It seems like it was only yesterday that we were at Upper Canada Village to create a story about the amazing autumn fantasy of Pumpkinferno. I have always loved visiting the village ever since I was a young lad. Whether it was during a school trip or a summer outing with my family, a visit to Upper Canada Village was always a big highlight. To this day, as I walk across the iconic bridge and into the village proper, I feel the same level of hype as when I was eight years old.
It goes without saying, that when Heidi and I were invited to return to the village and bear witness to the festive and luminous spectacle known as Alight at Night – we jumped at the opportunity. Neither of us had experienced Alight at Night before this – so it was going to be absolutely fresh.
In the days leading up to our trip, the excitement was hard to contain. We’d be meeting up once again with Susan LeClair (Manager of Customer Service & Corporate Communications, Parks of the St. Lawrence) for a personalized tour of Alight at Night’s 2017 premiere.
Little did I know, but Heidi and Susan had more than a few surprises in store for me this time around!
Montgomery House: Hospitality With a Heritage Edge
During the drive from Kingston to Morrisburg, it dawned on me that we hadn’t booked a hotel for the night. When I asked Heidi about it, she casually replied: “No worries, it’s been taken care of.”
After arriving at the village, we quickly met up with Susan at the Discovery Centre which was decorated to the nines with iconic holiday visuals. Hard to miss was the 8-foot tall Nutcrackers standing guard at the main desk.
After saying our hello’s – Susan said she would show us to our accommodations. That’s when it dawned on me. We were going to spend the night at Upper Canada Village?! Whaaaaaaat?!?!
Our ‘room’ for the night would be the historic Montgomery House; an adorable two-storey log cabin situated on the Northern outskirts of the village. It is a truly timeless little dwelling, like something from the pages of a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel. The brilliant little cabin was first built in the 1700’s and originally located on Kitley Line 8 Road near Frankville Ontario. Today, it stands as a fully refurbished and accessible guest lodging at Upper Canada Village.
When Susan opened the door to the house and led us inside, I was instantly amazed. The bright hardwood floors and warm wooden beams that supported the ceilings only added to the cozy atmosphere. To top it off, the house was lovingly decorated with a beautiful Christmas tree – which was nothing short of perfection!
After relaxing for an hour or so in our cozy lodgings, I was still overwhelmed by the surprise. I had always thought that spending a night at Upper Canada Village would be super-cool – and we were about to do just that! I couldn’t get too comfortable, however, because our night was just getting started!
A Magical Twilight Carriage Ride
The daylight was waning as we headed into the village, and crossed the main bridge on Queen Street. Not far from the crossing, Heidi indicated that we should wait for our ride.
Before I could ask what she was talking about, a distinct jingle filled the air, accompanied by the unmistakable sound of approaching hooves. It was at that moment that yet another surprise was unveiled!
There, before my eyes was a vintage vis à vis style carriage, drawn by a pair of the village’s magnificent Canada Breed horses!
We were about to embark on a charming ride, courtesy of Pommier Jewellers! Absolutely stunning!
As we climbed into the carriage, I was blown away by the detail of the interior. The vintage-inspired upholstered seats and warm blankets made for a cozy and comfortable ride. For the next thirty minutes, we were mystically transported back in time, for a beguiling ride throughout the entire village.
The experience was nothing short of pure bliss. The sky grew progressively darker as we were chauffeured in elegant style with a beautiful view of the various buildings in their immaculate holiday adornments. This was likely how dignitaries or well-to-do folks travelled in the 1800’s. And by that I mean, in absolute style.
As our carriage continued along the roadway the air was filled with the sound of the bells that were fixed to each horse’s harness and the signature clip-clop of their hooves upon the ground. It was an intimate and heartwarming experience – but also the perfect mood setter for things to come. For that unforgettable thirty minutes, we were a part of living history!
Best of all, guests of Alight at Night can arrange their very own Pommier Carriage Experience! The cost includes admission to the event, as well as a splendid gift bag consisting of fresh village bread, artisan cheese and a bottle of sparkling apple cider!
A Warm Welcome at Willard’s Hotel
As our ride ended, the carriage driver reined the horses to a stop in front of the brilliantly lit and familiar sight of Willard’s Hotel. As I stepped out of the carriage, the hotel’s hostess was waving to us from the front door as though we were returning home from a long journey.
I stepped out of the carriage and thanked our driver, before turning to face Heidi. “I’ve always wanted to do this ma’am!” I said as I offered her my hand, and helped her out of the carriage like a cowboy in one of those classic Western films.
Upon entering the hotel’s foyer, our hostess greeted us with the warm and welcoming manner one would expect from a fine establishment such as Willard’s. We were shown to a table in the East wing dining area where we sat in the candlelit glow and festive ambience throughout the room.
To start, we each enjoyed a savoury hot apple cider with spiced rum. The drink’s aromatic character carried a scintillating scent that only served to further awaken the holiday spirit within. Normally I’ve been accustomed to Eggnog, but this hot and delicious beverage was truly the nectar of the gods.
Sorry, ‘Lait Du Poulet’ – but there’s a new sheriff in town!
We began our meal with a hot bowl of pea soup, the likes of which I haven’t tasted since my grandmother’s top-secret recipe. It had that signature made from scratch quality and was the perfect appetizer after stepping in from the chilly evening air.
