Celebrates its 150th birthday with a year long party

Written and photographed by: Sandra Ozkur

If you’ve been to Niagara-on-the-Lake, you probably have a picture of yourself in front of the Prince of Wales Hotel. One of the most photographed buildings in town, this historic hotel sits on a tree-lined boulevard at the corner of King and Picton Streets. The colonial architecture, lush flowerbeds, and horse-drawn carriages attract a lot of attention and make the perfect backdrop for photographs. This year, the Prince of Wales has been celebrating its 150th birthday with all who come to visit.

This landmark hotel is older than Canada itself: it was built in 1864, three years before Confederation. Niagara-on-the-Lake, originally known as Newark, was the first capital of Upper Canada and was once a bustling shipping port, first seat of parliament, and headquarters for the British Army during the War of 1812. This picturesque little town has always attracted a steady stream of visitors, for business or pleasure, who needed accommodation and so this hotel was built.

The Prince of Wales Hotel was originally known as Long’s Hotel, but as the years went by, the property changed hands and was re-named the Arcade Hotel. It received its current name in 1901, to honour a visit from the Prince of Wales and his wife, the future King George and Queen Mary. The Prince of Wales insignia, three feathers surrounded by a crown, can be seen on the brass door handles and numerous other places throughout the property.

By 1975, when the Wiens family purchased the hotel and several adjacent buildings, the Prince of Wales Hotel had fallen on hard times. John Wiens enlarged room capacity by joining the buildings together and brought the hotel a more respectable reputation. The Prince of Wales Hotel now had 110 rooms, which includes the South Wing, the Studio, and the Court Buildings. During the Wiens’ era, the lounge became a popular hangout for locals and visitors alike. It was famous for the best hamburgers in town.

Vintage Hotel Properties, owned by Mr. Jimmy Lai, purchased the Prince of Wales in 1998. He embarked on a complete renovation of the entire property to make it worthy of its royal name. Mr. Lai put his sister, Ms. Si Wai Lai, in charge of the project as General Manager. Together, they are the visionaries who brought the Prince of Wales Hotel to the state of opulent beauty that we enjoy today.

No expense was spared in quality and details. Ms. Lai chose Victor Tarnoy as the design architect on the project and together they oversaw the entire renovation, from the tropical pool area to the floor design and furnishings. In 1999, the hotel re-opened its doors as a four diamond, luxury accommodation in the heart of wine country. Since then, the Prince of Wales Hotel has played host to many well-heeled guests and VIPs.
When you enter the hotel, you step into another world. A doorman, dressed in a classic red uniform, opens the ornate doors that lead into the lobby. The passage is lined with mahogany wainscoting and gilded Lyncrusta wall covering. This Victorian embossing technique was also used to decorate the Titanic and the White House.

As you move forward into the lobby, observe the attention to detail in the carved oak fixtures and inlaid hardwood flooring. Overhead, ceramic rosettes accent the arched hand-painted ceiling. At the far end of the lobby stands an authentic Italian marble statue called Amore E Psyche. Si Wai Lai commissioned this statue, to honour the love, beauty, and creativity of the soul.

Take special note of the stained glass wall, created by noted artist, Gundar Robe. It consists of over 10,000 individual pieces of glass and took more than a year to complete. Unique pieces of vintage furniture and an array of art forms make for an eclectic mix. Ms. Lai pays homage to her Chinese heritage in many of her decorative choices. In the centre of the lobby sits a priceless Chinese antique ivory table. The carved top depicts a historic battle scene. It once adorned the private palace of the Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi in Peking and dates back to the K’ang–his dynasty of 1662-1722.

The outstanding décor is only the framework for an equally outstanding guest experience. Together they are what bring people back time and time again. The hotel picks up the pace on the weekends with live entertainment in the Churchill Lounge where people can gather around the huge fireplace to enjoy some local wine and a bite to eat. In the lobby you are welcomed with wine and cheese and samplings from the pastry kitchen. For an upscale meal, the sophisticated ambience of Escabeche Restaurant provides the perfect setting. Lavishly decorated with a wine country theme, this restaurant offers white linen service and first class dining. A very knowledgeable sommelier is always on hand to help you pick the perfect wine from his well-stocked cellar of international wine.

For all those Downton Abbey fans, you must take afternoon tea in the Grand Drawing Room. Traditional high tea is served daily and no detail is overlooked: sumptuous Victorian furniture is covered in rich fabric, ornate wallpaper and artwork decorate the walls and the tables are set with fine linen, silverware, and of course, china tea cups. The servers are tea experts and can recommend the perfect blend for your taste. Be sure to ask for the premium collection—the samples are presented in translucent cups, which are under-lit to allow you to examine and smell exotic and rare teas sourced from around the world. Enjoy a tradition that has survived since Victorian times as you sip your way through pots of tea whilst indulging in dainties on a three-tiered tray: crustless sandwiches, petit fours and quintessential English scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam. Children are not forgotten: each receives a miniature version of the entire tea service.

With such elegance, this romantic hotel is a very popular choice for weddings and family celebrations. Everything needed to plan special events is available at the hotel—wedding and conference planners have access to almost anything you may desire to make your day special. The luxurious setting makes it the destination of choice for corporate meetings and business conferences, with a pool, gym, and spa facilities on site as well as access to amenities at other Vintage Hotel properties in town.

The Prince of Wales has one of the largest collections of Victorian style hotel rooms in all of Canada. The rooms are certainly fit for a king: each is uniquely decorated in the Victorian style. No detail is overlooked: four-poster canopy beds, hearth fireplaces, thick carpets, feather duvets, Egyptian cotton sheets, and fresh roses, not to mention personalized stationary.

The Prince of Wales doesn’t just take great care of its visitors, but of the local residents as well. This hotel has always played a strong role in the community by sponsoring and participating in local festivals and events. Year round programming such as yoga, a book club, and regular workshops such as home canning, holiday wreath making, floral design, and cooking are open to guests and residents alike. Many of the hotels amenities, such as the spa, pool, and gym area are also available for the use of locals.

The Prince of Wales’ year long birthday party began with a New Year’s Eve kickoff outside the main doors. Monogrammed top hats were handed out to passers by and at midnight there was a ‘flash mob’ created in front of the Clock Tower to the delight of pedestrians. Later in January, a special promotion was launched where rooms were priced at $1.50—you can imagine how quickly they sold out! In spring, a black-tie gala was followed by a free night’s accommodation for dignitaries and loyal guests—even the Queen was invited but sadly couldn’t attend! The celebrations continued throughout the year: souvenir teacups, beer mugs, and blankets were designed to mark the special occasion; birthday cake was handed out to passers-by on several occasions throughout the summer; and a contest was held with the prize of a complete wedding reception for free. In October, the hotel hosted a Victorian-themed costume ball for Halloween with proceeds donated to the Niagara Historical Museum.  The special year will come to a close with festive celebrations throughout the Christmas season. The hotel plans an extravaganza of holiday decorations that will go above and beyond anything done before: live greenery, plants, and flowers will turn this fairytale hotel into a winter wonderland— a fitting climax to a year long birthday celebration!

The ongoing celebrations of the War of 1812 have coincided with the hotel’s birthday and have really brought a focus to the important role that both the Prince of Wales hotel and the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake have played in Canada’s history. It’s good to know that they will continue to play a part in its future.