Niagara Culinary Tours has created a new way to embrace the holiday season while checking items off of your shopping list.

The Ugly Holiday Sweater Tour – a seasonal favourite on Niagara Culinary Tours repertoire of food expeditions – takes foodies on a themed culinary and retail trip throughout Niagara-on-the-Lake’s historic old town.

Held every Friday, Saturday and Sunday during the month of December, sweater-clad shoppers are encouraged to peruse local artisan shops and enjoy fresh, seasonal cuisine at some of Niagara’s most diverse restaurants, breweries and bakeries. Blending culture and food with holiday spirit, this culinary walking tour – or as co-founder Kimberley Gunning fondly likes to think of as speed dating with restaurants – is the perfect way to get to know Niagara and break into the holiday spirit.

“This tour offers stops to buy holiday gifts for the foodie on your list,” says Gunning.

“Guests are strongly encouraged to wear their best ugly holiday sweater and be in the spirit to have fun. Last year when we popped in to snap a few photos we could hear our group caroling on the street.”

Catering to both locals and tourists alike, Niagara Culinary Tours has created both seasonal and year round walking tours in Niagara Falls, downtown St. Catharines and the historic old town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Each Niagara Culinary Tour visits several local restaurants, giving participants a chance to try a generous portion of one of the establishment’s signature dishes as well as the opportunity to meet chefs, owners and friendly hospitality professionals. 

“No matter where you travel, you have to eat,” said Gunning. “Many people like to go on tours when they travel to new places; so why not merge the two? It is a fantastic way to start a trip – then you have an idea of where to go for the rest of your trip. We started adding [food tours] to every trip we went on, so we thought why not give people coming to Niagara the same opportunity.”

Niagara Culinary Tours have rapidly become a permanent fixture in Niagara’s tour circuit; winning the Ontario Culinary Tourism Experience Award in 2015 – only a year after their inaugural walking tour took place in St. Catharines in November 2014.

Gunning said it is Canada’s cultural diversity and the country’s melting pot of cuisine that has made crafting these tours so special. And Niagara’s food scene is no exception – long having embraced the belief that there truly is no better way to learn about an area than to eat what is grown in their fields and enjoy what is commonly made in their kitchens. 

“I think part of the beauty of our tours is we try to reflect the diversity that is now happening in Niagara-on-the-Lake,” said Kimberley. “It is no longer limited to classic style food, we are seeing so many other types of food being offered and we are excited to share our discoveries.”

Inspired by the rich cultural diversity in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the holiday tour includes leisurely stops at renowned Italian restaurant Bella Vita Ristorante, the Irish Harp Pub, Niagara’s Finest Thai, Il Gelato di Carlotta and The Exchange Brewery. Tour groups will savour rich Italian cuisine, sample made in house craft beer and enjoy flavourful soups and sweet authentic gelato for dessert – along with much more.

“On this tour, you can expect to meet some nice people, learn a little more about Niagara-on-the-Lake and enjoy some more seasonally oriented food [than on other tours],” said Gunning.

Along with the culinary pit stops, the tour will also include stops at retail locations along Queen Street – including Niagara’s famous Kurtz Orchards culinary shop – to allow patrons the chance to make some purchases or inspire them for future shopping trips. “We will be stopping [at a number of locations] and at Kurtz Orchards,” said Gunning. “This family owned and operated company has a beautiful culinary shop on Queen Street and we love their local jams that are made from Niagara fruit.”

Three of the mentioned restaurants will be featured on each tour along with pit stops at – at least – two retail shops.

Gunning said the restaurants and shops featured on the tour will rotate throughout the month of December. As well, there are no permanent fixtures on any of their tours; ensuring the experience remains fresh and new for returning walkers.

Along with the culinary stops and treats, tour participants are given a take away gift and the opportunity to win a prize for the best ugly holiday sweater.

“We’re on the hunt right now for the prizes for this year,” said Gunning.

“In the past we have been lucky enough to find Ugly Sweater novelty items such as knitted wine bottle covers and travel mugs.  We’ll see what this year’s shopping expedition brings.”

Along with tasty food and great shopping, each tour’s lead guide is trained to give a unique perspective on the history, architecture and heritage sites of the town–making for a wonderful distraction during the relatively lengthy walks between stops.

“We add a bit of seasonal history into this tour,” said Kimberley. “Each guide has their own flare for story telling so we leave it up to them to create an enjoyable tour.  We always make sure to share information on the local holiday events that are coming up.  This includes the Niagara-on-the-Lake Candlelight Stroll and the Holiday House Tour. We also stop to admire the houses in town that are decorated so magnificently for the holidays.”

Each tour consists of 1-12 people and costs $55 dollars per person. Gunning said the tours are a great way to celebrate the holidays with friends, family or coworkers.

Niagara Culinary Tours began after Kimberley and her husband and cofounder Steven Lovelace decided to take a road trip for their 20th wedding anniversary.

Fate came knocking when a pamphlet for a food tour found its way into Gunning’s hands while in Charleston, South Carolina. Following an amazing tour, they were both inspired to create their own company and bring this experience back to home with them.

“On the way home, we starting chatting, and getting a little excited, because [the tour] was nothing we had ever done before,” said Lovelace. “There are not a lot of food tours in Canada – and certainly not in [Niagara], apart from one other, but they focus more on retail – so we had more of a vision to focus on as much restaurant as we could and more the culinary side of it.”

“We love wine and food and [Steven] being a wine agent, he works with a lot of restaurants, so we started to talk to a few close friends that are in the food and wine industry and ask what they thought about it and the response was really good. So we said okay let’s do this,” said Gunning.

“We have so many chefs known for being local-vores, we live in an area steeped in history and we are surrounded by wine. It was just a perfect match.”

If the Ugly Sweater Holiday Tour inspires you to return for another culinary walk, Niagara Culinary Tours also host year round [with seasonal and weather limitations] foodie tours in Niagara Falls, downtown St. Catharines and a similar tour to the Holiday Sweater walk in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The Niagara Falls tour – which prides itself as very family friendly and a draw for all ages – has featured past pit stops at Il Sorriso Cafe and Pizzeria, the Old Stone Inn and others. The St. Catharines tour (the founders favourite) boasts stops at local favourite Beechwood Doughnuts, European inspired Caffe Gatti, the delicious vegan restaurant Rise Above, Mahtay Café and Lounge and the luxurious Wellington Court.

Each tour costs between $55-$65 dollars per person and caters to every demographic, every age group, every allergy, every foodie and culinary enthusiast.

Gunning and Lovelace also host a variety of special events and one time tours throughout the year, focusing on unique facets of Niagara’s culinary world that are outside the parameter of their usual walking tour circuits. Past events have included foraging excursions and culinary photography workshops where participants learnt how to shoot their food and plate for social media purposes.

Where to find them:

For more information on the tours or to purchase tickets visit niagaraculinarytours.com. 

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