For the main course, Heidi chose to enjoy a traditional roast turkey dinner – complete with cranberry sauce, homemade stuffing, mashed potatoes and root vegetables. I selected the baked ham – which came drizzled with a sweet dijon glaze, heavenly mashed potatoes and buttered carrots. The ham was beyond delicious, and the potatoes were so creamy and flavourful I didn’t feel compelled to add butter. It was that good.
It goes without saying, that a meal at Willard’s is like tasting our national heritage. Locally sourced ingredients of the finest quality – prepared by a skilled and dedicated team of chefs. The impeccable service of the wait staff only serves to enhance the overall experience, with a storied level of hospitality that makes each visit truly memorable. There’s really nothing quite like it.
For dessert, I could not pass up on my personal favourite: the ultimate decadence of Willard’s Classic British Pudding. Heidi also chose a favourite: the delectable apple rhubarb crumble. Coupled with a hot cup of coffee, nothing could have been more perfect.
Walkin’ in a (Real Life) Winter Wonderland!
After dinner, we were reunited with Susan to begin our whimsical walk through Alight at Night! After such an immense meal at Willard’s, we were certainly happy for the opportunity to burn off some calories! Ironically, our first stop was the village’s legendary bakery. This is where the famous village bread is prepared!
The Baker, like the other artisan makers of Upper Canada Village, is a hard-working professional, employing the same technology and techniques of the 19th century. It results in a loaf of bread that is light years ahead of the grocery store stuff as far as quality and taste go.
Up to 70 or more loaves of bread can be baked at a time within the oven’s massive inner-chamber! Without the luxury of digital thermometers and other modern tools, the baker is left to determine when a batch is ready using his honed senses of sight, smell, and by feeling the temperature wafting from the oven. I could have stayed in the bakery getting lost in that amazing smell, but we had to keep moving.
Our walk through the village was best described as a stroll through the very feeling of Christmas. The radiant glow of the lights were breathtaking – each building and house intricately profiled and awash in over one million LED lights. From the azure brilliance of the chapel on Church Street, the spellbinding sound of traditional Carols could be heard, sang by an angelic voice through a series of speakers placed around the village.
I’m going to take a moment right now, to say that even the most crotchety of Scrooge cannot withstand the awesome and raw festive power of Alight at Night. Try to utter but a single “Bah Humbug” let alone think it, and you’ll find yourself uncontrollably giddy and offering the nearest kid half a crown to fetch you the prize turkey from the Poulterer.
My Holiday Sense is Tingling! A Sneak Peek at Twinkle Town
As our tour brought us to the Village Fairgrounds, it was apparent that the area had been transformed into an awesome holiday-themed winter carnival, complete with hot cocoa stands, air castles and a huge inflatable slide! There was a massive inflatable igloo, as well as a group of picnic tables situated around some decorative torches.
Twinkle Town is the perfect place to warm up, and take a breather while your kids go bananas in the jumpers and slides. The difficult part, however, will be getting them to leave. I really, really wanted to go down the slide, but I was afraid I’d break it much to the dismay of every child in the village.
Oh well. Maybe they will set up some big kid air castles next year? Hint, hint, nudge, nudge.
A Chance Encounter With Saint Nick Himself!
As we neared the end of our tour, we made our way to the prominent Crysler Hall, which was decorated in true holiday fashion. Within the stately mansion, a rather special guest was entertaining several young visitors – and discussing their Christmas wish lists in great detail. I could hardly believe my eyes!
Jolly Old Saint Nick himself has taken up a temporary residence at the Hall, where he will be staying for the remainder of Alight at Night. This is the best opportunity for the kids to be granted an audience with Santa, and let him know their holiday wishes! We kept our visit with Santa very brief because there was a noticeable line-up of kids waiting to see him.
As we left, I regarded his elaborate Victorian ensemble with great esteem. “You have one heck of a tailor Santa!” I remarked as we started to make our way to the exit.
“Why thank you Michael, but flattery won’t get you any new XBOX games this year.” He said, followed by his signature “Ho-Ho-Ho” which froze me in my tracks!
OMG… He’s really real!
A Final Stroll Through the Gift Shop
To wrap things up, (pun intended) we traditionally followed the Exit Through The Gift Shop routine – only to find ourselves in the Village Store’s all-new holiday setup! All the traditional goodies were exactly where you’d expect, along with a vast selection of charming and festive items to peruse.
I couldn’t help but notice that Heidi was quite taken with the decorative reindeer memorabilia pictured above.
“Which one do you want for Christmas?” I asked.
“All of them,” Heidi whispered.
Recline and Relax at Montgomery House
After saying our goodbyes to Susan, we made our way back to the comforts of our cabin where we popped open our bottle of sparkling cider, taking this opportunity to unwind after the evening’s events. It was all so amazing; I was still fairly rambunctious from it all.
The Pommier carriage ride, an amazing dinner, the sheer beauty of the village, Twinkle Town, Santa knowing my name…
It was an overload of awesome that hit me right in the festive feels. I’m not lying when I say that we slept rather soundly in that bed, while “visions of sugarplums danced in our head.”
Invoke Your Holiday Spirit!