks to the goats, sheep, cows, rabbits, chickens and ponies who make Happy Rolph’s their home for the summer.

The petting farm portion of the park offers visitors the chance to feed the four-legged and feathered residents and even interact with them in a designated petting area. This is the place where I come on a summer’s evening to let my inner child play.

Even if rubbing shoulders with a goat doesn’t appeal, it’s impossible not to smile seeing the wide-eyed wonder and hearing the giggles of fearless children who want to make friends with every critter. The lines around my eyes get deeper with each visit because of the perma-grin I wear the entire time I’m here.

Petting farm

The cherry on top of a visit to Happy Rolph’s is heading to the Avondale Dairy Bar afterward, where sundaes, banana splits, malts, floats and cones piled high are served. Even a non-dairy soft serve is an option for those who can’t have the real thing. A throwback to times past, the Avondale has been making and scooping ice cream since 1956.

Oldies spill from bullhorn speakers while visitors keep time with every lick and slurp. On a hot day, a long lineup is as common a sight as a scoop of Tiger Tail or a fresh Niagara peach sundae. But don’t worry. It moves quickly, much like the lovebirds who make a beeline for the nearby swing sets to share a cone.

Avondale ice cream

Couples come to the Avondale profess their love for ice cream and each other on those swings. Stories abound about first dates and marriage proposals that have happened at the Avondale and it’s not just the lore of locals. Day trippers from outside Niagara have stopped at the Stewart Road ice cream parlour to spin their own romantic yarn. But fear not if all you leave with is tighter-fitting pants rather than your soul mate. I’m sure that even before the last crumb of your waffle cone is eaten, you’ll have fallen in love anyway.

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